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Irish Black History Month: 5 Facts You Likely Didn't Know
Yes, Irish Black History Month is a thing.
As you may (or may not) know, during the month of October, Black History Month is celebrated in several countries around the world and one of those countries is Ireland.
Irish Black History Month first began in Cork in 2010, although it wasn’t until 2014 that it was consolidated as a nationwide event. It was facilitated by a network of groups who worked together through Africa Irish Development Initiatives (AIDI) to host a series of events in celebration of the African-Irish community.
So, as we celebrate Black History Month in the Republic of Ireland, here are 5 interesting facts you likely didn’t know.
1. Tony Small
You might be interested to know that one of the earliest accounts of a Black presence on mainland Ireland was that of Tony Small, a freed formerly enslaved African-American who had saved the Irish aristocrat Lord Edward FitzGerald.
If the name Lord Edward Fitzgerald rings a bell, it’s because he was the Irish aristocrat who famously abandoned his esteemed position as an Irish parliamentarian and a veteran soldier in the British army in order to fight for Irish independence.
Lord Edward FitzGerald had fought on the side of the British in the American Revolutionary War and, gravely wounded, had been rescued by an escaped enslaved man called Tony Smalls after the battle of Eutaw Springs. From then on, Tony became Lord FitzGerald’s servant and accompanied him to Ireland. In 1786 Tony’s portrait was painted by artist John Roberts.
2. The Black Siren
Long before there was the incredible Whitney Houston or the inimitable Aretha Franklin, there was another black songstress superstar…her name was Rachel Baptiste.
Rachel was a Black Irish singer and musician known as ‘the Black Siren’. From 1750 to 1775, she performed throughout Ireland and organized numerous concerts with her husband, fellow musician known only as Mr Crow.
Over her twenty-five-year career Rachel performed for audiences across Ireland, including for the Irish dramatist John O’Keefe who described her as being received ‘with great delight’ by the audience.
3. Frequented by Abolitionists
At the height of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Ireland was visited by a number of well-known former enslaved people turned abolitionists, including Olaudah Equiano, Charles Lenox Remond and Frederick Douglass.
Olaudah Equiano was a Nigerian-British abolitionist and writer, and one of the key members of the Sons of Africa movement. His biography, in which he recounted his lived experiences of slavery, helped pass legislation in the UK abolishing the slave trade. Equiano visited Dublin and Belfast in the 1790s as well as other counties around Ireland where he said he was ‘very kindly received’.
Charles Lenox Remond was an activist and abolitionist from Massachusetts. In 1841, he embarked on a tour of the UK and Ireland to raise awareness of the horrors of slavery and raise support for the abolitionist movement, both in the US and the UK. In Dublin, his lectures were said to draw large crowds.
And last but by no means least, in 1845 the iconic African-American abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass spent four months in Ireland which he described as ‘transformative’. He even referred to himself as ‘The Black O’Connell’ a reference to the revered Irish Catholic Emancipator Daniel O’Connell whom he met during his time there. Former US president Barack Obama commented on this historical meeting when he visited Ireland in 2011.
4. Africans and the Irish language
Part of Ireland’s rich cultural heritage is the Irish language, which Black residents have learned and actively fought to preserve.
One famous example is Osman Tisani, who was a South African expat living in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century. He was notable for speaking fluent Irish and being the first known person of African origin to speak the Galway Gaeltacht dialect of Irish. He was listed in the 1911 census as living in Galway.
Nowadays, the Irish radio presenter Ola Majekodunmi, who is a passionate Irish language activist, hosts a radio show Afra-Éire on Raidió na Life 106.4FM in which she features music by African and Afro-Irish artists. In 2020, she was voted onto the board of Foras na Gaeilge, the public body responsible for the promotion of the Irish language throughout Ireland.
5. The first black Miss Ireland
History was made in 2021 when Pamela Uba became the first Black woman to be crowned Miss World Ireland! Born in South Africa to Nigerian parents in 1996, she moved to Ireland aged seven. Pamela went on to study medical science at undergraduate level before earning a master’s degree in clinical chemistry. She worked as a medical scientist at University Hospital Galway.
Pamela being crowned Miss Ireland 2021 is significant because she is the first Black woman in Ireland’s history to win. Before her, in 2019 Fionnghuala O’Reilly became the first Black woman to represent Ireland internationally and to compete in the Miss Universe pageant.