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Writer Barry Kennerk Replies To His Critics

My short post on Friday criticising the tone and content of the New York Times opinion piece, “Inventing the Irish“, has generated considerable interest over the last twenty-four hours, with some 50,000 views so far. Barry Kennerk, the author of the original newspaper article, has requested an opportunity to reply to this and the associated commentary, which I’m happy to publish below:

“This article has generated a lot of debate which is of course it’s whole purpose. However, many of those who have posted comments thus far have missed the whole point by conflating two wholly separate concepts: British culture and Empire which are by no means synonymous ideas.

Many English people during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were just as aghast at colonial policies as were the Irish. Young English soldiers , returning to coal-mining districts after the Boer War had their weapons taken away for fear that they would rise in arms against the pit bosses. Likewise, the Treason Felony Act, so often touted as a singularly anti-Irish piece of legislation, saw scores of working class English Chartists exiled to Australia.

The spirit of this piece is to recapture a lost moment of solidarity – a time when Irish nationalists were able to reach out to men like Charles Bradlaugh. ‘We declare, in the face of our brethren, that we intend no war against the people of England’ ran the first proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1866. ‘Our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields’.

The idea of ‘us’ against ‘them’ only serves to enslave, rather than liberate. As the article states – the true enemy is processes, not people; the Forces of Empire, not the British people themselves and lastly, but most importantly, the Free State parish pump carpet baggers, who suckered the Irish people into buying into the idea of a great Celtic Nation while they prostrated themselves at the feet of the Pope and got rich at the expense of the working man.

The idea that we share a common culture of the British Isles predates the Union Jack. Ours is a culture that can, and should, celebrate pride in regional cultures, be they English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh, yet recognise a common bond of brotherhood.

Britain espoused an older Republicanism – one that is now being rediscovered in questions about the role of the monarchy, the relevance of the flag and whether or not the statue of African coloniser Cecil Rhodes ought to be pulled down in Oxford.

Another aspect of this article is that some elements of the Gaelic Revival were necessarily kitsch (which indeed they were) while Ireland attempted to assert it’s otherness (a term borrowed from Edward Said) but that does mean to suggest that there was not also an authentic Irish identity. The tragedy is that ‘Irish Ireland’ ultimately served to exclude, rather than bring together our fellow toilers in Britain and to separate the united cause of labour. Prior to independence, our respective peoples had intermingled for centuries; the idea that there was somehow a mystic, pure-bred Celtic race to be reinstated after independence was a myth.

Dublin is often cited as having the worst slums in Europe but consider the desperate poverty in the tenements of London, Edinburgh and other major cities – slums from which many British participants of the Rising came, including James Connolly himself. injustice against the Irish was by no means unique but on the other hand, denigration of the poor was a better distributed commodity. Of the British aristocracy a Sheffield native wrote the following during the 1890s: ‘do you know what a charter is? Why it is a licence to rob anyone weaker than yourself.’ I have spent years poring over papers of the British establishment. Time after time, these show who the real threat was – the ‘dangerous’ working classes.

Ultimately then, when it comes to Easter Week 1916, I respect the vision of many of the rebel leaders, none of whom would recognise today’s Ireland with its homeless crisis , political corruption and gangland vice. Surely this is not the republic they died to create.

Likewise, I cannot readily accept that somehow, ordinary British men and women were the enemy of the Irish people or that our culture was radically different to theirs. However when it comes to the fight against Empire, against oppression, against injustice of all kinds, that is something I can agree on.”

I want to thank Barry Kennerk for taking the time to elaborate on his New York Times opinion piece and ask that any comments or criticisms by ASF readers are civil – and constructive – in nature.

My own criticisms I stand by. While I certainly agree that Ireland and Britain share historic traditions in common, inevitably so after centuries of colonial domination by the latter over the former, I believe that a philosophical adherence to a sort of benign “pan-Britishness” encompassing the nations and regions of our respective islands invariably carries with it a political and frankly revanchist dimension. Pan-Britishness is simply a manifestation of Greater England, a political, cultural and linguistic hegemony where the distinctiveness of the separate peoples of north-western Europe is subjugated or assimilated.

Furthermore, one could ask: where were the working-class and left-wing voices in the United Kingdom when a majority of the Irish electorate voted for some form of independence in the plebiscite-elections of 1918, 1920 and 1921? As the historian Conor Kostick and others have pointed out, the response from progressive forces in Britain, from political parties to trade unions, in the years 1916 to 1923 was apathetic at best, hostile at worse. After all, many of those self-same people had been cheerleaders for the imperial abattoirs of the Somme and Gallipoli, while those deemed to be dissidents were condemned to prison or social ostracisation. The 1916 proclamation was no more heralded by the British working-classes as a charter for democracy and equality than that issued in 1867 by the IRB’s Provisional Government of the Irish Republic.

Neither do I believe that any of those within the mainstream “Irish Ireland” movement sought the elevation of some sort of theoretically pure-blooded Celtic race over our island nation. Rhetoric by the revolutionary intellectuals of a colonised people is just that – rhetoric. In reality, the most influential men and women of the Irish Revival, and the armed struggle that was to follow, were products of the Protestant, Anglo-Irish and “mixed marriage” traditions. Even Pearse himself, the son of a formerly Protestant-turned-agnostic Englishman with English half-siblings and cousins, was of that line.

14 comments on “Writer Barry Kennerk Replies To His Critics

  1. Joe Keenan

    The response reads like a copy and past with little internal coherence. British culture and Empire are synonymous, just as today American Imperialism and American Culture are. Also, the idea of a solidarity of spirit uniting the working class is absurd. After all, working class Englishmen took food from the thin hands of the poor during The Hunger. Casual anti Catholic aside is also noted. Gaelic Revival? Edward Said? Dublin slums? It doesn’t hang together very well.


  2. We hear often that the German`s must be careful about stopping or slowing immigration because of “their history” (Colin Brazier,SKY News).It seems that although collective responsibility for oppression,genocide and imperialism is ok for Germans it would never do to apply it to oneself if English.And plenty of Germans were killed by the Nazis.


  3. Graham Ennis

    I agree. Very evasive, does not even address the silly mistakes, such as claiming that “The Irish and British postal systems were severed completely”….(Utter nonsense.).This is a typical attempt by what passes as an “Intellectual” in new York to justify the unjustifiable. Full of errors, unproven assertions as to the nature and culture of the Irish, etc. We are still no closer to discovering if this writer even has any Irish connections or family, or citizenship, or is just another apologist for what we endured and suffered. Has he ever even been to ireland?


  4. The idea that we share a common culture of the British Isles predates the Union Jack.
    Yeah – and that’s obvious to everyone who lives in Dublin.


    • Pat murphy

      James,you have obviously been to the horse show at the RDS.


  5. ar an sliabh

    Too little too late. The end of our nation past and present are always the “fools and traitors” that fail to answer the call for the “pikes to be together at the rising of the moon.” GRMA ASF for keeping it “real.”


  6. I don’t know how I feel about collective responsibility even in Germany. Barry Kennerk’s view makes some sense to me, in the fact that working class people everywhere have suffered. To say that this automatically leads to solidarity between people, and that it overrides any cultural differences goes too far. Likewise this crap about inventing Ireland. Rather than pure blood, I would argue that the difference in culture goes all the way back through a long litterary and artistic heritage which was driven out of the public conciousness by laws which banned the speaking of Irish, the gaellic poets who went into exile, the musiciansand ultimately the Irish people themselves, whose culture was legislated against continually by a foreign nation. I don;t hate British culture, the enforcement of it however, went against the very “shared ideal” culture he is talking about. There was no co-mingling when the rights of Gaellic people were taken away for instance by the statutes of Kilkenny. The fact is England never wanted the people of this country as anything but slaves. They did not want “their people” mixing with the Irish people. When it came to guaranteeing the well-being of the “subjects during the famine, it is made very clear that it was an “Irish” problem. Again and again there was rebuke, there was othering, there was differentiation, precisely because they knew that the Irish people were different to them. And it was us and them, both in our terms and theirs. This, if it is a construction or invention at all, is something which brewed for hundreds of years and oftentimes was aggravated by England. The only intermingling of culture of the kind he means would have been before their attempt to collonise Ireland, or at least among people who settled here and became Irish themselves. His view is something which I dislike about a certain line of marxist ideology which sees class as the reason for everything. Class is a factor of almost everything, but this kind of ideology must automatically eliminate any other grievances in order to back up their own world view. But the way I see it, there has always been a British ruling class, and that has been the problem in this country for years. Not an invisible ruling class, or a neutral one, , or one which is identical to any other, but a culturally British ruling class. Specific, systematic about the culture it wished to dismantle and that which it sought to spread. And it had nothing to do with the mingling of peoples.


  7. His comments about a common culture predating union are wrong and show a lack of understanding. How were the cultures of Chapel going monolingual Welsh speaking Wales the same as Irish speaking Connamara and then similar to put an ice English speaking Durham coalfield? How were they closer to each other than they were to Norman French speaking culture of a 7th Century Normandy or to the culture of a German speaker from Bavaria? If anything the Coal miner from Durham would have been culturally closer to a coal miner from Sidlesham than a Connamara peasant. People who have never really studied the indigenous languages of these islands and the cultures and histories that went with them constantly make the mistake of assuming that they were very similar, they weren’t, they were as different as any other European cultures, there was no essential unity of culture in these islands other than that imposed by politics, and even in that respect it varied widely with penal laws in force in Ireland to repress the people, with the ruling class in Wales viewed as foreign and espousing a foreign religion to many of the people (Anglicanism) and Scotland split into two different cultural areas and holding a different political is ion to England. No, there was no cultural unity before the union, in fact the purpose of union was to force and create such a unity, and it wasn’t very successful in Wales which was culturally distinct until mass immigration (colonisation) shifted the politics from ethnic and nationalist based to class based politics.


  8. I see nothing in the author’s explanation other than more of the same. As far as I can see, he’s merely given expression to a subconcious fear that the American State (USA) is a fraudulent entity that rightfully belongs to the Greater English State (UK), the ‘revolution’ and the ‘declaration of independance’ being nothing other than the highjacking of British liberties by treasonous criminals. Could the NYT now give us another article entitled Inventing the Americans? I’m sure there are any number of right wing English journalists who’d be hapy to oblige.

    Gan y gwirion ceir y gwir?


  9. john maciain

    working class people everywhere suffered, but the british working class benefited from the empire and had no sympathy or tolerance for the irish or any other celts , and continue to pretend celts or gaels don’t realy exist. this pretense is part of the genocidal mentality of the british military capitalists. if the celts or irish don’t exist, then there was no ethnic cleansing and no genocide. the pretense of worker solidarity is just another excuse to rationalize imperial atrocities.


  10. Devil Eire

    “The Irish have always had a British heritage.”

    I would be interested to hear the author develop this astonishing statement a little more. In what sense have the Irish *always* had a British heritage? If he simply intends to convey the commonplace fact that the histories of the Irish and British are intertwined, then this is an extremely dishonest way of putting it. Gaelic civilization did not ultimately survive contact with the English and their allies, but was not itself British.


  11. Hmm as a so call historian Barry Kennerk would have heard of Mercantilism / Laissez Faire – the economic policies adopted by the British govt when left Southern Ireland predominately reliant on agriculture … Southern Ireland for the English was there to serve the mother country …

    As a graduate of History myself I am horrified that the NYT allowed such drivel


    • john maciain

      why did the ny times allow such drivel? any article that attacks gaels will get publiched in the anglo media. denial is the heart stone of genocide.

      the new statesman ran an article debunking there ever were celts on three point. first the gundestrup cauldron shows non celtic dieties(the gundestrup cauldron has been proved by metaluricical techniques to have been made by the varna cultre of the black sea thracians), second there was no people caled celts before the greeks–and only the greeks.(celtiberians called themselves the celit, as far back as 1200 bc, and latin writers refered to the souther a]gauld as celts), and finally thirdly that there was no celtic language(linguists have long noted the langauge group that includes brythonic, gaelic and lepontic and a disctinct language group). all clap trap that cold have been disprived by a few minutes on google, but our left wing friends and working class solidatity supporters published this openly racist crap. anything that debunks gaels or all celts get a free ride in anglo media.

      anuthing that comes from a gaelic source gets ignored.


  12. Pearse himself was very influenced by Bradlaugh through the working-class convictions of his father. He was also influenced by the Belgian educational system.
    Presumably the Rights of Man and Marx would have been an influence on Connolly. The Soviets were also influenced by Marx … maybe we’re all Russians and Ukranians comrades!!
    Michael Collins was fierce for the GAA. The Brazilians are fervent football players. Ay Caramba we’re South American!!
    Trendy “historian” in “finding new angle on 1916” shock.


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