The Irish Were Not Slaves

3/29/19

Performed live at The Skewer

I’m pretty Irish, I mean I’m not saying I’m pretty and Irish but I am satisfactorily Irish. I just walked in The South Side Irish Parade for Saint Patrick’s Day 2 weeks ago. I walked because I’m doing an Irish pageant or “selection of women” called “The Rose 

of Tralee”. It’s a 60 year old pageant for Irish women or women of the Irish Diaspora. 

I fall in the Irish Diaspora category because my maternal grandparents immigrated here from Ireland in the 50s and my dad immigrated here in the 70s. I have a deep connection to my Irish roots–traveling to Ireland during the summers and some Christmases to spend time with family and growing up in a Chicago suburb full of Irish cousins and pseudo cousins- the children of the men and women my dad grew up with in Ireland. Being a part of a Diaspora is a purely immigrant experience. And I want to be clear here. The Irish Immigrated. 

I never did Irish Step Dancing thank god because my mom didn’t enjoy it when she did it and instead I played Irish Football a sort of mix of soccer, basketball and volleyball. I also went to Irish camp in 7th grade in North Carolina to play what they called “celtic cello” and learn the tin whistle and group ceili dancing. I really enjoyed growing up Irish in Chicago. It was a great way to be raised. I really felt I had a community– something I’m now searching for as an adult. 

This community was largely in the Chicago suburbs where all our dads worked as carpenters, electricians and plumbers to name a few industries. We all grew up doing projects at school about our heritage and saw each other on Aer Lingus flights back “Home” in the summer. We always called it home, something I think a lot of children of immigrants can relate to. Something I’m not so sure others can relate to is calling it “God’s Country”. That seems to be purely Irish and a little too Catholic for my lapsed Catholic ways. It is a beautiful country but like please guys, Hawaii exists! Have you seen Moana or Planet Earth? 

Hearing about how our parents came here with very little money and struggled to find their footing is basically Americas Tale As Old As Time. For the Irish in particular our brand of discrimination was actually Anti-Catholicism and Anti-poverty, one of these we’ve gotten over and one we’re still working on. Good luck guessing which is which! When the Irish came here, for my family in the 50s and 70s they had the privilege of their white skin to help carry them to success. 

Growing up I learned about the history of “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish” and “No Irish Need Apply”  in the 19th and 20th century in this country and abroad. It was a point of pride in the community-we were discriminated against! And look how we’d succeeded in this country despite having been discriminated against. Hell! We had a first generation American Irish president! Arguably the sexiest president until the recent past at that! I’m talkin Kennedy people and I’ll tell you us Irish love to bring him and his family up! 

I’ve been to bars in Boston that proudly post “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish” signs by their bottles of liquor in the past few years. We as Americans LOVE a comeback story, we love the underdog and no one likes to believe they are the underdog quite like the Irish. In college I took quite a few Irish Studies courses and was told over and over again about that struggle. I took one class called “Cinematic Representations of The Irish” (Gotta love a Liberal Arts School!) where we watched film after film where the Irish were depicted as ruffians, fighters and sometimes invalids. As the class drew to an end we were watching more modern films where the Irish were described as “go to stock characters that are still ethnically ambiguous”. That depiction of the Irish as fighters is something that has carried into today. 

We have the Notre Dame “Fighting Irish” for example, a team my Irish dad LOVES and sports their fan gear like its Fenty or IVY PARK. Seriously, it’s all he wears. I always wonder why he’s okay with this depiction of his countrymen as fighters but I’ll probably never ask. He’s an Irish dude and he doesn’t like to talk about his *FEELINGS*. 

That’s all to say I’m Irish and I love being Irish. I love our history in Ireland and our history in this country. We have struggled to assimilate in the past and now that we have we’ve turned back to our heritage, celebrating our Irishness by celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day, with our dancing and our sports and so much more! If Saint Patrick’s Day Celebrations 2019 have proven anything to me it’s that maybe we need to calm down a little. I’m still exhausted from celebrating! Maybe that’s just fatigue? Who knows. 

One point of Irish history I hate to have brought up is our history as “Slaves”. I hate it because I know it isn’t true and deeply rooted in racism. During the 90s lot’s of truthers came forward proclaiming the hidden history as the Irish as slaves in America and the Caribbean. I’m here to tell you all that while the Irish were indentured servants they were never slaves in America.

I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir here but when it comes up when I’m surrounded by Irish folks–educated Irish people who should know better do not or choose not to know better. Even this past February Virginia Governor Ralph Northam famously known for sporting black face referred to actual slavery as “indentured servants”. Luckily the mother Oprah never had–Gayle King was interviewing him quickly collected him by replying “ Also known as slavery”. 

It’s moments like these I find myself referring to facts, the fact is that the Irish never were slaves. They were indentured servants sure but we cannot be comparing that to slavery. Both are horrible circumstances but we cannot be comparing indentured servitude to chattel slavery. In one case a person is considered a person and in another the person is not legally considered a person. Indentured servitude came with a time limit and often a means of passage to the colonies. 

The ending sentiment when this comes up is usually “We got over it so why can’t you?” This us vs them mentality is what is keeping the Irish back in my opinion. First, we can’t get our facts straight which is embarrassing and second of all we look horribly racist. Because that’s what some of us are! 

Racism in the Irish community is one of the reasons I don’t consider myself a part of the community, I recently saw a picture from Saint Patricks Day with a t-shirt saying “Irish Lives Matter”. I thought I got rid of all the riff raff during the 2016 election but I guess one slipped through! We know Irish lives matter because they are valued in this country and honestly a large portion of the police in this country are of Irish Descent. 

There was a video on Facebook for Saint Patrick’s Day this year of the Irish members of Chicago Police Department talking about where they’re from in Ireland and encouraging viewers to celebrate the holiday responsibly–effectively humanizing this organization that very recently has worked to conceal the murder of Laquan McDonald. I won’t even get into how a black man got an Irish last name because you all know how that happened. So I wasn’t surprised when it was shared by my Irish friends and family here in Chicago and home in Ireland–one of the police officers is from my dads little village in Ireland. 

This race to see who suffered more is fruitless. There’s no competition. It’s like putting Beyoncé up against anyone–literally anyone. It’s just not fair. 

I guess I’m here to repent. It is Lent and even though I’m a lapsed Catholic, traditions die hard. I just have such mixed feelings — being so proud to be Irish in so many ways when there’s this underlying racism in the community that I do not accept. 

Irish people have suffered enough atrocities from centuries of British occupation to famine to decades of armed conflict in Northern Ireland– why do we have to have the false slave narrative too? It devalues the actual suffering the Irish have endured. I know we all love a meme but the use of a total falsity to perpetuate racist ideology is not a good look. It makes me not only not proud but embarrassed to be Irish. 

I’m participating in this pageant The Rose of Tralee this Saturday. I just hope I don’t have to hear anything about the false tragedy of the Irish being slaves in this country. God forbid it comes up I’ll have to show my true Irish self and let the fiery woman inside come out. Maybe the stereotype of the fighting irish isn’t so far off but I hope when I have children–children who will be Irish–this myth of Irish slavery will be dead and buried. I do have hope we as a community can stop believing this far right lie and confront our racism and othering. 

And now I’ll get off my Irish Spring soap box. Thanks for letting me share. 

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