Conor McGregor’s comments aimed at Floyd Mayweather see him wading into racial politics in the U.S. and Ireland without a second thought. He does so as if racism does not exist. Why he decided to address Mayweather’s general observations about racism and double standards in combat sports as a direct insult is curious. In his interview with Ben Thompson, Mayweather mentioned over twenty five different black boxers who he felt are overlooked by the media. He was not suggesting that Conor’s “success” was due to being “white” or having “white privilege”. He was referring to how their similar approach to “trash talking” as a means to hype a fight were perceived differently by White America. He wondered if the white gaze or racial bias explained why McGregor’s “trash talk” was better received (“praised for it”) in the media than his own. Does he have a point? It’s worth a closer look. In 2010 Mayweather was rounded on by the media for launching a “racist tirade” towards Pacquiao (“make me a sushi roll and cook me some rice”) which he later apologised for formally at a press conference. Yet in terms of being subjected to racist abuse, Mayweather’s victory over Pacquiao on the 2 May 2015 resulted in the racial slur n****r almost trending on Twitter. This spike in racist abuse towards Mayweather hailed from White, Hispanic, Asian and Filipino social media users. It came in torrents and it lasted days.
McGregor on the other hand labelled a German opponent (Dennis Siver) a Nazi. There was no press conference, no media cycle. McGregor likely got slapped on the wrist by a UFC boss as he took down his tweet and later tweeted a sardonic comment as an “apology”.
In 2014 Floyd Mayweather revealed that he is dyslexic. In July 2015, McGregor made the following attention seeking comments about Mayweather’s lifelong struggle with literacy: “Clearly this man cannot read, so how can he possibly expect to read my movements in a fight? He wouldn’t know what to do. I would hit Mayweather so hard he would learn to read.”
Zito Madu has noted how insidious this sentiment is when another MMA fighter belittled Mayweather’s reading difficulty.
Consider that 18 percent of Michigan, Mayweather’s home state, is functionally illiterate. And that 21 percent of citizens in Grand Rapids, where he was born, are as well.
Acknowledge that he dropped out of high school and grew up poor, and that poverty and illiteracy are heavily linked. That Mayweather was once a black child, and that black children are more than three times as likely to live in extreme poverty than white children in America. That these black children enter school already behind and usually into lower quality institutions.
Factor in that poor black children are almost three times more likely to be held back in school than their white counterparts. That while they are only 17 percent of the public school population, they represent 35.6 percent of students who experienced corporal punishment, 37.4 percent of all students suspended and 37.9 percent of all students expelled. That around 12th grade, out of the remaining children who have not dropped out or been expelled, 84 percent of them can’t read at grade level.
Apart from dismay in some blogs, I could not find a trace of criticism of this comment in the print media, it was evidently put down to “banter” rather than the mocking of someone’s learning disability. In an even more offensive incident, McGregor, speaking about the Brazilian fighter José Aldo, boasted that
“If this was a different time, I would invade his favela on horseback and kill anyone that was not fit to work.”
This is unavoidably, if not specifically, a reference to Brazil’s history of colonialism and slavery. Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888 and it continues to have a serious problem with racism and racist inequality. Greg Howard at Deadspin described this comment as “despicable, racist” but it found no traction in the media. No apologies were asked and none were forthcoming. The offensiveness of this comment is heightened by the fact that Irish colonialism in America arguably began in Brazil in 1577 when a Jesuit priest from Limerick arrived in São Paulo and began a mission converting Amerindians to Christianity. This Irish presence expanded from religious to economic and social colonialism when the Purcell brothers from Youghal, Co. Cork established an Irish colony and tobacco plantations at Tauregue, located on the north channel of the Amazon river in 1612.
McGregor’s supremacist comment was lauded in some Irish media sources, with the Irish Mirror including it in their list of his “unreal insults” that “hit Aldo where it hurts.” The use of “unreal” in this case meaning fantastic, brilliant, incredible. I don’t think I need to draw an analogy to how a similar comment would play out in the U.S. if a black boxer had made it with regard to a white community. Meanwhile Mayweather’s general comments about racism in boxing were described by the Irish Independent as a “bizarre racist rant” and an “attack” on “McGregor’s success”, essentially accusing Mayweather of the oxymoronic “reverse racism”. This paper also distorted the meaning of Mayweather’s comments when they claim that he suggested McGregor was “only getting positive attention in the media because he is white.” This was transatlantic white fragility in action as it preposterously (and perhaps unconsciously) framed McGregor as a victim of unfair criticism in a discussion about racism. These media sources appear to have missed that Mayweather was talking about his own experience and the careers of other black boxers, and how he felt they were perceived differently (in this case negatively) by White America because they were black.
Meanwhile McGregor’s response to this so-called “attack” was described by other Irish media sources as “spectacular” and “worth waiting for.” The unthinking bravado on display suggests a sense of relief that, for them, the question of racial bias has been settled completely. Now that McGregor has spoken, no further questioning or analysis is necessary. Such knee jerk absolutism brings to mind Fanon’s theory that, for people who believe they are white, the “Negro is a phobogenic (fear inducing) object.” While Mayweather’s comments were tame in terms of racial politics, they have now become, for some of the media, a direct attack on McGregor’s success. This overreaction tends towards paranoid anxiety, a symptomatic response to a phobogenic “object.”
Racial bias in Ireland is an issue which some are still unwilling to confront. The fact that some GAA supporters in Cork proudly fly the Confederate flag at matches is a pointed example. When they are asked why they fly this flag, a common response is that it’s the “rebel flag” and since Cork is known as the “rebel county” it is fair game. In other words they identify with a seditious army that was raised to perpetually enslave millions of black people and founded on the ideology of white supremacy. That they don’t identity with the actual rebels in this context, i.e. the enslaved, speaks to an unconscious and deep-rooted racial bias. This racial bias also has an ethnocentric aspect and it is projected onto Irishmen who supported or fought for the Confederacy. Take the “illustrious” Irish patriot John Mitchel. He was a zealous white supremacist who longed for his own slaves and plantations as well as slave plantations to accompany an “Irish Republic.” He advocated for the re-opening of the Transatlantic slave trade and stated that it was a question of “expediency alone.” He was such an irredeemable racist that for him it was impossible to enslave or free an African person because they were “born and bred slaves.” Despite the hypocrisy of this man and the fact that he was in favour of resuming the genocide of the Middle Passage, he was merely downgraded in a 2016 History Ireland article by one notch — from a “hero” to a “flawed hero.” Streets, military forts and GAA clubs are named in his honour across Ireland.
“I Am An Irishman.”
The history of racism in sports in the U.S. is an ugly one and as a primer it’s useful to begin with Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness which is about the first African-American Heavy Weight Champion of the World, Jack Johnson. Then read Prof. Louis Moore on Cam Newton and America’s Racist Obsession with Policing Black Athletes and Virgil Hunter’s recent interview with FightHype. Racism and discrimination is the historical background, context and lineage for Mayweather’s comments, and whether you believe he is right or wrong in his observations in this instance, it needs to be known and understood.
But instead of steering clear of such a debate, McGregor tries to dodge even qualifying for this discussion by using his nationality (“I am an Irishman”) to distance himself from his broader social identification of being a white athlete in the United States. This is McGregor claiming that white privilege does not apply to him and thus the reality of how structural racism affects others, can be shrugged off as irrelevant. This intentional forgetting of Irish American history compels us to shine a light on the broader Atlantic amnesia among a considerable section of the white community. Many of whom use spurious arguments, victimization myths and derailment tactics to mock African American demands for social and racial justice.
Predictably as McGregor’s comments were shared around the world, a couple of his fans, emboldened by his defiant message, sent Floyd Mayweather abuse and links to racially charged and completely inaccurate “Irish slaves” articles.
This tactic is similar in design to the Bootstrap myth which often equates Irish American history with African American history for racist ends. As I concluded in a piece for Rabble, this reveals how such people
“…want to delete from collective memory the racial oppression that followed emancipation in the U.S.; how white supremacy was reasserted through racial terrorism; imposed by thousands of lynchings, racial segregation, redlining, Jim Crow, miscegenation laws, anti-black pogroms, police and paramilitary brutality, disenfranchisement, mass incarceration, and racial discrimination for housing, education and employment. They hope to justify their racism by claiming “we were slaves too, and we don’t complain!” while they burn the history of four hundred years of anti-black oppression and racism in America.”
In this case it specifically ignores the history of how many Irish people actively supported and benefited from white supremacist politics, racial discrimination and black chattel slavery. But more on that later.
I’m “Still Very Much” Oppressed
Irish identity has always been a complex, evolving and contested topic and so when McGregor referred to Irish people “very much still” suffering from oppression to evade his “bracket” he has bluntly excluded Irish people of mixed race or African descent. He does so explicitly by using his insular concept of “Irishness” to counter balance the existence and prevalence of racism. Since anti-black racism also exists in Ireland this means that “Irish” to McGregor implies “white”. He is, like many before him, using the simplistic homogeneous zombie identity of the “perpetually victimised Irish” to segue into and appropriate/nullify other groups identities and histories of oppression without even blinking, let alone reflecting. This is not solidarity. At best this is one-upmanship, at its worst it is erasure. He provided another example of that this week, claiming that his next opponent, the Brazilian Rafael dos Anjos, “is a traitor to his people” and vowed to “behead” the “American Gringo” in the name of “La Brasilia”. From his now staked position of untouchable hereditary victimhood he feels he can appropriate at will, without consequence.
He also refers, with much hyperbole, to the long history of Irish oppression. But despite his claim, Irish history is not an eternal monolith of grief and Irish people have been both the oppressed and the oppressor. This selective history is a rhetorical device that he has deployed to ahistorically remove his “Irish” from any participation in the racial oppression of indigenous and black people, at home or abroad, in the present and the past. This is deeply problematic and such a deceptive approach underlines how Irish participation in the slave trade, colonialism and anti-black oppression has been widely erased from the collective “white Irish” consciousness.
Irish participation in anti-black oppression and enslavement
As ENAR Ireland have made clear, Black people suffer the most racism in Ireland. Their report also finds that “racism against people of African descent [in Ireland] is not a new phenomenon at all, but one which has failed to be recognised by the [Irish] State and wider society, even as it has evolved from colonial times.” This racism is rooted in the history of Transatlantic slave trade and the earliest known record of African slaves for sale in Ireland in the Early Modern Period goes as far back as the late 16th century. Thanks to the work of W.A. Hart in Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 33, No. 129 (May, 2002) we know that this continued well into the eighteenth century.
“A Negro Boy and Slave, called Bazill, the property of William Nicholson, Esq, has been missing since Thursday evening last..” (Dublin, 1756)
“Run away from the service of Mrs Fullerton of Carrickfergus, on Sunday last, a negro slave boy…” (1762)
“To be sold for account of D.F. a Black Negro Boy aged about 14 years, remarkably free from vice, a very handy willing servant..” (Cork, 1762)
“A Neat beautiful black negro girl, just brought from Carolina, aged 11 or 12 years, speaks good English; to be disposed of.” (Dublin, 1768)
Other Africans were part of the free population and undoubtedly some intermarried. However due to the racialised design of the perpetual hereditary chattel slave system in the colonies, and on account of the colour of their skin, they and their families were at risk of being kidnapped by their fellow countrymen and sold into slavery in the West Indies. It was through tracing this history that I found a genuine case of a “free born” Irish person being reduced to chattel slavery in this time period. In 1736 a highly organised slave revolt was uncovered in Antigua and the planters’ response was overwhelming violence and butchery that lasted four months. The Calendar of State Papers reveal that one of the suspected slaves was an Irish person with mixed race heritage. The record reads as follows;
“A person called Mulatto Jack was brought before us as a criminal slave concerned in the plot. But he alleged that he was free born in Ireland and stolen thence and sold here as a slave. We think he proved his allegation, and we submit it to the legislature whether this mitigates his crime.”
It is unsurprising that “Jack” was sold into slavery in Antigua as it was known at the time that Irish provision ships were part of their clandestine slave trade.
Partly due to strict Navigation Laws, which ensured a monopoly for English ports such as Bristol and Liverpool, slave trade voyages direct from Ireland were extremely rare, but they did occasionally occur. In 1718 an Irish slave trading vessel, the Prosperity, commanded by a Captain Hourigan, left Limerick for the Gold Coast (Ghana). At Cape Coast Castle the crew purchased 111 enslaved people. The Middle Passage took 66 days and at least 15 slaves died. Hourigan landed the ship at Barbados where around half of the slaves were sold. They then proceeded to Cuba. Docked at Santiago de Cuba, they sold 58 slaves. They then carried their return cargo (tobacco, sugar, rum etc.) to London where these goods fetched the highest prices. The real money made in Ireland (from the perpetual enslavement of millions of people) was in the provisions trade between Ireland and the various European Slavocracies and in the sale of slave-made goods. As Nini Rodgers explained:
“Merchants in Ireland’s ports and towns were well aware of the importance of the slave trade and the slave colonies. The eighteenth century economies of Cork, Limerick and Belfast expanded on the back of salted provisions specially designed to survive high temperatures. These were exported to the West Indies to feed slaves and planters, British, French, Spanish and Dutch. Products grown on slave plantations, sugar in the Caribbean and tobacco from the North American colonies, poured into 18th Century Ireland…[…]…The slave trade provided labour for the plantation colonies, and these colonies had an enormous impact on Ireland. They encouraged urban growth through the import of sugar and tobacco and the export of provisions. Commercial dairying and beef production changed life in the countryside, generating wealth for some and fostering agrarian unrest among others. By 1780 sugar, though not as inflammatory as tea in Boston, was playing a transforming role in Irish political life. Ireland was very much part of the Black Atlantic world.”
The racism that this system depended upon appears to have influenced discriminatory attitudes in Ireland. In the mid-nineteenth century, Richard Davis Webb, speaking of Charles Lenox Remond’s tour of Ireland in 1841, noticed that
“…Remond has, hitherto, had no battle to meet in Ireland — neither unkindness, nor persecution. Prejudice and ignorance have barred his way in England. The same elements exist in Ireland, but they have not been suffered to come in his way. — The Liberator, 24 September 1841
Blackface performers were also immensely popular in Ireland at this time. This famously raised the ire of Frederick Douglass during his sojourn in Ireland in 1845, when he noticed that an Irish actor was lampooning the negro for money, remarking that he was “sorry to find one of these apes of the negro had been recently encouraged in Limerick.” (see Douglas C. Riach, ‘Blacks and Blackface on the Irish Stage 1830–60’, Journal of American Studies, Vol. 7, No. 3, p. 231) While Irish-Americans mirrored this engagement on the other side of the Atlantic. Nowatski claims that this “in turn shaped how Irish-Americans saw themselves” as they distanced themselves from African Americans through denigration and differentiation.
People from Ireland, representing all classes, creeds and genealogies, participated in the colonisation of the ‘New World’ since the late sixteenth century. It was on the 1 June 1586 in Dasamongueponke that Edward Nugent (one of Ralph Lane’s Irish servants) “slayed” and beheaded Wingina, the Secotan Weroance. Wingina was the first Native American leader confronted by British colonists in North America, and he was murdered by an Irishman. As the European conquest of America accelerated, so too did the presence of Irish missionaries, indentured servants, labourers, craftsmen, teachers, planters, farmers and merchants. The Transatlantic slave trade flourished and the dehumanising exploitation of enslaved Africans became a European’s ticket to increased wealth in the colonies and in the homeland. Many Irish, no different than any other European colonist, capitalised on this lucrative and barbaric opportunity.
Research which I carried out in March 2015 shows that over 500 different Irish surnames were represented among the slave owning class in the United States in 1850. This amounts to over 99,000 slaves, or 3% of the total slave population. This rises to 115,894 slaves in the 1860 census, an increase of 16.4%. In the Anglo-Caribbean I found that 231 different Irish surnames were represented among those who claimed slave compensation in 1834. This amounts to 37,104 slaves across 20 different colonies. One of the most famous Irish slave owners was the architect of the White House, James Hoban, who was from Co. Kilkenny. He used some of his own slaves, who were carpenters, to work on his design in 1792. One of his slaves named Peter fled from captivity on the 4 January 1789. Hoban placed a runaway slave advert in the City Gazette and Daily Advertiser (Charleston) on the 17 January 1789. Peter was clearly captured as he appears on the White House list of slaves some years later.
As McGregor is a Scottish surname I did not include it in my initial research. So I reviewed the 1850 Slave Schedule (U.S.) and the Slave Compensation Records (British West Indies, 1834) and it confirms that McGregors owned slaves in Jamaica, Trinidad, British Guiana, Washington D.C., North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Maryland, Georgia and Virginia.
Some Irish people were also slave traders. Robert Ellis (Welsh) and John Ryan (Irish) were a prominent slave trading partnership in Philadelphia in 1738.
Just a few weeks later they advertised the sale of a “Breeding Negro Woman” which contrasts starkly with the advert for a European indentured servants’ contract.
The frequency of the Ellis and Ryan slave sales are explained by the fact that they participated in the British Intercolonial Slave Trade. For more see Gregory O’Malley’s “Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619–1807”
The Irish diaspora in Montserrat were among those most enthusiastically involved in the slave trade. Lord Willoughby described Montserrat as “almost an Irish colony” in 1667. James Cotter, a Jacobite from Co. Cork was made the Governor of Montserrat in 1681. By the 1720s Irish merchants on Montserrat “imported enslaved Africans with their own vessels, distributing them throughout the Caribbean.” Move forward to 1729. Two-thirds of the white population in Montserrat were Irish (virtually unchanged % vs 1667). Many were slave owners. Nini Rodgers reports that at this time “124 households with recognisable Irish names possessed slaves” with a further 17 not owning slaves. In fact over the two-thirds of the largest sugar planters in Montserrat were Irish. They also owned over two-thirds of all the slaves.
One of their sons, Ricardo O’Farrill y O’Daly, a Montserratian of Irish descent, established the first “slave factory” in Cuba in 1715. After being granted Spanish citizenship in 1721, he brought some of his ‘assets’ from Jamaica to Cuba. This included 236 slaves. In the subsequent decades a Franco-Irish slave trader based in Nantes, Antoine Walsh, is estimated to have sold circa 12,000 enslaved Africans to French slavocracies. The first slave ship that Antoine Walsh captained was the Saint Jean Baptiste, which left Nantes in June 1728. It arrived at the coast of West Africa in August. For six weeks Walsh collected his ‘cargo’. He set sail for the Americas in October, with 325 African people in chains. He arrived at French Guiana in November. By then 65 of his victims had died (presumably thrown overboard). He sold the remaining 260. He became increasingly wealthy as a slave trader, and twenty years later he established “the first private joint-stock company in France devoted to the slave trade.” (Rodgers, 109) He called it the Société d’Angole. Around this time one of his many slave ships was purchasing slaves off the coast of Whydah. This took five and a half weeks. Before leaving for the French West Indies “six women, one with a child at the breast, threw themselves overboard and drowned.” (Rodgers, 110) When Antoine Walsh retired from slave trading he moved to Haiti where he managed the family’s plantations and slaves. He died there in 1763.
This Walsh merchant family had been fully admitted into the French noblesse in 1751. The French historian, M. Gaston Martin, remarked that..
“They had by then sold a sufficient number of negroes to enable them to regild and legalise their Irish coat-of-arms which was a little sullied by the somewhat dubious trade [in which] the Walsh dynasty was engaged.”
In 1749 the Walsh slave trading dynasty spent some of their blood money on the Château de Serrant.
In the 1750s David Tuohy, from Tralee, Co. Kerry migrated to Liverpool. He captained at least four slave trading voyages from 1766 to 1771. In 1766 he sailed Sam, a Boston built vessel, from Liverpool to West Central Africa. He bought 284 slaves. There were 32 Middle Passage deaths. The surviving slaves were sold in Barbados and Grenada. In 1767 he slave traded using the Sally and this time the 234 surviving slaves were sold at Antigua. On this same ship in 1769 he sailed to the Windward Coast, where he bought 200 slaves, and then the Gold Coast, where he bought 130 slaves. This time 87 of his victims died during the Middle Passage. He sold the remaining 243 enslaved people at Grenada. A 26.4% death rate. In 1771 he sailed the Ranger to West Africa. He purchased 257 slaves and 47 died during the Middle Passage. He sold the survivors at Barbados and at Antigua. He had now made enough money to become a slave ship owner and was the part-owner of ten Liverpool slave ships from 1772–1786.
On the other side of the Atlantic the merchants Garrett and George Meade also traded in human beings. They were slave traders based in Philadelphia and were the sons of Robert Meade of Co. Limerick (1764) George’s grandson became the famous Union General, George G. Meade.
One of the largest wholesalers of slaves in the Caribbean in the latter half of the 18th century was an Irish firm, Anthony and Dominick Lynch of Bridgetown, Barbados. They conducted large scale slave auctions at their yard in High-St. One advert reads “270 Whidah and Popo Slaves…sale will begin at 10 o’clock.” (Barbados Mercury, 1 February 1766)
Such involvement in the slave trade continued into the 19th century. Bernard Lynch was a prominent slave trader in St. Louis, Missouri who had “Negroes for sale at all times” in 1859.
Lynch, an Irish-American, was born in Maryland in 1810 and in the 1850 census he is listed as a “Negro Trader”.
He then lived in the 4th Ward in St. Louis and most of his neighbours were Irish immigrants. Corcorans, Ryans, Murphys, etc. These were just a few of the hundreds of Irish families that settled in St. Louis in the post-Famine period. They faced discrimination from Nativists which culminated in an Election Day Riot in 1854 when “93 Irish dwellings and businesses were damaged.” As they faced no discrimination by the State (there was no barrier to their naturalisation) such disputes had little overall effect on Irish and German immigration levels. The population of the City of St. Louis doubled between 1850 and 1860.
While in Charleston, South Carolina, the most prominent slave market in the 1850s was owned by one Thomas Ryan, an Irish-American. It was known as Ryan’s Mart and “Ryan’s n****r jail” as the complex of buildings included a barracoon (demolished in 1951) and a “dead house”. Thomas Ryan, a former commissioner of the city Work House, opened this lucrative torture chamber in 1856 and “Lucinda, a twenty-year-old enslaved woman, was the first person sold on the premises.”
Notably, some prominent Irish Americans were opposed to the abolition of slavery. The Bishop of Charleston in 1840 was John England, who hailed from Co. Cork. He wrote..
In 1861, the Archbishop of New York was John Hughes who was from Co. Tyrone. He wrote to Simon Cameron, the U.S. Secretary of War and explained that Irish Catholic immigrants would gladly fight for the Constitution, but if they heard they were fighting to free the four million African American slaves “they would turn away in disgust.”
The following year the Bishop of Charleston, Patrick Neeson Lynch of Co. Fermanagh, wrote to Archbishop Hughes about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. He said that he was having imaginary visions, à la the Birth of a Nation.
“the shooting down or the clubbing of the late master, and then the oppression, violation and finally assassination by some big black beast who had been a slave of African descent. The object of his brutality being the mother, the wife, the sister, or the daughter of his late master.”
Lynch was appointed by Jefferson Davis to be the Confederate delegate to the Holy See. He is also remembered “for his ownership and management of slaves owned by the Catholic diocese.” Indeed Bishop Lynch sold slaves “both those he owned personally and those bequeathed to him from pious Catholics” through slave traders such as Thomas Ryan, an Irish-American. Lynch was also keen to attract Irish immigrants to South Carolina after the war, and he assured them that the lands which he recommended for resettlement “will be occupied by a white population.” (Lynch to Maguire, 23/2/1866)
The American Civil War historian Damian Shiels has researched the senior officers of the Confederate Army who were Irish, and he found that six (out of sixteen) owned slaves or had direct links to slave plantations. He surmised that while “the majority of Irish-born Confederates were not slave holders…[…]…when the opportunity for slave ownership existed, many Irish were willing to grasp it.”
“This is the white man’s day now.”
For the black person in a white man’s world, unbridled racism and labour competition were a deadly mixture. Despite facing Nativist discrimination, Irish immigrants and Irish Americans, on a number of occasions, used the leeway afforded to them in this white supremacist society to participate in (and sometimes lead) acts of collective violence and pogroms against African American communities.
The Cincinnati Anti-Black Pogrom of 1829 saw hundreds of whites attack blacks, destroy their homes and property, with the primary aim of pushing them out of the city. Among the white rioters were working class Irish. The black population in Cincinnati had increased from 700 in 1826 to over 2000 in 1829 and all classes of whites united to “cleanse” the city of its black population. They proposed the strict enforcement of the racist Black Laws of 1807. These laws were an early attempt by whites in Ohio to prohibit African Americans and “mulattos” from entering the State. They forbid blacks from enlisting in the militia, forbid them from educating their children in schools, and serving as witnesses against their white neighbours in court. The revival of these laws persuaded many African Americans to settle elsewhere if they wished to live free and in peace. But many did not want to leave their homes. White mobs thus attacked the black community for over two months, while the police and the city’s political leaders looked on. When it finally ended the black population in Cincinnati had almost halved.
Many of the black families that left established the short-lived Wilberforce colony in Canada. This colony diminished after internal strife, difficulties adapting to agrarian life, and the fact that the Canada Company ceased selling land to blacks after being pressurised by white settlers. In 1849 the property belonging to some of the remaining Wilberforce settlers was destroyed after an arson attack. Irish migrants and refugees fleeing the Great Famine settled in the area from the 1840s on and by 1860 they renamed the area Lucan.
Some Irish, keen to show their loyalty towards their adopted home in the face of Nativist suspicion, were also active in disrupting the activities of the Underground Railroad and enforcing the infamous Fugitive Slave Law. See the famous case of the self-emancipated slave Anthony Burns who was arrested under this law in 1854 and held in custody in Boston. When a group of African Americans and white anti-slavery activists attempted to rescue him by force, it was an Irish militia which suppressed their advances. One of their deputised number was stabbed and killed during the altercation. When African Americans held a vigil before Burns was sent back to his owners they were subjected to the “jeers and insults of pro-slavery Irishmen.” Sojourner Truth witnessed how Burns was marched on to the ship, a solitary figure, under the armed guard of two thousand armed white men. Some of those in the crowd, likely to be Irish-Americans, cheered at this pathetic procession. They also pointed at prominent abolitionists in the crowd, shouting “there go [the] murderers” of an Irish labourer. Noel Ignatiev described the actions of the Boston Irish militia as being evidence that the Irish were “the Swiss Guards of the Slave Power.”
The most famous anti-black pogrom involving Irish immigrants were the New York Draft Riots of 1863. After reviewing who the Irish community in New York looked to for leadership at this time, it’s not difficult to see why they led the racist violence. One of these men was Charles O’Conor, an Irish-American lawyer, and the son of a United Irishman. He said the following in 1859
And what of the exiled Irish patriots in the U.S. who once spoke of Irish Freedom with such longing? Richard O’Gorman, a former Young Irelander and later the Governor of Newfoundland, stated that he was completely opposed to the abolition of slavery. He said “By freedom, the abolitionists mean, no freedom for the white but for the black man.” (1862) He believed that the Emancipation Proclamation was “a barbarous, disgraceful, hideous violation of the morality of Christendom.” The media also played on their prejudices. In the lead up to the pogrom one Irish-American newspaper, the Freeman’s Journal and Catholic Register said that blacks “that float hither from the South” should be
“…driven out again, imprisoned or exterminated.”
This disgraceful editorial was at the extreme end of Democratic Party/Copperhead rhetoric which for the past years had increased the level of hysteria by warning white labourers in New York that free blacks would “stream North” and “take their jobs”. Thus the white rioters lynched blacks, hung them from lampposts, mutilated their bodies, burned down black homes, the homes of white abolitionists and destroyed the Colored Orphan Asylum. This anti-black pogrom was successful. The black population in Manhattan plummeted by 20% between 1860 and 1865.
Among those attempting to suppress the Draft Riots were many Irishmen serving as police officers and soldiers (some of whom survived Gettysburg) who undoubtedly shot and killed many of their rioting countrymen. Irish fire-fighters worked hard to put out the flames across the city and most famously, one group of Irish street-car drivers, led by a Paddy McCaffrey, helped to secure an isolated group of black children who escaped the burning Colored Orphanage.
Sadly the Draft Riots were but the worst incidence of anti-black violence perpetrated by a predominately Irish mob in New York in 1863. Just weeks before a large mob of mostly Irish longshoremen had attacked African American workers.
“On Monday last an effort was made by four or five hundred ‘longshoremen, most of whom are Irishmen, to prevent negroes from working on the docks, or in the First Ward, which comprises the lower part of the city. Several disturbances had previously occurred, without important results; but on this occasion it was determined that not only the negroes should not work, but that they should be punished for working hitherto.”
— Irishmen Assaulting Negroes, Douglass’ Monthly (June, 1863)
Memphis Massacre of 1866
This was most significant anti-black massacre committed by a mainly Irish mob in the United States. Unlike Cincinnati and New York, the vicious level of racial violence ranged against the black community in Memphis cannot be explained in part by immediate labour competition or a misguided rage due to the imposition of Draft Laws. It is a horrific example of race hatred.
The Irish population in Memphis increased from 876 in 1850 to 5,242 in 1860. Many of those who came to Memphis in this time period were from the Irish Catholic labouring class and they had migrated from Northern cities in search of work and a better life. In an inverse situation to Cincinnati, where a growing black population were attacked repeatedly by white mobs, the Irish used their growing population to secure their position via the ballot and use their power to become the main belligerents against the black Memphian community. By 1865, the Mayor, 86% of the city’s firefighters, 67% of the city’s officials and 91% of city’s police force were Irish. They used this position to commit one of the most violent anti-black massacres in the history of the United States. This crime against humanity should not mistaken for anything other than a mostly Irish mob murdering innocent black people in the name of White Supremacy.
Walker explains how “most of the Irish engaged in this riot were not members of the degraded labouring classes, but from a cross-section of socioeconomic strata consisting of Irish business and civil leaders…” and that “over 90 per cent of the rioters were from the ranks of privileged workers; 16 percent of the rioters were policemen, 10 percent were firemen, 17 percent were clerks and artisans, 19 percent were grocery saloon keepers, and 28 percent were from the ranks of small entrepreneurs. Only 9 percent of the rioters were labourers.”
After an altercation on the street between some black Union soldiers stationed in Memphis and some of the Irish-dominated police force, an attempt was made by a white mob (mostly made up of Irish-Americans) to kill, rob, rape, terrorise and drive from the city the entire black population and their supporters. Many police, firemen and even some officials, participated in or endorsed the massacre.
According to the Freedmen’s Bureau Report, “The conduct of a great number of the city police, who are generally composed of the lowest class of whites selected without reference to their qualifications for the position, was brutal in the extreme. Instead of protecting the rights of persons and property as is their duty, they were chiefly concerned as murderers, incendiaries and robbers. At times they even protected the rest of the mob in their acts of violence.”
Patrick Winters, an Irishman and Sheriff of the County “endeavoured to oppose the mob on the evening of the 1st of May, but his good intentions were thwarted by a violent speech” which was delivered by another Irishman, John C. Creighton. Creighton was the City Recorder and he “urged and directed the arming of the whites and the wholesale slaughter of blacks.”
His speech was delivered on the evening of the 1st of May to a large crowd of police and citizens on the corner of Vance and Causey streets, and to it can be attributed in a great measure the continuance of the disturbances.
“That everyone of the citizens should get arms, organize and go through the Negro districts,” and that he “was in favor of killing every God damned n****r…”
“We are not prepared now, but let us prepare and clean out every damned son of a bitch of a n****r out of town…”
”Boys, I want you to go ahead and kill every damned one of the n****r race and burn up the cradle...”
What also rankled them was that Freedmen were gaining in confidence and naturally hoping and advocating to be treated as equals in the post-antebellum period. This drove the white supremacists crazy. They wanted the former slaves to submit to their will completely. To be docile and to serve. One Irish policeman during the massacre longed for Samuel Cooper to be murdered, as he was a man who “gets up and talks to the colored people, and tells them that they are as good as white men.” Another section of the mob wanted to ensure the subjugation of the black community by destroying “every n****r building, every n****r church, and every God damn son of a bitch that [teaches] a n*****r.”
When the terrorists were finished, forty six African Americans had been murdered. Seventy five were wounded. Five African American women had been raped. One hundred African Americans were robbed. Ninety one African American homes had been destroyed. Four African American churches were demolished. Twelve African American schools had been burned to the ground. The damage to their community and some Federal property amounted to over $120,000.
No one was indicted. No one.
Walker highlights the words of David Roach, “an Irish police officer and one of the chief ringleaders of the mob, who was witnessed by ex-slave Hannah Robinson while he organised a posse on the third day of rioting. Roach was heard to have said…”
“Close up, close up; right shoulder shift. This is the white man’s day now.”
“No public meeting has been held by the citizens, although three weeks have now elapsed since the riot, thus by their silence appearing to approve of the conduct of the mob. The only regrets that are expressed by the mass of the people are purely financial.”
Irish Americans were involved elsewhere in the racial oppression that followed the Civil War. A famous Confederate was Father Abram Joseph Ryan, the “Poet-Priest of the South”, both of his parents were from Co. Tipperary. After the war he openly supported the White League’s paramilitary campaign to reassert white supremacy which included the Coushatta Massacre. Then there is Walter Lane from Co. Cork. He was a former Confederate general and after the Civil War he set up the first White Citizen’s Party in Texas. This party used terrorism to run Republicans and African Americans out of Marshall thus brutally reestablishing white hegemony.
Irish Identity Limited.
McGregor is not an outlier in his understanding of Irish history. His is the majoritarian view. Since the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 the official narrative has been the struggle for political independence, the persecution of those of Catholic faith, the revival of a cultural national identity, the Great Famine, the shallow graves, the mass evictions, the crushing poverty, the endless emigration, the hated workhouses, anti-Irish discrimination, the othering, the simian-like Irish caricatures, the plantations, the confiscation of land, Cromwell’s brutal invasion, the forced transportation of Irish patriots and petty criminals, the near death of the native tongue, and the pride in our Gaelic games. The historic oppression of our ancestors, at home and abroad, is undeniable and of the utmost significance. This history is used to create and then bind a “common” people together and Nationalism, an intoxicating product of the imagination, holds it in place. The down side is that this is exclusionary, simplistic, overly selective and encourage a “politics of purity” in terms of national identity.
The omission of complexity in this narrative partly explains why so many struggle to see their Irish ancestors as being anything but victims in the past. We are not a homogenous group. Not now and not then. The “Irish Race” is a fiction. As an antidote I humbly suggest that we view our ancestors as self-interested people, which is not exactly a revelatory hypothesis but it might help us understand an entangled history.
We must also remember how people of colour, seen through the prism of warped racial “purity”, were treated as “others” in Ireland both before and after we gained our political independence. The recent Mixed Race Irish submission to the Irish Oireachtas Joint Committee may be a difficult read but it demands that the Irish State and its people finally
“…acknowledge the historical and continuing suffering of Mixed Race Irish Children placed in State Institutions throughout Ireland between the 1940s — 1980s. By coming together as a distinct ethnic community, we were for the first time able to voice our painful, colour specific abusive experience while under the care of Irish State Institutions. We discussed and realised how the long term effects of colour specific abuse has directly resulted in continued prejudice, poverty, poor mental and physical ill health of members of our community.”
As Rosemary Adaser put it, they were “the dust to be swept away.”
“State violence against the black body is not contingent, it is structural and, above all, gratuitous….violence against black people is [ontological] as opposed to merely ideological and contingent. Furthermore, no magical moment (i.e., 1865) transformed paradigmatically the black body’s relation to this entity. In this regard, the hegemonic advances within civil society by the Left hold out no more possibility for black life than the coercive backlash of political society.” — Frank Wilderson III (2003)
Many Irish people (including Conor McGregor) consume and enjoy black music and black culture, but it appears that far fewer in number have a similar interest in, or knowledge of, black history. While McGregor may not wish to engage in any discussion about racism, black athletes in the United States are not privileged with this choice. Floyd Mayweather’s comments were about how racism can be manifested through the white gaze, and how these perceptions are important. As Black Lives Matter activists continue to raise awareness and agitate for social justice and reform, the sobering fact is that while black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police in 2015. Studies suggest that racial bias leads to the general population, including the police force, perceiving black children as being older and less innocent than white children. While some may prefer to cover their ears and sing the Fields of Athenry, perception matters, especially so in the United States of America, that racist utopia that so many of our Irish forebears helped to build.