GERARD HOWLIN: We Irish are not whiter than white. We have a long history of racism

IT’S commonplace in our public conversation to deify Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, but the connection between Irishness and racism is studiously avoided. Its uncomfortable, it’s ingrained, but it’s a deeply unattractive part of us.

The killing of Michel Brown, a black teenager, on August 5, in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, has received worldwide attention. He was shot by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. A grand jury has decided that Wilson has no charge to answer. Nothing to see, so move on. But, stop, there is a fleeting glimpse of ourselves in that mirror.

Part of the Irish identity abroad was opposition to people of darker colour. This is not a Frankenstein mutation, triggered by emigration. It is rooted here, and it is still here now.

Objectified by class and creed, but skilled survivors, many Irish are abusers. We took it with us around the world. It is part of the backstory of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson in Ferguson. It is a story too seldom told.

Tom Murphy’s play, A Whistle in the Dark, opened in the Theatre Royal, London, in 1961. Its reception was characterised by racist stereotypes of the Irish as violent and drunken. Their redeeming feature was their lyricism. Telling the story of the Carney brothers, in Coventry in the 1950s, it is a brutal, hard play. Called “tinkers” at home by their own, who disowned them, the Carneys redefined themselves racially in Coventry, in opposition to ‘blacks’ and Muslims. “And if they weren’t here” said Harry Carney, “our Irish blood would turn a shade darker, wouldn’t it?”. It would. “One-way tickets back to the jungle for us, too, Har, if they weren’t here” was Mush, his brother’s reply.

The Irish identity, in the disapora, copied and pasted from the put-downs, the slights, and the eviscerating snobbery of home, is uncomfortably racial in its DNA. From famine and victimhood to a massive reverse colonisation of the English-speaking world, and a reverse takeover of power via the machine politics of the American big cities, and some British ones, too, the Irish story is connected to what happened in Ferguson.

The big-city machine politics at which the Irish excel was viciously racist. There were certainly strong roots already onto which to graft, but graft-on we did. One of the most notorious of all Irish-American political grafters was Missouri’s own Boss Prendergast. He ultimately went to gaol for tax evasion, but not before he made millions, controlling a formidable political machine that dispensed favours, and contracts far and wide. His most famous protégé was Harry S Truman. Race in Missouri was part of the morass. The Irish arrived to become the new ‘blacks’, little better than the ragged and landless labourers they were when they emigrated. The instant urge to achieve differentiation led to the embracing of discrimination.

By putting others in their place, and by adopting intensively the racial discrimination of their new country, and adapting in new circumstances to the old stereotypes of which they had been victim, the Irish succeeded. At least they succeeded after a fashion, becoming, perversely, ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’.

One of the pillars of Irishness, and of once-formidable Irish political machines, was the multitude of police forces controlled by jobbery. No Saint Patrick’s Day parade would be complete without its contingent of Ireland’s finest. Those police forces, overwhelmingly white, and Irish to an extent far beyond their proportion of the population, perpetuated the racial politics of once-fabled political machines, long after they had disintegrated. The Irish prospered, fled to the better suburbs, leaving the inner cities and less-desirable neighbourhoods to newer immigrants and black Americans. But self-perpetuating police forces, tight-knit families of association and blood, remained in situ, and out of sync with the diverse populations to which they dispensed justice.

This overhang of attitude, brought from the old country to the new enclaves of power in old neighbourhoods long-deserted by most Irish, is a recurring feature of the continuing discrimination of black Americans. It is complex. But it is certainly, in part, an Irish story; a story we want neither to hear nor to tell.

In one particular bar and restaurant on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, the cops got a 30% discount on everything on the menu, except fish dishes. They paid full prices for that. It was their hangout when I worked there in the 1980s. They were nice guys, had a great grá for the Irish, and never, ever enquired as to the legal status of some of the Irish staff who served them. You would see the cops on the streets and get a big ‘hello’. Serve them in the bar and you got a decent tip. There was an affinity, an Irish thing. It was comfortable, and horrible. Atlantic City was a majority black city, with an almost all-white police force. It was us, and them, and they were habitually denigrated. Racism was casual, and ubiquitous. It was the wallpaper on that society.

The 1980s was the last big wave of Irish emigration, before our current crash. The newly immigrated Irish in Atlantic City were not landless labourers. They were educated, confident, bright people. Together, off the plane, from the lily-white Ireland they recently had departed, they instantly adapted to the racism of their new home. As Mush had said in Coventry a generation before: “One-way tickets back to the jungle for us too, Har, if they weren’t here”. What was it about us that we needed to look down on and abuse them? What awful lack and insecurity was there, in us, that made us so cruel, so needy to fit in?

In February, 1971, Bernadette Devlin, a radical and newly-elected MP from Northern Ireland, toured the United States. She was a sensation, and went on TV shows Meet the Press and Johnny Carson. But she was aghast at how the Irish failed to draw the comparison between themselves and black Americans. She said so — loudly — and she effectively lost her Irish-American audience. Devlin attacked Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, danced on stage with black men, and the shutters of Irish-American society snapped shut behind her. Attacks on her were greeted with cheers at meetings of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Then, unlike in our sugary, sweet retelling now, the story of Irish oppression was not inclusive.

Mass incarnations in Magdalen Laundries, and the instant adoption of vicious racism, served the same purpose. For people like the Carneys, slurred as ‘tinkers’, what had they except the local ‘trollop’ at home, or the ‘n*****’ abroad to look down on. If you have no one to look down on, who in the name of God is going to look up to you?.

What was it about us that we needed to look down on and abuse them? What awful insecurity?

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