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Were the Irish slaves or not? Sorry, but being half, or more, Irish myself I’m naturally  curious. I can’t find anything in school textbooks, and everything online is said to be a myth or the truth. I would not ask otherwise, but to me it is important. Please let me know. Thanks.

My best regards.


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Dear Jordan,

Slavery had been practiced in Ireland for centuries before a Welsh slave in the 5th century got away, spent some years in France and then returned to achieve a mass conversion among the Irish to become Saint Patrick. Brocca, another slave of the Irish, was the father of Saint Brigit. Dublin was a major slave market, especially after the Vikings came and renovated the town into an efficient port. It must be added, however, that slavery was a looser system in those days, and servitude, whether to Irishman, Roman, Norseman or Norman, did not necessarily mean servitude for life.

The trafficking of the Irish for cheap labor began in earnest when England began colonizing the New World, and at the same time increased their domination of Ireland. Rebels and criminals—and often their families—often found themselves being deported, especially to island plantations in the Caribbean and later to “Van Deman’s Land” (penal colonies in Australia). Most often, however, they were indentured servants, under four to seven year contracts to work the sugar cane, tobacco or cotton fields until their time ran out and they would be released from indenture. In practice, the masters sometimes extended the time of indenture; others, for whom the indentured servant was not the lifelong investment that a black or native American slave was, had no compunction about working the indentured servant to death in his last year.

For the Irish, the worst period of indentured servitude began with their rebellion against English rule in 1641, through the Cromwellian Commonwealth and on through the early 18th century, when there were mass deportations as a means of essentially moving the “Irish Problem” elsewhere. Nevertheless, the vast majority of indentured Irish, once their time was up, left the plantations (save for some 10 percent who had established their own), to try their luck anywhere else in the colonies—and often, in spite of centuries of anti-Irish prejudice, managing to establish new lives and livelihoods.

Still, a good many former indentured servants, released without any education, practical training, money or prospects—and a greatly reduced outlook regarding the value of human life in general—made their way to ports such as Kingston, Jamaica, and found their way into more profitable employment under certain enterprising sea captains such as Bartholomew Portugues, Francis Lolonois and Henry Morgan.

Although, as mentioned above, indentured service could be worse than slavery, it was at least more temporary than that practiced on African slaves, although a myth has arisen equating the two (see below).



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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