openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Running through ancient landscapes has allowed me to understand the British Empire

From Ireland to Australia, running across the land brings back memories Britain has long forgotten.

John Connell
30 September 2020
Running is a great way to see a country
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John Connell

When I run through the quiet roads of my home county in rural Ireland I run over the ghosts of 75,000 people.

They are all that remains of the dead and departed famine Irish from my home. They are the faceless number from our British history in this Irish land and they make me reflect each and every time. They are part of the living palette of the colonial. 

I'm a writer and a runner and some time ago I undertook a marathon journey through my home for a new book. It was in many ways a run-through time, a journey to understand this land which has known countless revolutions but also a land that has played its part in the project of empire. 

A lot of things come to one’s mind when on a long run but for me, on that day I reflected on all the countries I have lived in and the runs I have undertaken there. From Australia to Canada to the US there was one common thread. They had all been former colonies of Britain.

At its height the British Empire held sway over some 412 million people and 24% of the world’s land. This attainment of land and souls was not some happy accident rather it was a centuries-long project. It was a project that decimated native indigenous cultures and changed political and geophysical boundaries forever. It was a project that now, though ended in its old form, still resonates with all the inhabitants of the former empire to this day.

As an Irish man, I am acutely aware of this history for in this land, ours is not an empire of territory but an empire of memory. We remember all that has occurred for over 700 years in this land while our old master forgets or refuses to remember all that was done.

In Australia, a land I have run and lived in, the remembering of history has become a contentious issue. The settlement and colonization of Australia by the British has caused severe arguments known as the History Wars.

In the History Wars the self-determination of Aboriginal Australian’s has not been recognised and their wars and resistance against colonization resulting in massacres of native peoples have not been truly recorded. 

One of the earliest, the Appin Massacre, saw 14 Dharawal people forced off a cliff to their deaths with their heads later cut from their bodies and shipped back to England. This was recorded by the British as merely inhospitable meetings. Indeed these acts and many others were cited at the time in Australia as a necessity. Writing in the early days of the settlement of Australia, William Forster the one time Premier of New South Wales said that ‘murders must occur in taking up new country... collisions between the whites and the aborigines is a necessity almost of that sort of colonization.’

This history is both British and Irish. For we too took part in the project of empire. Forster himself was Anglo Irish. It raises the question of how we remember the Empire – for we too served in the British armies and colonial services. We too helped in the usurpation of native lands, an irony that must surely have not been lost on the more far-sighted of my forebears for we ourselves had been victims of that same Empire.

Perhaps the History Wars is a good term for the work that needs to be done. It is not an easy task but it is a conversation that needs to now happen. In the Irish race for freedom and nationhood we have never had the conversation about what happens after independence, where do post-colonial people sit in this new world. I fear too that that conversation has not yet occurred in Britain.

In not starting that dialogue, in not having a reconciliation with the past we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. It is why I suppose the underlying tensions of Brexit remain with us some years now after the initial vote. In Ireland, it has brought up the far more recent ghosts of the Troubles, of a hard border and open warfare in our streets. But in Britain, it has had the opposite effect. It has brought about the old daydream of the glory days of Empire. All the pomp and ceremony are fondly remembered now but the suffering of the native peoples is forgotten.

In running through the artefact of my home. I have come to a realisation this is a history that belongs to us all. The ghosts I run over are the same as the massacred Aboriginal people of Australia or the forgotten Windrush generation. We are a part of Empire and it is a part of us be British, Aboriginal or Irish.

In running through an ancient landscape we can come to understand the future. For in the landscape we can find a healing and perhaps start a new conversation on remembrance. It is a conversation that the children of the empire need to have with Britain and Britain needs to have with itself.

Britain is so wonderful at remembering when it chooses to, from the Great War dead to the sacrifice of front line staff in the recent COVID outbreak, perhaps now in the time when new boundaries are being drawn up and Britain is taking its place in a new world we can all of us start that new conversation.

The History Wars need not be fought on this side of the globe. We can all of us begin to reflect and in that we might find we are not so different. The ghosts of those 75,000 people deserve it and the rest of us need it.

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