Sketching the development of racism in Ireland

Peter Berresford Ellis reviews Encounters: How Racism Came to Ireland by Bill Rolston and Michael Shannon, Beyond the Pale, £6.99 pbk

FOR SOMEONE who first arrived in London in 1964 to be greeted by signs ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’, I have also experienced a sense of outrage when I have encountered racism emanating from Irish people. If anyone ought to know the evils of racism it should surely be the people of Ireland.

Yet one of the things I have learnt from history is that people never learn from history. Once the person at the bottom of the ladder is allowed to ascend to the next rung they look round at the people on the lower rung to ensure their newly won position is not dislodged.

Who, in 1945, would have thought that, if there a state of Israel came into being, the Israelis would behave to the Palestinians as they have done? The Nazis declared themselves as ‘the chosen’, the master race. Is there really a difference to Zionist claims that the Israelis are ‘the chosen’, allowing them seize the possessions of their neighbours because God gave them that right several millennia ago?

Do we never learn by our colonial experiences and sufferings?

The racist attacks on ethnic groups in Ireland have brought the subject of racism into public debate. It is not as simple as Ireland becoming ‘full’ of ‘asylum seekers’. The authors present an historical perspective and an excellent analysis.

Of course, there are several elements that I would have preferred to see developed. That is my personal preference.

There is no mention of Dubliner Tom Southern’s play Oronoka, which started the first literary campaign against the slave trade. Nor, the joint Irish and Africa slave uprising in Barbados in November, 1654. Or, an analysis behind the thinking behind Afro-Americans joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood in their invasion of British North America in 1866.

Was it as simple as their spokesman said: ‘The Irish have helped liberate us from slavery, we must help the Irish liberate their country.’

How did IRB men like John Mitchell respond to their inclusion? Mitchell had proclaimed for the Confederacy and given his sons’ lives in the struggle. Remember what he wrote in 1857: “I consider Negro slavery here the best state of existence for the Negro and the best for his master”

We are curious folk, indeed. For how can we rationalise Mitchell’s attitude, a progressive, democratic-republican thinker fighting for Irish independence, at the same time, fighting for the enslavement of other sections of the human race?

It’s probably as bizarre as the thinking which goes on in some parts of the Israeli society today when the Semite Arabs, first cousins to the Semites who are Jewish in religion, are denounced as ‘anti-Semitic’ -- obviously there are no sources in cultural linguistic studies available to Zionists.

The main criticism that I have about this book is that at 108pp, including notes, bibliography and index, it becomes merely a brief introduction to the subject. But an introduction to the subject is better than no introduction at all and this provoking publication will, hopefully, lead the way into more detailed studies.

We need more studies like this one and more analyses of the contradictions in our attitudes.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-02 15:18:16.
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