We have witnessed a shocking display from the Dublin government, as it has openly sought (probably successfully as it stands at the moment of writing) to nullify Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU), as if a small nation that would not have joined the EU without its larger neighbour should dictate that neighbour’s policy. I believe this holds long-term risks for Ireland, as Ireland reveals its hand, and shows itself not to be a neutral country at all, but an enemy state of England. This is not always appreciated in England, but it is the case, and the Irish are taught to hate England in their education system, often by means of a selectively distorted reading of history. Many—not all, but many—Irish people are raised with the firm belief that Britain has reason to apologise to them, and that they have been personally wronged by historical events. It is the anti-English animus that lay behind Ireland’s joining the euro in the first place, and a non-Irish prime minister, Varadkar, who could hardly be described as a member of cine Ghaedhealach, has played to this resentment throughout the Brexit process. What are the historical facts of the matter?
The geopolitical imperative of British domination
Well, Ireland was dominated by England throughout history, and being an adjacent country, remains, willy-nilly, in the British sphere of influence. Should Ireland join a military alliance arraigned against Britain and offer to host military bases from which to attack the UK, it would invite—and deserve—occupation by Britain. This reflects the realities faced by all small countries. The Ukraine refuses to be a neutral country and wants to join an anti-Russian alliance—and claims to be surprised that it courts military conflict with Russia as a result. Syria claims to object to Israeli bombing raids, despite the fact these are undertaken precisely because Syria is hosting Iranian military bases when Iran is a military foe of Israel. In Irish history, the country sought to ally itself with the Continent against England, and claimed adherence to an episcopacy based in Rome that advocated that Roman Catholics murder the English monarch. I would not suggest that Catholicism has the same geopolitical significance today or that the historical and somewhat tired dispute between Catholicism and Protestantism should be invested with meaning it need not have in an age where none of their adherents believe in the old way anymore. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, adhering to the Roman church hierarchy meant aligning Ireland with France. This was a geopolitical step, and one that England, as any great power, had the right and duty to respond to. The Irish overplayed their hand, and the Flight of the Earls was the consequence.
Losing the land
I cannot support a policy of confiscating all land from Gaelic nobles and handing it out as “freehold” property either to Anglo-Irish landed gentry, and to people based in England who never visited their Irish estates at all. Such an outcome, which played a huge role in the Irish Famine, was not originally intended, as shown in the Surrender and Regrant policy followed at one point that aimed to integrate the existing Gaelic chieftains into the Crown’s own property- and title-holding system. But each cycle of uprisings and conflict led to a deeper and deeper involvement in the affairs of each locality in Ireland. Some Gaelic chieftains did in fact keep their land, but this was generally the case only with landowners who made a great attempt not to come to the attention of the British authorities. Any chieftain who launched an uprising was clearly in line for the loss of all of his land, and this is what happened in the majority of Gaelic Ireland.
The situation is much like that in unstable countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, where the Americans initially intervened, currently in Iraq and Afghanistan and previously in Somalia, to foster stability, and each bout of instability then led to a more repressive policy. In the end, the Americans found themselves bombing weddings and funerals and doing other things they didn’t initially intend to do. You could argue that the Americans shouldn’t be there anyway, but the local people have agency, and bear their own responsibility for the way things have panned out. Japan under the US occupation and Hong Kong under British rule made successes of themselves, so what is wrong with the Afghans or indeed the Irish? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion (one known to all Irishmen, even if they pretend not to know) that the Irish have been their own worst enemies throughout history.
A famine or a genocide?
This brings us to the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s and 1850s. The British Census Commissioners determined in 1851—in figures now believed to be an undercount as many people had died or emigrated and were not available to be questioned—that 21,770 had died of starvation over the previous decade and 400,720 from diseases including fever, diphtheria, dysentery, cholera, smallpox and influenza. It is now accepted that the real figure was at least 1m. If Irish children are taught 1m died of starvation, however, then they are being taught a lie. The vast majority of deaths were from disease. Ireland’s own expert on the Famine, Cormac Ó Gráda, has examined this in detail and argues (see Table 7 therein) that 10% of the excess deaths in the Famine period were from starvation or scurvy, which gives an upper limit of 100,000 deaths from starvation and scurvy (scurvy, resulting from a reduction in vitamin C intake, would ultimately reflect lower caloric intake). Although diseases including typhus, typhoid, dysentery, etc, can flourish in a weakened population, and so are ultimately Famine-related too, Ó Gráda argues that the cause of diseases such as these (or of disease in general) was not understood at the time. The squalor and filth of living conditions in Irish cabins played a large role in the death toll. If Irish children are being taught that 1m people died of starvation, they are being fed a malicious lie by their teachers. Subtracting deaths from scurvy, direct deaths from starvation were not more than around 50,000.
This is not a justification for famine or starvation, but a call for a modern country to stop teaching lies in the school system. The British civil servant in charge of Famine relief, Charles Trevelyan, has received much of the blame for Famine deaths. He wrote:
The greatest evil we have to face is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Irish people.
This has led to propagation by Sinn Féin and others of the view that the Famine was used by Britain to kill off the Irish people. Yet in 1846, Trevelyan wrote:
Our measures must proceed with as little disturbance as possible of the ordinary course of private trade, which must ever be the chief resource for the subsistence of the people, but, coûte que coûte, the people must not, under any circumstances, be allowed to starve.
Trevelyan was a Malthusian who believed that the Irish population had risen unsustainably. From 4m in 1800, the population had risen to 8.5m by 1845. While having no resources to provide for the children they bore, the Irish were breeding with abandon. Having fewer children was clearly something that never occurred to an impoverished tenant. Trevelyan was an adherent to the incorrect view that “nature corrects a population excess”, but there is no evidence whatsoever that he sought to allow people to starve in order to help nature accomplish such a Malthusian task.
Trevelyan did order intervention to provide soup and employment in civil works in Ireland, and, although inadequate, it must be borne in mind that no country in the world was a welfare state at the time, and not much was done in England itself to help those in dire circumstances. It is, in fact, surprising anything at all was done to help the Irish. The 1840s was the period when five-year-old children were working 18-hour days in factories in England and saw their limbs deformed from the work they had to do. Once again, only malice motivates the claim that Britain would have done more if the Famine were in England. No, it wouldn’t have. Britain/England was not a democracy at the time.
Trevelyan was also determined to maintain property rights and the laisser faire economy as far as possible. The army was used to stop the seizure of ships laden with food departing from Irish ports. It is of course true that Ireland did not need English charity or any public welfare at all: Ireland produced enough food for itself, and the tenants simply needed the right to eat the food they produced. Losing their land was catastrophic for the Irish—and a less turbulent history would not have seen them lose their land—and so most of the food was exported to England even at the height of the Potato Famine.
As England was not socialist at the time, it is idle to read history backwards and imagine that any other policy could have been implemented. Even if the Irish landowners had maintained their land, it is far from a certain thing that they would not have taken the majority of the produce from their tenants, or that a potato famine would not have led to the same number of deaths as occurred under British rule. It is uncomfortable for Irish people to confront truths like this—as the false version of history has become part of Ireland’s national identity and brooks no factual refutation.
Losing the language
The Irish tell themselves a fairy tale about their linguistic/literary history, whereby ancient Ireland was “a land of saints and scholars”. There were Christian saints and monks who faithfully copied old manuscripts, but as a description of Gaelic culture it is lousy. The Irish language was written in the pre-modern era by a mere handful of people. There were almost no books in Irish before the mid-19th century, apart from the Bible, translated into Irish by Irishmen under the direction of an English bishop, William Bedell, but railed against by the Roman Catholic church. Ireland was not a land of saints and scholars, but rather a land of squalor, ignorance and cultural backwardness. That Ireland in the pre-British conquest period was not a haven of culture was acknowledged throughout Europe. As the Spanish viscount, Ramón de Perellós, related of his visit to the Ó Néill chieftain in Ireland in September 1397:
And the great lords wear a coat with no lining down to their knees, cut very low at the neckline like women, and they wear great hoods which go down to their waist, the point being as narrow as one’s finger and they wear neither leggings nor shoes nor britches but wear their spurs on their bare heels.
The king was in that state on Christmas day and all his clergy and knights and bishops and abbots and other great lords. The common people go as they may, badly dressed—but most of them wear a cape of frieze; and both men and women shamelessly show all their privates. Poor people go naked but they all wear those capes, good or bad, including ladies. The queen and her daughter and her sister were clothed and bound in green but they were unshod; the queen’s handmaids—there was a good score of them—were dressed as I told you above and showed their privy parts with as little shame as here they show their faces.
And with the king there were about three thousand horses and also many poor folk to whom I saw the king give great alms of beef.
And moreover they are the most handsome men and fairest women that I have seen in the whole world. And moreover they never sowed any corn nor do they have any wine but all their food is meat and the great lords drink milk for their nobility and the others meat broth and water; but they have enough butter for all their livestock is oxen and cows and fine horses. [Link]
Ireland was incredibly backward. There was no settled agriculture. The people were naked much of the time, or naked but for a cape over their shoulders. And yet the kings or chieftains, surrounded by male and female attendants often partly or fully naked, liked to employ court poets to laud them. England may itself have been or become such a country if it hadn’t been for the Norman invasion, which forced the villein system on the English countryside, and with it proper agricultural investment and economic growth. Ireland was famous throughout Europe for the primitivity of its culture.
The bardic schools—which were not “schools” for public attendance, but schools for an incredibly small number of poets—did not survive the demise of the Gaelic landowners. It is often claimed that “England did not allow the Irish to get an education”, and there was a brief period when Roman Catholics could not attend university (at a time when university attendance was less than 1% of the population, there being no public school system), but in 1795 the Catholic college, now a university, in Maynooth was set up by a Royal grant, as part of a British attempt to win over the allegiance of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Maynooth predates the advent of a public school system in Britain or Ireland, indicating that British opposition is not the reason why there was no literacy in Irish or books in Irish. Had there been a demand for books in Irish in the 18th century among the well-to-do, there would have been books in Irish. Yet the Irish church hierarchy played a role in repressing literacy in Irish. William Magee pointed out the trade-off between support for the Roman Catholic church and the loss of the Irish language:
Few Irishmen will admit that Ireland would have been made a more interesting and agreeable country by an evangelical movement which would have introduced Bedell’s Bible into every cottage; but it was probably at the cost of her ancient language, as well as of some other things, that Ireland kept her religious tradition unbroken. (Magee, William Kirkpatrick. Bards and saints, Dublin: Maunsel & Co, 1906, p22.)
There are anecdotes relating how the Catholic priests in nineteenth-century Ireland railed against An Bíobla Gallda, “the Foreign Bible” (i.e., a perverse reference to the Bible in Irish, not Latin). Cyril Ó Céirin recounts the opposition of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to the Irish language:
The period witnessed a wholesale effort to win the Irish peasantry over to the Established Church—through the medium of Irish. The attempt failed but struck a devastating blow at the language, for the Roman Catholic clergy panicked and urged their flocks to abandon the language in case it turned out to be the means for their destruction. The teaching and reading of Irish in those areas where proselytism was vigorous was forbidden, collections of manuscripts were made and burnt publicly and preachers fulminated against the language from the pulpit. (Ó Céirin, Cyril. “Maynooth and the Irish language”, an appendix in O’Leary, Peter, My story, translated from Irish by Cyril Ó Céirin, Cork: Mercier Press, 1970, pp177-178.)
The fact that the cities were English-speaking is the real thing that did for the Irish language. It should be admitted that most Irish cities were founded by the Vikings; none were founded by the Gaels. Attempts to made Waterford and Dublin Irish-speaking are funny, in fact: a knowledge of history would argue rather for teaching in Icelandic in those cities in order to bring back a spoken language related to Old Norse. However, the final collapse of the Irish language was rather more sudden than would have appeared likely in 1840, partly because of the Famine, but also because of a wider loss of Irish national self-confidence. Daniel O’Connell, the agitator for Catholic Emancipation and Repeal of the Union known as “the Liberator”, was a native speaker of Irish, but a famous quotation attributed to him shows that many native speakers doubted the advantages of speaking Irish:
I am sufficiently utilitarian not to regret its gradual abandonment. A diversity of tongues is no benefit; it was first imposed upon mankind as a curse, at the building of Babel. It would be of great advantage to mankind if all the inhabitants of the Earth spoke the same language. Therefore though the Irish language is connected with many recollections that twine around the hearts of Irishmen, yet the superior utility of the English tongue, as the medium of all modern communication, is so great that I can witness without a sigh the gradual disuse of Irish. (Daunt, William Joseph O’Neill. Personal recollections of the late Daniel O’Connell, M.P., Volume 1, London: Chapman and Hall, 1848, pp14-15.)
What is regularly left out in Irish nationalist accounts is that the Irish people themselves decided to stop speaking Irish. There are many anecdotal accounts of Irish native speakers concealing their linguistic background or refusing to speak their native tongue, preferring a poorly learned, grammatically butchered variant of English. Irish had become a low-status language, a fact that was connected to the backwardness of Gaelic culture. Where were the Irish Isaac Newtons and George Stephensons? The language circulated, if at all, in manuscripts that few could read.
Rural “hedge” schools grew up in the 18th century, as officially established Catholic schools were forbidden under Penal Laws (such a prohibition was in force for a relatively short time, between 1723 and 1782, but exaggerated in Irish accounts to explain centuries of history). Yet it must be remembered that this was well before the advent of publicly funded mass education, and the unofficial hedge schools, set up by local rural people, tended to teach English, without any government encouragement, simply because to do so offered economic advancement to the pupils. The hedge schools were not staffed by English people sent over to knock the Irish language out of the people. After 1831, the hedge schools were replaced by the national school system, a state education system run largely by the Catholic church, and it is reported that, as in Wales, children were beaten in many of the national schools for speaking Irish, apparently with the approval of their parents, who wished their children to learn English. The Irish people themselves did this. With no published literature in Irish, the Catholic church railing against the language and parents determined to raise their children in English it is unsurprising that Irish fell away. The role of Irish parents in enforcing this transition to English is clear from the account of Robert Lynd:
In many places, teacher, priest and parent combined with the authorities in stamping out all knowledge of the native language from the minds of the children. The children were forbidden to speak any Irish in the schools, and they carried little tally-sticks hung round their necks so that, every time they lapsed into Irish in their homes, their parents might cut a notch in these and the teacher might award as many strokes of the cane as he found notches in the tally-stick on the next morning.
It is difficult to forgive a generation of parents, priests, politicians and teachers who thus flogged the children of the country out of the knowledge of their natural speech. Many parents, it is clear, looking at the course of events in the world, came to the conclusion that English was the language of success and Irish the language of decay and starvation. If they punished their children for being Irish, they thought they were punishing bread-and-butter into their stomachs, if not the bread of life into their souls. Curious to relate, this idea is not dead among Irish-speaking parents even today. Those who know English, though they speak Irish to each other and to grown-up neighbours, very often drop into English when they address their children. (Lynd, Robert. Home Life in Ireland, Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co, 1912, pp92-93.)
The government regulations under which national schools were set up did not mention the Irish language. The Irish language was not expressly forbidden in the schools, but literacy was naturally understood to mean literacy in English as there were so few books in Irish. The Irish language was not placed on the curriculum in the national schools until 1878. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that there was no call for Irish-language education in the 1830s and 1840s, although later in the century, during the Gaelic Revival, there arose a call for the language to be saved. It is a lie, and a pretty malevolent one, for Irish people to claim that England stamped the Irish language out in Ireland. On the contrary, the Irish did.
The balance sheet vis-à-vis England today
All these issues are discussed in Irish schools in a manner designed to foster hatred towards England. Many details of the history are distorted, and context is always airbrushed out of the narrative. It is undeniable that England ended up doing many things in Ireland it didn’t initially intend to do because of the Irish fondness for uprisings, which eventually led them to lose more and more of their land and fall under a deeper form of English control. This is why Trevelyan described them as a “selfish, perverse and turbulent” people, a description that all Irish people today with a modicum of self-awareness will know is accurate. The latest stance in the Brexit negotiations reveals the same character flaws in the Irish people. The Irish remain deeply troubled people psychologically.
The Irish refuse to recognise that they have ever done anything wrong in history. The 1916 uprising—when England was in the middle of the First World War!!—is an example. I went to university with an Irishman from Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, who told me that he viewed this as nothing but a stab in the back to England while England was at war. Just think, in 1914 England was offering Ireland Home Rule, a Home Rule for the whole of the country that could have led to a very high degree of autonomy and eventually independence for a united Ireland. The army mutiny and the opposition of the Unionists complicated things, but as the First World War broke out immediately, it was too late to know how it would have played out. The fact is that Ireland was going, one way or the other, to get a large degree of autonomy following the war. There is a lot of evidence that Britain was viewed in Ireland as acting too heavyhandedly in response to the Easter Uprising. The women of Dublin famously (but not in a very ladylike fashion) spat on the Irish Volunteers leading the uprising. Urban public opinion was initially on England’s side and it might have been better not to have acted in a way that alienated even the Dublin middle class. But England was in the middle of a war and naturally could not tolerate an uprising in the United Kingdom itself. Interestingly, the descendants of those very Irish women who spat on the Irish Volunteers in 1916 are being taught in school a narrative that their own Irish grandmothers could have told them was factually false in many respects.
The fact that sectarian killings in the south were recorded, including the killing of poor Protestant farm workers in Co. Cork, is one of the most disreputable “achievements” of Irish nationalism. Maybe Irish nationalists can justify the killings? Or state why the Unionists of Ulster should have welcomed staying in a United Ireland with people who wanted to kill them for sectarian reasons? Interesting, the Irish broadcaster RTÉ hasn’t visited the areas where the Protestant farm workers were killed to conduct an investigation to find out the identities of the killers. The very descendants of the killers are walking around Co. Cork to this day remaining tightlipped over their own family history of sectarian killing, while claiming, to anyone who wants to hear, that it is England that did everything wrong. And in the 1970s, the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland received state encouragement from the Republic of Ireland authorities. It has emerged that Irish prime minister Jack Lynch set up the Provisional IRA. In the latest Brexit talks, the Irish leaders under Varadkar have strongly hinted that they will fund a resumption of terrorism in Northern Ireland if they don’t get their way in the negotiations.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Ireland’s well-fanned historical grievances all date back more than 100 years and generally relate to events centuries ago. In the modern period, the balance sheet is highly negative for Ireland, in that it is Ireland that has repeatedly harmed England and not the other way round. What has Ireland gained from England? Here is a little list:
- Democracy (an Anglo-Saxon concept)
- The rule of law (an Anglo-Saxon concept)
- The English language (without which Ireland wouldn’t be a recipient of foreign investment)
- Electricity (the electric motor being invented by Michael Faraday in 1821)
- Railways (the locomotive being invented by George Stephenson in 1814, building on earlier work by Richard Trevithick)
- Cars (in 1824 Samuel Brown invented a combustion engine that he successfully used to power a vehicle, although the later concept was largely German and French-developed)
- Aeroplanes (invented by Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1903)
- Telephones (invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, building on earlier work by Antonio Meucci)
- Computers (invented by Charles Babbage in 1837)
- The Internet (with HTTP and the World Wide Web invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989)
- Television (invented by John Logie Baird in 1926)
- European subsidies (Ireland has always been an EU recipient and the UK a contributor; this was a mechanism for the UK to pay for the economic upgrading of Ireland since 1972)
And the Irish contribution to England:
- Guinness (invented by Arthur Guinness in 1821)
The ledger is far from equal. Without England, the Irish would be burning turf for fuel and going to the toilet in tigh an asail next to the donkeys. Yet Irish people persist in feeling they are the aggrieved party. An article by Ronan McCrea (professor of constitutional and European law at University College London and thus someone taking everything he can get from the British taxpayer) published in the Financial Times makes some surprising points about Irish attitudes towards Britain:
The reaction on both sides underlined how little insight people in Ireland and the UK have into each other’s attitudes. For many Brexiters the Irish government’s approach has been seen as almost disloyal, driven by a nationalist, Sinn Féin-like desire to “stick it to the Brits”. Remainers, for their part, have tended to view Ireland through an equally UK-centric lens, with a recent article speaking of Ireland as “the adult in this dysfunctional family”.
For most Irish people, the purpose of independence—and later an attraction of EU membership—was as a means to get away from a deeply unhappy experience of the UK “family”. This can explain to some degree Irish reactions to seemingly warm gestures, such as British people cheering on the Irish football team. Through Irish eyes, that is a bit like a woman running the marathon noticing her ex-husband cheering for her in the crowd. The support is, in theory, nice, but the implicit assertion of a continuing bond is unwelcome.
Most Irish people do not understand the degree to which some British people feel some betrayal at Ireland’s Brexit stance This mutual misunderstanding means that most Irish people do not understand the degree to which some British people feel some betrayal at Ireland’s Brexit stance. Britons seem unable to imagine that Ireland has relationships and interests beyond its ties to the UK. They therefore conclude that Irish Brexit policy must be driven by anti-British nationalist sentiment.
The British seem to think that over decades they have established a positive relationship with Ireland. Curiously enough, it is, as McCrea points out, the positive attitude of nearly all Englishmen (including the approximately 25% with Irish ancestry) to the Irish that needles them the most. Britain has for decades been a great ally of Ireland, and yet the desire for a friendship WITH WHAT IS A NEIGHBOURING COUNTRY is what annoys the Irish. This is because the Irish nurse hatred towards us. Yet they also feel inferior for having the negative feeling of hatred, and the more the English show themselves to be pleasant, the greater the contrast is played up, to Ireland’s disadvantage. In truth, this is the same resentment that all small nations feel. The Ukrainians will spend much more time thinking about Russia than the Russians will about them. The resentment is always from the smaller nation. Even the Canadians and the Americans have the same dynamic between them. Ask yourself what sort of relationship Britain should seek with its geographically closest neighbour. Why is it wrong for England to seek a positive relationship? A woman can ask her ex-husband to simply not visit or show up in her life at all, but England is next door, and cannot go anywhere. As annoying as it may be to the Irish, they do have to live with England, and to that extent the Irish annoyance that England seeks a positive friendly relationship shows that the fault in the relationship is entirely on the Irish side.
The Irish have no genuine reason for resentment towards England, and no genuine basis for a victim narrative. Irish national identity is purely negative and destructive. It is all about not being English, with no genuine celebration of Irish identity and culture. As Trevelyan said, the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Irish remains. National culture is like an individual’s character, and the Irish nation has, over centuries, suffered greatly from its own character flaws. They are of course always seeking someone to blame—and end up blaming the country that is the author of their modern prosperity.
Ireland has to make clear what ITS OWN strategy is for maintaining a good relationship with England. Ireland has agency too. Claims that Ireland will simply cut off the power to Northern Ireland after Brexit show the Irish psychological problem—I would argue that all power stations in the Republic of Ireland should be destroyed by the Royal Air Force if that happens. Unfortunately, Ireland has never understood that the key way to gain friendship is to be a friend, and the Irish have never been neighbours that have been easy to get along with. I have argued before that if Britain becomes non-white, the Unionists should consider their options in a white Ireland (an argument largely redundant now that Varadkar wants to “brown” Ireland by bringing in 1m migrants by 2040). But ask yourself how a country that maintains this spiteful national culture would be able to integrate the Unionists if a majority in Northern Ireland voted for reunification. The Irish are unable to compromise, and refuse to recognise their own flaws. They don’t accept there is more than one view on history and would become aggressive in every conversation with the Unionists. The Brexit negotiations show that the Republic of Ireland has made less progress than thought and is simply not ready for Irish unity. The Southern Irish are determined bigots to this day in a way that Northern Protestants have largely abandoned. It is sad to say so, but the Irish are their own problem.
It is also worth noting how badly the English have misunderstood the Irish, believing they had a good relationship with people who genuinely hate them. We need to move our foreign policy onto a more realistic basis, and stop assuming that all nations are as easygoing as the English. Multiculturalism has befuddled the English brain in this respect, leaving us unable to see that some countries are genuinely much less pleasant than England.