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The New York Times Argues That The Irish Are Actually British

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.

40 comments on “The New York Times Argues That The Irish Are Actually British

  1. The real question is perhaps are the English truly British? The Irish have perhaps a closer relationship to the historic British than do the English (Anglo-Saxon) who subjugate the historic Celts (British or Gaelic).

    • Indeed, the notion of Britishness (which was associated originally with the Celtic Britons, the ancestors of the modern-day Welsh*) was (mis)appropriated by the English (Anglo-Saxon) crown after the 16th century in order to rhetorically “justify” the crown’s claim over the entirety of Britain and “its isles”.

      *Semi-related but interesting, this; “Wal” is a Germanic word, roughly meaning “non-german speaking” or “Celt speaker”. Derived from this are place names like Wales, Cornwall, Wallonia, Wallachia and surnames like Wallace and Walsh. (Thanks to ‘Am Ghobsmacht’ for that nugget of info:

  2. So the English-speaking ‘Americans’ declaration of independance from the United Kingdom was just and grounded in the inalienable rights of man, but not the ancient Irish nation’s indepedance from the very same Anglo-centric state. Clearly, unless the NYT now publishes an article revising their position as a country (colony?) independant of the United Kingdom, we can conclude the Editors have lost all sense of reason, logic and perspective.

    Tis a funny and wicked old world!

  3. Graham Ennis

    Has the wretched writer of this article ever actually visited Ireland?.
    Does he understand anything, beyond the Hollywood synthetic bunkum with which most things Irish are treated, with ritual stereo-typing, unconscious racism, and thick layers of fake green paint?. America is full of such people. He conveniently forgets to mention the two Genocides, Cromwellian and “An Gorta Mor”, and the mass murder, oppression and cruelties of the colonial occupation. Irish people have not forgotten. The reason that three quarters of Irish Citizens live outside Ireland, scattered across the Globe, is that their families fled the bloodshed and oppression, as economic and political refugees. (He is unable to explain the mysterious abundance of Irish people in America, even in New York.) Perhaps he might inquire into what these exiled Irish think of the circumstances that bought them there, and what they actually think of the Irish Revolution, the long and recent war in the North, etc etc……all issues carefully avoided. This day, 100 years ago, my ancestors fought and resisted. I do not need an American WASP to tell me my history, the way I should think, and the impudence of my objecting to the savagery that has been inflicted upon Ireland. If he said such things about Jews, there would be absolute public uproar.
    I am astounded and disgusted at the NYT publishing this kak. I hope lots of those reading this will write to this apologist for mass murder, and tell him what they think about him.

  4. Feñch Gallig

    I’m not sure how to feel about this. The historical interpretation (and actually some of the “facts”) are clearly wrong and biased. Even though independance didn’t seem to have popular support before 1916, it clearly took off after the Rising and wasn’t “a trauma” to most of the Irish population in 1921, on the contrary. But our man would have needed to make actual historical research to figure that out. And there is also little doubt that Irish people from a hundred years ago weren’t Irish.
    Now as a none-Irish person living in Galway, I don’t know whether I’d say the same for today. As much as I would like to believe that the Republic of Ireland is everything but British in culture, I am contradicted everyday by the country. Even though I’m a foreigner I decided to carry out my daily businesses in Irish, but even in Galway most people look at me as if I was speaking Chinese when I do so, and most refuse to make any effort even to answer simple queries. Moreover, the younger generation completely abandoned Hiberno-English and most girls here have a neutral English accent and tend to see people with a proper Irish one as “less educated” or “backwards”. Irish expressions are replaced more and more by British ones (how many people now say “cheers” instead of “thanks” or “go raibh maith agat”!). The youth keeps emigrating to England, gaelgeoirí stopped transmitting Irish to their kids and switch to English, TV and supermarkets are filled with copycat products of what you can find in any British supermarket, people don’t know anything about Irish history or literature, the Tricolore that was raised on Lá na bhFógra was taken down the very next morning (who does that to a national flag?!). Once again I want to believe in a free, sovereign and Gaelic Irish Republic, but all Irish people show me everyday is a slightly poorer version of England, without the hooligans. I’m more than open to anybody telling me I’m wrong and giving me proof of my mistake. Ach tuigim anois an fáth a bhfuil na daoine ag rá “sin mar atá.”

  5. Along the lines of the “deeper cultural prejudices in the American press”, one of the commenters at the Times notes the similar denial of a Palestinian identity by Israel. Ansin, after centuries of suppression, they are criticized for not being Irish enough!

  6. Lord of Mirkwood

    This is odd, because I remember having just read an op-ed in the NYT by Timothy Egan about how the Irish were a strong-willed, spirited people who never lost sight of the joy of life in the face of centuries of oppression.

    I generally view the Times as a reputable source, but any newspaper can churn out a garbage article every once in a while, I guess.

  7. Unfortunately if an outsider were to tune in to recent programmes covering the 1916 Rising on RTE etc they would be forgiven if they got the impression the Irish regretted that the Rising occurred. A British 5th column was well and truly established in the free state after partition; present day is proof of that. I sincerely hope all Irish people home and abroad have got their eyes opened as to how pathetic the free state establishment has handled the centenary. For example what country would wait a couple of months before their official centenary and decide to start renovations on historical sites connected to it? This lackadaisical approach reveals their true feelings about such events.
    Personally I believe this deliberate subtle demonising of the Rising is required by the free state powers that be so as to prevent debate opening up about the present day ie partition.

  8. As Constance Markiewicz said in the Dáil debate on the Free State treaty: “It is the capitalists’ interests in England and Ireland that are pushing this Treaty to block the march of the working people in England and Ireland.”

  9. who genuinely believe we live in a single geographical unit called the “British Isles”
    Whether you like it or not, but that’s how most of the world calls GB and Ireland. Soon someone will probably pop up and call me a nazi, but everyone in my country says “Britu salas” (British Isles) when talking about GB and Ireland.

    You can argue all you want that the Irish are totally not British, but after spending nearly 3 years in Dublin I don’t really see much difference between Ireland, UK and all the other English speaking countries. Ireland doesn’t feel like a totally separate nation from them.It feels like a province of the Anglosphere.

    The author of that opinion piece is right that there was an attempt to “(re)invent the Irish”. Had the attempt to replace the language of the mostly English speaking population been successful Ireland would have been a very different country nowadays. So whether you like it or not, but the Irish are culturally very close to the British because the population consists mostly of monolingual English speakers and that’s why their culture is greatly influenced by both the UK and the USA.

  10. That was painful to read. What on earth is a major paper giving oxygen to such tripe.

  11. TurboFurbo

    “Ireland’s links with Britain run deep” – Barry Kennerk.
    Indeed Barry – just as Finland’s links with Sweden run deep on account of hundreds years of being a part of the Swedish Empire – does not make the Finns Swedish though.

    Basic logic deeply flawed Barry.

    • The difference is that the Finns didn’t throw away their own language and that’s why they have their own separate culture based on the Finnish language.

      The Irish doesn’t have that any more.

      • TurboFurbo

        A significant minority of the Finns speak Swedish as their mother-tongue in Finland and some of the giants in Finnish history have had Swedish as their mother-tongue, including Mannerheim and Sibelius, among others.

        According to the logic on Planet Jānis, this makes them Swedes.
        Just another day on Planet Jānis.

        • Yes – those people have Swedish ancestry and are culturally related to Sweden. And they consider themselves to be a separate group from the Finnish speaking Finns and have their own separate culture and identity that they try to protect and develop. And they refer to themselves as Finlandssvenskar – literally Finland-Swedes.

          • TurboFurbo

            They consider themselves 100% Finns – or do you disagree ?

          • I’m saying that the situation is more complicated than that and they’re not a homogenous mass that considers themselves 100% Finns – especially in regions like Aland that voted to secede from Finland. Just like the Irish aren’t a homogenous mass either and it’s nothing wrong if some of them consider themselves partially British, support the UK or are interested in its culture.

    • It seems that many people equate national identity with what language you speak, who you were colonised by, who’s popular culture you are atuned to. So the Irish are basically British according to this logic… Canadians essentially USers… but what happens if you change things a bit more and say put the Indians or Jamaicans up against the same criteria for whether or not they have their own unique identity (hundreds of years as an English colony, English language has become a national language (although pronounced very differently). It begins to fall apart a bit for me here. I think some people are assuming an awful lot based on surficial comparisons. Much of this is actually based on ignorance and stereotypes. For instance, I don’t know much about Slavs to me but they all look and sound like white Europeans who don’t know how to use the definite article.

  12. tim ferry

    i must say the new york times is so biased, but i don’t think they have a clue of the reality of which they wrote. to deny that ireland doest deserve to be a country denies the deaths of the great forced famine by the english , or the forced rapes, or the flight of the earls .
    So if your ignorant and believe the article then do yourself a favor open a history book and read the truth.

  13. A member of the New York Times editorial board now weighs in:

    Incoherent shoneen condescension.

  14. TurboFurbo

    Janis :
    “I’m saying that the situation is more complicated than that and they’re not a homogenous mass that considers themselves 100% Finns ”

    Incorrect – they consider themselves 100% Finns and are very proud Finns.
    I have been there and know them – have you ?

    • Is that why Aland islands voted for secession and still is a Swedish speaking province?

      • TurboFurbo

        The Aland Islands comprise approx. 7% of the Swedish-speaking population of Finland. The vast majority (over 90%) of the Swedish-speaking population of Finland iive in rural and coastal towns in Western and Southern Finland where they can conduct their entire lives through the Swedish language, with Swedish-language schools, media, commerce, civil administration.

        Question for you :

        Are these Swedish-speaking Finns :

        1. Swedish
        2. Finnish

        Which one ?

  15. TurboFurbo

    “It’s nothing wrong if some of them (Irish) consider themselves partially British, support the UK or are interested in its culture.” – Janis

    I speak German fluently, follow German Bundesliga soccer, enjoy German beer and food and am interested in German culture.

    Does that make me German ?

    Yes or No ?

    • Good point. An historical example might be James Joyce, who was very resistant to the nationalism that put Irish culture and language — let alone catholicism — “above” others, but he always considered himself to be Irish (as well as a citizen of the world) even as he insisted on writing in English, in fact redefining what it means to write in English: his own means of rebellion. For that matter, Beckett wrote in French! And despite Kennerk’s defense that his main point was that the Easter Rising is to blame for later forms of Irish nationalism, the rebel leaders themselves were very much thinking of their comrades around the world. Michael Mallin experienced the struggle against the empire in India and understood the labor struggle as central to national liberation; John MacBride led an Irish brigade against the empire in South Africa; John Connolly talked of the rebellion as the only means of liberating workers, Irish workers in the immediate case, but as part of the international struggle. Pádraig Pearse, usually presented as the most “fanatical” because in fact the most progressive, set up his schools to be bilingual, not exclusively “Gaelic”. And the Proclamation itself was provided only in English! Kennerk would say that’s because they _were_ English, not because the English had forced it on all public life for centuries. Kennerk’s evocation of class solidarity across national boundaries really serves to deny the struggle at the local level. It also underscores how much the struggle is necessary still. Leanann an troid fós.

      • You can consider yourself Irish, but if you want Ireland to be a 100% English speaking country that doesn’t differ from the UK and the rest of the Anglosphere very much – then is there a difference whether you consider yourself Irish or British?
        If the end result is the same.

  16. ‘Ireland has always had a British heritage.’ Indeed, a parasitic and unwelcome one which the men and women of ’16 tried to cast off.

    • If it’s so unwelcome then why are you all speaking English and don’t want to learn any other language? Why are many Irish people calling the Irish language a boring shit and don’t even want to try to speak it outside school?

      Walk down a street in Dublin and you won’t get an impression that it’s unwelcome seeing signs in English everywhere and hearing it spoken everywhere too.

      It makes me think that you speak English because you consider to be superior to Irish.

  17. Galwaygal

    If you follow the DNA there is a distinction between Irish markers, Iberian markers and Great Britain markers all of whom were early settlers in the region. The Irish are their own people with their own culture. This article is sorely flawed.

  18. “Would any or all of these societies, left to their own devices, have developed the means for interstellar communication? The 14 most complex societies are:-
    Uttar Pradeshi
    “Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington DC, 2014
    I don’t see British listed.
    Should we contact NASA Mr. Kennerk? You’re not worth the time.

  19. TurboFurbo

    Janis still refuses to answer :

    Are the Swedish-speaking Finns :

    1. Swedish
    2 Finnish

    Which one ?

  20. TurboFurbo

    The Aland Islands comprise approx. 7% of the Swedish-speaking population of Finland. The vast majority (over 90%) of the Swedish-speaking population of Finland iive in rural and coastal towns in Western and Southern Finland where they can conduct their entire lives through the Swedish language, with Swedish-language schools, media, commerce, civil administration.

    Question for you :

    Are these Swedish-speaking Finns :

    1. Swedish
    2. Finnish

    Which one ?

    • Stop spamming!
      Yes, they’re Finnish. However they’re a minority. Had they been the majority then Finland would be a very different country today – a “Little Sweden” without the unique culture that’s based on the Finnish language.

      That’s what I’m saying – if you throw away a language then you throw away a culture as well. The English speaking Irish can consider themselves to be Irish, however as I said – a 100% Irish speaking country would be very different from the current one.

      A 100% Russian speaking Latvia would be very different to the current one.

      And a 100% Swedish speaking Finland would be a very different country from the current one.

      And America without European colonisation would have been a very different continent today. It would have multiple countries (or states of a federal country) – each with their own culture based on their own Native American language. Just like Europe is today (Except odd cases like Ireland or Belarus).

  21. TurboFurbo

    “Yes, they’re (the Swedish-speaking Finns) Finnish.”

    Correct – so by your own logic the Irish are Irish – and not any other nationality.

    • Yeah, but if you’re an English monoglot then it doesn’t really matter.

      Language is at the centre of culture and that’s why you’ve made Ireland very similar to the UK & other Anglosphere countries during the previous 100 years. So much for all that blood sacrifice & whatnot.

      • TurboFurbo

        Jānazi :
        1. You yourself have confirmed that language does not equate to nationality.

        I know 2 Latvians. Both of them have applied for Irish citizenship and both will destroy their Latvian passports when they receive their Irish passports. Like the vast majority of foreigners living here, they have huge respect for this country, for Irish culture and for the Irish nation and intend settling down here.

        They both absolutely loathe Latvia.

        They are deeply ashamed of it’s cowardice in surrendering without even putting up a fight when the Soviets waltzed in and took over Latvia They are also deeply ashamed of Latvia’s Nazi history and the collaboration in the mass-murder of thousands of their fellow citizens – and indeed the present-day disgraceful treatment of minorities in Latvia.

        By the way, the Finns consider Latvia to be a joke of a country and a nation of cowards.
        Finnish joke – how many gears has a Latvian army jeep ?
        5 – all reverse.
        Just so you know the real story.

        Have a good one.

        • What do you mean by “disgraceful treatment of minorities”? Can you elaborate. Were those “Latvians” former soviet migrants who are still salty that their beloved empire of evil doesn’t exist any more and that those pesky Latvians don’t want to throw away their language and culture and become docile Russian speaking sheeple who worship Stalin and Putin?

          Yes – language doesn’t equate to nationality.
          But the national culture DOES equate with the language more or less. (Minorities can of course add to the national culture too) And the people who wrote the Irish constitution understood that. That’s why they wrote that Irish is the national language. And that’s why they attempted to revive the language by teaching it at schools. Their vision was an independent Irish speaking Ireland with national culture based on the Irish language.

  22. What is an English? Brythonic Celt? Anglo-Saxon? Viking? Norman? When the “English” first took over the rule of Ireland, they spoke French and much official business was done in Latin. The Normans themselves were Viking in origin. Scotland is Gaelic because of Irish expansion. Nationhood is obviously a complex and often ad hoc arrangement. But even the core of the English empire was the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland: distinct “nations” under one monarch.

    • “It is the same told of all. Many. Miscegenations on miscegenations.” (James Joyce, Finnegans Wake)

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