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  • How the Irish Became Settlers:Metaphors of Indigeneity and the Erasure of Indigenous Peoples
  • Mary L. Mullen

In an 1844 article in the London-based Fraser’s Magazine, Morgan Rattler opens his account “Of the Red Indian” with a story of an Irish landlord attending the Greenwich fair to see “a wild man!” This “wild man” seems to be a Native from North America: he appears with “face covered with a profusion of red, shaggy hair, a regular glib, nearly naked, and with a chain about his waist.” But as the landlord gets closer, he realizes that the man is one of his own Irish tenants, observing that “the savage seemed to display towards him some uncouth and uneasy signs of recognition.” This opening anecdote prepares the way for Rattler’s analysis, which depends upon a sustained comparison between the “Ojibbeways” of North America and the “Celtic Irish.” In Rattler’s words,

Now, really, when I first gazed on these Indians, an impression, almost amounting to conviction, took possession of my mind, to the effect that the chiefs, braves, squaws, and child before me, were neither more nor less than a party of ‘the finest peasantry on the face of the earth’ (as Mr. O’Connell calls them), who were employed in earning the rent for some flinty-hearted Sassenach landlord.1

The language here—“neither more nor less”—tells us much of the colonizer’s gaze. His “impression” transforms the unfamiliar Indians whom he encounters into the more familiar Irish peasants. It is nearly impossible for Rattler to “see” Indigenous peoples: he wants to describe “the Chippeways themselves,” but by viewing them as Irish peasants, he erases actual Ojibwe people.2 [End Page 81]

Rattler cannot see Indigenous peoples because, for him, Irish and Indigenous peoples appear to be the same. Following the influential work of Nicholas Canny, many Irish Studies scholars would suggest that these similarities emerge from a shared history of colonialism. Canny claims that settlement in Ireland directly shaped the settlement of North America, making the case that the subjugation of Irish people prepared the way for the colonization of Indigenous peoples.3 Numerous later scholars, such as the literary critic Luke Gibbons and the historian David Emmons, have expanded this argument, arguing that racial stereotypes of the Celtic Irish can best be understood through analogies with Native Americans.4 For Gibbons, these analogies originate with English settlers, but ultimately shape Irish anticolonial thought by encouraging both racial thinking and a celebration of mythic origins. For many scholars, English analogies that connect Irish and Indigenous peoples through metaphoric “wildness,” “savagery,” and “romantic primivitism” foster both material and affective connections between the two groups of people.5

But Rattler’s opening analogy also expresses the troubling legacy of Irish people “playing Indian.” Dressing as an Indigenous person at the Greenwich fair, the Irish tenant actively confuses what Rayna Green (Cherokee) calls “the role” and “the real” in ways that restrict Indianness to the role. In Green’s words, “‘playing Indian’ by non-Indian peoples depends upon the physical and psychological removal, even the death, of real Indians.”6 The Irish tenant’s performance [End Page 82] as “wild man” draws on a long history of the English seeing the Irish as savages; but it also erases Indigenous peoples by rendering them superfluous. Indigenous peoples disappear twice: first, through the Irishman’s performance, and second, through Rattler’s account that describes them through the lens of Irish peasants.

In two nineteenth-century Irish nationalist newspapers—the Nation, the organ of Young Ireland in the middle of the century, and the Irish People, the organ of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and in the novel Sally Cavanagh, or, The Untenanted Graves: A Tale of Tipperary (1869) by Charles Kickham, a contributor to the Irish People—we see how representing Indigenous peoples as mere figure of, for example, genocide, wildness, and unjust oppression, actually becomes a way of erasing both their experiences and their existence. These Irish newspapers use analogies in order to suggest that Irish experiences are like Indigenous experiences, but Irish people are not like Indigenous peoples. It produces what Jodi Byrd (citizen of the Chickasaw Nation) calls “a...


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