Few Americans now remember or are taught that in 1845, the year of first publication of his celebrated autobiography, Frederick Douglass made a five-week lecture tour of Ireland. He gave a series of fiery anti-slavery lectures in Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Belfast, sometimes drawing parallels between Irish and American slave experiences and more often distinguishing between them as forms of oppression. While he found American slavery worse in that in his view it deprived people of all of their rights rather than some of their rights and property, he drew no such distinction between comparative misery of what he had seen in the American South and what he saw in early-famine Ireland. His letter back home to the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison published in The Liberator reported:
During my stay in Dublin, I took occasion to visit the huts of the poor in its vicinityand of all places to witness human misery, ignorance, degradation, filth and wretchedness, an Irish hut is pre-eminent.... I see much here to remind me of my former condition.... He who really and truly feels for the American slave cannot steel his heart to the woes of others.
Douglass's status as an emancipated slave adds authority to his account, which must have struck his 19th century readers with exceptional force. But the comparisons did not all flow one way. No less a figure than Daniel O'Connell may stand for reciprocal interest on the Irish nationalist side. Converted to the antislavery cause by the English abolitionist James Cropper, O'Connell noted that the Catholic Emancipation bill had passed with strong support from antislavery MPs, and he reciprocated by marshaling Irish votes for the 1833 Emancipation Act that began abolition of slavery in the British West Indies. O'Connell never slackened in the sentiments he ringingly announced in his "Speech Delivered at the Great Anti-Colonization Meeting in London, 1833," where he intoned: "I would adopt the language of the poet, but reverse the imagery, and say 'In the deepest hell, there is a depth still more profound,' and that is to be found in the conduct of the American slave-owners. They are the basest of the basethe most execrable of the execrable." For both liberators, the cause of humanity was indeed one.
Other 19th century commentators also compared conditions of the Irish and enslaved African-Americans. A French traveler to both America and Ireland reported that "I have seen the Indian in his forests and the Negro in his chains, and thought, as I contemplated their pitiable condition, that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did not then know the condition of unfortunate Ireland." Indeed, slaves in the United States had longer life expectancy (36 years) than Irish peasants (19 years), and better diets and superior living conditions. There is no need, however, to set up a competition in relative rates of such horrendous suffering, and the aspects in which Blacks were better treated presumably derive from their involuntary status as valuable property rather than from any supposed humanitarianism of their owners. The point is rather the extraordinary oppression of both groups. Irish immigrants to America were referred to as "White Niggers."
Both groups were targets of racist stereotypes that usually drew on a debased Darwinism in which both Blacks and Irish were somehow nearer to apes than were Anglo-Saxon types. An illustration from the influential American magazine Harper's Weekly (whose subtitle "Journal of Civilization" sounds ironic a century later) shows an alleged similarity between "Irish Iberian" and "Negro" features in contrast to the higher "Anglo-Teutonic." The accompanying caption indicates that the so-called Iberians were "believed to have been" an African race that invaded first Spain and then, apparently, Ireland, where they intermarried with native savages and "thus made way...for superior races" (like the English) to rule over them.
After the Civil War, prejudice was worse against Blacks in the South and against Irish in the North. No less an authority on discrimination than W.E.B. DuBois recalled that in growing up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the 1870s, "the racial angle was more clearly defined against the Irish than against me."
Reactions against stereotyped constructions helped to drive first the Irish and then the Harlem Renaissances. Both the one created in the Ireland of the late 19th and early 20th century by W.B. Yeats, John Synge, Lady Gregory and others, and the slightly later one created in the Harlem of the 1920s and 1930s by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and their cohorts, in some ways shared similar goals.
Writers of the Harlem Renaissance invoked their Irish forerunners as models publicly and explicitly. For example, in his landmark anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), the poet and critic James Weldon Johnson interrupted a discussion of the problems of dialect literature to proclaim:
What the colored poet in the United States needs to do is something like what Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without, such as mere mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation.
The link between Irish and African-American liberation appeared in more purely political contexts as well. The Black nationalist Marcus Garvey regularly cited the Irish national struggle as a paradigm for liberation movements, emphasizing particularly its 700-year duration, its blood sacrifice and its devotion to freedom. He even named his headquarters in New York Liberty Hall in direct emulation of James Connolly's headquarters at Liberty Hall in Dublin, and he justified the inclusion of green along with black and red in the familiar international African flag of the Universal Negro Improvement Association because green symbolized the Irish struggle for freedom.
Interested in solving racial problems more through class than national solidarity, the poet Claude McKay told of attending a Sinn Fein demonstration in Trafalgar square during which he was greeted as "Black Murphy" and "Black Irish." "For that day at least I was filled with the spirit of Irish nationalismalthough I am Black!" he wrote. "I suffer with the Irish. I thin I understand the Irish. My belonging to a subject race entitles me to some understanding of them."
Indeed, a literal look at their ancestry might indicate another reason why Black American leaders might feel sympathy for Irish troubles. Ishmael Reed has pointed out that if Alex Haley had set off the "roots" craze by tracing his ancestry back through his father's side rather than his mother's, he would have ended up in Ireland rather than in Gambia. And the historian Clayborne Carson has discovered that one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s grandfathers was probably half-Irish.
When I lectured on this subject at Harvard some months ago, an African-American fellow came up to me afterwards and said he'd grown up in Georgia singing songs about "Kevin Barry" and "Kelley, the Boy From Killarney." It was not until he went to college that he learned to his surprise that they were not about Black civil rights martyrs, as he had assumed, but Irish nationalist martyrs. Appropriately enough, songs of the civil rights movement in America of the 1960s became anthems of the movement for Catholic Civil Rights in Northern Ireland of the 1970s onward, whose Irish adherents particularly favored "We Shall Overcome." The very terms "Black" and "White" apparently display a simplistic binary opposition badly in need of questioning.
All of this suggests that in art and society the purity and separatism of ethnic identity is a fabrication. It is easy to compile a list of great African-American writers of the past century who have movingly described cultural interactions. Paul Robeson in his autobiography identifies the key influence on his education as his father's taking him through Homer and Virgil in the original Greek and Latin. Zora Neale Hurston recounts in Dust Tracks on a Road her desire to be an English teacher to impart to others her fervor for English Romantic poets, especially Coleridge. Ralph Ellison in his essay "Hidden Name and Complex Fate" identified T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" as a poem that "seized my mind" and prompted "my conscious education in literature."
And yet to stop with such attestations might provide too easy a picture of the real stress involved in multicultural creation and response. Perhaps nearer to the mark are two avowals, each well known in its own tradition but whose congruence with the other tradition I emphasize here. The first is W.E.B. DuBois's famous passage on "double consciousness" that opens Souls of Black Folk:
One ever feels his two-ness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife. In this merging he wishes to be both a Negro and an American to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture.
Correspondingly, W.B. Yeats described his own double consciousness of both Irish and English elements this way in his late essay "A General Introduction for my Work":
The "Irishry" have preserved their ancient "deposit" through wars which, during the 16th and 17th centuries, became wars of extermination. No people, Lecky said at the opening of his Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, have undergone greater persecution, nor did that persecution altogether cease up to our own day. No people hate as we do in whom that past is always alive, there are moments when hatred poisons my life. Then I remind myself that though mine is the first English marriage I know of in the direct line, all my family names are English, and that I owe my soul to Shakespeare, to Spenser and to Blake, perhaps also to William Morris, and to the English language in which I think, speak and write, that everything I love has come to me through English; my hatred tortures me with love, my love with hate.
Far from unusual, such avowals of multiple allegiance seem the normal condition of writers, and of ourselves. We write as and are members of various groups--whether defined by "race," ethnicity, class, gender, family, religion, or nationality--and yet of a broader community as well. In that sense, DuBois's noble aspiration is our own: "to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture."
George Bornstein is the C.A. Patrides Professor of Literature. This article was adapted from his essay "Afro-Celtic Connections: From Frederick Douglass to The Commitments," published in Literary Influence and African-American Writers, edited by Tracy Mishkin '93 PhD, Garland Publishing, New York, 1996.