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The history of the mixed race Irish

By David Hennessy

A new exhibition from the Mix-d Museum and the Association of Mixed Race Irish tells the stories of mixed race Irish families in Britain from 1700- 2000. The idea of Conrad Bryan, a former trustee of Irish in Britain, the exhibition has been funded by the Irish government’s Emigrant Support Programme.

Passing references to people of colour can be found as early as 1578 when Sir William Drury of Kilkenny ordered a ‘blackamoor’ and two witches to be burned at the stake. Black servants and slaves have been mentioned from the seventeenth century.

Dr Chamion Caballero, Director and Co-founder of the Mix-d Museum, told The Irish World: “I didn’t expect the history. Because it’s so niche, I didn’t expect there to be so much but in many ways the history of racial mixing in Britain is so deeply connected to Irish women, it’s really very interesting.

“We’ve showcased these in a chronicle order to give people the sense of this sweeping history and that mixed race Irish families in Britain. When we started the project we ourselves thought that the majority of our material would really be confined to the 1950s and 1960s, the era of mass migration so it’s just been fascinating to find the deeper roots of these families going back centuries.

“The more we looked into it the more we realised that so much of the history of racial mixing in Britain that is between white women and men of colour often involved Irish women or women of Irish descent.

“As we started the research, we realised there was this fascinating history of mixed race Irish families in Britain going back for centuries. We found many of the Irish and the African and Indian and Caribbean migrants would settle in very similar areas, often poor communities. Living in similar neighbourhoods and doing similar work, that’s where a lot of that meeting started.

“What was really interesting for us was we thought most of the mixed race Irish families in Britain met in Britain but we also found there was evidence of people who met in Ireland first as mixed race couples and then came to Britain so there are fascinating stories like John and Mary Jae.”

Preacher John Jae met his wife in Limerick.

Born into slavery, John Jae would travel the world as a preacher. He arrived in Ireland in 1803 to preach his radical methodism. He drew hostility from Calvinists but the Mayor of Limerick protected him from death threats. During his time in Ireland he met his third wife Mary.

“John Jae was an enslaved African who was taken to America at the age of two and grew up there and then ended up going from being an illiterate to claiming that he could read the bible with God’s intervention and then made this name for himself touring the world preaching the bible. He ended up in Limerick, met his Irish wife and then ended up in time living in Portsmouth. He’s thought to have started the first black church in Britain.

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“No one knew what happened to him. They think Mary died and then he remarried but his story stopped but then, in the course of our research, we found where he died. He ended up going to St. Helier in Jersey to preach and he died there. We found a newspaper account of his funeral and people attending it. He was obviously a very charismatic man.

“In the exhibition we have highlighted these incredible families and some of them have one foot in Ireland and one foot in Britain.”

During the Victorian and early Edwardian period, people of colour were visible in the circus industry. Acrobat and equestrian Pablo Paddington, from a mixed race Irish family, was one of these and heralded as a ‘celebrated Corkonian’.

“My personal favourite entry is someone called Pablo Paddington who was a circus performer. Pablo was a native of Cork. What people often know about Pablo is this fascinating story where in the press in the 1820s somebody claimed that Pablo was actually a woman who had been performing in the circus in disguise as a man for years. He had gone on to have this string of affairs with women and apparently his disguise was so great that nobody knew Pablo was actually a woman.

“During the course of our research we think we have identified that Pablo was actually someone called Joseph Paddington who was from Cork but what was so fascinating for us was that Joseph seemed to have had a brother called George who was a priest and and believed to be the first black person to have graduated from a European university.

“He (George) ended up going to America becoming very friendly with the black Catholic philanthropists and then going to the West Indies. Apparently their parents were a white Irish man and a black Haitian woman who met when the dad, who was also called George Paddington, ended up in Haiti and then came back with his wife to Ireland and the children were born there and they had this global, interesting journey afterwards.

“We’ve really used them as an example. People often think that migration patterns and traversing countries and boundaries is a modern phenomenon but actually we’re finding so many of these stories of mixed-race Irish families this was happening in the 18th and 19th centuries too.

“It’s just been fascinating just looking at the global, cosmopolitan life that many of these families led and sometimes forced into having to leave through poverty but sometimes through choice and opportunity. The stories are all very different.”

In the 1880s, there are reports of Paddy Murphy and Andrew Tobias, two ‘Irish negroe’ whose brogues left you with no doubt he was coloured Irishmen.

“Another of my favourite accounts was the stories of Irish negroes in New York in the 1880s. They have appeared in newspaper accounts as these rarities. We found two of them and they’re talking about having been born to black fathers and Irish mothers back in Ireland.

“One of them, Paddy Murphy, was noted as being able to speak perfect Gaelic but when he would be talking to other Irish people in bars and restaurants he often almost got into fights because people thought he was winding them up and mocking their accents.

“The newspaper said he had a brogue that couldn’t be cut with a knife. The other ‘Irish negro’, Andrew Tobias, his grandfather was the servant of an Irish lord and he had been born in Ireland and essentially ended up in New York.

“There are more of these families that are hidden from view and over time we hope there will be more research to discover these stories.”

Racial mixing in Britain was not confined to black men and white women as a very small Chinese population started to mix with the Irish women.

“We found some interesting material on Irish women and Chinese men because at the beginning of the 20th century in Britain there became a real focus on mixing between white women and black men. A very very small Chinese population caused a great deal of consternation, (the worry was that they were) taking advantage of white women but when you look at the accounts of white women in those relationships, they’re saying they actually preferred having Chinese husbands because the Chinese men were so much nicer to them, so much kinder to them than white, including Irish, husbands.

“There’s a really fascinating short story called Chingie in the collection by Dorota Flatau. It was 1924 and she had the story about a little boy named Chingie who had a Chinese father and an Irish mother and navigating racism at school. He invokes this idea of the Chinese Boxers from the violent uprisings against the British.

“He invokes the idea of their martial arts to deal with the bullies in his East End school but there’s a cameo by his Irish mother in there but it’s done in a very matter of fact way. It’s not exaggerated. This is actually something quite normal, this Irish-Chinese family in the East End, and there are accounts in the newspaper of that kind of mixing which is really fascinating.

“I think it’s important to note that some of it is original research but a lot of it is just gathering a lot of information in one place. People have looked at a lot of these families/ situations independently but I think we’re the first to bring all these historical accounts together in one place.”

The short story the doctor mentions deals with racism. The various mixed-race Irish in history had various degrees of racism they had to deal with but it seems they were accepted with reports of racism and discrimination only becoming apparent around the Victorian era.

“It depends on the era, it depends on where they were and it depends on who they were so where people have a higher social status. People generally seemed to have a better time depending on the type of mixing that was occurring. If you were the son or daughter of a wealthy plantation owner- We found some evidence that plantation owners from the Caribbean who were Irish would then send their mixed race sons and daughters to Ireland for education. Obviously if you are there with money in your pocket and you have this higher social status, that will be very different from being an escaped slave or servant who was impoverished, then you would also be very much sharing the circumstances with white impoverished people.

“The racism seems to ebb and flow. The system was very institutionally racist but we found accounts where people of colour and mixed race families were very much embraced and seen as part of the general working classes by the working classes themselves.

“In the 17th and 18th centuries, there seems to be more acceptance and it’s really when racial attitudes started to harden that things start to change. By the 20th century there are so many more racist accounts in the family’s experiences but then again of course we’re trying to piece together from what we have and often you have more fragmented stats from the early history than you do from the later history. It’s a very complex story and it’s very hard to generalise.

“I think there’s a lot more for people to try and understand about what it was like for these families in Ireland. There did seem to be a lot less racism towards these people and these families than I would have expected to see recorded so I don’t know how accurate that is but it’s definitely something that I hope we and other scholars can explore further.”

To view the exhibition, click here.


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