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  • The Magical Whiteness of Being Irish:Language and Song in American White Nationalism
  • Sean Williams (bio)

the use of "celtic"-themed imagery—in clothing, tattoos, and business logos—has a long history in the United States. Its usage has generally been a simplified identifier of affiliation with Irish and/or Scottish heritage, and it is often uncritically adopted at the same level by tourists who visit Ireland and tell Irish people, "We're Irish." While white supremacists have also periodically drawn from Celtic imagery to support a claim of Celtic "whiteness," that usage was fairly diffuse until recently.1 The public rise of white nationalism since the US presidential election of 2016, however, has led to adherents' more public usage of Celtic symbolism.

Three statements from Irish/Celtic Studies institutions in the United States publicly reject such appropriation. In early 2020, members of the Harvard Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures posted these words on the home page of their website: "There is no essential genetic 'Celtic' identity, nor is any ethnicity or group of ethnicities entitled to a privileged position within the field. Certain symbols associated with medieval Ireland and loosely identified as 'Celtic' have been appropriated by groups asserting the supremacy of persons with white skin. We repudiate this appropriation in the strongest possible terms."2

Similarly, the Center for Irish Studies at Villanova University's "Anti-Racism Statement" includes the following language: "Too often have white supremacists [End Page 134] claimed Irishness as a veil for cruelty and oppression. As scholars and teachers of Irish Studies, we commit actively to expose such moves and encourage scholarship and learning that fosters equality, social justice, and respect for everyone. We are committed to exploring these issues and challenging white privilege and racism through our teaching, research and programming."3

Lastly, the Celtic Studies Association of North America stated that they "strongly oppose the appropriation of Celtic culture, history and symbols by those who promote discrimination or violence of any kind."4 That all three institutes felt compelled to post these statements on their websites speaks to a larger issue in Irish Studies in the United States: the appropriation of Irish culture to serve a social desire to appear more white. The whiteness in question is, however, a very specific kind of whiteness, and one associated with the seemingly inviolable whiteness of Irish people. In combination with pop cultural references to how white the Irish are—including the appearance of memes about the whiteness of Irish people—and confusion surrounding actual Irish American history, a contemporary notion of what constitutes whiteness has evolved so that "claiming Irishness often authorizes a location and a celebration of whiteness in ways that would otherwise be problematic."5

Irish heritage pride and a sense of American white ethnicity have led to the assertion that, for some, one's racial whiteness can be affirmed only through the magic of publicly and repeatedly proving one's Irishness. Even as Ireland itself has undergone a stunning sea change since 1990, becoming more willing to confront elements of its challenging past and take radical steps toward acknowledging its struggles to welcome new immigrants, parts of Irish America—in the larger American context—have experienced elements of division along political lines.6 Much of that division lies in the choice of some contemporary Irish [End Page 135] Americans to align themselves with white nationalism.7 And part of that division has resulted in the use of the Irish language, the Irish flag, Irish music, and Irish symbols, such as Celtic-themed crosses in tattoos, in connection with white nationalist ideology, together with the false promulgation of the myth of "Irish slavery."8 While not limited to Irish Americans, such usage has its home in the United States. This article focuses on the specific uses of sound—in the Irish language and in Irish-language old-style songs called sean-nós—as a tool for the larger nationalist emphasis of whiteness.

The concept of home and heritage is often recognized as a means by which people can feel that they belong, and proving one's Irishness might actually be a way to point to something in one's own...