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Irish Blue, By Míchealín Daugherty
"It take a man that have the blues to sing the blues." —Leadbelly
The Irish Penal Laws of the 18th Century were extremely oppressive. After the Treaty of Limerick (1691), the Irish Parliament, filled with Planter landowners and controlled from England, enacted a penal code that secured and enlarged the landlords' holdings and degraded and impoverished the Irish Natives.
These discriminatory and oppressive laws were specifically directed against Irish Roman Catholics (the majority of the native Celts had been 'converted' to Catholicism by this time, but not having undergone the Protestant Reformation seen on neighbouring Britain), and were in place for over a century.
Penal Laws reduced the Irish peasants to sub-human levels in the eyes of the British and their 'planted' Protestant landowners. Catholics could neither teach their children nor send them abroad; persons of property could not enter into mixed marriages; Catholic property was inherited equally among the sons unless one was a Protestant, in which case he received all (this contrasted with the ability of Protestant landowners to pass their estates on to a single heir — the net affect was that estates owned by Catholics became progressively smaller with each generation, until they became insufficient in size to be economically viable any longer); a Catholic could not inherit property if there was any Protestant heir; a Catholic could not possess arms or a horse worth more than £5; Catholics could not hold leases, and they could not make a profit greater than a third of their rent. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church was banished or suppressed, and Catholics could not hold seats in the Irish Parliament, hold public office, vote or practice law. Cases against Catholics were tried without juries, and bounties were given to informers against them.
Meanwhile, a shift from tobacco to cotton and then to sugar production in the 'British' West Indies in the early 1640's made the islands less attractive to indentured servants who crossed the ocean from America or Britain voluntarily. Sugar production required such strenuous labour, especially in comparison to the work of the tobacco planters of Virginia and Maryland, that men would not willingly undertake it. For these reasons, when Barbados servants became free, they frequently headed for Virginia or other 'mainland' colonies. And the sugar planters turned more to buying slaves partly because they could not buy servants unless they were 'shanghaied,' or 'barbadosed' as the word was at the time, or unless they were sent as prisoners, like the captured Scottish and Irish soldiers whom Oliver Cromwell shipped over.
But not all captured Irish were sent to the islands as servants or prisoners. During the terror of Oliver Cromwell, when more than two and a half million acres of 'choice land' was usurped and given to English Protestant settlers, evicted Irish peasants and landowners alike were often exiled to barren, infertile regions, such as parts of Connaught off the River Shannon. Children were often shipped as slaves to the West Indies. It is estimated that more than 100,000 boys and girls, between the ages of 14 and 16 (many of whom were orphaned because their parents were murdered under Penal Laws) were shipped as slaves to the West Indies. Over 30,000 Irish slaves were shipped to Barbados alone. In Black Folk Then and Now, W.E.B. Du Bois writes: "Young Irish peasants were [also] hunted down as men hunt down game, and were forcibly put aboard ship, and sold to plantations in Barbados."
Although many credit the Mississippi Delta area as the region where Blues music originated, others cite its origins as beginning much earlier in the West Indies, where the Irish and African slaves produced a unique, yet sorrowful, blend of Celtic and African music prior to the emergence of the Delta Blues of the early 1900s.
With both cultures subjected to the tyranny and degradation of slavery, it is only natural that their music would be a mutually soulful expression of extreme suffering and privation. Moreover, Irish Celtic folklore and African folklore were not written, but recited with lyrical inflections and often accompanied by music. This strong oral tradition of both cultures served well the slaves of the West Indies, because the Blues were a way to tell a story — and tell it out of the reach of censorship. Early Blues were indeed very irregular rhythmically and usually followed speech patterns; and this can be heard in recordings as late as the 1920s and 1930s.
Blues music would continue to grow following the harsh social environment of slavery, into the sharecropping era and levee building camps, on through the struggle for civil rights. In the early 1900s, the 'field holler' gave rise to the spiritual Delta Blues. This was a reflection of the profound despair and alienation that prevailed in the construction camps of the South, where recently freed slaves and exiled Irish immigrants were often forcibly conscripted to work on the levee and land-clearing crews, and oftentimes worked literally to death. Here the Troubles mixed with the Blues. These men were called 'barrow men' or 'hoppers.' One such famous Irish hopper was Bluesman Black Hat McCoy, who sang:
"There was Ed Slocum, a man without skill,
He had to leave Denver, for a cabbage he did steal.
The stealing of cabbage wouldn't keep him alive,
And he stared dead broke for Hell’s Creek Drive."
The Blues and The Troubles
The culture of those of African descent in America during this time was also markedly different from the constrained, essentially conservative traditions of those of European descent ; and thus the earthy sometimes lustful lyrics and rhythms in Blues music reflect a sensuality, not part of mainstream norms, but unique to African and other immigrant groups, particularly those upon whom American culture was forced. This was a time, for example, when Irishman James Joyce could not be read or legally published in the prudish United States.
In 1845, emancipated slave 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. 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 vicinity and 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."
Other 19th century commentators also compared conditions of the Irish and enslaved African-Americans. A French traveller 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."
Irish immigrants to America were referred to as 'White Niggers.' Storefront signs in the early 1900s often read, "No Black, No Irish." Moreover, both groups were targets of racist stereotypes that usually drew on a perverse form of Darwinism in which both Blacks and Irish were considered somehow nearer to apes than were Anglo-Saxons. Illustrations from this time period can be found, notably in the publication Punch, that show an alleged similarity between 'Irish Iberian' and 'Negro' features in contrast to the higher 'Anglo-Teutonic.' Both groups were considered 'savages,' thus the need for 'superior races' (like the English) to rule over them.
The link between Irish and African liberation appeared in political contexts as well. The Black nationalist Marcus Garvey named his headquarters in New York Liberty Hall in direct emulation of Irish Socialist Republican Party founder 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 symbolised the Irish struggle for freedom.
Tanzania’s leader in the anti-colonial struggle and first President attributed his own socialist views to the influence of an Irish missionary. And Kwame Ture, the recently deceased leader of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (known during his days as a civil rights activist in America as Stokely Carmichael), never failed to draw out the similarities between the Irish struggle for freedom and that of African people throughout the world.
The Poet Claude McKay, who was of African descent, told of attending a Sinn Féin demonstration at which he was heckled with "Black Murphy" and "Black Irish." He later wrote. "I suffer with the Irish. I think I understand the Irish. My belonging to a subject race entitles me to some understanding of them."
Appropriately enough, songs of the civil rights movement in America of the 1960s became anthems of the movement for Catholic civil rights in the North of Ireland of the 1970s and 1980s.
Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. toured the North of Ireland as part of the filming of a documentary depicting the similarities in the African and Irish struggle for civil rights (The documentary is entitled The Black and the Green).
Renowned Irish civil rights leader, and one of the founding members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, Bernadette McAliskey (then Devlin), found out when she visited the U.S. in the early 1970s that:
"I was not very long there until, like water, I found my own level. 'My people' — the people who know about oppression, discrimination, prejudice, poverty and the frustration and despair that they produce — were not Irish Americans. They were black, Puerto Rican, Chicano. And those who were supposed to be 'my people', the Irish Americans who know about English misrule and the Famine and supported the civil-rights movement at home, and knew that Partition and England were the cause of the problem, looked and sounded to me like Orangemen. They said exactly the same things about blacks that the loyalists said about us at home. In New York, I was given the key to the city by the mayor, an honour not to be sneezed at. I gave it to the Black Panthers."
Blues and Modern Music
Meanwhile, the Blues were also reflected in popular music of this time, and continue to be to the present day. And there can be no doubt that the Blues were to influence, perhaps more profoundly than any other musical style, not only Rhythm and Blues, but Rock and Roll, especially during its formative stage, the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the best rock guitarists — such as David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix — have used the Blues as a foundation for offshoot styles. And one of the best known rock and roll bands, and indeed the most successful — the Rolling Stones — based their music predominantly on Blues melodies; as did the renowned Irish rocker, Van Morrison.
Van Morrison's Irish synthesis with the Blues became the inspiration for 1980s bands, such as Dexies Midnight Runners, who coined the phrase “Celtic Soul” to capture its essence. The latest generation of Blues players, like Robert Cray and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, added high tech to the Blues; and even the 1990's era of 'grunge rock' was drawn to the simplistic yet riveting textures of the Blues. The late Kurt Cobain's haunting rendition of Leadbelly's " Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" comes to mind.
And the Struggles Continue…
Under the new President Bush, America is regressing to a more oppressive, intolerant state. Only the young, naïve American boys (and their British counterparts) who are now sent in to 'save' African and South American countries from themselves (all in the pursuit of profit, of course) can any longer be called 'freedom fighters.' In this stifling environment, more and more true freedom fighters internationally are
added daily to the now infamous American and British Lists of 'Terrorist Organisations.' But the struggle goes on — both for Ireland and Africa, and their scattered children — and will continue to go on until genuine liberation is obtained.
As freedom fighter, Assata Shakur, who immigrated to Cuba to escape the so-called justice of right-wing America, wrote:
"When I was in the Black Panther Party, they [United States] called us terrorists. How dare they call us terrorists when we were being terrorized? Terror was a constant part of my life. I was living under apartheid in North Carolina. We lived under police terror."
The people of the occupied North of Ireland also continue to live with police terror. And in this enigmatic period of human history, a collaborative effort against neo colonialism, imperialism, subjugation and oppression is essential in the name of Freedom.
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