Irish Immigrants and Slaves

How did the Irish get along with slaves in the South? A very few bought slaves. Maunsel White in Plaquemines Parish, near New Orleans, owned four plantations and some 192 slaves. Frederick Stanton, of Natchez made a good living as a cotton factor. By the time of his death in 1859, he owned 333 slaves across sixteen plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana. For that time period, to be a planter was the height of society. City Directories in England and Ireland listed the gentry and the local nobility. The gentry and nobility held a special place. They were an economic engine in the old world. Similarly, the City Directories in the Southern cities reserved a special section for planters. Planters were the gentry and nobility of the new world.

But, most Irish who owned slaves owned just a few. In Mississippi, merchants P.H. McGraw and P.J. Noonan each owned one slave in 1860. In New Orleans, Dennis Donovan, drayman, owned three slaves, who probably worked as teamsters for him. Fr. Mullon, the hero to Irish in New Orleans, owned two slaves. I previously wrote about Fr. Mullon here.

Buying Slaves as a Kindness

We do not know now the circumstances of Fr. Mullon owning slaves. It may be that he bought slaves as a kindness. Some slaveowners, such as Thomas Jackson, future Civil War general, purchased slaves to help a particular slave remain near his/her family. This author’s ancestors owned one slave in Louisville, while operating a boarding house. Another Irish ancestor owned a slave also while running a boarding house in New Orleans. At least in the Price family, those instances of slave ownership were brief and did not last longer than a few years. Patrick Murphy came to Natchez to work on construction projects. He saved his money and speculated in slaves. He sold one African-American slave, George, for $1,500 on the eve of the Civil War.

Living in Proximity

The more common experience for most Irish was simply living in close proximity to slaves and freedmen. Mobile’s sixth ward housed Irish immigrants and slaves. It was common for slaves to have some measure of relative freedom in the cities. So, the white establishment saw the closeness between Irish and slaves as a concern. City officials responded by passing laws preventing “illicit” trade between free persons, white and back, and slaves. In Vicksburg, in 1859, John “Red Jack” McGuiggan was convicted of selling forged passes to slaves. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The timing, in 1859, probably contributed to the harsh sentence.

Martha Ann Logan of Mobile, was brought to court for having interracial sexual relationship with a slave named David. A local reporter described the offense as “disgusting,” but what would be described in Boston as “goodly and fashionable.” Catherine Harrington was prosecuted for “trafficking” (i..e., selling liquor) with slaves. Kitty Donigan was prosecuted for “harboring a slave.” Irish saloon keepers throughout the South illegally sold liquor to slaves.

Irish Were not Abolitionists

Of course, the over-arching question in the 1850’s was slavery and the fear of abolitionists. Some Southern leaders saw the Irish as potential abolitionists. But, the Irish fear of evangelical Protestants rendered such a possibility unlikely. Too, there were instances of Irish attacking slaves. Employers of workers on the Brunswick canal had to separate the Irish workers form the slaves, to prevent the attacks by the Irish. Patrick Murphy slapped a slave girl in Natchez for alleged insolence. When the white owner told Murphy he could not strike slaves on his property, Murphy packed up his tools and left. On another occasion when a slave owner let a slave sit at the same table as Murphy, the proud Irishman said he was “not one of them to sit at second or nigroes [sic] table.”

P. Kennedy in Virginia insisted slaves were better fed and clothed than the poor Irish farmers. He complained about Yankees who went to Europe to make money, complain about slavery and stir up English ladies. He said it would be better for the Irish laborer if he was half as well-fed and taken care of as the slaves in whom the owner had an interest. Kennedy was saying the slaves was treated better because his owner had invested money in him. Kennedy allowed there were some bad masters. But, he added, there was no comparison to bad landlords in Ireland. Irish landlords would drive out their tenants to the roadside to starve. He believed no one could justly criticize slavery. We might disagree today, but certainly, the state of the Irish tenant farmer was quite bad at the time.

Like most slavery questions of the time, the Irish interaction with slaves was complicated.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 122-125.

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