Strange kin: Ireland and the American South

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

Strange kin Ireland and the American South 1Strange kin: Ireland and the American South
Kieran Quinlan
(Louisiana State University Press, $49.95)
ISBN 0807129836
The burden of history shared by pure Irish immigrants within the American South and its mixture of so-called ‘Celts’, ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and ‘Scotch Irish’ is not just stereotypically born of those ethnic groups’ ‘stupidity’ but by an obvious lack of morality as well. The most articulate and educated African-American leader in the United States during the early twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois, strongly supported Irish independence out of moral conscience, writing that ‘No people can more exactly interpret the inmost meaning of the present situation in Ireland [1921] than the American Negro’. Yet Du Bois maintained that ‘No people in the world have in their past gone with blither spirit to “kill niggers” from Kingston to Delhi and from Kumasi to Fiji’ than the Irish parading as soldiers of the British army.
Kieran Quinlan in Strange kin: Ireland and the American South provides an indispensable synthesis of recent scholarship in Irish-American or Atlantic Studies. An encyclopaedic book touching upon commonalities in history, literature, culture, psychology and anthropology between the native southern ‘whites’ of that curious part of the United States called, fondly and not so fondly, ‘Dixie’—the former Confederate States of America—and both Irish immigrants and those who stayed in the old country is difficult to lay aside. Unfortunately, it is only 268 text pages in length. Also, how much better it would be had Quinlan allowed more of himself to emerge in the pages rather than relying so much upon secondary sources! Minor criticisms, such as his resorting to occasional first person singular to show what are truly his words and not another author’s ideas, must be overlooked to applaud this small yet epic study of two defeated peoples—the Confederates and the Irish.
Returning to Du Bois, ‘In this world it is the Oppressed who have continually been used to cow and kill the Oppressed in the interest of the Universal Oppressor’. In the American Civil War the Irish were used to cow slaves in the interest of either the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, or Scotch-Irish ‘white’ southerner. A totally unbiased Quinlan maintains that, like many downtrodden peoples, the unjustified dispossession and exile of the Irish had hardened them rather than making them empathetic with others who were also victimized, such as the southern slaves.
Alice Walker—the highly popular African-American contemporary novelist and essayist of Georgia—was invited to speak at a meeting of Mississippi librarians when a ‘white authority’ on southern history maintained that southerners wrote so well because ‘we’ lost the war. An indignant and resolute Walker quickly corrected her by saying ‘No, “we” didn’t lose the war. You all [‘whites’] lost the war. And you all’s loss was our gain’. Of course, by the time of the Civil War, the Irish had also become ‘white’. ‘You all’ or ‘ya’ll’, after all, was an Ulster concoction of ‘yous’. Margaret Mitchell, Scarlett O’Hara, Tara, and their ever-popular Gone with the Wind get extended coverage—perhaps a bit more than they deserve.
Particularly refreshing is Quinlan’s throwing of additional fuel on the debunking flame of the really not-so-original ‘Celtic Thesis’ espoused by southern historian Grady McWhiney—formerly Chair of the Department of History at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (main campus). According to this idea, the Civil War was waged between Cavalier Celtic Rebels and Roundhead Anglo-Saxon Yankees fighting not really over the Union and slavery but rather over cultural differences such as free-roaming southern swine, unattended because of southern white laziness, drunkenness, and love of violence and duelling. With subtle ongoing snickering at McWhiney in particular throughout the book, one wonders if Quinlan, born in Dublin and currently Associate Professor of English at the University of Alabama’s campus in Birmingham, has some type of axe to grind. Surely not, as McWhiney has lived in Texas for decades now. McWhiney’s thesis—not without some merit, as Quinlan asserts—is laid in an ugly grave opposed to multiculturalism, the contemporary League of the South,, which favours another southern secession from the United States of America based upon Confederate inequality rather than United States equality. Ian Paisley’s academic association with the—at least once, if not still—bigoted fundamentalist Christian Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, is also subtly referred to on more than one occasion.
Seemingly attacking racism of all types—including an acknowledgement in anthropological and biological circles today of the total meaninglessness of the term ‘race’ except as defined socially and culturally in contexts of the past—curious references are made to sex and gender. The sensuous ‘sexiness’ of the South is contrasted with the inexplicable ‘sexlessness’ of Ireland. Please tell the reader more! Both the United Kingdom and the United States are depicted as macho—i.e. John Bull and Uncle Sam respectively, with both Ireland and the defeated South as feminine. Yet unlike the Union-raped southern belle of the South, the Irish managed to adapt the Celtic stereotype by transforming it to masculine, thereby ‘making its powers of imagination vigorously creative rather than weakly impressionable’. As the author explains, either unconsciously or willingly but unconcernedly the Irish also participated in the gender hierarchy of the time.
Almost appearing as atonement for prior Irish attitudes toward African-Americans, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, with the powerful example of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and his espousal of non-violence, is shown to have strongly influenced the Irish’s own movement and peace initiative in Northern Ireland. Southern Baptist President of the United States Bill Clinton of Arkansas is recognised for his extraordinarily unique efforts to help the reconciliation process in wrapping up this eloquent intertwining of the two regions of the Atlantic.
Admittedly confessional, Quinlan maintains that, regarding his synthesis, whatever the historical inaccuracies, false analogies and far too easily drawn similarities between Ireland and the American South, it is undoubtedly true that both cultures had their histories and even recent present in a mixture ‘of religion and secular hopes and expectations that now is so often the lot of marginalised people’. A story is told by American historian Paul Boller of a party in Savannah, Georgia, where defeated Democrat presidential candidate Al Smith of New York was talking with a woman who admired him but could not vote for him because of his religion. ‘But surely you voted for our host, the mayor of Savannah, and he is a Catholic’, asked Smith. ‘Oh yes’, responded the lady, ‘I voted for him; but he is an Irish Catholic while you are a Roman Catholic’. What an understandable attitude, for Strange kin is an unbiased yet still heavy-handed indictment of the Catholic Irish in the South sympathetic to the ‘lost cause’ of the Confederacy as well (and probably unknown to the Georgian socialite, that sympathy extended to a pope, Pius IX).
Toward the end of this highly recommended book for all types of readers, the author writes: ‘Both Ireland and the South are places from which one wishes to escape, though the memory of their intensities persists long afterwards’. Many people will no doubt challenge the first part of Quinlan’s assertion; hardly anyone could reject the second.
David Franklin


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