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Irish slaves myth

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Mural of Frederick Douglass, Falls Road, Belfast. Irish people's history has embraced both a legacy of identification with the oppressed, and in propagation of the Irish Slaves Myths, elements of racism.[1]

The Irish slave myth is a pseudohistory that falsely conflates the penal transportation and indentured servitude of Irish people during the 17th and 18th centuries with the hereditary chattel slavery experience of Africans. Some white nationalists, and others who want to minimize the effects of hereditary chattel slavery on Africans and their descendants, have used this false equivalence to promote racism against African Americans[1] or claim that African Americans are too vocal in seeking justice.[2] The Irish slaves myth has also been invoked by some Irish activists, to highlight the British oppression of the Irish people and to suppress the history of Irish involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.[3]

The myth has been in circulation since at least the 1990s and has been disseminated in online memes and social media debates.[4] In 2016, academics and Irish historians wrote to condemn the myth.[5][6]


The idea that Irish people are slaves has a long history. According to historian Liam Kennedy, the idea was popular among the nineteenth-century Young Ireland movement. John Mitchel was particularly vocal in his claim that the Irish were enslaved, although he supported the transatlantic slave trade of Africans.[7]

Some books have used the term "slaves" for captive Irish people forced from their homes in Ireland and shipped overseas, against their will, to the New World,[8] particularly the British Colonies.[9] The term "slaves" or "bond slaves" was used for a "time-bound" system of years that was not perpetual. The usual period of indenture for an Irish person was from four years to nine years, after which they were free – able to travel freely, own property, make a living, and accumulate wealth. Additionally, the free Irish person could now marry whom they chose and their children were born into freedom.[8] The British legal term used was "indentured servants" whether the servants had volunteered for transport or were kidnapped and forced aboard ships. However, for centuries, Irish folklore or various books had referred to the captive servants as Irish "slaves" even into the 20th century.[9][1]

During the 17th century, tens of thousands of British and Irish indentured servants immigrated to British America. The majority of these entered into indentured servitude in the Americas for a set number of years willingly in order to pay their way across the Atlantic, but at least 10,000 were transported as punishment for rebellion against English rule in Ireland or for other crimes, then subjected to forced labour for a given period.[10][11]

During this same period, the Atlantic slave trade was enslaving millions of Africans and bringing them to the Americas, including the British colonies, where they were put to work. In Ireland, Africa, and in the Caribbean, Irish people benefited from the African trade, as slave merchants, factors, investors, and owners. According to historian Nini Rodgers, "every group in Ireland produced merchants who benefited from the slave trade and the expanding slave colonies."[12] Unlike Irish indentured servants, enslaved Africans generally were made slaves for life and this perpetual slave status was imposed on their children at birth.[4] Both systematically and legally, Africans were subjected to a lifelong, heritable slavery that the Irish never were.[8] African slaves' future descendants became property.[2]

Origins and propagation

The myth is especially popular with apologists for the Confederate States of America, the secessionist slave states of the South during the American Civil War.[13] According to research librarian and independent scholar Liam Hogan, the most influential book to assert the myth was They Were White And They Were Slaves: The Untold History of The Enslavement of Whites In Early America, self-published in the US in 1993 by conspiracy theorist and Holocaust denier[14] Michael A. Hoffman II (who blamed Jews for the African slave trade).[15]

This was followed in Ireland in 2000 by the book To Hell Or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland by the journalist Sean O'Callaghan.[16][4] The book continued Hoffman's themes and introduced the concept of Irish women being forcibly bred with African men in order to produce mulattos, who are represented as being more valuable than slaves of purely Irish ancestry.[17] It is not made clear why this is the case, or why it was not possible to achieve the same result with the physical union of European men and African women, a far more frequent interracial union. Other authors repeated these lurid descriptions of Irish women being compelled to have sex with African men,[18][19] which have no basis in the historical record.[20] Liam Hogan and other historians have described the book as shoddily researched.[4]

In the Dublin Review of Books, professor Bryan Fanning states: "The popularity of the 'Irish slaves' meme cannot simply be blamed on the online propaganda of white supremacist groups. There are several elements at play beyond the deliberate falsification of the past. Widespread acceptance online of a false equivalence between chattel slavery and the treatment of Irish migrants appears to be rooted in Irish narratives of victimhood that continue to be articulated within Ireland’s cultural and political mainstreams."[1] Irish people's history has embraced both a legacy of identification with the oppressed, and elements of racism in the service of Irish nationalism, according to Fanning.[1]

According to The New York Times: "In America, [O'Callaghan's] book connected the white slave narrative to an influential ethnic group of over 34 million people, many of whom had been raised on stories of Irish rebellion against Britain and tales of anti-Irish bias in America at the turn of the 20th century. From there, it took off."[4] O'Callaghan's claims were repeated on Irish genealogy websites, the Canadian conspiracy theory website, Niall O'Dowd's IrishCentral, Scientific American and The Daily Kos. The 2008 article on has been a significant online source for the myth, having been shared almost a million times by March 2016.[21] The myth has been spread on white nationalist message boards, neo-Nazi websites, the far-right conspiracy website InfoWars, and has been shared millions of times on Facebook.[4]

The myth has been a common trope on the white supremacist website Stormfront since 2003.[13][22][23] It has circulated widely in the United States, and has recently begun to become common in Ireland after the "Irish slaves" meme went viral on social media in 2013.[24][17] After the 2014 arrival of the Black Lives Matter movement, the myth was frequently referenced by right-wing white Americans attempting to undermine it[25] and other African-American civil rights issues, according to Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International.[26]

In August 2015, the meme was referred to in the context of debates about the continued flying of the Confederate flag, following the Charleston church shooting.[27][28] In May 2016, it was referenced by prominent members of the Irish republican party Sinn Féin, after their leader Gerry Adams became involved in a controversy over his use of the word "nigger".[3] Irish Times columnist Donald Clarke describes the meme as racist, saying "More commonly we see racists using the myth to belittle the suffering visited on black slaves and to siphon some sympathy towards their own clan."[29] According to The New York Times, the myth is "often politically motivated" and has been used to create "racist barbs" against African-Americans.[4]

Common elements

Common elements to memes that propagate the myth are:[4][5][30]

  • The conspiracy theory that historians and the media are covering up Irish slavery.[4]
  • That Irish people were enslaved after the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland in 1649.[4]
  • Irish slaves were treated worse than African slaves.[4]
  • Irish women were forced to reproduce with African men.[4]
  • Intending to diminish the discrimination that African-Americans have historically experienced, with memes like "The Irish were slaves, too. We got over it, so why can't you?".[4]
  • Using photographs of victims of the Holocaust or 20th century child laborers, claiming that they are Irish slaves.[4]
  • A reference to an alleged 1625 declaration by King James II to send thousands of Irish prisoners to the West Indies as slaves. James II had not been even born yet; he was born in 1633 and started his rule in 1685. 1625 saw the end of James I's rule and the rise of Charles I to the throne.[4]
  • The substitution of the victims of actual atrocities committed against African slaves with Irish victims. The far-right conspiracy website InfoWars, for instance, substituted the 132 African victims of the 1781 Zong massacre with Irish victims. Several online articles about "Irish slaves" have inflated the number 132 to 1,302. Historian Liam Hogan traces the first juxtaposition of the Zong massacre with Irish suffering to 2002, when James Mullin, chair of the New Jersey-based Irish Famine Curriculum Committee and Education Fund, wrote a lurid article blurring the lines between the history of African enslavement in the British Americas with the history of Irish colonial indentured servitude.[4][31][32]

Academic criticism and responses

The Irish Examiner removed an article that cited John Martin's piece from its website in early 2016 after 82 writers, historians and academics wrote an open letter condemning the myth.[33][34][4] Scientific American published a blog post, which was also debunked in the open letter, and later heavily revised the blog to remove the incorrect historical material.[35]

Writing in The New York Times, Liam Stack noted that inaccurate "Irish slavery" claims "also appeared on IrishCentral, a leading Irish-American news website."[36] IrishCentral's publisher Niall O'Dowd then wrote an op-ed in which he states that "there is no way the Irish slave experience mirrored the extent or level of centuries-long degradation that African slaves went through."[37] The op-ed then goes on to draw comparisons between indentured servitude and slavery.[37] Liam Hogan, among others, criticized IrishCentral for being slow to remove the articles from its website, and for the ahistoric comparison in the editorial.[38]

Sean O'Callaghan's book To Hell or Barbados in particular has been criticised by, among others, Dr Nini Rodgers, who stated that his narrative appeared to arise from his horror at seeing white people being on a level with blacks.[39] Bryan Fanning notes the book ignored scholarly research.[1]

Historian Mark Auslander, an anthropologist and director of the Museum of Culture and Environment at Central Washington University, states that the current racial climate is leaning toward denial of certain events in history, saying "There is a strange war on memory that's going on right now, denying the facts of chattel slavery, or claiming to have learned on Facebook or social media that, say, Irish slavery was worse, that white people were enslaved as well. Not true."[40]

Matthew Reilly, a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University with an academic background in Barbadian slavery, asserts that "The Irish slave myth is not supported by the historical evidence." Historians note that unlike slaves, most indentured servants willingly entered into contracts with another person, only served for a finite period, did not pass their unfree status on to their children, and were still considered human.[4][41] Historian Donald Akenson, writing in If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730, states that on the island of Montserrat, "White indentured servitude was so very different from black slavery as to be from another galaxy of human experience."[42] According to Hogan, the debate over the exact definition of slavery, as well as a tendency of some Irish nationalists to gloss over the ways in which Irish people benefitted from the African slave trade, allowed for a grey area in historical discourse that was then seized upon as a political weapon by white supremacists.[24][17] Fanning writes: ". . .narratives which represent the Irish as having been slaves are hardly harmless. From the 1840s onwards racism was pressed into the service of Irish nationalism. . . versions of Irish history which obfuscate past Irish racisms have proven to be a toxic export . . .".[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Fanning, Bryan (Nov 1, 2017). "Slaves to a Myth". Irish Review of Books (article). 102. Retrieved 2018-11-11.
  2. ^ a b O'Carroll, Eoin (2018-03-16). "No, the Irish were not slaves in the Americas". Christian Science Monitor. ISSN 0882-7729. Retrieved 2018-03-19.
  3. ^ a b Linehan, Hugh (May 11, 2016). "Sinn Féin Not Allowing Facts Derail Good 'Irish Slaves' Yarn". The Irish Times. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Stack, Liam (March 17, 2017). "Debunking a Myth: The Irish Were Not Slaves, Too". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 20, 2017.
  5. ^ a b Pogachnik, Shawn (March 16, 2017). "AP FACT CHECK: Irish "slavery" a St. Patrick's Day myth". Dublin. Associated Press. Retrieved 2017-04-14 – via The Seattle Times.
  6. ^ Hogan, Liam (2018-03-17). "Open letter to Irish Central, Irish Examiner and Scientific American about their "Irish slaves"…". Medium. Retrieved 2020-06-28.
  7. ^ Kennedy, Liam (2015). Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish?. Dublin: Irish Academic Press. p. 19. ISBN 9781785370472.
  8. ^ a b c Donaghue, John (July–August 2017). "The curse of Cromwell: revisiting the Irish slavery debate". History Ireland. 25 (4). Retrieved 2018-11-11.
  9. ^ a b Michael Davitt (May 1904) [begun 1883]. "CHAPTER II. Section I. TORIES AND OUTLAWS". The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland. (full text). Retrieved 2018-11-11.
  10. ^ Bartlett, Thomas. "'This famous island set in a Virginian sea': Ireland in the British Empire, 1690–1801." In The Oxford History of the British Empire. Volume II: The Eighteenth Century, by Marshall, P.J., Alaine Low, and Wm. Roger Louis, edited by P.J. Marshall and Alaine Low. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. p. 256.
  11. ^ Handler, Jerome S.; Reilly, Matthew C. (1 January 2017). "Contesting "White Slavery" in the Caribbean". New West Indian Guide. 91 (1–2): 30–55. doi:10.1163/22134360-09101056. Archived from the original on 25 June 2020. Retrieved 29 May 2017.
  12. ^ Rodgers, Nini. "The Irish and the Atlantic slave trade". History Ireland. Dublin: History Publications, Ltd. 15 (3: May/June 2007).
  13. ^ a b Gettys, Travis (April 20, 2016). "'Irish slaves': Historian Destroys Racist Myth Conservatives Love to Share on Facebook". Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  14. ^ Barkun, Michael (2003). "Millennialism, Conspiracy, and Stigmatized Knowledge". A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. University of California Press. p. 34. ISBN 9780520238053. Retrieved March 15, 2013. Michael A. Hoffman II, a Holocaust denier and exponent of multiple conspiracy theories
  15. ^ "Ernst Zundel interviews Michael A. Hoffman author of They Were White and They Were Slaves". 20 April 2008.
  16. ^ Hogan, Liam; McAtackney, Laura; Reilly, Matthew C. (29 February 2016). "The Irish in the Anglo-Caribbean: Servants or Slaves?". History Ireland.
  17. ^ a b c Amend, Alex. "How the Myth of the "Irish slaves" Became a Favorite Meme of Racists Online". Hatewatch (blog). Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  18. ^ Kelleher, Lawrence R. (2001-01-15). To Shed a Tear: A Story of Irish Slavery in the British West Indies. Writers Club Press. p. 73. ISBN 0595169260. Some of the physically larger blacks were made guards and were given certain privileges, namely Irish women. There had been several Irish killed trying to protect the Irish women from being assaulted by these savage blacks.
  19. ^ Nixon, Guy (2011). Slavery in the West: The Untold Story of the Slavery of Native Americans in the West. p. 12. ISBN 9781462865253. This African would serve as a stud for the inexpensive Irish women slaves…[these breeding programs were stopped] because it was reducing the profits of the Royal African Company…[but] due to the profitability of these breeding programs the practice continued until well after the end of Ireland's 'Potato Famine'
  20. ^ Hogan, Liam (23 October 2015). "The "Forced Breeding" Myth in the "Irish Slaves" Meme". Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  21. ^ Costello, Norma (March 17, 2016). "Black Lives Matter and the 'Irish slave' Myth". Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  22. ^ Riley, Ricky (18 March 2016). "Myth Busted: Scholars Fire Back Against Memes Pushing Narrative of Irish Slaves in the Americas". Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  23. ^ Deignan, Tom (May 7, 2016). "Racial Tensions of 2016 and the Myth of Irish Slavery - Opinion". Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  24. ^ a b Hogan, Liam (12 January 2015). "'Irish Slaves': The Convenient Myth". Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  25. ^ Kireini, Douglas (March 8, 2018). "Any attempts to rewrite history must be rebuffed". Business Daily. Retrieved 2018-03-19.
  26. ^ Ferguson, Amanda (May 2, 2016). "Adams Comparing US Slavery With Nationalist Plight 'Overblown'". The Irish Times. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  27. ^ Tucker, Neely (18 August 2015). "In Mississippi, Defenders of State's Confederate-Themed Flag Dig In". The Washington Post. Retrieved 17 February 2017.
  28. ^ Hogan, Liam; McAtackney, Laura; Reilly, Matthew Connor (6 October 2015). "The Unfree Irish in the Caribbean Were Indentured Servants, Not Slaves". Yahoo News. Retrieved 17 February 2017. Inevitably the myth gained prominence in the wake of Dylann Roof's terrorist attack in Charleston and the subsequent debate about the Confederate flag.
  29. ^ Clarke, Donald (30 July 2016). "Free Us From Myth of US Irish Slavery". The Irish Times. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  30. ^ Varner, Natasha (March 16, 2017). "The curious origins of the 'Irish slaves' myth". Public Radio International. Retrieved 2017-03-20.
  31. ^ Hogan, Liam. "How the African victims of the Zong Massacre were replaced with "Irish slaves"". Medium. Retrieved 30 January 2018.
  32. ^ Mullin, James. "Out of Africa, Out of Ireland". Archived from the original on 2002-10-27.
  33. ^ Hogan, Liam (8 March 2016). "Open letter to Irish Central, Irish Examiner and Scientific American about their "Irish slaves…"". Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  34. ^ Dempsey, James (March 9, 2016). "Irish Historians Add Their Names to Open Letter Criticising the "Racist Propaganda" of 'Irish slavery'". Newstalk. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  35. ^ D'Costa, Krystal (March 17, 2015). "It's True: We're Probably All a Little Irish—Especially in the Caribbean". Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  36. ^ Stack, Liam (March 17, 2017). "Debunking a Myth: The Irish Were Not Slaves, Too". NY Times. Retrieved July 29, 2018. Mr. O’Callaghan’s work was repeated or repackaged on Irish genealogy websites, in a popular online essay, and in articles in publications like Scientific American and The Daily Kos. The claims also appeared on IrishCentral, a leading Irish-American news website.
  37. ^ a b O'Dowd, Niall (30 March 2017). "Why the Irish were both slaves and indentured servants in colonial America". Irish Central. Retrieved 22 July 2018. The controversy has arisen because some far-right groups have claimed that the experience of Irish slaves was interchangeable with (or even in some cases worse than) the experience of black slaves, and have used that as justification for an array of abhorrent racist statements and ideas. To be clear, there is no way the Irish slave experience mirrored the extent or level of centuries-long degradation that African slaves went through. But the Irish did suffer tremendously and there is a clear tendency to undermine that truth. Adults and children were torn from their homes, transported to the colonies in bondage against their will, and sold into a system of prolonged servitude. Some would even call it slavery.
  38. ^ Hogan, Liam (2017-03-30). "The founder of Irish Central attempts to whitewash their influential role in spreading ahistorical…". Medium. Retrieved 2018-07-31. The most disappointing response came from Irish Central. After a month one instance of their propaganda was removed from the site without comment, explanation or apology. You can access this iteration on the internet archive. Its share count has been wiped but it stood at over 155,000 in March 2016. I assumed that progress had been made, but had it? Another version of the article was then reinstated (without comment) as the primary version in September 2016 and links to the removed version were redirected internally to this one. It has remained on the website ever since and O’Dowd links to it approvingly in his op-ed in March 2017.¶ He therefore not only ignores that the Irish Central media company played a role in spreading these egregious lies to a significant number of people but also seems to suggesting that this article was not ahistorical at all. His recent op-ed disclaims that “there is no way the Irish slave experience mirrored the extent or level of centuries-long degradation that African slaves went through.” But ... that’s exactly what Irish Central have been telling their readers (the site receives 3.5 million unique visitors per month) since 2012.
  39. ^ Rodgers, Nini (2007-01-31). Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-333-77099-3.
  40. ^ Eversley, Melanie (17 February 2017). "Slavery-Era Embroidery Excites Historians, Evokes Heartbreak of Its Time". USA Today. Retrieved 18 February 2017.
  41. ^ Davies, Madeleine (March 17, 2016). "Let's Squash the Myth That the Irish Were Ever American Slaves".
  42. ^ Akenson, Donald (1997). If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730. McGill-Queen's Press. ISBN 9780773516304.

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