Ireland and the American South

In Kieran Quinlan’s “Introduction” to Strange Kin: Ireland and the American South, Quinlan explores the kinship between Ireland and the U.S.’s south. Many of the ideas Quinlan expresses are also heard in the interview with Gavan Lennon. Lennon says the American perception of the South is that it’s the “container” “where all the bad stuff lives.” Quinlan expresses similar sentiments, noting that both the South and Ireland are seen as the spaces in the U.S. and in the Isles, as places that are “the problem” or backwards (4).

Another commonality between the two pieces is that both discuss local pride. Quinlan quotes Irish short story writer, Seán Ó Faoláin, “There is the same passionate provincialism; the same local patriotism; the same southern nationalism… the same vanity of the old race; the same gnawing sense of defeat; the same capacity for intense hatred…” (5). This local pride and local patriotism in spaces that are either homogeneous or rather segregated, feeds into and is fed by feelings of shared identity. Quinlan notes that “The states of the former Confederacy instead are seen as the home of quintessential American Anglo-Saxonism.” He observes, “Certainly, few of the standard histories of the South make even passing reference to Ireland or the Irish” (3). Not only is the Irish contribution to southern American culture largely ignored, but the contribution of other cultures are as well outside of this white, Anglo-Saxon narrative. He writes, “it should hardly be surprising that a South that until recent times rarely mentioned its Native and African American populations–despite that African Americans comprised at least a third of those living in the region–should also have passed over in complacent silence the untidy remnants of other cultural contributions” (3). 

Music comes up both in Quinlan’s piece and the interview with Lennon. Quinlan writes, “The foremost history of southern folk music — a medium that especially seems to betray Irish and Scottish origins — warns that the Celtic influences are only part of the story, and that African American and other popular and commercial influences are so much present that it is almost impossible, and certainly misguided, to attempt to separate out its original ethnic strains” (6). This observation is incredibly important, as it reveals that cultures mingle (however, as a side note- there are power structures involved in how cultures mingle; the “mingling” of cultures is not necessarily a passive process; it can be a result of cultural appropriation or colonialism/neocolonialism. Or it can be a result of the close proximity of different cultures. This “mingling” is complicated). One may want to separate the “original ethnic strains,” wanting to create a narrative for themselves, their family, or their culture; this need for a narrative is largely a result of assimilation into whiteness. However, this can result in “ethnic pride,” which Quinlan describes “constantly rooting for origins can have atavistic and ugly implications, a desire for a new or renewed exclusivity” (12). 

Lennon and Caison also explore these ideas of narrative creation, “ethnic pride,” and whiteness in the About South interview:

Caison: “…Also, as you’re well aware; this identification of white people in the US south that they are “Scots Irish,” and maybe we can talk about the problems with that term.  

Lennon: “Yes we certainly can, there are more than a few.”

Caison: “And–but this sense that somehow people–white people in the U.S. South either identify that they’re descended from this pure Anglo-Saxonism, or they’re descended from this kind of rebellious Scottish/Irish–which doesn’t make sense– totally–”

Lennon: “I would even say and/or.”

Caison: “And/or!”

Lennon: “There seems to be a–of having your cake and eating it too. It’s very much–”

Caison: “I’m oppressed, and I’m noble.”

Lennon: “Yeah. And that’s what whiteness is. Whiteness is a very real thing that can be very violent and influences all sorts of lives. But it’s also a fantasy. It’s also you get to decide what superpowers you have because it’s a story completely made up by yourself.”

This claiming of identity for convenience is dangerous. On one hand, one can see themselves as being oppressed, meanwhile, also being an oppressor, which can be ignored for convenience’s sake. This can be seen in the politics of the American South. Working class white folks, who may be poor and live in more rural areas, vote for the extreme political right, fueled by xenophobic fears, racism, and white supremacy. This is fed by provincial patriotism and pride in imagined heritage and connections. 

In Martin Luther King in Newcastle Upon Tyne, Brian Ward writes, “[Olaudah Equiano] also visited St. Anthony’s Colliery, where he went under the River Tyne to experience the cramped and dangerous conditions endured by northern miners. It was the sort of gesture that helped to create the idea, not wholly fanciful, if often far too simplistic, of an affinity between the white working-class in the North East and other victims of economic exploitation and political powerlessness; an affinity that might transcend racial differences” (84). What an odd idea: a former enslaved man working to understand the experiences of the white-working class, yet, where are those gestures from the white working-class towards People of Color? Because of white supremacy and this imagined heritage that allows Anglo-Americans to choose what narrative they want to align themselves with, white Americans are often not held responsible and do not hold themselves responsible for their own culpability: instead, they often see themselves as victims. What could be an alliance between lower income folks for social change that in Ward’s words “might transcend racial differences” is made impossible by these attitudes.

Further, it is important to not over simplify differences of experience, and to not ignore access to white privilege. In Ireland, Amy Clukey writes, “Nationalists homologize the experiences of Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland and African Americans in the US South, and construct a narrative of transnational solidarity that celebrates both Irish nationalist and black southern heroism, integrity, and justice. As nationalists support African American struggles for civil rights, they bring attention to their own past and present struggles for civil rights—sometimes in ways that misrepresent Irish and American history or that ignore their own white privilege” (62). On one hand, connection of individuals, the ability to emphasize, and support for international civil rights is incredibly important. At the same time, it seems problematic to co-opt others’ narratives or struggles for one’s own use, especially when this co-option may result in an oversimplification of others’ struggles and actually reduce allyship. This reduction of allyship stems from white folks not listening to the experiences of POC because they think they fully understand their struggle, whether it be because of religious persecution, economic exploitation, etc.; however, this assumption of being able to understand and projecting one’s own experience is deeply damaging.

Further, it is not enough to connect to the American civil rights struggle, when at the same time, People of Color and immigrants in Ireland face discrimination and violence. Clukey writes, “In contrast, loyalists identify with white southern grievance and rage by adopting symbols of US white supremacist culture, particularly neo-Confederate iconography. As the presence of immigrants and people of color in the North complicates the longstanding ethnic-racial system, loyalists deploy the US-southern imaginary to bolster the traditional Protestant/Catholic binary and to scapegoat immigrants and people of color for post-recession poverty” (62). 

Photo Credit

“Free Derry” by Keith Ruffles. Wikimedia Commons. 

Works Cited

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 MUSEdoi:10.1353/arq.2017.0021.

“North & South Elsewhere,” About South Podcast.

Quinlan, Kieran. “Introduction.” Strange Kin: Ireland & the American South. LSU Press, 2005.

Ward, Brian. Martin Luther King in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Newcastle Upon Tyne, Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2017.

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