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.