About noon on Sunday 19 October 1777 there was a stir of attention in one corner of St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. As the Freeman’s Journal reported,
A female black and child... was so closely pressed by the multitude of people crowding round, and staring at her, that being much affrighted, in vain she endeavoured to retire, the child was so terrified as to burst into tears, and notwithstanding such evident signs of fear, it was with the utmost difficulty a few reasonable persons could extricate her from the crowd and get her safe out of the walks.
It is easy to visualise the scene: the intimidating presence of the Sunday crowd building up around the pair, the frightened mother, the weeping child clinging to her. The story is told sympathetically; it is a minor incident but, one might think, revealing. It seems, on the face of it, to show that a single black woman and her child were a rare sight in eighteenth-century Dublin. But then the next sentence in the newspaper report turns that assumption on its head:
Had she in any manner differed from others of her colour and country so common to meet with, it might have been some apology, to gratify curiosity; that not being the case, it reflects both scandal and ignorance on the company, and the more so, as the time and the place considered, much better behaviour might be expected.
In the writer’s view, what was wrong was not simply the rudeness of the Dubliners in letting their curiosity get the better of them, and the distress this caused, but the fact that it was out of all proportion to the object that provoked it. There was not the excuse that black people like this particular mother and child were a novelty. On the contrary, they were ‘common to meet with’.