Irish-Americans and No Lamps

Kevin Kenny’s article “Twenty Years of Irish American Historiography” begins mostly with a defense of Kerby Miller’s work in Irish American historiography, primarily Emigrants and Exiles. Kenny summarizes Miller’s thesis and then goes on to address several criticisms of it, noting that most of Miller’s critics overlooked details in his analysis. He goes on to say that Irish-American historiography is very heavily focused on the 19th Century, and only somewhat recently has begun to properly investigate other Irish immigration patterns, including Protestant Irish during the colonial era: “Some of the most exciting recent scholarship has tried to broaden the definition of Irish American history, both religiously and chronologically, by including Protestants as well as Catholics and by taking the colonial period rather than the 1840s as its starting point.” There’s an element of sense to this, but I’m not sure if including these migrations under the same term “Irish American historiography” isn’t a tad misleading, considering the largely distinctive identities of the Scottish/English Ulster Plantation descendants of the 17-18th Centuries and the Gaelic-speaking Catholic Irish. There seems to me to be enough of an ethnic, religious and historical distinction between the two to justify calling it a different immigration history altogether, despite the fact that both groups set out from the same island. Kenny does state “Working in this early period allows historians to break free of the confines of the nation-state; the past unfolds in the contexts of imperial and Atlantic history” but if that is to be the case, why not simply analyse all the lands of the British crown under one umbrella, noting the diversity of religious, linguistic and ethnic identities within it, since this was the relevant imperial polity prior to the existence of an Irish nation-state? Perhaps the existence of Irish-American historiography at all is related to Irish nationalism itself.
Probably the most interesting part of this article was when Kenny starts complaining about the “whiteness” narrative. The money quote is this: “According to the “whiteness thesis,” experiencing racism was the necessary precondition of becoming white: to say that the American Irish were initially seen as less than white was to say that they were consigned to an inferior race. The Irish allegedly set out to acquire “whiteness” in order to improve their position. Yet if these immigrants could “become white,” and black people, by definition, could not, then what sort of racism did the Irish experience? Put another way, to what race had the Irish supposedly been consigned?” This is something I’ve always wondered as well when people say “the Irish weren’t considered white.” White is a skin color Irish people clearly have, and under the 1790 Naturalization Act which explicitly reveals the United States’ White Nationalist foundations, Irish would surely have never been allowed entry if they weren’t considered “white.” Despite the differences between Ulster Scots/English living in Ireland and the native Catholic Irish I pointed to earlier, it is a fact that in the colonial era immigrants from Ireland were labelled merely as “Irish,” this I happen to know because I looked at ship records of immigrants coming in the 18th Century from Belfast into Charleston, South Carolina, including a ship some of my ancestors came over on, which had them labelled merely as “Irish Protestants” without bothering to make any ethnic or linguistic difference (to avoid appearing to undermine my point before, I do want to point out that just because these 18th Century documents lacked nuance, doesn’t mean modern scholarship should. I’m merely pointing out that these people were considered Irish at the time, not that they are in fact the same as Gaelic-speaking Catholic Irish).
The end of the article, which discusses transnationalism and how Irish Nationalism was used by Irish-Americans as a means of assimilation, directed towards American ends more than Irish ones, is interesting as well. The concept of “diaspora nationalism” is an interesting one.
Roger Daniels’ “No Lamps Were Lit for Them: Angel Island the Historiography of Asian American Immigration” begins with describing the great contrast between Ellis Island and Angel Island. The main difference is that while Ellis Island, primarily for European immigrants, had at least some welcoming aspect to it, Angel Island was essentially a dangerous detention center. He points out that most of the literature is just about Chinese immigrants, but that there were in fact many Asian immigrant groups as well as European. He then discusses Chinese attempts to argue about immigration in American courts. He then talks about how the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco destroyed a sufficient number of records to allow Chinese immigrants to lie about having American citizenship and make up false names. Next we have the opportunity to read a poem by a Chinese immigrant who thinks of Americans as “barbarians,” and promises that one day if China is united they will “cut out the heart and bowels of the western barbarian.” I have to hope these words aren’t prophetic given China’s presently powerful position. Following this we get to read the remarks made by Americans about the Chinese, mainly those who value their potential as workers, guest-laborers with little status more than slaves from the sounds of it. The Socialist Morris Hillquit had a rather imaginative, if vulgar, description: “”an inflowing horde of alien scabs.” He certainly didn’t mince words.
Daniels goes on to describe recent Asian American scholarship, including a note that not all of this is actually directly tied to immigration, but then says that it is still a terribly neglected field. He says “Most contemporary immigration historians explicitly reject both nativism and racism, but tend, almost reflexively, to assume that, for most of the American past, the terms “immigrant” and “European” were interchangeable.” He then concludes by stating that most Asian-American immigration is quite recent and has nothing to do with Angel Island, but that Angel Island is still important.