“Kiss me, my slave owners were Irish”

This Saint Patrick’s Day essay will briefly review Ireland’s anti-slavery history before focussing on the more representative and troubling issue of slave ownership among those of Irish descent. What could be more appropriate?

Ireland has a rich anti-slavery history.

Beginning in the fifth century, a former slave to the Irish, Patricius aka Saint Patrick, sent a now famous letter to the Romano-British warlord Coroticus. In this letter, Patricius condemned and excommunicated the soldiers of Coroticus for enslaving his new Christian converts in Ireland and for selling them to non-Christians. This document is one of the earliest anti-slavery texts in existence.


In the early-eighteenth century, the Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson was one of the first to break with Aristotle’s theory of “natural slavery” by declaring that natural liberty was a natural right that belonged to all. The ever increasing dissemination and development of enlightenment thought, such as Hutcheson’s, helped to influence the rise of a formidable anti-slavery movement in Ireland, particularly in Dublin and Belfast.

It included members of the United Irishmen such as Henry Joy McCracken, William Drennan, Thomas Russell (who refused to use slave labour products), Samuel Neilson and Thomas McCabe (who successfully challenged a burgeoning slave trade scheme in Belfast) but in my view this generational spirit was epitomised by Mary Ann McCracken, who after a life of agitation and unyielding activism, was handing out anti-slavery leaflets at Belfast Port to U.S. bound emigrants aged 89.

There was a wider involvement during Wilberforce’s campaign, when thousands of Irish people petitioned the British government to end the slave trade and also boycotted West Indies sugar as a form of protest. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative were bestsellers in Ireland in the 1790s.


This was followed by Thomas Moore’s anti-slavery poetry. In 1806, after spending time in Virginia and Washington D.C., he lashed out at the rank hypocrisy of American slavery “Freedom! Freedom! how I hate thy cant..” Moore believed that these slave-driving freedom lovers were

…poor of heart and prodigal of words,
Formed to be slaves, yet struggling to be lords,
Strut forth, as patriots, from their negro-marts,
And shout for rights, with rapine in their hearts.

Who can, with patience, for a moment see
The medley mass of pride and misery,
Of whips and charters, manacles and rights,
Of slaving blacks and democratic whites..

He viewed American slave-holding society as representing a “Bastard Freedom”, a puffed-up byproduct of self-interest, racism, ignorance and greed, enforced by biased laws and the constant threat of violence. A world where..

The brute [was] made ruler and the man [was] made brute.

Next was Charles Orpen’s immediatist Hibernian Negro’s Friend Society, and then the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society (HASS) which was founded in 1837 and led by Richard Davis Webb, Richard Allen and James Haughton. This radical triumvirate were abolitionists transatlantically allied with William Lloyd Garrison. In 1841 they published an anti-slavery address which was aimed at the Irish community in the United States. It demanded that Irish migrants should “treat coloured people as your equals” and to “hate slavery” in their adopted land. It was accompanied by a petition, which due to the help of Charles Lenox Remond’s tour of Ireland and the support of O’Connell’s Repeal agents, amassed 60,000 signatures. This clearly caught the public’s imagination, as this letter from Dublin attests..

A young lad, about thirteen, had been most indefatigable in collecting signatures. I heard the other day, he was going from house to house in the more genteel neighborhoods, rapping at hall doors . . . the other day he came for five sheets more. He told me he was going to school the next week, and that before he left, he must do all he could to liberate the slaves.

Other signatories of the address were Father Theobald Mathew and Daniel O’Connell. The Liberator himself was the most famous anti-slavery public figure in Europe at this time, and many influential abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass and Charles Lenox Remond, saw him as an inspiration whose speeches were a singular influence on their lives.

In tandem with HASS were a series of Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Societies which were generally organised by Quaker women to help raise the level of awareness in Ireland about the realities of chattel slavery. They corresponded with their progressive counterparts in the United States, sending letters of support, as well as donating gifts to be sold at various anti-slavery fundraisers.

Last but not least is the Catholic abolitionist Dr. Richard Robert Madden, who left his profitable career as a doctor in London to dedicate a large part of his life to the anti-slavery cause. He was an early beneficiary of the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 and was appointed a Special Magistrate in Jamaica where he oversaw the abolition of slavery in 1834. He was hated by the planters there (now former slaveowners) as he doggedly defended the emancipated slaves new rights by making site inspections and ensuring that they were treated as equals in his court. After much intimidation, threats and eventually a violent assault in the street, he had to resign his position, writing “I found the protection of the negro incompatible with my own.”

In 1836 Madden made his way to Cuba, where he had been appointed the Superintendent of Liberated Africans. He was lauded by John Quincy Adams for the vital evidence he gave during the Amistad trial and he obliterated De Tocqueville’s assertion that Spanish slavery was relatively benign. He described what he found by visiting the plantations in Cuba (when not a guest of the slave masters)

…it was only when I went alone, unknown, and unexpected on their estates, that the terrible atrocities of Spanish slavery astounded my senses. I have already said, and I repeat the words, so terrible were these atrocities, so murderous the system of slavery, so transcendent the evils I witnessed...[men] literally scourged to death, of women torn from their children, and separated from them — of estates where an aged negro is not to be seen, [of estates] where there is not a single female; of labour in the time of crop on the sugar properties being frequently twenty continued hours, for upwards of six months in the year, seldom or never under five, and of the general impression prevailing on this subject, and generally acted on by the proprietors, that four hours' sleep is sufficient for a slave.

But there is another aspect to Madden’s story, that leads to my major point of divergence.

“..the resemblance of [this former slave] to some members of my family was striking…”

During his sojourn in Jamaica he decided to visit his great-uncle’s former Marley plantation in St. Mary’s Parish on which he had a legitimate claim. He wished “to ascertain if the possession was worth the risk of an appeal to the Chancellor.” But “a stronger inducement” for visiting the plantation was a “feeling of personal interest in the condition of a place which had
belonged for nearly half a century to members of my family.”

As Gera Burton recounts, he was in for a surprise..

..he encountered three women, former slaves, who had been living in the dilapidated old house for many years. To his astonishment, the two younger, middle-aged women turned out to be the daughters of Madden’s great-uncle, Theodosius Lyons, the previous plantation owner. He could even see a strong family resemblance, and the elderly woman was their mother. As the story unfolded, the sisters described how, following the sudden death of the plantation manager, their younger brother was sold to pay off the debts of the estate. Deeply moved by these revelations, Madden offered the family what little he could by way of financial assistance…Undoubtedly, the unforeseen encounter with his Jamaican relatives had a profound impact on Madden, infusing him with an even greater desire to eradicate slavery in all its forms

He felt guilty and ashamed when he realised that his newly discovered relatives were worried that he would take the house from them. He then observed the absurd injustice of the situation;

“What bland expressions, what gentle language, what inoffensive terms must be employed when the possibility is to be admitted of men thus leaving their children in actual destitution, and then - remotest kindred perhaps in affluence?”

This is, in some ways, a microcosm of the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade, that we are still wrestling with today.

R.R. Madden’s encounter with his once enslaved relatives thus raises difficult questions about (i) chattel slaves who were born of direct Irish descent and (ii) the overlooked history of slave ownership among the Irish in the Americas.

(i) The ‘Irish’ Slaves

Upon reviewing the various colonial laws pertaining to anti-miscegenation, it is reasonable to conclude that there were voluntary courtships between enslaved black men and free or indentured white women. But the remarkable case of Eleanor Butler illustrates why these unions were rare.

Maryland 1681

Eleanor “Irish Nell” Butler, was an Irish indentured servant who was brought to Maryland by Lord Baltimore in 1661. In 1681 (by then “well free of her indenture”) she choose to marry Charles, who was a black chattel slave. Her punishment for such an indiscretion was that she was to be a slave as long as her husband was alive and that their children were to be slaves. We find that the descendants of Eleanor and Charles were suing for their freedom 100 years later.

But why was Butler punished in this manner? The colonists in Maryland (as in all the other colonies) created racial laws to discourage marriages between white and black, and their 1664 laws stated that

“divers freeborne English women forgettfull of their free Condicon and to the disgrace of our Nation doe intermarry with Negro Slaves”

Lord Baltimore’s remarks to Nell about her fateful decision are revealing of the racism of this era. It is difficult to say if there was anger, concern or bemusement in his voice when he reportedly asked her

“how she would like to go to Bed to a Negro.”

Either way, her defiant reply would have stung..

“I would rather go to Bed to Charles than your lordship.”

Evidently Nell Butler broke the racial line and law out of love not coercion, and it is thus clear that there were rare cases of chattel slaves of Irish descent on their mother’s side.

Conversely, we find that there were many slaves, just like R.R. Madden’s relatives, who had ‘Irish blood’ on their father’s side, i.e. they were the progeny of an Irish slave-master (or his friends or relatives) and his female slave. This is a disturbing chapter that needs to be explored. The rape and sexual abuse of slaves was an infamous practice. Slaves, who were treated as livestock by their white masters and their white supremacist laws, were offered no protection by the State or polity. Slave breeding had become an important consideration for slave owners once the slave trade was banned. Coerced slave breeding between slaves and the rape of slaves by their owners was thus further motivated by the wish to increase the slave population; these slave breeders wanted to extract future capital from present chattel.

Nile Rodgers descends from an Irish slave master by the name of Dr. Gough. In his autobiography Rodgers referred to how this married man produced his familial line by “getting intimate with his property”. This ‘property’ was his great-great-great grandmother Caroline, Dr. Gough’s slave housekeeper whom he had more than one child with. Two years later Rodgers implied that this was a consensual union, when he cited his Irish connection as resulting from a slave master’s “affair with his black slave.”

This is not surprising when you consider the circumstances. As Professor Jennifer L. Hochschild observed when discussing the emotional fallout from Michelle Obama’s case “more or less every white person knows that slave owners raped slaves”, but they then struggle to accept this reality when it involves their own antecedents. There is an understandable longing by relatives to see this, the zenith of asymmetrical sexual exploitation, as some sort of consensual or even loving act. Michelle Obama of course has Irish slave-owner ancestry, but this is less well known than her husband’s more marketable connection.

But there is a danger of generalisation. How a child was conceived is one story, what happens next is another. The following comment, left beneath my article about Irish slave owners in the British West Indies, highlights the complexities of this history.

“An Irish slave-master gave my forebear the name Garvey; he was not allowed to pass on his African name to us..”. — Marcus Garvey (1922)

A brief search on Twitter reveals many African-Americans mentioning that their ancestors’ original slave masters, like Marcus Garvey’s, were Irish..

(ii) Estimating Slave Ownership Among those of Irish Descent

My (Crude) Methodology

For the United States I used the Slave Schedules (1850), and for the British West Indies I consulted with the Slave Compensation Records (c. 1834). I proceeded to cross reference every Irish family name contained in McLysaght’s work with these databases, and I then transcribed the results into a spreadsheet. It took five weeks to complete, and I am making this data publicly available today for anyone to access.


As everyone that works in the area of genealogical research is aware, this is an inexact science, especially when working with broad brushstrokes, i.e. surnames. I thus decided to exclude many common Irish names in McLysaght’s list (e.g. Moore, Lee, McDowell, Talbot, Needham, Reynolds and Thornton) because they were equally or even more common in England or Scotland. As they owned so many slaves in total (tens of thousands!) their inclusion would have fundamentally skewed the overall number. This problem has also led to the exclusion of many Ulster-Scots surnames as well as omitting the names of Irish people with more traditional English, Welsh and Scottish names. I had planned to cross reference Irish surnames with slave-ownership in the French, Dutch, Danish, Portuguese and Spanish colonies, but I simply ran out of time and the means to complete this. I thus predict that my overall estimate will prove to be an underestimation.

But it should be acknowledged that this methodology leads to a collection of data that is anecdotal, and until further research is done into each individual slave-owner on the list, we cannot claim for certain that these names represent a person of Irish descent. It also does not tell us when these family lines settled in the various colonies, and it is reasonable to assume that some go back many generations. As Dr. Stephen Mullen pointed out, some of these names may even be former slaves, or second or third generation Irish who came to the colonies via England. This is complex.

Yet despite these limitations and numerous caveats, I believe that my data, while cursory, is suggestive of the level of slave-ownership among those of Irish descent. Hopefully this tentative review will lead to more in-depth research that will tease out the complexities of these family histories.

The Data

1. U.S. (1850)

  • 539 different surnames
  • 99,129 slaves
  • 3% of all slaves in the U.S.
  • 17 different states
  • Circa 8,625 individual slave-owners

Update: This increases to 115,894 slaves in the 1860 Census. That’s a 16.9% increase in the number of slaves owned by those with Irish surnames over a ten year period, 1850–1860.

The way to success

I imagine that the number of Irish surnames present in this list would not surprise Professor David T. Gleeson, who is perhaps the foremost expert on the Irish in the South. His most recent book The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America is essential reading for anyone interested in this topic. A Boston Globe review neatly surmised one of the reasons for the level of Irish involvement with the ‘peculiar institution’

The Irish in the Southern states had generally arrived a generation or more before those who came to Boston and other Northern cities and were already well-established socially, culturally, and politically by the time of the run-up to war. They were active in politics; a number owned newspapers; and there were bishops and cathedrals in the larger cities of the otherwise predominantly Protestant region.

Gleeson believes that many Irish immigrants saw “slave ownership as the way to success in the South.” This ranged from those of modest means to those in positions of power. See Patrick Lynch, the Bishop of Charleston, South Carolina, who hailed from Co. Fermanagh and who is remembered “for his ownership and management of slaves owned by the Catholic diocese.” Bishop Lynch also 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. It appears that Lynch had absorbed the racist justification for slavery absolutely. After Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation Lynch wrote to the anti-abolitionist Archbishop of New York, John Hughes (from Co. Tyrone). Lynch was horrified and he told Hughes that he now imagined slaves would burn their owners’ homes down, club their masters to death as they escaped and then rape their white women of all ages. This would be done, Lynch said, “by some big black beast who had been a slave of African descent.”

The 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.”

Yet, as I frequently notice on social media, some people are unaware of this…

I spoke to Joe Buggy, a genealogist and author of Finding Your Irish Ancestors in New York City, about this lack of knowledge concerning slave ownership among those of Irish descent. He thought that

Historically, there has been a tendency here in the U.S. to divide immigrants from Ireland into two groups, Scots-Irish and Irish. This breaks down by era of immigration (pre and post Famine) and religion (Presbyterian, Methodist, etc. vs Catholic). This has resulted in a blind-spot about slave owners from Ireland for two reasons: (i) “well, they weren’t really Irish, they were planters from the northern counties who had their origins in Scotland”, etc., and (ii) due to the fact that a considerable number of Irish immigrants in the 1650–1850 period morphed into the dominant WASP culture so they could achieve a greater social status and acceptance.

An Irish exile who turns this narrative on its head is James Carroll.

As Charles M.Flanagan’s PhD dissertation explains, James Carroll came of age

“just as his extended family was losing its large land holdings in the region of central Ireland known as Ely O’Carroll, as the price of their loyalty to the deposed king, James II.”

His father, uncle and family leader all fought in the 1690–91 battles but were on the losing side, thus Carroll emigrated to Maryland to avoid “disenfranchisement and poverty.” His sponsor in Maryland was his uncle, Charles Carroll, who served as an attorney for the aforementioned Lord Baltimore. Despite the onset of anti-Catholic laws in Maryland in the early eighteenth century, Carroll’s Jacobite identity never wavered. In his will he left money for his relations in Ireland to receive a Catholic education in France. He was a successful property manager for his wealthy uncle (who owned 11,000 acres in the colony by 1702), a shrewd political strategist and planter. He named one of his plantations Fingaul. He was also a slave owner and slave trader. He bought slaves from Maryland planters and from slave traders who had imported ‘fresh stock’ from Africa and the West Indies. Flanagan notes that

“..his actions as a buyer and seller of people suggest that he treated people who did not have freedom as a commodity.”

In 1715 when one of his slaves ran away and was captured, Carroll’s overseer paid the captor, Robert Ward, in cloth. Flanagan’s conclusion over how Carroll treated his indentured servants differently than his slaves, speaks to the whole bogus issue of ‘white slavery’ in this context. Some of Carroll’s indentured servants were migrants that were actually from his home parish back in Ireland.

Carroll gave no indication that he considered his community of plantation workers or other Africans he imported to be human beings entitled to the same rights or opportunities he desired for himself.

This disjuncture between his personal ideals and commercial action gives insight into his sharply divided thinking on the condition of indentured and enslaved people. Carroll treated his indentured servants as people bound to him by contract, but treated the enslaved people he owned and those he sold as property. His enslaved men and women were human, obligated to obey him and yet individuals who lived across an unbridgeable gulf of race and status.

Irish surname variations by State

This does not exactly match up proportionally to the total number of slaves per State. The state of Kentucky had the eighth most slaves in the U.S. in 1850 (over 210,000) yet it appeared second in this graph with 222 different Irish surnames represented among the slave-owning class. Gleeson explains that Kentucky was one of the three border states (along with Missouri and Maryland) and while they were “Southern in a cultural sense, they did not join their follow slave states to the south in seceding from the Union.” He adds that “there were much larger numbers of Irish in these states compared to the ones farther south.”

It was in 1916 that Michael Joseph O’Brien, a prodigious member of the New York Gaelic Society, claimed that an ‘Irish Pioneer’ named James McBride was the ‘true discoverer of Kentucky.’ O’Brien was unsure of McBride’s exact lineage and thus concluded that he was ‘probably an Irishman.’ Nevertheless, the series of articles he published in John Devoy’s The Gaelic American (N.Y.) on Irish Pioneers in Kentucky enthused how Catholic Irish migrants had settled in Kentucky from the mid-1700s onwards. According to the author, in 1775 nearly 50% of the inhabitants of the frontier town of Harrodsburg, Kentucky were Irish.

Slaves, what Slaves?

O’Brien’s academic output often took the form of a counter-narrative, a unique branch of diasporic Gaelic Revivalism interwoven with the deeds involved in colonial expansion. In ways it resembles Irish colonial nationalism from the eighteenth century. It sought to correct the dominant narrative which described how “Anglo-Saxons and Scots-Irish” led the way in early Colonial America. Hence we find O’Brien boasting of Irishmen killing Native Americans in the name of “civilisation” in seventeenth century Albany

These [early Irish settlers] were merchants, farmers, miners, millers, and backwoodsmen; the pioneers, who, with their Dutch neighbors, blazed the trail of civilization through that section, rolled back the savage red man, and who marked along the banks of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers the sites of future towns and cities.

In the case of Kentucky he is proud of the renaming of land there after Irish surnames and Irish place-names.

Notably, he mentions almost nothing about the slaves that these pioneers brought with them to this new colony. His sole reference is of a coincidental nature, as he pointed out that Irishmen (including a Kennedy, Cowan and McBride) were involved in the trying of slaves in the first colonial court in Kentucky.

2. British Colonies (1834)

  • 231 different surnames
  • 37,104 slaves
  • 20 different colonies
  • 1,201 individual slave-owners

I then graphed the surname variation by colony..

Case Study: The Irish and British Guiana

The slavocracy of British Guiana was ranked second in the list of British colonies for variation of Irish surnames among slave-owners. Traces of an Irish presence still remain there. Two prominent sugar cane plantations in the colony were named Hibernia and Cullen; situated along the Essequibo river, and these names are still used to identify communities and roads in the Pomeroon-Supenaam region of present-day Guyana.

I’m currently writing the case study on this colony [TBC]

3. Absentee Slave Owners in Ireland (1834)

  • They owned 15,869 slaves
  • 13 different colonies
  • 97 individual claims made by persons based in Ireland.

I published a short article last year which briefly considered two of these claims, the La Touche family of Dublin and the Browne family of Westport, Co. Mayo.

In Conclusion

The simplistic narrative that “well, the Irish didn’t own slaves” is shattered when the evidence is examined. The Great Famine led to the most significant migration in Ireland’s history, but it is not the Alpha and Omega. People from Ireland, representing all classes, creeds and genealogies, have participated in the colonisation of the ‘New World’ since the late sixteenth century. As the European conquest of the Americas accelerated, so too did the presence of Irish missionaries, indentured servants, labourers, craftsmen, teachers, planters and merchants. The Atlantic slave trade flourished and the dehumanising exploitation of African slaves 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.

“Slavery has left the most terrible marks and legacies on not just people’s material lives […] but there’s also the psychic histories connected with that. They aren’t just over. They carry on.” — Prof Catherine Hall

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Select Bibliography

Emília Viotti da Costa, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood (London 1994)

Richard Cannon, Historical record of the Twenty-First Regiment, or the Royal North British Fusiliers containing an account of the formation of the regiment in 1678, and of it subsequent services to 1849 (London 1849)

Charles M. Flanagan, The Sweets of Independence: A Reading of the “James Carroll Daybook, 1714–1721″, PhD Dissertation (University of Maryland, 2005) URL: http://drum.lib.umd.edu/bitstream/1903/2456/1/umi-umd-2323.pdf

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815–1877, (University of South Carolina Press, 2001) Won the 2001 Donald Murphy Prize for a Distinguished First Book, American Conference on Irish Studies.

Kenneth J. Zannca, American Catholics and Slavery, 1789–1866: An Anthology of Primary Documents, (UNP 1994)

Byrne, Coleman and King (ed.s), Ireland and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History : a Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia, Volume 2, (2008)

Nini Rodgers, Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, 1612–1865, (2007)

Michael Joseph O’Brien, Irish Colonists in New York, The Shamrock Literary Society of New York, (1906)



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