Book: How the Irish Became White

I just finished How the Irish Became White which was very interesting. According to the author the Irish joined, and then replaced free blacks at the bottom of the economic ladder and might have remained stuck there if America had developed a caste system rather than racism.

Lots interesting material in it about the politics & social mores of the time. One myth it disputes is that the Irish had an easier time assimilating because they already spoke English (a “fact” I always took for granted). According to the author, among the “famine Irish” as many as one-third spoke no English at all and many more only limited English.

I’ll have to look into this book, as it’s very interesting to me as a person of Irish descent. I remember there was a documentary on PBS about the Irish in America, some years back, which described how the Irish, rather than the Black slaves in the South, were given the task of building the levees in New Orleans, the reason being, if a Black slave got malaria or yellow fever and died, it was loss of expensive property, whereas if an Irishman got sick and died, it was a simple loss of cheap labor. Which was rather enlightening for me, since at the time, I was undergoing some reverse racial discrimination from an African-American supervisor at work: she used to load down the white workers (like me) with everything, while her and her daughter goofed off. I used to think, “Great, back to digging levees…”

I’ve seen that book on the shelves but never purchased it. Perhaps now I will. Or, with my birthday coming up maybe I can get a relative toi buy it.

Which language did they speak?

Most likely Gaelic.

Gaelic yes, but An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger) finished of to a large extent much of the Gaelic culture remaining in Ireland - speaking Gaelic for a long time came to be seen as a mark of the lower class country folk and the language atrophied badly - even now although the govt. in Ireland insists children learn Irish growing up in school it has never really recovered except in isolated districts.

The Irish encountered significant prejudice in America, partly based on the fact that (unlike the earlier wave of Ulster-Scots) they were mainly Catholic and this caused some to doubt their loyalty to their new home. Have a look at some of the political cartoons satirising the Irish of the mid 1800’s or later. And it’s been mentioned before but the know-nothing moved became quite hysterical about the Irish at points.

That was one of the points made in the book – though the author used the example of road building thru swamp areas. But he did say that in the South the Irish were used in any enterprise too risky for valuable slaves.

Funny you should mention your supervisor, one of the cartoons illustrating the book (ca. 1850) shows a black foreman telling a white worker on a building to “Hurry up that load of bricks”.

The Irish spoke Irish Gaelic, related to but very different from Scots Gaelic.

I will read the book but it sounds like more of a “northern experience”. The Irish were in New Orleans long before Black '47. The second parish formed in New Orleans was St. Patrick’s in 1833. My ancestors arrived in 1845 and my great great grandfather was a blacksmith. His brother was a carpenter.

While it was true that some of the victims of Black '47 did die (not digging roads through the swamps or building levees but rather digging those very same canals that flooded New Orleans during Katrina - [yes, there is a mass grave of 5,000 Irishmen who died of yellow fever digging the New Basin Canal]), the Irish in New Orleans did not face the kind of discrimination that was felt up north. They were not portrayed as chimps as so many of the northern newspapers portrayed us in the antebellum years. Religion was not an issue because my French and German ancestors here were Catholics.

Though my ancestors were from County Cork, I don’t believe they spoke Gaelic. Not a single word of Gaelic was passed on to me although myth, legend, religious practices (draping mirrors in black crepe when a family member died - formal mourning, etc) from the old country were certainly passed down.

Is it true that many of the Irish immigrants at the time of the Famine were illiterate in part due to the earlier penal laws in Ireland?
(Guess I should read the book…)

White kids in public schools here get reverse discrimination as far as name calling. My son gets called “Cracker” & “White Trash” at school & on the bus.A little blonde girl we know in high school gets called “Snow White” in the hallways.
My son doesn’t pay too much attention to it.“Cracker” isn’t necessarily a term of disrespect but can be meant that way. I’ve mentioned it to the teachers & they say the politically correct things in response, but don’t take it seriously either. But you wonder what would happen if the tables were turned?:confused:
It’s not a big deal to me at this point & perhaps teaches white kids what its like to be in someone else’s shoes.It’s a bit frustrating though.
Suppose our Irish ancestors faced much worse.:shrug:

No such thing as ‘reverse discrimination.’ Discrimination / racism is what it is is regardless of which side it comes from. Establishing alternate labels opens the possibility for judgements to be made that one is not as bad as the other.

Well, not better or worse but surely different. Opening possibilities isn’t always a bad thing if it helps us figure things out better.

I’ve been interested in studies like this since I was in graduate school. One thing that is interesting to note is that definitions of race aren’t always based upon physical appearances or racial relationships. The title of the book implies that at one time the Irish were not considered white by the dominant WASP culture in United States. Another fascinating book out there is called Civic Ideals and the author argues that the voting franchise was extended not to welcome more people in but is important to note who it kept out. For example allowing non-property holding white males to vote gives them a benefit slaves could never have and there by forestalls any possible common cause among poor whites and blacks against the more well to do.


Do blacks know about this part of American history?

I, too, have seen the old 19th century depiction of the Irish as hairy monkey/ape types.

That’s pretty much the author’s thesis – that race is not a matter of physical make up but a matter of belonging to a group that is either privileged or disempowered simply by virtues of belonging to that group. By his definition Catholic & Protestant constituted races in Ireland; the lowliest Protestant was superior to the most accomplished Catholic.
In the US, after the Catholics were finally “white” Protestant Irish-Americans became “Scots-Irish” – a term unknown in Ireland.

Given all our preoccupation with race and ethnicity we usually ignore issues of class. We certainly don’t learn anything in school about the unrelenting war (literal war) that the rich have waged against the poor throughout our history.

Regarding the term “Scots-Irish” I thought that originated when people of Scottish descent emigrated from Scotland to Ireland, either for economic reasons or due to English persecution then came to the U.S. from Ireland. But the idea of Protestant Irish re-defining themselves to separate themselves from their Catholic countrymen is very interesting.

If you go beyond the surface of American history class is everywhere. Like you said it isn’t even mentioned in high schools let alone alluded to. But if you introduce class as an option all of a sudden certain things start to become much clearer and history makes a little more sense. It’s sort of an “a-ha” moment. Examples throughout history abound.


Reminds me of a Wizard of Id comic:

The King is touring the Kingdom, and a peasant asks him, “Whatever happened to your war on poverty?”
King replies, “I won. You lost.”

Off the original topic a bit, but I’d heard the Scotch-Irish were from the Scottish borders area & were sent over to the North of Ireland to boost the Protestant population.They were also known for being pretty tough folks who could stand up to the "Papists."Parts of the early American frontier were settled by people of Scotch Irish descent.There are still large populations of Scotch Irish in the Appalachians today.

That’s what I had thought.

Except ironically many of their descendants became some of the fiercest opponents of British rule - Gerry Adams for instance has plenty of Protestants from Scottish backgrounds in his family tree if you trace it :slight_smile:

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