Let's Squash the Myth That the Irish Were Ever American Slaves

Illustration for article titled Let's Squash the Myth That the Irish Were Ever American Slaves

Éirinn go Brách and Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to my fellow children of the Emerald Isle! From oppression by the British to oppression in the United States to oppression on cereal boxes, we have endured a lot of painful history and that resilience is certainly worth celebrating. That being said, let’s separate the fact from the fiction: the Irish—despite a recent and widely accepted myth—were never, ever American slaves.


That’s not to say the Irish were treated great throughout the centuries-long era of slavery. Thousands of us were sent to the West Indies as indentured servants (not a cushy existence) in the 1600s and many were labored to death, but—factually—the Irish were never enslaved and articles claiming otherwise have largely been dubbed as ahistorical.

One such article, written by John Martin of Centre of Research on Globalization, states:

The Irish slave trade began when James II sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. His Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid 1600s, the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. At that time, 70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves.

Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. The majority of the early slaves to the New World were actually white.

But Irish historian Liam Hogan argues that Martin’s research (and articles based off it) are entirely lacking in accuracy.

“These articles have created an Irish slave trade timeline, ostensibly a fantasy, which runs from 1612 to 1839,” he tells Al Jazeera. “This is to make it appear that there was a concurrent transatlantic slave trade of Irish slaves that historians have covered up because of liberal bias.”

Hogan continues:

“Historically, the majority of Irish prisoners of war, vagrants and other victims of kidnapping and deception—thought to have numbered around 10,000 people—were forcibly sent to the West Indies in the 1650s. Those that survived were pardoned by Charles II in 1660.

“In contrast, the transatlantic slave trade lasted for four centuries, was the largest forced migration in world history, involving tens of millions of Africans who were completely dehumanized, and its poisonous legacy remains in the form of anti-black racism. So this neo-Nazi propaganda is false equivalency on an outrageous scale.”


One of the dangerous places you’ll see this misinformation pop up: the current white backlash to the Black Lives Matter campaign. “Irish slave memes are frequently used to derail conversations about slavery and racism,” writes Al Jazeera’s Norma Costello. “When they proclaim that ‘Irish slaves were treated worse than any other race in the US,’ they attempt to diminish the history of the slave trade, the popular Black Lives Matter movement and calls for reparations for slavery in the US and the Caribbean.”

Matthew Reilly, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown with expertise in the history of slavery in Barbados, reiterates that any mention of Irish slavery should be taken with a huge grain of salt:

“The Irish slave myth is not supported by the historical evidence. Thousands of Irish were sent to colonies like Barbados against their will, never to return. Upon their arrival, however, they were socially and legally distinct from the enslaved Africans with whom they often labored. While not denying the vast hardships endured by indentured servants, it is necessary to recognize the differences between forms of labor in order to understand the depths of the inhumane system of chattel slavery that endured in the region for several centuries, as well as the legacies of race-based slavery in our own times.”


So next time you feel the urge to bring up Irish slavery while arguing about racial oppression, be a dear and take a moment to check yourself. The plight of the Irish, though real, in no way diminishes the current, long-running struggle of other ethnic groups. Besides, the motherland is currently doing a good enough job oppressing its own people—no need to pay that hatred forward.

Image via 12 Years a Slave/Fox Searchlight.

Managing Editor, Jezebel



As a historian and an Irishman, I thoroughly approve of this. I mean, yes, there are some famously awful things that the Irish people have gone through over the years (the aforementioned research from the article, Oliver Cromwell, the Irish Famine, etc.), but the important thing to remember is that the Irish were eventually able to assimilate into what it meant to be “white” in America and therefore rise up from their marginalization.

It’s okay to say “Yes, what happened to the Irish was horrible. But what happened to Africans in the slave trade was even worse.” Suggesting that they were equivalent experiences just isn’t supported by the evidence.