Ireland: from racism without “race” to racism without racists

Garner, Steve (2009). Ireland: from racism without “race” to racism without racists. Radical History Review, 2009(104) pp. 41–56.



The Irish have been relentlessly racialized in their diaspora settings, yet little historical work engages with “race” to understand Irish history on the island of Ireland. This article provides an interpretation of two key periods of Irish history—the second half of the sixteenth century and the period since 1996—through the lens of racialization. I argue that Ireland's history is exceptional in its capacity to reveal key elements of the history of the development of race as an idea and a set of practices. The English colonization of Ireland was underpinned by a form of racism reliant on linking bodies to unchanging hierarchically stacked cultures, without reference to physical differences. For example, the putative unproductiveness of the Gaelic Irish not only placed them at a lower level of civilization than the industrious English but it also authorizes increasingly draconian ways of dealing with the Irish populace. The period since 1996, during which Ireland has become a country of immigration, illustrates how racism has undergone a transformation into the object of official state policies to eliminate it. Yet it flourishes as part of a globalized set of power relations that has brought immigrants to the developing Irish economy. In response to immigration the state simultaneously exerts neoliberal controls and reduces pathways to citizenship through residence while passing antiracism legislation. Today, the indigenous nomadic Travellers and asylum seekers are the ones that are seen as pathologically unproductive. Irish history thus demonstrates that race is not only about color but also very much about culture. It also illustrates notable elements of the West's journey from racism without race to racism without racists.

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