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REVIEWING THE PARADIGM: A NEW LOOK AT EARLY-MODERN IRELAND* ANDREW MURPHY I. BEARINGS (i) white niggers We begin with twentieth-century Dublin and a moment of cultural epiphany. In Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Commitments, Jimmy Rabbitte astonishes his friends Derek Scully and Outspan Foster by declaring that “The Irish are the niggers of Europe, lads.” This information comes as a revelation to Derek and Outspan: “They nearly gasped: it was so true” (9). In the novel Jimmy’s observation is turned to comic effect, as, on the strength of his insight, he goes on to proclaim James Brown’s slogan: “Say it loud, I’m black an’ I’m proud”—a phrase humorously incongruous in the context of a racially homogenous working-class Dublin. For all the scene’s humor, however, the observation itself and the comic incongruity of the situation indicate a deeper resonance at work in the episode. To hear some of the historical and cultural echoes at play here, we must go back to the mid-nineteenth century and to the English writer Charles Kingsley. Visiting Ireland, Kingsley writes back to his wife in England: I am daunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don’t believe they are our fault. I believe that there are not only many more of them than of old, but that they are happier, better and more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful: if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure , are as white as ours. (Kearney 7) REVIEWING THE PARADIGM: A NEW LOOK AT EARLY-MODERN IRELAND 13 *My thanks to the many people whose feedback and suggestions have helped to shape this article, particularly Eibhlín Evans, Alan Ford, Nicholas Grene, Tom Healy, and Bernhard Klein. Special thanks to Mary Campbell and Gary Taylor. For Doyle, the multiply resonant term “nigger” provides a series of meanings , some of which are applicable to the Irish, but others of which are not, and this disjunction serves finally as a source of comedy—the Irish may be “niggers” of a sort, but they are, for the most part at least, not black.1 For Kingsley, the disjunction serves rather as a source of profound anxiety. A certain kind of racial identity can be imposed upon the Irish, but, disturbingly , they fail adequately to equate to the stereotype—“chimpanzees” they may well be but, “except where tanned by exposure,” their skins are as white as the white skins of the English. Turning back from Kingsley to The Commitments once more, we notice an odd doubleness in Doyle’s phrase: “The Irish are the niggers of Europe .” We might ask ourselves what force the word “of” has in this phrase. The answer, I would argue, is twofold. In the first instance, insofar as the phrase “nigger” can be appropriated as a generic term to describe any group that has been subject to colonial oppression and displacement, then the Irish are “Europe’s niggers”—subjects of the English colonial enterprise. But, in addition to being “Europe’s niggers,” they are “niggers” who happen to be European, who belong to a greater social and cultural world that encompasses both England and Ireland.2 This, of course, is precisely the source of Kingsley’s great anxiety: the Irish can be classed as alien, but not wholly so. The term “nigger” is at one and the same time entirely apposite and altogether inapplicable when characterizing the Irish. It is this area of doubleness that I wish to address in this essay—the gap, we might say, that opens up between the apposite and the inapplicable, or rather, more accurately, the inhering of the inapplicable within the apposite . The territory I wish to explore is precisely that indicated by KingsREVIEWING THE PARADIGM: A NEW LOOK AT EARLY-MODERN IRELAND 14 1 In fact, there is a small, but significant, black community native to Ireland. The question of how this community is represented is itself interesting. The complexities of that representation can be caught in the nickname...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1550-5162
Print ISSN
0013-2683
Pages
pp. 13-40
Launched on MUSE
2017-08-31
Open Access
No
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