Thursday 22 June 2017

Lay of the Land: Going the distance in search of our roots

'The weather may be wobbly, but you can still tell it's summer by the plethora of plastic-poncho-clad tourists wandering the country'
'The weather may be wobbly, but you can still tell it's summer by the plethora of plastic-poncho-clad tourists wandering the country'

Fiona O'Connell

The weather may be wobbly, but you can still tell it's summer by the plethora of plastic-poncho-clad tourists wandering the country.

Many come searching for their roots. Which reminds me of those not quite as distant days when I used to watch the TV series of that name with my grandmother. We curled up with cocoa and cream crackers slathered in butter, as Alex Haley enthralled us with stories of his ancestors.

From Kunta Kinte, beaten into accepting the slave name 'Toby', through Kizzy, spitting in the water of the master's daughter, to Chicken George, who lent his name to many an Irish butcher shop.

But even if a tourist isn't looking for his roots, sometimes his roots still find him. It's almost a year since a South American called Jean-Marie Baltimore hitched a lift with me to Baltimore in West Cork. He knew nothing of its history, beyond the fact that he shared its name.

But after he learnt about the infamous night of June 20, 1631 - when pirates kidnapped the entire village - he realised that he might have Irish roots.

The Sack of Baltimore was the single biggest attack by Barbary pirates on Ireland (or Britain, for that matter). But some say those taken were only a drop in the ocean of the thousands of Irish men, women and children who were victims of the Irish slave trade.

It began with James II's proclamation of 1625, which required Irish political prisoners to be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid 1600s, the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat.

Others argue that the Irish slave trade is a myth. They cite evidence, such as that by 1729, over 66pc of all the sugar planters and slave owners on Montserrat were Irish. While they acknowledge that thousands of Irish were deported to the colonies by force, they believe the vast majority settled there voluntarily as indentured slaves. As such, they were often abused. But - crucially - chattel slavery meant a person was condemned to perpetual, hereditary slavery because of their race.

Yet prejudice is not skin deep. Some argue that African slaves, not 'tainted' with the stain of the hated Catholic theology and more expensive to purchase during that period, were often treated far better than their Irish counterparts. Furthermore, even if an Irish woman obtained her freedom, her children remained the slave master's property. Many mothers remained in servitude for their children's sake.

The truth is rarely black or white, but perhaps in this case it's appropriately green. Saint Patrick's Day is a public holiday in just three places in the world. One of which is Montserrat - the 'Emerald Isle' of the Caribbean.

Maybe it's time to unpack our own plastic ponchos and discover our own roots.

Sunday Independent

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