Today there are more South Africans living in Ireland than Irish in South Africa. Southern Africa had an Irish population before the First Fleet sailed to Australia in the 1780s, yet it is the one of the least-known regions of the diaspora back home in Ireland. There are various reasons for that. The huddled masses from the 1840s Famine avoided Africa, associating it with stereotypical images of dangerous animals and inhabitants. But they were wrong, for those adventurous Irish who did venture to the ‘dark continent’ often led extraordinary lives. And because the Irish tended to concentrate in specific trades and professions, they appeared to be more numerous than they actually were. The Irish policeman’s brogue was as common on the streets of Cape Town as it was on the streets of Manhattan. The mounted police; the extraordinary railway system stretching deep into Africa; the diamond and gold mines of Kimberley, Johannesburg and Barberton; and the 19th-century department chain stores operating from Kimberley to Johannesburg, Durban to Bulawayo and Bloemfontain to Maputo – all these frequently carried the Irish names of John Orrs, R.H. Henderson, MacNamees, Bothwell and McCullough and William Cuthbert, all ever ready to give a job to someone from home.
They were not the Irish grinding poor and not the landed gentry. Mainly young men (female numbers increased later on), with some education and often a trade. Enough to pay their voyage out to Table Bay, five pounds in their pocket and a lot of hope, they set out into the interior. Some were big-game hunters, others wagon drivers who spoke a strange patois, a mixture of English, Irish and isiZulu. Because Irish emigrants could read and write, many became journalists and it is amazing how many of the great newspapers in Africa – The Star, The Rand Daily Mail and, most famously, Africa’s paper of record The Cape Times – were not only edited by Irishman, but also founded by them.
Then there were the missionaries of God and the soldiers of the Queen. The former served as an effective colonial community endeavour of the Catholic church in Ireland – Dominicans, Christian Brothers and the like. Scattered in mission stations across Africa, they provided education and health services to the poor and increasingly dispossessed. As for the soldiers, it is difficult to name a battle fought in South Africa from Blaauwberg Strand in 1805 to Tugela Heights in 1900 where an Irish regiment in the British army did not fight. Thirty thousand soldiers in 11 Irish regiments fought in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) on the British side, including the Dublin Fusiliers and Connaught Rangers. But in the tradition of the Wild Geese, there were two Irish commandos on the Boer side. The first was under former US 6th Cavalry officer John Blake and Major John MacBride (later of 1916 fame). The second commando was led by Irish-Australian Arthur Lynch. Blake’s commando also included a hard-fighting contingent of about 60 men from the Chicago and New York. As a result, in battles such as Majuba (1881), Talana (1899) and Tugela Heights (1900), Irishman fought and killed Irishman.
Then there were soldiers discharged in South Africa and soldiers who deserted. In his diary the first Catholic bishop of Cape Town, Patrick Griffith from Limerick talks about the number of Irish ex-soldiers living with black women, a practice he disapproved of. But it was a reality and one of the extraordinary things about the Irish in South Africa, a region racked by racial tension, was the phenomenon of Irish who crossed the cultural divides. Enslaved persons with Irish heritage, communities with people of mixed blood and Irish names – Fynn, Ogle, Cane, McBride – were commonplace, as were Irish who were absorbed into the Afrikaner culture, whose families carried names like O’Reilly, O’Neil and O’Grady but were purely Afrikaans speaking.
There were also Irish who were part of the colonial establishment, some very eminent in their day. Thomas Upington, the ‘Afrikaner from Cork’; and Alfred Hime from the County Wicklow village of Kilcoole were respectively prime ministers of the Cape and Natal. A third of the Cape’s governors were also Irish. Perhaps the most interesting official was the Cape’s attorney general, William Porter of Limavady. He devised the 1853 Cape constitution which gave the colony home rule, including a colour-blind franchise, which sadly was abolished in 1910.
In terms of religion, there was more equilibrium. While there have been Irish National Foresters societies and even Orange Lodges, Irish sectarianism has been mercifully only an occasional phenomenon in the subcontinent.
The end of the colonial system and the advent of white power
With the advance of Afrikaner nationalist power in the early 20th century, Irish emigration reduced to a trickle. When the revolutionary Dáil Éireann sent two envoys to South Africa in 1921, there were just over 12,000 Irish-born people living in South Africa, which equates to about 40,000 generational ethnic Irish. A writer in The Republic (12 February 1921) commented:
"There are hundreds of young South Africans, men and women, Irish on both sides for two generations, who are in no sense Irish. Their parents and grandparents might [as] well have come from Yorkshire or Devon. They have Irish names and Irish blood, but they are English of English. In no country has there been such a complete loss of [our] nationality."
There existed in 1921 the most dynamic Irish network that Africa has ever seen. The Irish Republican Association of South Africa (IRASA) was powered by a young Cork Marxist intellectual called Benjamin Farrington. It had 25 branches and ran its own newspaper, The Republic. The organization was overtly Sinn Fein and in consequence was ripped apart and destroyed over the Treaty and Irish civil war. No Irish organization since has ever come near to rivaling its power and influence. And indeed the Irish in South Africa were to be sorely neglected by successive Irish governments over several generations.
Between 1926 and 1950, only 5,380 Irish immigrants arrived in South Africa. The Irish Free State did not appoint diplomats to South Africa and its successor the Republic of Ireland, delayed until after the fall of apartheid, when Eamon O Tuathail received his credentials in February 1994. Between 1960 and 1993, there were three honorary Irish consuls but their purpose was solely to administer Irish passport applications.
These were the dark years of apartheid. The Irish in South Africa tended to be part of the English-speaking liberal and constitutional opposition to the apartheid government. There were some more active on either side – Irish associated with the liberation struggle especially in the Catholic church in South Africa and supported by South African exile and activist Kadar Asmal in the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement in Dublin. There were also some Irish who were sympathetic to the white Nationalist government in power.
The modern South African-Irish community
Out of the apartheid years has come the modern South African-Irish community. The era of decolonization resulted in some Irish, particularly from Zimbabwe moving down Africa to South Africa. There was also an exodus, which sadly continues, of Irish out of South Africa, some going to Australia. In 1951 there were 8,254 people in the country born in the Irish republic. In 1985 the figure was 7,219 but by 1991 the figure was down to 4,265. Of course, to these numbers must be added people born in Northern Ireland, many with British passports. In 1985 they numbered 4,040.
How, therefore, does one then account for the present estimate of South Africa having about 38,000 Irish passports? I recall in the 1990s chatting to someone in Iveagh House, the headquarters of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. She was not very complimentary about South African applicants for Irish passports: “They don’t even bother coming over to Dublin to pick them up, but ring us and say, post it to me in London”. I smiled to myself when I heard this, recalling the days of apartheid when it was de rigueur for any white in the country to acquire as many foreign passports as possible, ‘for insurance purposes’ – British, Portuguese and, when the ‘grandparent’ rule came in, Irish. So the truth is that a fair whack of those 38,000 Irish passport holders could not name five rivers, mountains or counties of Ireland. Old habits die hard.
And the second-generation phenomenon noted in The Republic in 1922 still holds true. But perhaps the best emigrants are those who assimilate into the culture of their new home country. I have noted both historically and during the 40 years I have lived in Africa, the lack of sentimentality towards Ireland among Irish people, especially second and third generation. You will search in vain for a song which begins, “If you ever cross the Great Karoo to Ireland”. No dancing leprechauns having been sighted on Table Mountain. Today the Irish South African Association (ISAA) has chapters in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. With its one thousand members, it is largely an expat orgnisation and only a few black faces are to be seen in its gatherings, something which must change. The IRASA had a rule that only Irish born or people of Irish descent could be members, and I fear the ethos has come down the years.
Voting in an Irish presidential election? One wonders if expats, having a particular psyche and ‘frozen in time’ image of the old country, will vote for more extreme faction candidates and therefore distort the will of the people of Ireland living in Ireland. Would the South African-Irish, having lived through traumatic years and in part closed off from the world, be a case in point? Elections can have narrow margins. Look at the first-preference votes in the 1990 Irish presidential campaign – 38,000 votes from South Africa might in the future make a difference.
I can speak only anecdotally but such talk of international presidential franchise rights was greeted with support and enthusiasm among the ISAA. The irony is that eligibility based on Irish citizenship (understandably) excludes those who regard themselves as Irish but are from a unionist tradition and hold a British passport. Ironically, they can name five Irish rivers, five mountains and five counties. But that is a conversation for further down the old bog road.