No, the Irish Were Not Slaves Too - Pacific Standard

No, the Irish Were Not Slaves Too

Historian Liam Hogan has spent the last six years debunking the Irish slave myth.
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A scene from an Irish wake, circa 1750.

A scene from an Irish wake, circa 1750.

Call it "fake history." Whenever people on social media start talking slavery, reparations, and race, some Internet troll will jump up and demand, "What about the Irish?" Over the past few years, the myth of Irish slavery has found fertile ground in Internet memes as a way to derail any conversation about historical complicity for white folks in the slave trade or the need for affirmative action today. If the Irish escaped from slavery to general inclusion and prosperity, the false and racist argument goes, then African Americans can do likewise. Fortunately, whenever this claim starts to get traction, a librarian from Limerick steps forward to debunk it.

Liam Hogan works at the Limerick City Library, in Ireland. He's well known to his 30,000-plus Twitter followers and readers as a passionate and informed voice working against the myths of Irish slavery, while never erasing the complexities and nuance of the history of Irish forced labor. With St. Patrick's Day nearly here, Pacific Standard caught up with Hogan over a series of emails to discuss his work, the pernicious nature of the Irish slave myth, and what we can do to counter this false narrative.

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How did you get started debunking the Irish slave myth online?

Around 2012, I read Nini Rodgers' ground-breaking book Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, which looked at Ireland in the context of the Black Atlantic world and racial slavery in Colonial America. She concluded that these European slavocracies had a major impact on Ireland. On a local level I was stunned to discover such details that Frederick Douglass spoke in Limerick or that Limerick merchants attempted to set up a slave trading company in 1784. It was a surreal feeling to discover that the 18th-century building that I worked in was built by Philip Roche, the most successful provisioner of the British West Indies in Limerick. 

I then set out to explore Limerick's historical relationship with racial slavery and began to publish articles from an Irish perspective. I noticed that the most popular comment below one article was a piece of propaganda full of basic errors and false equivalences that suggested, "We were slaves too," I soon realized that this was a copy-and-paste text which had proliferated all over the social Web. It needed to be challenged.

So what is the reality about the history of Irish unfree colonial labor?

While the majority of Irish people who became indentured servants in the colonies did so willingly (why they felt they had to so is, of course, another question), a not insignificant number were forcibly deported and sold into indentured servitude. This peaked just after the brutal Cromwellian conquest of Ireland when there were orders given in multiple counties to round up and deport those who, it was claimed, could not support themselves.

Indentured servitude was more insidious than simply a case of labor exploitation. A four- to seven-year indenture to serve out, bond servants lives' and movements were subject to control and dominance by their masters' even outside of work hours, with punitive restrictions placed on marriage, locomotion, and pregnancy.

So there were both voluntary and involuntary servants. What's the difference?

The laws were the same. Both were treated as servants and had a predetermined length of time to serve before they were freed. In Barbados the customary length of time to serve in the 1650s was between five or seven years, but in 1661 a new law was introduced that reduced this to between four to two years. This "custom" was altered by colonial administrators to attract servants to migrate to their colonies and it was also used to single out the Irish when they were not wanted. In 1655 harsh laws were passed in Virginia that targeted Irish servants who arrived in the colony without indentures. These terms for adults were two years longer than those that applied to other "Christian servants," and three years longer for those under 1​6 years of age. But by 1660 (the Restoration) the law was repealed.

Meanwhile, you're telling me that some Irish people profited directly and indirectly from the Caribbean slave trade?

Yes, absolutely. In Ireland it was mainly indirect via the provisions trade. It primarily benefited the Protestant Ascendancy, the Catholic elites, and the Catholic middle class who dominated trade in the cities. Many of our merchants (whether Catholic, Protestant, Huguenot, or Quaker) made fortunes trading with all of the slavocracies in the Caribbean. Shoes for enslaved people were manufactured in Belfast; and as mainly poor Irish Catholic tenants were forced off the land to make way for livestock, butter, beef, and pork were salted and exported to the colonies in enormous quantities via Cork, Dublin, Waterford, and Limerick.

These provisions, especially cheap in Ireland, were essential for the operation of the slave labor camps as their constant supply meant that all the majority of the land could be used solely for cash crops (sugar cane, etc.)

So Irish peasants lost their land to make way for cattle, which was then exported by Irish landlords to feed enslaved peoples, who didn't grow food of their own because the land was too valuable for making sugar. And then presumably Irish people bought sugar and rum?

Yes, the provisions exported from Ireland fed slaves, servants, overseers, and planters. Herring, pork, beef, and butter and so on. One cut of beef exported out of Cork was known as "Planters Beef." And in the other direction a flood of slave-produced goods were sold in Ireland (sugar, tobacco, etc.). Every newspaper in Ireland in the 18th century carries adverts for sugar from Barbados or Jamaica being sold by a local grocer. By 1770 the Irish market absorbed nearly 90 percent of Antigua's total rum exports and in 1774 Dublin imported 108,821 gallons of rum from Antigua. Many merchants in the colonies paid for their Irish provisions in slave produce.

Were there Irish people more directly involved in the slave trade? Were there Irish slavers?

Navigation laws ensured a monopoly for English and Scottish slavers. Some Irish sailors migrated to slave hubs like Liverpool, Bristol,  and Nantes and became slave traders. An example of this is David Tuohy, from Tralee, County Kerry. He settled in Liverpool in the 1750s and captained at least four slave trading voyages from 1766 to 1771. By 1772 he had made enough money to become a slave ship owner and he was the part-owner of 10 Liverpool slave ships from 1772 to 1786.

For many of the Irish diaspora the profiteering was direct through slave ownership or employment as overseers. My survey of the slave schedules suggests that slave owners with recognizably Irish surnames owned over 110,000 slaves in the United States in 1860.

Given all this, why has the myth of the Irish slaves lasted so long?

Firstly, I think we need to be precise about what it is we are labeling a myth and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The "Irish slaves" myth that we contend with today is a relatively new manifestation (approximately two decades old) and refers to the drawing of a false equivalence with racialized perpetual hereditary chattel slavery and/or the refusal to delineate servitude and slavery. All the exaggerations and fabrications are secondary to the core mythos that "slavery was slavery" in the 17th-century Anglo-Caribbean.

But the concept of Irish people being enslaved in the Caribbean by Cromwellian forces is contemporary with the events themselves and is based on historical truth. This is why I have always referred to it in quotes, as a way of separating the present day propaganda from its use by Irish people who described it as slavery in the general sense at the time. The challenge in this discourse is identifying what [slavery] means in the past and the present.

Can we blame the English?

Cromwell's "Irish slaves" are canon in Irish nationalist historiography. It is rarely explained that this "slavery" was in the form of involuntary indentured servitude for a fixed period of time. You see it referred to all down the line from James Connolly's Re-Conquest of Ireland (1915) which claimed that "over 100,000 men, women and children were transported to the West Indies, there to be sold into slavery" to Daniel O'Connell's speech in Mallow in 1843 when he asserted that "80,000 Irishmen [were] sent to [the West Indies] to work as slaves." But these were rhetorical claims, based on truth, but greatly exaggerated for effect and are not to be confused with historical accuracy.​

This certificate of freedom, dated June 5th, 1838, demonstrates that an Irish convict, Francis Neill, has completed his seven years of obligatory labor in the penal colony of New South Wales, Australia.

This certificate of freedom, dated June 5th, 1838, demonstrates that an Irish convict, Francis Neill, has completed his seven years of obligatory labor in the penal colony of New South Wales, Australia.

As an Irish pub musician, I think a lot about the sense of belligerent victimhood in 20th-century Irish culture. Is that part of what's going on here?

[There's] a selective memory about who we identify with [in] the colonization of the New World. There exists this sense that this complicity with imperial projects was individualist rather than connected to any the notion of Irish identity. Post-independence, a line was drawn by nationalists that everything that happened prior to this was to be laid at the door of British Empire. It's of course a bit more complicated than that and as one might expect in a post-colonial state, our national story is presented as a linear history, a journey from bondage to liberation.

This explains why some Irish people express shock when informed that many of our kin were say, slave owners in America or involved and benefited from the dispossession of indigenous peoples lands across multiple continents. The cognitive dissonance that follows often leads to the knee-jerk response: "Were they really Irish though?"

The deeper problem here is that if we don't admit to complexity in our past, how were we going to confront it in the present? I'm thinking of the Magdalene Laundries, the Mother and Baby Homes, or our vivid memory of anti-Irish discrimination existing alongside a collective amnesia of the fact that anti-Semitism was once an official part of our immigration policy.

Is your relentless online debunking having an impact?

I think at this point I can say, after three years of labor, that it is working. This is measurable to the extent that my fact-checking has caused mainstream publications to retract articles based on bogus sources I've targeted and it will hopefully caution and encourage carefulness about this topic in others going forward.

I hear from people all the time about how useful it has been. It seems to be especially appreciated by those who use it as a go-to resource to help people who may be sharing propaganda without realizing how ahistorical, damaging, or insensitive it is.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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