In the exploration of understanding Irish, English, and American South connections, we dove into writings by Kieran Quinlan and a podcast with Gavan Lennon.
In his book Strange Kin: Ireland and the American South, Kieran Quinlan dissects fascinating comparisons and contrasts between large cultural and historical implications for Ireland and the U.S. South. Quinlan chiefly argues that both Ireland and the U.S. South “have long been the ‘problem’” to England and the United States, respectively (Quinlan 4). These two regions are “frequently romanticized…[in] otherwise ‘progressive’ nations,” drawing out a negative form of exceptionalism against them to be used as weaponry by their larger associations (Quinlan 4). Quinlan expertly notes the similarities between the regions of long-standing struggle and loss but holds this comparison against the difference that Ireland experienced oppression, while the U.S. South inflicted oppression. In that bearing, guilt and fault reside more noticeably in the conversation about Southern exceptionalism.
In a similar vein, Quinlan explains how a majority of Irish immigrants came into the U.S. South in a time when Americans were preoccupied with the black population; therefore, the Irish quickly appropriated and “faded into generic whiteness” (Quinlan 8). Later, in efforts to dispossess Irish immigrants of their acceptance of slavery — due to their hasty cultural blending with Southern ideals — abolitionists publicized to Irishmen the similarity of English oppression on the Irish to American oppression upon the black population. Quinlan notes the importance of noticing efforts such as these when studying the cultural implications of the “definitions of ethnicity and race, stereotypes and prejudice, and colonialism and postcolonialism” (Quinlan 12). Collectively, Quinlan masterfully draws connections between the notes of regional othering in England and America and is careful to bring out the cultural and historical effects that these connections have had over time.
In his podcast interview, Gavan Lennon further discusses links between Ireland and the U.S. South on more modern terms. Positively, Lennon notes the “vibrant and productive history of resistance” for the two regions (“North and South Elsewhere”). However, Lennon brings forward the idea that the “Brexit moment in the U.K. and… conservatism gripping the U.S. seem to be borne of a similar tension” (“North and South Elsewhere”). The tension arises from a misunderstood and paradoxically-perplexing reality of members of the “white, working-class” who stand between “solidarity” and a “racist, xenophobic place… worried about some sort of protectionism” (“North and South Elsewhere”). Lennon recognizes this parallel that occurs both in Ireland and the U.S. as the trope of an oppressive, potentially over-patriotic individual standing over someone upon whom one can subject their regional discrimination. This behavior perpetuates on the basis that people project their fear and anxiety upon what — or who — is unknown to them, with thanks to national leaders who recognize groups within the countries on whom to assign blame. For America, the cultural groups receiving undue blame range from Mexicans to Chinese to any group which the executive branch finds to be acting in opposition to it. For England, the Irish receive undue blame.
Lennon’s theories take on a modern perspective of the Irish/American South relationship. Quinlan dissects how the two regions battle long-standing oppression from the rest of their respective countries, whereas Lennon is more specifically addressing how these historical similarities have borne modern problems in cultural handlings of what is “foreign” or “other.” I pondered other parallels for these regions in exceptionalism, but not the brand where one confines the faults to a specific region. We assign hospitality and warmth to the American South, and, as Quinlan details in Strange Kin, the world has taken what it likes about Irish culture as its own, notably the Catholic undertakings of New Orleans, Louisiana and massive St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Savannah, Georgia. Critical thought will always explore to what extent it will accept versus reject the aspects of regional culture, and it truthfully boils down to what benefits versus damages the party at stake.
I was also intrigued by Amy Clukey’s concept of “white identity” as the means to “further racialize ongoing…conflict and the economic hardships associated with austerity” (62). She asserts that “whiteness” blurs the lines of privilege, however, when the Irish too closely assign similarity between their struggle and the African-American struggle. An interesting sub-line of research definitely falls into understanding where this privilege ends and begins.
The connection of all of this scholarship is clear for Frederick Douglass, as he was encouraged by Irishmen to pursue his freedom. Taking from Quinlan’s ideas about parallels between Irish and black populations, readers understand the extent of empathy in oppression for circumstances for both of these parties. Douglass’ prominence, then, as a figure in civil and human rights for Ireland likely roots in the mere recognition he gives to Irish countrymen in his work. He recognizes their humanity and goodness, prompting readers to see how Douglass and the men at the wharf are not that different.
Clukey, Amy. “White Troubles: The Southern Imaginary in Northern Ireland 2008–2016.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory, vol. 73 no. 4, 2017, p. 61-92. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/arq.2017.0021.
“North and South Elsewhere.” About South from Soundcloud, July 2016, https://soundcloud.com/about-south/s04-episode-1-north-and-south-elsewhere .
Quinlan, Kieran. Introduction. Strange Kin: Ireland and the American South, by Quinland Louisiana State University Press, 2005, pp. 1-18.
Murals in Belfast near Falls and Shankill Road, Northern Ireland. Image via Alamy Stock Photo; photo credit: Stefano Valeria.