George Floyd was the latest in a long line of Black Americans killed by white police officers in the United States. The horrifying video of his killing sparked worldwide protests in the middle of a pandemic with uneven mortality rates that are exposing existing inequalities. While many people around the world champion this new, impromptu, international coalition based around a racial justice reckoning, the overwhelming majority of posts I’ve seen in response to the Black Lives Matter protests in Ireland are not as supportive. And the anger (at protestors) and overwhelming nonreaction in my beloved Cork, “The Rebel County,” broke my heart.
I’m not going to argue the fact that a mass gathering in the middle of a pandemic is dangerous, but the “this isn’t our problem,” “Irish Lives Matter,” and, more recently, “Black Crimes Matter” posts are also dangerous. (One post by the Twitter handle @griptmedia was accompanied by a racial dog-whistle article written by John McGuirk on the dangers of immigrant and minority crimes around the world. The post was part of a threaded response to the Irish Times journalist Sorcha Pollack’s June 9th call for stories from Black people living in Ireland.) My favorite refrain from Irish isolationists on radio shows and online is that Ireland is not and was not a colonial power and thus does not have to accept that kind of immigration. As if Ireland is not part of the EU, with Europe being the birthplace of chattel slavery. As if Ireland is not the European hub for so many American Silicon Valley tech companies. As a Black American here on a Fulbright studying the relationship between Black Americans and the Irish, let me just say: it very much is your problem.
The last time Ireland had to confront race issues in a major, international way was the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, 2004, a reversal of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act of 1956, which stated that: “Every person born in Ireland is an Irish citizen from birth” (EISB). This Act is the subject of renewed online discussion in the wake of the BLM protests: a tweet from @lesbianblath, for example, argues: “a black lad born in cork is more irish than some yank who’s [sic] granny is irish.” I agree with this sentiment and would add that if citizenship is given to a (white) Irish person from the States (the country with the largest number of people of Irish descent with an estimated 33,000,000) simply because they can prove to have an Irish grandparent, then it can’t be said that what goes on in the States has nothing to do with Ireland.
I’m a second-generation New Yorker who, along with the rest of the world, has seen how incredibly discriminatory the NYPD can be. Here are the names of the current and last three police commissioners in New York City, heading the biggest force in the country: Dermot Shea, James O’Neill, William Bratton, and Raymond Kelly. Yes, they are all Irish Americans (whom some Irish papers have touted as proud sons of the country), and no, New York is not unique in this way. The Irish have a long history with law enforcement in the States, and I would argue that those departments are functioning exactly as designed, as their origins are intertwined with the slave patrols of the antebellum era.
I, along with many non-white people who’ve tried to discuss racism in this country, have heard the phrase “we can’t be racist, we’re Irish.” I’ve never quite understood what that means, as persecuted people have often gone on to inflict pain onto others. Ask a Palestinian in Gaza, a Muslim in India, or a member of the Travelling Community here about hypocrisy and social caste systems. Power corrupts, perhaps especially those who hadn’t previously had any. As W.E.B. Du Bois once noted: “The Irish people in the United States have often led in attacking blacks. . . . It is the Oppressed who have continually been used to cow and kill the Oppressed in the interest of the Universal Oppressor” (Horne and Young 110). There’s a system here in Ireland, Direct Provision, that many people would also argue is systematically racist and inhumane (especially considering Ireland’s special history with emigration). This mostly for-profit system places asylum seekers in residential institutions, sometimes for years, often without the ability to work. I don’t feel it’s my place to speak on that. As someone whose ancestors were imported to America against their will, however, I have a unique relationship with immigration that I’m more qualified to discuss.
People here ask all the time if I “have some Irish in me,” and I hesitate to answer because I’m sure I do—my mother’s maiden name is Irish and I have “mixed-race” ancestors—but I’m also sure that bloodline didn’t come with consent. So many Black Americans have Irish ancestry because so many Irish were slaveowners in the States. In a recent article for the Irish Times about the Black American and Irish connection Suzanne Lynch noted, “Though precise figures are difficult to establish, it is estimated that up to 38 per cent of African-Americans have Irish ancestry.” Black women’s status as property in the United States meant that their bodies were used as work mules, as experimental subjects (sexually and medically), and as baby slave makers (forced to “breed” with other slaves and with their “masters”). This is why most Americans of slave ancestry have European blood and why our last names are often the last names of our ancestors’ owners (no, Shaquille O’Neal is not originally from Kerry).
Still, this is a special place. There’s a reason this country seems to be moving forward politically while most of the western world descends into fascism. There’s a reason why no other artists have influenced me or my work more than Irish writers, musicians, actors, and filmmakers. There’s a reason why Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell’s friendship (here in Ireland) greatly inspired Douglass and why the Civil Rights movement of Northern Ireland was named after and inspired by ours back in the States. There’s a reason why I chose to stay here when I could have run back to the States when the pandemic started. My body is safer here. I know that. But that’s because I come from a place that’s mastered the destruction of the Black body.
That’s not to say I don’t acknowledge the outpouring of stories across social media these past weeks from Black (mainly African) immigrants about what it’s like for them in Ireland. News outlets have posted stories, such as RTÉ’s “Growing up black and Irish – three women’s experiences,” which details racial harassment. In the video, Wura Elsie, a 19-year-old Nigerian-Irish nurse says, “I’ve had patients calling me the n-word … patients saying that they didn’t want my ‘kind’ to touch them,” and recounts schoolboys telling her, “If you don’t do this, I’m going to call the police on you and you are going to get deported.” This is why people here and all over the world are out in the streets protesting. In 1990 the visionary Sinéad O’Connor released “Black Boys on Mopeds,” a song about leaving England so that her son wouldn’t have to witness the racist maiming of Black bodies:
England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses
It’s the home of police who kill blacks boys on mopeds
And I love my boy and that’s why I’m leaving
I don’t want him to be aware that there’s
Any such thing as grieving (O’Connor)
I worry that, with all of the Black immigration (without actual integration) since then, Ireland may catch up with its American and English allies in this department.
There’s a long history of Irish immigrants being incredibly anti-Black in America (some of the best-known examples are the 1863 draft riots of New York City and the Boston desegregation busing crisis of the 1970s and ’80s), but before that, there was a history of messy, shared uprising, like Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. This riot is often thought to be the first revolutionary movement of non-indigenous Americans. The enslaved and the indentured (just off the boat from places like Ireland) united—albeit as pawns in a commercial dispute between two wealthy colonists and at the continued expense of Native Americans—and that union made the country take notice. It was then that the ruling economic class figured out the best and most enduring way to divide and conquer: the weaponization of Blackness and the invention of American, and now global, “Whiteness.” As Toni Morrison poignantly summarized in an interview with Time:
If there were no black people here in this country, it would have been Balkanized. The immigrants would have torn each other’s throats out, as they have done everywhere else. But in becoming an American, from Europe, what one has in common with that other immigrant is contempt for me—it’s nothing else but color. . . . When they got off the boat, the second word they learned was “nigger.” Ask them—I grew up with them. (Angelo and Morrison)
Every time Bank of America or American Express prompts me for my mother’s maiden name, I am forced to confront history. I don’t have a choice in the matter, but we—in Ireland, America, and around the world—are all far too implicated in anti-Blackness to be blind or conveniently naive at this point.
Angelo, Bonnie, and Toni Morrison. “Toni Morrison: The Pain of Being Black.” Time, 22 May 1989, content.time.com/time/subscriber/printout/0,8816,957724,00.html#.
“Electronic Irish Statute Book (EISB).” Irish Statute Book, www.irishstatutebook.ie/.
Horne, Gerald, and Mary Young, editors. “Ireland and the Irish.” W.E.B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, 2001.
Lynch, Suzanne. “New York Initiative Explores Links between Black Identity and Irishness.” The Irish Times, 28 Feb. 2020, www.irishtimes.com/news/world/us/new-york-initiative-explores-links-between-black-identity-and-irishness-1.4188095.
Mannion, Eleanor. “Growing up Black and Irish – Three Women’s Experiences.” RTÉ.ie, RTÉ, 16 June 2020, www.rte.ie/news/2020/0615/1147603-growing-up-black-and-irish/.
McGuirk, John. “Black Crimes Matter.” Gript, 8 June 2020, gript.ie/black-crimes-matter/.
O’Connor, Sinéad. “Black Boys on Mopeds.” I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, Ensign/Chrysalis, 1990. genius.com/Sinead-oconnor-black-boys-on-mopeds-lyrics.