Tuesday, March 18, 2008

No Irish need Apply

As so often, it was the awkward juxtaposing of two items that caused Malcolm to reflect. First there was Mark Hennessy and Denis Staunton, stalwarts both, doing the front page of the Irish Times:
Amnesty for illegal Irish in US 'not on', says Taoiseach

IRISH PEOPLE living illegally in the US will not qualify for an amnesty and they will have to return home before lodging new visa applications, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said.

Ruling out any possibility of a special deal for Ireland, Mr Ahern, speaking following White House talks with US president George Bush, said an amnesty solely for the Irish was "not on".

He is now placing his hopes on a two-way visa deal for 2009 or later that would benefit 18 to 35-year-olds from both countries. However, visas would last for no more than 15 months and would be renewable just once. In addition, such visas, if the scheme can be agreed, could not be applied for by anyone living illegally in the US, so they would have "to return to base" and lodge fresh applications.
As Malcolm was reading that, iTunes threw up Pete Seeger. It was Seeger doing a promotional for WBAI New York, back in 1970. WBAI was, and is a democratic (small "d"), listener-funded station of the Pacifica Foundation.

The ultra-lefty/liberal Seeger has a link between two songs:
It is an extended (near four-minute) monologue, on minority politics in the United States:
Well, of course, the Irish got Irish power and they solved [their] problems, and yet only solved it for themself. And I really don't think that solving problems for yourself is good enough, to do the trick these days. They solved the problems for themself largely by taking care of Blacks.

You know the stories of the riots of 1863. Irish people coming over here didn't want to get drafted in the Army to fight a war as soon as they got off the boat. They came over here looking for Freedom; and there they were suddenly told 'No, unless you can pay $300, in the Army you go'. The rich person could pay and avoid the draft. So they had the Draft Riots; and who did they take it out on? Black people. And mobs went up and down the streets of New York City, which at that time was mainly below Central Park. I think the main mobs went between 23rd Street and 50th Street, up and down, and they'd go into the houses, drag Black peoples out of their beds, and hang them from the lamp-posts. It was a horrible week -- it lasted about a week. Finally, the Federal Government brought in federal troops; and the Draft Riots were over.

But the majority of people in the mobs were immigrants just off the boat, very poor, and looking around for someone to take it out on. And -- keep in mind -- the Black people, many of them had been living here for over two hundred years.
Seeger then links back to 1741, when 70-odd (of the 2,000) slaves in NYC were deported to the Sugar Colonies, 14 were judicially lynched and a further 17 burned alive. He describes how the pogrom then extended to white sympathisers, and mentions John Urey ("a kind of Daniel Berrigan of his day", whose surname more often turns up as "Ury", and who was convicted -- probably without justification -- under the Penal Laws of being a Catholic priest) and the keepers of a Black boarding-house, who were also hung:
People try to forget it; and it isn't written up in a single history book that I know of ... the whole racist history of this country."
There's quite a lot in there that does not stand up to close scrutiny:
  • Seeger is very vague about the "Great Negro Plot" of 1741 (which Malcolm passes over here, but is dealt with better elsewhere);
  • his view that the 1863 Riots were limited to what is now "mid-Town" do not correspond with the detailed map in Eric Homberger:
Even so, Seeger's sympathies are in the right place.

Most people (that is everybody except historical nit-pickers like Malcolm) know little of the 1863 Draft Riots, other than they provided Scorsese with colour and action for his Gangs of New York. Herbert Asbury, whose book provided Scorsese's title, has two chapters (VII and VIII) on the background and events (it is, probably, the only successful passage in a patchy and loose pot-boiler).

Behind that sensational moment, though, there lies uncomfortable truth, which persists to the present day, and brings Malcolm back to the news item that began this posting.

Ireland abolished slavery in -- wait for it ... -- 1177, at the Council of Armagh. That commenced an honourable tradition which extended as far as Daniel O'Connell. When O'Connell entered Parliament, as one of only two Irish nationalists, he was approached by the West Indian sugar interest: the 27 members of that group would support O'Connell on Irish matters, if O'Connell kept silent on the issue of slavery. O'Connell's response was clear:
Gentlemen, God knows I speak for the saddest people the sun sees; but my right hand forget its cunning, and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if to save Ireland, even Ireland, I forget the negro one single hour!
So, in 1840, O'Connell was asked to provide an address to the Irish in America on abolition. Such a document was produced, and received 60,000 Irish signatures: O'Connell was one of the last to sign. However, when the Address from the people to Ireland to their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America reached America, it was received by many Irish with some consternation:
The Boston Catholic Diary did not deny that slavery was unjust, but it declared "infinitely more reprehensible" the zealots who would madly attempt to eradicate the evil by the destruction of our federal union". The "illustrious Liberator" could affix his signature to any document he pleased, but he had "no right to shackle the opinions of the Irishmen of America ... We can tell the abolitionists that we acknowledge no dictation from a foreign source..."
In other words, there was a treble whammy:
  • The Irish-American were attached to the Democratic Party, and their support was critical to (for example) electing James Polk in 1844. Polk was a Jacksonian, a believer in "manifest destiny" (which meant expansion across the continent), a slave-owner from Tennessee, and proponent of the Missouri Compromise (which retained slavery below the Mason-Dixon line) being applied across the rest of the continent.
  • The Irish nationalist priority was Repeal (the restoration of an Irish Parliament). To maintain Irish-American support and finance for Repeal, it was politically convenient to soft-pedal on Abolition.
  • Even before the immigration of the Hungry Forties, Irish supplanted Blacks in many trades (notably in building canals and then the railroads), because Irish first undercut anyone else, and then became organised labour to protect their position. This gave them political clout. It also meant that Irish and Black interests conflicted.
Today, then, the issues are remarkably similar. The Irish Government is obliged to act as advocate for the "illegals" in the United States. An Taoiseach, in that same Irish Times piece, is quoted:
Speaking later, Mr Ahern said he wanted to be "honest about these things" with the undocumented Irish in the US, who could number between 3,000 and 20,000. "I don't want to be gilding the lily. There are 12 million people [in the US] illegally. We came very close to a Bill with McCain and Kennedy. It wasn't possible to deliver. The concept of an amnesty, wiping the sheet clean, is just not on."
In other words, it is not politically possible for Irish interests to be advanced, when, in US electoral and political terms, the real issue is the millions of undocumented Latinos.

Perhaps O'Connell would sympathise. Sphere: Related Content

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