Takaki argues that “Caliban could also have been Irish.” The English subjected the Irish to terrible subjugation, and millions of Irish people ended up escaping to the US in the nineteenth century. Frederick Douglass commented on how the arrival of new Irish immigrants made life difficult for black workers in the North; yet he also empathized with the enormous suffering of Irish people during the Potato Famine. Irish people called themselves “exiles” from their homeland. This exile had been prompted by the long history of English colonization of Ireland. In 1700, only 14% of Irish land was owned by Irish people—the rest was owned by the English.
The problems of exploitation, oppression, and land theft were not unique to the US. Indeed, the template for the brutal actions of English settlers in the US began in Ireland (and other places during English colonial rule).
In the early 19th century, English landowners in Ireland decided to turn their estates into cattle ranches in order to increase profits, and this meant that almost all Irish farm laborers were suddenly without jobs. Irish workers sank into a state of extreme poverty; most were barely able to survive. Many believed that moving to America would provide a chance of employment, greater wealth, and freedom from oppression. One million Irish people immigrated to the US in the years 1815-1845 alone. Meanwhile, those who stayed at home made their living as migrant workers, and subsisted almost entirely on potatoes.
Even before the Potato Famine, English colonizers created such desperate conditions in Ireland that they pushed an enormous number of Irish people to their deaths. Those who didn’t die lived in a state of such extreme suffering that escaping the to the US may well have seemed like the only chance at survival, let alone flourishing.
Disaster struck in 1845, when a fungus destroyed 40% of the potato crop. The same fungus returned each harvest, and by 1855, one million people had died from starvation and ensuing illness. Thousands of peasants were unable to pay rent and were evicted from their homes. The meat being exported would have been enough to feed half the population, but instead the landlords profited from selling this meat while the Irish starved to death. Surrounded by devastation and death, a further 1.5 million Irish immigrated to the US during the Great Potato Famine. These immigrants did not necessarily have dreams or fantasies about life in America; rather they were driven there by sheer necessity. Indeed, many were heartbroken to leave Ireland.
Takaki’s description of the Potato Famine is an important reminder that the havoc wreaked by “natural” disasters is often not all that natural. While the fungus that rotted the potatoes was an organic phenomenon, the famine that resulted was not. Takaki argues that many Irish people could have been fed by the meat that English colonizers exported, and if wealth and resources had been better distributed, millions would not have starved and died.
The Famine finally ended in 1854, but the Irish remained poor as the result of English colonization. Meanwhile, a further 2 million Irish immigrated to the US in the latter half of the 19th century, leaving their homeland severely depopulated. In the US, Irish immigrants worked in construction, building the railroads that would connect different parts of the nation. Irish workers, who would take on work considered too dangerous by Anglo Americans, were treated as “disposable.” There was an endless stream of reports of Irish deaths at work. Meanwhile, the Irish faced prejudice within American society, where they were treated like “dogs.”
It is important to note that during this era, Irish people were not considered white. Of course, this is no longer true: as will become clear later in the book, at a certain point the Irish were strategically absorbed into whiteness. However, prior to this absorption, the Irish faced racial oppression, something that can be surprising to recall today.
Pitted against workers of other races and facing dire working conditions, the Irish began to organize. In New England, Irish shoemakers founded the Secret Order of the Knights of St. Crispin, which soon came to be the largest labor organization in the US. They demanded higher wages; in response, their employer imported Chinese workers from San Francisco to take their jobs. The Irish attempted to set up a Chinese lodge of St. Crispin; however, it was obvious that the Crispins were doing this for their own benefit, rather than out of a true sense of solidarity, and the initiative failed.
The Irish helped improve their conditions by developing extremely robust networks of mutual support. Indeed, their story provides key evidence in support of Takaki’s argument about the importance of labor organizing. However, the failure of the Chinese lodge of the Knights of St. Crispin shows that organizing has limited results when it is restricted to serving the interests of just one group.
The Irish were a highly stigmatized group, and it was not uncommon to compare them to black people as a demonstration of how low their social status was. They were stereotyped as lazy, unintelligent, undisciplined, and hedonistic, with a particular reputation for excessive drinking. Back in Ireland, many Irish people felt sympathy with black people and recognized commonalities between the oppression they faced. However, once in the US, most Irish immigrants developed intense anti-black racism. They resented the fact that they were given jobs deemed too dangerous for enslaved black people (whose deaths were financial losses to enslavers), and animosity developed over competition for jobs.
The sad reality that the sympathy Irish people originally had for black people disappeared once the Irish actually encountered black people reflects one of the difficulties of addressing racism. Often, people embrace other races in the abstract, but take a different attitude when they feel that their own flourishing is under threat from competition with those of other races. This suggests that wealth redistribution could help significantly in ending racism.
Anti-black racism among the Irish became particularly intense during the Civil War, at times resulting in violent riots. Meanwhile, there was intense competition between Irish and black people over jobs in domestic work. Many Irish women moved to the US in search of both better employment and marriage opportunities. Once in the US, many worked as maids, and in this way they gained intimate familiarity with American culture. Domestic work could be very lonely, degrading, and emotionally draining. Workers’ personalities were part of their job, such that “it was not just her labor that was purchased but the laborer herself.” For this reason, some Irish women chose factory work over domestic service.
In this passage, Takaki outlines the grim irony of life for poor black and Irish people in the US. The jobs that existed were difficult and degrading, yet competition for these jobs was so intense that it created massive hostility and resentment between ethnic groups. Of course, as A Different Mirror shows, this was all the result of the exploitation and greed of the elite class, whose wealth was built on the backs of poor and enslaved workers.
Conditions in the factories were oppressive and dangerous. Nonetheless, many Irish women delighted in the opportunities that existed in the US, and wrote to family members back in Ireland with glowing descriptions of the US as a land of freedom and abundance. The second generation of Irish immigrant women tended to be better educated than their mothers, and far more likely to be in white-collar jobs. By the early 1900s, a significant number of Irish students were enrolled at Harvard each year. President Abbott Lawrence Lowell believed that the Irish would and should be assimilated into American society.
Although the Irish were not considered white when they first arrived in the US, it was not long before they were absorbed into whiteness. This is the secret behind the “miracle” of their upward mobility and success across the generations. While in the UK the difference between English and Irish people had seemed stark, in the comparatively more racially mixed nation of the US, they came to be categorized under the same banner of “white.”
Takaki explains that the upward mobility of Irish people rested in the fact that as white people, they were eligible for naturalized citizenship, and did not face the obstacle of having to learn English. Unlike other ethnic groups, they were also allowed to vote, and they developed highly effective political machines that promoted Irish officials and ensured that wealth was redistributed into Irish communities. Similarly, much effort was directed toward acquiring and keeping jobs within the Irish community, while Irish workers “became highly unionized.” Other ethnic groups were deliberately excluded from these networks. Very few Irish people ever went back to Ireland, instead assimilating into an American identity and embracing the US as their permanent home.
This passage further elaborates on the ways in which Irish people became part of an emergent white American identity, and how this benefited them as a group, allowing them to make huge gains as new immigrants to the US. It is unsurprising that so many Irish embraced the US as their home—their chances of flourishing were far better there than they ever had been back in Ireland.