Slavery and Ireland: How we stayed on the right side of history

We examine Ireland’s successes and pitfalls in opposing the transatlantic slave trade.

Slavery and Ireland: How we stayed on the right side of history.

The atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade reach far and wide, with many white Europeans benefitting from the enslavement, displacement, and, in many cases, ultimate genocide of black Africans.

Lamentably, several Irishmen benefitted from the transatlantic slave trade. Many, however, vehemently opposed it, mitigating the involvement of Irish people in the terrible centuries-long event.

In honour of International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition (23 August), we examine the inexcusable actions of Irish beneficiaries of the trade, and the good work done by the country’s important abolitionists.

Irish abolitionists – on the right side of history

Slavery and Ireland: How we stayed on the right side of history.
Credit: geograph.ie/ Albert Bridge

One thing you may notice about the Irish perpetrators of this vile crime against humanity is that they carried out their deeds away from Irish soil. This was thanks, in no small part, to a group of Irish abolitionists who steadfastly opposed slavery throughout history.

One prominent example is Thomas McCabe. The United Irishman vehemently resisted plans by Waddell Cunningham and other Belfast merchants to establish a slave trading company in the city.

“May God eternally damn the soul of the man who subscribes the first guinea”, McCabe declared at a proposal meeting.

McCabe’s friend and United Irishwoman, Mary Ann McCracken, was also an avowed abolitionist. She saw her fight for women’s equality as parallel to the fight for emancipation.

Inspired by visits to Belfast by Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass – a statue of whom was recently erected in the city – McCracken established the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Association in 1845.

The group frequently sent local items for sale at William Lloyd Garrison’s Anti-Slavery Bazaar in Boston.

Other prominent Irish abolitionists include Richard Allen, James Haughton, and Richard D. Webb, who established the Hibernian Antislavery Association in 1837. The association was considered one of the most active in Europe at the time.

Daniel O’Connell – Ireland’s preeminent abolitionist

Daniel O’Connell was an important abolitionist.
Credit: Flickr/ William Murphy

Perhaps the country’s preeminent abolitionist was Daniel O’Connell. Despite his wishes to one day visit the US, O’Connell stated that “so long as [the country] is tarnished by slavery, I will never pollute my foot by treading on its shores”.

Furthermore, O’Connell’s efforts to repeal the 1800 Act of Union relied heavily on funds from sympathetic Americans. However, O’Connell refused to take any donations from benefactors engaged in slavery.

O’Connell faced a great deal of backlash for this. Among others, poet and prominent Young Irelander Charles Gavan Duffy lamented what he saw as “gratuitous interference in American affairs”.

O’Connell, though, remained undeterred, telling a Dublin crowd in 1845 that his sympathies “extend to every corner of the earth”.

O’Connell continued, “My heart walks abroad, and wherever the miserable are to be succoured, or the slave to be set free, there my spirit is at home, and I delight to dwell”.

A lamentable part of history – the involvement of Irish people in the slave trade

Regrettably, many Irish people profited from the transatlantic slave trade.
Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Regrettably, many Irish people profited from the transatlantic slave trade.

While Limerick librarian and scholar Liam Hogan notes that most Irish people became involved in the slave trade as provisioners, others undertook a graver role in the atrocity.

Historian Joe O’Shea points out William Ronan in his book, Murder, Mutiny & Mayhem: The Blackest-Hearted Villains from Irish History. Ronan ran one of the world’s largest slave markets from the Cape Coast Castle in modern-day Ghana between 1687 and 1697.

O’Shea also highlights the exploits of Antoine Walsh. The French-born son of a Kilkenny Jacobite, Walsh traded from Nantes – France’s then-largest port which was responsible for half of the country’s 18th-century slave trade.

Other Irish slave traders operated closer to home. David Tuohy left Tralee for Liverpool, the port from which he captained four slave voyages in the 1700s. He later focused on his business enterprises in the city, which included part-ownership of ten slave ships.

On a similar note, Felix Doran, believed to have been from County Down, relocated to Merseyside, where he financially backed at least 69 slave voyages between the United Kingdom and the United States.

However, as mentioned, thanks to the diligent work of Daniel O’Connell and other Irish abolitionists, these evil deeds took place away from Irish soil. The last known slave ship to arrive in the US docked in 1859. Slavery was finally abolished in the country in 1865.

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