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Sunday 12 May 2019

Anatomy of a modern lie

  • Nationalism is on the march, partly fuelled by partial or dishonest histories
  • A particularly prevalent example is an invented ‘Irish slaves’ myth, which is very visible on social media
  • One discredited book has been turned into racist propaganda by white nationalists on social media

By Liam Hogan

Students at Georgetown University in Washington DC voted this year in favour of paying a $27 fee towards reparations to the descendants of 272 enslaved people “sold down the river” by the institution’s Jesuit administrators in the 1830s. Meanwhile Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination are expected to clarify their position regarding reparations.

The debate over reparations for slavery is gathering pace in the United States, part of its great reckoning with its difficult problems with race. But one bad faith and ahistorical counterargument is once again coming to the fore on social media, usually appearing in the form: “the Irish were slaves, too: where are my reparations?”

One of the “Irish slave” memes circulated by white supremacists

This is the “Irish slaves” meme, a popular derailment tactic used increasingly by reactionaries since the Ferguson protests of 2014. This meme falsely equates the Irish American experience with racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slavery. It vandalises history to make the claim: “We were slaves, too, but we got over it, we’re not looking for handouts”.

It can be found in replies and in the comment sections beneath many of the news stories published on the Georgetown reparations, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it was two Irish Americans, Rev Thomas Mulledy and Rev William McSherry, who authorised and organised the original slave sales of the 1830s.

This is one of the great modern lies. It is popular and prevalent – and it is worth understanding how the perversion of the story of 17th-century transportation has gravitated to the centre of the racist culture wars of the early 21st century.

The place to start with grotesque dishonesty is the truth. And it is certainly the case that poor Irish people suffered horrific, gruesome treatment – including transportation to the British colonies. The application of this policy in Ireland was essentially a radical and colonial extension of the English Poor Law of 1601, which provided relief for those unable to work but also sought to impose social control by criminalising adult “idleness” and vagabondage.

In 1619 the spirit of this law was invoked to ship 100 destitute children from the streets of London to Virginia. In theory those that survived the journey were required to be apprentices for seven years. The mortality rate in Virginia was exceptionally high for colonists at this time due to disease and hard labour and it is unknown how many of these transported children survived into adulthood. In November 1619 the Virginia Company requested that another hundred children be sent from London but this time the minimum age was set at 12 years.

In 1620, the Virginia Company was granted authority by the Privy Council to coerce the “obstinate” into going. Similar orders for poor children to be sent to Virginia as “apprentices” were fulfilled throughout the 1620s and the illegal “spiriting” of children from the metropole continued into the 18th century.

Irish poverty in the slums of New York, late 19th century

The most significant forced movement of Irish people into the colonies, however, occurred under Oliver Cromwell’s “protectorate”. After his scouring of Ireland during the Civil War, which raged across the whole of the archipelago, the Lord Protector gave a personal assurance to the Irish people in 1650 that only those “ready to run to arms by the instigation of their Clergy or otherwise” would be at risk of being sent to the “Tobacco islands”.

But the focus and scope of transportation changed dramatically in 1653. It expanded to include the poor, their destination was the American colonies, their fate was indentured servitude, and coercion was now the policy’s defining characteristic. The first order to transport the destitute from Ireland to the colonies was issued in July when the “overseers of precincts” were

“Authorised to treat with merchants for transporting vagrants into some English plantation in America, where the said persons may find livelihood and maintenance by their labour, and to deliver over the said persons to the said merchants accordingly…”

From 1653 to 1657 vagrants were specifically ordered to be transported to the West Indies from Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny, Carlow, Galway, Limerick, Cork and Dublin. The order to ship “disorderly persons” from Ireland to the American colonies was rescinded by the Council of State in March 1657 because of its abuse by merchants. This was of little comfort to those already shipped across the Atlantic and sold into years of oppressive servitude and unpaid labour.

Irish emigrants leaving Cork for the United States, 19th century

The language of slavery can thus be found in Irish poetry, sentiment, memory and propaganda of the time. It is based on the historical truth of Irish exile, forced labour and commodification in English colonies. In 1669 Robert Southwell attempted to recruit voluntary servants in Cork to go to the Carolinas but was met with extreme wariness, demonstrating how raw the memory was just a decade later. He wrote: “They had been terrified with the ill practice of them to the [Caribbean] Islands where they were sold as slaves that as yet they will hardly give any credence to any other usage…”

Indentured servitude was certainly a grim life: servants’ rights, while bound, were significantly limited. Anything that interrupted the delivery of this pre-paid labour was punished. Their contract, their “time”, could be traded between different masters without the servant’s consent. Servants could not marry without permission, they could not get pregnant, and if they absented themselves without notice or ran away their indenture could be extended. Servants could be beaten and whipped for insubordination or for not working fast enough. Servants could complain to the courts about mistreatment but it’s likely that they would have more frequently run away from their master for relief rather than risk incurring their wrath after a failed attempt to secure justice. In cases where a servant was being abused, and was captured after running away, sometimes, if they explained their situation before the courts, they were freed or avoided punishment.

African slaves being bought straight off the transport ship in America, engraved in 1830

But the core legal and customary distinctions between servitude (as reserved for Europeans) and slavery (as reserved for “Negroes”) were fundamentally different. Colonial servitude was temporary, usually voluntary, and, although the courts were often tilted against them, the servant’s legal personhood was recognised. Colonial slavery was permanent, always involuntary, racialised and heritable. The uterine law ensured that the children of slaves inherited the status of their mother. Their children were perpetual slaves. Their children’s children were perpetual slaves. Slavery was social death with no way out.

Slaves were placed outside of common law and so they had no rights – not even the right to life. While there are accounts of servants being freed from their contracts early, after proving that they had been ill-treated by their master, we find the opposite provision for the enslaved. A slave, suffering perpetual bondage, could instead be subjected to an array of grotesque physical punishments such as castration, being burned alive, the mashing of their limbs leading to dismemberment, broken bones, beheadings, the beating out of eyes, slitting of ears and various other mutilations.

Historians estimate that several thousand Irish people suffered forced transportation to the American colonies during the 1650s. In contrast, the transatlantic slave trade lasted centuries, was the largest forced migration in world history, involving tens of millions of African people, and its poisonous legacy remains in the form of anti-black racism. It is, indeed, this very racism which has powered efforts to make the admittedly awful treatment meted out to Irish servants into something even worse than slavery.


The Irish slaves meme, in truth, started as something else. It has been long established in Irish nationalist and Catholic historiography and was invoked by prominent Irish patriots such as Daniel O’Connell in 1843 and James Connolly in 1915. These narratives generally used a broad definition of slavery and, given the rhetorical import, obviously never took the time to mention that this “slavery” was indentured servitude, and that the customs and laws pertaining to slavery in the colonies did not apply to them.

The first prominent Irish historian to add wind to the sails of this narrative was JP Prendergast. In his classic 1865 work The Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland he (credibly) claimed that 6,400 Irish people had been forcibly transported to the West Indies during the 1650s. In this influential work he drew an explicit analogy with the transatlantic slave trade: “Ireland must have exhibited scenes in every part like the slave hunts in Africa,” while describing Irish people being forced onto “slave ships” by “English slave dealers”.

Servants in Virginia, 1862. Indentured servants were treated very differently from slaves

But the modern manifestation of this phenomenon is something else. This is not from people steeped in Irish nationalism or overwritten 19th-century histories. At the root of the Irish slaves lie is, for the most part, a single article: “The Irish Slave Trade – The Forgotten ‘White’ Slaves – The Slaves That Time Forgot” which was put together by the unknown – and possibly non-existent author – John Martin.

Martin invented an “Irish slave trade” that operated from 1625 to 1839 and claimed that “the Irish experienced the horrors of slavery as much (if not more in the 17th century) as the Africans did”.

He told readers that “Irish slaves” were treated “worse” and were “cheaper” than enslaved Africans. He also included a racist anti-miscegenation fantasy that English planters had forced Irish women to breed with enslaved African men and that this “forced breeding” practice “was stopped only because it interfered with the profits of a large slave transport company”.

The extremism of this article’s propaganda cannot be overstated. It makes blatantly false claims: “If a planter whipped or branded or beat an Irish slave to death, it was never a crime.” One particularly callous lie is the implication that “Irish slaves” were the victims of the Zong Massacre – an actual massacre of 132 Africans who were killed in cold blood by the crew so that their value could be claimed back from the ship’s insurers.

“Irish slaves” were, Martin claims, “burned alive and had their heads placed on pikes in the marketplace as a warning to other captives.” He surmised that Ireland was “the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants”, that “the majority of the early slaves to the New World were actually white”, and that the term “indentured servitude” was part of a liberal conspiracy to cover up the history of “white slavery”.

Disturbingly, it was not just partisan social media accounts that were responsible for the rise in popularity of this racist ahistorical propaganda. For a number of years some mainstream outlets and celebrities promoted it as a “forgotten” history. For instance Irish Central, a popular Irish-American news website, pushed it forward.

Far from being an “expert”, however, ‘John Martin’ had almost entirely plagiarised the “facts” of his article from an ahistorical blog published by an Irish-American blogger named “Jungle” Jim Cavanaugh in 2003, and much of his work was based on a single book, Sean O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados: The ethnic cleansing of Ireland.

In this text, O’Callaghan deliberately conflates racial slavery and indentured servitude over 100 times. He embellished his “Irish slaves” narrative by directly co-opting well known descriptions of the torture of enslaved Africans. He also fabricated lurid and pornographic tales of the rape of Irish female servants by enslaved Africans and the abuse of children by paedophile English planters.

This did not stop the book being lauded by most of the national newspapers in Ireland when it was released. With no public pushback from Irish historians, O’Callaghan’s version of events was perceived to be the definitive one for almost two decades.

The fallout from the mainstream media, museums, politicians and celebrities endorsing these insidious conspiracy theories regarding American slavery has been staggering. Countless numbers of people on social media and in person, and sometimes even at the historic sites of slavery, now casually use the meme to shut down, deflect or diminish discussions about slavery and racism.


Using the truth to tell lies is an old and formidable propagandic technique. The social web is a new and arguably the most powerful medium to effectively disseminate propaganda in human history.

At a time of unprecedented interconnectedness, an individual’s information literacy is thus more important than ever. At a basic level, simply taking the time to question sources or to step back and investigate sensational claims for oneself is essential and would have greatly reduced the spread of “Irish slaves” disinformation.

Social media is also a fertile ground for radicalisation. There is a reason we had not heard “White Irish slaves were treated worse than any other race in the US” until we joined Facebook. The far-right were one of the first adopters of the early social web. In the late 1980s they saw its potential to reach new adherents and to bypass the usual barriers that limited the circulation of their propaganda.

The arrival of unregulated social media behemoths like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have amplified their reach beyond all measure. The successful global propagation of the “Irish slaves” meme tells us that these social media companies are unwilling to tackle the scale and nature of the problem. Their monetisation strategies, built around engagement, help to accelerate such disinformation flows.

Racist meme about so-called “Irish slaves”

The meme’s prevalence also tells us that there exists a critical mass of ignorance about the history of indentured servitude and the transatlantic slave trade, which points towards a fundamental failure of education systems on both sides of the Atlantic.

The central explanation for the success and popularity of the meme however, is the prevalence of anti-black racism. In that sense these memes are not about history or heritage. They promote social darwinist sentiment. They demonise the welfare state. That is their political purpose. The underlying problem here is white nationalism.

The author is an independent scholar who is compiling a documentary history of the Cromwellian transportations from Ireland

Photographs Getty Images

Further reading