A 'race' in the making. Robert Knox and the racialisation of the Irish in nineteenth century British anthropology

2014-06-06T13:12:05Z (GMT) by Iris Wigger
Recent scholarly debates about anti-Irish discrimination demonstrate the ideological complexity and vacillating character of British perceptions of Irish people in the nineteenth century. Reinforcing a long tradition of Irish stereotypes in British colonial history and conveying these to modem society, Victorian anthropologists and other scientists made considerable efforts to update and revive older stereotypes of the 'wild Irish' by embedding them in newly developed hierarchical systems of racial classification. The Irish were racialised as a distinct 'race' in scientific discourses on human difference, and deemed inferior to the alleged virtues of a superior Anglo-Saxon 'race'. British intellectuals speculated about the uncivilised character of the Irish, labelled them as savages, and openly doubted their fitness for self~government. At the same time political conflict, the crisis of British rule in Ireland, and the immigration of Irish people to Britain led to them being denounced as a dangerous, contaminating underclass. This chapter reflects on the important contribution of the Victorian anatomist and notorious race theorist Robert Knox to this debate. Discussing Knox's ideas in wider social and historical context, I argue that his representation of the Irish Celt as a degenerated 'race' that was destined to die out, and had to be 'forced from the soil', resonates discursively with wider convictions in_ British Anthropological circles and hierarchical theories of racial difference and racial degeneration in the European Enlightenment. At the same time Knox's perception of the Irish needs to be interpreted within the context of Anglo~Irish political history and conflict. It was embedded in wider attempts to ideologically integrate a society, deeply divided by social inequalities, through the construction, discrimination and exclusion of 'Others'.