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Natural Allies: Americans, Irish Republicanism, and Black Lives Matter
This past Sunday was the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the 1972 massacre of Irish civil rights marchers by the British Army. As the anniversary has resurfaced the issues of Irish Republicanism and international civil rights, I’m re-upping this piece I wrote for Irish Central during the 2020 Black Lives Matter. It examines the similarities between American oppression of Black people and British colonization of Ireland.
The piece is dated, but the message of international solidarity and shared struggle is eternal.
Note: “Irish Republicanism” is the movement to unify Ireland as a 32 county, Democratic Socialist Republic. It has nothing to do with America’s Republican Party.
Since the police killing of George Floyd on May 25th, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have started a national reckoning of America’s structural subjugation of African Americans. BLM protests are not new, but this is different. Centuries of oppression have reached a breaking point, lighting the fire beneath an invigorated movement.
As members of a group who celebrate their ancestors’ perseverance through systemic prejudice, and who champion the civil rights of Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland, Irish Americans should wholeheartedly support the protests and Black Lives Matter. The mission of BLM — ensuring equal treatment under the law and ending state-sponsored violence against a minority — is synonymous with the Irish Republican cause, which Irish-Americans have enthusiastically supported. But mere support isn’t enough. True allyship requires Irish America to remedy the biases of our own community.
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Patterns of Oppression
The striking parallels between America’s oppression of Black people and Britain’s oppression of Irish Catholics make Irish Republicans natural allies to Black Lives Matter.
At its core, BLM aims to correct the lasting effects of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation. Surely Irish Americans, whose ancestors fled the ethnic cleansing of the Great Hunger, understand the persisting consequences of past crimes. Ireland’s population still hasn’t recovered from the Hunger, which ended sixteen years before America abolished chattel slavery. We still resent the Black and Tans for committing mass murders and rapes in early 20th century Ireland, so we should be fighting over the pen to sign the petition to label the Ku Klux Klan a terrorist organization.
During The Troubles, Irish America was enraged by Britain’s cruelty in Northern Ireland. Internment (the imprisonment of anyone suspected of paramilitary activity without trial) was especially egregious. American mass incarceration, which disproportionately targets African-Americans, is cut from the same cloth. Just like internment, mandatory minimums, three-strike laws, and the fabrication of evidence are excuses for the state to deprive certain groups of their right to fair trials and due process.
Both Britain and the U.S. have a long history of allowing, enabling, and even committing violence against the oppressed group. In Belfast, the SAS’s shoot-on-sight policy turned the army into government death squads. And when it was discovered that Margaret Thatcher was in bed with Loyalist paramilitaries, (she asked the UVF to assassinate the Irish prime minister), Irish Americans were enraged. The anger was justified, and similar condemnation should be leveled at the American government, which has the blood of generations of African Americans on its hands.
In 1985, the Philadelphia police used a helicopter to drop a firebomb on a house of suspected Black militants, killing eleven and burning down the heavily populated black neighborhood. More recently, Louisville police officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor during a midnight no-knock raid. Their report claimed no one was injured. And were it not for a leaked cell phone video, the Glynn County Police Department would have successfully covered up the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery.
The parallels of oppression are horrifically comical. Between the massacres by government forces, the refusal to prosecute hate crimes, and the systemic voter suppression, one has to wonder if the Creator is lazily re-using the same storyline, merely swapping out “FBI” for “SAS” and “Belfast” for “Philadelphia”.
Past and present, the Irish diaspora has bombastically condemned injustice in Northern Ireland. Yet, identical injustices are being committed at home against our fellow Americans. That deserves equal attention, fervor, and action. And while it's important to take steps to counteract anti-black racism, we need to end the ways we perpetuate it.
A Legacy of Anti-Blackness
The history of anti-blackness in Irish America is no secret. In the 19th century, Irish immigrants and their descendants were on the penultimate rung on the social ladder, one step above African Americans. Happy to have someone under them, we fostered anti-Black racism. At the start of the 20th century, whiteness became the primary factor of societal acceptance, and the Irish “became white.” With this change in the social order, Irish America was another brick in the wall of white supremacy that imprisoned Black Americans — a wall that still stands today.
The Irish American diaspora is what sociologists call a “late ethnicity.” Generations departed from Ireland, our ancestral identity is rooted more in the stories and culture passed down from generation to generation than it is in familial ties to the homeland. It’s naive to think the anti-Black racism was omitted from this cultural handoff, especially when its modern ramifications are so glaringly evident.
Despite being repeatedly debunked, the “Irish were slaves too” myth is still floated in right-wing circles. Claiming the Irish overcame the same obstacles faced by African Americans, this conspiracy theory tries to blame the social and economic damage of systemic racism on African Americans. Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who repeatedly touts his Irish heritage, spent his tenure facilitating President Trump's racism and xenophobia. When the President supported Neo-Nazis, Ryan called it "morally ambiguous."
Yet anti-Black racism is far from exclusive to conservatives. Located in the progressive bastion of Massachusetts, Boston — America’s beachhead of Irish descendants — is notoriously racist. During the 70s and 80s, white Bostonians rioted to prevent the integration of public schools. In the iconic Irish neighborhood of South Boston, racist mobs threw stones and bricks at buses of African American children.
Today, Boston’s racism may be more discreet, but it still festers. Racial slurs are casually tossed around bars that proudly display the Proclamation of Ireland, a document championing the rights of oppressed people. The South Boston Saint Patrick’s Day Parade is a festival of cognitive dissonance: signs and banners promoting Ireland’s unification and civil rights movement are juxtaposed with Confederate flags and t-shirts mocking Colin Kaepernick. Fenway Park, which far exceeds the cultural relevancy of any of Boston’s historical sites, is dreaded by African American baseball players who are subjected to racial slurs from the crowds. And while African Americans make up 22% of Boston’s population, they account for over 70% of those stopped by the Boston Police Department. No wonder African Americans consider Boston the “least welcoming” city in America.
It’s uncomfortable to admit, but a culture of anti-Black racism persists, and direly needs to be corrected.
In the Catholic neighborhoods of Belfast, murals and placards supporting the rights of Palestinians, Catalonians, African Americans, and other marginalized groups are side-by-side with celebrations of Patrick Pearse and Bobby Sands. Evidenced by their idolatry, it is clear the Catholics of Northern Ireland do not see their struggle as an individual cause, but rather as part of a global campaign for equal rights and human dignity. But Irish Americans have missed this full picture.
Squinting across an ocean and back a century, we, the Irish American Diaspora, have developed cultural tunnel vision. Fixated on Ireland’s struggle, we’ve overlooked the same injustices against African Americans at home. We should correct this oversight by bringing the same fervor of Irish Republicanism to the Black Lives Matter movement. The fight for equality is just as important in Boston as it is in Belfast.
There’s a lot of strong revolutionary rhetoric and bravado from Irish America. Now it’s time to prove it. Protest, vote, donate, but don’t forget to reflect.