‘Pestilence on their backs, famine in their stomachs’: the Racial Construction of Irishness and the Irish in Victorian Britain

  • Jim Mac Laughlin


The category ‘race’ was widely used not only to ascribe social inferiority to entire sections of the global population (particularly overseas colonial societies in the nineteenth century) but also to ethnic minorities in nation-building Europe and ‘internal colonies’ on the Celtic fringe of Victorian Britain.1 As such, however, it was a category that was quite distinct from ‘ethnicity’, which signified a sense of belongingness and fostered quasi-biological constructs of peoples as self-conscious ‘imagined communities’ and nations in the metropolitan world.2 Both these categories shared a common geography and a common history. They originated in Western Europe, particularly in Britain and France, and entered European academic and political discourse in the Darwinian half of the nineteenth century. There are, nevertheless, important distinctions between them which merit more detailed treatment, which they shall receive here. These distinctions are worth bearing in mind in any discussion on the position of Irish emigrants in their host societies since the nineteenth century. For present purposes, however, it is important to contrast the ‘exclusiveness’ of ‘race’ and the ‘inclusiveness’ of ‘ethnicity’.


British Society Political Geography Irish Immigrant Racist Discourse Working Class Community 
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1999

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  • Jim Mac Laughlin

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