Irish Lives Matter

Irish Lives Matter – the BLM of the 1920s!

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has grabbed headlines over the last year but many of its demands and tactics echo what Irish people were demanding back in the early 20th century.

This was brought home to me in recent research on my great-granduncle William McEnhill (1863-1943) who was Irish born but emigrated to the United States and lived most of his life in New Jersey. He was, to put it mildly, an ardent Irish Republican.

Irish people and the British Empire

Irish Americans were highly organised throughout the 20th century in support of what they viewed as a life and death struggle to remove the British Empire from Ireland. In 1922, the Irish Free State was declared. In effect, the first part of the British Empire since the American Revolution to get its freedom.

And what happened in Ireland was closely observed by those seeking to overthrow British rule in South Africa, Palestine and India. The interconnections are fascinating. For example, William went to fight in the Boer War in South Africa – on the side of the Boers against the British.

Although we now look at the Boers as responsible for the subsequent racist hell of apartheid South Africa, at the turn of the 20th century, many Irish people viewed them as plucky rebels taking on the Brits.

Irish Lives Matter in 1927 – issues that chime with BLM

By 1927, William had been elected as an officer of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic. On 3 October of that year, The Yonkers Herald reported that the association had adopted an America First resolution. That demanded the United States “should manage its own affairs without entangling alliances with other countries, specifically the British Empire”.

As with BLM today, this Irish Lives Matter movement objected to Hollywood’s depiction of Irish people. It successfully managed to remove a Metro Goldwyn Mayer movie called The Callahans and The Murphys from distribution. And that movie has now been totally lost. It seems to have been a screenplay that played to all the most hackneyed stereotypes of Catholic Irish families – ie, zillions of children.

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The association also supported the ousting of Chicago’s rather dictatorial schools superintendent William H. McAndrew who was described as “the stool pigeon of King George”. McAndrew had no time for the teaching trade unions and was accused of imposing a curriculum that denigrated the Founding Fathers.

His removal was engineered by Mayor William Hale Thompson who later staged a weird “trial” of McAndrew by the board of education alleging he was un-American (an unfortunate foreshadowing of anti-Communist witch hunts in the 1950s).

Given the public discourse now around statues, school curriculums, representation, enfranchisement and media attitudes – it seems that the Irish Lives Matter movement of the 1920s has found a strong echo today in the Black Lives Matter protests.

American populism

People’s Party – American populism before Trump

President Trump has been accused of populism but there’s a long tradition of this kind of politics in the United States. Take for example the People’s Party – a prime example of American populism.

I’ve been glued to the TV and social media like the rest of you watching the torture of the 2020 American presidential election. What struck me was how so many rural and rust belt communities voted for Donald Trump. To many outside the United States – this seems inexplicable. Why would poor people vote for a TV reality chat show millionaire?

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But there’s a long history of American populism that has done surprisingly well in rural and poorer areas of the country. Take for example the late 19th century People’s Party – also referred to sneeringly as the Populists – who won four states in the 1892 presidential election.

James Weaver and James Field ran for the presidency and managed to bag the electoral college votes of Colorado, Kansas, Idaho and Nevada. They got additional votes from North Dakota and Oregon. Their political platform, under the People’s Party banner, was left-leaning populism including demands for a graduated income tax, public ownership of key industries and the unlimited supply of silver coinage – sold to the government by miners of silver.

This wave of American populism brought together a number of parties and groups such as the Farmers Alliance, Greenback Party and the Knights of Labor. There was a strong influence of socialist ideas and a call for monopolies to be broken up. The influence of this strand of politics was felt in both Democrat and Republican circles – that felt obliged to acknowledge and respond to the alarming levels of support the People’s Party was achieving.

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This wave of American populism eventually died out. But as we know today, there have been successive waves of populism across the United States ever since. Normally viewed as something malign, it maybe should be seen as exposing the deficiencies and shortcomings of the two-party system. In ‘normal’ times, Democrats and Republicans get to divide up the political spoils only interrupted by the inconvenience of elections every four years.

But every so often, the voices of the dispossessed insist on being heard. And those voices may articulate a rational program of ideas or just be an inchoate howl of rage. The Trump phenomenon seems to be more of the latter. And some dark forces are undoubtedly lurking in the wings. Such is the nature of today’s American populism.