Cartoons and Caricature in the New York Irish Popular Press, 1870–80

Saturday, January 8, 2011
Ballroom C (Hynes Convention Center)
Cian T. McMahon , Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
“Lazy, simian, violent Paddy”; the Irishman as subject of cartoons and caricatures in the nineteenth-century popular press is a well-trodden path in American historiography. A regular fixture in periodicals like Harper's Weekly, the politicized, ape-like Irish Celt was a menace to respectable society. We still know very little, however, about the Irishman as author of cartoons and caricatures during the same period. How did Irish-American artists and editors depict race and nation in their own newspapers and magazines? What new perspectives on old questions can the immigrant press offer? The visual nature of political cartoons makes a poster session the perfect medium for discussing them—and the New York Irish World offers an excellent case study. Founded in 1870, the paper was the first Irish-American weekly to feature front-page cartoons and caricatures. Its founder, Patrick Ford, was an Irish immigrant who had worked as a printer's assistant for William Lloyd Garrison's anti-slavery Liberator in the 1850s, fought for the Union Army's Irish Brigade during the Civil War, and briefly edited the pro-Reconstruction South Carolina Leader in the 1860s. His wide range of experiences, both technical and ideological, convinced Ford that Irish America needed to harness the power of the cartoon for their own advantage. The Irish World's eye-catching artwork opens new ground in American historiography on two fronts. First, Ford's caricatures offer new insight into immigrant “diasporic nationalism.” The cartoons illustrate that Irish immigrants were not simply bent on assimilating into American culture. Rather, they saw themselves as members of both the old and new worlds. While committed to the ideology of American civic nationalism, Irish immigrants simultaneously retained an ethnic solidarity with other Irish around the world. A March 1872 cartoon, for example, featured Saint Patrick standing astride the globe with snapshots of Saint Patrick's Day parades around the world all along the border. “All Irishmen, and all Irishmen's sons the world over,” editorialized Ford, “are parts of one mighty whole.” The process of global migration rendered the Irish nation, paradoxically, transcendent of the nation-state. The second reason that American historians will find this important is that the Irish World's artwork undermines the truism that Irish immigrant racial identity in late-nineteenth-century America was predominantly characterized by white supremacy. “When we say the [American] ‘people,'” editorialized Ford in 1874, “we mean the whole people… without regard to race or color… [or] particular faction or class of the people.” African-Americans, Amerindians, and even Chinese “coolies” all found support for their claims to American nationality in Ford's newspaper. The Irish did not “become white” in the Irish World. Its visually stimulating subject matter and innovative arguments make “Cartoons and Caricature in the New York Irish Popular Press, 1870 – 1880” perfectly suited as a poster session for the 2011 AHA Annual Meeting. Thank you for considering my submission, Cian McMahon
See more of: Poster Session
See more of: AHA Sessions