But it’s not true
It has shown up on Irish trivia Facebook pages, in Scientific American magazine, and on white nationalist message boards: the little-known story of the Irish slaves who built America, who are sometimes said to have outnumbered and been treated worse than slaves from Africa.
But it’s not true.
Historians say the idea of Irish slaves is based on a misreading of history and that the distortion is often politically motivated. Far-right memes have taken off online and are used as racist barbs against African-Americans. “The Irish were slaves, too,” the memes often say. “We got over it, so why can’t you?”
Got over it? Oh really? So there’s no such thing as Irish nationalism, and no sense of grievance to go with it? Ha.
A small group of Irish and American scholars has spent years pushing back on the false history. Last year, 82 Irish scholars and writers signed an open letter denouncing the Irish slave myth and asking publications to stop mentioning it. Some complied, removing or revising articles that referenced the false claims, but the letter’s impact was limited.
The myth is based in confusion about the indenture system, which was plenty bad enough but still wasn’t comparable to slavery.
“I’m not saying it was pleasant or anything — it was the opposite — but it was a completely different category from slavery,” said Liam Hogan, a research librarian in Ireland who has spearheaded the debunking effort. “It was a transitory state.”
The legal differences between indentured servitude and chattel slavery were profound, according to Matthew Reilly, an archaeologist who studies Barbados. Unlike slaves, servants were considered legally human. Their servitude was based on a contract that limited their service to a finite period of time, usually about seven years, in exchange for passage to the colonies. They did not pass their unfree status on to descendants.
Indenture was a contract; slavery was not.
The memes sometimes pop up in apolitical settings, like history trivia websites, but their recent spread has mirrored escalating racial and political tension in the United States, Mr. Hogan said. Central to the memes is the notion that historians and the media are covering up the truth. He said he has received death threats from Americans for his work.
“These memes are the No. 1 derailment people use when they talk about the slave trade,” he said. “Look in any race-related or slavery-related news story from the last two years and someone will mention it in the comments.”
Ugh. God I get sick of trolls.
They often hijack specific atrocities committed against black slaves and substitute Irish people for the actual victims. A favorite event to use is the 1781 Zong massacre, in which over 130 African slaves were thrown to their deaths off a slave ship.
InfoWars, the far-right conspiracy site favored by President Trump, is one site that has falsely claimed Irish people were the victims of the Zong massacre, whose death toll it inflated by adding a zero to the end.
Also, the Zongs helped Obama tapp Trump’s phone. They’re bad (or sick) hombres.
The white slavery narrative has long been a staple of the far right, but it became specifically Irish after the 2000 publication of “To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland,” a book by the late journalist Sean O’Callaghan, which Mr. Hogan and others have said was shoddily researched. It received positive reviews in Ireland, however, and was widely read there.
In America, the book connected the white slave narrative to an influential ethnic group of over 34 million people, many of whom had been raised on stories of Irish rebellion against Britain and tales of anti-Irish bias in America at the turn of the 20th century. From there, it took off.
As bullshit so often does.