Robin Bury Blog: Was Ireland a colony?

Robin Bury Blog, Thursday, 20 December 2012

Olivia O’Leary gave one of her regular thoughtful talks on RTE Radio 1 a few weeks ago. She is, it appears, from a quite strong nationalist background. She was perplexed that Irish women had not been more demonstrative following the unnecessary death of Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital. She was persuaded that their relative silence was caused by centuries of ‘colonial’ rule, or the hangover from ‘colonial’ times.

She would not be alone in this. Prionnsias MacAonghusa in 1902 thought somewhat condescendingly of his fellow countrymen, following their acceptance of the Maastricht Treaty, that “The mind of the slave, of the hireling, and the vagabond is still fairly dominant in Ireland” concluding “it does not matter if Irish people or foreigners are running the state”. There would be those today who could take up this cry: the troika now run the state and heaven knows where they will take us, particularly as we have indicated we may have to default on our due payment in March 2013.

The historian, Stephen Howe, in his survey of Ireland in an imperialist context (Ireland and Empire, Colonial legacies in Irish history and culture, Oxford, 2000) comments on such views saying, “All this suggests how, in important spheres of discourse in and about Ireland … the concept of colonialism has been so inflated as virtually to be emptied of meaning”.

What did Irish patriots say about Ireland being a colony of Britain in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries? Well, not what O’Leary and MacAonghusa might have thought. During the Boer War, Michael Davitt thought the blacks in South Africa had no rights, confining his sympathy for the Africaners, as Howe tells us. Douglas Hyde, looking at the Red Indians, argued that the Irish could not be compared to “a savage tribe”. Arthur Griffith thought Ireland could not be compared to Britain’s non-European subjects and, more tellingly, Erskine Childers thought “Ireland is no colony. She has no claim based on colonial rights”. He argued that separation was nothing to do with being governed as a ‘colony’ but rather should be judged on its own merits within the context of the peoples of the two islands who were multi-national and multi-racial and deeply interwoven over centuries. He advocated there should be a dual monarchy, as in Austria-Hungary.

Ireland had some 86 MPs in Westminster during most of the nineteenth century. It was part of a federation. Yes, British troops were stationed in Ireland but arguably to prevent the minor rebellions that occurred in the nineteenth century. The concept of Ireland being a colony is recent and is post-independence, promoted by some in the Derry/Londonderry Field Day group such as Seamus Deane, Tom Paulin and Declan Kiberd. They see Northern Ireland in particular in a colonial context. But in historical European terms it is arguable that almost all parts of Europe were invaded and colonized. Did not the Celts colonize Ireland? As Howe says, “All European history is colonial history”. Ireland has no monopoly here, no call for blaming the Normans, the new English, the Cromwellians and Williamites for creating the “mind of the slave”. This thinking has more to do with the myths created by Irish nationalism than reality. It surely serves anglophobia well. Time to move on.

More next time on why violence in 1916 onwards led to what Tom Garvin has described as a nation Preventing the Future and may not have been in Ireland’s best interests.