May 5, 2006

Seminar: Irish Studies, 535

Meeting Date: May 5, 2006

Chair: Mary McGlynn

Speaker: Prof. Mary Burke
    Asst. Professor of English, University of Connecticut

Title of Talk: “Off-White Trash: Minority Irish-Americans and nineteenth-century
            ‘feeble-minded hill folk’ studies.”

Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons

Attendees: Robert St. Cyr (Blackwater Valley Museum); Joseph Lennon (Manhattan College); Diane Menagh (Fairfield University, CT); Terry Byrne (The College of New Jersey); Eileen Derby (Columbia University); Bill McGimpsey; Barbara Young (Molloy College); Ken Monteith (Fordham University); Natasha Tessone (Princeton University); Abby Bender (Princeton University); Martin J. Burke (CUNY Graduate Center and Lehman College); Maurice Conroy; Mary Morrissey (New York Public Library).

“Off-White Trash: Minority Irish-Americans and nineteenth-century ‘feeble-minded hill folk’ studies.”
This is a synopsis of the paper given by Prof. Burke.  The synopsis has been provided by Prof. Burke.

Although much scholarly attention has been given to the notions of blood degeneration due to miscegenation current in the US during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the contemporaneous American discourse of genetically-inherited or environmentally fostered white criminality emerged from the “feeble-minded hill folk” studies referred to in the title of this paper. These late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century investigations of the perpetuation of deviance within nominally Protestant rural extended family units of Northern European descent created a pseudo-scientific discourse of “white trashness.” In the following paper, I will discuss The Jukes, one such work from 1877, in reference to two Irish immigrant groups who tend to be ignored in discussions of Irish-America: the Scots-Irish and Irish Travellers. “Family Studies”, as historians of sociology have titled the pseudo-scientific field that produced such texts, often implicitly concerned the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century descendants of one of these generally overlooked Irish immigrant groups to America: Ulster Presbyterians of predominantly Scottish descent who left Ireland for the marginal rural zones of Pennsylvania, the Appalachians, and the Carolinas in the eighteenth century, and came to be called the Scots-Irish. Furthermore, these studies are today occasionally explicitly invoked in popular considerations of the second Irish immigrant group I will be concerned with here: members of the historically nomadic Irish Traveller minority, whose ancestors emigrated to the Northeast of America in about 1860, before settling predominantly in the rural South. As in the case of Travellers, the “Irishness” of the Ulster immigrants becomes hard to detect after a few generations in the New World, and neither group quite fits within the parameters of what is now popularly understood to be Irish-Americanness, which is implicitly Catholic, urban, and nineteenth century in origin. The Scots-Irish were subsumed by a broader Anglo-American identity, becoming ethnically unmarked Americans, while Travellers too were either labeled as members of an ethnically unmarked “hobo” or “grifter” subculture or as undifferentiated “Irish mule traders” throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Certainly, contemporary conservative and well-heeled Catholic Irish-America has no desire to claim kinship to either of the aforementioned Irish immigrant groupings. Although their “Irishness” is often explicitly evoked, Travelers are also subject to an ethnically unmarked construct of “white trashness” that America has consciously forgotten was created in response to the perceived incivility of the eighteenth-century Scots-Irish. (A sharp distinction between Irish and “Scotch-Irish” developed after the influx of poor post-Famine immigrant Irish, and by 1900, commentators insist that the Scots-Irish are of “unmixed Scottish blood,” which was the reason, such argument implied, that they are such a successful and assimilated immigrant group. Although the transformation of post-Famine Catholic Irish-America from outsider status to bastion of white establishment during the twentieth century has been well documented, the fact that the Scots-Irish immigrant grouping underwent a similar process only a century earlier was quickly forgotten.) In discussing these two Irish immigrant groups side by side, I hope to tease out the history and connotations of the term “white trash,” as applied to descendants of both immigrant groups, even if the probable Scots-Irish origin of many of those currently constructed as “white trash” is generally implicit rather than explicit. With the rise of Irishness as what Diane Negra calls the white ethnicity of choice in the America identity marketplace since the 1990s, Irish Traveller culture currently occupies a complex position in which it is perceived to carry the visible markers of a broad post-Famine immigration Irishness as well as the invisible colonial-era Irish immigrant marker of white trashness. (Traveller culture is little understood, and the prefix “Irish” often conjures up the associations of more broadly understood Irishness.) Of course, in order to be “white trash”, the Traveller had to first become “white.” The so-called “Irish tinker” was often collated with the exotic, purportedly dark-skinned Gypsy in Victorian Britain and Ireland, and this paper will tease out how the Traveller “whitened” alongside broader post-Famine Catholic Irish-America. In contemporary American popular representation, Traveller Catholic Irishness is stressed when the minority is depicted alongside American Romany Gypsies in order to contrast Traveller whiteness with implicitly “non-Christian” Gypsy darkness, and Travellers are also romanticized as a throwback to a rural, uncivilized, uncodified but always redeemable colonial culture, which is, ultimately, an idealization of the only half-remembered eighteenth-century Irish Presbyterian immigrant experience. While the related Traveller community in Ireland has often been represented as Other, the perceived whiteness and Irishness of American Travelers allows them and their putatively clannish, backwoods subculture to currently occupy a position of what might be termed Unreformed but Reformable Sameness within contemporary popular American discourse. Like the lawless early white Protestant settlers constructed by Family Studies commentators with which the Irish minority are explicitly compared, Travelers are depicted as a throwback to all that advanced capitalist America has necessarily moved beyond but nostalgically yearns for.

Q. In the opening of your paper you speak about Franklin; you may wish to think about a racial opposition in his work that is not about white and black.  For Franklin the opposition was between white and red.  Imagery of savagery always plays off the people that the writers were in proximity to, which in Franklin’s case is Native Americas.
A generation after ?? Oscar Handlin goes to Harvard, and finds out that the Irish are over-represented in Massachusetts jails.  This is all part of a large early 20th century social science discourse.
Q. I thought the film Travller was going to be Irish, because of the double-l in the title.
A. Jim McGlynn got a grant to write the screenplay—it was originally intended to be an educational piece—and he researched widely; he probably found the spelling in his research. And stuck with it.
Q. How old is the term “traveller”?  Is it true that in the 1970s the travelling community itself generated the name?
A. Hasia Diner has told me that the name was given to Jewish travelling salesmen in the early twentieth century, and was borrowed from them.  The government generated that name itinerant, in an effort to be politically correct, but the name “Travellers” was chosen by the group itself.
Q. Did the term “Tinker” become derogatory only after the end of their occupation as tinkers?  Did the loss of a trade and respectability lead to it becoming a derogatory term?
A.  Yes. And also the skills they had were no longer required; they had been useful skills in a poorer economy.
There is no consensus about even the word Tinker—it is argued that it is an Irish, English, or Scots word.  Tinker goes from being an occupational to an ethnic term.  Walter Scott deals with the term Tinkers, and not clear if they are indigenous Scots or Irish.  At some point an Orientalist idea comes in, even in Scott.
Q. How were Scots-Presbyterians represented differently from Irish Roman Catholics in the nineteenth century?
A. From the late nineteenth century there is a tussle going on about who the Irish are.  It is not clear who is Scottish or Irish, and whether the Scots-Irish are Scottish.  Some people even use the argument that the Scots who arrived in Ireland are actually Irish anyway, having sprung from the Irish who migrated to Scotland.
Q.  In 1896 the Scots-Irish Historical Association was founded, in an effort to stop the AIHS from defining all the Irish are Catholic.  AIHS’ first historian wrote that 2/3 of Washington’s Army was Irish, but the SIHA say this is misleading, as so many were in fact Scots-Irish.
Q. Has DNA evidence indicated anything about the origin of Travellers?
A. There have been genetic studies, and some have suggested that Travellers were an Irish group that split off from mainstream Irish people at a point about 1,000 years ago.  There is no indication that they have any connection to a broader Roma heritage.
Q. Have the intermarriage and the small gene pool produced disease?
A. No.  That’s merely the story about Travellers, and it is a way that dominant cultures often talk about a minority cultures.  The Irish govt of the 1960s saw the Travellers as a problem culture, a sub-culture of poverty.  This was then retracted, and the rise of claims of ethnicity led to a dismissal of the idea of a sub-culture, or an inherited degeneracy.  Similarly, what was being dismissed as a culture of poverty—White Trash—is being transformed by theorists into a distinct ethnicity.
Q. How does all this relate to John Bunyan?
A. In the nineteenth century some people retrospectively cast him as a gypsy, and many were offended at this idea.  Others argued that it was merely an occupational designation.