Irish Lives Matter

Irish Lives Matter – the BLM of the 1920s!

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has grabbed headlines over the last year but many of its demands and tactics echo what Irish people were demanding back in the early 20th century.

This was brought home to me in recent research on my great-granduncle William McEnhill (1863-1943) who was Irish born but emigrated to the United States and lived most of his life in New Jersey. He was, to put it mildly, an ardent Irish Republican.

Irish people and the British Empire

Irish Americans were highly organised throughout the 20th century in support of what they viewed as a life and death struggle to remove the British Empire from Ireland. In 1922, the Irish Free State was declared. In effect, the first part of the British Empire since the American Revolution to get its freedom.

And what happened in Ireland was closely observed by those seeking to overthrow British rule in South Africa, Palestine and India. The interconnections are fascinating. For example, William went to fight in the Boer War in South Africa – on the side of the Boers against the British.

Although we now look at the Boers as responsible for the subsequent racist hell of apartheid South Africa, at the turn of the 20th century, many Irish people viewed them as plucky rebels taking on the Brits.

Irish Lives Matter in 1927 – issues that chime with BLM

By 1927, William had been elected as an officer of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic. On 3 October of that year, The Yonkers Herald reported that the association had adopted an America First resolution. That demanded the United States “should manage its own affairs without entangling alliances with other countries, specifically the British Empire”.

As with BLM today, this Irish Lives Matter movement objected to Hollywood’s depiction of Irish people. It successfully managed to remove a Metro Goldwyn Mayer movie called The Callahans and The Murphys from distribution. And that movie has now been totally lost. It seems to have been a screenplay that played to all the most hackneyed stereotypes of Catholic Irish families – ie, zillions of children.

DISCOVER: Hitler really only had one ball!

The association also supported the ousting of Chicago’s rather dictatorial schools superintendent William H. McAndrew who was described as “the stool pigeon of King George”. McAndrew had no time for the teaching trade unions and was accused of imposing a curriculum that denigrated the Founding Fathers.

His removal was engineered by Mayor William Hale Thompson who later staged a weird “trial” of McAndrew by the board of education alleging he was un-American (an unfortunate foreshadowing of anti-Communist witch hunts in the 1950s).

Given the public discourse now around statues, school curriculums, representation, enfranchisement and media attitudes – it seems that the Irish Lives Matter movement of the 1920s has found a strong echo today in the Black Lives Matter protests.

Christopher Columbus

Toppling statues and renaming streets – nothing new

Across the world – but particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom – we see the toppling of statues and a move towards the renaming of streets. Much of this a reaction to the association of people and names with historic racism.

Opinions are divided and I suspect will become even more so. But here’s the thing. There’s nothing very new in any of this. People have been tearing down statues for centuries. Names of streets and buildings have changed according to political fashion. What we’re witnessing is not something unprecedented.

Toppling statues and temples in Ancient Egypt

When I first toured the temples of ancient Egypt in 2009, I was really struck by the amount of early Christian defacing and destruction of the Pharaohs’ legacy. To make the point that the Christian God was better than Horus or Osiris, Christian zealots got to work with their chisels and hammers.

Byzantine crosses were etched deeply into the walls of temples that were already two thousand years old by that time. And an entire temple to the god Serapis was torn down by Christian monks. Goodness knows how many statues came toppling down.

Romans – big into toppling statues

The Romans were forever tearing down the statues and melting down the coinage of previous emperors no longer in favour. And then they became Christian and evolved into the Byzantine empire – with Constantinople as its capital – there were the endless iconoclastic disputes.

This is when some Christians believed all icons, statues and visual depictions of God were pagan graven images and had to be destroyed. A point of view revived centuries later in the Protestant Reformation. That saw English churches stripped of their ornate rood screens and effigies of the Virgin Mary and saints.

Walls with colourful images were similarly whitewashed. All of which left us with the simple village church that most people think is “traditional” in England. In fact, it was the product of an act of massive nationwide vandalism orchestrated by King Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell.

Renaming entire cities – a long history!

Renaming streets and even whole cities has been a recurrent feature of history. New York was called New Amsterdam under Dutch rule. Toronto was originally called York before its incorporation in 1834. In Australia, Melbourne was called Bearbrass once upon a time.

In India, Kokata was formerly Calcutta and before that the very English, Fort William. Africa has renamed many cities to re-Africanise them. So in Zimbabwe, the city of Salisbury was renamed Harare in 1982. While Kenya removed the English colonial name Broderick Falls from one of its towns and chose instead Webuye.

It’s unsettling for many people to see statues toppling to the ground. But rest assured, that they were almost made to be toppled. Historically speaking, it’s amazing how long some of our statues have lasted.

As somebody who grew up in Britain, I was certainly shocked on a visit to Richmond, Virginia to see how the Confederacy is still very much in your face. Of course the historian inside me is interested. But I don’t need a boulevard full of slave owners memorialised in stone and bronze to remind me of the Civil War.