Looking back: How my interest in Irish history and identity began

One of the questions I’m frequently asked is how did I become interested and aware of Northern Ireland’s Civil Rights struggle because few Americans are aware of this period of Irish history.

Initially, when I first began researching the relationship between African Americans and the Irish for my peace walk, I believed the trans-atlantic relationship dated back only to the 1960s Civil Rights era.

The connections between the Civil Rights movements in the U.S. South and Northern Ireland formed for me during my 400-mile, month-long, walk in 2018 from Selma, Alabama to Memphis, Tennessee as part of the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

There were the two Bloody Sunday incidents in recent memory. First in Selma in 1965, and seven years later in 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland. I now realize I may have learned about the two Bloody Sunday connections through U2’s 1983 hit “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” I recall seeing the band perform in 1987 in my hometown of Philadelphia.

As I tried to recall where else I learned about the Northern Ireland Civil Rights story, the best I’ve been able to remember is that I learned about it in fragments over a long period of time, similar to the way present day school children learn about African American’s contribution to our nations history.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I filed away these bits and pieces of stories over time about Ireland, St. Patrick, Monserrat, Irish identity, the Irish Famine, the Troubles, and the island’s amazing history.

More recently I’ve learned that the trans-atlantic relationship of African-Americans and Irish goes back to 1845 when Frederick Douglas arrived in Dublin to lecture on Slavery, Abolition, and Temperance. He gave over 50 speeches in a short four months on the Island and published an Irish edition of his book The Narrative of Frederick Douglas.

“At his final meeting in Belfast on January 6, Douglas was presented with a pocket Bible. He responded by saying, ‘I shall aways remember the people of Belfast, and the kind friends I now see around me, and where else I feel myself to a stranger, I will remember I have a home in Belfast.'”1

College Years

In college, in the early 1980s, I recall feeling outraged about the national debate surrounding the issue of making Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday and I penned a short opinion piece for my school’s newspaper about the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.  The idea I had then was to draw a comparison or inference between St. Patrick, a patron saint, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Black America’s patron saint.

With the help of a professor and a friend who both rejected the original piece, I re-wrote the article and it was then considered printable. It was only a few paragraphs long and happily it didn’t offend anyone. What it did for me at the time, however, was to help me interpret an experience I had just months earlier traveling to Washington, D.C. for my first big political rally as a young adult. Over 100,000 people attended the King Holiday rally led by Stevie Wonder, on January 15, 1981 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Below is a picture of the article I wrote as a second year college student. It was titled: Why I Don’t Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. I’m happy to say that since MLK’s birthday was made a U.S. holiday I’ve happily become less rebellious over time and I’ve started enjoying St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

The Black Irish of Montserrat

My next cross-cultural lesson about Ireland came years later when I read about the Black Irish of Montserrat, a small, mountainous, island part of the lesser Antilles chain.  Known as the Emerald of the Caribbean, it’s the story of how enslaved Africans and Irish lived and worked side by side in the Caribbean (including Barbados) adopting each other’s cultures. It was this story that I first began discovering the unique connections between Africans and Irish. It also made me more understanding of the historical plight of Irish Catholics against subjugation by colonial powers.

I found two wonderful videos online about the people of Montserrat. The first story was published by the Irish Times in April 2016, titled the Caribbean Irish: the other Emerald Isle.

The second story is a Radharc report from 1976 about the Black Irish of Montserrat. Irish people exiled and enslaved by Oliver Cromwell arrived on Montserrat in the mid 1600s where they worked side by side with enslaved Africans brought by British traders.

To learn more about the Irish in the Caribbean see my blog entitled “The Black Irish of the Caribbean.


Fredrick Douglas & Ireland: From Fugitive Slave to Civil Rights Champion by Christine Kinealy, PhD