Mary M. Burke, "Race, Politics, and Irish America: A Gothic History" (Oxford UP, 2023)


In this interview, she discusses her book, Race, Politics, and Irish America: A Gothic History (Oxford UP, 2023), which inserts successive Irish-American identities--forcibly transported Irish, Scots-Irish, and post-Famine Irish--into American histories and representations of race.

Figures from the Scots-Irish Andrew Jackson to the Caribbean-Irish Rihanna, as well as literature, film, caricature, and beauty discourse, convey how the Irish racially transformed multiple times: in the slave-holding Caribbean, on America's frontiers and antebellum plantations, and along its eastern seaboard. This cultural history of race and centuries of Irishness in the Americas examines the forcibly transported Irish, the eighteenth-century Presbyterian Ulster-Scots, and post-1845 Famine immigrants. Their racial transformations are indicated by the designations they acquired in the Americas: 'Redlegs,' 'Scots-Irish,' and 'black Irish.' In literature by Fitzgerald, O'Neill, Mitchell, Glasgow, and Yerby (an African-American author of Scots-Irish heritage), the Irish are both colluders and victims within America's racial structure. Depictions range from Irish encounters with Native and African Americans to competition within America's immigrant hierarchy between 'Saxon' Scots-Irish and 'Celtic' Irish Catholic. Irish-connected presidents feature, but attention to queer and multiracial authors, public women, beauty professionals, and performers complicates the 'Irish whitening' narrative. Thus, 'Irish Princess' Grace Kelly's globally-broadcast ascent to royalty paves the way for 'America's royals,' the Kennedys. The presidencies of the Scots-Irish Jackson and Catholic-Irish Kennedy signalled their respective cohorts' assimilation. Since Gothic literature particularly expresses the complicity that attaining power ('whiteness') entails, subgenres named 'Scots-Irish Gothic' and 'Kennedy Gothic' are identified: in Gothic by Brown, Poe, James, Faulkner, and Welty, the violence of the colonial Irish motherland is visited upon marginalized Americans, including, sometimes, other Irish groupings. History is Gothic in Irish-American narrative because the undead Irish past replays within America's contexts of race.

Mary Burke is a professor of English at UConn, where she directs the Irish Literature Concentration. Her new book, Race, Politics, and Irish-America: A Gothic History will be published in the US by Oxford University Press in March 2023 ($24 with code AAFLYG6 at global.oup). Burke’s first book with OUP was a cultural history of the Irish Traveller minority, and in 2022 she collaborated with Tramp Press on the reissue of Traveller-Romany Juanita Casey’s The Horse of Selene. Burke’s work has placed with NPR, the Irish Times, RTÉ, and Faber. A former Notre Dame Irish Studies NEH Fellow, she was a Trinity College Dublin LRH Fellow in 2022. Burke will deliver the Fund for Irish Studies public lecture at Princeton in March 2023.

Aidan Beatty is a historian at the Frederick Honors College of the University of Pittsburgh

Your Host

Aidan Beatty

Aidan Beatty teaches in the history department at Carnegie Mellon University.

View Profile