The Dynamite Skunk

What is it? It’s an Irish-American.

There was a publication called Judy, or The London Serio-Comic Journal, that launched in 1867, and they seemed to have a taste for anti-Irish humor. The comic above is an especially notorious one, and its content is well-described on the Picturing US History blog:

The Irish-American “Dynamite Skunk,” clad in patriotic stars and stripes, has diabolical ears and feet and he sports an extraordinary tail. around his waist he is wearing an “infernal machine,” a terrorist bomb that was usually disguised as a harmless everyday object, in this case a book. in the cage next to him, sketched in outline, is a second beast.

The blog points out the specific details of the cartoon: It’s a response to the “New Departure,” a brief period during the late 19th century when various Irish groups and Irish-Americans set aside factionalism. It references an Irish-American publication, the Irish World, which it characterizes as “An American Advocate of Indiscriminate Murder,” and has a man apparently tearing it up with disgust.

The Irish in the photo don’t seem very fond of the dynamite skunk, shaking a shillelagh at him and crying out “Bad luck to ye! You murderin’ thief!” In the meanwhile, a child, held aloft by a woman, hands the dynamite ape a “concession to violence,” referencing the Irish Land Act of 1881, which looked (and failed) to solve landlord-tenant relations in Ireland. And the woman in the image? It’s none other than The Right Honourable William Ewart Gladstone himself, the Prime Minister, giving in to the violent demands of the murdering Americans.

It’s a lot to pack into a single image, but one thing it communicates is that Irish-Americans were then seen as their own thing. The Irish in the cartoon are drawn with typically brutish visages (cartoons of the era typically showed them as being closer to ape than human), but the dynamite ape seems to be a mixture of animal and imp. Even the cartoon’s Irish can’t stand him, and only the oblivious and emasculated Gladstone gives in to his demands.

There has been much written about the great accomplishments of Irish-Americans, how we fathered democracy and great patriots and great politicians and presidents. This blog seeks to look into the disreputable side of the Irish-American experience — the world of the dynamite skunk, but also of the Whyo, the boxers and wrestlers, the boss politicians, the shanty Irish, and the other inhabitants of America’s rough and rowdy history. Because ours is not just a history of hale and hearty immigrants building a great democracy, but of eccentrics, crooks, carnies, and questionable entertainers, all hustling to make a place for themselves in a county of tenements and murderous frontiers.

Think of this as a parallel history to that of mainstream history books, which tell of the upstanding, the reputable, and the powerful. There’s as much history to be found when you spend time with the downtrodden, the disreputable, and the shadow powers that rule the streets. This, too, is Irish-American history. It’s just not as often told.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.