issue 255 - May 1994
The riotous and the righteous
Ireland was Britain’s first colony, and the British learned much there that
they later applied in America, Asia and Africa. The Irish learned a lot
too – but not always the right lessons, as Bill Rolston explains.
During the famine years of the 1840s and 1850s, lreland lost a quarter of its population through death and emigration. The ideology of laissez faire dominated political thought with the result that, although groups such as the Quakers made heroic efforts to relieve the famine, the British Government did nothing.
Not so the Choctaw Indians of Oklahoma. Fifteen years previously they had been forcibly moved from their traditional lands to a ‘reservation’ 600 miles away. During their forced march 14,000 had died. When the survivors heard of the events in Ireland, they collected $710 and sent it for famine relief.
In 1991 the circle was completed. AfrI, an Irish agency formed to aid famine victims in Africa, held the first of its annual famine marches in County Mayo and Hollis Roberts, chief of the Choctaws, led the march.
Philip Sheridan was born in the village of Killinkere, County Cavan in 1831. Years later he became a prominent general in charge of the massacre of the Plains Indians in the United States. He was ruthless and brutal: ‘If a village is attacked and women and children are killed,’ he said, ‘the responsibility is not with the soldiers but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack’. On another occasion, he spoke the infamous words: ‘The only good Indians I ever saw were dead’.
In October 1992 Joanne Tall, a representative of the Oglala Sioux and descendant of those same Plains Indians, was welcomed in Killinkere. Two local men, Edward Sheridan and Gerry Clark, apologized to her on behalf of the Irish men who had participated in the genocide. Joanne Tall planted a maple tree near the house in which Philip Sheridan had been born.
It would be satisfying to believe that those two stories of links between oppressed peoples are the true legacy of Ireland’s long apprenticeship in colonialism. The real inheritance could never be so neat. Ireland was Britain’s first colony, its training ground for later imperial adventures and exploitations in America, Asia and Africa. And the conflict in the North is still permeated by the legacies of the colonial past.
Britain’s oldest colony
By the time Columbus established a Spanish presence in the Americas, Ireland had already experienced centuries of colonization. But the new era of imperial expansion which Columbus represented was to change the nature of Britain’s interest in and treatment of Ireland.
Previously British influence on Ireland had been remarkably slight. The Normans had colonized Ireland since 1169, but their influence had for the most part been confined to a narrow strip on the east coast known as the Pale. Beyond the Pale Irish language, laws and customs prevailed and the Norman colonists were assimilated. Periodically this was a cause of concern to the Norman overlords in England. Such concern usually coincided with a fear that one of England’s enemies would use Ireland as the back door through which to conquer England. The presence in Ireland of Normans who had become ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’ was worrying. So laws were frequently enacted to ensure the separation of the colonists and the colonized – though they were spectacularly unsuccessful.
The Elizabethan conquest of Ireland in the late sixteenth century was driven by more global concerns than those of the Normans. Columbus’s project in the previous century had been the first step in the creation of a global imperialism. Spain’s greatest competitor in the imperial game was Britain, and Britain’s oldest colony was now transformed from a remote area of no concern except when war threatened, to an integral link in the imperial chain.
As far as the Elizabethans were concerned, there was to be no part of Ireland that was beyond the Pale. Any means were justified in the country’s conquest. Thus they planted Ulster with English and Scottish settlers; the Irish living on the lands confiscated for plantation were to be removed and British landlords were not to have any Irish tenants.
Savages for sacrifice
In 1183 a monk named Giraldus Cambrensis, a member of one of the main Norman families colonizing Ireland, wrote a book entitled The History and Topography of Ireland. It was a work of fiction designed to justify the Norman conquest of Ireland. Accordingly, Cambrensis accused the Irish of various vices, including laziness, treachery, blasphemy, idolatry, ignorance of Christian beliefs, incest and cannibalism.1
Remarkably, this bizarre and fictional account was the mainstay of English views of Ireland for the next 500 years. It was at the base of Elizabethan ideology when they came to plant Ireland. Consequently, the Irish were never ‘noble savages’ for the Elizabethans as the native peoples of the Caribbean were – albeit briefly – for Columbus. Elizabethan adventurers described the Irish as ‘beasts, void of law and all good order...brutish in their customs’. As ‘pagans’, they were a legitimate ‘sacrifice to God’.
Such beliefs helped to justify the deeds of ruthless military men such as Sir Humphrey Gilbert. His policy was to slaughter noncombatants on the grounds that the terror thus induced in the population ‘made short wars’. After a battle he would have the severed heads of any Irish soldiers taken laid alongside the laneway to his tent.
At the same time as they were involved in the conquest of Ireland, the Elizabethans were colonizing North America. Though they originally saw the native inhabitants as ‘noble savages’ this soon ended, and the same terrorist methods which they had perfected in Ireland were transported to the American colonies. Among these techniques were: deliberately inciting competition between native groups so as to divide and rule; regarding any promises made to natives as invalid; and using false propaganda about natives to justify their repression or genocide.2
This arose not merely because similar conquests required similar strategies, but because frequently the same personnel were involved in the conquest of Ireland and America.3 Their time in Ireland was in effect a period of apprenticeship. And Giraldus Cambrensis’ fictions about the Irish people of the twelfth century were applied first to the American native people and later to Africans and Asians.
Joining the resistance
Throughout the world, the colonized responded in two ways: by resistance and by incorporation. The Irish were no exception.
There are too many examples of Irish resistance to colonialism to mention. They range from cultural resistance in song and poetry to rebellions – the most notable of which were those of the United Irishmen in 1798, the Young Irelanders in 1848, and of course the Easter Rising of 1916, followed by the War of Independence between 1919 and 1921.
But resistance was not confined to Ireland itself. Take the Caribbean. The British established sugar plantations for which they needed labourers. Originally these labourers came from Britain and Ireland, mostly indentured servants persuaded to emigrate because of the promise of land at the end of their service.
But many of the early labourers were there involuntarily. Prisoners were sold to planters and there was a lucrative trade in kidnapping. At one point Oliver Cromwell’s son Henry attempted to suppress Irish Catholicism by transporting young people between 12 and 14 years of age.
The Irish labourers were ‘a riotous and unruly lot’, both individually and collectively.4 In 1666 on the Island of St Kitts the Irish settlers rebelled and enabled the French to take control of the island. The following year, the Irish on Montserrat did likewise. In 1609, when word reached the Caribbean of William of Orange’s accession to the English throne, the Irish again revolted on St Kitts and plundered English estates in support of the ousted Catholic King James.5
English landowners and administrators in Barbados constantly feared that Irish labourers were scheming to engage in joint rebellions with black slaves – and this fear was at the root of the planters’ determination to switch to using exclusively African slave labour.
That Irish labourers could envisage joining with black slaves in rebellion shows that the experience of colonization led some to commit themselves to justice and human rights for people other than themselves. Such a conclusion was not confined to the Irish abroad. Take the case of Thomas McCabe, a Belfast jeweller and a United Irishman. In 1786, some of Belfast’s richest merchants met to discuss ways in which to become involved in the lucrative British slave trade. As they prepared to sign a document forming a slave-trade company, they were interrupted by McCabe. ‘May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man who will sign that document.’ The threat worked. Unlike Bristol and Liverpool, Belfast was not drawn into the slave trade.
Another example is that of Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, who fought successfully for Catholic emancipation and unsuccessfully for the Repeal of the Act of Union. He was an unusual mixture of ardent monarchist and implacable opponent of slavery. Advisers urged him to tone down his message during fundraising tours in the US but he refused. He would not accept any subscriptions to his Repeal Association from slave owners. ‘I want no American aid if it comes across the Atlantic stained in Negro blood.’
Drinking in racism
But there was another side to the ideology of the colonized. Take the Young Irelanders, a movement in the 1840s whose members wrote stirring prose and poetry and designed Ireland’s national flag.
Their most prominent member was John Mitchel, who was transported to Tasmania for his part in the 1848 rebellion. He eventually escaped and settled in the southern US. There he became a staunch defender of slavery. ‘I consider negro slavery here the best state of existence for the negro and the best for his master; and I consider that taking negros out of their brutal slavery in Africa and promoting them to a human and reasonable slavery here is also good.’ During the Civil War Mitchel was jailed for his outspoken support for the Confederacy.
Sixty years later, Arthur Griffith, first President of the Irish Free State, wrote in his introduction to Mitchel’s Jail Journal: ‘His views on negro-slavery have been deprecatingly excused, as if excuse were needed for an Irish Nationalist declining to hold the negro his peer in right. When the Irish Nation needs explanation or apology for John Mitchel, the Irish Nation will need its shroud.’6
The views of Mitchel and Griffith are in stark contrast to those of American black leaders on Ireland. They empathized with the sufferings of the Irish peasantry and praised the attempts of Irish revolutionaries to win freedom and independence.
A contemporary of Mitchel, the black leader Frederick Douglass, said after a visit to Ireland. ‘They have been long oppressed; and the same heart that prompts me to plead the cause of the American bondsman, makes it impossible for me not to sympathize with the oppressed of all lands.’
Marcus Garvey also supported the Irish struggle for liberation. In 1921 his Universal Negro Improvement Association had its Second Convention in New York City, and resolved to send cables of support ‘to Mahatma Gandhi, sympathizing with him in his efforts for a free India; Eamon de Valera, in his fight for Irish independence; and to King George V of England, stating that nothing would please the Negro peoples more (except the freedom of Africa) than the emancipation of Ireland, India and Egypt’.
The narrow vision of Mitchel and Griffith on the one hand; the internationalism of McCabe and O’Connell on the other: these are the two sides of Ireland’s colonial legacy. Contradictory as they may appear, resistance and collaboration can coexist in one national consciousness.
That the experience of colonial oppression has – paradoxically – its positive side continues to be shown even in simple ways such as the disproportionately high contribution that Irish people make to aid agencies working in the underdeveloped world. Similarly the official stance of neutrality of the Irish Republic – albeit under threat from developments in both the European Union and the United Nations – results from Ireland’s experience of being a colonized nation rather than a colonizer.
At the same time racism exists in Ireland towards the small minorities of African and Asian immigrants as well as towards Ireland’s indigenous minority, the Travelling community. And the Irish abroad can be just as racist as their imperialist hosts, as Bernadette McAliskey (then Devlin) found out when she visited the US in the early 1970s.7
‘I was not very long there until, like water, I found my own level. “My people” – the people who know about oppression, discrimination, prejudice, poverty and the frustration and despair that they produce – were not Irish Americans. They were black, Puerto Rican, Chicano. And those who were supposed to be “my people”, the Irish Americans who know about English misrule and the Famine and supported the civil-rights movement at home, and knew that Partition and England were the cause of the problem, looked and sounded to me like Orangemen. They said exactly the same things about blacks that the loyalists said about us at home. In New York I was given the key to the city by the mayor, an honour not to be sneezed at. I gave it to the Black Panthers.’
Bill Rolston is lecturer in sociology at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown.
1 Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, Penguin 1988.
2 Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America, University of North Carolina Press 1975.
3 Bernard Sheehan, Savagism and Civility, Cambridge University Press 1980.
4 Hilary Beckles, ‘A “riotous and unruly lot”’ William and Mary Quarterly, vol 47, 1950.
5 Richard S Dunn, Sugar and Slaves, University of North Carolina Press 1972.
6 John Mitchel, Jail Journal, MH Gill & Son 1913.
7 Bernadette McAliskey, ‘A Peasant in the Halls of the Great’, in Michael Farrell (ed.) Twenty Years On, Dingle, Brandon 1988.