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We Know Nothing

James Moran

The Irish in Manchester c 1750-1921: Resistance, Adaptation and Identity, by Mervyn Busteed, Manchester University Press, 320 pp, £75, ISBN: 978-0719087196

Did you celebrate Back to the Future Day? On October 21st last year we reached the date that, in the Back to the Future film trilogy, marked Marty McFly’s furthest trip forward in his DeLorean time machine. The date was marked with various fancy-dress events, reruns of the movie and President Obama’s Twitter account declaring “Happy Back to the Future Day … That’s heavy, man.” There was a strong element of nostalgia in these celebrations of course, both for those days of future past and for a time when Hollywood could make money from action movies with such complex plotting and dialogue.

Journalists had a field day comparing present-day reality with the predictions offered in Back to the Future. The general opinion was that the film-makers, back in the 1980s, had not done too badly, having correctly anticipated the advent of video calling, finger-print-recognition technology and 3D cinema. They had done less well, of course, in imagining us being surrounded by multiple domestic fax machines, floating hoverboards and cars that could fly.

Unfortunately, the most accurate prediction made in Back to the Future came, not in the part of the trilogy set in 2015, but in the dystopian version of 1985 presented in the second movie. Here Back to the Future offers a premonition of that most disturbing performance artist of our age, Donald Trump.

In the movie, the braying bully Biff Tannen is given a multi-million dollar fortune by luck rather than hard work, becomes weirdly feted as a successful businessman and runs a skyscraper-casino adorned with his name. Biff also becomes a serial philanderer who urges plastic surgery upon his wife and promotes himself as “America’s greatest living folk hero”, despite that fact that – like Trump – he projects all the lovable charm of a stale fart in a warm car. Biff uses his fortune to fund his political ambitions, which involve authoritarianism, financial corruption, and the ever-present threat of violence. And the visual similarities between Biff Tannen and Donald Trump are truly startling. Both look somewhat like a malformed scotch-egg topped with the kind of thing that an aging cat might retch onto the lino.

Indeed, to mark “Back to the Future Day”, The Daily Beast reported that the film’s screenwriter had been thinking of Donald Trump when originally creating the character of Tannen. But of course the film villain is far more pleasant to contemplate than his real-life doppelganger. After all, in the movies, Biff Tannen has the capacity to change, and even to display humility and excitement about the achievements of others (see the concluding scene of the first movie). At one stage, admittedly, he murders a man with a gun, but at least he has the decency to acknowledge that fact only behind closed doors, whereas Trump recently made the proud declaration that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Also, Biff Tannen in the cinema plays at least some constructive role in creating his own fortune. But as Deborah Friedell has pointed out:

Bloomberg puts Trump’s current net worth at $2.9 billion, Forbes at $4.1 billion. The National Journal has worked out that if Trump had just put his father’s money in a mutual fund that tracked the S&P 500 and spent his career finger-painting, he’d have $8 billion.

In terms of overt racism, moreover, Tannen simply isn’t in the same league as Trump. The real-life character, after all, launched his electoral campaign with the uplifting message that:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best …They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Since that moment, Trump has, in general, acted like an angry tweet that a bad fairy has brought to life. He has manifestly enjoyed goading Black-Lives-Matter campaigners, and, most infamously, has suggested that he would ban all Muslims from entering the USA (even though the National Counter Terrorism Center has observed that, statistically, Americans faced the same risk of being killed by terrorists as being “crushed to death by their televisions or furniture”; and The Forward has emphasised that Americans are more likely to be killed by a toddler than a terrorist).

Needless to say, in Back to the Future, Biff Tannen made no inflammatory anti-Islamic statements, nor did he, as Trump has done, recycle with approval the comments of Benito Mussolini; equivocate about whether he would disavow white supremacists; nor (most disturbing of all) hold the mass rallies that Trump has done at which supporters are asked to raise their right arms in order to show their support for him.

Biff Tannen in Back to the Future is a more old-fashioned sort of racist. In fact, the first line delivered by the young Tannen in the movie trilogy is delivered to Marty McFly’s father in mid-1950s California:

Biff: Hey McFly, what do you think you’re doing? Hey I’m talking to you, McFly, you Irish bug.

The back-story to this insult is filled in during the third part of the trilogy. In a scene set in 1885, Biff Tannen’s great-grandfather takes objection to one of Marty McFly’s ancestors, the Irish-born farmer Seamus. Throughout the trilogy, such resentments are shown to echo and fester down the generations. Of course, anti-Irish prejudice has had a long and significant history in real-life America, finding its most significant expression in the foaming-mouthed racism of the nineteenth century Know Nothings, whose secretive operations gave the group its name (members being supposed to respond to questioning by declaring “I know nothing”). The Know Nothings responded to the arrival of the desperate Irish migrants escaping the potato famine in the 1840s with the same kind of razor-wire mentality that Trump now proposes rolling out for equally desperate Syrian refugees. In the 1840s and 1850s, the descendants of Protestant British settlers often saw an existential threat to their culture and their jobs in the arrival of so many Irish Catholics, whose unfamiliar religious customs and willingness to work hard for low wages looked deeply ominous.

The Know Nothings reached their high watermark (as the “American Party”) in 1854, when fifty-two of their candidates were elected to the House of Representatives. Indeed they were sufficiently popular in those years for the former president Milliard Fillmore to run again for the White House in 1856 as the nominee of the American Party. And it is that nativist streak of anti-immigrant sentiment, which sees incomers simply as a threat to jobs and the American way of life, that has been given a hideous kiss-of-life today by Trump.

Of course, such racism has mutated somewhat since the 1800s, and the target has shifted. Bill O’Reilly – a prominent right-wing Irish-American showman on Fox News – has vowed to move to Ireland if the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders becomes president, but has insisted “I will not brand Donald Trump a racist … It is not racist to want to shut down illegal immigration or brand Islamic terrorism a deep threat.” Trump himself has commented that, “Ireland is a special place and I love Ireland and I love the country.” He has even purchased a golf resort in Doonbeg, and found himself being embraced with shameful obsequiousness by Michael Noonan at Shannon airport in 2014.

Yet Timothy Egan, a well-known liberal journalist who is currently hawking a book about the Irish-American experience (The Immortal Irishman), has observed that Trump’s views do chime with the racism of mid-nineteenth-century America, pointing out that “you hear Donald Trump call Mexicans rapists, criminals … Substitute the world Mexican for Irish and you have the same language.” In 2010, The New York Times published a piece by Egan describing how the “birther” movement had newly set about “building a nation of Know Nothings”. The “birthers”, of course, spent their time peddling the manifest lie that Obama was not eligible for the presidential office by virtue of being born in Kenya, and ended up with Trump as their most vocal spokesperson.

By June 2015, even the prominent Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer had accused Trump of running a political campaign based ‘on know-nothing xenophobia’, with Trump feeling sufficiently riled to respond on Twitter by calling Krauthammer a “totally overrated clown”. The following month, Trump wrote another Twitter message declaring:

So many people who know nothing about me are commenting all over T.V. and the media as though they have great D.J.T. [Donald J. Trump] insight. Know NOTHING!

Could Trump conceivably be as self-aware as that message appeared to indicate?

As I write these words, in March 2016, Trump is continuing to suck up the votes of those casting their ballots in the Republican primaries, and yet there has also been increasing urgent speculation that he might nonetheless be denied the Republican nomination at a contested convention. There appears to be, after all, a genuine feeling of revulsion against Trump amongst the Republican old guard. So the man himself has been happy to spell out what would ensue if he gained most votes in the party but failed to win the nomination. He has declared, “I think you’d have riots … I think you’d have problems like you’ve never seen before. I think bad things would happen.” Illustrating the point, Trump organised a campaign rally at the University of Illinois, one of the most racially diverse universities in the USA and a bastion of the Democrats, and an entirely predictable set of images (bleeding policemen, chanting, fighting) danced mesmerisingly across our television screens.

Again, this approach is scarcely a new one for a bigoted rabble-rouser to adopt. From an Irish perspective in the UK, for example, the 1860s saw some very similar tactics being used by the star lecturer of the Protestant Electoral Union, who spoke in London, Wales, and the south of England between 1862 and 1866. This figure, who bore the name William Murphy, triggered major riots and a number of deaths in the English midlands during 1867, building a large wooden hall next to the Irish area of Birmingham, encouraging thousands of his followers to turn up, and then condemning Irish Catholics for various imagined outrages (including the murder of his own father, who had in reality died from a heart attack). Murphy’s choice of location for his wooden hall encouraged his audience to see and deplore the most impoverished Famine generation of Irish Catholic migrants, and he astutely chose a summer weekend for his main lecture, when this enemy would be visible and time available for rioting. He gave barely disguised instructions for violence, telling his spectators that they needed to “band together as Protestants and Englishmen” and let the immigrants know that “We have given you liberty of conscience, you can go to your chapels, and worship God on the top of your heads if you like, but if you interfere with the rights of an Englishman, then John Bull will …”, at which point Murphy concluded his sentence by violently stamping on the ground. His audience cheered uproariously, and continued to show approval as he declared “Send them back to Paddy Land.”

Mervyn Busteed’s new book The Irish in Manchester gives an account of how this preacher then continued his toxic travels into 1868, with a focus on Murphy’s time in the English northwest, where his itinerary was continually punctuated by outbreaks of riot and unrest. When Donald Trump goes on one of his meanderingly racist diatribes against Mexicans, or says about a protester at one of his rallies “I’d like to punch him in the face”, then it feels like the spirit of William Murphy must be smiling down. Or perhaps up.

Today, when we realise that such nineteenth century passions really haven’t gone away you know, it is a delight to find historians working on the issues with clearsightedness and carefully weighed evidence as Mervyn Busteed does in this study. On one level, it is important to acknowledge Busteed’s work in the context of research on the Irish in other urban centres in the United Kingdom, most notably London, Liverpool and Birmingham, whose Irish populations have all been the subject of recent book-length studies. Busteed has now made an important contribution to this field: Manchester is a large and culturally significant part of the UK, and one that has not been overrepresented in the earlier literature on Irish migration. In The Irish in Manchester, Busteed has mapped out the shifting Irish spaces and populations of that city with great clarity. And yet his new volume also has a far wider purchase at the moment, as one of its most persistent themes is how a minority community can survive and even thrive despite a sustained, and well-documented, campaign of intolerance, bigotry and violence against it.

As Busteed’s somewhat confusingly ordered but brilliantly researched book points out, anti-Irish sentiment had deep roots in Manchester. He emphasises the original sin of local doctor James Phillips Kay, who published an important 1832 pamphlet condemning Irish immigration as “a serious evil” and damned the Irish in Manchester for their “barbarous habits and savage want of economy”. Busteed points out the long-term influence of this rhetoric, observing that in the 1830s and 1840s “there was a steady stream of visitors to the city, not only from elsewhere in Britain, but also from Germany, Switzerland and France. Almost all had read Kay, and many absorbed his analysis, including the malignant role he assigned to the Irish.” Most notably, Busteed shows how Kay’s analysis influenced Friedrich Engels as he was completing The Condition of the Working Class in England for publication in 1845 (although Engels’s ideas about the Irish were perhaps somewhat tempered by the fact that he kept house with his mistress, Mary Burns – a second-generation Irish mill worker).

Fascinatingly, Busteed’s book provides no insular micro-history, but repeatedly highlights such suggestive and unfamiliar international connections. After pointing to the Manchester-Irish influence upon Engels’s theorising, he then emphasises the connection between the Manchester Irish and the USA. Intriguingly, the Galway-born Thomas J Kelly had lived in New York during the 1850s, during the time when the Know Nothings had enjoyed their ascendancy amongst those of British Protestant descent in the northern USA. By 1867, he had become head of the military wing of the Fenian movement and had returned to Europe, from where he had continued to look to the USA for arms, ammunition, and volunteers. In 1867, however, he was arrested in Manchester, then sprung from custody, and spirited back to New York via a series of Mancunian safe houses. This story of Manchester is greatly enriched by Busteed’s sensitive interweaving of what was happening in Ireland, in the rest of Britain, and in the USA.

Furthermore, Busteed gives some considerable attention to one famous and unintended consequence of Kelly’s activities in 1867. When thirty or forty of Kelly’s sympathisers seized him from a police van in Manchester, they fired a gun into a lock, thus unintentionally killing a well-liked English police officer, Sergeant Charles Brett. To some contemporaries in England, this killing was received in something like the way ISIS terrorism is today. Busteed describes how “[t]he wildest rumours now circulated about future Fenian plans, including a rising to coincide with any future trials, attacks on gasworks to darken the streets and facilitate further disturbances and arson in warehouses and docks”. During the furore, the British authorities publicly executed three Fenians, one of whom – Michael O’Brien – was killed in a cruel or cack-handed way that left him lingering excruciatingly on the scaffold for three-quarters of an hour. To many ordinary working-class Irish men and women, these dead men soon became known as “the Manchester Martyrs”, with The Nation reporting that “No words can describe the feelings of horror and fierce resentment awakened in the hearts of the Irish people by that savage deed […which] has produced an indelible impression in the minds of the Irish people […] and its results will appear in many a long year of hate and strife between the two nations”. That prediction was correct. Indeed, as Róisín Ní Ghairbhí has recently pointed out, during the build-up to the Easter Rising of 1916, the public commemoration of the Manchester Martyrs in Dublin provided an “emotional draw” and “helped to ensure the Irish Volunteers were soon a mass movement”.

Mervyn Busteed’s book helps us to reconceive the geographies of Irishness, and is an important contribution to a broadening academic enquiry into the locations and spaces in which a migrant Irish identity has been articulated and sustained. But, perhaps more importantly, it helps us to see that racist violence and racist rhetoric may have a set of unforeseen and unpredictable consequences many miles away from where that hate speech and brutality is originally performed. This is a lesson that Trump’s supporters, and the cut-price Trump emulators in Europe, would do well to learn. Otherwise we may all soon feel that we are hurtling back to the future.


James Moran is head of drama at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of The Theatre of Sean O’Casey (2013) and Irish Birmingham: A History (2010).



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