Wage Slavery: A Black & Irish Tale

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

If you are a proud Irish-American and you gas light Black people with the phrase, The Irish were slaves too, then buckle up buttercup because history has documented your forefathers' hatred of my ancestors through the centuries. The problem is that American textbooks have strategically omitted that little Snapple fact and for a good reason - to prevent unity. The topic of discussion is going to be centered around the struggle of Irish-American plight to assimilate into being white by being Anti-Black. The history of labor in America is deep rooted in wage exploitation and racial hierarchy perpetuated by the ruling class.

Before I talk about the Irish Famine, I want to take another look at the Civil war and the mandatory draft. The Conscription Act of 1863 was what fanned the flame of tension further between Irish-Americans and Black people, because poor Irish were forced to fight in the war while free African-Americans could volunteer through the Emancipation Proclamation. The overall attitude of Irish-Americans was that they believed that the very institution of slavery was wrong but it wasn’t their problem. When their forefathers reached American soil from their native home, they were welcomed with No Irish Need Apply signs posted in store windows and caricatures of “Bridget and Patrick” in the newspapers. The Irish-Americans were forced into shacks and were in no way welcomed by English Protestants. The way that the Irish immigrants were treated in the 1800s is similar to how America treats homelessness in present day - newspapers depicting them as “drunkards” and filling up the jails and workhouses. The Great Hunger resulted in an estimated amount of one million deaths, with around the same amount of refugees having no choice but to leave their homeland. During this devastating time, the British ruling class exploited the Irish by benefitting from the blight through export records. Exports such as peas, butter, and livestock actually increased as malnutrition and death ransacked the countryside. The passage to the New World was no easy feat either, because the Irish were met with death and disease on the ships thanks to cholera. The dreaded road to hell being paved with good intentions is echoed through the actions of the Liberator himself - Daniel O’Connell.

Once upon a time, abolitionists were thrilled to partner with O’Connell because of his influence amongst the Irish-Americans based on his track record in Emerald Isle. The Great Liberator was known for spearheading the Catholic Emancipation which was successful in 1830 and leading the campaign of repealing the Act of Union of 1800. Repealing the Act of Union would restore an Irish parliament under the crown so why wouldn’t O’Connell be world famous amongst the Irish? He definitely had some choice words about America’s biggest hypocrisy in 1829 when he said, “Let America, in the fulness of her pride...wave on high her banner of freedom and its blazing stars...In the midst of their laughter and their pride, I point them to the negro children screaming for their mother whose bosom they have been torn...Let them hoist the flag of liberty, with the whip and rack on one side, and the star of freedom upon the other.” Surely his words would sway the opinions of the Irish in America to believe in the liberation from bondage in all forms but, the more prestigious Irish that resided in Philadelphia disagreed with the Liberator’s approach. These men of means sent a letter expressing to O’Connell that the admiration was there for a man of his character but they believed that, “Here they have rights, privileges and immunities of native Americans.” They wanted O’Connell to ‘remove from the Irish-Americans “the odium which...had been cast upon them…’” Elizur Wright, corresponding secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society, reached out to Daniel O’Connell about addressing the Irish-Americans on the topic of slavery because of his strong public views against the institution-and he agreed. Another prominent figure amongst the Irish caucus was James Haughton, founder of the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society and Dublin grain merchant, also reached out to O’Connell about the political climate amongst the Irish-Americans stateside and said, “[T]he Irishmen in that country...are such a powerful and influential body that they exercise a paramount influence in the election of the president and in the elections of various members of various legislatures there; but most unfortunately that influence has been given heretofore in favor of slavery…” The anti-slavery address was introduced to an American audience on January 28th, 1842 and Bishop John J. Hughes was none too pleased. The “good” Bishop was the most influential figure of the Irishmen in America and he wrote that it was, “the duty of every naturalized Irishman to resist and repudiate the address with indignation. Not precisely because of the doctrine it contains but, because of their having emanated from a foreign source, and their tendency to operate on questions of domestic and national policy. I am no friend of slavery, but I am still less friendly to any attempt of foreign origin to abolish…” O’Connell’s true colors began to show when there was talk of abolitionism threatening the dissolution of the Act of Union and key abolitionists called him out on it!

Wendell Phillips was an abolitionist that supported the repeal of the Act of Union and even made a statement at the Boston Repeal Association. However, when he and the other abolitionists brought up the topic of slavery, they were quickly dismissed from the floor. According to a letter written by Phillips to a fellow abolitionist by the name of Richard Davis Webb he stated, “He dares not face the demon when it touches him. He would be pro-slavery this side of the pond...He won’t shake hands with slaveholders, no - but he will shake their gold” and referred to O’Connell as “The Great Beggerman”. Irish-American laborers made their stance very clear on Anti-Blackness through their enforcement of a color caste system in the workforce. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society did a survey to point out the inconsistencies of labor among freed Black men. The conclusion was noted in 1838 that 30% of 506 Black tradesmen did not practice their trade due to prejudices. In 1851, the African Repository- an official publication of the American Colonization Society, stated that “In New York and other eastern cities, the influx of white laborers has expelled the Negro almost en masse from the excerise of ordinary branches of labor...White men will not work with him.” Frederick Douglass stated in 1853 that, “Every hour sees us elbowed out of some employment to make room for some newly-arrived emigrant from the Emerald Isle, whose hunger and color entitle him to special favor.” If a white employer attempted to hire a Black apprentice, the Irishmen would collectively walk out in protest or react with direct violence. Between 1858 and 1859, white mobs raged against Black people who were working in Baltimore City as caulkers and effectively hired white laborers in their place. In 1862, another example of mob violence against Black people occured in Brooklyn, where primarily women and children who were working in a tobacco factory were attacked by mostly Irish laborers. The mob forced their victims into the upper floors of the building and set the first floor on fire. The factory was allowed to reopen only under the condition that they refuse employment to Black people and hire the Irish. The Conscription Act of 1863 as mentioned earlier, played a significant role in adding fuel to the color caste fire that led to a full-scale riot on the docks. The Irish laborer made the conclusion that if chattel slavery was to be abolished, then they will have unwanted competition with the newly freed Black man. The Irish made their assimilation into whiteness known with the Longshoremen’s United Benevolent Society established in 1852. Their banner was decorated with flags from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland, Denmark, Hungary, and Italy. It’s safe to say that this form of unity was very much Anti-Black without actually saying it and American textbooks leave this chapter blank. How much longer in present-day will Irish-American descendants continue to refuse the Black Lives Matter movement? How much longer will America convince the masses that “All Lives Matter” as they attempt to erase the part where Black lives never have?


How the Irish Became White Noel Ignatiev, 1995.

32 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All