A fascinating new exhibition at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum explores the links between the Irish and African diasporas. Historian Maurice J Casey explains how it came about.

A few months ago, while reading through microfilm scans in a library in Thurles, I discovered that Ira Aldridge, the most famous African American actor of the 19th century, performed in my small hometown of Cahir in September 1835. I made this discovery several months into my research for our latest exhibition here at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, Revolutionary Routes: Ireland and the Black Atlantic.

The moment was part of a pattern in researching this exhibition: I was constantly amazed by just how much diversity there is in the history of Ireland and our diaspora. Even my small Tipperary town of Cahir can lay claim to a moment in the cultural history of the African diaspora. Many other places across this island surely have similar stories to tell, we just need to set out and search for them.

Portrait of Ira Aldridge, a pastel image of a smiling, round raced Black man, by Taras Shevchenko_ 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko (1858)

Opening on Africa Day, Wednesday, 25 May, at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin's CHQ Building, Revolutionary Routes is an exhibition about the shared histories of the Irish and African diasporas.

The exhibition was developed in collaboration with the African American Irish Diaspora Network, a group devoted to recognising the multifaceted identities and legacies that are rooted in this shared history. Drawing from Paul Gilroy's famous idea of the Black Atlantic - the journeys undertaken by African people and culture across the Atlantic world since the origins of transatlantic slavery - the exhibition asks where Ireland and the Irish abroad fit into this history.

Displays at the exhibition
The exhibition at EPIC. Photo: Leon Farrell

Selecting stories

As curator, it was my task to select the stories that would help us imagine the scope of Ireland’s place within the Black Atlantic. I immediately knew where I wanted to start: in the revolutionary years that profoundly shaped our present world, the 1790s.

But it was not the United Irishmen and their rebellion of 1798 that interested me. Instead, I wanted to tell the Irish side of a revolution that came years before Wolfe Tone and his comrades met their fate: the Haitian Revolution, the first successful slave revolt in history. Surely, I thought, there must be an Irish connection to this moment?

In the brilliant work of historian Kate Hodgson, I discovered that there was indeed an Irish connection to the end of slavery in this French colony - not among the liberators, but on the side of the oppressors. Irish Catholic families - O’Rourke’s, O’Gorman’s and Fitzgeralds - participated in and were enriched by the brutal slave society of colonial Saint Domingue in the 18th century (today Haiti).

Beginning an Irish diaspora history in Haiti, rather than the hills and villages of Ireland, allowed me to illuminate the Irish migrant story against the backdrop of the ongoing struggle to overcome the racist ideas that structure our world.

Revolutionaries of the diaspora

Many stories in Revolutionary Routes point towards Irish diaspora revolutionaries who imagined new forms of solidarity that make them stand out as pioneers in their era.

The Harmel family - Michael Arthur Ray Barbara
The Harmel family, from left: Michael, Arthur, Ray and Barbara

Take, for example, Michael Harmel, the son of Irish Jewish emigrants in South Africa, who devoted his life to overturning the racist apartheid regime. At a radical gathering in the 1940s, he met a young lawyer with great potential: Nelson Mandela.

Revolutionary Routes also tells the story of Mary Mooney, an octogenarian Mayo woman who defied doctors’ advice in 1932 to set out on a global tour to demand the release of African American teenagers facing the death penalty in Alabama for crimes they did not commit.

Yet this is not just a history composed of grand moments, freedom fighters or reprehensible oppressors. Along the diaspora crossroads of the past can be found everyday relationships of friendship, love and enmity that Irish and African people navigated in global locations. Relatively small moments in the broad sweep of history, such as two people in love being guided by their hearts rather than the racist atmosphere of their era, had legacies that lasted generations.

A girl looks up at a painting of women dancing
A young visitor at the launch of Revolutionary Routes. Photo: Leon Farrell

The exhibition features a short documentary, Family Routes, which features the voices and insights of people who live each day of their lives at the crossroads of Irish and African diaspora identity.

Revolutionary Routes: Ireland and the Black Atlantic is open in EPIC until 30 October 2022.