Many view Ireland as a homogenous culture.
Yet, as the Irish American Heritage Museum can attest, that’s not the case and hasn’t been for quite some time.
“Ireland is not the monolithic, Catholic, white country that we might maybe think about in our minds,” said Elizabeth Stack, the museum’s executive director. It’s become more diverse over the years and Stack is highlighting that as part of the museum’s Black History month celebrations.
The museum features an exhibit centered around Frederick Douglass’ 19th century visit to Ireland and it’s hosting two virtual events exploring the past and present of Black people in Ireland.
Tonight, Stack will give a presentation about the history of Black people in Ireland and will delve into some of the famous Black orators and artists who visited the country in the 19th century.
Then, on Monday evening, there will be a discussion with the two founders of “Black and Irish,” a group that highlights and celebrates the identity of Black and mixed-race Irish people.
“The fact is there were Black people in Ireland from quite early on in the 1700s because the British landlords … would have had both servants and slaves,” Stack said.
Into the 19th century, abolitionists came to Ireland to speak out against slavery, including people like Sarah Parker Remond, a physician and anti-slavery activist from Massachusetts who journeyed to Europe in the late 1850s to speak out against the atrocity of slavery in America.
Douglass’ journey to Ireland began in the preceding decade, 1845, after he had escaped from enslavement, and published “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” He traveled around Europe on a speaking tour, though it seems he took a particular liking to Ireland. In a letter, he wrote of the country, “I can truly say I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country.”
During his tour, Douglass gained support from many, including people like abolitionist Daniel O’Connell, who wrote letters to people in America, urging them to fight against slavery.
“O’Connell saw him speak and he was very taken with his tone,” Stack said. “So the two men met and then actually Frederick Douglass said that he was the Black O’Connell.”
As detailed in the museum’s exhibit, Douglass also wrote “I find myself not treated as a color, but as a man — not as a thing, but as a child of the common Father of us all.”
The exhibit, which was first shown two years ago, is one that Stack hopes to expand in the coming years.
“One of the kinds of major bones of contention in Irish American history, especially, is this idea that the Irish were slaves first and they weren’t,” Stack said. Some Irish people were sent to the colonies as indentured servants, they were eventually released and legally, they were recognized as people. Slaves were not typically released and they were recognized under the law as property. …
“That is a very important distinction,” Stack said. “We might tackle that next year and expand out the history of Black people in Ireland and try and cover that.”
With Monday’s Black and Irish event, the museum is looking to the present as well.
“Ireland was always a nation of immigrants, people leaving the country and now in the last 20 or 30 years we’ve had quite a number of people coming in and some years in the early 2000s there was more immigrants coming into Ireland than there were leaving,” Stack said.
As Ireland has become more diverse, Black and Irish has been documenting the contributions and challenges of those who are just that.
“Some of them are the children of immigrants or the people who came as kids themselves to Ireland from African countries or other parts of the world. In my research, I found out that that’s just continuing a long tradition that we have had this kind of small minority but there has been, as I said, servants and slaves in the 1700s and then . . . we had a very vibrant Jewish community in Dublin. There was a very vibrant Arab and Chinese [community] but you would kind of not really pay attention maybe, because they were so small and kind of isolated. But it’s becoming more and more the case that Ireland is diversifying.”
Starting at 7 p.m. on Monday, Black and Irish founders Femi Bankole and Boni Odoemene will discuss their work over Zoom.
Tonight, starting at 7 p.m., Stack will present the history of Black people in Ireland. To register and for more information about these events visit irish-us.org. visit irish-us.org.