Michael Flatley performed at Inauguration. More accurately, Michael Flatley had his troupe from Lord of the Dance perform at one of the Inaugural Balls.
If you aren’t part of the Irish dance world, you might think of Flatley as a respected and talented performer, at least on par with Three Doors Down (in the rare event that you think of him at all, of course). If you are a dancer, your feelings are probably mixed. Sure, he jump-started modern Irish dance into the stratosphere with Riverdance in the ’90s, but since then his shows have tilted too far towards cyborgs and shirtless floor crawling to be taken seriously. Once you think about it, it really shouldn’t be altogether a surprise that he supported Trump; they do after all share a similar taste for understated, minimalist aesthetics, spray tans, and diverse roles for women (We come in two types: blond and dainty or brunette and slutty).
Meanwhile, a day after the performance, cameras panning over the Women’s March on DC captured some soul waving a full-sized Irish flag over the crowd. I kept catching glimpses of it on the screencast and couldn’t help wondering why. Was there a point to the flag beyond a generalized expression of Irishness? The Irish appear to dislike Trump almost as much as the Scots do, judging by the thousands who showed up for marches in solidarity with the Women’s March, and the 40,000 people who have signed a petition asking the prime minister to skip the traditional meeting at the White House on St. Patrick’s Day (although nothing can really surpass the loathing of those in Scotland who have fought back by flying Mexican flags outside of Trump’s golf course compound).
Why, when so many performers, including the trad-as-it-gets Rockettes, boycotted the inauguration, did Flatley show up? Does it matter? I think it does, at least for those who take pride in their identity as Irish-Americans or their participation in the Irish dance community. It highlights a need for self-examination as a community, about the role of Irish Americans in both perpetuating and resisting oppression. Something that often happens in discourse about immigration is the use of the Irish immigrant experience as a…scapegoat, I guess you could call it. People who act as if the history of discrimination against Irish Americans and other waves of immigrants somehow excuses modern prejudice, as if is a merit badge we all have to earn. I’ve also heard people use their identities as Irish Americans to excuse themselves of racism and deny white privilege (“I’m not white, I’m Irish!”).
Xenophobia against one group does not preclude that group from turning around and contributing to other forms of discrimination. In the eighteen hundreds, tensions were especially high between the immigrant population and freed slaves. The largest race riot in American history – and the largest civil insurrection short of the Civil War – was the New York City draft riot of 1863, instigated by working class immigrants, mainly the Irish. If you’ve seen the movie Gangs of New York, you may be familiar with the backdrop: four days of rioting in Manhattan in response to the Civil War draft, which disproportionately targeted the white working class. The upper class could buy their way out, and black men were not considered citizens and thus not subject to the draft. Irish immigrants had been enrolled as citizens en masse by Tammany Hall to gain votes, which meant that they had to register for the draft as well. At the drawing of draft numbers, rioters attacked and burned down the office, overwhelmed the police, and began to burn down police stations and the mayor’s residence. But anger over the draft ignited resentment over the war and fears that freed slaves would take jobs, and the mobs turned on black residents of the city. An orphanage for black children was burned, with the police holding off the mob just long enough for the 223 orphans to escape. They destroyed homes and businesses and in the end killed at least 120 people, leading to a mass exodus of black residents from Manhattan to Brooklyn.
And yet the threads connecting the Irish with resistance and solidarity with other oppressed groups are also wound through history. In County Cork, there is a sculpture in a public park which consists of nine 20 ft eagle feathers made out of stainless steel, titled “Kindred Spirits.” It is a memorial to aid given by the Choctaw people to the Irish in the midst of the Great Famine. In 1847, 16 years after facing famine on the Trail of Tears, the Choctaw raised $170 (the equivalent of thousands of dollars today) to send to the Irish, suffering mass starvation in the worst year of the Great Famine. The gesture started a relationship that endures today; in 1990, Choctaw leaders took part in a reenactment of the Doolough Famine Walk, when, in 1849, desperate villagers walked to petition their landlord for food. In 1992, Irish leaders came to Oklahoma to return the favor, taking part in a 500 mile trek for charity along the Trail of Tears. More recently, Irish MPs in 2016 called for President Obama to revoke the Medals of Honor given to the soldiers who committed the massacre at Wounded Knee.
In the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848, the famous San Patricios were a battalion of mainly Irish immigrant soldiers who, driven by anti-Catholic bigotry in the US ranks and fellow-feeling with the invaded Mexicans, deserted from the US Army to join the other side. Led by John Riley (of musical fame), the San Patricios fought under a green flag with “Erin Go Bragh” and engaged in most of the major battles of the war, until they were defeated at the Battle of Churubusco. The captured soldiers were imprisoned or executed for desertion and treason, and the US military denied the battalion’s existence for many decades to avoid encouraging deserters. The Mexican government, however, commemorates the San Patricios every year, with a ceremony attended by Mexican and Irish dignitaries held in Plaza San Jacinto where many of the executions happened. On the same day, the town in Connemara where John Riley was born, Clifden, flies the Mexican flag.
Having a prominent Irish icon support Donald Trump is not something that happens in a vacuum. The charges hurled against Muslim refugees are nearly to the letter those spat against Catholics in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds: allegiance to foreign religious leaders? Check. Plotting to overthrow the American government with secret weapons caches? Check. And the consequences of this rhetoric – arson of places of worship, warrantless searches, outright violence? Check, check, check. The arguments against illegal immigration are much the same, except today the targets are those who live south of a border established by invasion, not those coming over the sea. (There are an estimated 50,000 illegal Irish immigrants in the US today, but it isn’t their blood that Trump supporters are calling for, so I guess that makes it ok to throw everyone else under the bus, right?) Flatley’s support of Trump is not surprising, but it is disheartening to see our culture and sport linked so explicitly to a platform of xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia. As a basic premise, I don’t understand the argument that past suffering excuses or permits suffering happening today; what it should do is provide a shared history and point of empathy. If you’re going to pick a part of Irish-American heritage to uphold, let it be fighting other people’s battles and building relationships across cultures, not burning down relationships around the globe.