The New York Times has published an extraordinary opinion piece by the writer, Barry Kennerk, on the significance of the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising for contemporary Ireland. Extraordinary because it echoes an anachronistic view of our island nation that one would have expected to encounter a hundred years ago, not in 2016. It is essentially a form of colonial denialism, summed up by the deliberately provocative headline, “Inventing the Irish“. It’s core argument is one that probably appeals to a certain type of “West Briton“, to use that old fashioned pejorative for an inhabitant of Ireland who regards himself or herself as both Irish and British, or more the latter than the former. It can be seen in the pernicious neo-unionist ideology of “revisionism” as expressed by certain historians, journalists and authors. A sort of British apologist rhetoric with the subtext that, really, all things considered, the entirety of Ireland and its people would have been better off staying under the continued rule of the United Kingdom at the start of the 1900s, and that the Irish revolution was a mistake at best, or worse, a criminal and terrorist exercise.
This is partly reflected in Kennerk’s view that newly independent Ireland was defined by its supposed “atavistic Gaelicism” and “anti-modern society” while contemporary Britain was “modern” and “progressive“, which are highly questionable, and selective, interpretations of the period. An expansionist empire thriving on the socio-economic exploitation of its subject territories most certainly does not fall into the category of “progressive”. Likewise the wish to see the restoration of the Irish language and culture, and equality for Irish-speaking communities, after centuries of subjugation is hardly “atavistic” (though of course that noble cause was quickly subsumed into shallow and meaningless tokenism, while Hibernophones were left to starve; quite literally). On his criticisms of religious influence in the twenty-six county “Irish Free State” Kennerk is on far firmer ground, though he fails to mention the source of the Roman Catholic Church’s power in the country during much of the 20th century: partition, the Irish-British Treaty of 1921, and the counter-revolutionary civil war of 1922-23. It was Redmond’s nationalists who took power in Ireland, not Pearse’s republicans.
It is dismaying that misguided opinions like those above can be given a position of such prominence in a globally influential newspaper, though perhaps symptomatic of deeper cultural prejudices in the American press when it comes to reporting on Irish-British affairs.
“Inventing the Irish
The Republic of Ireland is about to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising. This weeklong rebellion in 1916 has become the cornerstone of the country’s national story, but the idea that it was a battle to oust a foreign foe simply serves to perpetuate an invented Ireland — one that its own people before independence would not readily have understood.
For almost a century, Ireland has been Roman Catholic and, officially at least, Gaelic-speaking, but before the insurrection of 1916, a sense of national identity molded around those characteristics hardly existed. The Irish have always had a British heritage.
In the years leading up to the Rising, there was a renewed interest in the Irish language, as well as traditional customs and dress, to demonstrate that the Irish had a unique ethnicity, one that deserved special treatment. Irish identity was reimagined in opposition to an alien English culture.
The Gaelic revival movement, however, tended to overlook the many Irish people who identified with Britain, before and after independence.
Similarly, those who thronged the streets of Dublin in 1916 before the shooting started had little difficulty accepting their shared British heritage, if not the ideals of empire. Those ordinary Dubliners enjoying a holiday that Easter Monday from work at dockyards, factories and railways would have felt a kinship primarily with the army of labor that toiled in other parts of the British Isles.
Crowds, too, had thronged the streets when King Edward VII visited Dublin a few years earlier.
A century ago, then, much of Ireland identified with a modern, progressive Britain, or United Kingdom.
Before independence, thousands of ordinary Irish people identified, to a greater or lesser degree, with British society; for many of them, independence must have been a traumatic experience. These included a significant number of Catholic unionists who lived in the south.
Irish society is increasingly consumer-driven, and across the British Isles, people find common ground in the goods and services they buy, the websites they visit and the TV shows they watch. The shift in Anglo-Irish relations has an economic as well as a political basis.
The enemy has always been processes, not people: We would be doing a disservice to the memory of ordinary British men and women, many of whom did no better under the flag of empire…
After the republic separated from the United Kingdom, the Irish postal service sundered its ties with the Royal Mail and painted the mailboxes green. But to this day, one has only to scratch the surface of an old pillar box to find a trace of red paint. Ireland’s links with Britain run deep.”
Or more correctly, such “links” run deep in certain individuals who genuinely believe we live in a single geographical unit called the “British Isles”, with the implication that geography and nationality are not too far apart.