Alien Menace

Alien Menace

Michael O'Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History, George Mason University



In the nineteenth century, Americans saw Irish people very differently than we might today. Large numbers of Catholic Irish began arriving in the US in the 1850s—numbers in the millions, driven from Ireland by poverty and famine. These immigrants were typically very poor, unskilled, and illiterate. Significant numbers spoke little or no English. The United States was predominantly a Protestant country, and native whites often saw the Irish Catholics as a danger.

In these cartoons we can see many of the stereotypes of the irishman of the 1800s--the association with drink, but also a flat nose, pronounced mouth and lips, low forehead, and general air of brutishness.

In these cartoons, Irish immigrants are shown as ape-like or as racially different. Americans in the mid 1800s were just beginning to consider the theory of evolution. Scientists argued that "facial angle" was a sign of intelligence and character. When they studied the "physiognomy" or facial structure, or Irishmen, they detected animalistic qualities. James Redfield's 1852 book Comparative physiognomy; or, Resemblances between men and animals saw Irishmen as dog-like. Redfield mixes claims to science with claims that the Irshman's dog-like character makes him cowardly and cruel.

It's important to point out that caricatures of immigrants were common. Germans were stereotyped in beer halls; Chinese immigrants were mocked in caricatures and cartoons; African Americans were almost constantly the subject of demeaning comic stereotypes. The point is not that Irish people suffered more or less than any other group: rather, the remarkable thing is how differently irish people were seen. No one today thinks of Irish people as "not white"or "racially primitive" in some ways, irish people seem sort of "hyper-white."

Irish Americans and African Americans shared many of the same jobs—the low paying, low status jobs native whites avoided. Some historians have pointed out that tap dancing, at which African Americans have excelled, has its roots in irish dancing, which empahsizes minimal upper body movement and elaborate rhythmic footwork. The predominance of Irish surnames among African Americans points out how much the two groups shared.

This cartoonist called attention to what he saw as the similarity between Irish and African immigrants, and the possibility that in America, they would turn into each other.

It seems hard to belive that anyone could have looked at Irish people and seen them as "not white." Many historians have argued that "white" is an invented catagory--that when people looked at each other in the 1800s, they saw many differences--of religion, nationality, ethnicity, language, class. They did not automatically see "white." Here is a final example.


Again, the point here is not simply that Irish people suffered from bigotry—they certainly did, but many other ethnic groups suffered as much or more. And of course there were many Americans who did not subscribe to these kind of stereotypes. The point is the malleability of our stereotypes. These cartoon images looked like Irishmen and women to people who saw them. Many nineteenth century Americans saw irish people as a group that simply could not be made "American," as in this cartoon from 1889. They saw them as violent, as non-white, as doomed to poverty and ignorance.

Melting Pot stirred by Liberty

Search the web for images of Irish or Irish Americans, or look for them in advertising and popular culture. How have the images, or stereotypes, of Irish Americans changed? Do you see any similarities? Any differences? Stereotypes help us see what we want to see—they reinforce what we already believe to be true. What cultural work did nineteenth century stereotypes do? What work do modern stereotypes do? Consider also stereotypes of other ethnic groups—especially in light of the "profiling" law enforcement officials now do as part of anti-terrorism efforts.

Updated | August 2004