Postcolonial nationalism is a strange phenomenon. Brought up to despise everything British (as Jonathan Swift put it two centuries earlier, ‘burn everything English except their coal’), we were also imbued with a sneaking suspicion that British was somehow better.
Like many Irish people of a certain age, I grew up in a strongly republican household. To my parents’ generation, independence was hard-won and recent. They, and their parents before them, had been involved in different ways in the project of nation building – they remained deeply committed to and intensely proud of it.
Independence may have been hard-won but it was not simple and involved a certain amount of manipulation of our memories myths and narratives of the past. A black-and-white view of Britishness and Irishness was part of the new official Ireland’s self-image; the struggle for freedom became the central myth of nationhood. As a boy of almost 12 years of age my proudest moment in 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising against British Rule, was to read out, in Irish (although it had, of course, been written in English), the proclamation of the Republic, the founding text of the State, over a tinny public address system to the massed crowds of our local parish.
View of O'Connell Street from Nelson's Pillar, prior to its destruction, 1964.
Flickr/Philip Capper. Some rights reserved.
Some weeks earlier, on 8 March 1966, the IRA had blown up Nelson’s Pillar, one of the iconic representations of British rule in Ireland, and the best-known public monument in Dublin’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street. Although our family was politically mainstream, I remember our reaction was one of a certain exultation – another blow against the ‘old enemy’. As a West of Ireland family, which formed part of an internal diaspora in a fast-changing, rough and ready capital city of unfinished suburbs, our identification with the capital was partial in any case. Georgian Dublin was ‘theirs’, not ours.
O'Connell Street from Nelson's Pillar, in 1964.
Flickr/Philip Capper. Some rights reserved.
This Manichean division extended to many aspects of our lives and identities, including accent and religion. The Irish Times’s 2003 obituary for broadcaster and novelist Brian Cleeve recorded that he was dropped as a presenter on national television in 1966, the year of the aforementioned commemoration of the Rising, because ‘his “Ascendancy” accent was considered unsuitable for broadcasting’. In those days we would have called it, disparagingly, a ‘west Brit’ accent. Similarly, the Remembrance Garden in Dublin for those Irish who fought in the First World War was for decades allowed to fall into a state of neglect. On the other hand, there were many who despised the young and unformed new State. Their newspaper of choice was The Irish Times, which is nowadays, ironically, often seen as the voice of establishment Ireland, a constituency sometimes disparagingly referred to as ‘Dublin 4’, the postal code of an affluent suburb.
A half-demolished Nelson's Pillar after being blown up by the IRA in 1966.
Flickr/National Library of Ireland. Public domain.
As a child I was not a total stranger to Northern Ireland/the Six Counties, or Occupied Ireland – my father’s preferred description. I was brought north to marvel at red letter boxes, police in strange dark-green uniforms and the ubiquitous Union Jacks flying from buildings and lamp posts. It was extraordinary to me that our own flag was banned by law from being flown there, but my interest was also focused on Opal Fruits, a kind of sweet which could not then be bought in the south, and on the trolleybuses of Belfast, now long gone. Beyond that, it was always obvious when one had crossed the Border better roads and tidier gardens than were to be seen in the shambolic South.
Over time, my views became a little more nuanced. For one thing, my father, irony of ironies, worked for the British Ministry of Defence. Leopardstown Park Hospital, in south Dublin, was a British military hospital for First World War veterans from such regiments as the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. I have a clear memory of visiting, as a young child, old men in their hospital beds, people for whom life had stood still since 1916 and 1917. Invalided and bedridden since then, some of them had little concept of the modern state outside their window. My father and mother had a few friends with strange English names like Batts and Sienkowitz, except that later I found out that Sienkowitz wasn’t exactly an English name either.
I have no memory of my parents ever having attempted to inculcate any kind of personal animosity towards the British in us. On the contrary, differences were invariably seen as merely political and it would have been unconscionably rude to express any kind of personal hostility to someone on such grounds. Yet, in retrospect, my abiding impression is that of an unconfident state and people, for whom progress, modernity, Britishness, sex, scandal, atheism and immorality were rolled up in one. It was out there, waiting to corrupt us, but we would remain proud, isolated, unsullied and different. Stereotypes and generalisations about the British abounded in Ireland; as a child I thought them strange and alien. The finer points of English, Scottish and Welsh identities were lost on us, even if we did watch Scottish musician Andy Stewart’s White Heather Club avidly on television, capturing the Ulster Television signal from the North on high antennae in the Dublin foothills.
It gradually came home to me that the divide was not so neat. Perhaps this is best illustrated, in my own case, by my grandfather’s story. Sergeant Eddie Henry, from Kilmovee, Co. Mayo, served in the Royal Irish Constabulary or RIC, a police force that was later vilified by some republicans and nationalists as pro-British, although it also contained a fair number of rural Irish recruits for whom a life in policing was a respectable and honest career. I am one of the relatively few people, compared to the legions who used to assert it, who can say with confidence that my grandfather spent Easter Week 1916 in the General Post Office with Connolly, Pearse and their forces. That said, the factors that led to his presence were rather complex. He was wearing a British uniform, as he was at the time on loan to the Dublin Fusiliers to teach them marksmanship. His precise motives are still something of a family mystery, although we know that he roomed with Harry Boland, militant nationalist and later government minister, and may have been driven by solidarity or curiosity to become involved (another version simply says that Boland feared for his friend as the rebellion broke out and invited him into the GPO for his own protection). In the GPO, as a trained medical orderly, he assisted the grievously wounded Scottish-born socialist leader James Connolly, who was later executed while tied to a chair. The Freeman’s Journal records that my grandfather and a few others who had been detained by the insurgents as ‘prisoners of war’ were released towards the end of the week. His career in the RIC continued after the Rising, but he also worked for Michael Collins, passing information about impending Black and Tan raids to the IRA. His house, as an RIC sergeant’s house, was never raided, making it an excellent safe house and location for IRA arms. My grandmother never spoke of these times in her long life.
So far, so usual – ordinary people, extraordinary lives. But why did this part-loyal, part-rebel policeman (himself the son of a father who had once been charged with Fenianism) baptise my father, born a few years later, with the rather royalist names George Edward, while bringing him up as a nationalist? I am only partly convinced by my parents’ explanation that George was a family name on the Butler side (his mother’s) and also reflected a long-standing admiration for George Washington. Perhaps it was also symptomatic of a deeper mystery.
Nelson's Pillar, 1920.
Irish Dance Dress Canada. Public domain.
Postcolonial nationalism is a strange phenomenon. Brought up to despise everything British (as Jonathan Swift put it two centuries earlier, ‘burn everything English except their coal’), we were also imbued with a sneaking suspicion that British was somehow better. In the bleak 1950s, Irish authors had little chance of success unless they had a British publisher to back them, while many households switched over to the BBC when Radio Éireann’s limited service closed in the midmorning and mid-afternoon. The best steel was from Sheffield, the best cars were British-made and the best television (in spite of the ‘immoral’ programmes that were starting to be broadcast by BBC2 in the 1960s) was also British. In fact, in the 1960s, there were campaigns all over the country for access to ‘multichannel’, that is, British television.
With the advent of the Troubles in 1968, matters became more complicated. After Bloody Sunday in 1972 (when 13 nationalists were killed by the British Army), I was one of the 100,000 protesters who marched on the British Embassy. Some of the crowd torched it with petrol bombs, the first public burning in living memory of an embassy in western Europe. During that period I was also in Newry, at a mass protest, listening as a British Army helicopter droned overhead and a voice in a plummy accent warned us through a loudspeaker that we were participating in an illegal demonstration and that consequently we were ‘all under arrest’. The crowd cheered. At subsequent civil rights and protest marches I would occasionally meet well-intentioned British Army officers and soldiers; one fished a tattered copy of The Price of My Soul, a ghost-written account of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey’s political life, out of his pocket, and told me that he felt he now ‘understood a little of the Irish situation’. He, of course, was above it and outside it. I am sure that in my own superior way I snorted to myself, but silently. Shi’a Muslims call this taqiyeh; if your adversary’s position is one of overwhelming strength, it is acceptable to dissemble. All subaltern peoples practise it, just as they tend to adopt guerrilla fighting tactics such as those of the 17th century Irish, who chose not to face an overwhelmingly technically superior English army in the field but were then reviled for not ‘playing fair’. Nowadays such tactics are usually labelled terrorism by those who rule the world, and while I would not deny that the term is often a valid descriptor, it is rarely applied to the violent excesses of the mighty.
In the early 1970s I worked for a time in London, my first and rather brutal encounter with the heart of former Empire. Idi Amin had just expelled the Ugandan Asian community, and at the time it seemed to me that most of them were in the same food factory where I was working, in Hammersmith. I had no previous direct experience of racism and racial difference (apart from our own unstated and inchoate anti-Britishness) and it was a shock to find a racial hierarchy in the factory, with English and Welsh on top, the Irish in the middle and an oppressed category of Black and minority individuals, native-born and immigrant, at the bottom. My memories now are of lectures from patronising if well meaning, white-coated staff, standing on tables and literally talking down to us about personal hygiene. I remember cold, early morning bus stops where all those waiting, like myself, were foreigners. As in global cities everywhere, there is an iterative daily geography, but also a timetable, of difference. I recall the sheer alienation of living for the first time in a megalopolis, the occasional and shocking experience of explicit racial hostility and a strange quality of Englishness that seemed to me to be both extraordinarily tolerant and apparently callous. But I remember, too, the shabby but friendly solidarity of a London that was down on its luck, perhaps, but fun, and the egalitarianism of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which gave impartial help to all comers. It was all a huge contrast to an Ireland where everyone seemed to know everyone else, where welfare benefits were virtually a state secret and were in any event regarded by the middle classes as little more than a sop to the indigent. Nearly two decades later at the end of the 1980s, it was a shock to return to a post-Thatcher London shiny with new buildings in steel and glass and notable for the numbers of homeless and poor searching the city’s rubbish bins for sustenance. It was claimed that there was no longer such a thing as society, but it had existed once.
I got to know a little more about English life when close friends of mine settled in a small English town outside London. They christened their two neighbours ‘Pete the car’ and ‘Pete the house’, so called for their obsessive weekend car washing and DIY dedication. To me, this was part of a series of peculiarly English rituals such as winemaking and a concern with self-sufficiency. Personally, I prefer to leave winemaking to the professionals. But I do empathise with the resilience and self-reliance of a generation of many English people, tending their own allotments and holding their own against all comers. Unfortunately this spirit of independence can also deteriorate into self-caricature; the UK Independence Party’s farrago of Euro-scepticism is as unattractive as it is xenophobic.
In 1976 I joined the Irish Foreign Service – the Department of Foreign Affairs. Looking back now, my memory of my first posting to Brussels in 1978 is that I expected to find my British counterparts to be somehow more plausible, smoother, and smarter than I was. I am not proud of this, but I believe that many of us in those days subliminally thought something similar. It was a shock, then, to find that we were as good as anyone else and better than some, that our natural counterparts were as likely to be Danish or Dutch as British and that the British had their own difficulties in adjusting to the business of being a middle-sized, post-Empire state off the north-west coast of Europe.
For all our newfound and sometimes self-congratulatory Europeaness, some things did not change. I remember the civil servant in another government department in Dublin, less exposed at the time to the realities of Europe, whose reaction to my telephone call about an upcoming draft EU directive was ‘I’ll get back to you – I’ll just phone my opposite number in London’. I can also recall being told by a senior British official in Brussels, in advance of a new arrival, that ‘you’ll like our new chap – he’s RC, you know’. In retrospect (speaking as an agnostic) I found his attitudes towards the Irish and Catholicism, theirs and ours, both quaint and amusing. In spite of being ‘RC’, Sir Michael Butler went on to a brilliant career at the highest levels of the British system. He was also possessed of that peculiarly British talent for self-deprecation. As envoy to Iceland during the earlier British–Icelandic Cod Wars, legend had it that he, not a tall man, had climbed on a chair during a visit to the Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs to make a protest at the ‘highest level’.
At that time, France, for me and many other Irish people, especially in the urban middle classes, represented a way out of the British/Irish Manichean duality. It was as if our Francophilia enabled us to transcend geography; the Irish Ferries ship from Ireland to France became a metaphor. It was initially reassuring, on being asked in France ’est-ce que vous êtes britannique?’ to note the obvious and positive change of tone when the reply was ’non, irlandais’. It took a while before I realised that there were sometimes darker undertones to this, such as an atavistic and childish French anti-Britishness. Mersel-Kebir notwithstanding, the British contribution to the liberation of France and the defeat of Nazism was and remains their finest hour. Worse, there was in some French right-wing quarters a positively racist and sectarian conviction about Ireland, which saw the country and its people as the last bastion of a vanishing white, Catholic Europe. Later, this French connection was exploited in a particularly tendentious way by disgraced Irish political leader Charles Haughey, an individual who corrupted Irish politics for a generation and who cast his style of leadership in the manner of Napoleon.
That said, my own exposure to French identity, language, politics and cultures, including the partly francophone cultures of Belgium and Lebanon, has marked me deeply. I found republicanism French style to be an attractive ideology for all its sometimes modern secular intolerance. I appreciated the concept of a public domain that belonged to all, compared with a British acceptance of privilege and hierarchy, and Irish cronyism and clientelism. To this day I feel as much of a French republican as an Irish nationalist, having no time for the atavistic ethnicity of traditional nationalisms, Irish or English (as distinct nowadays from ‘British’, a genuinely more inclusive term, to judge by the reaction of many Black and Muslim people who can live with ‘British’ but feel excluded as ‘English’).
Beirut in the early 1980s brought me different experiences. Some of these had a certain piquancy, such as the occasion when I hosted an EU co-ordination meeting during an Irish Presidency and received my British counterpart, senior to me and older, who arrived surrounded by heavily armed bodyguards, all of whom had served their time in Northern Ireland and some of whom I would not like to have met on a dark night. The Lebanese were also a little bemused at the spectacle of an Irish Ambassador (my immediate superior) who faithfully attended Anglican services on Sundays, whereas his British counterpart was a regular attender at the Roman Catholic church on Rue Hamra. One of my most interesting encounters was with a fellow countryman, George Simms, an elderly man who had served in the British Army and the British merchant marine for most of his life. He proudly informed me that he was a ‘North Kerry Protestant Unionist’. As a young soldier invalided home in the Royal Munster Fusiliers during the First World War, he had been a member of a military guard party assembled in case of subversion or revolt when Roger Casement (former British Consul and dedicated human rights activist turned Irish nationalist) was arrested on Banna Strand, having come ashore from a German U-boat, and been detained by the RIC in Tralee Barracks. Simms had a photographic memory of those present and could name them all. Yet like many elderly people with a fading grasp of reality he could not easily come to terms with the present day. I once brought an Irish Army UN colleague to meet him. As military men will, they got on like a house on fire, but he seemed quite unable to grasp what uniform this man wore or what army and nation he served. He wasn’t very sure who I was either.
All of the above notwithstanding, Britishness remained something of a mystery to me, permeated by subtleties of class, accent, mystique and ritual; Land of Hope and Glory on the last night of the Proms holds no appeal. A friend’s experience as a distinguished academic guest at a Cambridge college dinner seemed to sum it up: having declined a glass of after-dinner port, she was consternated to find that the other diners felt constrained to decline in turn. How was one supposed to know? An English friend who married into an Irish and Irish-speaking family (he learned to speak Irish with an impeccable Home Counties accent) remarked, after a lively and typically argumentative Dublin dinner party, that ‘in England, you get to finish your sentence before another person speaks’.
Another question that I had difficulty in understanding is the role of the military in British culture. For all of our own respect for our UN peacekeeping role and our pride in our Army, I was struck by a recent observation of Olivia O’Leary, a journalist who knows Ireland and Britain well and has broadcast in both countries, that the British relationship with its Army is not unlike that which Catholic Irish people used to have with their Church: it is seen as central, secretive and almost beyond criticism. But I readily concede that, compared with the excesses and sheer ignorance of US forces in Iraq, the British in Basra and other places have shown at least some understanding of the ambiguous role in which they have been cast.
As Ireland itself began to change and old moulds were broken, I only gradually realised that my own views of Britishness were not the whole story, even as seen from a narrowly Irish perspective. There were many Britains and many kinds of Britishness and my own identity and culture was far more influenced by them than I had ever realised or admitted. It was time to think again.
For one thing, there was the matter of class and diaspora. The nationalism of the middle classes who controlled Irish society after independence had little enough to offer the poor and the marginalised. Some of the smug moralists who were such strong supporters of Irish independence were also glad to see the back of these same poor and unemployed who emigrated, if only because, had they stayed, it would have posed a potentially revolutionary situation.(1) In reality those with few prospects left for the neighbouring island in a constant flood for most of the twentieth century. The reception they got may not have always been the warmest, but as one elderly returned migrant put it to me in Connemara, ‘marach f...ing Sasana, ní bhéadh f...ing tada a’ainn’ (‘if it wasn’t for f...ing England we’d have f...ing nothing’). Such migrants did not have the luxury of unalloyed nationalist politics, or at least they were aware of the hypocrisies and doublethink that could arise. The complexity of national and linguistic identity was brought home to me when we became regular visitors to the Irish-speaking heartland of South Connemara in the late 1980s. We met children who spoke perfect Connemara Irish and broad Cockney English, and adults who sang sean-nós (2) and read English tabloids. This hybridity is, of course, mirrored in turn by generations of Irish in Britain, yet unlike Irish-Americans, they do not even seem to have a name.
Over time, I found other congenial aspects to British culture. In particular, I admired the very British tradition of a ‘loyal opposition’, compared with our own shifty false consensuses and sometimes windy words. Although I come from the nationalist tradition and have some grasp of the political discourse of Gerry Adams, I have no difficulty in understanding why some find his phrases so perversely flexible. By contrast with Ireland, there seems to be a genuine commitment in Britain to the notion of an ethical opposition, even and perhaps especially within the same party. The form this may take varies, from an extraordinary tolerance for eccentricity and dissent, to a resolute defence of independent media voices such as that of the BBC, to the maverick and courageous stance of former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook over the Iraq crisis. The debate on Iraq in the British Parliament, whichever side one took, was principled and passionate. However, I do not want to idealise this aspect of British culture. While Ireland featured a Taoiseach (Prime Minister) who managed to be for and against the invasion of Iraq at the same time – a not untypical achievement for a member of that particular party – British people protested massively in the streets against the war but a messianic and obsessional Prime Minister still forced the country to take part. Yet that same Prime Minister, whose mother was born in Donegal and who spent his young summers there for many years, persevered for longer and harder than any previous British politician to bring about a new positive phase in relations between Britain and Ireland. It must also be said that the attitude of mainstream Irish politicians of all parties was also principled and constructive.
One of the more attractive forms that oppositionalism can take is the British capability, in spite of a sometimes ossified and moribund tradition, to reinvent itself. Ethnicity is a case in point. It seems to me that the UK has made the transition from the 1960s ‘tolerance’ of difference, to quote Roy Jenkins’ famous definition of that time,(3) to a more radical inclusion. Embodied in a new multi-stranded notion of ethnicity, this has changed the very concept of Britishness, bringing it well beyond John Major’s tepid world of warm beer and cricket. There remain, undoubtedly, hierarchies of power and difference in British society. Moreover such change has been much contested from Enoch Powell to the present-day debates about multiculturalism and social cohesion and, in particular, about the place of the State. But Britain today has been transformed by the wonderful and exuberant injection of diversity and otherness that it received from the Windrush onwards, as well as the generations of Irish, Jews and other Europeans who came for centuries before that.
As nations our histories and even identities have always been entwined, making for complex, hybrid patterns. Yet the rawness is still not very far away either, at least for my generation. I was struck by the reaction in Ireland last year to the death in action of Private Ian Malone, a Dubliner in the Royal Irish Regiment, a British Army unit, in Basra. The facts were widely reported in the Irish media and revisionist propagandists of the ‘let’s rejoin the Commonwealth’ variety made much of his having ‘died to make the world a safer place’. In fact, as had been made clear in a fascinating Irish television documentary about Irish soldiers in the British Army, he was clearly a likeable young man who had joined the British Army from a sense of adventure and might equally have joined the Irish one if they had been recruiting at the time. And yet . . . some part of me still has a difficulty with Irish soldiers in British uniforms, although I know that historically the Irish have frequently been over-represented in Britain’s armed forces and have joined many other armies as circumstances dictated. Apart from the fact that my own grandfather wore a British uniform, if briefly, I cannot ignore, on the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day, the contribution made by all those who wore British uniforms, and their allies of other countries, to the liberation of Europe. There is nothing tidy about past or present.
It is not just Irish cultural gatekeepers (remember Brian Cleeve’s ‘Ascendancy’ accent) who policed a certain rigid idea of culture and acceptable identity in Ireland. ‘Regional’ accents, especially Celtic ones, were also once rare in the British media. Today this has changed; only consider such Irish examples as Frank Delaney, Terry Wogan, Graham Norton, Gillian Ní Cheallaigh, Fergal Keane, Henry Kelly and many others. In turn English accents, and not just Irish ‘Ascendancy’ ones, are no longer rare in Ireland. It would be folly to deny that prejudice and discrimination have occurred in both jurisdictions towards the people of the other, but I would like to think that this does embody a new level of mutual respect and appreciation.
Indeed, if the support in Britain for Irish soccer performances and Eurovision entries is anything to go by, the feeling is stronger on the British side; Irish pub supporters of the same events often seem to operate on the ABB (anyone but Britain) principle. As for BBC2 and its allegedly ‘immoral’ programmes of the 1960s, these days one can see much raunchier material on Ireland’s TG4 Irish- language channel, which has a Friday night film spot dedicated to foreign films (usually French), generally subtitled in English and thus popular with Ireland’s new migrants from a variety of countries.
Our differences have not disappeared; sometimes small social rituals reveal most. Some years ago an English colleague here in Cork was startled when, on the death of a parent, a number of us proposed to go over for the funeral. Funerals in England, it seems, are occasions of private family grief, although this may vary in different ethnic communities and in Scotland and Wales. In Ireland, by contrast, they are large-scale public events, expressions of communal grief and occasions that no aspirant politician can afford to miss.
Samuel Beckett is famously said to have replied, on being asked if he was English, ‘au contraire’. Too often in the past, the British were the ‘not’ of our identity; being Irish was sometimes collapsed to a mere ‘not Britishness’. They were the Outside to our Inside, a reductionist and truncated view of identity that was probably commoner on this side of the Irish Sea than the other one. Confident nations do not need to assert their identity at the expense of others and especially at the expense of the other within themselves. There is more than a little British in the Irish and something of the Irish in the British as well.
The Spire from Mary Street, built on the site of Nelson's Pillar in 2003.
Geograph.org.uk/Some rights reserved.
Yet nationhood is always in process as well. Britain has not figured out how to reconcile itself to a European future rather than a role as world power. Change in Ireland in recent years has been so rapid that a new sense of anomie and loss of identity threatens to set in. Atavism is never far away, as shown in the casual racism which has become regrettably common in Ireland and in the frequent excesses of the British tabloid press.
I respect and admire many aspects of British life and culture, as often as not for those things that make us different rather than the ways in which we resemble one another. I have no particular wish to rejoin the Commonwealth or to return to a relationship of unequal tutelage with an imperial power. Moreover, we still have unfinished business on this island. But with our increasingly intertwined futures in Europe, even if we see these futures in differently nuanced ways, and our attempts to work towards more inclusive and diverse arrangements for our increasingly mixed societies, we have much to learn from each other.
1 There is a legendary story concerning a meeting between veteran socialist and populist Peadar O’Donnell and Eamon de Valera. To de Valera’s remonstration that, under a socialist people’s republic, millions would still have emigrated from Ireland, O’Donnell is supposed to have replied: ‘Ah yes, Dev, but they wouldn’t have been the same people’.
2 A formal, elaborate style of unaccompanied singing still practised in the Irish language.
3 As British Home Secretary in the mid-1960s, Jenkins said that integration should be seen as ‘not a flattening process of assimilation, but as equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’.
This article was first published in 2005, in the first volume of the British Council series, Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined. The fourth volume was commissioned by openDemocracy Editor Rosemary Bechler this autumn. She would like to thank the British Council Northern Ireland, the British Council Ireland and the authors, for the chance to republish here a selection of articles from the series.