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What the “White Irish Slaves” Meme Tells Us About Identity Politics

The latest bizarre twist in the “Irish Slaves” saga is that James Woods, the actor best known for his cameo as a Kwik-E-Mart employee in The Simpsons, has shared an historically inaccurate meme, the aim of which is to diminish the suffering of black slavery.

Now, Woods’ meme is flagrantly wrong in that it states the Irish were “slaves”. Liam Hogan’s research has been important in distinguishing between the indentured servitude suffered by the Irish during the mid-seventeenth century and the chattel slavery suffered by Africans over a greater time span.

However, strangely, in response to Woods’ post, one can witness the emergence of a counter-myth whereby the Irish did not suffer at all during the transportations which occurred in the wake of Oliver Cromwell’s conquest. Others even seem to suggest that no such thing ever occurred in Ireland.

This is unsurprising and is the logical outworking of tit-for-tat identity politics, where instead of finding common cause and solidarity in a shared history of colonization, exploitation, and transportation, differences between the experiences of oppressed groups are accentuated.

Of course, hierarchies of oppression exist and of course black people suffered greatly at the hands of Irish migrants in the Caribbean and in America. Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White remains the authority on the latter, while the activities of some Irish in becoming slave owners in the Caribbean have been documented by recent research, including Hogan’s.

Identity politics is not an inherently bad thing in of and of itself. As an Irish speaker and a person who is part of a minority language community, I recognize the importance of more rights and recognition – and less denigration – of any marginalized group.

The problem, however, arises when these various groups pigeonhole themselves and, minus a class analysis and conception of solidarity, become pitted against one another in a scramble for a seat at the establishment table.

Now, in response to a racist meme shared by Trumpite half-wits who wantonly promote white supremacism, a situation has emerged where the colonization of the Irish is being downplayed by those on the other side of the debate. They probably believe they are righteous in taking this line.

But this is reminiscent of the anti-Irish revisionism of old, only this time it is wrapped up in the new clothes of identity politics. Worst of all, it does little to promote a materialist understanding of slavery. It appears to frame slavery as arising from racial factors rather than the ideology of racism emerging from colonialism and the need to dehumanize the “spoils of new markets”.

The Irish, whether the ultra-leftists who promote this denial like to admit or not, were colonized and degraded. In the modern period, the Irish were robbed of their humanity in the writings of English commentators such as Edmund Spenser in his 1596 treatise A Veue of the Present State of Ireland, and later, during the nineteenth century, in the simian portrayals of the Irishman in Punch.

The “White Irish Slaves” meme and myth needed to be debunked in order to combat contemporary neo-fascism and to set the historical record straight. But, now, one wonders, if it could have been debunked in a way that did not minimize the plight of the Irish who were initially transported?

It is generally assumed by many embroiled in this debate-cum-battle that the reality of Irish upward social mobility in the “New World”, and their engaging in the systems of oppression, means colonialism no longer has any bearing on contemporary Irish society.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As Tomás Mac Síomóin has argued in The Broken Harp, colonialism, and especially the language shift away from Irish and towards English, continues to play a major role in fostering a subservience among the Irish, in particular among the political class, which leaves the populace open to exploitation. This he dubs “Super Colonised Irish Syndrome”. The Catholic Church and the neoliberal economic order are as much to blame for this “syndrome” as British imperialism, in Mac Síomóin’s view.

Regardless of wherever most blame may be apportioned, the net result is a state which has consistently sold itself to the highest bidder. Its native comprador class believe the state “too small” and “too backward” to cultivate domestic industry of its own volition. A tax haven economy with poor public services are the consequences of this mentality.

The relative success of a similar-sized state like Denmark being able to register economic growth (albeit within the flawed capitalist system) and provide for its citizens is never considered. Meanwhile, ordinary people in the Twenty-Six County Irish state languish in homelessness and on trollies in a semi-privatized health system.

All told, Ireland is still reeling from the effects of colonization and has entered a new phase of neo-colonialism, where Anglo-American cultural imperialism and neoliberal “trickle-down” economics dominate.

Diminishing this salient fact is not progressive, nor does it build any kind of solidarity between the Irish and other oppressed groups. It merely gives succor – as we have witnessed before around other issues – to the far-right who claim the Left are dismissive of national sovereignty and cultures.

To resist the rise of the far-right in Ireland the Left ought to embrace the progressive and inclusive nature of the Irish language and cultural movements. Witness, for example, the multi-denominational Gaelscoileanna(Irish language schools) where children of all backgrounds attend, or the recently arrived Syrian refugees who now speak Irish.

To not embrace these developments, and instead continuing to indulge in futile point-scoring on social media, risks a massive own goal. And it’s not like the Left have done that before.

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Dr Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. His latest journal article examines Irish republican democracy in Belfast during 1846-48.

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