On the 30th July 2009 four men had a beer in the White House Rose Garden. (1) All were of Irish descent. Barack Obama and Joe Biden were well-known, the other two less so, though Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a founding figure in African American Studies, would be familiar to some. The fourth man, Police Sergeant James Crowley, had arrested Professor Gates while he was trying to gain entry to his own home, having found the gate jammed shut on his return from a research trip. The report of a Black academic being apprehended by a white cop for apparently breaking and entering his own home was viewed as a case of racial profiling, and Gates’s arrest got a lot of media attention. The Irish heritage of Obama and Gates is well-documented. (2) Enslavement lies behind Black diasporic history and genealogy. (3) Settler colonialism and famine gave rise to the Irish diaspora. As Gates says of his own family research, “I don’t think you can know who you are without looking into your ancestry. I think it’s empowering to learn where you came from.” (4) Who could disagree? Gates once told a fascinating story based on his experiences in London over fifty years ago: “In 1973 I was amazed to hear a member of the House of Lords describe the differences between Irish Protestants and Catholics in terms of their ‘distinct and clearly definable differences of race’. ‘You mean to say that you can tell them apart?’ I asked incredulously. ‘Of course’, responded the lord. ‘Any Englishman can’”. (5)

Anti-Irish prejudice has a long history, and has at times been tangled up with problematic ideas about “race”. (6) It’s also been bound up with so-called “Afro-Celtic” connections, links between Irish struggles and those of Black Americans. (7) Claude McKay, author of Home to Harlem (1927), after attending an Irish rally in London in 1919, declared: “For that day at least I was filled with the spirit of Irish nationalism – although I am black”. (8) The following year, 1920, Marcus Garvey drew inspiration from events in Ireland. (9) As has been pointed out: “This black/Irish analogy has a history […] Many […] leaders of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s looked to the Irish Renaissance of the turn of the century for a model of creating new art that would be by and for themselves, and that would provide more accurate representations of their people … Maya Angelou provides a more recent example, stating [in 1992] that she would like to see a production of her play And Still I Rise, about the oppression of African-Americans, with an Irish cast.” (10) None of this is straightforward; nothing ever is. (11) Alongside efforts at solidarity we find arguments that align with “white American romanticism, theft, and ignorance of African-American” culture that “back away from the political alliance they claim to make”. (12)

An Irish History Month for Scotland is an idea for a way of celebrating and commemorating the Irish contribution to Scottish life through immigration, history, politics and the arts in the month of March, pivoting around St Patrick’s Day. From plantation to partition, through the Famine and the Troubles, from De Valera to Devolution, through the St Andrews Agreement to Brexit and beyond, Irish history impinges on Scottish culture and politics at every level. (13) Irish History Month is not a new idea, but it is one bound up with racist resistance to Black History Month, a celebration which can trace its origins back over a century. (14)

From its inception, Black History Month has been dogged by “whataboutery”. Intriguingly, according to the OED the word “whataboutery” has its origins in Irish history. (15) Whataboutery is at the heart of a desire to displace or supplant the focus on Black lives and culture. Such debates have been around for decades and are especially fraught in the United States. In 1992 an editorial in The Champion, the magazine of Liberty University in Lynchburg Virginia, cast doubt on the value of a distinct history month. (16) A student at the University of Maine speaking in The Maine Campus newspaper in 1995 during a discussing of Black History Month said: “We also have to consider everyone […] There is no Scottish History Month, French History Month or Irish History Month.” Daveta Saunders, Associate Dean at the Centre for Multicultural (Center4Me) at Liberty University took a more nuanced and inclusive stance in 2007: “We don’t deal with people of different races. We deal with different cultures. Everybody is a Center4Me. Everybody has a culture. We all come from different regions (and) different religious backgrounds.” Center4Me’s planned events at the time included Hispanic History Month and Irish History Month.

In 2007, the Irish Arts Foundation in Leeds introduced a month-long marking of that city’s Irish heritage, and other institutions with an Irish Studies focus have participated in that city’s events, including St Mary’s University, Twickenham. In 2018 a petition was started to persuade the British Government to support a UK-wide initiative around an Irish History Month. It found little support. (17)

Scotland of course is different, distinct, unique – its Irish history is arguably richer, deeper, more complex due to a long history of settlement, migration and collaboration. That the leading political theorist of the Easter Rising was Edinburgh-born James Connolly is evidence of the links between the two countries. Irish-Scottish studies as a comparative field – cultural, historical, political – has made significant inroads into teaching and the arts over the last thirty years or so. A recent event on Scottish-Irish Cultural Diplomacy and Relations is typical of the kind of high-end academic forum that has been key to this development. (18)

The Irish-Scottish connection deserves the kind of sustained attention and exploration that an Irish History Month would provide. The Decade of Commemorations has drawn to a close it is time to take a closer look at a history that is integral to Scotland’s current cultural and political makeup but which is increasingly overlooked outside of academic study and specific Irish-interest organisations and institutions. The Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies (RIISS), founded in 1999 in step with the Good Friday Agreement, Devolution, and the establishment of an Irish Consulate in Edinburgh, has done much to break down academic barriers between Ireland and Scotland.

Irish History Month would go deeper and wider. Its purpose would be to educate and inform right across the board, and to be inclusive in its understanding of the ways in which Ireland has impacted upon Scotland and vice versa, including through language, labour, and sport, as well as showcasing the rich tradition of Scottish writing influenced by Ireland. Irish History Month would enhance understanding of a relationship too often viewed in terms of troubles and traditions rather than creativity and resilience. It would bring together a range of partner institutions and organisations in order to create a grassroots, ground up organising body. (19)

Finally, while at times the idea of an Irish History Month – particularly when raised in the United States – has been put forward as a challenge or objection to Black History Month, and has thus assumed racist overtones, we should see an Irish History Month in a Scottish context as enhancing and enriching our understanding of cultural diversity, including links between Black Irish and Scottish writers, at a time when the diversity of both cultures is being increasingly noted and celebrated. (20) What is clear is that Irish and Scottish culture are both more diverse than they were a generation ago. (21) An Irish History Month in Scotland would have the aim of offering multiple opportunities for public engagement with the ways in which Ireland and Irishness have impacted on Scotland, and for acknowledging the Irish contribution to Scottish culture and society. The University of Glasgow was able to flee the impoverished East End of the city and move to an affluent West End neighbourhood thanks in part to the Irish labourers who built the Glasgow-Edinburgh railway line from 1838-42, allowing the railway company to purchase the old medieval site formerly occupied by the University. (22) The Irish contribution to Scotland deserves to be more widely known. Of course, some may ask, “What about Scottish history?” It ought to be taught all year round, and will be once we get our independence. It could be argued that one reason for the relative ignorance of Scottish history lies in Anglo-Irish history, and the squeeze on Scotland as a result of that history. In 1895, the pioneering Scottish ecologist Patrick Geddes lamented the lack of awareness of Scottish history and culture despite the fashion for celebrations and commemorations: “For we have gone on increasing our libations and orations every St Andrew’s Day, the same for St Robbie’s and now for St Walter’s, till all the world perforce must join our revels. But all this while the history we boast of has become well-nigh unknown among us.” (23)



This is the text of a short talk presented at the 2023 Centenary Conference assessing the impact of the Church of Scotland Report, The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality, at the University of Glasgow on Tuesday 23rd May 2023.

(1) Obama had a Bud Light, Biden had a Bucklers, Gates a Sam Adams Light, and Crowley drank a Blue Moon. See Frank James, ‘Obama Beer Photo Op Now White House History’, The Two-Way (July 30, 2009),


(2) On Obama, see https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/rediscovering-obamas-irish-roots. For Gates, see https://www.cbsnews.com/baltimore/news/professor-asks-residents-to-help-solve-mystery/. In his autobiography, Gates remarks: “I rebel at the notion that I can’t be part of other groups, that I can’t construct identities through elective affinity, that race must be the most important thing about me. Is that what I want on my gravestone: Here lies an African American? So I’m divided. I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time – but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color. Bach and James Brown … I am not Everynegro. I am not native to the great black metropolises: New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, say. Nor can I claim to be a “citizen of the world.” I am from and of a time and a place – Piedmont, West Virginia – and that’s a world apart, a world of difference. So this is not a story of a race, but a story of a village, a family, and its friends. And a sort of segregated peace. What hurt me most about the glorious black awakening of the late sixties and early seventies is that we lost our sense of humor. Many of us thought that enlightened politics excluded it”. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Coloured People, Coloured People (Viking: London, 1994), xv-xvi. See also Toni Morrison, ‘Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation’, in Dennis Walder (ed.), Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 326-332. Interestingly, Gates and Crowley are said to share the same Irish lineage: https://www.oregonlive.com/race/2009/08/harvard_professor_gates_shares.html.

(3) This history too is complex. Sir Hilary McDonald Beckles, vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, who recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Glasgow as part of reparations for slavery, has written extensively on the slave trade (https://www.uwi.edu/vcbiography.asp). He is a pioneering historian of the links between black slavery and the “oppressed landless British working class who were a critical part of Empire and of the slave societies of the British Caribbean”, and who resisted planter-class hegemony. What Sir Hilary has to say of the early period is fascinating: “The system of commodity production was built upon the labour of thousands of indentured servants imported from England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Unlike the Spanish settlements in the Greater Antilles, Barbados and the Leewards were not densely populated with Indians who could be reduced to chattel slavery. […] The rise of the plantation system, like the development of white ‘proto-slavery’ preceded the emergence of ‘sugar and black slavery’. The demands of commodity production had the effect of creating a new form of servitude out of the old institution, one which was more suitable to the market requirements of the early planters. This subject has gone largely unresearched because of the greater involvement of African slave and Asian indentured labour in plantation development in the West Indies. Much work has been done on the servant trade and the displacement of servant labour by black slaves particular [sic] on the mainland colonies, but the economic nature of early West Indian servitude on the plantations is still in need of researchers. However, it is important to realise that the development of plantation economy in the early decades of West Indian colonisation was based upon white labour, and it was upon this basis that expansive black slavery emerged between 1645 and 1650.” Hilary McD. Beckles, ‘Plantation Production and White “Proto-slavery”: White Indentured Servants and the Colonisation of the English West Indies, 1624-1645’, The Americas 41, 3 (1985): 21-45, at 30 and 45.

(4) Genealogy can compound identities and challenge hardened perspectives: “The purpose of history, guided by genealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity but to commit itself to its dissipation. It does not seek to define our unique threshold of emergence, the homeland to which metaphysicians promise a return; it seeks to make visible all of those discontinuities that cross us”. Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. D. F. Bouchard, trans. D. F. Bouchard and S. Simon (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1977), 162.

(5) Henry Louis Gates, Jr, ‘Writing “Race” and the Difference it Makes’, in Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (ed.), ‘Race,’ Writing, and Difference (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p.5.

(6) The Irish philosopher George Berkeley observed in 1749: “The Negros in our Plantations have a Saying, If Negro was not Negro, Irishman would be Negro. And it may be affirmed with Truth, that the very Savages of America are better clad and better lodged than the Irish Cottagers throughout the fine fertile counties of Limerick and Tipperary.” George Berkeley, A Word to the Wise: or, the Bishop of Cloyne’s Exhortation to the Roman Catholic Clergy of Ireland (Dublin: George Faulkner, 1749), 4. As Lauren Onkey observes of the later development of this discourse: “The discursive relationship between the Irish and African Americans has a long and sometimes surprisingly reciprocal history. Its roots lie in English prejudice; as anthropology developed powerful cultural purchase in the mid-nineteenth century, the Irish were represented often in English novels, plays and cartoons as a race of blacks”. Onkey, “Celtic Soul Brothers”, 148. According to Keith Booker: “Theodore Allen’s The Invention of the White Race […] details the close historical parallels between racist treatment of blacks in America and the figuration by the British of the Irish as an inferior and primitive people”. M. Keith Booker, “Late Capitalism Comes to Dublin: ‘American’ Popular Culture in the Novels of Roddy Doyle”, ARIEL 28 (1997): 27-45, at 32.

(7) This has to be viewed historically since early alliances were wrecked by racism and competition in the labour market. See Daniel T. McClurkin, ‘A Parallel Case?: The Irish in Abolitionist Thought and the Emergence of White Labor in the United States’, Atlantic Studies 20, 1 (2023): 134-149. See also Kieran Quinlan, Strange Kin: Ireland and the American South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005), and Geraldine Higgins, ‘Tara, the O’Haras, and the Irish Gone With the Wind’, Southern Cultures 17, 1 (2011): 30-49.

(8) Cited in Timothy D. Taylor, “Living in a Postcolonial World: Class and Soul in The Commitments”, Irish Studies Review 6, 3 (1998): 291-302, at 291.

(9) See Desmond Jagmohan, ‘Between Race and Nation: Marcus Garvey and the Politics of Self-Determination’, Political Theory 48, 3 (2020): 271-302: A 1920 bureau report cautioned that Garvey was, in fact, encouraging African Americans to emulate the Irish and Indian struggles” (278). Garvey’s comparative politics was complicated, and although he drew an analogy between Irish independence and the rights of African Americans he pointed to the fact that the Irish struggle was about national liberation rather than more fundamental freedoms (276).

(10) Taylor, “Living in a Postcolonial World”, 291. According to George Bornstein, “Afro-Celticism […] reflects a long history of cross-constructions between those two cultures, usually driven by a common experience of oppression and hope of emancipation […] Perhaps the tracing of Afro-Celtic connections here suggests that ethnic interaction is the normal state of cultural production, and that fantasies of separatist purity and tradition are themselves urgently in need of demystification”. George Bornstein, “Afro-Celtic Connections: From Frederick Douglass to The Commitments”, in Tracy Mishkin (ed.), Literary Influence and African-American Writers: Collected Essays (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996), 171-88, at 172, 185.

(11) Lauren Onkey sounds a cautionary note in assessing Irish appropriations of Black radicalism: “These works revere African Americans as a source of spiritual and sexual vitality, and create an alliance between the Irish and African Americans as a means to reveal a sense of essential Irishness lurking under colonial oppression or economic difficulties. These works sometimes hearken back to the nationalist rhetoric of the Irish Ireland movement, transforming the Irish-speaking Gael of the West into an oppressed, tuneful, antimodern, ‘Celtic soul brother’”. Lauren Onkey, “Celtic Soul Brothers”, Éire-Ireland 28, 3 (1993): 147-58, at 148.

(12) Onkey, “Celtic Soul Brothers”, 158. Lorraine Piroux argues that “to inscribe Irishness within blues and soul music … is to retain the memory of a specific colonial discourse that had constructed a common ancestry for the Irish and the African-Americans and had represented both groups with similar attributes of primitive barbarism.”. Lorraine Piroux, “‘I’m Black an’ I’m Proud’: Re-Inventing Irishness in Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments”, College Literature 25, 2 (1998): 45-57, at 46.

(13) For De Valera, see https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/irish-independence-owes-an-enduring-debt-to-scottish-support-1.1854392. On the St Andrews Agreement see https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-st-andrews-agreement-october-2006.

(14) On the origins of Black History Month see https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-month.

(15) From its inception, Black History Month has been dogged by “whataboutery”. Intriguingly, according to the OED the word “whataboutery” has its origins in Irish history. “The practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue. Also in later use: the practice of raising a supposedly analogous issue in response to a perceived hypocrisy or inconsistency.  […] Originally with reference to the Troubles in Northern Ireland”. The source is The Irish Times (2 February 1974): “We have a bellyfull of Whataboutery in these killing days and the one clear fact to emerge is that people, Orange and Green, are dying as a result of it.” This neologism is a response to a letter in the same newspaper a few days earlier, on 30 January 1974: “I would not suggest such a thing were it not for the Whatabouts. These are the people who answer every condemnation of the Provisional I.R.A. with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the ‘enemy’, and therefore the justice of the Provisionals’ cause.”

(16) “The original intent of Black History Month was to create an awareness of achievements made by black Americans. This purpose, although honorable and correct, has often been distorted into a tool to promote unity and equality. It has accomplished neither. Black history month promotes unity and equality as much as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. eased tensions between whites and blacks. The cry is for equality, so why set yourself apart from those with whom you are equal? If Black History Month provides equality, then there must also be an Irish History Month, along with a French, Indian, Mongolian, Korean, Spanish and Polish […] Black History Month only accentuates the differences within our society. […] An American History Month would instill the strength of unity while recognizing the abundant diversity in its proper context, which acts more like a chemical reaction that unifies several elements into one, rather than the splintering of wood under extreme heat. A serious look at American history cannot result in finger pointing and division. We must concentrate on the premises of our nation: one people, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. Accentuating the differences will only cause deeper chasms within the greatest nation on earth.”

(17) It did not garner many signatures: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/irish-history-month.

(18) See https://rse.org.uk/whats-on/event/scottish-irish-cultural-diplomacy-and-relations/. The event can be watched online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6hJG_IYt6I.

(19) The Strathclyde Irish Festival that ran between 1989 and 1993 encompassing dance, drama, music and lectures, so there is a precedent for this kind of extended cultural celebration.

(20) Comparisons are always vexed where identity is concerned. Lauren Onkey traces the genealogy of this the Irish-Black analogy as it arose out of a political struggle with a strong literary and cultural component: “in his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry (1930), James Weldon Johnson writes, ‘What the coloured poet in the United States needs to do is something like what Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without; such as the mere mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation’. In The New Negro (1925), Alain Locke writes, ‘In Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self determination which are playing a creative part in the world today … Harlem has the same role to play for the New Negro as Dublin had for the New Ireland’. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance looked to the Irish for a rhetoric of pride and advancement, and for their attempt to find value and inspiration from an indigenous ‘folk’ culture”. Onkey, “Celtic Soul Brothers”, 149. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), a Black teacher harangues his students with an Irish analogue: “I could see him vividly, half-drunk on words and full of contempt and exaltation, pacing before the blackboard chalked with quotations from Joyce and Yeats and Sean O’Casey; thin, nervous, neat, pacing as though he walked a high wire of meaning upon which none of us would ever dare venture. I could hear him: ‘Stephen’s problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals. The conscience of a race is the fight of its individuals who see, evaluate, record … we create the race by creating ourselves and then to our great astonishment we will have created something far more important: We will have created a culture’”. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York, NY: Vintage International, 1995), 347.

(21) For Ireland see https://eitw.nd.edu/articles/immigration-and-contemporary-irish-literature-in-post-celtic-tiger-ireland/. For Scotland, see https://academic.oup.com/edinburgh-scholarship-online/book/38398/chapter-abstract/333417914?redirectedFrom=fulltext.

(22) “The population of Glasgow had quadrupled, and the University was surrounded by a dense mass of the labouring population living in overcrowded, unsanitary accommodation. Close at hand were a mixture of undesirable chemical and other dirty manufacturing concerns that created far from satisfactory environment conditions which the memorialists saw as being detrimental to the successful redevelopment of the existing University site”. David Grant, ‘Removal of the University of Glasgow to Woodlands Hill 1845–9 and Gilmorehill 1853–83’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 135 (2005): 213–258, at 231-2.

(23) Patrick Geddes, ‘The Scots Renascence’, Edinburgh Review 88 (1992): 17-23 (p.19).