An Irishman's Diary

Tue, Sep 20, 2011, 01:00

IN 1945, The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, published a long feature on an Irishman who, during the 19th century, had been a powerful advocate of civil rights. The Crisisdescribed a man who was “one of the best friends and strongest champions the American Negro ever had”. That man was John Boyle O’Reilly from Dowth in Co Meath. Born in 1844, O’Reilly lived a life of extraordinary vitality: as a soldier in the British army; as a Fenian; as a convict; as a poet; and then as an editor of Boston’s The Pilotnewspaper.

The Crisiscalled O’Reilly “a poet-prophet of democracy” who deserved “his place among our own contemporary fighters against the political and economic injustices forced upon racial minorities”.

September 15th is the United Nation’s International Day of Democracy and it is an appropriate time in which to remember O’Reilly. In advocating civil rights O’Reilly was working against a wider tradition within Irish America. Over the middle decades of the 19th century, the Irish and black communities developed a deep antagonism towards one another. Much of this bitterness resulted from competition for employment as Irish and black labourers clashed in cities across the US. But it was not only economic rivalry that rendered the Irish hostile to blacks. The reaction of Americans to Irish immigrants during those decades was also a contributing factor. In the 1840s and 1850s the Irish in the United States were victims of a sustained campaign of hatred. This xenophobia was most clearly manifested in the form of “nativism”, a popular movement which was intensely hostile to Catholic immigration. One of the most common arguments which nativists used to justify violence against Catholics was that such immigrants were mere pawns of the Vatican and incapable of loyalty to the US.

Catholics, including the Irish, responded to these claims by trying to prove their loyalty to the United States. Since slavery was a feature of many American states, the Catholic hierarchy judged that its existence was a natural law of the land and as such, that the church had nothing to gain from seeking its destruction. When, in 1839, Pope Gregory XVI denounced the African and international slave trades, nativists across the United States decried what they considered to be an unwarranted intervention in the country’s domestic affairs. The Catholic hierarchy’s response was to assure Americans that the pope had condemned only the capture and trading of free people as slaves, not the legal position within many American states whereby individuals were born into slavery.

The position of the Catholic hierarchy in the US was exemplified by the Cork-born bishop of Charlestown, John England. Over the winter of 1840-41 he wrote a series of 18 letters on slavery to the secretary of state, John Forsyth. England’s letters, in the decades before the American Civil War, came to be understood as explaining the church’s attitude to the issue. Slavery, according to the bishop, was a human creation and was subject to corruption. However, England argued that it was not intrinsically evil and not in contravention of “natural law”, writing “that by Scripture and by tradition we discover that the existence of domestic slavery is perfectly compatible with the practice of true religion”. Indeed, Bishop England’s first letter ended with the declaration that “Pope Gregory XVI is not the associate of abolitionists and that Catholics . . . should not be rendered objects of suspicion to their fellow citizens”.

These attitudes were replicated in the Catholic press, where the word slavery was now being replaced by the insidious euphemism “involuntary servitude”. In 1855 The Pilotconsidered the issue of slavery and the manifold indignities which accompanied it such as “Inhuman treatment, – separation of families, – deprivation of right to perform ordinary Christian duties, – violence done to the marriage relation, – refusal to recognize in the negro a man”. Yet, like Bishop England, the paper argued that slavery was not, in itself, wrong and that these abuses could be removed from its application. The editorial continued: “When you have stripped slavery of those abuses which are accidental and do not necessarily belong to it, you have simply involuntary servitude.” In fact, the paper claimed, when slavery was properly administered it provided food, clothing and shelter to the slave. It was, The Pilotasserted, like making the slave “a member of the family”.

Even after the Civil War, The Pilotremained very nervous of attempts to improve the lot of former slaves, warning that, “We have nothing to say against efforts to elevate the Negro; but we do most earnestly protest that those efforts must not be put forth at the expense of our race.” It took the arrival of John Boyle O’Reilly as editor in 1871 for the paper’s attitude to change.

In one early editorial he responded to a reader who opposed race integration by writing that “There is nothing Irish about his principles . . . The Pilotholds that the colored man stands on a perfect equality with the white man.” This statement was to be a guiding principle of The Pilotunder O’Reilly’s editorship and he repeatedly used the paper to condemn politicians and commentators who sought to curtail civil rights. At the same time he urged blacks to remain proud of their heritage, declaring in one speech that his “colored fellow-citizens” should establish “a brotherhood of race”: “Make it so strong that its members will be proud of it – proud of living as colored Americans”.

It is hard to gauge how successful O’Reilly was in combating the prejudices of his white fellow citizens but he became a hero to many black Americans. In 1890, at a funeral oration for O’Reilly, the black politician Edwin G Walker lamented the death of his friend: “As long as Mr O’Reilly lived and spoke, we felt that we had at least, outside of our own people, one true vigilant, brave and self-sacrificing friend who claimed for us just what he claimed for himself”.


From the Earth, A Cry – The Story of John Boyle O’Reilly, by Ian Kenneally, is published by The Collins Press.