By LENNOX FARRELL
This is the title of an autobiography by John Taylor, son of Jamaican immigrants to England in the 1950s. Today, Lord Taylor of Warwick, he is the first Black peer appointed to the British House of Lords.
However, what is of interest here is not the personal and political history of Lord Taylor. Of interest is the fact that when his mother – like other Black residents there – had sought housing then, these signs against Blacks, Irish and dogs summarized the stiff upper lip of Rule Britannia.
So, why in the minds of the British, did these discriminatory linkages between Black and Irish people exist? There are several reasons, some contemporary, some historic. There are also reasons which, more than historic, are mythic; stretching dimly back with the earliest settlers on record of today’s Ireland. These myths will be addressed in a later article.
Of contemporary interest herein, is that the Irish are also referred to as the “Blacks of Europe”. It’s most modern use is in a Hollywood movie, The Commitments. Based on a 1987 novel by the Irish writer, Roddy Doyle, the novel is part of a trilogy. In this particular episode, the Commitments, a group of unemployed Irish youth, start a “soul band”. In defending their legitimacy in so doing, one of them says, “The Irish are the Blacks of Europe.” Others similarly insist that the Irish love of music, the arts and of justice uniquely guarantees to them this prestige.
The term also has had some political cache. This is especially so among Irish Republicans, particularly because of their centuries of opposition to British occupation forces in the Emerald Isle. Their struggles against British colonialism, in addition to the fact of Irish enslavement, made many feel a seamless kinship with the struggles of Black people.
In fact, several episodes elsewhere and in American history attest to these historic links, experiences and sentiments. One was of Malcolm X, who on one occasion reminded Irish-Americans of their own struggles against discrimination, enslavement and impoverishment.
Another, set during the 19th century, is with regards to General William Tecumseh Sherman, the great general and military strategist in America’s Civil War. One of his names, “Tecumseh” is significant for a White man then taking the name of a Shawnee Chief. Translated, it means “panther passing over”. Sherman’s nickname was “Cump”.
Why did this general, an Irishman, invoke what is today known as “General Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15”? Issued on January 16, 1865, it is today known as “the 40 acres and a mule”; a short-lived policy, but by which were issued arable lands to Black Freedmen in what were known as Blackacres. Its revocation, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, epitomized the failure of Reconstruction; a failure that led to the mid-20th century Civil Rights Movement.
Southern Whites who lost everything they’d acquired through slavery and through the war, regained more than they’d lost through legal and political chicanery. Under this Jim Crow system, a Black man could be imprisoned, accused of being on the wrong day, on the wrong side of the street.
In addition, the heinous crime of lynching had at its bloodied roots, the acquisition of lands owned by Black southerners: every lynching was to hasten the departure of Black families for the North; their lands to be seized by Whites.
In a similar manner, but occurring earlier in 1607, there occurred in Ireland, the “Flight of the Earls”. This occurred when Irish Earls and Chieftains, under increasing pressure, assassinations and impoverishment, fled Ireland – some leaving behind their wives and families – for the continent. The English seized the opportunity to confiscate more than 500,000 acres of their lands; to be distributed to supporters of the English crown.
For the Irish Catholics, earlier enslaved, British occupation would last in Ireland longer than in any other occupied and colonized territory: 800 years! Begun during the reign of Henry II in the 12th century, occupation was religious-based. The then Pope had advised the English monarch, then Catholic, that the Irish, then also Catholic, were insubordinate to the king.
In later centuries, the reasons used by Europeans and the British to colonize territories were two: acquisition of raw materials at the cheapest costs, e.g., enslavement, taxing & banditry, and by control of captive markets in a system called mercantilism. These rivalries intensified following Columbus’ voyages, leading to centuries of wars between Europeans, one lasting 100 years; others morphing into World War I and World War II.
The further colonizing of Ireland continued under English monarchs, many of whom had become Protestants following the Reformation era. These monarchs and rulers included Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England.
Of particular interest here is that Elizabeth Regina, fondly called Good Queen Bess during her reign, remained a favourite of the English because, despite fighting nine major engagements against the Irish, she rarely had to raise taxes on the English populace. Some of the funds available to fight these wars came from piracy. However, even more came from an investment she had with Sir John Hawkins’ African Trading Company. In this venture, she’d earned so much profits from her 10,000 pound investment that in one campaign against the Irish Earl, Tyrone, she spent more than 100,000 pounds.
If her treatment of the Irish resembled purgatory, under Oliver Cromwell they learned what hell was. Under him, the Irish experienced what would later be called “scorched-earth” policies. In this, even bees were set afire. In addition, during his reign, the title of “indentured labourers” was used. Akin to slavery, this practice continued well into the 18th and 19th centuries with the Irish and others.
David Balfour, the central character in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel, Kidnapped, was originally seized and sold as an indentured labourer. The setting for this kidnapping was in the post-Jacobite Rebellion of Scotland of the mid-1700s.
There is yet another wrinkle to Irish enslavement, intermixed with African slaves: interbreeding Black men with Irish women. To increase the slave population, profits and for personal, sexual and other purposes, this practice was widespread and went on for several decades.
The practice of interbreeding of Irish women and Black men was so widespread that it began cutting into the profits of the Atlantic trade. In 1681, legislation was passed “forbidding the practice of mating Irish slave women to African slave men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale”. In short, interbreeding these two races as herding animals was stopped only because it interfered with the profits of a large slave transport company.
Enslaving the Irish was no less lucrative. True, it was essentially punitive; in fact, so punitive was England’s war against Ireland that in one decade, between 1641 and 1652, because of genocide (500,000 slaughtered) and enslavement (300,000 sold as slaves), the population fell from 1,500,000 to 600,000.
Thus, during the 1650s, over 100,000 Irish children between the ages of 10 and 14 were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In this decade, 52,000 Irish – mostly women and children – were sold to Barbados and Virginia. Another 30,000 Irish men and women were also transported and sold to the highest bidders. In 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2,000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.
Today, while the Irish and dogs are allowed in to sit at, or under, the table, Black people, even as peers and presidents, still mostly stand outside the door. Our task is to remove it, bolt it shut, or build another…but this time for our use.
Finally, what did the Irish historian Geoffrey Keating (1570-1644) have to say of interest to Black people in his History of Ireland? His writings are central to the history and myths of Ireland. In short, he is to Irish history and culture what other writers, for example, Titus Livius Patavinus (Livy), and Geoffrey de Monmouth were to Rome and England, respectively.
To be continued.