chapter  7
16 Pages

How the Irish became White (again)

One of the key texts in the American literature on whiteness is Noel Ignatiev’s (1996) study of Philadelphia, How the Irish Became White. It was noted in chapter 4 that one of the main criticisms of historians’ construction of whiteness as a research problematic is that the process of becoming white is not proven. The European immigrant groups covered by these studies were already white. The argument in this chapter is that not only did Catholic Irish immigrants become white in nineteenth-century America, but that the Irish in twentieth-century Ireland also became white. To recap, it was argued in chapter 5 that the Irish in the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Caribbean experienced a shift in their racialised status. As the major dividing lines became those separating enslaved workers from free labourers and landholders, the people in the former group were all African, and those in the two latter were virtually all European. In this context the relationship between black and unfree, and white and free, emerged as defining the social hierarchy of plantation societies. After negotiating an intermediate status as colonised, Catholic indenturers, the Irish were absorbed more readily into the dominant group. The distinction between on one hand, not being white, and on the other, being black, is central to this argument, and in the US context, particularly, we will focus on the Irish transition from the position of disadvantaged ethnic minority, to a place in mainstream American society. The last section looks at the ways in which the shift from country of emigration to a country of immigration has positioned the Irish as a dominant white group vis-à-vis minorities within Ireland, with particular reference to recent state intervention in the area of citizenship and entitlement.