Kieran Quinlan’s introduction, in conjunction with Gavan Lennon’s podcast appearance, delves into the complex parallels between Ireland and the U.S. South. Beginning with Quinlan’s book Strange Kin: Ireland & the American, we’re introduced to the unique connection Ireland and the Southern states in America share due to their historical similarities, while also elaborating on their differences. While the apparent relationship between the regions lies in the immigration of the Irish into the South since “It is the southern states that have always been more welcoming to the Irish than those of the Puritan Northeast; moreover…it was possible for an Irish laborer to earn more in Mississippi than in Massachusetts” (Quinlan 9). Therefore, the absorption of Irish culture embedded in Southern cultures, such as elements of Folk music. However, the tangled tether is the exceptionalism of their respective locations by the surrounding country. Like the American South in the United States, Ireland is considered, in the United Kingdom, as “the “problem,” if also frequently romanticized regions, of otherwise “progressive” nations” (Quinlan 4). He interweaves their comparisons of loss and abuse, with the contrasting themes of oppression amongst the Celts in their homeland and relative freedom the oppressive South offered that has engendered their Irish ancestry to “fade into generic whiteness” (Quinlan 8).
Akin to Quinlan’s introduction, Lennon’s feature in the About South podcast episode “North and South Elsewhere” continues the linkage Ireland and the American South share as a native-born Northern Irelander. He speaks similarly of the unwillingness of whites in the South to identify with their full-bloodied Irish ancestry for a “better” Irish-Scot or pure Anglo-Saxon ilk. Lennon states that the Irish ” fought hard for the categorization of white in the 19th century” (“North and South Elsewhere”), which strongly relates to Quinlan’s writings of “generic whiteness” the Irish achieved through denial and their anxious need to fit in, that they became “more Southern than the Southerners themselves” (Quinlan 8).
However, Lennon tackles more modern, political similarities between the two regions. His foyer into modern topics began with the Civil Rights Movement in Ireland. Occurring during the ’70s and 80s, the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland guaranteeing rights for both citizens in The Republic of Ireland and the North. The significance of both Civil Rights movements extends back to their historical origins. The Irish in Ireland have struggled beneath England’s thumb, just have black people have suffered in racist and inhumane systems set-up in the South. Lennon comments that the movement was “very self consciously influenced by the American southern civil rights movement” (“North and South Elsewhere”), which both heavily involved discrimination. Despite the Northern Irish’s long-distance comradery with Black Americans, Irish Americans merely “tolerate[d] the African American presence in the [Southern] region” (Quinlan 12).
In more recent news, Lennon discussed the American South’s (conservative collective) prejudice toward Mexican immigrants paralleled to Brexit in the UK. The xenophobic presence within the borders of each region resonates heavily with working-class, white Southerners the same way it does their British equivalent. There’s a “Southern Exceptionalism that… the south is the nasty bit with racist white people, stunted education, and harrowing conservatives” (“North and South Elsewhere”) that is mirrored in the UK. He later comments on the colorful mural in Belfast (his favorite piece of public art) depicting Frederick Douglass surrounded by other African American leaders, as a symbol of revolution and overcoming oppression. Douglass’s face is centered, conjuring up the importance of his collaborative and positive encounters with the Irish. Douglass writes briefly of the “good Irishmen” that showed unrest due to his enslavement and encourage rebellion. Rebellion isn’t a foreign concept to the Irish and neither was oppression, therefore, the humanity they showed him spawned from their own experiences.
Frederick Douglass mural at Belfast Northern Ireland International. Image via Leigh Fought Blog; photo credit: Leigh Fought
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Ed. Celeste-Marie Bernier. Broadview Press, 2018.
Quinlan, Kieran. Introduction. Strange Kin: Ireland and the American South, by Quinland Louisiana State University Press, 2005, pp. 1-18.