Between 1910 and 1925, the Irish struggle for independence served as one of the primary sources of inspiration for Marcus Garvey’s pan-Africanism and was perhaps its central model. The relationship between the Irish republican movement and early 20th century pan-African movements like Garveyism offers insights into Irish racial status according to figures like Garvey. Despite their apparent whiteness, notions of Irish race took on symbolic significance among Garveyists. I will argue that those Irish involved in the independence struggle attained symbolic non-white status during the years immediately before and after the first world war through their relationship with Garveyism.
Even a cursory examination of Marcus Garvey’s papers hints at the deep significance of Ireland in his life and work. Two key components of Garvey’s project drew their names from Irish entities. The first, Liberty Hall, became the headquarters of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association in New York City at which many key meetings and speeches took place. The second, Garvey’s Black Star Line, represented his most ambitious initiative: an entirely Black-run cruise line enterprise meant to facilitate the transportation of Blacks back to Africa. As Robert Hill notes in his introductory section to The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, “The name chosen for the UNIA meeting place reflected an appreciation for Liberty Hall, Dublin, the symbolic seat of the Irish revolution and the site where the Irish Citizen Army had launched the Easter Rising.” The pan-African emancipation project’s headquarters, what Black civil rights activist William H. Ferris called “the originating source of the movement”, thus took its name from the central meeting place of Irish republicanism. Additionally, the Black Star Line resembled a project of Sinn Fein, one of Ireland’s main revolutionary groups whose name means “we ourselves” in Gaelic. In 1906, Sinn Fein devised a plan for “the re-establishment of an Irish mercantile Marine to facilitate direct trading between Ireland and the countries of Continental Europe, America, Africa, and the Far East.” Garvey’s Black Star Line seems almost directly to have borrowed this strategy for asserting racial sovereignty. That two of the most important symbols of Garvey’s political career drew inspiration from the Irish republican movement suggests that it meant a great deal to him.
Garvey’s connections to Ireland began during his upbringing in Jamaica. Garvey served as the first assistant secretary for The National Club, Jamaica’s first nationalist political organization. Sinn Fein appears to have had considerable influence on the National Club’s founder, Solomon “Sandy” Cox. Cox chose to call the club’s bimonthly journal “Our Own”, an alternative translation of “Sinn Fein.” Given that some of his formative years of political education took place under the guidance of a man apparently drawn to the Irish cause, it seems likely that Garvey began to develop his appreciation for the Irish as a young man in Jamaica. His connection to Ireland also stemmed from deep personal roots: those of ancestry. Garvey’s surname came from Irish slave owners in Jamaica who prevented his family from passing their African name onto him. In spite of what Ray Bassett, Ireland’s former ambassador to Jamaica, called “this initial malevolent linkage to Ireland,” Garvey interestingly went on to express support and admiration for Irish independence.
If at first Garvey understood the Irish cause through a personal lens, by the World War One era, he appreciated its potential instructive influence on pan-Africanism. By a combination of Garvey’s admiration for Irish republicanism and its practical utility for pan-Africanism, the Irish republican movement became the blueprint for Garveyism during World War One. Irish activism for independence reached a fever pitch during World War One which culminated with the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921. In 1916, Irish republican fighters launched the Easter Rising, a pivotal rebellion against British rule in which they proclaimed an Irish republic. Though the British quickly suppressed it, the rising gave Irish republicanism momentum. In 1918, Sinn Fein won in the Irish elections. By 1919, their government had declared Irish independence, leading to the Irish War of Independence. The Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 ended the fighting and promised the creation of the Irish Free State within a year, minus Northern Ireland. Though it passed, its unpopularity among some Irish republican factions led to civil war. Throughout the World War One era, Irish activism featured displays of intense sacrifice, violent action, and political martyrdom. Cork mayor Terence MacSwiney’s 73-day hunger strike proved particularly meaningful to Garvey, who sent MacSwiney’s pastor a telegram of support to be passed along.
The body of Garvey’s writings and speeches compiled in Hill’s edited volume substantiates a rhetorical pattern defined by admiration and emulation of the Irish. Hill notes in his introductory section on Ireland (the only nation with its own section in the volume’s introduction) that “Garvey consistently accorded the Irish independence struggle primacy among all other national movements of the era, including those in India, Egypt, [and] China.” Hill also writes that “Far more than any other nationalist struggle, the Irish revolutionary struggle assisted in focusing Garvey’s political perspective.” Both these statements affirm that Garvey relied heavily upon the Irish struggle in his political development and allude to the consistent rhetorical emphasis he placed on Ireland as a result. In many of Garvey’s speeches and writings, especially those addressed to the “Black masses” in America, the West Indies, and Africa, he appeals to revolutionary sentiment with a particular formula. Garvey evokes the Irish cause, then judges that “the Negro” ought to follow its example. These phrases often take the form, ‘As the Irish…so shall the Negro…’, a clear expression of his desire to model the pan-African movement on Irish republicanism.
At a speech in Chicago in 1919, Garvey made clear his appreciation for Irish political martyrdom by referencing Robert Emmet. Emmet’s leadership in the abortive uprising for Irish independence of 1803 led to his hanging and earned him status as a martyr for the Irish cause. Garvey’s statement, “Robert Emmet gave his life for Irish independence…and the new negro is ready to give his life for the freedom of the negro race,” demonstrates his willingness to die for the cause of pan-Africanism and his desire to emulate the Irish. As he repeatedly would do, Garvey points to the valor of the Irish and enjoins his followers to match it. Garvey’s emphasis on the “new Negro” underscores the effectiveness of this rhetorical design. According to Garvey, the conclusion of World War One provided an opportunity for the Negro to evolve politically, to assert his or her right to true emancipation and equality. Past figures like Booker T. Washington had encouraged too docile an attitude. At a moment of transition for pan-Africanism and intense struggle for the Irish, Garvey emphasized the latter as a model for the future of pan-African politics. The primary figure of this model, Eamon De Valera, proved especially influential for Garvey. De Valera, leader of Sinn Fein and provisional President of Ireland during Garvey’s provisional presidency of Africa, successfully “showed that the Irish were in deadly earnest and engaged in a life and death struggle from which there would be no turning back.” Garvey’s declaration in 1920 that “if…Ireland is to follow De Valera, then the time has come for four hundred million Negroes to follow a Negro elected by themselves” shows the marked influence De Valera’s tenacious commitment to his cause had on Garvey. Given Garvey’s own reputation for political zeal, his admiration for De Valera suggests that the Irish cause shaped Garvey’s aggressive advocacy of pan-Africanism.
These references were neither infrequent nor obscure; instead, the Irish featured prominently in some of Garvey’s biggest speeches. In his address at the opening dedication of the UNIA’s Liberty Hall, for example, as reprinted in The Negro World on August 2, 1919, Garvey said that “the time had come for the Negro race to offer up its martyrs upon the altar of liberty even as the Irish had given a long list from Robert Emmet to Roger Casement.” Garvey’s direct invocation of men like Roger Casement, a leading figure in the Easter Rising executed for treason, again demonstrates his appreciation for the revolutionary nature of Irish republicanism. At a meeting of the UNIA and the African Communities League of the World at Carnegie Hall on August 25, 1919, Garvey mentioned the Irish struggle five times in his address. In the first mention, Garvey grouped the Irish, Indian, and Egyptian anticolonial movements together, stating, “We stand here tonight…on the same uncompromising platform as the Irish stand, as the Hindu stands, as the Egypti[a]n stands.” In a speech largely concerned with Wilson’s hypocritical stance on self-determination and the post-war push by colonized peoples to gain rights, Garvey employed the powerful tactic of linking pan-Africanism to these three better known movements. More importantly, this had powerful implications for Irish racial status. Each of the three movements fought against the British domination Garvey experienced in Jamaica. His grouping of Ireland with India and Egypt suggests that he viewed the Irish as part of the global anticolonial struggle of non-white groups against the British Empire, and that his affinity for the Irish cause may have come from this solidarity.
Garvey’s solidarity with the Irish rested not just on a common oppressor, but also on the shared diasporic character of their movements. In the same speech, Garvey states: “In this reconstruction period, when the Irishman is striking homewards towards Ireland to make Ireland a free and independent country, when the Hindu is striking homeward toward India….we are striking homewards towards Africa to make her the big black republic.” The phrase “striking homeward” seems implicitly to locate Irish and Indian revolutionaries outside of their home countries, presumably in a state of imposed exile. To “strike homeward” necessarily involves a return to one’s homeland, most likely for the purpose of reclaiming it. While the idea of exile seems less applicable to the Irish than to Africans systematically enslaved and dispossessed of their land, many Irish people experienced exile as refugees from the poverty, war, and political repression brought by British rule. In conjuring up the imagery of Irish and Indian diaspora, Garvey directly links these causes to pan-Africanism and its revolutionary message of “Africa for the Africans.” In doing so, he alludes to his vision of ethnonationalist states for these colonized peoples, run by and for themselves without British oversight.
Crucially, Garvey prioritizes the Irish among the three movements. Throughout the rest of the speech, India and Egypt drop out and Garvey only mentions Ireland: “as the Irishman is struggling and fighting for the fatherland of Ireland, so must the new negro of the world fight for the fatherland of Africa.” That Garvey narrows his description of diasporic ethnic struggle to Ireland and Africa, in which each people reclaims their “fatherland”, shows that the Irish held a central place in the ethnic anticolonial movement he envisioned. Given their central role in a movement of non-white, colonized peoples dominated by white Anglo-Saxon Great Britain, it would follow that Ireland would develop a symbolic non-white status. This suggests that to leaders like Garvey, non-white status did not always depend on skin color. In this case, the forced exile experienced by the Irish in common with other British colonial subjects formed part of the justification for their symbolic place among non-white colonized peoples.
This shared context of Anglo-Saxon imperialism proves especially important to understanding how Garvey perceived the ‘Irish race’. In her study of the influence of Bolshevism and Irish republicanism on early 20th century Black American radicals, Cathy Bergin argues that Black perceptions of the Irish depended on reframing race “in relation to the Anglo-Saxon.” Since Great Britain and Ireland had a colonial relationship, understanding the Irish by contrasting them with Anglo-Saxons seems natural. By contrasting the Irish race with Great Britain, fellow British colonial subjects in the Caribbean found a basis for solidarity and sympathy for Ireland.
Jamaican poet and writer Claude McKay helps to illustrate this. Bergin cites as evidence of his “romantic” notion of the Irish anti-colonial fight a passage from an article of his entitled “How Black sees Red and Green”, published in Liberator. In it, McKay writes that the Irish “are quite free of the disease which is known in bourgeois phraseology as Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy.” By identifying a characteristic of the white Anglo-Saxon race which, in his view, the Irish lack, McKay implies a distinction between the Irish and whites. Either this makes them a unique subset of the white race, or it somehow lends them non-white status. McKay’s next lines seem to crystallize his view. Writing, “I suffer with the Irish. I think I understand the Irish,” McKay explains that his “belonging to a subject race entitles me to some understanding of them.” Here McKay reveals the source of his solidarity and identification with the Irish, probably shared by many of his contemporaries. Like Jamaicans and other Caribbeans, as well as many Africans, the Irish suffered under the oppressive rule of Great Britain. This seems to have had a greater bearing on Irish racial status in the eyes of some pan-Africanists than their visible whiteness; to McKay, the Irish’ colonial status meant more than their skin color and made them a fellow subject race.
Other Black radicals helped to construct Irish racial status through expressions of their admiration for the tactics of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. As evidenced by his praise of Emmet and Casement, the practice of violent revolution and political martyrdom certainly gripped Marcus Garvey. According to Bergin, the tradition of “armed struggle and secrecy” within Irish republicanism also strongly endeared Cyril Briggs to the movement. Briggs was a prominent Afro-Caribbean intellectual who founded the African Blood Brotherhood, an organization that combined left-wing radicalism with Black nationalism. Bergin suggests that Briggs exhibited an explicitly racialized admiration for Irish republicanism. In one of his writings for the Crusader, which generally championed the Irish struggle, Briggs makes this clear: “the oppressors, in the main, of both Celt and Negro, are identified with the Anglo-Saxon race… the great enemy of the Irish people…[and] the greatest enemy of the Negro people,” adding, “Great Britain is also the bulwark of the Anglo-Saxon White Guards and of all the reactionary things for which they stand.” Again, the importance of a common colonial context to the attitudes of pan-Africanists toward the Irish shines through. Here Briggs repeats the comparison of the Irish to Black colonial subjects on the basis of their common British overlord, but adds a new emphasis by describing the Irish as Celts. Characterizing them as such highlights the historical ethnic distinction between the Irish and the English and functions to group the Irish with other oppressed peoples, apart from their white Anglo-Saxon oppressor.
Both McKay and Briggs’ sentiments contribute to Bergin’s argument that casting the Irish as a non-Anglo-Saxon subject race played a key role in the efforts of Black radicals to form international solidarities in the struggle against British colonialism. In other words, the way Black radicals and pan-Africanists perceived the Irish significantly impacted the development of anti-colonial racial politics. According to Bergin, the racial reframing involved in this form of “racial solidarity” facilitated “a very particular type of anti-colonial ‘race’ politics which foregrounds both a shared oppression and a shared oppressor as the basis for solidarity.” Beyond concluding that these movements shared a unique racial solidarity derived from their common opposition to Great Britain, Bergin does not offer a clear assessment of World War One-era Irish racial status. She does not go so far as to suggest that the Irish attained a symbolic non-white status through this grouping with other non-white colonized groups. Still, it seems fairly reasonable to extrapolate this conclusion from Bergin’s argument. If the racial framing she describes foregrounded shared colonial status as the basis for solidarity within anti-colonial race politics, then describing colonial status as a greater determinant of ‘race’ than skin color seems appropriate. In the context of World War One-era pan-African thought, this would make the Irish non-white because of their subservience to Great Britain.
Matthew Guterl provides an alternative view in his article on the early 20th century emergence of the “New Race Consciousness.” Guterl argues that this new mindset, developed by Black American leaders just after World War One, firmly defined the Irish as white. Guterl’s focus resembles Bergin’s in that he concentrates on Black radical leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois, Cyril Briggs, and Marcus Garvey during the World War One era. He also acknowledges the admiration these figures held for Irish republicanism. Nevertheless, his primary point concerns the salient racial divisions between the Irish and Black causes. He states: “Postwar African American radicals, despite drawing connections between their own struggle and that of the Irish, increasingly saw no racial difference between Anglo-Saxons and Irish; both were seen as members of a singular white race.” Guterl attributes this view to the New Race Consciousness, which emphasized skin color rather than nationality as the primary determinant of race. As this philosophy gained favor among Black American leaders, the immediate post-war years became an inflection point for Irish racial status.
Before World War One, Irish American leaders emphasized the distinction between Celts and Anglo-Saxons as part of a racialized nationalism. Under this view, the Irish were technically white, but only as a subset of the white race. As Guterl writes, the process “in which ‘race,’ ‘nation,’ and ‘folk’ were all loosely, but imprecisely, connected in history and biology” gave Irish nationalism its racialized quality. To argue for their racial uniqueness, in other words, the Irish emphasized their blend of ethnic and national distinctness. While considered white in the broadest sense, the Irish could side-step this characterization at a time when white usually meant Anglo-Saxon. In Special Sorrows, Matthew Frye Jacobson emphasizes the vast differences among different subset groups of the white race. He writes, “both in nineteenth-century science and in popular understanding the white community itself comprised many sharply distinguishable races”, adding that “The categories ‘Celt,’…and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ represented an order of difference deeper than any current notions of ‘ethnicity’.” In this paradigm of race, skin color may have determined one’s broadest racial category, but other factors like ethnicity mattered just as much.
Both Irish and Anglo methods of communicating this racial difference contributed to race’s role as “a fundamental component of Irish nationalism.” In British and American discourse, Celts were often distinguished from Anglo-Saxons as “bestial”, and newspaper cartoons depicting the Irish as “pug-nosed, low-browed beasts abounded.” These portrayals aimed to emphasize the Irish’ supposedly uncivilized nature in contrast with their Anglo-Saxon overlords, which helped to justify their colonized status. Guterl notes that this racial “otherness”, both externally imposed and self-proclaimed, allowed “racialized nationalism…to connect the struggle to ‘save the soul of Ireland’ with other protest movements, such as the African American fight against Jim Crow.” This mechanism united the Irish cause with movements like Garveyism before the war and, for Garvey, arguably continued to do so even as the New Race Consciousness took hold.
Guterl does not share this view, instead arguing that the New Race Consciousness eliminated the basis for solidarity which existed before World War One. After the war, both Black American leaders and the Irish themselves altered their idea of the Irish race. While before the war, “a razor-thin line kept the Irish from being members of the white race,” in the post-war years that line disappeared. Instead of the “looseness and elasticity” of the traditional Irish racial status, Black leaders adopted “a more streamlined taxonomy of races…organized around color rather than national boundaries.” This shift embodied the new emphasis on skin color as the primary determinant of race and eschewed older conceptions of Irish racial uniqueness based on ethnic distinctness. Many within the Irish republican movement pursued this categorization as well. Guterl describes how Clan na Gael, an Irish republican organization in the United States closely affiliated with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, often referenced the Irish as “the only white race in slavery” after the war. Perhaps the group sought to win the Irish cause favor this way: if viewed as white, the Irish might gain an advantage among the many other colonized groups jockeying for attention after World War One, in part because whites could more easily claim a “civilized nature”. The increasing emphasis on a purportedly biological “absolute whiteness” also made it difficult to distinguish the Irish from Anglo-Saxons in the United States, as scientific racism helped to solidify the association of skin color with race. While figures like Du Bois and Briggs continually supported the Irish cause, these changes led them away from any racial bases for that solidarity.
While Guterl convincingly argues that the New Race Consciousness made the Irish white in the eyes of many Black American leaders, he does not recognize the extent to which Garvey broke this mold. In contrast with his contemporaries, Garvey remained influenced by the looser notions of race which defined Irish racial status before the emergence of the New Race Consciousness, even as he shifted toward a more militant Black nationalism. Garvey did seem to acknowledge the Irish’ whiteness, but this did not stop him from granting them an informal, symbolic place within the non-white colonial world. This becomes evident in several of his speeches and writings. On January 6, 1921, a short time after De Valera and Garvey had been scheduled to share the podium at an event which De Valera ultimately could not attend, Garvey off-handedly alluded to De Valera’s whiteness. Discussing his own planned upcoming disappearance, Garvey stated, “don’t be alarmed because we Negroes will have to adopt the system of underground workings like De Valera and other white leaders.” While this highlights Garvey’s emulation of De Valera and Irish tactics, it also suggests that Garvey viewed him as a white leader. These casual references to Irish whiteness occasionally appear in Garvey’s writings alongside his grouping of them with Hindus and Egyptians, a pattern which seemingly confounds the idea that he would grant them non-white status.
While Garvey’s downplayed acknowledgement of Irish whiteness initially seems to contradict the supposed place of the Irish among non-white colonized peoples, it instead fits within his larger strategic aims for pan-Africanism in which the Irish assumed this symbolic non-white status. In his book, Transatlantic Solidarities: Irish Nationalism and Caribbean Poetics, Michael Malouf examines the relationship between Ireland and the Caribbean throughout the 20th century. Insofar as he considers the World War One era, Malouf suggests that the Irish had a nuanced relationship with the Caribbean, one of ambivalence owing to their dual status as beneficiaries of white supremacy and fellow victims of Anglo oppression.
For Garvey, this meant that despite his private understanding of Irish whiteness, his admiration for the Irish republican movement led him to see the value in linking his cause to theirs. As Malouf writes, “Garvey revised the transnational history of Irish resistance as a means of fashioning his own transnational movement in nationalism terms.” Having closely studied the Irish republican movement’s success in cultivating transnational anti-colonial resistance, Garvey had reason to make it the model for his brand of pan-Africanism. At the same time, he understood the potentially dangerous irony of basing his drive to free Africans around the world from white tyranny on a “white movement”, as some might have considered Irish republicanism. Garvey consequently chose to focus on the elements of diaspora and exile which likened the Irish to non-white colonial subjects. This brought Garvey into direct parallel with Sinn Fein, as both movements aimed at “mobilizing diaspora communities around images of a symbolic return.” This once again evokes the idea of the Irish and the pan-Africanists as subject races united in imposed exile, a unity on which Garvey based the Irish’ symbolic non-white status.
This does not mean that Garvey’s motivations for praising the Irish were entirely calculating, for he clearly took genuine inspiration from Irish republicanism. Garvey’s post-war political evolution attests to this and casts new light on the role of the New Race Consciousness in determining Irish racial status. As with many Black and pan-Africanist leaders, the New Race Consciousness helped push Garvey toward a more militant form of Black nationalism. While this implied a direct confrontation with the white race, which now included the Irish, it did not mean hostility toward the Irish cause in Garvey’s case. Garvey instead seemed to leave the Irish out of the formula.
Robert Hill explains this by arguing that changes in the Irish republican movement played a direct role in motivating Garvey’s evolution. Around the time of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, the republican movement splintered. The revolutionary turn of Sinn Fein impacted Garvey profoundly: his “admiration of the revolutionary nationalism of Sinn Fein…refocused his articulation of the race question: Africa must be for the Africans, and them exclusively.” Part of his identification with Sinn Fein stemmed from his belief that their revolutionary strategies symbolized both political independence and “racial redemption.” This yields two vital insights. First, Garvey’s admiration of the Irish may particularly have come from their ability to employ revolution as a means of racial redemption, Garvey’s core ambition. Second, Garvey evidently understood the Irish as needing to seek racial redemption. That he had this impression suggests that the Irish stood apart from the hegemonic white Anglo-Saxon race, which would not have needed to redeem itself in the same sense. Even as the New Race Consciousness emerged, therefore, Garvey seems to have understood the Irish as symbolically non-white.
During the years surrounding the first world war, roughly the first phase of Marcus Garvey’s political celebrity, Garvey made the Irish republican movement the central model for his brand of pan-Africanism. The reasons for this include his genuine admiration of the movement’s approach and success, the key lessons it offered for pan-Africanism, and Garvey’s personal connections to Ireland. That Garvey grew up in Jamaica and not America also could have contributed to his affinity for the Irish, since he likely did not encounter the anti-Black racism of some Irish Americans which many Black Americans experienced. Ultimately, centralizing the Irish in a global anticolonial movement largely comprised of non-whites led Garvey to give the Irish an honorary non-white status. Garvey made this work by relying on older conceptions of Irish race based on ethnicity and by emphasizing the diasporic element of Irish republicanism which intimately connected it to pan-Africanism. While the New Race Consciousness seemed to challenge the idea of a non-white Irish racial status, Garvey adopted a more fervent form Black nationalism without altering his view of the Irish. The direct if slightly counterintuitive influence Irish republicanism had on Garvey’s post-war evolution allowed him to have it both ways.
To today’s reader, the suggestion that Irish people once had non-white racial status — even in the narrow capacity presented here — might seem a bit implausible. It should serve as a reminder of the imprecision of race construction, and perhaps also as an inspiring historical phenomenon. After all, the idea that two movements as seemingly disparate as the Irish struggle for independence and Marcus Garvey’s drive to reclaim Africa for Africans could connect so profoundly leaves hope for similar international solidarities to develop in the future. And, if the idea of symbolic non-white status still feels murky, perhaps it is best to consider the Irish a “green race”, just as they were enshrined on the UNIA’s tricolor flag.
Bassett, Ray. “Marcus Garvey and 1916: An Inspiration to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Inspired by Sinn Fein and the Rising.” Anphoblacht, December 1, 2016. https://www.anphoblacht.com/contents/26525
Bergin, Cathy. “‘Unrest Among the Negroes’: The African Blood Brotherhood and the Politics of Resistance.” Race and Class 57, no. 3 (January 2016): 45–58.
Guterl, Matthew Pratt. “The New Race Consciousness: Race, Nation, and Empire in American Culture, 1910–1925.” Journal of World History 10, no. 2 (Fall 1999): 307–352.
Hill, Robert. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers: Volume I, 1826-August 1919. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983.
Jacobson, Matthew Fry. Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants in the United States. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.
Malouf, Michael G. Transatlantic Solidarities: Irish Nationalism and Caribbean Poetics. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2009.