Thursday 29 October, 6.30pm – 7.30pm
Dr Maurice Casey, Historian-in-Residence for EPIC and DFAT, and Lenwood Sloan, cultural and heritage facilitator and board member of the African American Irish Diaspora Network, held a fascinating talk as part of our Hidden Histories of the Irish Abroad series. This event explored the history of Irish involvement in slavery and anti-slavery alongside histories of collaboration between Irish and Black diaspora communities.
The pioneering research of Nini Rogers on Irish ties to the transatlantic slave trade and Irish engagement with abolitionist movements first set the agenda for histories of Ireland and the Black Atlantic. Within these histories of political contestation and collaboration between the Irish diaspora and other communities can be found intimate histories of romance and family. Conrad Bryan, for example, has referred to the ‘Irish diaspora of colour’ – an under-researched aspect of our emigration history that speaks to the real diversity of the Irish diaspora.
To help explore this diversity, Maurice was joined by Lenwood Sloan of the African American Irish Diaspora Network, an organisation founded in 2020 to foster relationships between African Americans and Ireland through shared heritage and culture. Maurice and Lenwood will discuss the origins of this new organisation and the shared culture that it represents. You can watch back the lecture below.
Here are some of the books, articles and resources that helped me put together our latest Hidden Histories of the Irish Abroad talk, Ireland and the Black Atlantic. This is by no means a comprehensive guide to the topic, so please do drop me a tweet (@MauriceJCasey) with further reading suggestions.
The Irish in the Caribbean
Nini Rodgers’ landmark study Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: 1612-1865 will remain for quite some time the starting point for all researchers interested in this broader topic.
Donald Akenson’s 1997 book If the Irish Ran the World, Montserrat, 1630-1730 is a particularly useful text in clarifying the distinctions between European indentured servitude and African enslavement. Akenson’s book is a close study of Montserrat, the only Caribbean island where the Irish constituted a majority of the white settler population.
Liam Hogan, who has been on the frontlines in the battle against the myth of Irish slavery for many years, has collated all of his research on the topic here. A concise article on the topic, co-written by Hogan with Laura McAtackney and Matthew C. Reilly, can be read here.
Jenny Shaw’s 2013 work Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference explores some of the complexities of day-to-day life in the Caribbean, particularly how ‘ordinary Irish servants and enslaved Africans understood distinction.’ Shaw is particularly attuned to the gaps in the archives – how so few documents allow us to recover the voices of enslaved people and indentured servants – and uses ‘educated reconstructions’ to attempt to fill in these gaps. Shaw, along with Kristen Bock, wrote the article ‘Subjects without an Empire: The Irish in the Early Modern Caribbean’ which succinctly describes the case of Cornelius Bryan, later expanded in her book and featured in my talk.
Ireland & Cuba: Entangled Histories, edited by Margaret Brehony and Nuala Finnegan, is a collection of essays on Irish-Cuban history that is available as an open access PDF. The essays cover a broad range of topics, covering the construction of whiteness and Irish involvement in slavery and anti-slavery.
I did not cover the history of early 20th century interactions between Irish nationalists and Caribbean intellectuals such as Claude McKay and Cyril Briggs in the talk, although it has long fascinated me. For those who want to learn more, Bruce Nelson’s 2013 book Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race covers these interactions, in addition to dealing with my next topic:
Race and the Irish in the US
Many people’s knowledge of this topic is framed by Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White. The book is undoubtedly influential but flawed. A New Yorker article published after Ignatiev’s death provides context on why he set out to write the book. Ignatiev’s reasons for writing the book, I believe, poses a provocative counterfactual: ‘Imagine how history might have been different had the Irish, the unskilled labor force of the north, and the slaves, the unskilled labor force of the South, been unified.’
I found Peter D. O’Neill book The Famine Irish and the American Racial State useful in thinking through this counterfactual and clarifying many of the questions that Ignatiev’s arguments left unfulfilled. It is a theoretically-informed study of how the subaltern Irish (meaning the Irish peasant class that made up the majority of famine-era emigration) were legally ‘white’ upon arrival and then fought to be included in the cultural construction of ‘whiteness’. It was the first time I contended with Poulantzas’ state theory in a work of Irish history, but I emerged from the experience with a clearer understanding of ‘how the Irish became white’.
I have been dipping into Angela Murphy’s American Slavery, Irish Freedom: Abolition, Immigrant Citizenship, and the Transatlantic Movement for Irish Repeal and found it an illuminating study. Murphy explores a question that baffled contemporary abolitionists in Ireland: how the Irish, so interested in liberty and freedom at home, could arrive in America and be transformed into ardent anti-abolitionists. Using O’Connell’s transatlantic repeal movement as exploratory territory, Murphy provides some clear-sighted answers to this conundrum.
Christine Kinealy’s recently published Black Abolitionists in Ireland is an immensely readable and fascinating book. The Sarah Parker Remond chapter in particular shaped my talk perhaps more than any other single piece of writing I read during my research. Those of you unaccustomed to academic book pricing may be shocked by what the hardcover copy sells for (£100+). It is an important text, so I hope the publishers consider making it more accessible.
Online resources and future scholarship
Muiris MacGiollabhui of University of Notre Dame provided some pointers for my research. His own scholarship explores the ‘Green Atlantic’ through the exiled Untied Irishmen, including their engagements with slavery in the US. Another early career scholar whose work I became aware of during this research is Giselle Gonzales Garcia, whose work explores the Irish in Cuba and who recently discussed her research with Fin O’Dwyer of the Irish History Podcast.
The Legacies of British Slave-ownership database at UCL contains entries for a number of Irish slave owners who received compensation for their ‘loss’ following abolition in 1833. Interestingly, it was Daniel O’Connell himself who campaigned for the slave-owners names to be made public, so historians owe him a debt of gratitude here. Martine Brennan has also been working on mapping Irish slave-owners.
The Mixed Museum and Association of Mixed Race Irish exhibition provides some fascinating insights into the history of mixed race Irish families in Britain.
The Slave Voyages database provides some insight into the harrowing scale of the transatlantic slave trade.
Do follow our friends the African American Irish Diaspora Network on their socials (@aaidnetwork) and stay tuned for the launch of their teaser for a new film about Frederick Douglass in Ireland.
Akenson, Donald, If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730 (London, 1997)
Bell, Malcolm, Major Butler’s Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family (Athens GA, 1987)
Brehony, Margaret and Finnegan, Nuala, eds., Ireland & Cuba: Entangled Histories (Havana, 2019)
Hogan, Liam, McAtackney, Laura and Reilly, Matthew C., ‘The Irish in the Anglo-Caribbean: Servants or Slaves?’, History Ireland (March/April 2016)
Ignatiev, Noel, How the Irish Became White (New York, 1997)
Kinealy, Christine, Black Abolitionists in Ireland (Abingdon, 2020)
Murphy, Angela, American Slavery, Irish Freedom: Abolition, Immigrant Citizenship, and the
Transatlantic Movement for Irish Repeal (Baton Rouge, 2010)
Nelson, Bruce Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race (Princeton, 2013)
O’Neill, Peter D. and Lloyd, David, eds., The Black and Green Atlantic: Cross-Currents of the African
and Irish Diasporas (London, 2009), pp. 33-60.
O’Neill, Peter D., The Famine Irish and the American Racial State (Abingdon, 2017)
Rodgers, Nini, Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: 1612-1865 (London, 2007)
Shaw, Jenny, Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of
Difference (Athens, 2013)
Shaw, Jenny and Bock, Kristen, ‘Subjects without an Empire: The Irish in the Early Modern
Caribbean’, Past and Present, 210 (February, 2011)
Dr Maurice J Casey is the DFA Historian in Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. He completed his doctorate at the University of Oxford, where his research explored Irish women’s involvement in international radical movements in the 1920s and 1930s. Maurice has carried out research on the lives of Irish emigrants in archives across the world, including in New York, San Francisco, London and Moscow. In his role at EPIC, he is carrying out pioneering research on the Irish abroad.