Composite; Credit: Public Domain

MATT TREACY: The Irish ‘white privilege’ of being colonized

The current debate over the extent of Irish “white privilege” and indeed responsibility for slavery has led to the revival of what has sometimes been an unseemly debate over whether the transportation of Irish people to the West Indies during the Cromwellian plantation constituted a form of slavery.

Much of the debate over such matters from an Irish perspective stems not from a desire to lay claim to historical victimhood, as implied by Liam Kennedy in his book Unhappy the Land, but a contrary anxiety to downplay any malign intent on the part of the English colonists.

Fortunately, we do not have to rely on such sources as there have been no shortage of colonial ideologists to justify their actions. The first of these was Giraldus Cambrensis who came to Ireland with the future King John in 1185. In his Topography he described the Irish as a “barbarous people” who lived like beasts unable to properly utilise the land, and who were “ignorant of the rudiments of Christianity.” All of which justified the Conquest.

The accusation of barbarity and lack of knowledge of Christianity is ludicrous given that Irish monks had been key to saving the Christian heritage in Europe during the Dark Ages. Indeed the English themselves had been re-Christianized and educated from the 7th century by Irish missionaries emanating from Columcille’s monastery on Iona. Columbanus, St. Gall, Fergal, Finbarr and many others played a similar role in Europe. One of the greatest Church intellectuals of all, Eriugena, left Ireland and became a key figure at the court of King Charles the Bald in the 9th century.

Edmund Spenser who came to Ireland with the Lord Deputy Grey in 1580 wrote A View of the Present State of Ireland in 1596 as a response to the uprising led by Hugh O’Neill. In it he recommended a series of measures aimed at “reducing that salvage nation to better government and civility.”

The Irish had rejected English law, especially in the matter of land ownership, and still were for the greater part “Papists” barely even deserving of being treated as Christians. O’Neill had rallied “all of the scume of the Irishe” and the only remedy was violent suppression and forced famine to reduce the population to “extreame wretchednesse,” of the kind which Spenser claimed had led to cannibalism during the Desmond rebellion.

The Irish language which had been adopted by those Spenser considered the degenerate descendants of the original colonisers like the Fitzgeralds had to be eradicated along with the bards who were regarded as the guardians of Irish culture and the instigators of disloyalty.

Spenser recommended the placing of strong garrisons, especially in Ulster, to be maintained through impositions on the natives as well as rents paid for Irish land that would be granted to soldiers and other English settlers. The clan system had to be broken up through the dispersal of survivors of the “violent meanes” deployed away from their home places.

Those were the ideas that underlay the brutal manner in which the colony operated in Ireland.  Several times over the course of six centuries, in every century, that led to the sort of mortality rates that in other instances have been cited as evidence of genocide.

That is also a delicate subject among certain quarters, especially with reference to the famine of the 1840s during which one million people died and another million emigrated – amounting to a population loss of between 20 and 25%.

Curiously while the notion of genoicde is dismissed in relation to that event by many Irish historians, it is regarded as perfectly plausible among peoples with a similar history of foreign domination and massive loss of life contingent on that. I recall not long ago reading a piece by a Ukranian who compared the Holodomor to the famine here.

The deaths of up to ten million Ukranians during the socialist collectivization and consequent famine in the 1930s equated to a similar proportional loss to Ireland in the 1840s and the author attributed both to the malign attentions of a powerful neighbour. Mass hunger, as recognised by Spenser, has often been the means to conveniently get rid of unwanted people. The real question is would such an event as the Irish famine or the Holodomor have taken place under even the worst kind of “native” government?

The Mises Institute published a piece by Mark Thornton in 2017 in which he avoided the genoicde question but identified as the most “glaring cause” of the 1840s famine as “England’s long-running political hegemony over Ireland.” That had been a history of “conquest, theft, bondage” so it was not as though whatever factors led to the Great Hunger were evidence of a new colonial mentality as regards this island.

That Irish people need to remind ourselves of certain aspects of our history is not part of some contest with other peoples, but as a response to the brow beating that is taking place at present in order to make us feel shame for things we had no part in, and to induce historical and cultural amnesia.

That is all part of a concerted attack on European culture generally. In order to create a new narrative of one sided “white” oppression of others, it is deemed best to ignore the key role which Africans themselves played in the trans Atlantic slave trade, not to mention the fact that there are currently 9,000,000 slaves in Africa today. It is a distorted version of history which also ignores the fact that many white Europeans were slaves or otherwise in servitude at the same time as African slaves. Russia of course still had serfs.

For many it seems that such facts might somehow lessen the horrors and inhumanity of the slave trade to the Americas. Does that then mean that the more than one million Europeans who were taken to north Africa as slaves between the 16th and 18th centuries, as detailed in Robert Davis 2004 book Christian Slave, Muslim Masters, should be airbrushed from history?

The same political criteria is applied to the perhaps 50,000 Irish people despatched to the West Indies as the Cromwellian planters carved up the land of Ireland. Some people, including a number of historians,have become positively irate at the claim that those sent to the Caribbean were little better than chattel slaves in that they did not want to go,and that they were often treated as badly as the African slaves.

There were legal differences in the status of bonded servants and slaves with some attempting, via nothing more than anecdotes, to claim that the Irish servants had more in common with the plantation owners and behaved as badly towards the African slaves. The overall impression certain people wish to convey is that the 17th century Irish transportees were a kind of early version of au pairs or perhaps students “doing Oz” for a year.

The Irish who went to the Caribbean during the Cromwellian plantation were not mainly indentured servants, but people who were transported as a form of political exile, similar to the Soviet gulags. The Irish dispossessed and “Tories” were joined by English and Scottish political exiles who came out on the wrong side of the English civil war and the 1660 restoration.

Far from wallowing in “white privilege,” Irish transportees were involved in a 1692 revolt that also involved African slaves. Those exiles were part of what Michael Monahan of Fordham University described as a “veritable tidal wave” of unfree Irish sent to the West Indies during the Cromwellian plantation. Laws penalising all Catholic exiles were passed in 1701, an indication that the cultural war against the Irish did not stop when the ships disembarked.

The numbers of those who died there is unrecorded, but deaths on board ship averaged around 25% according to ship logs that have survived. While in formal legal terms those transported may have had better protections than chattel slaves, it did not protect them from all kinds of brutality including forced marriage and endemic rape visited upon women and girls. There has also been a tendency on the part of historians anxious to downplay the Irish experience in the Caribbean to conflate indenture with political exile, with the implication that those who ended up there were there voluntarily.

A nastier aspect to the denial of the reality of European, including Irish, servitude is the insinuation that anyone who refers to the realities and complexities of slavery is pursuing some sinister “alt right” agenda that is meant to justify or at the very least diminish the awful reality of African slavery.

Apart from the absurdity of having some league of the Most Oppressed, the current guilt bombing of all white people with regards to slavery and racism has a political intent. Unfortunately some Irish people seem only too happy to fall for the mendacious attacks mounted by people like Dr. Ebun Joseph and echoed by a considerable number of liberal and left commentators and politicians.

Catherine Murphy during the recent Dáil statements on racism made a ridiculous comment regarding the absence of black people in the Oireachtas as if to imply that there was some sinister reason that this is so, apart from not getting elected.

That is the sort of infantile stuff that is being engendered by the current climate of masochistic guilt acceptance. We have a history of colonialism that long predates that of any African country. It is not one to be constantly paraded as an excuse for anything, but it is certainly one that ought to make us wary of those who would try to incorporate us in their simplistic narratives.


The Irish Famine – Scene from the gate of the work house

TitleRidpath’s history of the world : being an account of the principal events in the career of the human race from the beginnings of civilization to the present time, comprising the development of social instititions and the story of all nations
AuthorsRidpath, John Clark, 1840-1900

Text with the photo

It will surprise the American work-ingnian to know that, in 1845, not a few of the Irish peasants, but all of them, lived, not principally or in the main, but wholly, exclusitidy,on the potato. Such a thing as meat, or another of the more concentrated forms of human food, was absolutely unknown in the Irish-mans home. His meal was of the potato only. All of his meals were so. He had nothing else. His children grew to manhood and womanhood, and then to old age, without ever having once in their lives known the taste of meat-food. In such a condition, what shall we say of the terror which the gloomy, wet summer of 1845, and the spread, ever-increasing and widening, of the potato-rot must have inspired among the crowded populations of the ill-omened island ? The cry was soon heard across the channel.At first the country squires of England, satisfied in their abundance, were disposed to deny the story of the famine, to put it off as a scare,as a hobgoblin conjured up by the Opposition and the Free Traders; but the specter would not down, and the shadow there of soon fell across the obdurate and conservative conscience of Great Britain. Such was the condition of affairs that Johu Bright, speaking of the crisis afterwards, declared that famine itself had joined the Free-Trade cause. But why the cause of Free Trade ? For the reason that the grains which all the world stood ready to pour into the harbors of starving Ireland were excluded there from by the Corn Laws of Great Britain. Even if not excluded, the price was so exorbitantly high as to be beyond the reach of the Irish peasantry. The Corn Law thus stood, like the tree of Tantalus, with its boughs hanging low and laden with abundance over the heads of the Irish people, but ever beyond their reach. Grain must take the place of the potato, or the Irish must starve. But grain can not be substituted as the food of the people so long as the present prices are maintained

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