My early interest in American history originated in what I now realise was my woefully incorrect and naïve impression that, unlike Northern Ireland, America’s past was uncontested. In my teens, I read To Kill a Mockingbird and watched movies like Mississippi Burning, and I became fascinated by and in awe of how African Americans had risen up and finally defeated racism with the culmination of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. My life experience did not disabuse me of this notion, nor did my school education. For context, I grew up in post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland and I became a teenager just as the United States elected their first Black president; for me, America was now divorced from its history, while at home, the construction of new “peace” walls, alongside the reinforcement of those erected during the conflict, signified that the only thing we had successfully divorced from was each other. [1]

By the time I was ready to start my undergraduate degree in History, Barack Obama had just been elected for his second term, while I had spent my last three years at school studying Irish history from the 1800s onwards as well as my whole life listening to the arguments over what had happened on this island since then. When we did study America, we learned about the 1920s and the resurgence of the KKK, but that was in the distant past, relegated to the time before Martin Luther King and the March on Washington. In contrast, the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland seemed a lot messier and, given that it preceded a 30-year period of quasi-civil war, a lot less successful. It goes without saying that when I reached university and began to learn about things like the Lost Cause, I realised that the themes of Irish history and its connection to contemporary society were not as insular as I once thought, and my conception of America and its history was at first scrambled and then shattered completely in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump.

Yet, once I began to seriously study America at university, I found that the distance, both physically and emotionally, from the immediate political and cultural contexts could provide a clarity to better interpret not only research subjects from/in America but also trends closer to home. For instance, it was jarring for me to witness some of the bemused reactions in Northern Ireland to Trump’s election when at the same time the DUP, the largest party in Northern Ireland, shared similar positions on LGBT+ equality and reproductive rights, as well as a predilection to make incendiary statements about minority groups. It seemed that the expanse of the Atlantic offered a transparency to recognize regressive policies which the orange and green divide here often obscured. On the other hand, being from Northern Ireland and studying the United States is at times disorientating, especially as my research centres on Irish America. When asked questions such as “where do you situate your work?” or “who is your audience?”, I often imagine myself floating in the middle of the Atlantic somewhere, searching for a side to choose: Irish or American Studies?

In this case, the IAAS provides a key space to investigate links between the two, although this does not exclusively mean the connections between Ireland and the Irish in America. I finally resolved to better understand both civil rights movements: my undergraduate dissertation compared the use of non-violence in each, while my PhD examines the relationship between Irish America and the Northern Irish civil rights movement from 1967 to 1972. It considers that for Irish nationalism, the Northern Irish civil rights movement was a novel strategy and one in which, unlike previous struggles (the Easter Rising, for example), the impetus did not come from Irish Americans but rather from African Americans. Northern Irish activists have documented how watching news coverage of the Black civil rights movement inspired their own theories and praxis of protest (McCann; Farrell; Currie). As early as 1963, at a picket against discrimination in public housing in Dungannon, County Tyrone, protestors held signs stating, “Racial Discrimination in Alabama hits Dungannon” and “If our religion is against us, ship us to Little Rock” (Purdie). After the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) emerged in 1967 as the umbrella group for different organizations concerned with discrimination in Northern Ireland, it implemented a program of non-violent direct action based on what they had seen of the movement in the Deep South, such as marches and sit-ins, as well as adopting the anthem from the African American movement, “We Shall Overcome” (McClements). In January 1969, the more radical, student-led section of the movement, the People’s Democracy, organized a march from Belfast to Derry, modelled on the Selma to Montgomery march four years previous. The role of African Americans in the context of Northern Ireland was therefore obvious, but that of Irish Americans is more complex.

Irish American engagement with the struggle of Northern Irish Catholics in the 1960s was almost non-existent until the formation of NICRA. After that, it rose incrementally and usually spiked in response to significant incidents such as the Battle of the Bogside in August 1969, the introduction of internment in August 1971, and Bloody Sunday in January 1972. Irish American organizations set up support groups in the United States to help raise money, as well as sponsoring tours by Irish activists, holding rallies and demonstrations, lobbying governments, and providing legal counsel to activists. However, the Irish American relationship with the movement in Northern Ireland was complicated by their own complex and diverse attitudes towards race, class, and wider Irish and American politics. Whiteness Studies scholars have exposed the racism that permeated sections of Irish American society, detailing how Irish immigrants and their descendants used whiteness to assert dominance over people of color in order to gain economic and social benefits, particularly in regard to assimilating into American society and citizenship (Roediger; Ignatiev). In the 1960s, this racism persisted, and consequently the affiliation between Northern Irish Catholics and Black Americans alienated and affronted some Irish Americans. One leader of an Irish American support group, James Heaney, warned in a letter to Frank Gogarty, the chairman of NICRA, “there is not a single Irish American group in the United States which has worked with the colored civil rights movement… so don’t expect this of any of us.” At the same time, Heaney was ardently anti-British, castigated imperialism, and defined Northern Ireland as England’s last colony.

Thus, whilst it is important to investigate the broad spectrum of connections, networks, and influences which traversed the Atlantic, it is equally important to scrutinize the disconnections between and within these spaces. Moreover, recent events have particularly highlighted some of the problems in making uncritical comparisons between these islands. The global response to the murder of George Floyd, an African American man, at the hands of police in Minnesota, demonstrated widespread outrage towards the explicit and violent racism within the United States. Moreover, protestors worldwide stressed that police brutality against people of color is only one of the most visual symptoms of the white supremacy engrained in institutions, while protestors outside of the United States have been quick to illustrate that institutional racism seeps far beyond the confines of national borders. In the U.K., protestors held signs condemning “the U.K. is not innocent” (Lee) and have pulled down statues of slave traders whose wealth gained from selling human beings continues to filter into some of the most powerful and predominantly white institutions across the country today (“Slave trader’s statue”). In Ireland, protestors argued that the system of Direct Provision, which has been criticized for its failure to protect the rights of those seeking international protection as well as to aggravate racial segregation (O’Keefe; Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission 112-125), exemplify that Ireland is by no means exempt from institutional racism either. [2]

At the same time, however, this attention caused a resurgence of the “Irish slaves” myth both in Ireland and in the United States, and some have attempted to draw links between the prejudice and discrimination experienced by Irish immigrants to America and that borne by people of color. These arguments have been investigated and critiqued by scholars, particularly those interested in Whiteness Studies and Irish America (Kenny; Hogan). Still, as Lee Jenkins has previously elucidated in this issue, the prominence of transnationalism since the late 1990s has generated significant research into the linkages between Irish nationalism and anti-imperialist struggles in America and beyond. These relationships reflected similar but not identical struggles, and although they may have overlapped, anti-colonialism did not—as the example of the 1960s shows—always imply anti-racism. Thus, in response to both the question “What does it mean to teach American Studies in an Irish classroom?” and “What is the future direction of American Studies in Ireland?”, my answer is that it must include an analysis of the connections and the disconnections in our shared history of (anti-)imperialism and (anti-)racism.



[1] At least 32 peace walls have been erected since the ceasefire in 1994, 18 of which were constructed after 2000 (Interface Barriers).

[2] Ireland’s new government at the time of writing (formed at the end of June 2020) has pledged to end Direct Provision within the administration’s lifetime.


Works Cited

Currie, Austin. All Hell Will Break Loose. O’Brien, 2004.

Farrell, Michael. Twenty Years On. Brandon, 1988.

Heaney, James. Letter to Frank Gogarty. 9 July 1969. Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, Frank Gogarty Papers, D3253/1/3/5.

Hogan, Liam, et al. “The Irish in the Anglo-Caribbean: Servants or Slaves?” History Ireland, March-April 2016, pp. 18-22.

Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. Routledge, 1995.

Interface Barriers, Peacelines and Defensive Architecture, Belfast Interface Project, 2017.

Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. “Ireland and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.” Submission to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Ireland’s Combined 5th to 9th Report, October 2019,

Kenny, Kevin. “Violence, Race, and Anti-Irish Sentiment in the Nineteenth Century.” Making the Irish American: The History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States, edited by J. J. Lee and Marion Casey, New York UP, 2006, pp. 289–301.

Lee, Joseph. “George Floyd: Five factors behind the UK Black Lives Matter protests.” BBC News, 13 June 2020,

McCann, Eamonn. War and an Irish Town. Pluto Press, 1993.

McClements, Freya. “Derry and ‘We Shall Overcome’: We plagiarised an entire movement.” Irish Times, 4 Mar. 2017,

O’Keefe, Alan. “Thousands of people take part in Black Lives Matter protests across Ireland.”, 6 June 2020,

Purdie, Bob. Politics in the Streets: The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland. Blackstaff, 1990.

Roediger, David R. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. Verso, 1991.

“Slave trader’s statue torn down in Bristol as UK anti-racism protests continue.” Irish Times, 7 June 2020,

Wallis, William. “Statues fall as British anti-colonial uprising spreads.” Financial Times, 12 June 2020,