Celtic Junction Arts Review

Ireland’s Arc of Colonisation

Bill Rolston and Robbie McVeigh

Ireland, Colonialism, and the Unfinished Revolution Book Cover

In our book Anois ar Theacht an tSamhraidh: Ireland, Colonialism and the Unfinished Revolution, we argue that in Ireland, as elsewhere, there has been an arc of colonisation – from conquest through consolidation and resistance and liberation and eventually to decolonization. Arguably Ireland has the longest such arc of all – it starts in 1155AD when the Bull Laudabiliter of Pope Adrian IV first justified English dominion in Ireland and continues to the present. On this arc there is a similarity and indeed resonance between the different instances of colonialism, but at the same time profound differences between each. For example, the first stage, conquest, was sometimes surprisingly rapid, as in what became Latin America. In Ireland, however, as the Elizabethans complained, conquest had still not succeeded five hundred years after the Norman knights made their first footfall in Leinster; hence their espousal of plantation as a powerful weapon of counterinsurgency, especially in Ulster, ‘the very fostermother of all the rebellions of Ireland’, as one of them, Nicholas Dawtrey, put it.  But the length of conquest did not map on to the intensity. An estimated 90 percent of the native population of the Americas perished in the wake of Columbus’ intervention. Ireland did not match that horror; at the same time, the scorched earth policy of the Elizabethan generals, the brutality of Cromwell’s crusade against the popish Irish and the avoidable tragedy of an Gorta Mór – not an ‘Irish famine’ but a British starvation – were just as indicative of the brutality of colonial conquest. 

Ireland provided an impressive example of a third variant: the combining of settler and native in a ‘brotherhood of affection’ under the banner of the Society of United Irishmen. in 1798. Shortlived as it was, this combination was one of many instances where Ireland acted as a beacon for other colonized peoples. Revolutionaries identified with the Irish liberation struggle; for example, newly-freed slaves in the United States offered support to the Fenians and Indian nationalists in Bengal named their military organisation the IRA, Indian Republican Army. Marcus Garvey wrote: ‘We believe Ireland should be free even as Africa shall be free for the Negroes of the world’. Emma Goldmann hoped that ‘the rebels of Dublin may become the advance guard of an international social revolution’.

Drawing of Diarmaid Mac Murrough
Diarmaid Mac Murrough by Giraldus Cambrensis – Expugnatio Hibernica, CC BY-SA 4.0

There was variety too when it came to native resistance to the consolidation of conquest. In 1788, the Sirius, the flagship of the British fleet carrying the first convoy of convicts to Australia, landed at Botany Bay. From the shore, some Dharawal men waved spears and shouted ‘Warra! Warra!’ This was the first message from a black person to a white person in Australia: ‘Go away!’ At the other end of the spectrum, Dermot MacMurrough invited Strongbow and the other Norman knights to Ireland with the promise of parts of his kingdom. But, from Ireland to Van Diemen’s Land, from the Andes to Sudan two things are clear: first, that resistance is a constant reality and second, that that space expands and contracts in the face of repression by the imperial power. The most obvious resistance comes from the natives who have lost their land, livelihood and culture. But it also emerged from the settlers, the vanguard of the metropolitan power in the heart of the colony. George Washington in North America and Simon Bolivar in South America both spearheaded a revolt of the settlers against the imperial centre.

And yet, as liberation worked itself out, it was clear that the reality was going to fall short of the expectations. Arguably no former colony has successfully made the journey through to the end of the last stage of the arc of colonisation, what the India National Congress characterized as purna swaraj or ‘complete political and spiritual independence’. Economic dependence on the former metropolitan power is not easily sloughed off. The structures of colonial privilege, especially in settler societies, remains long after the imperial army has left and the new flag has been raised. Foremost among those structures are the racial hierarchies marking the boundary between colonizer and colonized that continue to be constitutionalized and institutionalized by the ‘post-colonial’ state long after formal independence.

We argue that that pattern fits for Ireland. In one sense the argument is easy and obvious; it would take a very distorted political theory not to see how colonialism continues to determine the economics, politics and culture of Northern Ireland in a myriad of ways. Because of partition, the Six Counties never experienced the first stage of the decolonising process – the formal disengagement of the colonial power. It remained a colonised space locked within union and empire. Furthermore, it became a truly reactionary, imperial offshoot, symbolising the antithesis of self-determination. It was to be numbered alongside apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia under UDI in a list of polities that managed to reverse, temporarily at least, the journey towards decolonisation. But that other part of the dyad created by partition, the Free State, later the Republic of Ireland, also fits the pattern. To explain that we argue that the newly independent state survived as a ‘white dominion’, one of the deepest structural legacies of British colonialism globally.

McVeigh and Rolston, authors
Authors Robbie McVeigh and Bill Rolston discuss their new book online.

Throughout the 19th century, the British establishment worked tirelessly to prevent Ireland leaving the empire. In doing so, it was repeating a pattern that it had earlier practiced in relation to other recalcitrant colonies such as Canada. In the case of Canada, the seemingly insoluble confrontation between independence and empire was solved through the notion of ‘responsible government’. In essence, this meant that a large dose of democratic self-determination could be afforded the colony provided that power was firmly in the hands of the white settler population. Eventually, this policy gave rise to what might be called ‘empire lite’, the British Commonwealth. The solution was less simple in the case of Ireland. The ruling class in 18th and 19th century England voiced its concern that similar moves in Ireland would lead to ‘a popish democracy’. In the end, in the face of the War of Independence and the emphatic popular mandate for freedom of the 1918 General Election, the fear of a ‘popish democracy’ was seen as the lesser evil to genuine independence. The Irish were offered ‘white dominion’ status, like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the last of which is the paradigm case of a ‘white dominion’ where the pretence of democratic autonomy fell because it clearly has a Black majority; it was not about democracy but white power. They would remain in this developing ‘empire light’ as the price for their partial independence.

Michael Collings
Michael Collins, 1919. Public domain.

Put simply, the choice facing Michael Collins on behalf of the Irish nation was simple: republic or empire. The choice made then obviously continues to reverberate to this day. Our point in the book is even more emphatic than that. We argue that republic versus empire has always been and continues to be the choice throughout the island of Ireland. Put in shorthand like that, it sounds anachronistic. There was no Irish nation as such when the Norman knights arrived in 1172, much less any aspiration to a republic. And what was to become the largest empire the world has known was then a challenged kingdom which stretched from Leinster through the Welsh marches to the south-east of England and Aquitaine. But the words can be used as metaphors for two ideal types of political system. Empire or republic: on one side is conquest, exploitation, disenfranchisement, repression and theft, on the other self-determination, inclusiveness, egalitarianism and solidarity with all other nations struggling for the same goals. That was the choice facing the Irish in 1172, in 1798, in 1848, in 1918 and in 1921. It is the choice facing the island now.

Which begs the question: is there any way to get closer to the end of the arc of colonization? Is there any reason for optimism? It must be said that superficially there are many reasons for pessimism, among them Brexit and the shake up to economies and everyday life as a result of Covid-19. But our conclusion is not a gloomy one. There is a coming together of progressive forces on the island of Ireland such as has not been seen in over a century. The last time the progressive forces aligned like this partition, as James Connolly predicted, stopped that conjuncture in its tracks. To turn that sentiment around, we are arguing that the current conjuncture spells the end for the failed ‘solution’ of partition. Some of the progressive forces now are the inheritors of those which existed in Connolly’s day – socialists, feminists, republicans. And there are new forces joining in. Among these are the migrant Irish, including the Black Irish, who were not backed into reactionary corners in the way others were over the last century. They may not be clamouring for reunification, but where partition does not concede the present and the future they want, then they will have no inbuilt loyalty to either of the states on the island. Neither, of course, are these people without history, they too will bring their own perspectives to any choice between empire and republic.

Our optimism is also explained in another way, using a word common in Latin America – mesitzaje or mixing. We are aware that it has been used by elites in Latin America in an aspiration to whiteness, a claim that although the populations of their nations are mixed – creole, indigenous and Black – as a result of continuing mixing they are inching towards whiteness. We have no time for this racist use of the term. Rather we see mestizaje as the converse of miscegenation; instead of the racist repudiation of ‘race mixing’ we recognize the powerful synergies that come out of different cultures interfacing and blending. We want to reclaim it in the name of decolonization, especially in the North of Ireland. Despite the real and often dangerous divisions in the North, there has been a remarkable amount of inter-mixing over the centuries. There are no ‘pure’ settlers or natives anymore. In that sense, ethnicity is increasingly an anachronistic frame to explain the society. Instead, we prefer to reframe things in terms of choice. Attempting to ascertain what proportion of each of our make-up is settler and how much native is an archaic calculus. The relevant question in terms of political action, as on countless occasions in the past, is simply whether each of us is for empire or for republic. And for those who chose the latter, the door is increasingly open to imagining and indeed building a different Ireland, one based on inclusion and therefore minus that most obvious symbol of exclusion – partition.

Anois ar Theacht an tSamhraidh: Ireland, Colonialism and the Unfinished Revolution can be ordered through the publisher: www.beyondthepalebooks.com The price is £19.95 plus £3.50 postage.