The Irish and slavery

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2016), Letters, Volume 24

Sir,—Brian Kelly (HI 24.4, July/Aug. 2016, letters) is of course correct when he states that the assertion that Cromwellian-era Irish prisoners suffered under exactly the same conditions as African-American slaves in the British West Indies is ‘derided by professional historians’. However, just because an idea is derided by professional historians does not mean that it cannot gain widespread currency (indeed, such derision can add to an idea’s appeal). Unfortunately, nor is the belief that Irish Catholics were enslaved and treated as badly, if not worse, than African slaves the preserve of the Tea Party fringe. Elements of this assertion are prevalent in mainstream Irish-America and, if the reaction to Gerry Adams’s ill-judged Django tweet is anything to go by, among sections of the Irish republican movement as well. Of course, many who think that the Irish were once enslaved are not racist; some believe that this experience should lead to solidarity between the Irish and African-Americans. But the idea is more often than not used to assert that while the Irish were once as oppressed as African-Americans, they overcame this to prosper and, crucially (in the words of Fox News presenter Kimberly Guilfoyle in March this year), they ‘don’t run around shouting Irish lives matter’. The idea that the Irish were enslaved also allows for the avoidance of questions about the role many Irish immigrants played in opposing abolitionism and supporting slavery in the United States in the nineteenth century. In drawing attention to the myths surrounding this question Liam Hogan and his colleagues are raising important issues.—Yours etc.,

Dublin 7


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