by Kevin Meagher
There are only two countries in the world where St. Patrick’s Day is a recognised public holiday, the Republic of Ireland (obviously enough) and Montserrat. Yes, that Montserrat, the tiny Caribbean island where, by the mid-1600s, Irish slaves made up two thirds of the island’s population.
Yes, you read that right: Irish slaves. The practice began in the first decades of the 17th Century with the ‘sale’ of 30,000 Irish political prisoners, in what would become a depressingly recurrent theme in Irish history. Between the start of the English Civil War and Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, around 300,000 Irish were sold into slavery, men, women and children alike.
Men at arms went first, then their wives and children were sold separately never to be reunited again. A further half a million Irish were killed during this period, with the country’s population falling from 1.6 million in 1641 to just 600,000 by 1652. It’s hard to determine who were the less fortunate, the dead or the enslaved.
Irish children were stripped not only of their families and liberty, but also their faith and ethnic identity, with many having their names changed for good measure. During the 1650s, over 100,000 of them between the ages of 10 and 14 were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England.
Many young girls were sold into what we would now term sex slavery. Plantation masters bred them with more expensive African slaves to save themselves the transit costs of importing new African slaves from greater distances. This heart-breaking and inhuman practice was eventually outlawed, but it’s fair to say this is a tale we’re not used to hearing.
Indeed, some historians prefer the more opaque term “indentured labour” to describe what happened to the Irish. But if you’re bought and sold, mistreated and brutalised, ripped away from your family and country and “transported” (another favoured euphemism for the practice) to work until you drop, then you’re a slave.
And many of the earliest sent to labour in the New World were White Europeans, and many of those were Irish, as Don Jordan and Michael Walsh make clear in their book: ‘White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America.’
In terms of scale, the African slave trade was the more pernicious, with between ten and thirty million Africans eventually being sold into slavery. The fact that history has overlooked the grievous treatment of the Irish is simply accounted for by the multiple examples of dismal British misrule in Ireland down the centuries.
So today is about more than necking Guinness and wearing silly hats. For Irish communities scattered around the world, today is an expression of cultural, religious and ethnic identity which, although sometimes only distantly recollected, connects the present with a rich, but often painful history.
So Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh. As the Montserratians say.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut