The New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education describes genocide as: "Any tragic events that result in the murder of a specified group of people or the destruction of them as a people... and slavery, loss of names, families, values, etc." The commission decided: "Many genocides do not have any constituency, let alone a strong constituency, calling attention to them. Very few materials addressing such genocides have been designed for use in secondary schools."
The Irish Famine Curriculum was approved in September 1996 by the New Jersey Commission for inclusion in the Holocaust and Genocide Curriculum at the secondary school level. That year the New York legislature also passed an amendment "with enthusiastic bipartisan support", for an appropriation bill supporting the development of a Great Irish Famine curriculum in that state. As far as I know, both efforts were then quietly sidelined and studiously forgotten.
I was talking online recently with a retired teacher living in New Jersey, and mentioned the curriculum. I was not surprised she had never heard of it. Curious, she brought the subject up the next evening during a dinner with colleagues. She wrote back: "Neither of my colleagues ever heard of the famine curriculum. They were as surprised as I was and also as interested. Little good it will do." Sadly, I have to agree.
In this land once under English rule, there appears, even 235 years after independence, an ingrained reluctance by its institutions to countenance any stain falling on "the mother country". That has ever come at a cost to the interests of those 12% of Americans claiming Irish heritage; Irish Catholics in particular.
Black History month is behind us, a month of Irish doings on deck. What better time to let loose the bugbear of: Irish slavery.
Did it exist? Wikipedia says: "Chattel slavery virtually disappeared after the Norman Conquest. It was finally abolished by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833". (One wonders the need to abolish that which has disappeared.)
Irish slavery was either widespread or nonexistent, depending on who's writing the history. The Irish that arrived in the Americas after Cromwell's invasion are labeled "colonists", "immigrants", "servants" or "slaves".
Here are samples from the literature and forums illustrating the conflicting views:
On the one hand:
"The first recorded Irish slaves were sold to a settlement on the Amazon River In South America in 1612".
"The Irish slave trade began when James II sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. His Proclamation of 1625... officially establish(ed) a policy that was to continue for two centuries."
"From 1641 to 1652, over 550,000 Irish were killed by the English and 300,000 were sold as slaves, as the Irish population of Ireland fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000".
"Although it was not a crime to kill any Irish, and soldiers were encouraged to do so, the slave trade proved too profitable to kill off the source of the product." (If true, the "Prod ethic" may have spared the Irish a wider, total extermination at the time.)
"Few people today realize that from 1600 to 1699, far more Irish were sold as slaves than Africans". "Although African Negroes were better suited to work in the semi-tropical climates of the Caribbean, they had to be purchased, while the Irish were free for the catching".
"Banished soldiers were not allowed to take their wives and children with them, and naturally, the same for those sold as slaves. The result was a growing population of homeless women and children, who being a public nuisance, were likewise rounded up and sold".
"In time, the English thought of a better way to use these women to increase their market share: The settlers began to breed Irish women and girls with African men to produce slaves with a distinct complexion. These new "mulatto" slaves brought a higher price than Irish livestock and, likewise, enabled the settlers to save money rather than purchase new African slaves."
"England shipped tens of thousands of Irish prisoners after the 1798 Irish Rebellion to be sold as slaves in the Colonies and Australia."
"By the mid 1600s, the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. At that time, 70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves."
On the other hand:
"Irish men and women had been freely emigrating to the West Indies for at least a quarter century before the Cromwellian cruelties."
"...servitude, no matter how long, brutal and involuntary, was not the same thing as perpetual slavery’...those who did survive were free to leave or stay, and to raise families without condemning their children to slavery". (historian Winthrop D. Jordan)
Britannica- re Montserrat, a British Territory - "It was colonized in 1632 by Irish Catholics from nearby Saint Kitts (Saint Christopher), who were sent there by Sir Thomas Warner, the first British governor of Saint Kitts. More Irish immigrants subsequently arrived from Virginia".
Elsewhere we read that those Catholics (slaves or servants?) were transported to Montserrat from St. Kitts and Virginia because of the strong religious intolerance pervasive in both those English Protestant colonies).
Wikipedia: "The arms (adopted in 1909) pay tribute to the Irish ancestry of Montserrat, as much of the population is descended from the Irish settlers exiled to the island by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century... The arms feature Erin, the female personification of Ireland, and the golden harp, another symbol of Ireland. This reflects the colony's Irish ancestry. Another site: "The Irish presence in Montserrat dates back to the 1630s, when the first pioneers - Roman Catholics - sailed over from St. Kitts because of friction with British Protestant settlers there. The Irish planters brought Enslaved Africans to work their sugar cane fields. Soon the enslaved Africans outnumbered them 3-to-1 and began rebelling. In 1768, the enslaved Africans planned an island-wide attack on St. Patrick's Day, when the planters would be celebrating.... But someone leaked the plan.... Local authorities punished the enslaved Africans severely, hanging nine.
`It was crushed cruelly,'' says Sir Howard Fergus, historian. "There is a myth that the Irish, being oppressed by the British, were more humane, and this exposes that lie... Today people mix their annual celebration of shamrocks and green beer with memories of an aborted enslaved African revolt against Irish planters." (found on caribbeanedu.org and www.teachers.org.uk/ and other sites)
Do you think five is enough times to mention "enslaved African" in a short paragraph?
The spin or "English" applied appears to be: after Cromwell's conquest, when Penal Laws were in full force, Irish Catholic "pioneers" arrived in British colonies as "planters". (I have no doubt they did plenty of "planting". And "pioneers"? Could they have been drink averse like members of the Pioneer Association, founded some 250 years later by Father Cullen SJ?)
Donald Harman Akenson, fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Professor of History at Queen's, and Conor Cruise O'Brien biographer: "Ireland's own little empire on Montserrat was much like England's: brutal and oppressive; iniquitous and racist". (If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730.)
And: "The Montserrat Irish were, to an unprecedented extent, ruled by Irishmen: at least six of the island’s seventeenth-century governors were Irish".
I pulled up one list of Montserrat governors and found only one Irish-sounding name: John Carroll, who was "acting governor" in 1675. What Irish are we talking about here? The authors seem to be deliberately smudging the line between orange and green, master and slave- like blaming Hiroshima on the Indians.
One site "Montserrat, Speaking Frankly" has some surprises: "By the third quarter of the seventeenth century, Montserrat had become the most Irish island in the West Indies... Family names suggest that most came from County Cork, with smaller contingents from Clare, Donegal, Galway, Tipperary, Waterford, Westmeath and Wexford... Numerically larger Irish colonies had already existed on other English islands. In 1669, for example, 8,000 Irish were reported in Barbados. Jamaica, captured from Spain in 1655, also attracted large numbers of Irish. The census was commissioned by Sir William Stapleton of Thurlesbegg, County Tipperary, a former governor of Montserrat and then governor of the Leeward islands.
The Rising of 1641, and the subsequent warfare that brought Cromwell to Ireland in 1649, increased tension in distant St Kitts... In a petition dated 1643, an Irish captain named Peter Sweetman asked the King of Portugal to let 400 Irish Catholics from St Kitts move to Brazil... ‘Harassed by the English heretics'... he and his fellow Irishmen desired to live as Catholics under Portuguese protection... The vast majority of Irish who came to Montserrat never become planters. Most were indentured servants... Once established, freemen invested their earnings the same way the big planters did; by buying slaves."
One site, "Operation Montserrat" appears to blame it all on France: "1664 - The French took possession of Montserrat. Slavery was introduced to the island." (Keep in mind that since 1632 Montserrat has been a British possession, save for brief periods under the French.)
"A failed slave uprising on 17 March 1768 led to Montserrat becoming one of only two places in the world that celebrates St Patrick's Day as a public holiday, the other being Ireland". Nine slaves were subsequently hanged, allegedly by "Irish planters".
Montserrat, 95% black, celebrates that uprising now with green beer and shamrocks. (Just as Americans celebrate July 4 wearing bowler hats, orange sashes and waving union jacks?)
An expert on the subject of spin said: "The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it." (Look it up.)
The question is, were any slaves in the uprising and subsequent hangings Gaelic speakers?
We read that "Most Montserratans spoke Irish Gaelic until about 1900". And "About 100 years after the 1768 rebellion, a ship crewed by Irish-speaking Corkmen dropped anchor at Montserrat. At the dock, they were amazed to hear black Montserratans speaking Irish. It's said the Montserratans also informed the Corkmen with good humor and a straight face "Tá sé sin ait, ní fheictear mar Gaeil sibh" - "That's funny, you guys don't look Irish."'
Even today an Irish teacher from Long Island tells of "a little black girl who walked up to her, confirmed she was an Irish teacher, then recited a Gaelic poem taught to her by her Montserratan grandmother".
Slaves or masters? Irish or English? Black or white? By design or neglect, or both, the history has been obscured. We read that the islanders now celebrate St. Patrick's Day by: "dancing Irish jigs one night then mocking their one-time masters the next by cracking whips and masquerading in tall hats like bishops' miters.." "We are celebrating the rise of the African freedom fighters" says historian Sir Howard Fergus. Will we hear next that England intervened to save the Africans from their Irish Catholic masters?
Take a look online. Here are those dancers the travel brochures tell us are dressed as former Irish slave masters; "bishops in miters", with whips: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3S1PTFE93Ks&feature=related (about 2 minutes into the clip)
Now ask yourself- if these dancers are imitating Irish slave owners of 1768 (allegedly bishops, no less) what's wrong with the picture?
The first thought that struck me was: Why are these "bishops" dressed in tattered red jackets? And why the knee-breeches and stockings? Digging 'round through 17th century costumes I found this guy. Now, that makes a lot more sense to me than "bishops with whips", since Montserrat has been ruled almost continuously by Britain. Sir Howard Fergus insists St. Peters parish on the North of the island, the area where most of the light-skinned natives were grouped, has never had a Catholic church.
But on Montserrat: "No family records have survived, and the oral history of any Irish lineage has been forgotten."
One thing is true: the island has been left a very confused and bewildering colonial legacy, to say the least.
And last, but certainly not least- Have a look here-
Happy St. Patrick's Day!
Watch: IRISH JOURNAL TELEVISION
Chicago cable- CAN-TV, Channel 19: Monday 7PM, Tuesday 2PM Comcast- (Skokie system) 24 North suburbs – Ch. 19 (or 35): Tuesday, 6PM Comcast- (Elmhurst system) 41 West suburbs– Channel 19: Tuesday 7:30 PM © Mike Morley 2011