Posted by: Harold Knight | 09/02/2010

“It doesn’t factor in. . .” or, “to constitute the Irish as something other than the American ‘white working class.’”

the features were distorted to give a simian aspect

the features were distorted to give a simian aspect

It’s risky to write about topics that make people squirm—racism, for example—but it can sometimes be informative. Surely no one would argue that the status of black Americans in the years, say, 1840-1900 was one of respect and acceptance among the majority white (and, in the earlier part of that time period) Protestant population, either in the North or the South. It would seem logical that, in those years, comparing a social or ethnic group to black Americans in general would not have been to uplift their place in American culture.

At this time one of the most popular types of entertainment in America was the “Negro Extravaganza” or Minstrel Show—low-brow entertainment performed for white audiences by white musicians and actors in “black face.” [See description below.]

James P. Byre asserts that a convention of popular theater of 19th-century America was designed to make Irish immigrants “pejoratively black; that is to say that, during the post-famine period, in an attempt to disclaim any appeal to citizenship, whiteface was used typologically to cast the Irishman as black in the popular press and public arena.” (1)

“Whiteface” shows used the same conventions to demean and ridicule the Irish as “blackface” shows did to ridicule blacks. The point was to assure that the “character was easily recognizable as a type of his race.” To ridicule the Irish, the

. . . .typical whiteface character was recognizable by the stovepipe that he wore tipped over his forehead, by the shillelagh he carried for fighting, and by his makeup which exaggerated Irish physical characteristics, and, as Carl Wittke tells us, “often consisted of red wigs, red noses, green whiskers, or little beards known as ‘gaulways’ or ‘Galway Sluggers.’ (2)

The whiteface shows may have been used for entertainment, but they had but one purpose:  “to constitute the Irish as something other than the American ‘white working class'” (3).

Hatred of the Irish immigrants  was not confined, however, to musical entertainment. The print media took great delight in portraying the Irish in many contumelious ways, not least of which was as monkeys.

From the mid-1800s, dailies, weeklies, and journals were littered with simian and bestial depictions of the Irish immigrants. Linneman gives an apt description of “the comic Irishman” of this period: “He was caricatured as a hirsute, muscular labourer, with cheek whiskers, a broad lip, a button nose, and prognathous jaws. Sometimes the features were distorted to give a simian aspect.” (4)

The reasons for this hatred and consequent demonization of the Irish are so well known that they hardly need to be recounted here. The hatred wasn’t, however, based solely on an ethnic, national, or religious type. It was a fear born not of the characteristics of individuals, but of the perception that these individuals en masse were about to destroy “our way of life.” As Fred Viehe asserts, “A moral panic appeared among nativist Protestants who feared that growing Irish, and especially Catholic immigration amounted to a virtual invasion of the republic” (5).

For most Americans, I should think, it is virtually impossible to imagine newspaper cartoons (or bits on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart) depicting Irish Americans as monkeys—or holding meetings to plan to drive the Irish Catholics from the country.

Fanning the fames of atavistic culture, militant anti-Catholic newspapers and journals appeared in nearly every northeastern city and a few western towns. Defined as the “Other” in American society, Catholicism was demonized as a form of Satanism and anti-republicanism. In New York City, the Protestant Association held public discussions for the stated purpose, to “drive Romanism from America. . . .” (6)

It was not simply the Catholicism of the Irish that infuriated and terrified the nativist Protestants. The Protestants, the descendants of the Founding Fathers, “abhorred the Irish because of their shanty lifestyle, their alcoholic recreational habits, and their competition in the economic workplace” (7).

Since the late 19th century the Irish (Catholic or otherwise) have been thoroughly assimilated into American society. That also hardly needs to be said. We have had one Irish Catholic President, and the current Supreme Court has one Irish Catholic Justice, by no means the first. This is not the result of any change either in the ethnic makeup or the religious beliefs of the Irish in general. Hardly any American, one can safely guess, would

. . . .view Irish Americans as a separate ethnic group[.] The fact that they have ceased to constitute one in our eyes has nothing to do with any dilution of the Irish gene pool, but [with] changing social circumstances. (8)

The participants in the Glenn Beck “Restoring Honor” Rally on August 28 in Washington, D.C., seemed to be (my own non-professional interpretation of pictures and videos on line) almost completely white Christians (granted, a mixture of Protestant, Catholic, and Mormon). It is (at least for me) impossible to discern if any of the participants were Irish-Americans, or, if they were, who they were in the videos of the crowd online.

One journalist covering the rally interviewed several participants on camera, asking them questions about the makeup of the crowd and why they were there.  He spoke with a young woman wearing  a red t-shirt with “Catholic Classic” written in white on the front, in the font used by Coca-Cola for its logo, who said the rally is “about unity—about everyone coming together.”

". . .it's about unity. . ."

“. . .it’s about unity. . .”

The journalist asked a middle-aged man, “What about other religions. How do they factor in, Judaism, Islam?” The man responded, “Judaism. This Bible was written by the Jews. Islam. It doesn’t factor in. They’re here to kill us. If you’re a good Muslim, you’ll kill Christians” (9).

Sarah Palin was the headline speaker at the “Restoring Honor” rally. I don’t know what she said there, but on January 5, 2010, she wrote,

We are at war with radical Islamic extremists. . . . This is a war on terror not an “overseas contingency operation”. . . .  [The Christmas Day bomber] was. . . radicalized and trained by organized jihadists, not an “isolated extremist” who traveled to a land of “crushing poverty.” He is an enemy of the United States, not just another criminal defendant (10).

Sarah Palin’s great-great grandfather, Michael Sheeran, was born in October of 1820 in Ireland. His wife, Sarah Palin’s great-great grandmother, was born in August of 1830 in Ireland and died on April 15, 1904, in Mapleton, Minnesota. She is buried at the Catholic Cemetery in Mapleton (11).

(1) Byrne, James P. “The Genesis of whiteface in nineteenth-century American popular culture.” MELUS 29.3-4 (2004): 133.
(2) Byrne, quoting:  Wittke, Carl. The Irish in America. New York: Russell & Russell, 1956.
(3) Byrne idem.
(4) Byrne, quoting:  Linneman, William R. “Immigrant Stereotypes: 1880-1900.” Studies in American Humor 1.1 (1974).
(5) Viehe, Fred. “Atavistic culture: the bete noire of social change.” Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table (2009).
(6) Viehe, idem.
(7) Viehe, idem.
(8) Leach, J.F. “Humanism and the burqa bugaboo.” The Humanist Sept.-Oct. 2009: 4+.
(9) Gillespie, Nick. “What We Saw at the Glenn Beck Rally in DC.” Reason.TV. Youtube. August 28, 2020. Web. 29 Aug 2010.
(10) Palin, Sarah. “It’s War, not a Crime Spree.” Sarah Palin’s Notes. Facebook. Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 12:39 pm. Web.  2 Jul 2010.
(11) RootsWeb. “Ancestry of Sarah Palin.” 15 Sep 2008. Web. 2 Sep 2010.

The “Negro Extravaganza”

One evening in February of the year 1843, four grotesque figures in blackface, wearing white trousers, striped calico shirts, and blue calico coats with long swallowtails, appeared on the stage of the Bowery Amphitheater in New York City. They proceeded to entertain the delighted audience with a combination of singing, dancing, Negro dialect patter, and instrumental music played on the banjo, violin, bone castanets, and tambourine. Their performance concluded with a “walk-around” and “breakdown” (grotesque plantation dance).

This was the historic debut of “the novel, grotesque, original and surpassingly melodious Ethiopian Band, entitled, The Virginia Minstrels,” as advertised in the New York papers. The Virginia Minstrels had been recently organized in New York City by four friends who possessed a measure of musical, and comic talent, and some theatrical experience. These four friends were Daniel Decatur Emmett (violin), Billy Whitlock (banjo), Frank Brower (“bones”), and Dick Pelham (tambourine). . . .”Old Dan” Emmett was to win great and lasting fame as the composer of “Dixie.” Chase, Gilbert. America’s Music from the Pilgrims to the Present, revised second edition. New York: McGraw Hill: 1966 (259).


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