Mad Marx: Dealing With Ireland's Colonial Legacy

Image Credit: Ellen Nugent

As a wealthy liberal democracy, it is easy for the youth of today to forget the fact that Ireland is a post-colonial state. Often what comes to mind when we think of post-colonial societies are states in Africa and the Middle East, or generally places “over there”. Riddled with civil war, poverty, and a much worse quality of life than their colonisers, they are seen as having no real relationship to us or our experiences. To a certain extent that is true - no other post-colonial state has achieved the quality of life that Ireland has.

That sense of detachment, the gap between the popular perception of what a post-colonial society “should'' look like, versus the kind of society we live in, is conveniently exploited by historical revisionists of all stripes. Rather than acknowledging the Irish nation as one historically oppressed by colonialism - and still oppressed on the Northern part of this island - there has been a concerted effort to revise the Irish role in the British Empire as something more akin to junior partners. Rather than suffering under the bootheel of Empire, the Irish were collaborators both at home and abroad in propagating the power and influence of British imperialism, participating in all the war, genocide and oppression that entailed.

That argument is not completely irrational. There is some truth to it. After all, the bluntly-named Papists Act of 1778 was put in place to get Irishmen into the British Army, as part of the effort to crush the American Revolution. By 1813, roughly one third of the British imperial military was Irish. The Irish were involved in numerous atrocities across the world - for example, “Sir” Michael O’Dwyer, the lieutenant-governor of Punjab, was a fierce defender of the Amritsar Massacre, in which the British Army fired into a peaceful crowd, killing hundreds of Indians.

The Empire had more than its fair share of Irish collaborators - from the child labour advocate Daniel O’Connell, who propped up the British Whig government and used it to crush Irish trade unionism, to John Redmond who convinced hundreds of thousands of Irishmen to sign up for a war effort that they had no stake or interest in. Not to mention the thousands of Irish men and women who actively collaborated with the Empire in its imposition of its colonial regime here, acting as intelligence agents, members of the RIC etc, nor should it be forgotten that Michael Collins went from taking up the gun against the Empire to taking guns from it in order to use on his own former comrades, and doing so on the order of the British.

One could easily believe that the history of Ireland truly is a history of colonial collaboration. Of course, to seriously believe that, you would have to ignore all the acts of rebellion, the continuous resistance by Irish people to our own oppression both by the British and their Irish collaborators, and the fact that the Irish struggle for freedom has been a global inspiration for the oppressed everywhere. For each act of collaboration, there were countless more acts of resistance.

Yet some do ignore this side of Ireland’s colonial legacy. Among many of the more liberal-minded youth in Ireland today, there is an effort to recast the Irish role as being a part of a global system of whiteness, which places the Irish in a position no different from Americans who oversaw slavery or the English who imposed a genocidal colonial order, looting their way across the planet. This is in no small part a side effect of the relatively recent importation of US-style identity politics in one of its most crudest forms. The Irish are white, and as a white nation, the Irish must share responsibility for the crimes and legacies of colonialism. This is justified with examples of collaboration, but in reality all colonial regimes have the local “garrison class”, parts of the colonised population who collaborate with colonial power either because of the influence of colonial ideology or a pursuit of their own narrow self-interests (or both).

The reality is much more complex, and is a classic example of why any attempts to simply import American conceptions of race relations without doing any kind of critical reinterpretation for the Irish context are bound to fall flat on their face. This is related to the complete disdain for Irish language and the “cultural cringe” that comes with attempts to preserve and develop what remains of our culture that is endemic across the more educated Irish student population.

The twin of this is the political and media establishment’s effort to provide continuity to that same thread of collaboration that has weaved its way through Irish history. The abortive attempt, spearheaded by Fine Gael, to celebrate the Black & Tans speaks volumes. The concerted effort to revise Irish colonial history into anything other than a history comprised predominantly of brutal and often genocidal oppression, and the resistance to that oppression, is today used as a mechanism to green-bait the likes of Sinn Fe?in. If we are starting to question the legitimacy of our own struggle for freedom, then naturally it goes without saying the Provisional IRA campaign was a moral atrocity - though let us conveniently ignore the absolute brutality of Loyalism’s death squads and Britain’s war crimes. There, we must unthinkingly “reconcile”, going so far as to appoint a man alleged to have covered up British state collusion in over a hundred Loyalist murders to the post of Garda Commissioner.

The sad truth is that such shameless efforts are bearing fruit, with the likes of Sinn Fe?in conceding more ground each and every day, happily working hand in glove with right wing Unionism in the North to implement austerity, while overseeing a PSNI that continues to disproportionately and heavy-handedly police Northern Catholic communities.

Rather than fabricating a false historical narrative of Irish complicitness with colonialism and white supremacy, we would be better focusing our efforts today on our current collaboration with imperial power - letting the US military use our airports, and sending our troops to Afghanistan, Mali, and other places they have no business being.