Maurice Earls writes: Gaelic culture and society collapsed in Ireland from the late seventeenth century on following several centuries of attack and military defeat. Ancient mores, which had acted as a force for social cohesion and comprised a complex web of energies and values that gave meaning and form to life, faded away.
For the surviving population, integration with the victors was impossible due to the unavoidable political hostility consequent on expropriation, religious exclusion and what today would be termed racism. Thus the post-Gaelic population were left with little choice but to reinvent themselves culturally and politically if they were to have a recognisable social existence. By the end of the eighteenth century the process of reinvention was well under way. In time it became politically assertive and, in effect, a counterattack.
Politically, the ideas of the Enlightenment, particularly ideas of human universality and human rights, were passionately embraced. The great Emancipation and Repeal campaigns of the early nineteenth century were steeped in the moral value of equality. It is a political strain which persists in Irish society, although its origins in the O’Connell era are not widely recognised.
To illustrate the force of political attachment to the idea of absolute human equality, it is worth looking at what O’Connell and his supporters had to say about slavery. In 1843 the Repeal association was outraged to receive a letter advocating slavery from a group of Irish Repealers based in Cincinnati. At a meeting of the Repeal Association at the Corn Exchange on Burgh Quay in Dublin, O’Connell announced receipt of the letter:
It was doubtless in their remembrance that some weeks ago a remittance was received from the Irish Repealers of Cincinnatti, in the state of Ohio. This remittance was accompanied by a letter which was ordered to be inserted upon the minutes, and which contained an elaborate and very minutely written apology for negro slavery in the American states. He did not mean to contend that an offence was deliberately intended, but he really felt as if an offence had been virtually offered to the Repeal Association by sending such a composition to them; for the members of the Repeal Association of Ireland were the last men in the world to whom any man should presume to address a vindication of slavery. What did he care for the hue of any man’s skin? It mattered not what a man’s colour might be, or what his class, or what his creed, if he was a slave, he had in him (Mr. O’Connell) an advocate, and in the members of the Repeal Association men who could compassionate his misfortunes and sympathise his sufferings (hear). They wanted not any defence or extenuation for slavery, for they had nothing to do with the hateful, the execrable system, but to detest and denounce it.
A committee was appointed to respond. Their lengthy reply included the following:
Gentlemen – We have read with the deepest affliction, not unmixed with some surprise and much indignation, your detailed and anxious vindication of the most hideous crime that has ever stained humanity – the slavery of men of colour in the United States of America. We are lost in utter amazement at the perversion of mind and depravity of heart which your address evinces. How can the generous, the charitable, the humane, the noble emotions of the Irish heart have become extinct amongst you? How can your nature be so totally changed as that you should become the apologists and advocates of that execrable system which makes man the property of his fellow-man – destroys the foundation of all moral and social virtues – condemns to ignorance, immorality, and irreligion, millions of our fellow creatures – renders the slave hopeless of relief, and perpetuates oppression by law, and in the name of what you call a constitution? It was not in Ireland you learned this cruelty … Your advocacy of slavery is founded upon a gross error. You take for granted that man can be the property of his fellow-man – you speak in terms of indignation of those who would deprive white men of their “property,” and thereby render them less capable of supporting their families in affluence. You forget the other side of the picture – you have neither sorrow nor sympathy for the sufferings of those who are iniquitously compelled to labour for the affluence of others; those who work without wages, who toil without recompense – who spend their lives in procuring for others the splendour and wealth in which they do not participate. You totally forget the sufferings of the wretched black men who are deprived of their ALL without any compensation or redress … You carry your exaggerations to a ludicrous pitch, denoting your utter ignorance of the history of the human race … Slavery actually brutalises human beings. It is about sixty years ago, when one of the Sheiks not far south of Fez, in Morocco who was in the habit of accumulating white slaves, upon being strongly remonstrated with by an European power, gave for his reply, that by his own experience he found it quite manifest that white men were of an inferior race, and intended by nature for slaves; and he produced his own brutalised white slaves to illustrate the truth of his assertion. We repeat, therefore, that to judge properly of the negro you should see him educated, and treated with the respect due to a fellow-creature, uninsulted by the filthy aristocracy of the skin, and untarnished to the eye of the white by any associations connected with his state of slavery.
These strongly expressed sentiments reflected a political value system which pervaded the popular politics of the time. I have suggested that it gave rise to a strain in Irish political culture which persists to this day. But perhaps that is an overstatement. Perhaps it is weaker today. After all, by all accounts a significant number of people have been trafficked into this country to exist as slaves, and in many cases with the added degradation of undergoing abuse. Curiously, there is no substantial political campaign to address this phenomenon. There is no wave of outrage. The Repealers of the 1840s, who struggled with the aim that the country might be free to pass its own laws, would have been baffled and disgusted by the relative silence on the subject.
There is a myriad of ways in which this barbarity could be addressed. Our legislators could, for example, make it financially perilous for property owners to let premises without taking substantial precautions to ensure that these were not used to facilitate slavery. Surely this and a raft of other measures would not be beyond the legal and political capacities of a Republic which claims to value inclusivity and equality and whose citizens were once so offended by such egregious abuse of fellow humans.