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Response to Review of The Races of Europe: Construction of National Identities in the Social Sciences, 1839-1939

I’m very grateful for Ian Stewart’s kind review of my book. He highlights elements and arguments within it that I also see as important and his observations and criticisms are trenchant. As he suggests, I did indeed use my quantitative data with a light touch because I am very aware of the subjective choices that I had to make while collecting it. Nevertheless, I would encourage other historians to attempt quantitative experiments of this kind. It suggested some very interesting features of international race anthropology, such as its exceptional unity in the 1870s around a canon of authoritative works. I also fully endorse Stewart’s conclusion that approaches such as post-colonial studies should take care to avoid constructing new essentialised identities.

In this response, I will confine myself to enlarging on two points that he critiqued, as I think they raise extremely interesting broad issues.

Curtis and post-colonialism

Stewart correctly notes that L. P. Curtis’s 1968 book, Anglo-Saxons & Celts: A Study of Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England (1), which I use as an important secondary source on racial representations of the Irish, has been heavily challenged in subsequent literature However the criticisms of this and other works by Curtis, which stimulated lively historiographical controversies in the early 1990s and again in 2005, raise fascinating issues about the political use of race and how historians study it. These issues are central to my own book, which therefore contributes to the historiographical controversy surrounding Curtis and the racialisation of the Irish. I attribute much of this controversy to both sides disputing it almost entirely within a post-colonial framework. This reflects the very understandable interest of scholars in the roots of current concerns surrounding race. However I argue that the racial classification of the Irish also requires contextualisation in the related but distinct project of racially narrating national identity, which is the subject of my book. The Races of Europe also offers a useful perspective by focusing on society’s preeminent race scientists rather than just the most publically prominent racial identity narratives.

Central issues in the critiques of Curtis by writers such as Peatling (2) and Sheridan Gilley (3) concerned whether 19th-century British representations of the Irish were racialised and whether the Irish experience of racialised oppression can be compared to that of ‘nonwhite groups’. Curtis supplies evidence for the ‘internal colonialism’ thesis of Michael Hechter (4) and others. This links the political and scientific domination of imperial European powers over weaker neighbouring peoples and over overseas colonial subjects. Curtis’s critics counter that prejudices towards the white Irish and people of colour were of an entirely different order of magnitude. Curtis strenuously denies that he sought moral equivalence between anti-Irish and anti-black racism but continues to defend his 1968 argument that the Irish were narrated in racial terms.(5)

I, like Curtis, would be one of the historians that Peatling accuses of drawing ‘substantive connections’ between the situations of the Irish and non-white subject peoples.(6) My research certainly found that less powerful European peoples like the Irish were cast as racial inferiors. In this sense, they can be placed on the same spectrum of oppression as non-whites in the 19th century, if by no means at the same point on that spectrum. As Curtis notes (7), British race anthropologists frequently linked the Irish with overseas colonialism by locating them on a continuum of what one of their number, John Beddoe, called ‘nigrescence’ (8), or dark pigmentation. Race scientists identified a population of inferior racial Iberians or ‘Black Kelts’, especially among the poor of Ireland’s west and gave them ‘Africanoid’ origins, via the Berbers of North Africa.(9) In eastern Europe, the scientifically dominant Germans and Swedes tended to connect Slavs and Finns to non-Europeans by a different route, attributing ‘Mongoloid’ racial connections to them.

Historiography itself creates another substantive connection between Ireland and former colonies outside Europe. In both cases, the defence of nationalist and post-colonialist or internal colonialist theses against ‘revisionism’ has long been a touchy and contested subject.(10) The debates about Curtis and the 19th-century discussion of Irish racial identity can both therefore be framed within a centuries-long controversy about the narration of Irish identity and who has the right to discuss it. G. K. Peatling thus legitimately accuses Curtis of reproducing the nationalist reasoning of a century ago (11), though this does not, as Peatling claims, invalidate Curtis’s arguments.(12)

By bracketing race accounts of the Irish with the classification of other politically and scientifically weaker European peoples, such as the Basques or Finns, research like mine may offer an escape from what Daniel Wilson calls the ‘competitive victim culture’ (13) of comparing the oppression of the Irish and of non-European subject peoples. My book emphasises that the project of investigating the national identity, national history and national character of Europeans was at least as important in race science as colonial anthropology was and had a significantly different character. Its primary aim, like that of much contemporary historiography and the emerging social sciences, was knowledge of one’s own nation. This meant that race scholars racialised themselves. Irish authors of various stripes engaged with race accounts to define Irish national identity (14, 15, 16). Even the Iberian racial origin theory drew in part on Irish myths of previous centuries which asserted Mediterranean racial origins in order to claim roots in ancient civilisation and kinship with Continental Catholic allies against England. This exemplifies the complexities of Irish identity narratives that Stewart’s review highlights.

Rival nations were certainly belittled, but unlike in the representation of non-white people, this was restrained by the need for transnational collaboration in a pan-European scientific project. Whereas race ideologues like Robert Knox (17) represented the Irish Celts as an alien Other therefore, against which to define the Anglo-Saxon British, other British writers, like Malcolm Arnold (18) and John Lubbock (19), saw them as an important strand of British racial identity.

The role of the Irish in influential Aryan race narratives can similarly be contextualised in both colonial and European terms. Some narratives bunched the Irish with the Basques as pitiful vestiges of native European primitives, conquered and driven to the social and geographical margins by the prehistoric invasion of superior Aryans. The parallels with colonial hierarchies are clear. However my research also found very European entanglements between class, race and national identity narratives. Anthropologists identified small dark pre-Aryan racial inferiors among both the English urban working class and the Irish. This partly answers Roy Foster’s criticism (20) of Curtis for emphasising racial over class tropes in anti-Irish prejudice (21).

Skin colour differences are therefore by no means a prerequisite for racism. The Irish certainly suffered racial discrimination. Michael de Nie argues (22) that Curtis’s critics do not recognise this because they project the current largely biological definition of race back onto the 19th century. Race then had the broader meaning that the term ‘ethnicity’ still retains. My focus on nations, which were then widely seen as bodies of both cultural and biological descent, underlines the flexibility of this early definition of race.

Transnational neo-romanticism

Turning to another of Stewart’s criticisms, I think that I could indeed have been clearer about what I mean in The Races of Europe by ‘romanticism’, ‘romantic’ and associated ideologies. This is especially so because writing this book has suggested to me that romanticism has a key role in the history of modernity.

The primary understanding of romanticism, both popularly and academically, is as a broad artistic movement, which flourished in the late 18th century and first half of the 19th. Its timing and impact varied greatly in different parts of Europe and from literature and music to the visual arts. William Wordsworth, Victor Hugo, Caspar David Friedrich and Ludwig von Beethoven are often identified as prominent romantics.

Academics widely associate romanticism with certain political positions. Romantic veneration for nature, including the naturally emerging characteristics of particular cultures, made ethnic nationalism a central romantic idea, with an important impact on race anthropology. Ethnology’s mission to understand nations as natural biological communities therefore emerged in the Romantic period. This programme continued into the race anthropology of the mid to late 19th century, but was increasingly tempered by the rationalist ideologies of political liberalism and scientific positivism.

At the end of the 19th century however, I encountered a phenomenon which seems to be extremely significant but not widely appreciated. A populist, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-modern and anti-intellectual right-wing nationalism emerged across much of Europe, drawing heavily on the romantic tradition. Romanticism rooted peoples and their cultures in the deep past of specific localities. This could encourage conservative ideologies of defending tradition against modern universalism and foreign influences. Romantic veneration of emotionality supported anti-intellectual, populist politics. Historians often recognise individual national manifestations of this cultural wave, and especially Germany’s völkisch movement, but there is little systematic recognition of the strong commonalities and borrowings of political and stylistic elements between different countries.

There does not even appear to be a commonly accepted name for this genuinely transnational movement in the sphere of cultural and politics. I therefore term it neo-romanticism, a name adopted by a number of disparate artistic movements around this period. In order to help establish its transnationality on the intellectual map, I plan to research the discipline-by-discipline and country-by-country battle between racist nationalists and liberal positivists for control of the complex of disciplines that collaborated to classify races.

It seems to me that transnational neo-romanticism merits acknowledgement as one of Europe’s major common cultural experiences, alongside the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic Period. Aside from its transnational contemporary significance, neo-romanticism had crucial longer-term impacts. The völkisch movement is widely recognised as the cultural seedbed of Nazism. Exploring transnational neo-romanticism and race anthropology’s role in it can help us appreciate the wider European cultural roots of fascist racism rather than seeing it purely as a German phenomenon. Neo-romanticism may also provide insights into the current international populist right-wing cultural wave, exemplified by support for figures like Trump, Duterte, Orban and Le Pen.


  1. L. P. Curtis, Anglo-Saxons & Celts: A Study of Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England (Bridgeport, 1968).
  2. Gary K. Peatling, ‘The Whiteness of Ireland under and after the Union’, Journal of British Studies 44, 1 (2005): 115–133.
  3. Sheridan Gilley, 'English attitudes to the Irish in England, 1789-1900', in Immigrants and minorities in British Society, ed. Colin Holmes (London, 1978), pp. 81–110.
  4. Michael Hechter, Internal Colonialism: the Celtic Fringe in British National Development (Abington, 2017 [originally 1975]).
  5. L. Perry Curtis Jr., ‘GK Peatling,“The Whiteness of Ireland Under and After the Union.” In this issue’, Journal of British Studies, 44 (2005), 134–45, p. 136.
  6. Peatling, ‘Whiteness’, p. 115.
  7. Curtis, ‘Peatling’, p. 139.
  8. John Beddoe, The Races of Britain: A Contribution to the Anthropology of Western Europe (London, 1971 [1885]), pp. 1–2.
  9. Ibid, p. 11.
  10. e.g. Mairtin Macan Ghaill, ‘The Irish in Britain: the invisibility of ethnicity and anti-Irish racism’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 26, 1 (2000), 137–47, 138.
  11. Peatling, ‘Whiteness’, p. 124.
  12. David A. Wilson, ‘Comment: whiteness and Irish experience in North America’, Journal of British Studies, 44, 1 (2005), 153–60, 154.
  13. Ibid, p. 153.
  14. James L. MacLoughlin, ‘The Race-Type in Celtic Literature’, New Ireland Review, 5, 2, 81–94; 6, 1, 26–38 (1896).
  15. Sophie Bryant, Celtic Ireland (London, 1889).
  16. Standish O’Grady, History of Ireland: The Heroic Period (London, 1878).
  17. Robert Knox, The Races of Men: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Influence of Race over the Destinies of Nations: A Fragment (London, 1850).
  18. Matthew Arnold, Lectures and Essays in Criticism (Ann Arbour, 1962)
  19. John Lubbock, ‘The Nationalities of the United Kingdom. Extracts from Letters to the “Times”’, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 16 (1887), 418–22
  20. Robert Fitzroy Foster, Paddy and Mr. Punch: Connections in Irish and English History, (London, 1993).
  21. Michael De Nie. ‘“A Medley Mob of Irish-American Plotters and Irish Dupes”: The British Press and Transatlantic Fenianism’, Journal of British Studies, 40, 2 (2001), 213–40, 216.
  22. Ibid. p. 234.