Non-Fiction

The Modern Irish and Modern Slavery

Slavery around the world wasn’t ended by abolition.

The little stats widget on this website tells me most of my small audience is Irish. So, let’s talk about slavery in terms of the Irish. That’s always a fun topic.

Obviously, Ireland spent hundreds of years under the yoke of English oppression and all that. Once we got out from under them and became a proper state, we had to establish firmly who we were. We weren’t a nation of subjugated workers and maybe-slaves anymore, after all. So, what were we?

(At present, it seems we’re a country that gets very excited about snow so long as we have a house to stop the stuff from killing us.)

The Irish Literary Revival was concerned with figuring out an idea of what exactly Ireland was. Essentially, it was a reaction against negative stereotypes. They resented the idea that they were just idiot rural drunkards so they conceptualised Ireland as a country of poets and scholars. A lot of effort was put into connecting the then-present-day to the old mythology like Fionn and the Fianna.

While De Valera and his peers were drawing up the Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, other thinkers were concerned that this national identity only went skin-deep. The writer whose name wasn’t Flann O’Brien directly parodied the obsession with the old mythology in his very odd novel At Swim-Two-Birds, which he wrote while the constitution was being drawn up. Essentially, he was concerned that the radical socialism of the Easter Rising was being abandoned and De Valera was instead trying to make Ireland the same kind of state as England. All that would change, he feared, was the symbols on the hats of the oppressors.

Has this come true? It’s a complicated topic but I would cautiously suggest that there isn’t a huge difference between Leo Varadkar and Theresa May.

I was shortlisted for a 2016 Hot Press writing competition and a lot of the other entries focused on comparing 1916 Ireland to 2016 Ireland. There was a prevailing sense that we’re somehow letting down Pádraig Pearse. We feel disconnected from what Ireland is supposed to be, whatever that is. But, we felt disconnected from that a hundred years ago as well. So, is there any way to un-excommunicate ourselves?

I would put forward that our national identity is that we’re a subjugated nation that got a leg up recently and should now help other people that are down on their luck. Just as subjugation under the English wasn’t ended by Home Rule concessions, slavery around the world wasn’t ended by abolition.

What kind of slavery exists today? Some forms it takes include women forced into sex work, people forced to work in agriculture or factories, and children in sweatshops producing goods sold globally. According to Anti-Slavery International, many families are forced to work for nothing to pay off generational debts. Girls are forced to marry older men.

There are over 40 million people in modern slavery around the world according to Alliance 8.7. 10 million of those are children. Almost 25 million are in forced labour. Over 15 million are in forced marriage. Almost 5 million are in forced sexual exploitation.

These problems aren’t going to be solved by assuming the system is basically functional and making small tweaks. The system as it exists is built on modern slavery. If slavery is ever going to be ended for good, it’s going to be because we tackle the root causes.

Anti-Slavery International has published an Anti-Slavery Charter listing comprehensive measures to end slavery, including the criminalisation of all forms of slavery, protection of individuals from slavery, and advancing access to decent work.

You can donate to Anti-Slavery International here (https://www.antislavery.org/take-action/fundraise-for-freedom/ ) and Amnesty here ( https://www.amnesty.org/en/donate-amnesty/ ). Amnesty also do a great deal of other important work in Ireland such as supporting the repeal of the Eighth Amendment and helping to free Ibrahim Halawa.

It feels like the main defining characteristic of being Irish is vaguely feeling like you’re not truly Irish. The particulars of our history broke that chain. But, as painful as that history is, it’s shared.

While the so-called Snowmaggedon hit this weekend just gone, a lot of people in Galway and elsewhere braved the elements to bring food and shelter to the homeless who were stuck out in the cold. Maybe that’s who we are. We could do worse.


Hey, thanks for reading! You can watch video versions of my writing on YouTube, follow me on Twitter, or throw some money in my hat on Patreon.

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