Muslims and other immigrants as New York Irish : The Rosy Scenario

History always offers imperfect analogies. Those who seek exact lessons for a situation will almost always be disappointed; those who seek validating examples of a course upon which they have already launched themselves will be rewarded. That is, in part, because the tale of human history is as complicated and flawed as human beings are, collectively and alone.

I'm not someone who holds to the idea of progress in itself. It may well be that there have been many civilisations where people have felt happy or at ease with the world other than this one. I suspect very much that that is not true, and I value science very highly; I am also aware that history is often written from the perspective of the privileged. Costume dramas and plays very rarely seek to put forward protagonists who live ordinary, or disadvantaged lives, for instance.

This week, though, I have been thinking of what two particular eras can show about the world at the minute. One is the period in which my doctoral thesis, such as it was, lived and breathed--that of the mid-nineteenth century.

In the Atlantic world, in the 1840s, Ireland's society exploded. This was in part a consequence of occupation by the larger island, in part because of a long legacy of religious war, oppression and separation, and in part because of the economic system that prevailed upon the island. Mostly, it was because of an infestation of the staple crop by an organism which caused a blight.

The explosion of Ireland resulted in population collapse. Irish people were pushed all around the Atlantic rim; to Liverpool and Manchester, near at home; to Montreal; to the American cities of the eastern seaboard and then deep into the interior; to Mexico and South America, and to Australia.

In the northern part of the Atlantic rim, they were representative of what was perceived to be an alien religion that would not assimilate. They faced race riots, and condemnation of their culture. With the robustly open American democratic system (for white men) to hand, those males who followed the women over--who in turn had followed large numbers of protestant, scots-irish and middle-class farmers over in the eighteenth century--organised their community's security.

They did so in several ways. In some places, they took over political parties, or formed large and aggressive factions within them, which some saw as gangs. They enforced community justice, but gained community access to public money, which upset indigenous populations. This was in part because, in doing so, they behaved like the Nika of the Hippodrome at the time of Justinian; as large, aggressive gangs that found their sport in directed hooliganism.

In other areas, as in New York City (then simply Manhattan), Irish catholics were drawn behind highly aggressive clerics, such as John Hughes, the first Archbishop of New York. Hughes intervened in political debates directly, set up church schools, and associated himself with the top of the Whig and Democratic parties in his state and nationally.

A third group organised themselves into what became probably the Atlantic World's best-organised terrorist conspiracy--ultimately, but not initially, the Fenians--, funded by American money, often trained in the British and American armies, part secular, part community-catholic. Its aim was to cause an uprising in Ireland, and to organise in communities across the Atlantic world. In 1848, 1867, and in a bombing campaign in Britain in the later nineteenth century, it sought to achieve its goal. Some of its members became people who were involved in the foundation of Canada; some became very close to American secretaries of state; some were accorded religious memorial rites in New York churches.

The secular world, which was in truth a world of Calvinism, Baptism, and officialised Protestantism, was outraged, seeing in the immigrants crime, cultural destruction, and the end of days. Men such as Samuel Morse saw catholic hordes as invaders who would destroy an emerging global community connected by his code and telegraph, which would enable one of the first targeted lightning wars on the part of the anglo-saxon peoples against the Ethiopians as early as 1866. Some thought that the solution was an Anglo-American alliance, a League against darkness, Catholicism and lesser peoples, such as most of the history faculties in Oxford and Cambridge. Some destroyed the Whig party over the issue, and embraced nativism.

People remember the association of Republicanism and anti-slavery; they forget the force of anticatholicism and anti-catholic Irish feeling (two different things) in the twenty years or so after the explosion of Ireland around 1844. Forget it, that is, unless they live in a city which maintained orange lodges, segregated football teams, and large Irish communities alongside Scots and English working men.

Today, Catholics form the majority of the American Supreme Court. Even before the transformation of the Catholic Church in 1962 at the Second Vatican Council, catholics had been assimilated to an American style of politics. There have been dozens of major national catholic politicians, three major party presidential nominees (Smith, Kennedy and Kerry) and a pope has even stood on the white house lawn and embraced American liberty whilst wearing the same ring as a predecessor who condemned the American Heresy just over a hundred years before.

For some who are aware of the hysteria and the alien-ness which surrounded the explosion of catholic Ireland in the Atlantic world, concerns about Muslims in the twenty first century may have a familiar ring. A lecturer who goes to Birmingham now, and sees a sea of eager, intelligent and determined Muslim faces and dresses as I did a few weeks ago, may see with the same eyes as one who went to Liverpool, or St Martin in the Fields, or Manchester, or Glasgow, or New York, or Philadelphia in the 1850s and 60s, and feel the same cultural perturbations. That I am of Irish Catholic family may have made the experience even odder for me, but I hold to at least the potential universality of it.

I wonder if anyone who did the same as I would then think about all the associated stories of social fracturing that followed from mass immigration, economic globalisation, and consumption in the 1850s and 60s? Public concerns about female poisoners, garroting, knife crime and attacks on the street sufficient to produce the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, and its first prosecutions, for instance? The fear of the gangs which grew up to defend 'natives' against 'immigrants' in cities limned only partly fictionally by films like The Gangs of New York? The cultural terror, insecurity, and tabloid comedy of a succession of Spring-Heeled Jack stories? Concern that major churchmen were falling under the lure of catholic accommodation, and then catholic assimilation? The sex-slavery tabloid stories associated with the likes of Maria Monk? The venom of convinced secularists? There was even a war that kicked off over Jerusalem between major powers in the 1850s, to add to the atmosphere, the biggest war England had fought for almost fifty years.

The rosy scenario, and it is not particularly rosy, though the flowerbeds are covered with the usual, is that what we are living through has happened before and resulted in an assimilation so successful that most people have forgotten the explosion of Ireland these days, and its consequences, and their fears.

Yet I can't help reflecting that Islamism is, by my analogy, a merger of the nationalist, religious, and community-politics strains that were separated and sometimes antagonistic in the Irish example. The rosy scenario, to my mind does not work, though it may to yours.

A second scenario, about which I thought this week and have been reading, is more intensely depressing. I won't add it to this post, but I will later. I've been drawn to books about the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, in the fifth century, and twice in the east, in the sixth and fifteenth centuries. They make gloomy, and slightly frightening reading because they speak to us today.


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