The first wave of large-scale Irish immigration to the New World was not that of the famine era; it came, instead, in the shape of an earlier generation of predominantly Northern Protestants whose successors have tended to identify themselves as Scots-Irish or Ulster-Scots rather than Irish-American. Their values provided the bedrock for what would become derisively known as the “redneck culture” of the American South.
Some have contended that the redneck caricature is unfair and does no justice to the more admirable traits that the Scots-Irish imported. This argument that was advanced most strongly by novelist, former member of the Reagan administration and recently announced Senate candidate James Webb in his 2003 book “Born Fighting: How The Scots-Irish Shaped America.”
The significant Irish population in the Southern states of the U.S. was reflected in the fact that a substantial number of slave owners were Irish. Many African-Americans to this day remain reluctant to claim any Irish heritage even if they have archetypal Irish surnames because those names are often considered to be tainted by the association with slavery.
(In discussing the links between Irish Americans and African Americans it is always easy to oversimplify history. There have been Irish people on both sides of the slavery’s coin — some historians have asserted that during Oliver Cromwell’s reign in the mid 17th century, up to 130,000 Irish people were sent into slavery. Most of these were sent to the Caribbean, but many were sent to the colonies of the New World.)
Mixing it up
When the history of relations between the two ethnic groups is retold, tales of misdeeds, mutual suspicion and bad blood tend to dominate. Episodes ranging from the New York City draft riots during the Civil War through to the “white flight” from inner cities a century later are highlighted. So too are the tensions that flowed from things as diverse as Irish domination of urban city police departments and the high-profile attained by some ethnic Irish bigots (most notably the vituperatively anti-Semitic and racist priest Fr. Charles Coughlin) in the early-to-mid decades of the last century.
But an accurate attempt at retelling Irish and African-American history should not occlude areas of racial cooperation. Irish and black Americans workers, for example, have fought side-by-side for rights in the labor movement since its earliest days. During the recent MTA transport strike, during which the heavily African-American TWU was led by Trinidadian immigrant Roger Toussaint, labor activists often invoked the name of a previous TWU leader and immigrant, Mike Quill of County Kerry, as inspiration.
In recent years, some African-Americans have moved to embrace their Irish heritage, even though that lineage remains a subject of unease to many.
Victor Mooney is one of the founders of the Irish African-American Society of North America. Though the society remains small, Mooney is an enthusiastic advocate for greater celebration of the links between the two ethnicities.
Mooney was brought up in Brooklyn and now resides in Queens. His surname is testament to a family history that stretches back to southwestern Ireland. The African part of his heritage remains lost in the mists of time.
Mooney has recently hit the headlines for his endeavors to raise AIDS awareness. The disease claimed the life of one of Mooney’s brothers, while another brother lives with the syndrome. When he spoke to the Irish Echo last month, Mooney was in the midst of preparations to travel to Senegal, from where he hopes to embark on an attempt to row solo across the Atlantic.
His bid is intended as a conscious echo of the journey taken by slaves from the West African country to the Americas. More can be read about his bid at www.goreechallenge.com (the name refers to the island off the Senegalese coast from which Mooney will depart, not the sound-alike County Wexford town of Gorey).
Educated at Catholic school, Mooney — who remains a fervent Catholic and who was blessed by the late Pope John Paul II when his preparations for the Goree Challenge were at an early stage — remembers with delight his youthful celebrations of St Patrick’s Day, during which his family would don green and eat meals of bacon and cabbage.
He also expresses enthusiasm for the increasingly multicultural nature of modern Ireland, where the first generation of native-born Black Irish people is coming into existence.
For all that, though, he acknowledges the ambivalence that many African-Americans feel over their Irish roots. Mooney’s embrace of his Irish heritage is made easier by the fact that the unification of the Irish and African branches of his family tree took place long after slavery had been abolished.
“Some people do need to distinguish between having Irish heritage and having had a slave-owner with an Irish last name,” he told the Echo. “To them, it is a question of whether the name was given in the context of slavery or in the context of ancestors coming from Ireland. But I think if you’re Irish you should embrace that Irishness whatever the circumstances and whatever other ethnicities you have.”
New York City’s role
A better knowledge of the complex history of Irish and African-American relations might also ease the way towards more harmonious relations. For example, one relatively underreported local detail is that the Sixth Ward of New York City — an area that now corresponds to parts of the Lower East Side, Chinatown and Little Italy — was, on a de facto basis, one of the most racially integrated areas in the country in the mid-19th century.
In his study of the area published in the 1996 book “The New York Irish,” historian Graham Hodges wrote:
“By mid century, around the Five Points, necessity obliterated racial differences. George Washington, one of three black men in the city named after the first president, lived with his black wife Adelaide, another black woman, Harriet Morris, and an Irish woman, Joanna Cosgrave. The 1860 census reveals Moses Downey, a 43-year-old black musician, renting space in his home to James and Mary Gallagher, an Irish printer and his wife.”
Such details are part of the complex tapestry that makes up Irish and African American history. More contemporary manifestations of that tradition can be seen in the many celebrities who share Irish and black ethnicity, included among them Muhammad Ali (one of whose ancestors came from County Clare), Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, and Eddie Murphy.
These days, some prominent African-Americans, including Detroit’s mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, are keen to make a public proclamation of their Irish background. Kilpatrick is reported to once have wryly described himself as America’s first “6-foot, 6-inch Irish African American” mayor.
Still, not all black celebrities are rushing to wrap themselves in Irishness. “I’m not Irish,” basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal informed the New York Times on St. Patrick’s Day 2003. “I’m from the Brick City – Newark, New Jersey – and don’t pinch me on the butt if I’m not wearing green.”