A debut book chronicles the enslavement and brutal treatment of the Irish by the British for nearly 200 years.
The story of African-American slavery is a familiar one, comprehensively covered by scholars. Comparatively neglected is the plight of the Irish, who were the chief source of slave labor for the British American colonies for more than 179 years. In this slim volume, Byrd traces the woeful treatment of the Irish at the hands of their British tormentors, beginning with an exploration of the origins of vitriolic sentiment in the 12th century, which lampooned the Irish as poor, vulgar, and lazy. The demand for labor in the British colonies, as well as the desire among many in England to reduce the Irish population in Europe, inspired the practice of forcibly sending Irish prisoners to places like Virginia to work. Eventually, Irish children were rounded up and transported as well. According to the author, in 1625, King James I delivered a proclamation that authorized selling Irish prisoners into slavery, and they were bought and traded like cattle and subjected to unspeakably inhumane treatment. The laws considered any child born to a slave also a slave, and owners purposely bred Irish and black slaves to increase their holdings. Eventually, both Irish and black slaves rebelled, and according to Byrd, their oppressors invented the notion of whiteness as a means to sow dissent among them. The author also discusses the evolution of white racism out of this strategy, the process by which the Irish became understood to be white, and the genealogical legacy left by planned miscegenation. Byrd’s study is clearly written and admirably concise. In addition, he evinces an impressive freedom from conventional historical accounts, boldly willing to soberly entertain counternarratives. But the brevity of the book necessitates that some of the arguments proffered are hypercondensed, and this can diminish their persuasiveness. Most scholars would argue that Byrd largely conflates the albeit brutal indentured servitude of the Irish with the chattel slavery experienced by Africans. The author’s study, while provocative, is simply not rigorous or expansive enough to inspire a rejection of the academic consensus view.
An intriguing, if unconvincing, examination of Irish servitude in America.