Philly Irish Group Says Jersey Hall of Fame “Defames”

Thomas Nast's self-portrait

Thomas Nast's self-portrait

Whenever visions of Santa Claus dance in our heads, the image we often conjure up is the cheery, red-cheeked elf drawn by 19th-century cartoonist Thomas Nast.

Acclaimed as the father of all political cartoonists, Nast drew for Harper’s Weekly in the mid- to late-1800s. His drawings of St. Nick are undeniably iconic. (The Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey? Those were his too.)

So, you might ask, how could the artist who brought Father Christmas to life have so many Irish-Americans in such an uproar?

Simply this: Nast’s cartoon characterizations of the Irish in general, and Irish Catholics in particular, are construed by many Irish as deeply offensive. In Nast’s illustrations, the Irish were depicted as drunken, violent hooligans who resembled monkeys … and Roman Catholic cardinals were snapping alligators threatening the American way of life. This year, Nast’s illustrations are no longer simply a matter for the history books. Nast, who lived in Morristown, N.J., is among the nominees for the 2012 New Jersey Hall of Fame—and that has New Jersey politicians, including Gov. Chris Christie, and organizations such as the New Jersey Ancient Order of Hibernians, questioning his inclusion.

Locally, Philadelphia’s Irish Anti-Defamation Federation (IADF) is orchestrating a letter-writing campaign which the group hopes will lead the Hall of Fame to drop Nast from consideration. The group met Thursday night at the Philadelphia Irish Center to map out strategy.

Recently, IADF Chairman Tim Wilson sent a letter of protest to Hall of Fame Executive Director Don Jay Smith, in which Wilson suggested the Hall of Fame board of commissioners failed to appreciate Nast’s “deplorable history.”

"The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things" by Thomas Nast

"The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things" by Thomas Nast

“Thomas Nast is infamous in American history as one who portrayed Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans as violent apes and drunks. Nast, both in his verbal rhetoric and in his drawings, was openly prejudiced against the Irish people, and Roman Catholics from all groups of citizens in America,” Wilson wrote. “Thomas Nast’s paid ’work’ has been cited by social historians as instigating the Nativist riots in America, wherein Roman Catholic churches were burned to the ground, and Irish neighborhoods laid waste.”

Wilson demanded that Nast be removed from this year’s ballot (you can see it here) and from all future consideration, and he requested a public apology.

In an interview before the meeting, Wilson said, “They (the Hall of Fame) argue that he is famous, that he’s a part of history. They think we should overlook his bigotry because of Santa Claus, the elephant and the donkey.”

They should think again, Wilson said.”We’ve put up with the stereotyping. Now people are just getting tired of it.”

Wilson noted that the New Jersey Ancient Order of Hibernians is a member of the Hall of Fame voting committee, which reviews nominees and pares them down to a field of 50, divided into five categories. In this case, Wilson said, the Ancient Order of Hibernians “were never contacted.”

In an interview Friday, Executive Director Smith said all members of the Hall of Fame Voting Committee were contacted. At the time, the committee included the former president of the state AOH. “No one ever said anything about Nast not being wanted or not worthy.”

"Merry Old Santa Claus" by Thomas Nast

"Merry Old Santa Claus" by Thomas Nast

The Hall of Fame board of commissioners includes many Irish-Americans, Smith added, and not one has raised an objection. Furthermore, Smith observed that Nast has been nominated three times, but no one has questioned his presence on the ballot … until now.

The decision now rests with the public, which votes for the nominees online.

Smith said no one associated with the Hall of Fame intended to “upset or offend anyone.” He went on to suggest that Nast’s cartoons need to be considered in the light of history. Nast’s ultimate target was the notorious “Boss” Tweed and New York City’s Tammany Hall Machine. Irish immigrants were regarded as key supporters of that infamously corrupt regime.

“People should consider these flaws in the context of the time,” Smith said. “Political cartoonists are the attack dogs of journalism. They always stir people up more than the written word.”

Moreover, Smith said, Nast’s Irish cartoons make up a small percentage of his work, and his characterizations of the Irish lasted only as long as the Tammany Hall Machine remained in power.

Voting for the Hall of Fame continues through January 1. The 2012 inductees will be announced later that month.

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12 Responses to “Philly Irish Group Says Jersey Hall of Fame “Defames””

  1. His work was Nast-y, to say we must “put it in the context of the time” is not sufficient.

  2. If you want to help, please go on the NJ Hall of website and vote for someone else beside Tom Nast, email John Smith asking to remove Nast, or email any New Jersey newspaper or media.

  3. The New Jersey Hall of Fame Board of Commissioners voted recently to leave Thomas Nast on the list of nominees and let the people decide whether or not he should be inducted. Emailing or writing to the NJ Hall of Fame will not change this decision so Tim is right. Go on-line to vote and let the democratic process play out.

  4. Following Mr. Smith’s logic, NJ Hall of Fame could nominate Howard Unruh, the Camden serial killer, for election, he was famous/ infamous, and let the people vote. This is absurd, you give credability by nomination.

  5. Keep calling,emailing, and writing letters to Mr. Don Jay Smith(who commented above), and tell him to respect the Irish communities wishes by removing Tom Nast as a nominee, which does give him credibility. The NJ Hall of Fame is LOSING all credibility with a large part of the public!

  6. Also goto the Hall of Fame website and look for their list of supporters and sponsors. Please call them and tell them you will no longer support them until they pull their support for the Hall of Fame. We all need to boycott these companies until they stop supporting Don Smith and his racist choices.

  7. So why aren’t we upset about the equally deplorable stuff you can buy in any Irish gift shop? Yesterday in West Chester I saw a framed plaque saying something like: “An Irishman is the only man alive who will step over 12 naked women to get a drink.” Or all of the stupid stereotyping gleefully attached by Irish Americans to St Patrick’s Day, most of it having to do with getting loaded and having a hangover the next day? Or is okay because it’s just like Eddie Murphy using the N word?

  8. Frank,
    We are upset about things like that. Get me some addresses and contact information and we will get on it. We are addressing ALL issues and companies defame the Irish with these negative stereotypes.

  9. the AIDF was formed for just these kinds of situations. I have gone to their meetings and I have to say that they work on any kind of bussiness, group or person that defame or give negative stereotypes of the Irish. I am glad to know that there are people out there and now a group that will address these kind of issues.

  10. Nast was a bigot no doubt. But his cartoons are apart of Irish-American history in this country. The Irish, especially Catholics, were despised and hated. Perhaps if the Irish people remembered their history, Ireland would not be as screwed up as it is today. No longer a sovereign nation, but a puppet province in the E.U. I say let Nast’s drawings stay.
    Jim D

  11. True, the Irish were despised and hated, but the Irish also despised and hated. Nast’s work is much more complicated than a simple “he hated the Irish and the Roman Catholics.” A little fact-checking and research into all Irish-American history–not just the parts that glorify the immigrant–might shed a little light on his rationale.

  12. It is official…Tom Nast was NOT inducted into the NJ Hall of Fame!! Great job to everyone who fought this and brought back some justice for our Irish ancestors that were ridiculed and defamed by Nast 100 years ago.