October 26, 2003

Those other Irish-Americans

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He was a mixed-race rasta from Colombia, and he was my partner washing dishes in a lower East Side restaurant on my first (fairly unsuccessful) illegal tour of duty in NYC.

You learn a lot washing dishes. When you’re at the bottom of the pile, you experience the petty nastiness of managerial power at its best.

Luckily, Pedro kept most of the kitchen stoned for most of the time, so managerial strops about dishstacking techniques became part of the background comedy and perks of the job at 120 degrees in the bowels of a NewYork kitchen in August.

To my right was a Mexican fellow who never spoke, but played football at break in the manner of Maradona, so we just called him Diego. To his right were the chefs, Fitz, Fitz and Murph,who were all black as the ace.

Together with me, we were the four Irish in the kitchen. Fitzgibbon, Fitzgerald and Murphy were proud to be `black Irish’. (The fact that I was the only white man in the kitchen – and an English-speaking one to boot – speaks volumes about my waiting skills.)

The story of the black Irish is a fascinating and disputed one. There are as many as five million blacks in the US with Irish surnames. From the poet Toni Morrison, to the Harvard academic Randall Kennedy, we all know about Cassius Clay’s white Irish grandmother and the countless other Fitzes, Murphs and Kellys.

Conventional white Irish-American lore suggests that the black Irish are all descended from freed slaves who took their white masters’ names. If the masters were Irish, then they ended up with Irish names.

This theory went unchallenged for many years, and it suited the white Irish-American narrative that doesn’t deal well with intermarrying with blacks. In recent years, other interpretations, based on urban American population records from the 1830s to 1860s, indicate something much more complex which has huge relevance to our understanding of our past and also the future.

The alternative theory suggests that a significant minority of Irish-speaking women who arrived in New York in the 1840s ended up on the game.

Figures from the New York police force reveal that the vast majority of prostitutes cautioned by the forerunner of the NYPD were ethnically described as Gaelic Irish. In the late 1850s, there was what the records call an `alarming rise’ in the number of mulattos in the Lower East Side.

Who were these kids? The alternative theory of the black Irish contends that these were the bastard offspring of white Irish whores and their black clients.

Records for intermarriage also indicate a surprising (when compared with subsequent experience) number of Irish women hitched up with black men. Could these white Irish women from New Ross and Macroom, from Kilkee and Ballina, be the greatgreat-grandmothers of the black Irish? Economics and lessons from economic history suggest that this may well be the case.

In every society, the social pecking order is a function of how much a person can earn.This is related to the skill level of the person and the relative scarcity of these skills. So, for example, a good carpenter can earn more in the building boom than a good doctor.

The freed blacks in the US were typically well-skilled tradesmen like coopers, carpenters and blacksmiths, because prior to their freedom, enlightened masters invested in their education and trade.They were therefore able to survive and thrive.

So by the 1840s, the freed slaves of the northern union states would have constituted a solid artisan class.Then the Irish arrived, at a rate of 1,000 a day, with no skills, many without the language and nothing to sell.

Being white wasn’t going to give you an advantage over a skilled black craftsman. Fairly rapidly, it became evident that one thing the Irish could sell was themselves – and for Irish women, that meant their bodies.

Because the black man was a better financial bet than the Irish indigent, many Irish women chose to marry the man with better prospects – the man who could provide for the kids and keep a roof over their heads.

This explains the rise in mulattos, and also seems a more plausible explanation for the existence of the black Irish than the master’s name from the freed slaves in the South, particularly since the southern plantations were largely Paddy-free zones.

The Wasp owners of plantations in the south were not renowned for employing Irish Catholics at any level, let alone as foremen.In fact,the southern expression `hillbilly’ comes from northern Irish Protestants who lived in the southern states and marched around the hills of Appalachia every 12th of July with effigies of King Billy.

Fást forward to today. The major lessons from the Irish `whores of New York’ is that mass global immigration from the third world to Europe and Ireland over the coming years will lead to a significant development in the sex industry, because precisely the same process will occur.

This year, 95 million children will be born in the world; 91 per cent of them will be born in the developing world, and they will want to emigrate. This movement of populations will lead to a dramatic shift in the relative price of labour.

We – the educated, skilled whites – will see our average wage per hour rise, while they – the under-educated, largely black and Asian immigrants – will experience the opposite.

When these young women arrive here, they will sell what they can. The sex industry will explode in Ireland. There will be a boom in every aspect of it, from pornography produced here to lap-dancing clubs to prostitution. And it will be based on cheapness. The women of the third world will end up as hookers, strippers and dancers all over Ireland.

The Irish appetite for the sex industry has been clearly evidenced by the relentless march of the lap-dancing club. All around the country, local GAA clubs are no longer celebrating victory in the local pub but in the local lap-dancing outfit, where Ukrainian girls get their kit off. Needless to say, the internet provides any number of platforms for this carry-on.

However, the major point is not the demand, but rather the supply of women. One of the laws of economics is that supply creates its own demand, and this will apply to the sex industry as much as it does to the mobile phone game. Before the supply of mobiles at a cheap price in 1990,there was no demand or yearning for them. The supply of cheap bodies to the sex industry will have the same effect.

Every time I pass a lost-looking immigrant girl at a bus stop, I thinkof the great-great-grannies of my black Irish mates from the kitchen – all those Marys, Kathleens and Noras who left this place with no ideawhat was about to happen to them.

By 2020, the sex industry will be thriving here, with all its attendant problems, and Dev’s time-honoured vista will have mutated into one of `lap-dancing at the crossroads’.  


  1. Donal Cassidy

    A Chara:

    Precisely! Integration and intermarriage were common in
    NYC’s old lower wards from the 18th century. Especially in
    19th! You are precisely correct to say many Irish speaking
    women immigrants wound up marrying African Americans. My
    family is from the Five Points and me great-uncle married
    and Afro-Amer. woman in 1910.

    Keep up good “woik.”

  2. big sean

    skightly more than a little irony that the Irish were
    referred to by cromwell and the rest of the english
    establishment as “white niggers” and the “blacks of europe”
    i have no shame being associated with such a proud race as
    the negro race

  3. Mairead

    This article doesn’t make sense – if the root of Irish
    intermingling with African-Americans stemmed from the need
    for poor Irish women to marry skilled Black men then
    surely these women’s Irish names would have disappeared on
    marriage and not been handed down to their children? The
    Fitzes and Murphys wouldn’t have inherited their mothers’
    names on marriage. The strand of thought looking at Irish
    prostitutes having mulatto children by black clients does
    make sense in terms of naming as such children would have
    been illegitimate and inherited their mothers’ names but
    it still doesn’t add up in terms of race as these mixed
    race children would not necessarily have continued to
    marry Blacks and identify themselves with that community
    and so their racial mix would have continued to change
    over the years. More likely, it was the case that Irish
    people and Black people occupied a similar rung on the
    hierarchy of cities like New York in the aftermath of the
    Famine and so a good deal of inter-marrying went on across
    the races. You can’t put that down to the activities of
    female Irish prostitutes and gold-diggers alone! I
    wouldn’t rule out the Irish plantation-owner theory
    completely either: there were some Irish plantation
    owners, particularly in the 1700s when Ireland was much
    wealthier than in 1845. It’s down to a mix of factors,
    like most issues in economic history, I would say. Could
    the same be true of the Scottish version of the myth that
    Blacks have Scottish names because of the provenance of
    slave-owners?

    Mairead.

  4. Kieran

    This article is nonsense.Black irish means one who is of irish decent but has dark hair and brown eyes.It does not mean black skin and mass inbreeding with negros.

  5. David Kennedy

    I am an African-American from New York and my ancestors are Cherokees, Africans, Irish, and Scottish, like many other African-Americans.

    As far as I know, the Black Irish were white Irishmen with dark features like dark eyes and hair – but not mixed with African blood.

    The Scotch-Irish were quite prevalent in the Southern US, and some were slaveowners. Some slaveowners had affairs with female slaves and many Black children with Irish names and Irish ancestry came from there. Some of my ancestors are from unions like that.

    A woman emigrated from Scotland and married a skilled ex-slave. He – like many slaves – had no last name, so the children took the name of the mother. Others of my ancestors came from that union. Not all the slaves chose their master’s names; some made up their own names.

    Maybe there were some Black children of Irish sex workers in New York, but the vast, overwhelming majority of Black Americans (including myself) trace their ancestry from the Southern part of the US, and not from New York.

  6. Jason bewick

    Very interesting article. However the original term “Black Irish” was a term used to describe Irish people that had dark features. It was based on the belief that long ago a group of Italian sailors got lost and ended up in Ireland. They then settled in Ireland and mixed in with the population. Hence the dark hair, eyes, and skin. The term later became reused to describe black people with Irish /Scottish ancestry.
    Contrary to popular belief very few slave owners were Irish (more usually overseers). In fact many Irish immigrants were brought over as indentured slaves. Since many Irish and Africans in America were in a similar social economic class there was mixing mainly in the free states and big cities like New York, but it did also occur in the south as well. There is a strong chance when you meet a black person with an Irish last name that they do have some Irish ancestry and not just a slave name.
    I myself became interested in my ancestry because I am black with strong African features (chocolate skin, small curly hair), However unlike my siblings I have Red Hair. I found out that my grand mother had red hair and my Great Grandmother married an Irish man. My family is from an island in the south Caribbean called Trinidad. Trinidad is one of the most ethnically diverse places on earth, and during a certain time period marriages between people of African decent and Irish /Scottish decent were frequent. The same was occurring in the states. I recent meet with some of my distant cousins in Ireland and I was welcomed back as a lost child of Ireland. I think I might move to Ireland one day, I love it there. So the term “Black Irish” not necessarily correct in regards to black people with Irish ancestry but words are redefined all the time. So if the shoe fits wear it.

  7. weirdoactor

    Wow. A whole lot of responses above from people who apparently failed to RTFA.

    A “bastard” child born to a prostitute during that time period would have been given the mother’s surname. Those above who missed that point, and the humorous allusion to “black Irish” need to read and understand more, and comment less, in my humble.

    Great post, David.

  8. mac98105

    I am predominately Irish with a splash of black (1/16) from back in the day. Folks forget that Catholics were barred from owning property in most slave states. So, the notion that the Irish were owning slaves (they were not even emancipated in their own homeland until 1830s) was always incredulous to me.

    Scotch Irish, as we call them here, or Orange Irish or just “British” as they refer to them there, are racially British and have various British surnames (predominately Welsh and Scottish). They did own slaves and many of the “Mc” African american surnames, such as McLemore, come from that route – but not all.

    Prior to the late 1600′s the majority of new world slaves in the British Empire from Jamaica to Mass. were Irish. Britain did not have direct access to the slave coasts of African until the Dutch wars when they seized the Dutch colonies in North America and Africa. This is why the Jamaican accent (“th” sound as a hard “t” sound) is so similar to irish. However, the Irish did not work well in the heat despite all the beatings their masters could give – literally to death without any improvement in many instances.

    The Irish did not become “white” until the 20th century here. Of course we were intermarrying/interbreeding with other non-whites.

  9. tangleoak

    David clearly is not speaking here of the traditional “Black Irish”, those with dark hair and dark brown eyes that prompted this label in the nineteenth century.

    With the advancement of modern DNA testing we are now able to conclusively answer many of these questions that we have had since the founding of our great republic. It turns out that David’s instincts were right on when he wrote this article over eight years ago.

    See the below attached excerpts from a very recent Huffington Post Article titled, “Melungeon DNA Study Reveals Ancestry, Upsets ‘A Whole Lot Of People’”
    By TRAVIS LOLLER 05/24/12 05:15 PM ET AP

    “NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For years, varied and sometimes wild claims have been made about the origins of a group of dark-skinned Appalachian residents once known derisively as the Melungeons. Some speculated they were descended from Portuguese explorers, or perhaps from Turkish slaves or Gypsies.

    Now a new DNA study in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy attempts to separate truth from oral tradition and wishful thinking. The study found the truth to be somewhat less exotic: Genetic evidence shows that the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin.

    And that report, which was published in April in the peer-reviewed journal, doesn’t sit comfortably with some people who claim Melungeon ancestry.

    “There were a whole lot of people upset by this study,” lead researcher Roberta Estes said. “They just knew they were Portuguese, or Native American.”

    “Beginning in the early 1800′s, or possibly before, the term Melungeon (meh-LUN’-jun) was applied as a slur to a group of about 40 families along the Tennessee-Virginia border. But it has since become a catch-all phrase for a number of groups of mysterious mixed-race ancestry.”

    “In recent decades, interest in the origin of the Melungeons has risen dramatically with advances both in DNA research and in the advent of Internet resources that allow individuals to trace their ancestry without digging through dusty archives.”

    “G. Reginald Daniel, a sociologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara who’s spent more than 30 years examining multiracial people in the U.S. and wasn’t part of this research, said the study is more evidence that race-mixing in the U.S. isn’t a new phenomenon.”

    “All of us are multiracial,” he said. “It is recapturing a more authentic U.S. history.”

    “Estes and her fellow researchers theorize that the various Melungeon lines may have sprung from the unions of black and white indentured servants living in Virginia in the mid-1600′s, before slavery.”

    End of excerpts. To view this entire article go to:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/24/melungeon-dna-study-origin_n_1544489.html

    In conclusion, it’s no great mystery that the Africans and the Irish cohabitated,intermarried and bore children of mixed race. The Irish were thought to be no better than the Africans by those Anglo Saxons at the very top of the social economic ladder. Oliver Cromwell, first Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland referred to the Irish as the “white niggers” and the “blacks” of Europe of the mid 1600′s.

    In my own families experience, in mid 1900′s America we were still considered to be very undesirable clannish peoples that most Anglo Saxon, Protestant, Republican parents did not want their children to associate with, much less to marry into.

    My father was born into just such an English, Protestant, Republican large land owning family that it turns out still clung to Cromwell’s long held beliefs about the Irish. After he had the misfortune of falling in love with and marrying a young beautiful Irish girl he was completely cut out of any inheritance or financial assistance from his parents. His brother, who had the good common sense to stay close to the ranch and marry a nearby protestant girl had a completely different life. He was bankrolled for land that he wanted to purchase in the area and would a short time later be given the funds to purchase a business in a nearby community that he held for over sixty years. My first cousins lives were much different than ours and they still will not associate with us to this day. My uncle, who is now 97 years old finally sees the injustice of it all and says that “it just wasn’t fair.”

    So whether David and I talk about us ‘Black Irish’ with just the dark hair and dark eyes or the African Black Irish, we have all suffered the same, and some people still make no distinctions between us, we’re all the same in ‘their’ eyes.

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