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.”