This is a guest post by Mary J. Johnson, an educational consultant to the Library of Congress.
Every year around St. Patrick’s Day, commercial venues celebrate popular myths about the Irish: blarney, green top hats, leprechauns, shamrocks, red hair, the luck of the Irish, the Irish gift of gab, a pot of gold, and more. Just do a browser image search on St. Patrick’s Day for a quick visual reminder of the March explosion of Irish stereotypes. How much do our students really know about the Irish in America?
Primary sources must surely represent a more accurate view of the Irish American character. Not necessarily. It is a common misconception that primary sources convey the truth. On the contrary, many historical documents reinforce rather than disprove the stereotypes of racial or ethnic groups such as the Irish. In fact, some images in cartoons, sheet music, and broadsheets have historically spread far more damaging and negative stereotypes of the Irish than those seen in shop windows today.
Can your students identify anti-Irish sentiment in primary sources? Can they guess why the creator of a primary source might have wanted to promote negative attitudes toward the Irish? What were the reasons behind virulent anti-Irish attacks in 19th century America?
In this Puck illustration from 1883, the petite, fashionably dressed woman contrasts sharply with her muscular Irish cook. What is the artist’s purpose in drawing the servant in this way? What does the illustration say about class and privilege? Do you think it is in any way representative of Irish women in America in the late 1800s?
The Political Quadrille illustrates a far more complex political scene from the 1860 presidential campaign in which Abraham Lincoln was elected U.S. President just prior to the Civil War. In the lower left-hand corner, Lincoln’s opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, dances with a ragged Irishman. One might infer that Irish immigrants played a role in the 1860 election. What other groups are depicted negatively and stereotypically in this parody? Older students may take this primary source based inquiry in several directions, especially after reading the summary that accompanies the lithograph.
What other primary sources can your students find that highlight the myths and stereotypes of the Irish in America? More importantly, how can they build the contextual knowledge to explain the often insensitive and intolerant attitudes of 19th century citizens toward the Irish? Or is it all blarney?