Relations between the Irish and the Blacks in America have often been at odds. When hundreds of thousands of poor Irish fled the great famine and emigrated to America they found themselves at the bottom of society. Between 1845 and 1852 the starving Irish boarded coffin ships and threw themselves on the mercy of America.
We Irish need to remember this as we observe the flood of refugees and economic migrants who daily put their lives at risk in Libya, boarding unsuitable vessels in their droves and casting their lot on the waters of the Mediterranean.
There are anecdotal tales from America of wealthy landowners hiring Irish workers for dangerous jobs because they didn’t want to risk a valuable slave.
Irish people living in slave states found themselves in competition for work with Negros. They opposed the freeing of slaves as this would release a workforce in direct competition to them. Even in the free states of the north the Irish immigrants found themselves in competition with Negros for the lowest and most menial jobs. These Irish were in ill health, uneducated and many could not even speak English. The only advantage they held over the Negro was the colour of their skin.
At the same time the Irish could identify with the plight of the American Blacks. The Irish were no strangers to transportation and slavery. Many of the original slaves in Caribbean sugar plantations were Irish and Scottish petty criminals or indentured labourers. The tiny island of Montserrat reflects this influx, most of the inhabitants have Irish names despite their dark skin, and the island holds St Patrick’s day as a holiday.
The Irish who arrived in America emerged from a culture of persecution by Absentee British Landlords and their local Bailiffs. Unlike farm tenants in England the Irish cottagers were little more than serfs, subsisting in a non-monetary economy with no rights of tenure, rent control or free sale of their property. They understood much about the life of a slave.
This conflict between sympathy and competiton resolved itself in the Civil War of 1861 to 65 when Irish elected to fight on both sides. Indeed at the battle of Fredricksburg the 69th New York Infantry (The Irish Brigade) was decimated at the Sunken Road below Marye’s Heights. Their opponents were the 24th Georgia regiment, comprising McMillans Guards, an Irish regiment.
After the civil war the fate of the Irish in American diverged sharply from that of the Negro. The Irish became educated and worked their way into positions of political power. Many Irish gravitated to careers in law enforcement and public service. While the men worked hard the mothers drove their children to education and improvement. Lace curtains went up on the windows and the Irish integrated. Eventually, in the 1960’s the scion of an Irish immigrant family became President of the United States.
There was no ‘risk’ of a black president of the USA in the 1960’s. This was the age of the struggle for civil rights.
In a perverse twist of fate it was the black struggle for civil rights in America that ignited the Catholic struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland. The Irish learned from Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. Peace protest marches began, and they ended similarly to the marches in Birmingham Alabama, in violence, persecution and death.
Here is a piece of footage and a highly poignant moment from that time. Muhammad Ali reciting his own poem on an Irish TV show.