Abolitionists in Ireland
Frederick Douglass, an escaped former slave turned abolitionist, visited Ireland for four months in 1845–46 giving over 40 lectures across the island. He drew parallels with the poverty he saw in Ireland, which was experiencing the early stages of the Great Famine, with American slavery, though he said any comparison had its limits: “The Irish man is poor, but he is not a slave. He may be in rags, but he is not a slave. He is still the master of his body.”
He met with the leading Irish politician of the day Daniel O’Connell, an outspoken abolitionist since the 1820s. The historian Christine Kinealy argues that Douglass’ encounter with O’Connell and his time in Ireland played an important role in transforming his thinking from abolitionism to human rights activism.
While O’Connell was a dedicated abolitionist who supported the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, there were many Irish who played an integral role in the slave trade and supported the institution. For instance, John Mitchel, a nationalist who was deported for sedition in 1848, moved to America and became a strong proponent of slavery as well as the Confederate States during the Civil War. The historian Liam Hogan has compiled a long list of Irish interaction and involvement with slavery.
Douglass was not the first anti–slavery campaigner to visit Ireland. His friend Charles Lenox Remond had given a speech to the Hibernian Antislavery Society in 1841. In addition, over 50 years earlier, Olaudah Equiano – an abolitionist and former slave originally taken from West Africa who eventually purchased his freedom – went to Ireland in the early 1790s. Equiano promoted his autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (pictured) in Dublin and Belfast and was championed by members of the United Irishmen. There were around 1,000 black people living in Ireland by the late eighteenth century, including the singer Rachael Baptist.
Exploring Irish and African heritage in contemporary writing
There are several popular authors living in Britain today who have Irish and Afro–Caribbean or African heritage. This includes Dublin–born Emma Dabiri (pictured) and Birmingham’s Kit de Waal. Dabiri’s Don’t Touch my Hair looks at decolonisation, slavery and cultural appropriation through the prism of black women and their hair. In July, she guest edited the Irish Times Magazine with a Black Irish Lives edition, which included an interview with Irish–Ethiopian actor Ruth Negga and Dabiri’s examination of racism in contemporary Ireland.
De Waal’s My Name is Leon, the story of a young boy navigating foster care in the early 1980s, won the 2016 Irish Book of the Year prize. In her debut 1997 novel Lara, Bernardine Evaristo, winner of the Booker Prize in 2019, drew on her own multi–ethnic family including Irish ancestors to explore the life of a woman in 1960s and 70s London.
Author Melatu Uche Okorie grew up in Nigeria and moved to Ireland in 2006. Her collection of short stories in This Hostel Life (2018) was written while she was living in direct provision housing for eight and a half years. Okorie used an invented form of Nigerian pidgin English in the title story and highlighted the racism experienced by migrant women in Ireland. She was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards Best Newcomer of the Year.
Northern Irish civil rights campaign
Campaigners for Catholic civil rights in the 1960s and 70s in Northern Ireland were inspired and took inspiration from the campaign for African–American rights in America. Marchers in the North sang the American gospel anthem “We Shall Overcome” and modelled a 1969 protest march on the famous Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965.
Bernadette Devlin, rights activist and then MP for Mid Ulster, met with Black Panther members in Los Angeles in 1969 and talked about the parallels between their struggles. During her visit to America, she became disillusioned with elements of the Irish–American community, who she saw as uninterested in the struggle for black civil rights. When the Mayor of New York offered her the key to city, Devlin, who had returned home by this point, asked her colleague Eamonn McCann to receive it in her stead. McCann gave the key to members of the Black Panther chapter in Harlem in a gesture of solidarity on Devlin’s behalf.
Black Irish politicians
Rotimi Adebari became the first black mayor in Ireland when he was appointed mayor of Portlaoise in 2007. Adebari was born in Nigeria in 1964 and settled in County Laois with his family in 2000. In 2019, Yemi Adenuga (pictured) became the first black female councillor in Ireland after she was elected to Meath County Council. There is yet to be a TD or a member of the Irish Seanad with African or Caribbean heritage.
There are several politicians in Britain with black and Irish backgrounds such as Chi Onwurah (the first black MP for Newcastle, born to a Nigerian father and a daughter of migrants from Athy, Co. Kildare) and Chuka Umunna (former MP for Streatham, also from a Nigerian–Irish family).
Anti–Apartheid activism in Ireland
An Irish Anti–Apartheid Movement existed between 1964 and 1994 and anti–apartheid activism in Ireland is perhaps best remembered for the Dunnes Stores workers strike from 1984–87 in protest at the sale of food imported from apartheid South Africa. The protest, which met with some resistance from Irish trade unions, contributed to the end of food imports from South Africa to Ireland and though this was only a tiny percentage of South Africa’s exports, it marked an important moment of solidarity. You can read the historian Pádraig Durnin’s account here.
The founder of the Movement in Ireland was the South African exile Kader Asmal, who lectured in law at Trinity College Dublin and played a key role in the establishment of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. Asmal returned to South Africa after the end of the apartheid system and became Minister for Education in 1999 for five years. An exile involved in the Dunnes’ Stores strikes was Nimrod Sejake (pictured with striking workers), who had been a prominent African National Congress figure in the 1950s. Several of the strikers met with family members of Sejake (who died in 2004) in 2013.
In 1988 the Mayor of Dublin made Nelson Mandela, then in prison, a freeman of the city. Shortly after his release Mandela visited Dublin to formally accept the honour in 1990 and addressed the Dáil. He visited again in 2003 when the Special Olympics were held in Ireland.
Mixed Museum exhibition
Earlier this year, our friends at the Association of Mixed Race Irish curated a comprehensive online exhibition with the Mixed Museum entitled Mixed Race Irish Families in Britain, 1700–2000. It draws on a wide range of source material and images to tell the stories of mixed–heritage people in Britain from or linked to Ireland over the last 300 years. It covers the stories of individuals from 18th century mixed marriages up to people today such as Kanya King, born to Ghanaian and Irish parents in Kilburn, the founder of the Music of Black Origin (MOBOs) Awards.
Find out more about Ireland’s diverse past and present and the global history that the exhibition highlights HERE.