Alternative Perspectives: Ireland’s Centenaries.

5 February 2022

On 16th January 1922 the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland handed over power to the new Irish Provisional Government and a State commemoration took place at Dublin Castle in January 2022. This was one of many commemorations that will take place as part of the planned “Decade of Centenaries” and the Association of Mixed Race Irish (AMRI) is keen to reflect on and share other commemoration stories that are expected to remain outside mainstream narratives reported in the media.

To this end, we are delighted to present below a lecture by Dr Phil Mullen which she gave at TCD’s Global Brain Health Institute at TCD in January 2022. As this is a year of Centenaries, this lecture is about the ninth Irish Race Congress held in Paris in January 1922 and the Publication of Ulysses also released in January 1922. It covers some interesting research on black people in Ireland.


Lecture on January 1922 Irish Race Congress, January 1922 Publication of Ulysses and some Interesting Research on black people in Ireland

By Dr Phil Mullen

Like so many young people who took the ferry to Holyhead to escape Ireland in the early 1980s, I embodied that expressed desire of James Joyce to “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Maybe outside of Ireland, and away from that cannibalistic sow (Joyce at his best in describing Ireland), I could find what it meant to be Irish and who I really was. As well as earn a few bob.

London didn’t pan out for me and I soon found myself back home in Ireland reflecting on Joyce’s words. As a black Irish woman, my own perceived racial difference was an unbidden token of not fitting in, a torn ticket stub that would never allow me, or any of the other hundreds of black children locked away in Irish institutional ‘care’, entry to the ballroom of belonging. But I also thought about the word ‘forge’ and its dual sense of positive creation – to make something, and duplicitous artifice, as in a forgery. Maybe that racial conscience - so long denied to me - was itself a forgery, a contrivance that manipulated mere excrescence of skin to suggest membership.

These two possible meanings of forging an Irish racial identity come to mind again as we celebrate the centenary of two events this week and next in Paris, that propelled on to the world stage very definite notions of what it meant to be Irish.

The first of these, the week-long Irish Race Convention opened in the Salle des Fêtes of the Continental Hotel on Monday, 23 January 1922, on the third anniversary of the establishment of Dáil Eireann and the first shots fired in the Irish War of Independence at Soloheadbeg. I have long been interested in the study of the race conventions as they reflect the understanding held of the Irish collective and its racial destiny. Widely viewed as a failure due to the tensions which erupted over the Treaty split and accompanying Balkanisation of Ireland into North and South, this was the ninth such Irish Race Convention (two more would follow in New York City in 1947 and 1994 respectively), and was very much in keeping with the spirit of the times as the first World Zionist Congress and the first Pan-African Conference had been held in 1897 and 1900 respectively.

The lofty World Congress of the Irish Race (as it was termed) intended to win international recognition for the new Irish state and establish as, Éamon de Valera put it, the “expression and the illustration of Irish individuality”. A year earlier, in January 1921, Count Plunkett, Minister for Foreign Affairs, had spoken of the Irish race “as but one body” and the first session in Paris heard papers delivered by Douglas Hyde, Eoin MacNeill and both W. B. and Jack Yeats echoing this sentiment. A general invitation was issued to 30 million of those of Irish blood the world over, and Irish newspapers of January 1922 spoke of it as being the greatest assembly of the Irish race since Brian Boru convened a similar hosting in 1014. Though delegates came from as far as South Africa, Australia, South America, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Java and even China (in the guise of recently returned Catholic missionaries), for various reasons Irish Canadians did not attend, and while 60 delegates were expected from the large Irish community in the United States, only four attended.

Who also did not attend were members of the 19th and early 20th century black Irish community. For a tantalising hint of these ignored individuals and their documented presence we have to turn to the remarkable work of Dr Bill Hart, formerly of the University of Ulster at Coleraine, who complicates firmly held historical images of Ireland as monolithically white.

Given the racial politics of the US in the 19th century, the census records of that emigrant’s lodestar were singularly focused on recording the racial backgrounds of their citizens and consequently took considerable efforts to explicitly record not only the race of the individual according to White, Black and Mulatto (mixed) categories and their country of birth, but also that of their parents. By examining these records for the period 1850-1920, Dr. Hart has identified 1,694 black or mixed race individuals who were born in Ireland prior to 1900, many of whom had black or mixed race parents also born in Ireland. This figure only records those who, like their white compatriots, migrated to the US during this turbulent period. The number of black Irish, born in Ireland, who migrated to the US in the decades before 1900 is further compounded by the fact that the US census figures for 1890 were destroyed and therefore, it is possible that the number is even greater. Furthermore, these records obviously do not contain the black Irish, born in Ireland pre-1900, who opted to remain, or who migrated to England, Canada, Australia or elsewhere in a similar manner to so many other Irish at that time. This suggests a continuity of presence of this community, but it is a presence of absence from racial assumptions made by the Irish people, in Declan Kiberd’s phrase, “secure in their national philosophy” of racial homogeneity.

Just a few days later and a few streets away from where the Race Convention delegates jockeyed for control of the short-lived ‘Fine Ghaedheal’, an organisation to represent Irish people throughout the world (with de Valera at its head), a different expression of Ireland’s racial conviction finally saw the light of day. On Rue de l’Odéon, on February 2nd, the occasion of Joyce’s 40th birthday, Sylvia Beach, the “midwife of modernism” from her Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, published the full 262,869 words of Ulysses in its unexpurgated entirety. The book is full of examples of the exclusionary impulse in the operations of Irish nation- and identity-building, whether republican (the Citizen) or unionist (Mr. Deasy), as well as the accompanying raced language. Every single Irish person of non-white colouring has heard a similar ‘where are you from?’ question such as that posed by the Citizen to Leopold Bloom, “What is your nation, if I may ask?” to which they may well echo Bloom’s reply “Ireland. I was born here. Ireland.”

In Ulysses, Joyce painted a picture of the Irish in all their various forms, and sure enough I find the language of my fellow citizens who dismantled me so much growing up, a language which reflects the superimposed roles of race, nation, gender, and religion in defining exclusion and inclusion. On seeing an advertisement of a popular minstrel show and its star Eugene Stratton “grinning with thick n***** lips” Father Conmee is unable to separate the “negro” impersonator Stratton from the “souls of black and brown and yellow men ... and the African mission”. For my part, on reading those words, I am unable to separate my thoughts from a childhood of school collections for the black babies and experiencing a range of racial calumnies that would make a Klan gathering proud. Or my horror at lynching by “a lot of Deadwood Dicks in slouch hats and they firing at a Sambo strung up in a tree”. Or the reductive sexualisation of the black body as Molly fantasises about black penises but ridicules a child by likening its hair to that of blacks. I find myself as one of the transgressive ‘curiosities’ of Bloom’s fantasy, the ‘negress’ epitomised by Cissy Caffrey, who he calls “the dark one with the mop head and the n***** mouth”, and “golliwog curls”, and later as a “shilling whore”.

Perhaps Joyce’s language simply conforms to the Eurocentric bias of non-whites much as he seemed to do in relation to other racial biases (for example he muses in Ulysses that Irish Italians liked to tuck into purloined cats, still a common trope for the culinary ‘Other’ in Ireland as I grew up). Another intriguing possibility, contained in the challenge presented by research like that of Dr. Hart, is that perhaps “[m]adcap Ciss with her golliwog curls” hints at an atavistic truth outside the purview of Joycean scholars as well as those who cling to the foundational myth of Irish racial homogeneity. Blackness in Ireland did not emerge suddenly with large-scale immigration to Ireland in the 1990s but has been a presence in different periods of Irish history, and certainly as far back as pre-history (as the 2021 hit RTE show on The Burren pointed out). Perhaps Joyce is inadvertently referencing this Irish bloodline in his description of Cissy, a bloodline which forges the Irish racial conscience, and which will one day be acknowledged at some future Congress of the Irish Race attended by our now more racially diverse population.

A State Apology

4 April 2021 - A European State apologised to mixed race people in 2019

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On this day two years ago, on 4 April 2019, the Belgium federal government gave a State Apology to mixed race people ( known as Métis) , for forced abductions from their African mothers in colonial Africa, forced adoptions, lost identities, targeted segregation and institutionalisation in Belgium.

Sounds familiar? This will resonate with mixed race people across Europe who find themselves caught up in the legacy of the decolonisation of the African states in mid-20th Century.

Each European state will have a different take on and history of African colonisation and decolonisation. Ireland, for example, though not generally considered a colonial power itself, was historically part of the British Empire. In the 1960s Ireland saw a significant influx of African students from decolonising African States to study subjects such as medicine, law and government administration.

Some of these African men had relationships with white Irish women and had mixed race children, many of whom were left in Irish state Institutions run by religious orders. In Belgium, a colonial power, abducted mixed race children from their colonies who were institutionalised by religious orders. 

The Belgium Catholic church also apologised for their role in these human rights violations.       

While working through the Mother and Baby Homes Investigation recently in Ireland, I have had the pleasure to find time to meet with our sister organisation in Belgium called the Association Métis de Belgique, who are still seeking justice and reparations for the wrong that was done to them even two years after the State apology.

Today I would like to draw your attention to the apology made by the Belgium State in 2019. How children of African descent were treated in European states is an issue that needs to be looked at from human rights and racial justice perspective. It is often linked to the legacy of European colonisation, see the translation of the apology below:

On the 4 April 2019 in the Federal houses of Parliament, the President of the assembly spoke briefly before introducing the Prime Minister Charles Michel to give the apology.

The President of the assembly said:

“This is about a past that is still alive and well, but also about much more than that. This sensitive issue is symbolic, but above all human. For some, it is even a cause of trauma.

I would also like to welcome the presence in this hemicycle of several representatives of the MiXed2020 and Métis de Belgique / Metis van België Associations which bring together the Métis born in the territories under Belgian colonial domination.

For many years, the discrimination suffered by Métis from Belgian colonization in Africa was considered a taboo subject in Belgium and very often overlooked.

Yet there are thousands of Métis children who grew up without knowing their real family and who were placed in orphanages and foster families between 1959 and 1962, sometimes without birth certificates or nationality.

It all started in Flanders. Following actions by the ASBL Mater Matuta and the research of several historians, the Flemish Parliament unanimously adopted two resolutions in January and June 2015 which recognise the victims of forced adoptions. The Flemish Parliament even issued a public apology on November 24, 2015.

An important colloquium was organized in the Senate on April 25, 2017. This colloquium was an opportunity to address in particular the question of the arbitrary classification of Métis by the colonial administration as subjects of customary law and non-citizens of Belgian civil law and of learn about the study by Cegesoma (the Center for Studies and Documentation of War and Contemporary Societies) relating to the transfer of mixed-race children to Belgium at the end of the colonial period.

In June and July 2017, three other parliamentary assemblies, the Senate, the Parliament of the French Community, whose presence of the President in the gallery I welcome, as well as the French-speaking Brussels Parliament also adopted a resolution relating to this segregation.

Several colleagues therefore rightly felt that the House should follow suit. The Foreign Relations Committee therefore unanimously adopted a resolution on March 7, 2018 so that the House of Representatives also expresses itself on the subject and officially recognizes these facts.

It was also a question of ordering the government to take several actions allowing at least partial reparation for those who suffered in one way or another by the actions of the Belgian authorities in these circumstances. This resolution was then adopted by the Chamber during the plenary session of March 29, 2018…”

Prime Minister Charles Michel then gave the State Apology which is as follows:

 “Discrimination against Métis resulting from Belgian colonisation in Africa has been suppressed for a long time.

On the eve of the wave of independence in Africa, several thousand Métis children were nevertheless living in Belgian Africa. In most cases, they were children of Belgian men who held a post in Africa and of Congolese, Rwandan or Burundian women.


Under colonial rule, mixed couples were prohibited. They were subject to social stigma and sanctions. Métis children were seen as a problem, a dangerous element, even a threat to the colonial system.

The colonial authorities and the Belgian state at the time took measures to fight against miscegenation. These children were taken from their African mothers and generally educated by nuns in orphanages or boarding schools, far from whites and blacks.

Between 1959 and 1962, the Belgian state transported hundreds of these children to Belgium, usually without the permission of their African mothers. The children were either adopted by Belgian families or placed with foster families or institutions.

Ladies and gentlemen, the distribution of Métis children over the entire territory of Belgium was effected by separating siblings and led to losses of identity due to the various changes of first names, names and even dates of birth. Many are without birth certificates or identity papers.

Another factor has also made things worse for Métis children. In Belgian Africa, the Métis were considered as belonging to the category of higher degree of civilisation known as "evolved", because of their partly white origins and, if their father had recognised them, they were Belgian citizens.

However, a ministerial circular of September 24, 1960 addressed to the mayors recommended that, if the bond of filiation was not established, the child should be considered as African. To those for whom this link was not established, identity cards for foreigners were therefore granted.

Despite the fact that, later, the laws made it possible to recover this nationality within a certain period, due to a lack of information, few Métis made use of it and many of them had to go through the naturalisation procedure in order to '' acquire Belgian nationality. It was difficult and extremely painful for the Métis children to then rebuild their lives in Belgium.

The emotional abandonment experienced during childhood, uprooting, administrative difficulties as well as the need to assume a double identity without knowing one's origins have undoubtedly constituted a daily challenge and a real suffering.

The House last year approved a resolution condemning the targeted segregation of which the Métis were victims under the colonial administration of the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Burundi until 1962 and after decolonisation, as well as the policy of forced kidnapping going hand in hand with the latter. The Catholic Church of Belgium also apologized to the victims concerned for the role it played in this regard.

During the hearings, the federal government undertook to take the results of your work into account. Several meetings were organised with several firms and administrations concerned, but also with representatives of the Belgian Métis Association.

A cooperation agreement has been concluded between the FPS External Relations and the Archives of the Kingdom, with a double objective: to allow the archives to be consulted by those concerned and that they can obtain information, on the one hand, and research scientists, on the other hand. This research is spread over four years. An initial financing of 50,000 euros has already been achieved. Métis files that were kept at the Africa Museum were transferred to the Kingdom Archives.

The Belgian Métis Association has drawn up a list of the difficulties that still arise. With regard to Belgian nationality, the persons concerned were invited to submit their individual request, supported by a relevant and complete file, to the FPS Justice. The latter will examine them within the framework of its powers.

With regard to civil status documents, the FPS Justice will propose as soon as possible a maximum of possible solutions within the limits of the existing legal framework. In addition, the Minister of Justice informed the College of Public Prosecutors of any difficulties that the persons concerned may have encountered regarding the individual proceedings in progress.

Ladies and gentlemen, by setting up a system of segregation targeted against mixed-race people and their families in Belgian colonial Africa, the Belgian state carried out acts contrary to respect for fundamental human rights. This is why, in the name of the federal government, I recognise the targeted segregation of which the Métis were victims under the colonial administration of the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi until 1962 and following the decolonisation as well as the related forced kidnapping policy.

On behalf of the Belgian federal government, I apologise to the mixed-race people from Belgian colonisation and their families for the injustices and the pain they suffered. I also wish to express our compassion for the African mothers whose children have been torn away.

I hope that this solemn moment will be an additional step towards an awareness and a broad understanding of our national history. I of course also hope that this declaration will strengthen our determination to fight relentlessly against all forms of discrimination, racism or xenophobia.

Despite this tragic history, many mixed race people from colonisation have actively participated in the development of a more open and tolerant society, rich in its diversity. This opens up hope for the future that we will all be optimistic messengers for a respectful and solid alliance between Europe and Africa. “

By Conrad Bryan on 4 April 2021

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