It was one of the most shocking chapters in Britain’s long and bloody subjugation of Ireland – the buying, selling and transporting of Irish slaves to the United States colonies.
Manalized and brutalized, they filled the bellies of ships that crossed the Atlantic and were put to work on plantations in the Caribbean and North America, sweating to death in the service of empire and profit.
The historical focus on slaves from Africa bypassed Irish slaves until recent years, when the rediscovery of their existence lit up the corners of the internet and became a meme.
The only problem: it wasn’t true. Irish immigrants experienced indentured servitude, a form of forced labor, but not perpetual slavery based on race. The notion of Irish slaves is disinformation spread online by white supremacists, primarily outside of Ireland, to prod the anger of blacks over slavery.
“Those who spread the myth tend to live in former white settler colonies like Australia and the United States and seek to undermine movements like Black Lives Matter,” said Ciaran O’Neill, a history professor at Trinity College Dublin. “They want to create a false equivalence between the slave trade in the Atlantic and the phenomenon of hired Irish labor in the Caribbean.”
In reality, some high-profile Irishmen bought, owned and traded African slaves, a collusion in the empire that Ireland has preferred to overlook.
This historical chapter is now being rediscovered. Trinity College Dublin, founded in 1592, has launched a two-year investigation into its colonial past that will look at funding, curricula, and academics, including George Berkeley, a slave philosopher who gave the Trinity library its name.
While some Irishmen rebelled against the Crown, others served colonial interests abroad. They made fortunes from slavery and helped control, and sometimes massacre, the natives. The most successful returned home as respected members of the establishment, building grand houses and being honored with statues and plaques that endure to this day.
After Britain abolished slavery in 1833, the university said it continued to export “colonial ideologies and servants” to India, Africa and East Asia. “As one of the oldest universities in the world [we] We have a particular responsibility to study our past, ”said Chancellor Patrick Prendergast. Several British universities have launched similar initiatives, with the University of Glasgow leading the way by committing to pay £ 20 million in repairs.
Dubliners are learning that the main entrance to Trinity, and many other architectural monuments, were built with money from tobacco and other income related to slavery. There have been calls to replace a statue of John Mitchel, a nationalist hero who supported American slavery, and a plaque to Major Richard Dowling, a Galway-born officer in the Confederate army. Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel removed four statues believed to represent slaves, only to reinstall them when it was revealed that the figures were not slaves.
It’s all part of a larger reckoning brought on by Ireland’s increasingly diverse population, the BLM movement, and new fictional and scholarly books on historical figures.
“The settlement in Ireland was as much a part of the empire as England,” said Neil Jordan, film director and writer. His new novel, The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small, chronicles the relationship between Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a progressive aristocrat turned rebel, and Tony Small, a freed black slave who became his servant. Many slave owners in the American South were Scottish-Irish and Margaret Mitchell gave the fictitious plantation in gone With the Wind an Irish name, Tara, Jordan pointed out. Other recent books include The Life of an Irishman on the Caribbean Island of Saint Vincent 1787-90, by Mark Quintanilla, and An Ulster Slave Owner in the Revolutionary Atlantic, by Jonathan Jeffrey Wright.
In The patient killer Anita Anand recounts an Indian man’s quest to kill a former Raj official, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, to avenge the 1919 Amritsar massacre. O’Dwyer came from a Catholic farming town in Tipperary.
O’Neill, who is one of the professors leading Trinity’s historical research, said that around 3% to 4% of the British Empire’s slave owners were Irish and that others, being Catholic, could also operate in the French, Spanish and other empires.
“In Ireland there is a reluctance to see ourselves as imperial aggressors, it is not part of our national narrative,” O’Neill said. “Our national narrative is that we were victims of colonial oppression. That is true, but it is also true that we were perpetrators of colonial aggressions in other places ”.
The subjugation and oppression of Ireland is not a myth. The Irish were colonized, caricatured as apes, and left to rot in a famine that cut the population in half due to hunger, disease, and emigration. But that sad story, combined with the long struggle for independence and the myth about Irish slaves, has tarnished their colonial complicity.
The Irish slave myth began to cloud the debate about a decade ago, said Liam Hogan, a Limerick librarian and historian who has tracked the phenomenon.
Articles and social media posts combined indentured servitude, in which white immigrants earned passage to the New World in exchange for several years of hard work, with slavery to undermine the BLM movement’s narrative of racial injustice. Hogan found that the meme is on the rise on the Internet in response to pressure for racial justice. After George Floyd’s murder fueled BLM protests last year, a version of the myth posted on Facebook garnered nearly a million shares in a week, he said.
“This was the most viral version of the meme that I have tracked for the past six years,” Hogan said. “What was different with the aftermath of the George Floyd protests is that the Irish slave meme also went viral in Ireland.” It was a knee-jerk reaction, Hogan said, to black Irish people publicly sharing their stories of racism.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism