(Note: The following lecture wasn’t delivered at the Feb. 7 meeting because of the length of the meeting.)
In 1977, Alex Haley’s “Roots” was broadcast and probably set off the current interest in genealogy. I have believed for a good long time that everyone is a product of their ancestry. We know that our genes carry the traits of our ancestors. I believe that our personality, our beliefs, our likes and dislikes are also a product of our ancestry. That understanding our history is important to understanding who we are, and how we interact with others.
The talks I gave in October and November 2014 dealt with the founders of the Knights and a few of the reasons for their founding our organization. My high school history classes centered on the question “Why?” Dates and places were nice to know, but the reasons behind the events we studied were paramount. This led me to question what motivated a group of Irishmen to form an organization for supporting widows and orphans when many of their non-Irish contemporaries did not?
A few months ago, Mary and I were invited to take a tour of Ireland next September. This led to an invitation to attend a film about the 1916 Rising in Ireland. That in turn led to an invitation to attend a book-club luncheon about the 1816 troubles. Thus, Mary and I are now card carrying members of the Irish American Society of Dallas. The book club’s February selection was a book titled “The Irish Slaves” by Rhetta Akamatsu. The book is no great work of literature but does contain page after page of information that contributes to an explanation as to the plight of the Irish under English rule and the eventual founding of the Knights.
Prior to the English invasion, it was the practice in Ireland to choose a chief from the more powerful members of a family. The island was divided into several chiefdoms, and the most powerful among them was chosen as the High King. Prior to the Norman Conquest of England, the Saxons, Angles, and Danes as well as the Irish customarily divided the holdings of the head of the family upon his death among all his sons. The Norman custom was for the oldest son to inherit all the possessions of the father. This left nothing for any other sons. Many opted to sell their services to one of the various nobles.
The English conquest of Ireland began during the reign of Edward II. Irish lands were seized and awarded to soldiers as a reward for their service. The conquest took place over several years. As more soldiers were deployed to Ireland, the need increased for more land and the native Irish were forced one way or another to relocate to less desirable lands in the west.
By the beginning of the 17th century, the English conquest was complete. The native Irish had been reduced to poverty and starvation. During the reign of James I, Parliament agreed to a solution to the “Irish problem.” The rise of the colonies in the Caribbean and North America created a need for persons as settlers. Hundreds of thousands of Irish were available to “settle” these new lands.
There were three categories of “settlers.” The first were anyone seized and charged with vagrancy, at that time a very loose term under English law. Men, women and children were kidnapped off the streets, hauled before a magistrate, declared a vagrant or an orphan and pressed aboard a ship bound for one of the colonies. Over the centuries, thousands were rounded up by the military, charged as a vagrant or orphan and transported. Most women and children fell into this group.
Some of the unmarried women were sent to become spouses for the land owners already in the colonies. If they were not selected as a wife, they served as a mistress or house servant. Any child who stayed too far from his home was considered an orphan. Children were indentured until their 21st birthday. Many of these children were 4 or 5 years old when they were seized. The result was that thousands of mainly Irish were sold into what amounted to slavery. Women and children whose husbands or fathers had died or become impressed were especially vulnerable.
The second group were convinced to sign a contract most couldn’t read that promised a reward of free land after a period of service to a land owner in one of the colonies. These became known as indentured servants.
The third class were actual convicts. The prisons were overcrowded with people convicted of crimes ranging from being in debt or stealing a loaf of bread, to highway robbery and murder. Prison conditions led in numerous cases to disease and death. There were concerns that the diseases would spread from the prisons to the general population. Many were given the choice of serving their sentence in one of the colonies where others were just sent.
Once aboard a ship bound for a colony, there was no distinction among the three classes. In fact, there was no distinction as to gender or age. They were packed into the ship’s hold, allotted a six-square foot or less space, shackled and chained. The conditions they endured were much the same as those slaves shipped out of Africa with one exception. A slaver would have to pay for an African before they were placed aboard a ship.
Those shipped from Ireland and other European countries were of little or no value until they arrived at their destination. Upon arrival, the survivors were placed on the auction block. Family members were sold individually. Then, the land owners would “pay for their passage,” and the individual would enter into a period of servitude long enough to repay the land owner. Those with existing contracts were bound for the length of the contract. However, any time the person could not work due to illness or injury would extend the contract with additional time, usually at rate of two for one. Contracts could be bought and sold at will. The conditions of servitude were no different for people of African or European origin.
Conditions were such that, early in the 18th century, both the black and white slaves in Virginia revolted. This resulted in the white slaves being separated from the blacks and given positions overseeing their black counterparts.
After a person completed his term of servitude, he was to be furnished with clothing, any tools deemed necessary to allow him to survive and a plot of land. That usually consisted of one shirt, a pair of pants and maybe a pair of shoes, a hoe or gun and 30 acres of land to be cleared, plowed and planted. Some were given corn to plant. Women did not receive any land but did receive clothing and some kind of tool she was expected to use to earn a living. Over half of those sold into this servitude never lived long enough to complete their term of indenture. In fact, close to half of those transported did not survive the six- to seven-week crossing.
To insure an adequate supply and to further impose what was known as the Irish solution, the British Parliament, beginning in 1695, passed a series of laws known as the Penal Laws. Conviction under any of these laws would result in transportation to the colonies.
Under these laws:
An Irishman was forbidden an education, he could not enter a profession, he could not hold public office, nor could he engage in trade or commerce. He was forbidden to live in a corporate town or within five miles of one, he was forbidden to own a horse of greater value of five pounds. He could not purchase or lease land. He was forbidden to accept a mortgage on land as security for a loan. He could not vote. He could not keep arms for his protection. He could not hold a life annuity. He was forbidden to buy land from a Protestant, nor could he receive a gift of land from a Protestant. He could not inherit land from a Protestant and, later, he could not inherit anything from a Protestant. He could not rent land worth more than 30 shillings a year. He was forbidden to reap from his land any profit exceeding a third of the rent.
He could not be guardian to a child. He could not, when dying, leave his infant children under Catholic guardianship. He could not attend Catholic services but was required by law to attend Protestant services.
He could not send his children to a Catholic teacher nor could he employ a Catholic teacher to come to his child, and he could not send his children abroad to be educated. Catholics were not considered to be Christians.
The Penal laws were in effect until about 1820. Some were still in effect in Northern Ireland as late as 1965.
The men who founded the Knights were about three generations removed from these laws, but their families had experienced this form of slavery and the denial of these freedoms for at least 200 years. The attitudes of persons of English descent were inherited from their ancestors who had been indoctrinated that Catholics and especially Irish Catholics were the dregs of human society. Although the views of society were beginning to change, there were still barriers faced by the Irish community.
Slavery ended in this country 152 years ago. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments extending rights of citizenship to people of color were ratified beginning in 1865. However, the social stigma facing the Americans of African descent endured for generations and still exists today. The movement to secure those constitutionally granted rights began in earnest about 75 years ago. It was easier for a person of Irish ancestry to blend into society than it was for a person of color. However, it is never easy to overcome the prejudices of the majority.
“The Irish Slaves” also points out that thousands of people particularly in the Caribbean share ancestors of Irish and African ancestry. Slavery was and is not a matter of skin color or ancestry – it is a human issue that has been with us long before Moses asked Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”
Is there any question with this history of servitude and oppression that Father McGivney and the men of his parish recognized the need for the Knights of Columbus faced as they were with a society that historically saw the Irish as inferior?