Caribbean Irish Connections: Interdisciplinary Perspectives | EL Literature Review

This may be among the first essay compilation in the Quintillion Ink-Strokes series.


It progresses from essays discussing Caribbean history to discussing Caribbean literature. This is an effective method of organization because it would help the reader understand the histories of Ireland and the Caribbean in order to truly understand the written works that were produced in those time periods.


A recurring theme throughout the essays is the complexities with the Irish’s treatment of the Americas. They were both the colonized and the colonizers. Since they were Irish and mostly Catholic, they were marginalized by the English powers; however they also had the opportunity to purchase their freedom, buy a plot of land, and amalgamate themselves with the broader white society.

Religion also played a role in shaping the role of the Irish Caribbeans, particularly when there were colonial powers that were either Protestant or Catholic. In some cases, they practiced Catholicism in private, with the example of a priest who could not perform Mass except in the wilderness.

As for the interactions between the Irish and the African diasporas in the Caribbean Islands, they are deeply complicated. There was the issue of Irish slave-owners have black concubines and begetting mixed race children, though there were, as Alison Donnell noted, also communities in which the Irish and the Africans creolized ethnically and culturally. As such, there arises the dilemma of classifying any one group of people, especially since the boundaries are blurred with so much interaction. The Caribbean writers seek, as a result, to find inspiration from the literary works of Irish authors–especially during the era of Irish independence.

All of this applies to the Caribbean Islands themselves, though in Ireland itself, it is slightly different. While the Irish were trying to replicate the English in the Caribbean, the Irish in Ireland proper were very active in the abolition of slavery and independence from the British Empire.

Historical Context

Much of the Irish indentured servants in Barbados were deported there forcefully when Oliver Cromwell took over Ireland. Though many of them voluntarily signed themselves into indentured servitude in the Caribbean, in exchange for a plot of land. This is, of course, where the controversial subject of the Irish slave myth occurs. It is important to note that not all of the Irish who immigrated to the Caribbean were indentured servants, nor did they remain as such, rather they became book-keepers, sailors, soldiers, and even land-owners with their own slaves.

Also, the plantation model started to take shape when African slaves started being used, until eventually it was decided that Irish indentured servitude would be temporary while African slavery would last for life. The Transatlantic Slave Trade was just beginning to shape the Caribbean when the Irish were already used for cheap labor. Jerome S. Handler and Matthew C. Reilly noted that the Irish were not trusted due to being Catholic. However, the complications also take shape when there were Irish Catholic, but also Anglo-Irish Protestants who immigrated to the Caribbean and were more readily accepted by the English.

Another historical moment that is discussed in the essays is Irish independence and the post-emancipation and later post-colonial Caribbean Islands. This is where the Caribbean people–specifically writers like Derek Walcott–attempt to create national identities, and as such they looked towards the Irish who were also trying to become a unique nation.

Writing Style

Since the essays are about the Irish and the Caribbean, they make use of Irish Gaelic words as well as the various creole languages spoken on each island. One essay by K. Brisley Brennan gets into depth about how the language differences could be used by the colonizer as part of a form of violence, by excluding or even massacring those who do not speak the right pronunciation. This was especially seen in Trujillo’s Dominican Republic and the massacre against Haitians or those who lived near the border who did not speak the “right” Dominican Spanish.

There are also a lot of uses of terminologies like heterogenization or creolization in order to describe the process of the Caribbeans coming to be as their own nations. In which case, while there was the colonization of the British, the Irish provided a much closer interaction with the African population.

Real World Application

These essays serve the purpose of trying to examine a fairly recent analysis of the role of the Irish in Caribbean history. An important point to note is that the sacrifice of an Irish identity for the sake of some material benefits is what is expected of everyone of the Irish diaspora in the British colonies (and even after).

As such, Irish history is being taken away by the alt-right. If they cannot appeal to potential recruits through their whiteness, then they can do so through their Irishness. They do so by using the “white Irish slave” myth which does not take into account the complexities involved in the treatment of the Irish in the Americas. It may have been the case that Irish abolitionists compared Irish indentured servitude to slavery, however the end goal was to empathize with the African slaves and treat them as allies in the fight against slavery and colonialism. The end goal of the alt-right is to recruit more makeshift troops.

To decolonize from the British post-colonial influence is to see this manipulation for what it is and–bluntly–not be a sucker. It also involves not letting the alt-right abuse and monopolize the Irish Caribbean historical narrative by expanding the discussion of the Irish Caribbean within and without the academic circles.

However, it also involves not paternalizing the discussion when it comes to the African slaves, specifically by making blanket comparisons between the African and Irish hardships. It also involves not strictly adhering to the binary black-white ethnic dichotomy when it comes to analyzing the Caribbean identity. It would be best to view people as both Irish and African, either in a historical way or an individual way–of course, only if they choose to identify as such.

Suggest This To…

  • Those who feels like they are deprived a coherent analysis of the role of the Irish in the early British colonies; maybe they are of Irish ancestry or learned only a little bit about Irish indentured servitude in History classes with no additional analyses.
  • Those who are trying to find themselves, since they do not know how they came to be. The creolizations of the Caribbean would provide a meaningful analysis of how a new group of people came to exist.
  • Those who want to know more about Irish literature and how much impact they had throughout the world–specifically the Caribbean.

Edited by Alison Donnell, Maria McGarrity, and Evelyn O’Callaghan. “Caribbean Irish Connections: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.” University of West Indies Press. 2015.

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