Tuesday, October 23, 2012

To Noble Marcus Garvey and Paddies Ever More!

Exploring the Irish connection to the Caribbean you can traverse a myriad of avenues. From the O' Neill's of Puerto Rico, to the Irish of Monteserrat, from the Red legs of Barbados, to Killarney Avenue in Kingston-the paths of exploration are endless. It is in Jamaica that one of the more interesting connections (at least for me) is to be found. First, I'll take a divergent path-the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) of the early 20th century, though worldwide in its scope, found its feet in the U.S.  Having spent a good share of time in the U.S. myself, the relations between African-Americans and Irish-Americans really interests me, most especially, because of the seemingly great chasm between both groups in our own time.  We forget that in the 19th century, on the lowest rung of American society, the melting pot of cultures was overflowing with diversity, and Irish for many decades were as likely to marry black people as any other group of people.  To many, the Irishman was the "white negro," conversely, an African-American was often known as a "smoked Irishman."

Harper's Weekly, 1899.

Cartoon from 1889, notice the Irishman upsetting the melting pot!
Harpers Weekly, 1876.
Many's a foreign political movement was nurtured in the U.S.  From the 19th century Cuban drive for independence, to the Irish Fenian movement, from the Pan-African movement, to the Zionists and their promised land-all found a cradle in the U.S.  To get an idea of the influence of the Pan-African movement and the UNIA, imagine, almost half the flags of African countries today are based on the UNIA flag.

Pan-African/UNIA Flag

Marcus Garvey, Pan-African nationalist, Jamaican icon, and prophet to the Rastafarians, was a great admirer of the Irish nationalist movement. He was also a leading and founding member of the UNIA. Garvey stated that in the far-famed Pan-African flag (which he created) the green symbolised the struggle of the Irish to free themselves from the colonial oppression of Britain. Garvey too, was involved in Afro-Irish-Zionist Alliance-an organisation promoting the rising up of oppressed peoples worldwide, most namely: the Irish, Jews, and blacks of the world. In 1919 (just one week after the third annual "Irish Race Convention") Garvey called for an "International Convention of Negro Peoples of the World." The "Irish Race Convention" was an amalgam of varied interests in the Irish-American community calling for official recognition and support for the Irish Republic. Garvey was very much influenced by Irish sedition and rebellion, in our fight, he saw a blueprint for what needed to be done for his own people in the Americas and Africa.
The principal informant of the MID (Military Intelligence Division of the U.S. government) on "negro subversion," maintained that the UNIA and the "Friends of Irish Freedom" (sponsors of the Irish race convention) were linked.  Indeed, Garvey himself, in the inaugural convention of the UNIA, in August 1920, in New York, begun his oration- "I have in my hand . . . a telegram to be sent to the Hon. Edmund De Valera, President of the Irish Republic: "25,000 Negro delegates assembled in Madison Square Garden in mass convention, representing 400,000,000 Negroes of the world, send you greetings as President of the Irish Republic. Please accept the sympathy of the Negroes of the world for your cause. We believe Ireland should be free even as Africa shall be free for the Negroes of the world. Keep up the fight for a free Ireland. Marcus Garvey, President-General of the Universal Negro Improvement Association."

"Liberty Hall"-the headquarters of the UNIA, was named after "Liberty Hall" in Dublin- the home of the Irish Citizens Army during the rebellion of 1916. It was at the formal dedication of the UNIA's "Liberty Hall" that Marcus Garvey, in 1919, stated-"the time has come for the Negro race to offer up its martyrs upon the altar of liberty even as the Irish have given a long list from Robert Emmet to Roger Casement."
Citizen's Army members, the roof of Liberty Hall, Dublin, 1916.
To Garvey, the cause of Irish freedom was the cause of African freedom. As the convention of UNIA in New York was winding down, a meeting was called where 14 member of the "Friends of Irish Freedom" attended. Meanwhile, Terence MacSweeney (the Lord Mayor of Cork) was dying in a prison in London, Brixton. MacSweeney was on hunger strike having been interned without trial. The aim of the "Friends of Irish Freedom," was to plead with Garvey to have the African-American longshoremen of New York's docks to join with their Irish-American counterparts in boycott of British vessels. Garvey quickly dispatched one Rev. Selkridge down to the docks to "urge all negro longshore men not to load British ships, which act pleased the Irish strikers who learned that Garvey had sent him down to aid them." A strike was called and out came the longshoremen-Irish, Black, Italian, French and many others. In a few hours every British ship was tied up. At the same time, outside the British consulate in Manhattan the chant went up- "and shall MacSweeney die? and shall MacSweeney die? There's twenty million Irishmen who'll know the reason why." The protest was organised by Gertrude b. Kelly and "The Women's Picket." Gertrude was a well known Irish Republican in New York. When the strike was called they sent this cable to Lloyd George (the British Prime Minister) - "The sound of death in the throat of Terence MacSweeney is the death knell of your adventures in Ireland. We hear the bells tolling, the people are gathering, oil your tanks, polish up your guns." 
As "The Second International Convention of Negros" was beginning, MacSweeney died. This is the telegram Marcus Garvey sent to DeValera-President of the Provisional Republic of Ireland- "We the representatives of 400,000,000,000 negros of the world, send greeting and pray that you and your fellow countrymen will receive from the hands of the British your merited freedom, on principal nothing would please the negros of the world more, except the freedom of Africa, than the granting of freedom to the four and a half million people of Ireland." Garvey also declared- "Hundreds and thousands of Irishmen died for the cause of Irish freedom, they compelled the attention of the world, and I believe the death MacSweeney today did more for Irish freedom than anything they did in the previous 500 years prior to his death."
MacSweeney's Funeral in Cork
In America, cooperation between Blacks and Irish is often a moot point, and the country can often seem polarised in its ideas of race and color. For instance, the fact that Mohammad Ali's great-great-grandfather Abe O' Grady was born in County Clare, and married a freed slave named Morehead, for some, seems mad, or even irrelevant. Indeed, for many years Ali maintained that his white blood was on account of a slave master taking a fondness for his slave, this has been shown to be untrue. 
In 2009, Ali and his wife visited Clare (Turn Pike Road in Ennis) where distant relatives of Ali's still live. He was given the freedom of the town, the first man it was ever conferred upon! Even Marcus Garvey himself, had some very surprising opinions on race, he once stated that- "we who believe in race purity.... we believe that the White race should protect itself against racial contamination, and the Negro should do the same.” It is unfortunate that Garvey thought to play "the white man" at his own game, and perhaps he vehemently believed in such a creed, but that's a thought for another day. 
In modern America, if a man's skin is black, the idea that he might have Irish blood (or indeed any other) is by many, not considered, and if he is white he is usually considered to have only white blood. If he is black and he has an Irish second name-it is automatically presumed to be a "slave name." The Irish that came in such great numbers during, and after, the potato famine were no more slave owners than the man on the moon-most arrived completely destitute, many didn't arrive at all, and died aboard "coffin ships" where mortality rates of 30% were considered reasonable.  Even if they survived disease and starvation, the coffin ships they travelled on were sinking by the bucketload on the open sea. British maritime law allowed for any sort of a wreck to be set afloat, and many's the ship master made a "killing" during the famine. The famous abolitionist-Fredrick Douglass-visited Ireland at this time, and witnessed first hand the degradation of the people (even before they made their hellish journey across the Atlantic). He noted, "here you have an Irish hut or cabin, such as millions of the people of Ireland live in, in much the same degradation as the American slaves. I see much here to remind me of my former condition, and I confess I should be ashamed to lift my voice against American slavery, but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over. He who really and truly feels for the American slave, cannot steel his heart to the woes of others."  To make matters worse, Irish were the first large group of Catholics to descend upon the staunchly Protestant U.S-a fact which led to deep mistrust, and boiled over into the likes of the Philadelphia Anti-Irish Riots. 
As regards slavery and slave-owners in the States, an important distinction should be made between Scotch-Irish and Catholic-Irish. Within the Scotch-Irish community, there certainly were slave owners- Scotch-Irish being the bulwark of the white pioneer population in the South.  Scotch-Irish themselves were part of the colonisation of the province of Ulster in Ireland, from which they fled. This was mainly due to religious persecution under "The Penal Laws" and ethnic tensions with the native/Catholic Irish. The plantation of Ulster, interestingly, was concurrent with the plantation of the State of Virginia.  
If you dig deep you will find Irish-Catholic slave owners too (as you will black slave owners), but common sense dictates that relationships between Catholic-Irish and blacks were much, much, more likely to be on an even, all be it rocky keel, down at the bottom of the social ladder. In 1860, only 1.4% of the white population of the States were slave-owners, owing to the fact that Irish immigrants were at bottom of the social pile, the likelihood of them being slave-owners is quite slim. Of course, if they got the chance many of them would have probably lorded it over whoever may be, but they generally never got that chance. The very nature of colonialism is divide and conquer. For instance, it's many the Native-American that stood by the side of the British. I visited the grave in Savannah, Georgia, of Tomo-Chi-Chi (chief of the Yamacraw Indians)-he asked to be buried there to be near his British friends. Many's the Irishman too fought with the British, and many were handsomely rewarded. To some, this lessens the gravity of colonialism, to me, it doesn't detract from the horrors perpetrated by the colonisers, rather it further shines a light on the insidious nature of colonialism.  

Draft Riots, New York, 1863.

Most everyone has heard of the Draft Riots of New York, Scots-Irish slave owners, lynchings, and the KKK, but what of the reams and streams of blacks and Irish that flowed and raced together, under the great tides of politics and power?  From the Five Points of New York, to the Wards of New Orleans, from Savannah to Atlanta, these people lived together, married together, worked together, fought together and against each other. They shared a common bond of sufferance. They converged on the lowest rung, they are the losers of history, and their history is mostly silent. Though their lives have faded from memory, there is no doubt in my mind that they, and their likes, are the likes that forged the America that exists today, and that is their legacy. They dug the canals, hauled the anchors, raised the buildings, they blew the bugles, they eked a living anyway they could. Often they were pitted against each other-as with the Draft Riots of New York, as with Irishman against Irishman in the American Civil War. They should be remembered. They were swept up in the tides of history while just trying to stay afloat. When we think of Marcus Garvey and the green fields of Jamaica, let's think of the green fields of Ireland too. Let's drink a health galore-to noble Marcus Garvey and Paddies ever more!

The title of this post is a wry reference to a song called "Morrissey and the Russian Sailor"- where-in appears the line-"drink a health galore, to noble Johnny Morrissey and Paddies ever more."