Wed | Aug 16, 2017

The colours of slavery

Published:Sunday | April 24, 2016 | 4:00 AM

Book: Caribbean Irish Connection: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Editors: Allison Donnell, Maria McGarrity, and Evelyn O'Callaghan

Publisher: UWI Press, Mona, Jamaica

By Dr Glenville Ashby

Caribbean Irish Connections with contributions from multiple writers invites us to explore the philosophical bond that emerged among artists from distinctly different ethnic backgrounds. Here, colonisation, resistance, and art find common ground.

That resistance of the Irish Republic Brotherhood against the British had long seeped into black consciousness drawing cultural, historical, and experiential parallels is well known. Territorial rape and systemic dehumanisation were visited upon the Irish and African people. Teetering on romanticism, many Caribbean artists found grounding and expression in the works of Yeates and Joyce, and an undeniable nexus between two cultures developed.

Yes, the Irish people were among the oppressed in the Caribbean. On this subject, the contribution of Jerome Handler and Matthew Reilly is noteworthy. They cite Father Antoine Biet who wrote of the wearisome life of the Irish in the 17th century: "All were very badly treated. When they worked, the overseers ... are always close by with a stick with which they often prod them when they do not work as fast as is desired ... . They were sold, especially when it was discovered that they were Catholics, the husbands in one place, the wife in another, and the children so as not to receive any solace from each other."

Handler and Reilly paint a paradoxical system that allowed the Irish religious freedom on one hand, but was unrestrained in its punitive, malicious in other respects.

And it is this dichotomy that arguably defined Irish life throughout the islands.

In the essay "The Irish in Barbados," Riley introduces the theme of creolisation and the attenuation, if not effacement of the Irish identity by the 19th century.

Many fell under the ignoble category of poor whites or Redlegs. Riley notes, "Overtime, the lines and boundaries defining nationality, ethnicity, and race became empirically blurred as interaction between poor whites (whether enslaved or free) led to miscegenation." He later adds, "Conversations with Barbadians, immigrants, and visitors to the island on the topic of local accent and dialect usually lead to claims of a wide assortment of influences. Informal cases are made of the accent, and that the dialect echoes those of County Cork, of Somerset, and parts of West Africa is correct."

But in other Caribbean islands, in particular, Montserrat, Irish footprints are more markedly embedded. That island's passport bears the shamrock stamp, an imprint of Irish legacy. Its Irish past now figures strongly in its tourist marketing, and it brands itself the "Emerald Isle" of the region. Further, its national flag depicts Erin, the female symbol of Ireland ... alongside the Union Jack. In fact, Montserrat is the only country outside Ireland to celebrate St Patrick's Day as a national holiday."

But this day - March 17 - is also etched in memory for a starkly different reason. It is a bitter reminder of an ill-fated slave revolt on the island.

These contradictions, enigmas, and surrealisms are spelled out in Karina Williamson's "Irish Encounters in Jamaica".

She chronicles the enigmatic sentiments of notable Irishmen during the apprenticeship period, especially those of Marquess Sligo and James Kelly.

Sligo, of Anglo-Irish ancestry and governor of the island for a two-year period (1834-1836), was overtly sympathetic toward blacks. Pressing for the full implementation of the letter of Apprenticeship, his legal battles with the Colonial Office didn't go unnoticed. But he was also a slave owner, having been bequeathed land from his Irish forebears.

And from James Kelly, we get a clear idea of an Irish people psychically torn between indignation toward the British and admiration for their oppressors' fortunes and stature that they readily sought and, in many cases, attained.

That blacks somehow had a friend in the Irish is sketchy, at best, although Kelly's words beg to differ. He writes, "In the presence of the sailor [Irish], the Negro feels as man - in that of the white man who lives in continual view of his degradation, he feels a slave. Alas! all the meliorations or petty advantages they may possess, are not to be named as the smallest equivalent to the misery of his consciousness."

But there is an undeniable reality. In a colour-based society, poor whites had a clear advantage over every other oppressed group.

Alison Donnell's "Entanglements of Root and Branch" details the Irish imaginary, questioning acculturation and the blurring of genealogical lines. Among the Irish there was a yearning to bridge the past and the present as they reclaimed ancestral roots within a diasporic framework.

Donnell concludes that "Irish identifications retain an obsession with genealogy and roots."

Here, the progeny of African slaves and those of the Irish underclass part ways, again. Donnell is quite clear on this. "The claims of a historical archive are complemented by the generous Irish national right of return, which extends citizenship even to second-generation immigrants. As a consequence, many Irish diasporic subjects have remained part of a history, both in political status and in a more imaginary, mythic sense of belonging. These possibilities were never manifest for enslaved Africans ... ."

Caribbean Irish Connection later shifts gears although the embers of colonialism and oppression burn. The contributions of Richard McGuire's "Two Tunes (Settler-Colonist Worlds)," Elizabeth Bowen's "The Last September," Jean Rhy's "Voyage in the Dark," Jean Antoine-Dunne's "Mutual Obsessions," and Emily Taylor's "Rewriting Heathcliff (Irishness, Creolization, and Constructions of Race in Bronte and Conde)," explore the rudiments of Caribbean and Irish literary artists who are caged by their own experiences, yet artistically free by their unique sensitivity to time and space.

Caribbean Irish Connection is unquestionably a substantive addition to Caribbean socio-historical narrative. With overlapping, well-researched themes on the Irish Question, its importance cannot be ignored.

Ratings: Recommended

Send feedback to glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @glenvlleahsby.