Lesson #339: The Irish Slaves in the West Indies

The early to mid 17th Century was not a good time for the Irish. It started with the Plantation of Ulster (which is the event at the root of the current Anglo-Irish question in Northern Ireland) in 1609 and ended with the English killing roughly half a million of them and James II and Oliver Cromwell selling 300,000 of them, of whom about 10% were political prisoners, into slavery in the West Indies. In the course of the decade(ish) between 1641 and 1652, the Irish population fell from just under a million and a half to 616,000.

By 1652, 70% (!) of the white population of Montserrat was Irish; through the entire decade of the 1650s, there were more Irish slaves living in the Americas than there were free citizens.

The first recorded instance of Irishmen being sold into slavery is 1612, when James II sold a group of them to a settlement on the Amazon. With the issue of a 1625 proclamation* that stated that Irish political prisoners (which considering the politics of the time, was all Irishmen) were to be banished overseas, the practice of selling the Irish into slavery became widespread.

In the 1650s, somewhere between 80,000 – 130,000 (depending on which source you read), Irish — many of whom were kidnapped — were sold into slavery in New England, Virginia, and the Caribbean. The reason for this? They were much cheaper than African slaves. African slaves cost between 50-60 pounds sterling; the Irish cost five. Turns out that the reason for this price difference is that the Africans weren’t tainted by Catholic dogma. Serio. As a result, they were treated a hell of a lot better than the Irish. For a while, realizing they could turn a sweet profit on it, slave owners bred Irish women (and, let’s be real, girls) and African men to create an entire generation of mixed-race slaves who brought more money than the Irish at market, but weren’t as expensive as the Africans. The practice was so widespread that in 1681 a law was passed outlawing “the mating of Irish women and African men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale,” not because it was immoral, but because it was cutting into the profits of the Royal African Company, which provided African slaves to the New World. 

Part of the reason the number of Irish slaves was so high is because Cromwell continued the work the Plantation of Ulster started, issuing a decree that stated that all Irish must relocate west of the Shannon River into Connaught (the westernmost of the four Irish provinces) or County Clare (part of Muenster, but the county immediately south of Connaught).** By 1657, he had issued a law that gave the Irish six months to abandon their lands east of the Shannon or be held as traitors and banished to America, never to return lest they “suffer the pains of death as felons by virtue of this act, without benefit of Clergy.”***

While the flow of Irish into the West Indies (and America) ebbed after 1660 (because the English had already sent off nearly everyone they could), there was still a continuous trade in Irish slaves throughout the rest of the 17th and into the 18th century. After the 1798 Irish rebellion, thousands were sent to be sold as slaves in the United States and Australia.

Transportation of Irish slaves finally ended in 1839 when Britain decided to end their involvement in the slave trade.

For more, see here, hereherehere, and here.

Interesting side note: there was a brief Irish uprising in the Barbados in 1649, which Cromwell quickly crushed. He had the perpetrators drawn and quartered and mounted their heads on pikes.

*I can’t find whatever proclamation these sources talk about, but there are a slew of sources cited (including Abbott Smith’s Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labour in America, 1607-1776), so at some point, someone actually read it.

**If you’ve ever been to Co. Clare, you understand why this is a bit of a problem. It’s super cool terrain, but, being mostly rock, not so good for farming.

***I also can’t find this law, but it’s also cited in a ton of places (including Rhetta Akamatsu’s The Irish Slaves: Slavery , Indenture, and Contract Labor Among Irish Immigrants), so ostensibly someone read that one too.

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Lesson #167: Hurling, Very Basically

I love hurling…it’s pretty awesome. My friend who is over visiting and I decided to go patio-ing after the England friendly today since the weather was uncharacteristically gorgeous and there’s no better way to spend a weekend afternoon than with a pint of beer and some sunshine. We happened to run into a friend of mine who is from a small country town about an hour from where we live who was headed into the pub to watch the hurling. So we decided to join him for a pint and to watch the second half.

I don’t really understand hurling all that much. It’s a lot like Gaelic football — which is a crazy good craic — but not exactly. I find it more interesting because it’s kind of like if you took baseball and football and mixed them together with basketball and added a dash of that Tiger Woods Nike commercial where he bounces the ball on his club for a while.

It turns out that hurling is scored exactly the same way that Gaelic is. Three points for a proper goal and the a point for every time you put the ball through the uprights.

What else I learned: all the guys who play for the GAA are unpaid. Therefore, they have actual day jobs. And since the better ones play for club and county, they really must have very little free time.

Lesson #93: St. Patrick’s Day

Really? Did you expect something else?

Pretty much everyone knows that St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and that he was actually kidnapped from England by the Irish when he was a kid.* So in honour of his death on this date somewhere around 460, a few facts about Paddy’s Day.

– At the age of 16, St. Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken from Britain (an Irish Catholic friend of mine — seriously, he’s got 10 brothers and sisters — swears that he was Welsh, but I can’t find any information to support that) to Ireland where he spent six years in captivity. Popular legend holds he shepherded on Mount Slemish in County Antrim**, though the likelihood is that he was held in County Mayo.

– Upon his ordination into the priesthood (back in England), St. Patrick returned to Ireland to convert the local population to Christianity. He was not, however, the first; — though some legends would have you believe it — there were already missionaries in Ireland. Most of his work in Ireland was done in County Antrim.

– The Celtic Cross was created by St. Patrick in an attempt to merge the Irish tradition of the sun as the most powerful symbol with the most powerful symbol in Christianity.

– The shamrock was traditionally a Celtic symbol for rebirth and spring up until the British decided to start seizing Irish land (like they did to a lot of people) at which point the Irish adopted it as a symbol for resistance and national pride.

– The first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place in New York City, which I actually already knew, but I didn’t know that it took place in 1762 when Irish soldiers serving in the British Army marched through the streets in celebration of St. Patrick.

As a side note: I’m always disproportionately annoyed by the statistic of there being “four times more Irish in America than in Ireland.” Because really, that’s a lie. The Irish government recognizes naturalization for the children and grandchildren of Irish born citizens, so technically, my mother and father (I think? He may be one too many generations removed) could claim heritage. But that doesn’t make them Irish. It means they’re of Irish descent. There are probably also more Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Ukranians, Hungarians, Albanians, Swedes, Finns, Danes and Norwegians in America than in their “home” countries too if you want to look at it that way, but no one is running around shouting that statistic. That’s the nature of America (and Canada.) It’s common sense. I’m always annoyed when someone whose great-grandparent or great-great-grandparent says to me “Oh, I’m Irish-American or Italian-American or (and yes, I’m going to say it) African-American.” It’s nice that you’re connecting with your heritage when it’s convenient and all, but you’re no more Irish, Italian or African than I am. I am not Irish-Canadian. I’m Canadian and that’s it. I was born there, my parents were born there and my grandparents (save one) were born there. I have Irish ancestry, but I am not Irish.

More reading here, here and here.

*A historical fact I find funny in its irony.

**The irony of that is funny too. (Also, Mom, that’s where we picked all those wild raspberries.)

Lesson #81: Jack o’ Lanterns

Yes, I am aware that Halloween is not for another 8 months. But I saw this picture today and it cracked me up. Because I’m twisted like that.

The thing I love about things like jack o’ lanterns is that they have a legend attached to them. It’s not like someone just one day decided that it would be cool. And while you might think that the tradition is an American one (since pumpkins are native to the new world*), you’d be wrong.

The jack o’ lantern tradition comes from the British Isles where the Irish and Scots traditionally used turnips or potatoes and the English used beets to ward off evil spirits. And Jack of the Lantern.

Specifically, the legend is Irish and it tells the story of Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack tricked the devil. Twice. Apparently the devil’s an idiot in Irish folklore. Anyway, the story goes that Jack invited the devil to share a drink with him. Not wanting to pay the bill, he talked the devil into turning himself into money so he could pay the bill, which the devil did. But instead of paying the bill, Stingy Jack kept the coin and put it in his pocket next to a silver cross to prevent the devil from changing back into whatever form it is the devil shows himself in normally. After a while, Jack decided to let the devil out on the condition that he wouldn’t bother Jack for a year and that if he died, the devil wouldn’t claim his soul. After a year, the devil shows up (for kicks apparently) and gets duped again in the same way.** Anyway, this time Jack tricks him into turning into a fruit and putting himself on a tree, which Jack then carves a cross into. So after a while, Jack lets him out again on the condition that he not bother Jack for ten years and should he die, his soul would remain unclaimed. Soon after Jack and the devil make this deal, Jack dies, but since he’s not exactly an upstanding citizen, he can’t get into heaven. But the devil can’t claim him either. Instead the devil gives him a handful of coal to light up the night and sends him on his way. So Jack carves a lamp out of a turnip and wanders off into the night. And that’s what he’s been doing ever since.***

*Which explains why I couldn’t find any pumpkin with which to make pie last fall.

**Like I said, the devil’s not too smart in Irish folklore.

***More reading here.

Lesson #26: Blasphemy

In honour of Ireland’s new (yes, new) Blasphemy Law, which assesses a fine of 25,000 Euro to anyone found guilty of blaspheming. The bill defines blasphemy as “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted.”

I’ll leave the freedom of speech issue alone and just move right along.

According to Merriam-Webster, blasphemy is an early 13th century word defined as, the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God, the act of claiming the attributes of a deity* or irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable. Etymologically speaking, blasphemy comes from the Old French, blasphemie, which is derived from the Late Latin, blasphemia, which is based in the Greek, blasphemia, “a speaking ill, impious speech, slander”, which is in turn based in the Greek word blasphmein, meaning “to speak evil of.”

*Strictly speaking, shouldn’t the Jews consequently consider Jesus a blasphemer? (Rachel or Josh, I’m leaving it to you to answer that question for me.)