The African American actor Irish audiences loved

In the summer of 1835, the Tipperary Free Press reported on a local meeting where Mr T Morressey discussed a life lesson he had imparted to his children. Speaking in the local courthouse, Morressey said a “talented respectable stranger” had recently visited Tipperary town to perform in a theatrical production.

“Though I am no admirer of the theatre,” Morressey said, “I send my children to see him perform, to teach that man in every climate and every grade 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 “lowly circumstances”, Aldridge rose to become one of the most celebrated tragedians of his era.

After an education at the African Free School and an introduction to acting at the African Grove Theatre, young Aldridge made his way to London, where he debuted on the English stage in 1825.

Aldridge was known for his surrender of Othello. He is often cited as the first black actor to perform the role in the country of Shakespeare’s birth. 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, Lindfors wrote, “became one of Aldridge’s favorite places to perform” and he acquired a “large, enthusiastic following in the many Irish towns and villages he visited on his barnstorming tours”.

Although he played in Belfast in 1829 and debuted in Dublin in 1831, Aldridge’s most extensive touring in Ireland took place between 1833 and 1839. During this six-year period, Aldridge performed in counties Cork, Down, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford.

In his biography of Aldridge, Lindfors quotes an 1833 account of Aldridge’s arrival in Killarney by an author who regarded the locals as “reserved, unsocial and indolent”. Yet the young African American was described as the “great magnet of popular attraction” in the town and the only person “upon whose merits there is no disagreement”.

Maurice Lenihan, a journalist who witnessed Aldridge perform in the Grand Jury Room of the Clonmel courthouse in the mid-1830s, said that Aldridge performed Othello with “truthfulness and power”. In an era that saw racist minstrel-shows gain popularity in Ireland, Ira Aldridge gave Irish audiences an encounter with authenticity and justice.

Many pivotal personal and professional moments in Aldridge’s life were tied 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 debuted a play he had personally adapted about a formerly enslaved man who falls in love with a French princess.

In the same year that Irish audiences saw Aldridge premiere this story of love across the divide, Aldridge’s son Ira Daniel was born. Ira Daniel’s mother is believed to have been an Irish woman. 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”.

Ireland’s enthusiastic reception of Ira Aldridge prompted reflection on encounters between the African and Irish diaspora elsewhere. Writing in 1860, James McCune Smith, a former classmate of Aldridge and the first African American to receive a medical doctorate, wrote about how Aldridge “met the warmest encouragement from the Irish people.”

In the same paragraph, McCune Smith contrasted Irish fondness for Aldridge with the “chronic hate” expressed by “the Irish masses in America” towards black communities in the US. Altering a Latin proverb, McCune Smith suggested that those Irish who crossed the sea changed both their “caelum et animam”: their sky and soul.

More than a decade before his death in Poland in 1867, Aldridge sighted a future free from “chronic hate” on Irish stages. In December 1856 in Belfast and Cork, Aldridge performed in Dred, a theatrical adaptation of an anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Aldridge played the titular role of Dred, a fugitive from enslavement who conspires to overthrow the system of slavery. In the death scene, the character played by Aldridge foresees a future “when white and black shall be of equal worth.”

As historian Christine Kinealy notes, Aldridge’s early Irish performances took place years before the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass arrived in Ireland on a celebrated tour, “but their message was similar”.

The extraordinary story of Ira Aldridge in Ireland shows a history of diversity in Irish theater back into the early nineteenth century.

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Dr Maurice J Casey, DFA historian-in-residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world

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