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Despite Claims By Far Right, White Irish Were Never Enslaved

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Miners in Butte, Montana, photographed in 1900. Butte and other parts of the Mountain West have a proud Irish history. But the myth spreading on far-right corners of social media that white Irish were once enslaved in the Americas is false.

This story was powered by America Amplified, a public radio initiative.

As Black Lives Matter rallies continue across the country, some counter protesters and militia members are giving new life to an old racist myth – that white Irish people were enslaved in the Americas just like Africans and Indigenous people.


"My ancestors were Irish, they were treated far worse than any Africans," one counterprotester said at a rally on Tuesday night in Boise

His words follow memes spread on Facebook and a rant by Robert Viergutz, the self-proclaimed commander of the far-right Three Percenters in Montana. 

"What was the most enslaved group of people in the United States? It was not Black people. It was the Irish," he said in a video posted to Facebook last month. "The Irish are the most enslaved group of people ever."

That’s not true. Not by a longshot. Some Irish were indentured into servitude. It was how poor Europeans often migrated to North America – an exchange of labor for passage. The practice was brutal and some, including children, did not enter service willingly. But unlike slaves, they still had the rights of people and their servitude was temporary. But the false myth of Irish slavery has persisted on social media and in some online publications. 

In 2016, a group of 82 scholars and writers wrote an open letter asking that three outlets, including Scientific American, remove stories that perpetuated the false claim.

"We are addressing the mainstream endorsement of a growing white nationalist campaign built on the reductionist fallacy of 'slavery is slavery' which is inevitably used to justify racism in the present," they wrote. 

According to one of the experts, the false idea of Irish slavery has been spreading among white supremacists on the internet as far back as 1999. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.