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Irish Slaves In The Americas And The Modern Myth Of White Slavery

Ireland in chains

When one thinks of Irish slaves, one imagines the history of slavery in Ireland during the pre-Christian and early Medieval periods. During this time the possession of enslaved men and women, many taken prisoner during military or territorial struggles, was an indicator of power and prestige for some successful kings and lords. In contrast to the upper echelons of the aristocracy the vast majority of the agricultural middle- and working-classes relied upon their own resources for labour. The sudden rise of the Connachta-Uí Néill peoples from either side of the River Shannon, overturning the country’s established political order in the 4th and 5th centuries CE, was closely associated with the former’s accumulated wealth. This was largely derived from mercantile relations with the north-western fringes of the Roman empire, much of it less than peaceful. Maritime expeditions to Britain returned with hundreds – perhaps thousands – of captives destined for lives of hardship in the lands of the Connachta-Uí Néill kingdoms or their allies.

The enslaved included a Romano-British teenager, the scion of a respectable family, who styled himself Patricius in Latin, which the Irish rendered as Pádraig. That is, Saint Patrick. Taken during a raid in what is now north-western England, the youth ended up in the far west of Ireland, serving for several years as a herder, before traversing the country and sea back home to Britain. At least temporarily. The association with its missionary founder partly accounted for the official hostility of the Irish Christian Church to slavery, once the new faith had seen off the indigenous religion of the druids (though in reality some later monastic-towns were not above enforced bondage when it came to tending their own substantial estates).

Medieval Irish slavery persisted to a relatively late date in comparison with the rest of western Europe. In large part this can be attributed to the profitability of the slave-trade for the Scandinavian-Irish or Viking towns of Dublin, Wexford and Waterford which were key ports in the mercantile networks stretching from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. By the 11th century all of these places were under the authority of Irish overlords, who expressed few qualms about the morally dubious commercial enterprises of their vassals, though the use of Irish-born thralls may have been reduced in the name of piousness and embryonic notions of common nationality. This highlights one aspect of slavery as practised in Ireland, and among the Gaels and Celts in general. Enslavement normally came through capture in warfare, however loosely defined, rather than through notions of racial inferiority or even parentage. Niall Naoighiallach, the princely founder of the royal Uí Néill lines, was the son of a king, Eochaidh Moghmheadhoin, and his second wife, Caireann Chasdubh, a probable Romano-British slave (her unusual Irish name is adapted from Latin Carina). Niall’s status as the son of a foreign slave-girl had no negative consequences for his startling career, or fame, which ended with his premature death while raiding southern Britain around 450 CE.

However, as interesting as the above is, when it comes to the question of Irish slaves there are some who prefer myth to history, particularly among more conservative sections of the Irish-American community in the United States. Or those with the most tenuous of links to Gaelic ancestry. This is recognisable in the modern claim that Irish or “White” slaves were to be found in the British and European colonies of the New World during the 17th and early 18th centuries. According to these accounts, plentiful on the internet and occasionally in printed form, some 30,000 men, women and children from Ireland were sold into slavery by Britain following the Eleven Years’ War of 1641 to 1653, and the slaughter and displacement caused by the Cromwellian armies in the country. Most of these exiles were kept in bondage for the entirety of their lives, as were some of their children and children’s children. Some more lurid accounts allege that the established Irish slaves were “interbred” with new African ones to create successive generations of thralls (invariably these stories come down to some variant of black men raping white women).

The poorly constructed claims are, of course, a nonsense, a confusion of indentured servitude, a type contractual bondage, with chattel slavery. The vast majority of Irish people forced into indentured service (rather than volunteering) in the 17th century, the thousands of men, women and children expelled from the country by land-grabbing British colonists and so on, were still regarded as human beings, albeit on the lowest rung of the racial ladder. Several basic laws governed their treatment, and many were eventually freed from their contracts, either by serving them out or buying their termination.

That is not to deny that indentured servitude contained within it aspects of slavery as popularly imagined. Conditions were undoubtedly dreadful for those of an Irish background in the ethnically and religiously-charged English colonies of the Caribbean. Physical, sexual and psychological ill-treatment may have been common, premature deaths not unknown, and some unfortunates could have been trapped in bondage for their entire lives. Considerable numbers had no say over where they lived, where they could travel, what they could consume, what they wore, what they read, who they could associate with, who they could marry, or even if they could have children. Some saw their family units broken up, parents and siblings spilt apart. For many of those people our modern academic debates over the legal niceties between “indentured slavery” and “chattel slavery” would have been meaningless, especially for those who lived and worked alongside the African slaves who were eventually to make the whole system of servitude economically nonviable.

Yet, it must be recognised that chattel slavery was an entirely separate phenomenon to indentured servitude, though initially there was some attempts to apply the laws and contracts of the latter to the former. The move to slavery as portrayed in modern books and movies, and as understood by most people today, was significantly influenced by racialism and fears of miscegenation; that is, the interbreeding of people considered to be of different racial types. Irish and British could marry and have children, and had done so for centuries despite their differences, but the colonisers of the New World were horrified by the thoughts of Europeans and Africans intermingling in their communities. The early settlements of North America, founded in the main by religious fundamentalists from rural Britain, were no place for multicultural or multiracial experimentation. A new Rome or Byzantium they were not. In this social and cultural environment, and for generations afterwards, African slaves were slaves for life, unless their masters wished it otherwise. They, and their progeny, were property, to be bought and sold, used and abused as those who owned them saw fit. If the Irish were treated as slaves in some cases, the Africans were actual slaves in almost all cases.

That is the key difference. Confusing indentured servitude and chattel slavery simply obscures the real history of both peoples, and their respective protests against the past wrongs inflicted upon them and their demands for retrospective justice. Those who now proclaim “Black Lives Matter” are no different to those who proclaimed in Easter 1916 that, in effect, “Irish Lives Matter”, and we alone would be the masters and mistresses of our own fates. To quote a seminal poem by Patrick H. Pearse, president of the Irish Republic and commander-in-chief of the Army of the Irish Republic, in the context of the exploitation of the peoples of Africa, is to express kinship with those peoples through our own historical experiences, not to appropriate their history as our own.

“I am come of the seed of the people, the people that sorrow;
Who have no treasure but hope,
No riches laid up but a memory of an ancient glory,
My mother bore me in bondage, in bondage my mother was born,
I am of the blood of serfs;
The children with whom I have played, the men and women with whom I have eaten
Have had masters over them, have been under the lash of masters,
and though gentle, have served churls.”



14 comments on “Irish Slaves In The Americas And The Modern Myth Of White Slavery

  1. No question that there is a significant difference between indentured servitude – whether compulsory or voluntary – and chattel slavery.

    Of interesting note, however, was that in some Southern states slaves were not used to dig the canals which were put in place in towns such as Columbia, S.C., and Augusta, Ga., beginning in the 1820s. The work was deemed too hazardous and slaves considered too valuable, so the Irish were employed instead. When a worker died, as often happened, usually due to disease or accident, he was often buried in the bank of the canal, and work continued on.

    The church I originally attended when I moved to South Carolina was begun in 1821 to minister to Irish canal workers who had come to Columbia to work on the canal.


  2. Derek Ó H

    I doubt somebody experiencing the worst aspects of compulsory servitude would describe themselves as anything but a slave. Intellectual debate over many issues leads to conclusions which are inevitably generalisations (a generalisation itself) and classifications. Intellectual debate also deviates from the lived human experience in question.


  3. john maciain

    yes, the majority of irish reduced to servitude were bonded servants but accordingto acedemic artilce i read when at the university of toronto there were 10 to 12 thousand irish sold directly into slavery,these records still exist. mostly sold to the carribbean, and a few thousand scots gaels after the 45. this was true slavery. the laws of the planter states in the caribean confirm this as they had to struggle with the category of slavery candidates. the early laws said only non christians could be slaves. then they were amended on most islands to classify catholics as non christians. the writers of the time acknowledged that this was to allow for the irish catholic slaves. most were bonded, which was also a terriblecrime against humanity, but there were actual slaves. there are a few references to irish slaes in america as well.


  4. thank you for this.


  5. Lord of Mirkwood

    Hello ASF,

    I just had a little spare time to browse some posts here that I missed, and I stumbled across this one.

    This whole “Irish slaves” thing is pretty messy, especially when you apply it to the political situation in the U.S. You are right about the people who most often deploy having “the most tenuous links to Gaelic ancestry.” I have seen it cited by several Confederate flag wavers in our southern parts, and what really gets me is that those people are most likely Scots-Irish Baptists who probably wouldn’t give one of us taigs the time of day 364 days of the year. The biggest tell for me is when they use the terminology “white slavery.” When the focus goes to “white” instead of “Irish,” that seems to me to be a sign that they don’t give a damn about Irish suffering.

    The types who say this stuff are usually neo-Nazis whose sympathies probably lie with the UDA and the UVF in the Long War. In the U.S., such types have tried to appropriate Irish imagery, such as the Celtic cross, which they insultingly put on one of their white supremacist websites to which I will not link. Now they are trying to appropriate Irish history as well to suit their own ends. I view it as just that – appropriation. They will throw the Irish people away like an ill-fitting set of clothes once they have silenced Black Lives Matter. I never take white supremacists’ claims to respect Irishness seriously.

    Also, the underlying implication in this argument that the Irish have “made it” as part of some larger “white” body politic is infuriating, given that many Irish-Americans still live in poor conditions, there are tens of thousands of undocumented Irish immigrants in this country in the same boat as Latin Americans, we (Irish-Americans) face degrading cultural appropriation and caricaturization at least once a month every year (that being March), and Ireland is still suffering colonialism. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: Confederate flag wavers almost never know what they’re talking about.

    Now for the other side of things…

    The people who rightly oppose the racist yahoos often go too far in over-correcting. Whatever the legal semantics between indentured servitude and chattel slavery were, it was a distinction without a difference for the people involved. Yes, there was technically an end date to the period of forced labor, but in practice there was not much to stop the British masters from working their Irish “servants” to death before that. These “servants” didn’t exactly go over there willingly.

    Even if there was no element of Irish oppression to Caribbean history in the 1600s, that doesn’t stop some over-correctors from going on to assert that the Irish never had it that bad at any point. Using inverse logic of the Confederate flag wavers, some will argue that because the Irish are “white” (again, see above for why I view that as infuriating), Ireland wasn’t REALLY a colony, Irish identity can’t be radical or revolutionary: in other words, “stop complaining, Paddy!” Thus, a legitimate take-down of Confederate white supremacists who have nothing to do with the Irish people turns into Irish Holocaust denial, if you will. The Great Hunger, centuries of apartheid, dispossession beginning with the Tudors, and the genocidal massacres of Cromwell (which we know DID happen), and the continued British occupation of the North in defiance of the Irish people – I have seen all of these dismissed out of hand by my fellow progressives here in the U.S.

    These are folks who are out there shouting “No justice, no peace!” for Eric Garner and Michael Brown. These are people who will freak out over a Halloween costume. They’ll participate in Planned Parenthood rallies for abortion rights. Their scope is not limited to the U.S., either. They will gladly stand with Palestine, or demonstrate against U.S. wars in the Middle East. Yet bring up Ireland? Yawning…dismissal…it’s not really a problem…fuck you, Paddy…no place for you in our movement…

    But then again, Bernie Sanders was writing to Thatcher on behalf of Irish political prisoners back in 1981. A pity he couldn’t be our 45th President (although with Hillary’s health now in question, who knows what could unfold…?)

    Anyway, I hope I’ve shed some light on how this historiography plays out in the U.S.


    • Thanks for that, LoM. Lot to agree with. On the core issue of slavery versus indenture I think the key difference is ownership. African and Afro-American slaves were owned, as with livestock, by their masters to do with as they wish. That slavery extended to every subsequent generation. Parents, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on were slaves unless emancipated by their owners (and even then their freedoms were revocable). The Irish indentured were “owned” for the period of their contract, even if unfairly lengthened, and their treatment had some regulation and rule to it. I suppose one could say “indentured slaves” in semantic opposition to “chattel slaves” but I think that detracts from the severity and barbarity of the latter state. The sometimes horrific nature of Irish indenture does not need to be exaggerated by confusion with African and African-American slavery. It stands on its own terrible terms. I think that is what the “white nationalist” are attempting to do. Confuse the savagery of black slavery with the oppression of white indenture to confuse the issue and excuse away the former.


  6. Lord of Mirkwood

    Thanks for the response. Both the Irish and black experiences, as you write, stand on their own terrible terms.


  7. Seán MacBhloscaidh

    A belated thanks for this, LofM and ASF. It mirrors my experience here in the States exactly.


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