Irish Slaves, from Myth to “Debate”

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is important that historians try to get the past right — to describe it accurately, to base their claims about it on evidence, and to represent the sources from which that evidence is drawn fairly. Historians face mounting challenges in public discourse from dishonest, misleading, or made up visions of the past. The value not only of expertise but also of historical truth is subject to cynical derision from a number of directions — not only populist, racist, and authoritarian segments of the right but also, more often implicitly, administrative elites and comparatively mainstream media outlets. In such conditions it is vital that historians differentiate clearly between interpretations of the past that are substantiated by sources — which may vary — and fabrications, however well loved or well meant by those who propagate them.

That the obvious still needs saying has been made clear in two linked episodes over the past week. Both concern a single publication, History Ireland. Published in Dublin and billing itself as “Ireland’s only mass-circulation history magazine“, this periodical has both a significant non-academic readership in Ireland and elsewhere and a number of academic historians on its board — as well as a slew of big names among its “Patrons“. Inasmuch as it presents the fruits of professional research to a wide audience in an accessible and attractive format, it is well placed to contribute to public knowledge of history and thereby to the quality of public discourse about both past and present. By the same token, it is also well placed to do a lot of harm.

The episodes that made this clear overlap and are still unfolding. The first to become “public” via Twitter, which I will discuss here, concerns a letter to the editor decrying Liam Hogan — whose work debunking the “Irish Slaves” meme has been mentioned here before — as a “bigot”, and recycling various long-debunked myths, notably one about seventeenth-century Montserrat’s population being made up largely of “Irish slaves”, and another about “the pairing of young Irish girls with Mandingo warriors to breed a better slave more capable of working in the burning sun.” (The letter, by Mike McCormack, “Division Historian” of the New York State Board of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Division 9, largely repeats an older blog post. Its publication in History Ireland is memorably discussed here.)

For obvious reasons, History Ireland‘s decision to publish, without comment, a letter containing both a personal attack on a scholar and the assertion of known falsehoods as historical facts provoked a critical response from historians. The only public editorial response, to date, has been a lame redirection to the magazine’s policy on “right of reply“.  This reads as follows:

Right of reply

History Ireland magazine is committed to the considered airing, debating and critiquing of issues related to Irish history. We have an established twenty-five year record of doing just this.

In the course of such debates we appreciate that views may need to be corrected or modified, or challenged. To this end, and subject to deadlines (see above) and space, we offer a right of reply to anyone who feels their views have been misrepresented or unfairly portrayed. We will never turn away a considered and reasonable response.

Sanctimoniously promising Hogan a right to reply to this abuse does not explain or excuse the decision to publish it in the first place. Unless, that is, a commitment to “the considered airing, debating and critiquing of issues” means publishing any comment, including assaults on the character of a scholar who has disproven a myth, and unless accepting any “considered and reasonable response” means publishing the fantasies of any loon who deigns to reuse a blog post. At the very least, a magazine that proclaims its attachment to “the highest academic standards”, “witty, pithy, well-written prose”, and “considered and reasonable” comment might explain to which category it believes the letter belongs.

In my own initial response on Twitter, I wrote:

History Ireland is in part a venue for professional historians to reach a wider audience. It has numerous senior scholars on its board. Publishing or linking to known fabrications as if they are legitimate views of history gives them a scholarly imprimatur and new life. It presents an opposition between established facts and debunked myths as a legitimate disagreement between historians. It puts legitimate research using historical sources on a footing with fabricated sources and internet memes.

Most reactions to this were positive. But one suggested that not re-publishing McCormack’s recycled blog post would have amounted to censorship, and that Hogan’s work should be able to withstand criticism. The first claim is obviously false, and not only because the content of the letter in question had already appeared elsewhere. The second is a red herring. A crank’s right to call Hogan a bigot does not entail History Ireland‘s duty to publish and thereby amplify the slur. Nor does lending a larger platform to already discredited myths, as History Ireland has done here, advance any meaningful historical “debate”. It is, at best, a cynical obfuscation that drives clicks by muddying waters research has made clear.

Publications like History Ireland have the capacity to improve the quality of public engagement with the past by presenting current work and new debates, and by treating misrepresentations of the past as such — whether by choosing not to publish them (whether as letters or anywhere else), or by publishing them with appropriate commentary or corrections. If its own pretensions are to be taken seriously, indeed, the magazine has the responsibility to distinguish substantiated historical claims from discredited fictions. It seems to prefer stirring a very old pot.

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9 thoughts on “Irish Slaves, from Myth to “Debate”

  1. WOW! Did I ruffle some liberal feathers with my letter to History Ireland. That article declared in no uncertain terms that Irish slavery was a myth used by Irish-American bigots to oppose the Black Lives Matter movement by demanding ‘We got over it, why can’t they?’ As I stated in my letter, ‘There are many shades of opinion in a community as large and diverse as Irish-America, but there is certainly no common gospel among them regarding any topic.’ I criticized the author, John Donoghue for minimizing the tragedy of Irish enslavement to support his argument that Irish-Americans are bigots.
    In my letter, I mentioned the root of the concept of Irish slavery as a myth was ‘an article by a librarian named Liam Hogan who was trying to create an audience for his controversial book on white racism.’ Lo and behold one of Hogan’s contemporaries and co-author of one of his articles launched a vitriolic campaign of hate-filled invective at not only myself, but at the AOH – whom I never even mentioned in my letter. To say that the reaction was extreme is an understatement. Instead of entering into a civilized debate, she accused me of ‘years of highlighting un-historic racist bigotry of Irish-American leprechaun types’ and noting that the contents of my letter were taken from a ‘previous blog-post from March 2017 written by a member of an ancient sectarian homophobic organization originally modeled on the Orange Order in the 19th century and, ironically, one that modern Irish people point and laugh at.’ Why the AOH was defamed so unjustly is beyond me since they are a charitable organization with a record of helping others – of all races – from the Galveston Flood to Katrina and Sandy right up to current involvement in Houston relief. Such rhetoric almost sounds bigoted – to use her term.
    Apparently she was concerned that I had insulted her friend Hogan and his attempt to debunk Irish slavery. She wrote, a ‘predominantly puss-infected affliction from Irish Americana, the racist slave bile of the ‘Irish Slave Meme’ has, in recent years, spread like a malignant tumor on social media, fueled in no small part by the hijacking of actual Irish history by racists, white supremacists and neo-nazis who use it to intentionally belittle, reduce and dehumanize the actual horrors of chattel slavery and the lived experience of millions of black people in America. Almost everyone with a pulse and an internet connection on Irish social media will already be well aware of this thanks to the herculean efforts of one individual – Liam Hogan.’ Again, WOW! All I did was call him a librarian. He even identified himself in a bolg saying,’ I’m a research librarian at the Limerick City Library and an independent scholar’. Well, I too am an independent scholar – for more than 50 years! If she was familiar with my past writings, she would know that I never minimized Black slavery; in fact, I have often recognized the similarities in Black and Irish histories from slavery and discrimination to achievements and friendships like Tony Small and Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Frederick Douglas and Daniel O’Connell!
    However, a typical liberal attack would not be effective if it didn’t condemn, in shotgun fashion, every thing surrounding the real issue to avoid discussing the fact that Irish-Americans are not racist as the article declared! Sadly her facebook page enlisted a few contemporaries who agree with her as well as one defending me. In addition, her use of profanity (which I will not include in this reply) is beneath the dignity of a scholar. Yet, I will proudly say that neither I, nor the AOH, have ever been accused of being racist in word or deed and slinging mud may cover an issue, but it will never cover up the truth.
    All the opinions contained in my letter were my own and in defense of the Irish-American community of which I happen to be a proud member sharing more than 50 years of focused study in the subject of Ireland and her history. Now I understand that there is also a twitter feed by Liam Hogan (which I am unable to access) which defames me! Never stick anything into a nest of vipers, even if it is a rod of gold. I initially refused to reply to these facebook blogs. Long ago I was advised to never get into a pissing contest with skunks, but because the AOH was defamed in this matter, I must define my stand. Some hair-splitting, nit-picking liberals effusing Politically Correct rhetoric insist on exaggerating the actions of some extremist types to blacken the reputation of all who disagree with their theories. I have been following the e-mail and blogs of Liam Hogan for years and he has had his share of detractors. My only intent in this issue was to identify him as a prime source of the theory, recognize the suffering of our ancestors and denounce the accusation that all Irish-American are racist. I do not preach Irish superiority nor vengeance against those who mistreated our ancestors, for the perpetrators are long gone and the Lord will take care of them (as I have said in many of my writings on the great Hunger). But when a man, woman or child is taken, forcefully against their will, and sold in bondage to another – be it called transportation, transplanting, indenture, or servitude – it matters not to the victim what it is called by those so many miles and years away. It is still slavery in this man’s eyes and we should remember their plight because they did not deserve it! And if such as Thomas McCormick call me a crank and a loon, when he obviously doesn’t know me or my work, I wonder if that isn’t the definition of bigotry? As for all the other so-called historians who denounce the fact that the Irish were enslaved – be it for a period of time or life. To you belongs the shame of not defending the memory of those poor people who suffered for no other reason than that they held to their faith and motherland. They are akin to those who ‘took the soup’! (which I suppose didn’t happen either!)

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  2. Yes, and McCormack seems to be missing the point here. I really don’t give a shit whether he’s a racist bigot or someone who believes that blacks and Irish people should make common cause as people who have been historically ill-treated. What matters is that the claims being made AREN’T TRUE. Just out of interest McCormack, do you have any academic qualifications at all? Anyone can call themselves a historian. But if you can’t distinguish facts from obvious nonsense – REALLY OBVIOUS NONSENSE – you’re not a historian. And it’s so obvious that you are the rankest of rank amateurs. If you want to prove you’re not a rank amateur, how about providing chapter and verse about the ‘documents of parentage’ with the Mandingo reference. Because I for one don’t believe a word of it.

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  3. Pingback: How to Change History: William Petty, Irish Slavery, and a fake debate | memorious

  4. Pingback: History Ireland Magazine and the Ancient Order of Shitebernians | vox hiberionacum

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