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  • Victorian Ireland:Race and the Category of the Human
  • Amy E. Martin (bio)

In 1860, after his visit to Ireland, Charles Kingsley wrote an infamous letter to his wife about the Irish poor. He explains in Darwinian terms how his assessment of these people as racially inferior and non-human sat uncomfortably with the whiteness of their skin:

I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. … [T]o see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.

(Kingsley 111)

Critics have often cited this passage to exemplify the dehumanization and racialization of the Irish in the Victorian period. Indeed, similar descriptions can be found in both the writings of many eminent Victorians and the popular culture of nineteenth-century Britain more generally, from Thomas Carlyle’s pamphlet Chartism (1839) to Punch cartoons, and from the work of racial anthropologists such as Robert Knox to columns in The Times. The Act of Union of 1800, Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the presence of approximately half a million Irish immigrants in Britain by 1841, and the emergence of new forms of Irish anticolonial agitation intensified a well-established imperative not only to distinguish British civility from the colony that was now part of the United Kingdom but also to rationalize new forms of colonial control and biopolitics instituted in Ireland during the period. At stake was the assertion that the Irish were not fit to self-govern because of their “national character.” Yet, as Kingsley’s description makes clear, the Irish stood at the intersection of two contemporaneous racial formations—one relying on an epidermal logic of whiteness emerging primarily in North America and the other founded on a more fluid understanding of racial hierarchy that justified the British Empire.

Of course, these ideas of Irishness also relied on categories other than race. Anti-Irish racism was inextricable from a long-standing anti-Catholicism that had intensified after the Napoleonic Wars.1 Furthermore, as the Irish agrarian economy continued to be feudalized, what David Nally has described as “the racialization of poverty” appeared, and the impoverished condition of the Irish both at home and abroad was frequently understood as a product of their culture and race. Such discourses often described the Irish through gender and sexuality: for example, the stock figures of the hypermasculine, violent Irishman; the feminized, artistic Celt; threatened Hibernia; or the [End Page 52] menacing Irish crone. Over the course of the nineteenth century, particular historical moments served as crucibles in which these representations of Irishness gained virulence and became disseminated more widely. Hazel Waters and Kevin Whelan have argued that anti-Irish racism crystallized during the Great Famine, which began in 1845 and continued through 1849 (Waters 95–108; Whelan 201–05). Popular representations of the famine, particularly those used in arguments against charity and aid, merged Malthusian logic, Evangelical understandings of famine as divine intervention, ideas about the Irish as a redundant population, and racist assertions of Irish indolence and backwardness. Long-standing discourses about Irishness underwent another major transformation in the late 1860s and 1870s in response to Fenian anticolonialism. The British press represented events such as the Clerkenwell explosion and the Manchester van rescue in 1867 by racializing that violence, arguing that it was irrational and atavistic. These representations of Irish insurgency as outside the boundaries of human civility justified new state counter-insurgency measures, such as long-term internment, the suspension of habeas corpus, and the photographing of political prisoners.2

Scholars have worked to complicate our understanding of these discourses on Irishness, reminding us that the Irish were often objects of sympathy, sentimentality, and even admiration in the Victorian period.3 Positive images of “Paddy” certainly existed. Victorian commentators and writers noted with pity and even horror the appalling living and working conditions of Irish immigrants in Britain. Consider, for example, the huddled, frightened Irish strikebreakers in Gaskell’s North and South or the half-naked, filthy, and hungry Irish family discovered in a hovel in Dickens’s “On Duty with Inspector Field.” Perhaps most...


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