Cian T. McMahon: Immigrant Voices/Immigrant Debate

mcmahon_global_PBWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Cian T. McMahon, author of The Global Dimensions of Irish Identity: Race, Nation, and the Popular Press, 1840-1880. Though Ireland is a relatively small island on the northeastern fringe of the Atlantic, 70 million people worldwide—including some 45 million in the United States—claim it as their ancestral home. In this wide-ranging, ambitious book, McMahon explores the nineteenth-century roots of this transnational identity. Between 1840 and 1880, 4.5 million people left Ireland to start new lives abroad. Using primary sources from Ireland, Australia, and the United States, McMahon demonstrates how this exodus shaped a distinctive sense of nationalism. By doggedly remaining loyal to both their old and new homes, he argues, the Irish helped broaden the modern parameters of citizenship and identity.

In a previous guest post, McMahon traced transnational Irish traditions of Saint Patrick’s Day through history and across the globe. In today’s post, McMahon investigates the distinction between the voices and opinions of Irish and other immigrants from those of native-born white Americans during the nineteenth century.


When I first started studying nineteenth-century Irish-American identity, I soon discerned a puzzling lacuna in the literature. The voices of the migrants themselves were often missing from the narrative. This was especially noticeable in the genre of scholarship known as “whiteness studies.” The theory of whiteness was predicated on the notion that Irish immigrants assimilated into American society by denigrating blacks and thus “becoming white” themselves. Irish immigrants, it was asserted, rejected any common cause with people of color in order to prove their suitability as upright, American citizens. The problem, in my eyes, was that this argument was often based on very little evidence of what the Irish themselves said on the matter. Where were the Irish voices? Why did native-born American attitudes predominate these narratives?

A lack of surviving documents was often cited as an excuse. In How the Irish Became White, for example, Noel Ignatiev compared himself to a paleontologist forced to reconstruct an entire dinosaur “from a tooth.” As a scholar of Ireland, however, I knew there were ample primary sources out there on what the Irish thought about race and racial identity. And as I dug into them in the course of my own research, I realized how much these previous scholars had missed by not listening to the immigrants’ voices. I learned, for example, that the differences between whites (along Celt/Saxon lines) were just as important, in the minds of many Irish, as the differences between whites and people of color.

Moreover, the Irish talked about identity in transnational terms; they thought of themselves as members of a global community, capable of being Irish whether at home or abroad. These conclusions complicated, I realized, what many scholars have taken for granted regarding immigrant identity in the nineteenth century.

A similar problem plagues the immigration debate in our own day. Migrant voices are all too often missing from the conversation. Instead, the mainstream media treats us to a two-dimensional tug-of-war between the big political parties. On the right are the Republicans who insist that the present system be fully implemented. On the left are the Democrats who seek comprehensive reform.

Where are the voices of the immigrants themselves? Why are organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and National Immigration Law Center relegated to the sidelines of a debate in which their constituents play a critical part? How could listening to immigrants from Latin America, Africa, Asia, and beyond influence how we think about this tricky issue? Of course, immigrants hardly speak with one voice on any of these subjects. A Cuban in Miami will probably differ greatly from a Nigerian in Chicago. But bringing their voices into the conversation would deepen the debate. And that might break the deadlock.

Cian T. McMahon is assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His book The Global Dimensions of Irish Identity: Race, Nation, and the Popular Press, 1840-1880, is now available.