In America, St. Patrick's Day, which arrives on Saturday, means peak exposure to a particular class of assertion that Irish people charitably refer to as "blarney."
You might hear, for instance, that St. Patrick chased the snakes out of Ireland (they were never there in the first place), that the color historically associated with him is green (it's actually blue), that he evangelized with a four-leaf clover (three leaves, to represent the Trinity), or that an Irish monk “discovered” America 500 years before Columbus (utter bollocks).
These misconceptions are relatively harmless, as misconceptions go, but there's another one, strangling some online comment threads about racism like an invasive vine, that some historians have been working tirelessly to stamp out. It’s the claim that Irish people were slaves in the Americas, particularly the British West Indies, and that they were treated just as badly as – or worse than – their African counterparts.
“I conservatively estimate that tens of millions of people have been exposed to ‘Irish slaves’ disinformation in one form or another on social media,” says Liam Hogan, a research librarian in Limerick, Ireland, who has led efforts to debunk this myth. “These people, some of whom are Irish-American, are essentially digging up our ancestors’ bones and sharpening them into rhetorical weapons to use against people of color.”
Fueled by an influential 2001 book by Irish journalist Sean O’Callaghan titled “To Hell or Barbados,” the myth began propagating online in far-right circles in the past decade, eventually making its way into mainstream publications such as Scientific American, which corrected their article, and Daily Kos, which didn’t.
Today, you’ll find the claim popping up in comment threads on issues ranging from reparations to police brutality, where it is nearly always deployed as a way to criticize African-Americans and other nonwhites for being too vocal in their demands for social justice. “We were slaves too,” the typical comment goes, “and you don’t hear us complaining.”
A crucial distinction
The myth draws on a false equivalency between two distinct systems of forced labor in the British colonial period: indentured servitude and chattel slavery. Indentured servants in the British colonies were legal persons bound to service by a time-limited, non-hereditary labor contract, often signed in exchange for passage to the New World. Slaves, by contrast, were considered property, a subhuman legal status that was passed from mother to child, in perpetuity.
In Barbados, which was first settled by the English in 1627, the largest group of indentured servants were Irish, although others came from England, Scotland, Wales, and other European countries. Some American Indians were also indentured, while others were enslaved. Early on, many indentured servants volunteered to migrate, but during the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s subsequent conquest of Ireland, many others, including children, were rounded up and shipped to the Americas, mainly to work on the sugar plantations.
The life of an indentured servant was undoubtedly harsh. “Servants could be beaten and whipped for not working fast enough. Servants could complain to the courts about mistreatment. Some did and won; they more frequently ran away from their master for relief rather than risk incurring their wrath after a failed attempt to secure justice,” says Mr. Hogan. “Masters were very rarely punished for abusing their servants, and courts could be very slow to intervene and protect a servant.”
“Mistreatment was rampant,” says Matthew Reilly, an archaeologist at The City College of New York who specializes in the racial history of Barbados. “There was certainly discrimination against Irish Catholics in Barbados.”
Yet as difficult as conditions were for white indentured servants, they retained their legal status as human beings, and their bondage was temporary. “To be a slave in these colonies was a life sentence. There was no end. No escape,” says Hogan. “Their children were perpetual slaves. Their children’s children were perpetual slaves. A slave's entire bloodline was condemned to slavery, for all time. The colonial slave codes did not treat them as fellow humans, but as livestock.”
“The most common punishment for a servant who ran away was an extension of their indenture,” he says. “But a slave, suffering perpetual bondage, could be subjected to an array of grotesque physical punishments.”
“The legal distinction is incredibly important,” says Dr. Reilly, “because it leads to social distinctions that still weigh heavily on how we experience our racial landscape in the 21st century.”
These distinctions have stood in the way of Irish-Americans and African-Americans developing a sense of shared suffering. “Throughout the 20th century, there was this big divide between Irish Americans and African-Americans that was only exacerbated by these particularly racist skewed understandings of history where one form of oppression outweighed another,” says Reilly. “I don't necessarily see that as being a productive way to view these histories.”
A shift seems to be under way, however, as more and more voices have stepped up to correct the record. For instance, a 2016 open letter signed by 98 scholars and writers asked publications that have spread the myth of Irish slaves to correct their articles. And each year, more and more news outlets are running stories that seek to debunk the myth.
“What I think has been a really positive outcome of this has been the mainstream media being willing to speak about these issues that have otherwise been just ignored,” says Reilly. “There’s this a growing awareness that it's correcting a misuse of history.”