In the summer of 1835 the Tipperary Free Press reported on a local meeting where Mr T Morressey discussed a life lesson he had passed on to his children. Speaking at the local courthouse, Morressey said a ‘respectable and talented foreigner’ had recently traveled to the town of Tipperary to perform in a theater production.
“Although I am no admirer of the theatre,” Morressey said, “I sent my children to see him play, to teach that man in all climates and classes is the same.”
This “talented and respectable” artist was the African-American actor Ira Aldridge. He was a performer who was no stranger to the Irish stage in the 1830s. Born in 1807 in New York, in what his biographer Bernth Lindfors describes as “humble circumstances”, Aldridge became one of the the most famous of his time.
After training at the African Free School and an introduction to the theater at the African Grove Theatre, the young Aldridge went to London, where he made his debut on the English stage in 1825.
Aldridge was known for his portrayal of Othello. He is often cited as the first black actor to play the role in Shakespeare’s homeland. Early in a career that took him across Europe, Aldridge earned the epithet “the African Roscius”, after the ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus. Dublin, writes Lindfors, “became one of Aldridge’s favorite places to perform” and he acquired “a large and enthusiastic following in the many Irish towns and villages he visited on his barnstorming tours”.
Although he played in Belfast in 1829 and made his Dublin debut in 1831, Aldridge’s most important tour of Ireland took place between 1833 and 1839. During this six-year period, Aldridge produced in counties Cork, Down, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford.
In his biography of Aldridge, Lindfors cites an 1833 account of Aldridge’s arrival in Killarney by an author who considered the locals to be “reserved, asocial and indolent”. Yet the young African-American was described as the town’s “great popular magnet” and the one person “on whose merits there is no disagreement”.
Maurice Lenihan, a journalist who saw Aldridge perform in the grand jury room of Clonmel Courthouse in the mid-1830s, said that Aldridge performed Othello with “truth and power”. In an era that has seen racist minstrel shows gain popularity in Ireland, Ira Aldridge gave Irish audiences an encounter with authenticity and justice.
Many crucial personal and professional moments in Aldridge’s life were linked to Ireland and its people.
Edmund Kean, a major British Shakespearean actor, was in the audience for Aldridge’s Dublin debut in December 1831. Kean wrote a recommendation for Aldridge after seeing him perform. In Dublin in early 1847, Ira Aldridge made his debut in a play he had personally adapted about a former slave who falls in love with a French princess.
The same year Irish audiences saw Aldridge create this love story across the ditch, Aldridge’s son, Ira Daniel, was born. It is believed that Ira Daniel’s mother was Irish. In 1863, in recognition of the fact that he had “resided in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland for 39 years”, he became a naturalized “British subject”.
The enthusiastic reception of Ira Aldridge by Ireland has prompted reflection on encounters between the African and Irish diasporas elsewhere. Writing in 1860, James McCune Smith, a former schoolmate of Aldridge’s and the first African American to receive an MD, wrote of how Aldridge “met with the heartiest encouragement of the Irish people”.
In the same paragraph, McCune Smith contrasts the Irish fondness for Aldridge with the “chronic hatred” expressed by “the Irish masses in America” towards black communities in the United States. Modifying a Latin proverb, McCune Smith suggested that the Irish who crossed the sea changed both their “caelum and animam”: their sky and their soul.
More than a decade before his death in Poland in 1867, Aldridge envisioned a future without “chronic hatred” on Irish stages. In December 1856 in Belfast and Cork, Aldridge starred in Dred, a theatrical adaptation of an anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Aldridge played the lead role of Dred, a fugitive from slavery who conspires to overthrow the system of slavery. In the death scene, the character played by Aldridge foresees a future “where white and black have equal value”.
As historian Christine Kinealy notes, Aldridge’s first Irish performances took place years before black abolitionist Frederick Douglass arrived in Ireland on a famous tour, “but their message was similar”.
The extraordinary story of Ira Aldridge in Ireland shows a history of diversity in Irish theater dating back to the early 19th century.
This article on extraordinary emigrants was written by Dr Maurice J Casey, DFA Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, Dublin Docklands, an interactive museum that chronicles how the Irish have shaped and influenced the world .