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How the Irish Became White Paperback – August 23, 1996


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 248 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; New edition edition (August 23, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415918251
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415918251
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.2 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #648,807 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In the first half of the 19th century, some three million Irish emigrated to America, trading a ruling elite of Anglo-Irish Anglicans for one of WASPs. The Irish immigrants were (self-evidently) not Anglo-Saxon; most were not Protestant; and, as far as many of the nativists were concerned, they weren't white, either. Just how, in the years surrounding the Civil War, the Irish evolved from an oppressed, unwelcome social class to become part of a white racial class is the focus of Harvard lecturer Ignatiev's well-researched, intriguing although haphazardly structured book. By mid-century, Irish voting solidarity gave them political power, a power augmented by the brute force of groups descended from the Molly Maguires. With help, the Irish pushed blacks out of the lower-class jobs and neighborhoods they had originally shared. And though many Irish had been oppressed by the Penal Laws, they opposed abolition?even when Daniel O'Connell, "the Liberator," threatened that Irish-Americans who countenanced slavery would be recognized "as Irishmen no longer." The book's structure lacks cohesion: chapters zigzag chronologically and geographically, and Ignatiev's writing is thick with redundancies and overlong digressions. But for the careful reader, he offers much to think about and an important perspective on the American history of race and class.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

In a book he admits raises more questions than it answers, Ignatiev, a radical activist and editor of the journal Race Traitor, asserts that the Irish were initially discriminated against in the United States and "became white" by embracing racism, a concept Ignatiev (citing Daniel O'Connell) says they learned in the United States. Ignatiev targets the Irish because they were the largest immigrant group to compete with blacks for manual labor jobs. Does American labor history dismiss racism as an element in the workers' struggles? Did oppression in Ireland under the Penal Laws help to make the Irish oppressors in America, or did they learn racism only after reaching America? While many of the primary sources support Irish racism, fewer support Ignatiev's opinion on where it began. This book is more a springboard for discussion than a source of answers but is strongly recommended for that purpose.?Robert C. Moore, DuPont Merck Pharmaceutical Co. Information Svcs., N. Billerica, Mass.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

279 of 315 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 8, 2004
Format: Paperback
Wow. When the best argument your reviewers can come up with for disliking your book are "[the author] is a Jew" and "blacks weren't discriminated against [even at the time covered in the book, during which black people could legally be bought and sold in the South, disenfranchised and barred from most jobs in the North; apparently being legally defined as property doesn't qualify as discrimination], the Irish just worked harder," you know you've struck a nerve.
As a Canadian of Scots-Irish ancestry, I found this book fascinating. The history of the Irish in Canada is a bit different from the history of the American Irish; overall I'd say it's less painful. This book shed a lot of light on issues that I didn't expect it to touch, like black-white relations, abolitionism, and the contrast between the antebellum North and South (now I understand a little better why Southerners say they have been unfairly demonized; the Philadelphia and Boston described in the book were hardly freemen's paradise).
When the author says he wants to get rid of the "white race," he doesn't mean that he wants to get rid of white PEOPLE; he means that he wants to get rid of the category, "white," which is neither traditional nor especially meaningful. (I note that the reviewer below refers to the pale-skinned author of the book as "a Jew" rather than as "white" - demonstrating the author's point about race quite handily. "White" clearly refers to something beyond skin colour.
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71 of 88 people found the following review helpful By Mickey Callaghan on January 15, 2009
Format: Paperback
This was a difficult book for me. The author says much the same thing in the Introduction; yet, as an American whose grandparents came from Ireland in the 60s to escape crushing poverty, it had a personal sting.

Nobody likes to hear criticism of his own race or people, which is why we all, whether Irish, black, Jewish, Italian, etc., react strongly to critiques of our peoples, and try to point out the minute flaws in critics' reasoning, or justify these flaws in light of oppression suffered. I certainly don't believe Ignatiev to be an anti-Irish bigot, especially as such bigotry now rarely exists outside the UK.

Yet we Irish-Americans need to face up to the facts. We, like any other group, are far from perfect, and, sad as it is to say, many of our blood perpetuated the crimes against us by becoming cruel toward other peoples whom we could, unconsciously or not, trample to step higher. It is understandable that Irishmen would do so, in light of the circumstances, but that does not make it excusable. Ignatiev presents a solid case, showing how this process worked historically.

[One sentence in the conclusion struck me in particular. The author notes that in his research, he realised that "nobody gave a damn for the Irish," observing that even slaves had abolitionists and religious groups caring for them. Though I, like most of Irish decent, do not care much for self-pity, it has irked me somewhat that almost nothing is taught of the plight of Irishmen in Ireland and abroad; perhaps a sentence or two on the "famine"--which was, of course, closer to a genocide than a famine--and that's that.
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52 of 64 people found the following review helpful By Raven on October 25, 2007
Format: Paperback
This is a hard book to read, not because of any overdose of erudition or inaccessibility of the text, but due to the emotional reaction it can evoke from the reader. (This is easily demonstrated by a look at the other reviews.) If one has Irish ancestry, it's hard not to take personally. However, a historical retrospective of the social perceptions of Irish-Americans over the last 150 years is well worth reading. The shift in Irish-American image over time is fascinating; it's pleasing to see a group pull themselves out of disfavor and disturbing to see it happen at the expense of others in similar disfavor. Ignatiev illustrates the context of this perception shift well, with illustrative examples from events and news sources of the time. The book is moderately well documented, allowing the reader to search out further references at will. While there are a few points where the author oversimplifies for length and cohesiveness of narrative, overall it's an interesting read, and a reasonable treatment of a painful and complicated issue.
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88 of 115 people found the following review helpful By "beatnikblonde" on December 9, 2002
Format: Paperback
Unlike the other reviewer who apparently missed the entire point of the book, I found this book powerful and enlightening. The opening pages of the book delineate the plight of the Irish in their homeland and uses this as a basis for their evolution as citizens in the US. What is more, they are not the only ones who go through this evolutionary process of "becoming white", the Poles, Italians, Jews and others after them would have their own journey to assimilation into US culture as well. As this book clearly describes, immigrants had the possibility to become white, African Americans did not. Further, the Irish had to choose: conform to the native-born culture or be forever shut out of opportunity just like the Blacks. It is an illuminating look at our society and one which truly does help us understand today. I read this book as part of a 13-book cirriculum for a graduate history seminar whose topic was the history of Racism in the US after 1870. It was one of the best-written texts and provided an excellent foundation for cultural studies. I highly reccomend it to anyone who seeks a better understanding of social history and today's US culture. Rather than placing blame, the author provides the facts and understanding of what happened, good and bad, so that we see the complexity and ultimately, the uselessness of blame. It is only with this understanding that we can start to make changes.
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