Posted: 2020-07-01

Ireland has a mixed record, with both supporters and opponents prominent in modern history



WHITE Slavery was widespread in early Ireland, even before the Vikings arrived. There was a thriving slave market in Dublin, where the Irish kings traded in slaves, who were often prisoners of war or victims of a debt bondage. Male slaves did farm work, while the females carried out domestic duties. The practice stepped up when the Vikings arrived, and in the 11th century Dublin became the biggest slave market in western Europe. The Normans largely killed it off by replacing slavery with feudalism. The 1171 Council of Armagh freed all Englishmen and women kept as slaves in Ireland.


During a debate on slavery in the British House of Commons in 1831, two years before it was abolished in the British Empire, Daniel O’Connell reminded his fellow MPs that Ireland “has its glory, that no slave ship was ever launched from any of its numerous ports”. But this was only half true. It is recorded, for example, that two Dublin-based ships, the Sylva and the Sophia, were slaving in the Gambia in May 1716. The Africans being transported to Jamaica on the Sophia revolted, killing all of the crew except the captain. In July 1718 a Limerick ship, the Prosperity, transported 96 slaves from Africa to Barbados. In 1784 Limerick became the first Irish port to try to promote a slave trade company.


Irish merchants were also involved in providing goods for the West Indian sugar plantations, which proved to be one of the chief factors in the development of some of Ireland’s major ports. Beef, pork, fish, butter, shoes and linen were all exported, while imports included sugar, tobacco and rum. In effect, Irish merchants came to be almost as dependent on slavery as their colleagues in England.


There was of course no black slavery in Ireland, but some Irish people were involved in the Atlantic slave trade in African slaves from the late 17th century when the Royal Africa Company (RAC) was established to supply slaves to the British West Indies. Among its most successful employees was William Ronan, a Catholic Irishman who effectively ran Cape Castle, one of the world’s biggest slave trading ports in modern day Ghana. In the mid-8th century the Frekes, an offshoot of a County Cork landowning family, could be found among Bristol’s leading slave merchants.  


In 1780s Liverpool there were several slave merchants with Irish names, most prominently David Tuohy who had arrived as a young man from Tralee. From the 1750s onwards he and his brother-in-law, Philip Nagle, captained ships to Africa. By 1771 Tuohy was able to write to a friend in Cork that he had “been in the African trade for many years in which I have made a pretty fortune”. He declared that he was now inclined “to go no more to Africa but follow the business of a merchant in Liverpool”. Another ship’s captain was Clement Noble of Ardmore, who commanded the famous Brookes slave ship during the American Revolution.


In Ulster, Belfast’s trade with the West Indies in the 18th century was more important than its trade with continental Europe. A prominent slave owner was Waddell Cunningham, the founding president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce. He owned a slave plantation in Dominica, and unsuccessfully tried to set up a slave trading company in Belfast in 1786. He was also a trustee of the Second Presbyterian Congregation. 


Yet there was another side to Presbyterianism which condemned slavery and the slave trade. Cunningham met with opposition from Martha McTier and Mary Ann McCracken, two Presbyterian women, who formed the Belfast Women’s Anti-slavery League. At the Presbyterian General Synod in 1792, a motion was passed which called on all church members to support those activists who would ‘rescue from a state of slavery and wretchedness, an oppressed race of our fellow creatures.’ 


Slavery and the slave trade were denounced by the likes of William Drennan and Samuel Neilson, both sons of Presbyterian ministers, and another Presbyterian, Henry Joy McCracken, as well as the Anglican Thomas Russell  – all of whom were founding members of the Belfast Society of United Irishmen.


Unfortunately, this liberal Protestantism did not last. Move on to the mid-19th century and we find that in 1859 the 89-year-old Mary Ann McCracken writes that “I am both ashamed and sorry to think that Belfast has so far degenerated in regard to the Anti-Slavery Cause”. In the 1860s a Presbyterian nationalist like John Mitchel, who supported the confederates in the American Civil War, was a fierce defender of slavery and a racist who described Black people as ‘innately inferior’.


After slavery was banned in the British Empire in 1833, no fewer than 107 people living in Ireland were compensated at the time for the supposed losses they incurred. They included Several Irish clergymen,  one of whom was Rev Richard Wynne of Drumcliffe, Co Sligo, who claimed for the ownership of 30 slaves in the Virgin Islands. 


It is clear that racism and support for slavery has deep roots in Irish history and culture. And many of its strongest advocates were prominent Christians.   


Brian McClinton, 1st July 2020