The Jamaica-Irish connection

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Famous Jamaicans Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey and Claude McKay were all of African-Irish descent

It is said that, next to persons of African descent, the largest racial/ethnic group in Jamaica are those of Irish descent. This was a surprise to me as I thought the next largest group were East Indians.

Of course, it is doubtful whether many persons in Jamaica are of any single racial or ethnic background as it is long known there have been much mixing along racial lines since the Europeans came in the late 15th century. As this is so, it is likely the count of any particular racial or ethnic group is grossly under estimated. Unlike other countries, such as the United States, Jamaica does not pay keen attention to race and ethnicity and certainly, one is not expected to provide one’s racial background or heritage in any official document. One is either Jamaican or isn’t.

My own maternal grandmother, who was born in the 1880s and died in the 1990s at well over 100 years old, said her grandfather was a “Scotsman,” a Jamaican term that can refer to any white Jamaican regardless of ethnic background. It is easy to believe, for Granny and all her children, including my mother, were light skinned. Whether my great-great-grandfather was English, Irish or actually a Scot is not really known.

Irish slaves
What is not well known is that Irish slaves were brought to the Caribbean by the British. According to Herbert Byrd Jr. in his book, Proclamation 1625: America’s Enslavement of the Irish, Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew the British king Charles I, “placed tens of thousands of Irish in slavery and transported some to the mainland (North America) plantations; others were shipped to plantations in the West Indies.”

It appears enslaved Irish were part of the force used to wrest Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. Byrd said the expedition that took Jamaica “included many Irish slaves” from Barbados and St. Kitts (St. Christopher at the time). After the British took full control of Jamaica, “Cromwell, with his new island, had Irish slaves sent from Barbados and St. Christopher to work the new land.”

Others were brought directly from Ireland. As early as 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2,000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers. Apart from these, Elliott O’Donnell in The Irish Abroad, said “that 6,000 boys and girls were transported as slaves from Ireland to Jamaica, and that the total number transported there and to Virginia amounted to 10,000.”

Byrd mentioned an early British practice in the North American colonies, where “slave owners bred the African males with the Irish women and girls.” One reason was that African-Irish enslaved persons fetched a higher sale price than those who were purely African or Irish.

Ray Cavanaugh in his article, “Sláinte Mon – The Irish of Jamaica,” claimed this was also practiced in Jamaica for a similar but slightly different reason. “Rather than spending money on new slaves, the Jamaican plantation owners began mating Irish females with African men to create a new breed of slave that, in the Caribbean climate, was a more apt labourer, and thus commanded a higher value than full-blooded ‘Irish livestock.’”

Jamaica-Irish solidarity
Irish oppression under the English gave rise to feelings of affinity between Irish and persons of African descent. Irishman Richard Robert Madden, “who left his profitable career as a doctor in London…was appointed a Special Magistrate in Jamaica where he oversaw the abolition of slavery in 1834,” wrote librarian and historian, Liam Hogan. “He was hated by the planters there (now former slaveowners) as he doggedly defended the emancipated slaves new rights by making site inspections and ensuring that they were treated as equals in his court. After much intimidation, threats and eventually a violent assault in the street, he had to resign his position.”

Madden, in fact, discovered he had black enslaved relatives in Jamaica who, based on his own account, had very close family resemblances, which confirmed to him the information they gave of their ancestral heritage. “Undoubtedly, the unforeseen encounter with his Jamaican relatives had a profound impact on Madden, infusing him with an even greater desire to eradicate slavery in all its forms,” said Hogan.

The Madden name is well known in Jamaica as a branch of the family owns and runs one of the oldest and largest funeral businesses in the country.

One very important personality to be so affected by the similarities in Irish and Jamaican colonial history was Marcus Garvey who, it is believed, also had Irish ancestry. The Irish Rising of 1916, in particular, seemed to have had a profound impact on, and influenced Garvey, who had founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Jamaica in August 1914.

The Rising, occurring on Easter in April 1916, is one of the pivotal events in Irish history. This event, the 100th anniversary of which is marked this year, led to the partition of Ireland, the creation of the independent Irish republic, the continued colonization of the rest of the island and the long struggle for independence and reunification by those who live in what became Northern Ireland.

Brian Dooley in Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland & Black America, said “Garvey was one of several black nationalists who studied and admired the Irish Republican approach. Garvey’s Irish influences had begun as early as 1910, when he was assistant secretary of the National Club of Jamaica, whose founder, S.A.G. Cox, had admired the Sinn Fein movement while studying in the early years of the century.”

Dooley contended that “Garvey based many of his black nationalist ideas on the Irish model.” Noted Garvey scholar Robert Hill said as much in The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. “Far more than any other nationalist struggle, the Irish revolutionary struggle assisted in focusing Garvey’s political perspective.” Hill indicated that “even the slogan made famous by Garvey, ‘Africa for the Africans at home and abroad,’ echoed the oft-repeated Irish slogan, ‘the Irish race at home and abroad.’”

Irish influences
Irish last names are common in Jamaica – Burke, Clarke, Collins, Lynch, Murphy, Walsh, and any name with the prefixes “Mc” – McKenzie, McDonald, McCall, Morris, McMillan, etc.; and “O’” – O’Brien, O’Connor, O’Hara, O’Meally, etc.

Other than Garvey, another famous Jamaican of Irish extract is Bob Marley, whose father was white and his mother black, both Jamaicans. Jamaica’s first prime minister, Alexander Bustamante, who changed his last name from Clarke, was of Irish ancestry. So was the island’s most famous poet of the early 20th century, Claude McKay, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance in New York during the 1920s.

The strong Irish influence is seen in place names. Irish Town and Dublin Castle in St. Andrew; Irish Pen and Sligoville in St. Catherine; Athenry and Bangor Ridge in Portland; Clonmel and Kildare in St. Mary; Belfast and Middleton in St. Thomas; and Ulster Spring in Trelawny.

At least one major Jamaican institution, the Jamaica Constabulary Force, formed in 1866, is said to have been modeled off the Irish force, down to the “red seam” that runs down the side of the trousers.

Jamaican and other Caribbean citizens as well as Irish with a keen ear have noted similarities in accents and words. As one Irish noted, “Jamaicans always sound like they’re from Cork to me!” Cork is a university city in southwest Ireland. The United Kingdom comedian and actor, Lenny Henry, who has Jamaican parents, is said to have described Ireland as “Jamaica in the cold.”

And it is strongly suggested that the Irish gave Jamaicans their most favorite and highly colorful curse words, those of the different “cloth” varieties. If true, this is indeed an enduring legacy bequeathed by the Emerald Isle to Jamaica. The Irish, it appears, taught Jamaicans how to curse.


3 Replies to “The Jamaica-Irish connection”

  1. I go to Treasure Beach, Jamica, very often, and know that many of those who live there are also of Scottish descent. What a great post. I’m going to pass it on to my husband. Jamaica is one of our favorite places.

    1. Awesome. Thanks for this information. This gives me much reason to investigate Treasure Beach. I plan on doing a piece on the Germans in Seaford Town in Westmoreland and elsewhere. I’ve already written a piece on the Jews in Jamaica that I’ve yet to publish. Perhaps December or next year. Again, thanks.

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