A Lesson on Heritage: The “Black Irish”

When I kicked off my first spring break weekend, I had no idea that there would be a Saint Patty’s celebration in town. But soon after checking into the room, the host explained that we should be prepared for loud music, lots of traffic, drunk drivers, and crowded streets.

When we arrived on Tybee Island at around 11AM the following day, people were already lined out on the streets in lawn chairs, and the traffic was bumper-to-bumper. It took us half an hour of circling around, before we finally grabbed a parking spot out of sheer luck.

Jumping to Conclusions

“Are you having a good time?” a lady asked me, while we made our way along the crowded sidewalk. She was covered in green decorations, and had a tiny leprechaun hat pinned to her hair.

“Yes, it’s great!” I told her.

She laughed and nodded enthusiastically as if to say she knew that would be my answer. “Well, you don’t have to be Irish to enjoy yourself here, honey!” She then quoted her shirt, “If you aren’t Irish, fake it!”

I merely smiled at her ignorance.  The implications of her words were not lost on me. Clearly, she had never heard of the Black Irish.

Black Irish

The term Black Irish originally referred to black-haired Irishmen and women, who obviously deviated from the ginger stereotypes. However, over time, Black Irish took on several meanings. One of those meanings is a reference to the Black descendants of Irish immigrants, in the West Indies.

Jamaica, my home country, received a lot of Irish immigrants as indentured labourers and planters. As a result, the Irish is the second-largest ethnic group in Jamaica; firsted only by Blacks.

I went to school with many “Black gingers” — Mixed Black girls with carrot-red kinky hair, and freckled skin. But just like the original Black Irish, not all of us carry the obvious tell-tale signs.

So when that White woman attempt to discredit a part of my heritage because of the colour of my skin, it took every last ounce of self-control not to strangle her with the green beads around her neck.

My Irish Roots

In The Antics of Ancestors, I shared a little of my family’s mixed heritage, and the scandal that mixing caused. More specifically I shared how my great-great-great grandparents had come to Jamaica on a boat from Ireland in the 1800s after slavery ended, never suspecting that their blood line was about to be changed forever.

Our family arrived in Jamaica with a good deal of wealth, and a strong family name that lasted until my grandmother. They used that wealth to buy thousands of acres of land and built a plantation to reign supreme alongside other relatives of the same family name.

They had counted on the island’s beauty, an escape from the cold, and the opportunity to make a new life in the West Indies. But what they hadn’t prepared for was their son falling in love with one of the servant girls, of African heritage. Together they created the family’s first interracial child: my great-grandmother.

The Interracial Scandal

The union created a scandal, which ultimately led to the end of that romance, but the bloodline continued. As that son never loved or married another woman, and never fathered another child, my family has the very ironic (and I would say) privilege of being Mixed Black owners of plantation land, by inheriting it from the owners themselves.

True story.

Since no one else in the family seemed particularly interested in the family land, my uncle and I have since taken most of it over. He can run his dirt bikes through acres of pineapple trees where the old Great House used to be, and I have several acres and no set plan.

The rest of the wealth disappeared a long time ago, before I was ever born. Much of it went up in flames when neighbours looted and set the Great House on fire during a prolonged absence from the property.

I have no idea what I will do with that much land at 26 years old, but stay tuned: in a few years, you might be hearing about Alexis Chateau’s Jamaican hiking trail and retreat… or something like that. You never know.

The Lesson on Heritage

I share this story mostly because it’s Saint Patty’s day, but also partially because of one of my greatest personal mantras in life, which goes a little something like this:

The most dangerous possession a person may have is not a gun or a nuclear weapon, but an assumption.

Why should I identify with just one part of my heritage? What about the rest? Does carrying Black genes suddenly taint everything else to Blackness? Are we pollutants?

My Mulatto-Irish grandmother was one of the most amazing women I ever met. I was extremely close to her, perhaps more than any other relative on my mother’s side of the family. What favours do I do her, her father, and his parents, by refusing to acknowledge their contributions to my heritage?

Likewise, my paternal grandmother was a woman of full slave-blooded African descent and was just as lovely. I owe my curves and long legs to her, and can only dream of inheriting any of her amazing skills in the kitchen. She is wrapped up in some of my best childhood memories. She fostered my love for the beach (and should probably take full blame for my insatiable sweet tooth!).

Unfortunately, both women passed away before I turned ten.

The point in all this is that all heritages should be celebrated — every last one. Celebrate being of African, Irish, German, Hispanic, or miscellaneous descent. But most importantly, celebrate being human.

At the end of the day that’s what we all are and all our different cultures and ethnic mixes only combine to create the many variations and spices of one human race in a big melting pot.

In fact, many of us can learn from Jamaica’s national motto, which states simply:

Out of many: one people.

But don’t ever — ever — try to tell biracials/multiracials/Blacks what ethnicity they do and do not belong to. You might be surprised to know who owns more plantation land than you.

The Pictures

Here are the shots we took of the hour-long parade on Tybee Island. Enjoy!

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2 thoughts on “A Lesson on Heritage: The “Black Irish”

  1. Great post! A very interesting family history that is more common than people outside of Jamaica realise. A fantastic message overall 🙂

    – Mwahaki King || It’s a King Thing

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