Clodagh Finn: Why do GAA clubs still honour pro-slavery John Mitchel?

Do GAA clubs named after John Mitchel need a name change? asks Clodagh Finn

Clodagh Finn: Why do GAA clubs still honour pro-slavery John Mitchel?
The statue of John Mitchel in Colman’s Park, Newry, Co Down: Petitions asking that it be removed have 1,000 signatures.

It is easy to see why the GAA, here and abroad, turned to nationalist, Young Irelander and slavery supporter John Mitchel when naming its clubs.

For much of the last century, he was considered an Irish patriot who “was called to a life of heroic endeavour and bitter suffering for Ireland”, to quote one glowing tribute from writer Louis J Walsh in the Kerryman in 1933.

What is less easy to understand is why, in 2020, the GAA or its many players have not questioned the other side of John Mitchel’s legacy as an advocate of slavery. 

When he lived in the US in the 19th century, he not only supported it but justified the enslavement of African people as he thought them “innately inferior”.

He even argued that slaves in the Southern plantations had better lives than the starving cottiers of Mayo because the slave system provided for the social well-being of all.

Little wonder that two separate petitions calling for the removal of his statue in Newry had gained more than 1,000 signatures at the time of writing. 

It makes you wonder why there isn’t a similar petition asking the GAA to do the same.

Or does that amount to an attempt to erase history, as some said protesters in Bristol were doing when they ripped a statue of slave trader Edward Colston from its plinth and tossed it in the harbour. 

Whether or not you agree with their methods, isn’t it also true to say that those protesters were writing history; one that takes account of a new narrative in which black lives matter?

The worldwide wave of anti-racism protests prompted by the killing of African-American George Floyd in police custody has shown that it is time for all of us to start a real discussion about how the past resonates in the present.

What are we saying when we glorify certain historical figures, such as John Mitchel (1815-1875)? He was not a slave trader, as Colston was, but he did wholeheartedly approve of it.

It is also true to say that his views on race, so repugnant today, are only one side of a man who was also a defiant opponent of oppression (though not black oppression), a journalist, a prisoner and a Young Irelander.

He was remarkable in many ways, but he has fallen on the wrong side of history. It is no longer acceptable – in any shape or form – to glorify racism. And you are doing so if you leave a statue in situ that tells only the ‘patriot-hero’ side of John Mitchel’s story.

Others argue that you can’t look at the views of a 19th-century man through a 21st-century lens. They are right. It is unfair to expect people from the past to be exemplary by modern standards. 

Indeed, it’s unreasonable to expect any human being to be exemplary, full stop.

And yet, when you attempt to contextualise Mitchel, you’ll find that many other 19th-century men and women vehemently opposed slavery. So where does that leave the GAA clubs in Mayo, Kerry, Waterford, Newry, Antrim, to mention a few, that still carry his name? 

They may not intend it as a unquestioning tribute to a man who supported slavery, but what kind of message does it send to young players?

I was struck last week by former Kerry minor Stefan Okunbor’s account of the racial abuse he suffered on and off the pitch. 

It was particularly touching to read how his team-mates in the Tralee club Na Gaeil challenged a player who was making monkey noises.

It’s somewhat ironic, then, that Tralee is also home to one of those GAA clubs named after John Mitchel. Although, let me be crystal clear, there is absolutely no suggestion that any of the Mitchel clubs are, in any way, racist.

It is also to the credit of the Tralee club that it includes a balanced and complete account of Mitchel’s life – including his support of slavery – on its website.

But is that enough?

It’s not for me to say, but perhaps it’s time we asked the players themselves? Is it appropriate to name a sports club after a man who considered African people inferior?

The people who chose the name may not have known John Mitchel’s views or, more likely, they simply wanted to honour a man hailed as an inspiration by the leaders of the 1916 Rising. 

Patrick Pearse himself considered Mitchel’s Jail Journal, a diary of his five years in British prisons, “the last of the four gospels of the new testament of Irish nationality”.

The naming of GAA clubs was part of a much more widespread attempt to celebrate Irish independence in public iconography.

But it’s time to look again at that iconography and examine how racism has, perhaps inadvertently, been woven into our built environment. 

Though we don’t like to admit it, many Irish slaveowners were paid handsomely when the British government paid out some £20 million – or a quarter of its annual expenditure – to compensate them for loss of ‘property’ when slavery was abolished in 1834.

If that seems like a very long time ago, consider this: the British government didn’t finish paying the loan it took to compensate slaveowners until 2015. (Incidentally, the people held in slavery were never compensated.) 

The past, it seems, is not entirely past.

And it continues to resonate. In the last few weeks, people have been recounting how their skin colour has led to discrimination at every level of our society, from direct provision to football pitches, schools, streets, workplaces and in our institutions.

To return to one of those institutions, the GAA. The sports body has already shown that it comes down heavily on anyone guilty of racist abuse. 

Is it now time to rethink the clubs named after John Mitchel?

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