Shining a light on forgotten lives

Living

RESEARCH Left: Dr Michael O’Connor at home in Murrisk, reading ‘Papers Relating to the Treatment of Slaves in the Colonies’ – House of Commons, 1818. Top right: a receipt for two slaves, Cuba,1856. Bottom right: O’Connor’s new book, ‘Carribean Slave Owners & Other Lesser-Known Histories from Co Mayo. All pics: Karen Cox

A new book explores 20 lesser-known Mayo histories and some salutary lessons. Here, its author
shares some of the work’s themes

Michael O’Connor

Empire, colonialism, slavery and genocide paved the way for countless revolutions. In the 20th century, a version of Ireland emerged victorious, bloody and independent from the British Empire. A century later, we commemorate those who fought and died for Irish freedom during our War of Independence. Our long struggle is now an episode in world history – and an inspiration for others seeking to cast off the yoke of colonial oppression.
The 20 histories in my new book ‘Caribbean Slave Owners & Other Lesser-Known Histories from County Mayo’ explore wide-ranging but closely interrelated themes, including colonialism, slavery, abuse of power, religious persecution, famine and pandemic.
The histories are set against the backdrop of the wider Atlantic Basin world of the 18th and 19th centuries. I look at the various themes through the lived experiences of men and women connected to Mayo and those with shared experiences elsewhere in the British Empire.
For the most part, these individuals are long forgotten, omitted or erased from the historical narrative. They are the extras in the epic tales of others. Depending on the context, they are collectively known as the peasantry, the tenants, the starving, the rebels, the prisoners or the slaves. Some historical figures referred to them as ‘my tenants’ and ‘my negros’. And those who held power in Mayo were also colonial administrators and planters in the colonies.

Shared narratives
Reconstructing the biographies of these forgotten people is the principal focus of my work. In ‘Caribbean Slave Owners’ (2021) and ‘Anatomy of a County Gaol’ (2020), I endeavour to record the histories of ordinary people as individuals with names, hopes, desires and personal experiences. I am particularly interested in the shared experiences of indigenous and enslaved peoples across the former British Empire. I believe that we must not allow those who suffered under colonialism to be whitewashed out of our history to further revisionist narratives that paint oppression and the machinery of Empire in a softer light. As a lawyer, I am also interested in exploring how the law was used as a tool of Empire.
The themes I explore in ‘Caribbean Slave Owners’ are as relevant today as they were before independence. Over the past 18 months, people across the former colonial world have questioned the appropriateness of the continued commemoration and veneration of those who committed the most terrible atrocities in furtherance of Empire, advancement, and commerce.
Ireland and Mayo are part of this story. We were colonised, subjugated and controlled. People with a connection to Mayo were also part of the machinery of colonialism. In this respect, Mayo is no different to any other county on the island. The telling of our history needs to include all these details, aspects and peoples. We must have a complete understanding of our past so that each of us can reach our own conclusions and make informed decisions on commemoration, legacy and, most importantly of all, lessons to be learned.

The power of words
To a great extent, the survival of the detail of the lives of ordinary people is inextricably linked to the emergence of the free press. Before 1830, ordinary people in Mayo were rarely featured in the newspapers, save where some act of violence was laid at their door. The papers concerned themselves with the lives and pursuits of the aristocracy, the military and the colonies.
In the early 1830s, a free and independent press emerged in Mayo. This was not something that happened gradually – it was an explosive event. It happened at a time of significant political and agrarian agitation. It was not all about politics; it was also about competition, freedom of choice, and breaking the monopoly of the Mayo Constitution – a newspaper of the British establishment.
Frederick Cavendish, a man whose fall from the echelons of Dublin high society was precipitous by any standard, founded the Connaught Telegraph (then Mayo Telegraph) in 1828. He met Agnes Catherine McDonnell of Castlebar, and the rest is history.
Cavendish was undoubtedly the most important man in Mayo in the two decades preceding the famine – he reported the news, and he made the news. He changed the history of Mayo and made a material contribution to bettering the lives of ordinary people. At a significant financial and personal cost, Cavendish took on the establishment and those in Mayo who believed they had a divine right to govern the majority without consent. He gave the poor and marginalised a stage for airing their discontent and emerging politics a platform.
The challenges faced by Cavendish as proprietor of the Connaught Telegraph are no different to those faced by the news media and those searching for factual, unbiased news content and commentary today. In the 1830s, libel laws were used by those in power to limit freedom of expression and empty the pockets of those who stood up for the less fortunate. Fake news, anonymous correspondence (the equivalent of fake accounts on social media), scurrilous journalism and adherence to community standards were all topics debated in the journals of the day.

History’s lessons
We tell ourselves constantly that history repeats itself. The cholera epidemic of the 1820s-1830s was a world event. It ravaged Mayo in 1832. Many aspects of the response mirrored the response to Covid-19.
In Kilmaine, a successful cholera lockdown was undone by a single individual. The science was challenged, but it prevailed. We learn from past pandemics. Experience and advancements in science make a difference.
The parallels between the world of 2020-21 and the early 1830s are numerous. Unresolved issues continually resurface to remind us that we have not moved on – we cannot move on. The current challenges to authority that follow scandals, political or otherwise, reflect the stands taken and language used by political agitators writing articles and publishing letters in the emerging free press in the 1830s.  
In 1832, The Evening Freeman doubted whether the people of Ireland would ever accept the police force. The issue for the Freeman was not simply the killing of civilians, but also the way the authorities glossed over of these outrages and rallied to protect the police, and the lack of accountability. These conspired to make the police more odious in the eyes of ordinary people. The Freeman was convinced this feeling would endure.
If we take anything from this, it is that failing to address wrongs, whether past or present, merely lays the foundations for future discord. The State must abandon the age-old default position inherited from the Empire of protecting itself and those who serve it at all costs when the rights of individuals have been trampled on. In the 1830s, the people of Mayo did not seek apologies; they wanted the outrages and abuses to stop.

Bigger story
Over one hundred years ago, a now unknown poet penned ‘From Castlebar to Kandahar’. The subject is a Castlebar man who took the King’s shilling in Mrs Haughey’s Bar in Castlebar. Whisked off to India, he ultimately lost a leg to cannon in Kandahar.
This summer, as I finalised ‘Caribbean Slave Owners’, Kandahar was very much in the news. Mayo men and women have always been part of the bigger story, the story of world history.
We should strive to understand our past roles and learn from past experiences. We should insist that our interactions with other nations and peoples, including those fleeing persecution, are not only perceived to be positive but are, by objective standards, positive.

‘Caribbean Slave Owners & Other Lesser-Known Histories from County Mayo’, by Dr Michael O’Connor, is available from mayobooks.ie and bookshops around the county and beyond (€25) .