Exploring Ireland’s place in the Black Atlantic at EPIC

David Wolfe talks to Trinity graduate and historian Dr Maurice Casey about his new exhibition, Revolutionary Routes: Ireland and the Black Atlantic

Ireland, unique among western European countries as a former colony rather than coloniser, has often preferred to view itself as exempt from the difficult history of racism and slavery which much scholarship is only now coming to terms with. However, Ireland and Irish people have played their part in this history, both as complicit parties, steadfast opponents, and everything in between – a part which is more nuanced and complex than many of us are aware. A new exhibition at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum seeks to explore this history and examine, for the first time, Ireland’s place in the “Black Atlantic”. Revolutionary Routes: Ireland & The Black Atlantic presents an examination of Ireland’s diaspora and its entanglement with the international history of imperialism, racism, anti-racism, and abolition.

Revolutionary Routes was researched and curated by Trinity graduate Dr Maurice J Casey, in his role as the Department of Foreign Affairs Historian in Residence at EPIC. Having completed his PhD at Oxford University on radical internationalism in Ireland, Casey says that the new exhibition is “a culmination of my thinking on the Irish diaspora, radical politics and racial justice.”

“African and African American diaspora influences are much more present in Ireland than one might at first realise, and this is strongly evident in our own archives.”

With most of Casey’s research taking place amid uncertain pandemic restrictions, opportunities to visit international archives were limited. Nevertheless, he was surprised “by the wealth of primary source material on African diaspora history available within Ireland.” “Digitised newspapers and local newspaper archives were an amazing resource,” Casey says. “In the Irish Workers’ Voice, a 1930s radical newspaper, I found an incredible description of Black Dubliners protesting outside a Dublin theatre where a pro-Mussolini musician was performing during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.” Even outside of the capital, local archives produced some hidden gems: “On a microfilm reel in the Thurles library, I was amazed to find an account of the African American actor Ira Aldridge visiting my own small town of Cahir, Co Tipperary, in the 1830s.” African and African American diaspora influences are much more present in Ireland than one might at first realise, and this is strongly evident in our own archives.

The exhibition prominently features reminders of uncomfortable aspects of Ireland’s past, including involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and Irish beneficiaries of racial hierarchies. According to Casey, “It is absolutely vital that we confront challenging parts of this history.” However, this does not mean necessarily or solely assuming a sense of guilt for the wrongdoings of the past. “I think it is more useful if we feel responsible when reading this history rather than a feeling of collective guilt alone,” Casey says. “I would like people to read this history and think ‘Many of these dark legacies continue. So what am I going to do about it?’”

The exhibition comprises four freestanding display boards, which together tell 12 stories of departure, arrival, and return, both to and from Ireland, by members of the Irish, African, and African American diaspora. The lack of physical artefacts on display may diverge from visitors’ ordinary expectations of a historical exhibition, but the engaging and visually appealing full-length informational boards, designed by Dublin-based graphic designer Joanne Byrne, nonetheless hold one’s attention. A triadic colour scheme of shades of green, white and orange reflect the themes of Ireland and revolution which underlie the exhibition.

“Revolutionary Routes presents a divergent approach to Irish diaspora history in where it begins its narrative.”

Revolutionary Routes presents a divergent approach to Irish diaspora history in where it begins its narrative. Rather than the Great Famine, the conventional starting point for emigration histories, the exhibition begins with the Haitian revolution. Beginning in 1791, this was an insurrection in which self-liberated slaves revolted against slave owners and French colonial rule in Saint Domingue, now Haiti. Many of the beneficiaries of slavery in Saint Domingue were descendants of Catholic Irish families who had themselves fled violence and persecution by the British in the sixteenth century. The irony implicit in this is carried through the exhibition, which features a diverse cast of characters, black and white, with some relation to racism or solidarity.

The exhibition importantly places notions of race at the centre of a reevaluation of Irish history, a historiography which often tends to see religion as the most important separator of identities. By doing so, it reminds visitors that though Catholics were persecuted for their religion, they were nonetheless able to benefit from their designation as “white” in racial hierarchies. As Casey puts it, Catholics who were “exiled from home by British imperialism…merely exchanged being oppressed by one Empire for a role as active participants in the brutal operation of another”; the privileges granted by artificial racial divisions made this possible. The exhibition challenges notions that it was only the Anglo-Irish or Protestant Ascendancy class who were complicit – the evidence it presents counters attempts to “shirk the blame” for historic wrongdoings.

Revolutionary Routes is largely unique within EPIC itself. Rather than another chapter in Ireland’s long history of emigration, it contains many tales of inward migration and return to Ireland by African and Irish diaspora, alongside those of departure. “I am very much obsessed with the idea that Irish interest in ‘our’ diaspora history is counter-intuitively insular and needlessly exclusive,” says Casey. “Our Irish diaspora history should include the diasporas within Ireland: migrants who arrived in Ireland from abroad and their descendants. Roughly half of the stories featured in the exhibition are about routes taken by people who came to Ireland or were themselves the children of migrants.” It departs from the museum’s usual focus on Irish emigration to North America, often pitched towards white Americans with romantic notions of Irish heritage, and consequently has much that is new and unfamiliar to offer even the lifelong resident of Dublin with a knowledge of Ireland’s past.

“By presenting a bold new narrative [Revolutionary Routes] challenges conventional, flawed notions of Irish exceptionalism and innocence.”

Revolutionary Routes achieves a number of things. By presenting a bold new narrative it challenges conventional, flawed notions of Irish exceptionalism and innocence. With the aid of an extensive bibliography hosted on the museum’s website, it serves as an accessible introduction to this complex and underappreciated side of Irish history. Above all, it is responsible history; it does not evade, but rather holds steadfast to a historian’s duty to the truth. It does not oversimplify historical narratives for the sake of visitors’ comfort or comprehension. Rather, it is nuanced, acknowledging that there are rarely “good guys and bad guys,” but multidimensional characters with merits and flaws, who did not always make perfect choices, but who can still be acknowledged for the good as well as the bad. As author Emma Dabiri expressed at the launch of the exhibition, Revolutionary Routes “reorients Irish people as active agents” within the history of imperialism and racism, and establishes Ireland as “a site of significance in the Black Atlantic world.”

Why should people see this exhibition? “For a reason to be hopeful!” says Casey. “Although we must discuss in stark and uncompromising terms histories of Irish complicity in oppression, the exhibition is ultimately grounded in an idea that radical change for the better is possible through building ties of solidarity.” 

“There is nothing innate about Irish people – or any other people, for that matter – that makes us liberators or oppressors. Instead, solidarity is a choice we make. As a historian, I am interested in figuring out why people did (or did not) make that choice. If you are interested in that idea too, I think you should come to the exhibition. I hope you will be encouraged to fight injustice afterwards, rather than becoming resigned to inequality being inevitable.”

The exhibition takes around 25-30 minutes in its entirety, and is included as part of the museum’s regular exhibit. At €15.50 for a student ticket, it is up to the individual whether to cough up the price of entry; if they do so however, this important and impressive product of erudite research is well worth a visit.

Revolutionary Routes: Ireland & The Black Atlantic will run from May until October 2022 at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum.

David Wolfe

David Wolfe is a Junior Sophister student of History and Political Science. He is News Editor of Trinity News, having previously served as Assistant News Editor and as copyeditor.