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Breaking Ground Ireland

By Katrina Goldstone

In May 1791, Olaudah Equiano, the black abolitionist, came to Ireland on a speaking tour promoting his book The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or Gustavus Vassa, The African (1789). He spent several months in Ireland, where enthusiastic audiences turned out to hear him speak. The book sold well, and his freed slave narrative struck a chord, resonating with those Irish people hungry for freedom from colonial oppression and inspired by the ideas of the recent French Revolution. A narrative transcending the particular circumstances of his life and having broad appeal, it was also an early example of black self-representation: ‘WRITTEN BY HIMSELF.’ He was not the only black revolutionary figure to reach Irish shores. Frederick Douglass visited Ireland in the fateful year of 1845, at the start of the Great Famine; he met his hero Daniel O’Connell and wrote, ‘I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country.’ He, too, had written an account of his life as ‘AN AMERICAN SLAVE’, published in that same year. 

Equiano was one of five writers that African American critic Henry Louis Gates names as founding a black literary tradition in the eighteenth century.  Nini Rodgers, in her historical research for Equiano and Anti-Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Belfast (2000), uncovered a more unpalatable history – Irish networks involved in and profiting from the slave trade,  her evidence producing ‘a focused analysis of the ways in which slavery and the slave trade shaped Irish society, economy and political attitudes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.’ 

Such ancient history may seem irrelevant in twenty-first-century Ireland, but in fact it represents just one of many multifaceted modes of transmission of ideas about Africans and other peoples of colour that have circulated in Ireland for centuries, even without a minority presence. Prejudiced perceptions could sometimes be embellished by later generations of Irish emigrants in the United States and Britain. Sometimes there were friendships and alliances, holding anti-imperialist or trade union interests in common, but often emigrants transmitted crude ideas of ‘race’ back to Ireland. There has been no real puncturing of some of these myths in the Irish national story – the trope still stands of the Irish always rooting for the underdog, rather than acknowledging the ‘servant of colonialism’ role of the Irish in certain outposts of Empire such as the Irish creole island of Montserrat where Equiano was held as a slave. As the Irish-Antipodean writer Shiva R Joyce points out, Ireland is a country ‘that prides itself on understanding colonial oppression’. Yet the puzzle remains why some in Ireland remain unable to join the dots of a shared imperial history of dominance with the British and to relate that historic experience to people of colour and their complex trajectory of arrival.

Irish literature was policed for decades in the twentieth century, literally and metaphorically, by censorship and by preconceptions about what the representation of Irishness should accomplish. Writing in 1936, Irish Jewish educationalist and poet Leslie Daiken, railed against ‘the capitalist Free State of today, where as a result of veto, ban and boycott, the whole social atmosphere tends not only to thwart, but atrophy the creative impulse among poets, and reduce the rising generation to one of cultural frustrates’. There were always rebels – James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brien who baulked at the idea of serving up a limiting vision of the Nation, without critique, as the function of literature. As pointed out by Sharmilla Beezmohun, Sarah Sanders and Nick Chapman in their Introduction to Breaking Ground Ireland (2022), things change: ‘In the past ten years, we’ve heard a chorus of voices from across the globe calling for greater inclusivity within the arts, including within the literature and publishing industries.’ Breaking Ground Ireland is ‘the first publication of its kind highlighting writers and illustrators of colour from ethnic minority backgrounds in Ireland.’

Among a number of initiatives aimed at opening up the cultural landscape, including The Working-Class Writing Archive and Diversifying Irish Poetry: Poetry Critics of Colour in Ireland, Breaking Ground Ireland follows the pioneering model of showcasing that Speaking Volumes set up in Britain back in 2013. Demands for an inclusive diversity, in the Irish case, were articulated earlier though not always leading to sustained solutions. In the early 2000s, Ireland became a Celtic Tiger economy, a destination for migrants as opposed to an exporter of its own people. There were older established minorities such as Irish Travellers and a small Jewish presence, but whereas the optionally hyphenated London-Irish or Irish American might be taken for granted in diasporic communities, why has it been more of a challenge to accept multiple identities on home soil? It is one thing to recognise a need for greater representation of the multiplicity of Irishness, quite another to support it. With the emergence of a more multi-ethnic population, it has become clear in the cultural sphere that there are new stories to be told, new experiences to be reflected through the arts, and that proper credit is due to other minorities for their cultural contributions and influence. Acknowledgement, for instance, that Irish Traveller musicians have profoundly shaped and influenced Irish traditional music. ‘Irish culture’ has not been as monolithic as some commentators infer. The admission that structural inequality is entrenched in the cultural infrastructure can take longer to own up to than inequities in the penal or justice systems. The arts are liberal, populated with good, right-on sorts. How can they/we possibly be holding back progress? 

The reckoning with this contradiction, spearheaded by national campaigns such as Waking the Feminists and international ones such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, has shaken up complacencies – again. I was around the first time cultural diversity became a buzzword in the Irish arts sector – often more lip service than will-to-change – yet there were some brave souls questioning the status quo on Irishness. Creative Activity for Everyone, with black Liverpudlian Wes Wilkie at its helm, brought important black British artists like Eddie Chambers to conduct workshops in Ireland in the early 2000s; Wilkie was also instrumental, with Fire Station Artists’ Studios, in instigating the seminal art project by David Jacques, As If in a Dream, Dreamt by Another (2004), with portraits of migrants and text of their life stories in a central exhibition space, Temple Bar Gallery and Studios in Dublin. In 2005, Mono, the first multicultural TV programme, was aired on Irish television, presented by theatre maker  Bisi Adigun and activist Shalini Sinha.  Attempts through media and culture to better represent the diversity of the Irish population find that literature is a hard bastion to storm at the best of times.

The first substantive investigation into how to remove barriers in the arts infrastructure hindering minority ethnic artists, writers and playwrights was published in 2009, an initiative of the Irish Arts Council. Research was led by the internationally renowned dramaturge and academic, Rustom Bharucha and academic Daniel Jewesbury. Other reports, other initiatives have followed since, most recently the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion report published in May 2022, again by the Arts Council of Ireland. Rather than the call for diversity being just this year’s publishing fad, with both individuals and organisations now contesting the idea that Irish culture is monocultural, Breaking Ground Ireland, part of a wider initiative to support and amplify minority voices across Ireland, is a small publication, yet  has an historic significance with its presentation of 90 Irish writers and illustrators of colour. It has the potential to represent a seismic cultural shift, if widely disseminated and properly used and consulted by cultural programmers, academics and the publishing industry. As the Irish-Nigerian writer Gabriel Gbadamosi observes, ‘Black and brown Irish voices are changing the music of what happens in Irish literature… because now more Irish people can be heard’. Breaking Ground Ireland can act as a cultural calling card, a promotional tool, celebrating the writers and illustrators of colour in a widening of Irish literature. With its moving and insightful essay by Kit de Waal and stirring introductory essay by the editors, Breaking Ground Ireland sounds a rallying cry and gives a reason for optimism in this present terrifying world. As de Waal writes: ‘Without stories from the “other”, we get a skewed idea of what reading is, of what literature is and, since books represent the world and other worlds, we get a skewed idea about life itself.’

One of the writers, Sandrine Ndahiro, encapsulates what this new school of writing represents: ‘I’m trying to re-shape the narrative, and show how marginalised voices and migrants are contributing to different aspects of society, including the literary and cultural landscape in Ireland.’ Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, a bright new poetic talent, hopes that we can see this ‘impossible’ moment as one of ‘possibility’. She doesn’t wish to be put in a box or eternally defined by ethnicity, taking literary inspiration from Irish writers such as Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Sara Baume. Ní Ghríofa, she says, ‘is someone I admire… her work is informed by myth and history and women’s interior lives and domestic spaces and there’s a soulfulness to her work that I really admire.’ She also looks forward to the intersection of artforms – new collaborations with filmmakers and defying genre with other interdisciplinary projects. She sees the possibilities of new stories and new experiences arising from those living in Ireland with different historical trajectories. 

Breaking Ground Ireland’s embrace of a ‘multitude of stories’ is enticing, recognising how ‘centuries of structural oppression’ restrict the range of voices that can be heard in the cultural sphere. For too long what was defined as ‘Irish Literature’ was the preserve of narrowly curated voices – few of them female or working class . Part of the drawback in Ireland, as mentioned, is a refusal to acknowledge collusive participation in the oppressive colonial structures of Empire. As well as Irish imperialists such as Sir Michael O’Dwyer of Amritsar infamy and Irish foot soldiers in colonial police forces, Irish religious missionaries were key players in colonial  endeavours. Their many publications promoted condescending images – endless photos of a single white Irish priest or nun at the centre of a group of African children – enhancing ideas of white superiority. One in particular which I stumbled on is seared into my memory. The photo itself was typical: a group of African children with a white missionary father in the centre , with the caption, ‘Our young African chicks do love to talk. The imagery in countless missionary magazines was deeply patronising, denying any notion of agency or resourcefulness amongst Africans themselves, in need of the voiced appeals and charity of ‘our African missions’. These magazines circulated in almost every Irish home for decades. 

It is heartening, then, to see what a wealth of talent and extraordinary breadth of intersectionality these writers and illustrators represent, writing out of multi-faceted, hyphenated experience in which ‘the intersection of Irishness and blackness creates a space for new conversations.’ It also creates space for soaring language and new semantic alliances between English, the Irish language and the different cadences of wherever was Home. English language writing in Ireland always had the Irish language as a river running under it. It does now feel like a meaningful shift is taking place. 

American critic Vivian Gornick, writing about the extraordinary changes wrought in American literature by Jewish writers like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth – cheeky immigrant outsiders – observed they represented ‘a single explosive development in our literature [that] made the experience of being Jewish-in-America a metaphor that attracted major talents, changed the language, and galvanized imaginative writing throughout a Western world badly in need of a charge.’  In the 1970s and 1980s, the emergence of African American women writers such as Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker and Michelle Cliff came on the shoulders of pathbreakers like Gwendolyn Brooks and Zora Neale Hurston. These women writers again shook-up literary convention and infused American literature with both a fresh vernacular energy and eloquent phrasemaking piercing and heartbreaking in its cleareyed precision

I wrote about Alice Walker and that cultural phenomenon in the Irish Times, back in 1984. What is happening right now in Ireland may be new to the island, but it is an older global phenomenon in diasporic histories, unleashing seismic changes in language and the creation of new lexicons. ‘The times shine through certain writers, so that we think they see more clearly than we do,’ wrote Angela Carter, ‘whereas in reality they are making us see more clearly. This is what Breaking Ground Ireland foresees – different times, a future of infinite possibility where language is refashioned, and readers are taken on new heartstopping journeys. But white audiences can be fickle in their adoration, only wanting to hear certain kinds of stories from ‘Others’. As so eloquently analysed by African American writer bell hooks, ‘No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still the colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk.’ (Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (1990)

 Enyi-Amadi is dedicated to acting from ‘a place of possibility’, rather than being boxed in or defined solely by ‘barriers and obstacles’, or the more insidious forms of cultural ventriloquism described by hooks. She is particularly optimistic about the significance of her commission within the Decade of Centenaries initiative, an historical and cultural response to the years 1912-1923, ‘a decade which was the most turbulent and transformative experienced by Ireland in the 20th century.’ Where once there was the occasional shout struggling to be heard, now there is a joyous outburst of creativity, a chorus of voices demanding support, proper funding, mentors, dedicated schemes and festivals to ensure this joyousness can be sustained and Irish culture in all its diversity can thrive and inspire upcoming generations of dreamers and makers. It is as well here to acknowledge the debt to those such as playwright and performer, Rosaleen McDonagh and Phil Mullen, Assistant Professor in Black Studies, Trinity College Dublin, who have been determinedly contesting narrow definitions of Irishness for a long time. With publication of her acclaimed volume of essays Unsettled (2021), McDonagh is now moving from plays to short stories and creative non-fiction, after decades of ploughing a lone furrow. With the strong voices of an older generation mingled with new forms and diverse experiences Insta poets and others using new digital hybrid literary forms there is transformation taking place. As Sandrine Ndahiro puts it, ‘I definitely feel hopeful… there are so many new creative projects that are coming out… moving away from that homogenous view of Irishness as just white.’ When talking to Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi at the 2022 Dublin International Literary Festival, she emphasised ‘poets have always been involved in revolution.’ Revolutions of many kinds. 

Photo by Basil Lim


Speaking Volume’s Breaking Ground Ireland celebrating Irish writers and illustrators of colour is an initiative of Cúirt International Festival of Literature, NUI Galway, the Irish Writers Centre and the Irish Research Council.