Thomas Roberts' 1776 painting features a black man, believed to be one of the first in Ireland.

Ireland and Multiculturalism |Our First People of Colour

Twenty-five years ago, Ireland appeared to be a homogeneous place, with white freckled people everywhere. But things have evolved, and this year has seen an increase in media attention on Ireland and multiculturalism. In particular, there’s been focus on what it means to be an immigrant in present day Ireland – in particular for those who appear other than white Irish: black people, Asians or those whose cultural dress singles them out as different. RTE recently broadcast a documentary I am Immigrant detailing some of these experiences. In March, The Irish Times published an account by Emma Dabiri, on what it means when one’s sense of identity as an Irish person does not fit with the responses of others.

Has it always been like this in Ireland? What was it like for travellers and settlers from foreign lands two or three hundred years ago? In particular for black[1] or Asian people? How were they perceived and received here in the eighteenth century?

What may surprise you is that such travellers and immigrants were not uncommon. The writer W.A. Hart has estimated the Black population in Ireland over the latter half of the eighteenth century at between 2,000 and 3,000. As might be expected, most accounts (from newspapers, memoirs and official records) refer to individuals living near coastal towns such as Dublin, Cork, Belfast and Waterford. This article will look at some of the patterns of occupation and dispersal of Ireland’s early black immigrants. Admittedly, liberties have been taken with the term “immigrant” as it usually does not refer to those coerced into moving countries. That many of Ireland’s early black population were compelled to come here, through enslavement, is beyond doubt.

Sir William Penn, father of the founder of Pennsylvania, who brought some of the first black people to Ireland. Source:
Sir William Penn, father of the founder of Pennsylvania, who brought some of the first Black people to Ireland. Source:

One of the earliest accounts is in 1578. Sir William Drury, in Kilkenny, ordered a blackamoor and two witches to be burnt at the stake. One hundred years later, there are sporadic mentions – a “blackamoor soldier”, one of 1500 men laying siege to Blackhall Castle in Kildare, and a black servant boy at Macroom Castle brought back from Jamaica by Sir William Penn, father of the famous Quaker who founded Pennsylvania.

By the eighteenth century, there was a more significant presence, including slaves. Contemporary newspapers have occasional reports of runaways though they are mostly referred to as servants. Finn’s Leinster Journal in July 1767 cites a runaway Jonathan Rose, a black man, “who left his master’s service, Captain Kearney of Blanchville, near Gowran”, and was proficient in the French horn and violin. Another from the Dublin Journal of 1762, advertises a runaway “black Servant Maid… We hope no Person will employ her as she is the Slave and Property of Mrs. Heyliger.” Though the advertisements regarding slaves are arresting and poignant, they are not all that different from similar ones concerning runaway native Irish indentured servants. Indeed one or two “owners” even promised to pay wages should their estranged “slave” return. Despite these advertisements, most accounts of black people in Ireland in the eighteenth century do not refer to slaves.

‘His moors appeared … frantic with joy’

So who were they and how did they find themselves in this tiny outpost of the Empire? Some accompanied their employers to Ireland, or were attached to a particular ship or army. A few were the result of illegitimate liaisons. For example many Protestant Irish men, middle sons, worked in the East India Company or the Bengal army and on occasion brought home a child. A smaller number came voluntarily, to preach or to work. John Jea, captured in Africa, sold into slavery in New York, eventually made his way to Ireland, where he settled and married before moving on to England. There’s a fascinating account of a company of salvage divers, working on a sunken ship in Dublin Bay, in the late 1700s using a diving bell. When the company’s owner Charles Spalding was killed (overcome by fumes in the wreck), his “Negro associate” took over. On a successful outcome, “his wife, his sister, and his moors appeared almost frantic with joy.”

There are mentions of black people throughout the eighteenth century – servants; soldiers – several accounts during the 1798 rebellion of fighters on the British and the rebel side; musicians – private, army, even an opera singer. The first record of a black actor onstage took place in Smock Alley in Dublin in the 1770s, some fifty years before Ira Aldridge appeared in the same role of Mungo in The Padlock, in London.

What did Irish people know of other races? The theatre provided some exposure. Many productions – often by Irish playwrights – featured black roles, played by white actors in “blackface” – usually burnt cork. These roles varied from “noble savage” caricatures in the mid-1700s to grateful or desperate slaves towards the close of the century as the opposing sides of the abolition movement became more political. The abolition debate also expanded the public’s consciousness of the plight of black slaves in the colonies. The sugar boycott was a successful propaganda coup, which spread to the major towns in Ireland. In the 1790s, one of the most influential black people of the era conducted a book tour in Ireland, promoting his biographical account of his enslavement – The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. He travelled for six months, releasing two further editions of his best-seller.

So how were black people received in Ireland? There is some suggestion of superstition in earlier Irish perceptions but this seems largely to do with heightened situations of battles. In two separate accounts, enemy “blackamoor” soldiers are credited with immense courage and strength – one said to be possessed of “a devil or a witch”, the other to have had “the life of a cat”.[1] These, however, are the exception. In most cases, rather than a negative response, it seems curiosity was probably more common.

Staring crowd surrounded a black woman and child

An interesting illustration of the public attitude was documented in The Freeman’s Journal in 1777. The paper sets the scene in St Stephen’s Green at noon, when a crowd of people surrounded a black woman and her child, staring and pressing so close that they frightened the woman and caused the child to cry. It took some “reasonable persons” to extricate her and help her “safe out of the walks”. The article goes on, “Had she in any manner differed from others of her colour or country so common to meet with, it might have been some apology to satisfy curiosity”. The writer goes further saying such behaviour reflected scandal and ignorance on the entire assembly. The words “so common to meet with” are particularly striking.

Another marker of public attitudes is the response to mixed marriages. The few accounts that exist suggest interest rather than negativity. Freeman’s Journal in 1785 gives an account of an “extraordinary match” which took place in Drumcar, Co. Louth, between a local woman and a black man. “No young girl could behave with more propriety or modesty; there was a very elegant supper prepared, and the bride and bridegroom seemed as happy as possible, and are now enjoying all the comforts of married life.” Tony Small, the escaped slave who worked for Lord Edward Fitzgerald, married the family nursemaid. John Jea, the preacher, married Mary, a “native of Ireland” (his third marriage).

These examples provide only a snapshot of life for early immigrants. But they suggest that Ireland was perhaps more racially “literate” and diverse during the eighteenth century than might be expected. Unfortunately by the end of the century, more deliberate negative ideas about race – including the “Irish race” – were being propagated, to support the vested interests of British Imperialist expansion. The Age of Enlightenment was over.

[1] Mathieu Boyd has written about the origin of the Irish phrase Fir Ghorma (blue men), meaning black men, which “corresponds to old Norse Blámenn from which the Welsh word of the same meaning, Blowmen or Blewmon, may (indirectly) derive.” In old Norse-Icelandic literature, the term blámenn is used for supernatural adversaries and “berserks” as well as “dark-skinned Muslims, and a similar development occurs in Irish.”

This is the first in a Headstuff series of articles about historical attitudes to immigrants and immigration by writer and researcher Laura McKenna

Further Reading

W.A. Hart. Africans in Eighteenth-Century Ireland. Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 33, No. 129 (May, 2002), pp. 19-32

Nini Rodgers. Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: 1612-1865. Palgrave Macmillan UK. 2007

[1] From the fifteenth century onwards, the terms black, negro, moor and blackamoor were applied to a wide group of people: from those of African origin, to Muslims and Arabs, to Asians, and to indigenous people of Australia etc.