Skip to comments.Via Ireland, a Chapter in the Story of Black America
Posted on 03/17/2003 11:00:36 AM PST by Destro
Via Ireland, a Chapter in the Story of Black America
By S. LEE JAMISON
Happy St. Patrick's Day, Shaquille O'Neal!
So many African-Americans have Irish-sounding last names Eddie Murphy, Isaac Hayes, Mariah Carey, Dizzy Gillespie, Toni Morrison, H. Carl McCall that you would think that the long story of blacks and Irish coming together would be well documented. You would be wrong.
Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of "Interracial Intimacies; Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption," said that when it comes to written historical exploration of black-Irish sexual encounters, "there are little mentions, but not much."
And most African-Americans do not know a lot about their family names.
"Quite frankly, I always thought my name was Scotch, not Irish." said Mr. McCall, the former New York State comptroller.
But the Irish names almost certainly do not come from Southern slaveholders with names like Scarlett O'Hara. Most Irish were too poor to own land. And some blacks, even before the Civil War, were not slaves.
Tony Burroughs, a fellow of the Utah Genealogical Association who teaches genealogy at Chicago State University, said that "during the antebellum period, although the majority of blacks were slaves, ten percent were free."
Irish immigrants, fleeing the famine in the mid-1800's, flocked to port cities like Boston, Philadelphia and New York. According to the book "How the Irish Became White," by Noel Ignatiev, the unskilled Irish began to learn trades and seek work as bakers, blacksmiths, carpenters and bricklayers, putting them in competition with the free blacks who often held these jobs.
Irish and blacks often lived side by side in the poorest parts of town in those port cities. While blacks faced racial discrimination from native-born whites, the Irish suffered from anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic attitudes.
Charles L. Blockson, the author of "Black Genealogy," said that because of their skin differences, both blacks and Irish, with features like red hair or freckles, were easily picked out by native-born whites and subject to discrimination. He said that both groups were without property and, because of this, each group built a similar live-for-the-moment culture, commonalities that helped bring them together.
But Irish immigrants and blacks fought over jobs, underbidding one another on wages. The tension reached a fever pitch during the Civil War, when poor Irish could not buy their way out of military service and resented risking their lives fighting for the North for the freedom of blacks who were their economic competitors.
Irishmen who were angry at the government rose up in the draft riots in New York City. In the mob violence, captured in Martin Scorsese's film "Gangs of New York," several blacks were lynched, scores were beaten, and black institutions were burned. Reports of the death toll ranged from hundreds to more than 2,000.
But blacks and Irish were not always fighting.
Elizabeth Shown Mills, who recently retired as the editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, said that unlike native-born whites, "Irish were more willing to accept and acknowledge interracial allegiances."
Before the Civil War, she said, "the free mulatto population had the same number of black moms as white moms."
Ms. Mills said that mixed-race children would have been given Irish surnames when their Irish fathers married their black mothers, or when their unmarried Irish mothers named children after themselves.
The Irish ended up in the Caribbean, too. Britain sent hundreds of Irish people to penal colonies in the West Indies in the mid-1600's, and more went over as indentured servants.
Mr. Blockson noted that "Lord Oliver Cromwell's boatloads of men and women" sent to Barbados and Jamaica intermingled with the African slaves already there.
Montserrat ended up with the largest Irish community in the West Indies.
It is still called the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean and has towns named St. Patrick's, Galway's, Gerald's, Cork Hill and Kinsale. In 1994, Irish Roots Magazine surveyed names in the island's phone book and found 91 Ryans, 81 Daleys, 57 Farrells, 42 Rileys and 35 Sweeneys.
In the post-Civil War United States, already fragile black-Irish relations collapsed as the Irish began to build the political ties that allowed them to create trade unions. Those unions, in turn, began to exclude blacks from jobs they had long held.
This infuriated blacks who had supported the Irish, both in America and in their fight against the British for independence in Ireland. "A great friend of the Irish was Frederick Douglass, constantly talking, lecturing about oppression of the Irish by the English," Professor Kennedy said.
So, do African-Americans raise a glass to the Irish on March 17?
Mr. McCall said that last year, he chose not to march in the St. Patrick's Day Parade on Fifth Avenue, because parade organizers refused to allow gay groups to march behind their own banners. But on St. Patrick's Day, Mr. McCall said, "I celebrate with a lot of others." In fact, he said, he celebrates all ethnic holidays.
When Thelma Golden, deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the Studio Museum in Harlem, was told that her surname could be Irish, she was surprised. "I always thought it was more Jewish," she said.
"I grew up in New York City, making it much more likely that I'd celebrate the High Holy Days as opposed to St. Patrick's Day."
Bill Lynch, vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, does not know whether he is of Irish descent. While he has attended St. Patrick's Day events in New York, he said he has not celebrated the day. "To `celebrate' would mean a holiday of ancestral origin," he said.
And Shaquille O'Neal?
"I'm not Irish," he said. "I'm from the Brick City Newark, New Jersey and don't pinch me on the butt if I'm not wearing green."
and from the other Irish: HAPPY SAINT PATRICK'S DAY TO ALL FROM THE ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS!
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I wouldn't touch that bet with a 39 1/2 foot pole!
First one buys the tequila...MUD
Didnt they get married?
Why is it that liberal blacks tell everyone who will listen that they are part Cherokee, but they are embarassed about being part Irish? The only brown celebrities who ever admit to Irish descent are Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter.