In the debate about Scottish independence, it’s logical to draw a parallel to Irish independence. Indeed, there are many similarities. The nationalist movement developed in the two countries at about the same time, in the late nineteenth century, gathering momentum in a campaign for Home Rule in the years leading up to World War I, only to be stalled by the outbreak of war.
In 1921, both the Irish Sinn Féin and the Scots National League were formed, each with the aim of creating an independent state. And in both countries, there was a wide difference of opinion between devolution and outright independence. However, while this debate is still ongoing in Scotland, only now coming to a head, in Ireland the War of Independence saw a new state born in 1921.
The principle of self-determination is a driving force in Scotland, as it was for Ireland, and the same can be said for the desire for a cultural identity free of the shadow of Britain. But there are also important differences. Scotland’s links with Britain – cultural, social, political and economic – are stronger than those of Ireland. And today there are complications that did not arise when Ireland broke away, such as the question of EU or NATO membership for an independent Scotland, or the intriguing matter of its currency.
Above all, history presents two very different pictures – so different, in fact, that it’s doubtful whether any comparison between the two countries can ever be viable. For one thing, Scotland was an independent nation, maintaining its independence even after agreeing to share the crown with Britain after the death of Elizabeth I. The Act of Union that effectively ended Scotland’s independence in 1707 was a deliberate, pragmatic measure for a country finding itself in dire financial straits after some disastrous investments in the New World. For a long time to come, it can be argued that Scotland derived more benefits than drawbacks from its union with Britain. Only the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s gave Scotland a financial upper hand.
The trajectory of Irish history is in sharp contrast. To begin with, the country was invaded by Norman/British forces as early as the 1100s. For the centuries that followed, the native population suffered at the hands of its conquerors. The English crown sent over representatives deemed able to subdue the fierce native tribesmen, competing with them in terms of cruelty. People like Sir Richard Bingham, the merciless “Scourge of Connacht”, are still unforgotten, as are the atrocities committed by Cromwell and his soldiers. Vicious methods were applied to wipe out the original Celtic culture and “civilize” the Irish nation according to acceptable English standards.
The feudal system introduced by the English conquerors was of course not exclusive to Ireland. In most European countries a similar structure reigned from the Middle Ages onwards. It wouldn’t have survived for so long if it hadn’t provided social stability for all parties involved. When it worked as intended, a privileged class provided employment, housing, security and protection for those who had nothing. But once this system failed, as in the case of the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, when an estimated million people perished due to the failure of the authorities to protect those most vulnerable, disillusionment set in, leading ultimately to social unrest and rebellion. A very similar process took place in Russia, where prolonged hunger and failure by the Czar to protect his people became a driving force for the Russian revolution.
After repeated famines and much hardship throughout the nineteenth century, the 1880s saw a surge of nationalist interests. The Irish Parliamentary Party demanded Home Rule (self-government), whilst Sinn Féin insisted on full independence. Home Rule was agreed in 1914 but immediately suspended due to the outbreak of World War I. Irish nationalist organisations, opposed to Irish involvement in the war, decided on a revolt and, with the Easter Rising in 1916, declared Ireland a republic. The harsh response by the British and the introduction of martial law outraged the Irish public and led to a major boost of support for Sinn Féin.
The Irish Republican Army was formed in 1918 and Sinn Féin affirmed the 1916 Declaration of Independence, stating that war existed between England and Ireland – a conflict that was to cost both sides casualties amounting to over 3,400. Volunteers soon started attacking British government property; prominent representatives of British rule were killed. The heavy-handed British response helped popularise the IRA. The national police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary, consisting mainly of Catholic Irish though seen as traitors and associates of Britain became a target for volunteers. As police retired or retreated, violence spread. Tax collection ceased and assizes failed, as no one was prepared to do jury service. The absence of police and a collapsed court system led to widespread anarchy. The rough, ill-disciplined “Black and Tan” reinforcements sent out from Britain made matters worse, as did the so called Auxiliary forces. Arbitrary British reprisals fuelled more violence and resistance.
The British Prime Minister Lloyd George preferred quenching the rebellion to negotiating with the IRA. In consequence, violence escalated between 1920 and 1921. On Bloody Sunday in Dublin an IRA squad executed nineteen British intelligence operatives and in response, the Auxiliaries shot into a football crowd, killing fourteen civilians and injuring many more. By the summer of 1921, the IRA, weakened by the strong British army response and by its own lack of arms and ammunition, agreed to a truce followed by a treaty signed in December 1921. The six counties of the North opposed to devolution were allowed to opt out – as a temporary measure.
The treaty was acceptable to most Irish people but not to the militant Republicans, and a fierce Civil War between pro-treaty and anti-treaty forces raged until the anti-treaty forces were finally defeated in mid-1923. The treaty lasted until 1932, when full independence was finally achieved. However, in the North of Ireland, sectarian violence between the loyalist Protestant faction and the nationalist Catholics continued, in a conflict that is still not fully resolved.
Ever since the Reformation, the Protestant faith held by the English invaders had been a symbol of foreign oppression, and the native Irish came to identify strongly with Catholicism. It made for clear social divisions on religious grounds, and to this day, nationalists tend to equate their movement with Catholicism, conveniently ignoring the fact that their cause was initiated by idealistic Irish Protestants.
By the time the republic was born, the Catholic Church had amassed great wealth through support from both the Irish at home and from institutions abroad. The funds were used to build schools, hospitals and other institutions meant to serve the common good. And when the new Irish administration faced the colossal task of creating, out of nothing, functioning social structures, the materially endowed Catholic Church was happy to take over this responsibility. The result was a mighty establishment ruled by a hierarchy responsible to no one but the Pope.
Initially isolated and impoverished, the republic of Ireland has managed, with the help of EU membership, educational reforms and favourable tax policies, to develop into a successful modern nation, attracting much global investment. The rise of the Celtic Tiger was viewed with interest by the rest of the world, and the country’s handling of its subsequent burst property bubble has been internationally commended.
There is no shortage of documentation of Ireland’s march to freedom, but the exposure of one group, both on a personal and material level, is rarely mentioned: the minority of landed Anglo-Irish families, who were either driven from their homes and their home country by fear of terrorist attacks, or else who stayed on and fell victim to the same. Seen as symbols of a much resented system, their plight has attracted little or no sympathy. The nationalist narrative stamped all Protestant landowners as British loyalists who had robbed the land from its rightful native owners.
The Irish War of Independence and the ensuing Civil War saw a concerted campaign to burn down a considerable amount of the country’s cultural heritage: stately homes with all their contents of precious art, silver and antique furniture. Some sources put the figure of devastated “Big Houses” at two hundred and seventy-five; other sources quote some three hundred and twenty.
My own knowledge of these occurrences came about by chance; as I was following research my husband was doing on Irish architectural history. One academic paper contained a number of eye-witness reports of “Big Houses” being burnt, and the impression they made on my mind was strong enough to materialise in due course in the play Only Our Own, dealing with three generations of one such family and their efforts to find a place for themselves in today’s Ireland.
It’s strange to see how these traumatic events have been airbrushed from Irish history. In the immediate aftermath they were rarely acknowledged by the people involved, on either side. As one character in Only Our Own muses: “It’s not unusual when atrocities have been committed. The victims don’t want to be reminded of their humiliation; the perpetrators reject the knowledge of their guilt. Both sides have a vested interest in suppressing the facts.”
Today’s young generation in Ireland have no idea that these events ever took place. You won’t find references to them in Irish history books, and entries on the web, such as the one offered by Wikipedia, giving a comprehensive account of both the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War, make no mention of the Anglo-Irish, or indeed the burnings.
However, via Google I managed to find a report that Palmerstown House in County Kildare, seat of the Earl of Mayo, was burnt down in 1923. As it happens, the present Earl of Mayo is a Connemara neighbour I’ve known for nearly three decades. Never once has he touched upon the fate suffered by his forbears, but when I ask him to tell me about it, with a view to having his testimony made public, he was quite willing to do so.
I learnt that one night in January 1923, his great-uncle Dermot, seventh Earl of Mayo, was sitting down to dinner with his wife at Palmerstown House, when a party of armed men knocked on the door. The butler refused to let them in but the group forced their way into the dining-room, telling the Lord and Lady that they were going to burn down the house in reprisal for executions that had taken place that day at the Curragh.
Lord Mayo recalled that the men were excessively polite, as they gave the pair twenty minutes to remove valuables before they poured petrol in each room and set the house alight, gutting the building. At a later date, the house was rebuilt with the help of state compensation, but the ninth Earl, having lost faith in any future for him and his family in Ireland, sold the house and relocated to England.
Charlie Bourke, the present Earl of Mayo, has been living in Clifden, Connemara, for most of his life. Since 1985 he has been married to Marie, a school principal and daughter of a local Catholic business family. Their two adult sons who were educated in state schools have never had any difficulty assimilating into the Clifden community. Straddling the two traditions has been more of an asset to them than a drawback, says their father. It has helped broaden their horizons, just like the foreign travel they have always been encouraged to do. While the Earl himself is a strong supporter of the Church of Ireland, his sons were brought up Catholic. The family take turns attending both churches. None of them, he tells me, has even seen religion as a problem.
This is symptomatic of modern Ireland. Centuries of hatred and bitter divisions have finally been overcome, proving that, when man-made barriers are ignored, they cease to exist. Large-scale immigration from countries far away may have helped Irish people of all orientations and backgrounds to recognise that their similarities weigh more heavily than their differences. Their history, however bloody, is a strong bond keeping them together.
Looking back at Ireland’s turbulent history and its conflicted relationship with Britain, it appears that the country’s independence was the only possible outcome of all that had gone before. The dynamic forging of the destiny of a nation extends over many centuries.
So what future may history have forged for Scotland, where the perceived need for independence comes from a more pragmatic, political argument, just like the interests that initially led them to a union with Britain? Well – that remains to be seen.
Only Our Own will be staged at the Arts Theatre, in London from January 8 – February 1, 2014, and will then go on to tour Galway and Dublin. For more information on CTCo Theatre Productions go to www.ctcotheatre.com and to buy tickets for Only Our Own visit www.artstheatrewestend.co.uk.