Ireland – an imperial past?

Posted By: January 09, 2021

Those of us who oppose colonialism and imperialism—and their twin-evils of racism and sectarianism—will appreciate this letter by a reader in  the Irish Times of Dublin. And, of course,  sectarianism is exponentially fostered and condoned when enshrined to this moment in a State’s constitution—as in the British constitution, which in effect justifies the  anti-Catholic discrimination on which Northern Ireland was founded one hundred years ago.
—Fr. Sean McManus.
Alan Titley. Dublin 11.Letters to Editor. Irish Ties. Dublin. Wednesday January  6, 2021.
Sir, – Jane Ohlmeyer’s piece “Ireland has yet to come to terms with its imperial past” (Opinion & Analysis, (December 29th) was
 interesting insofar as it illustrated Ireland’s involvement in the British imperial project. She did not contend that this was a good or a bad thing, just that it happened. This is not in any way wondrously strange as all conquered people readily delivered up cannon fodder when demanded. Young Irishmen often fought for foreign armies, although we don’t query any longer their support for the French or the Austrian empires.
The point about being implicated in the conquests of the British empire is that the Irish at home did not easily support these ventures. Nearly all (and I must be careful here as somebody might pluck up a few exceptions) of the ballads, songs and poems of the ordinary people laughed and mocked at the attempts to recruit the gullible for the slaughter of others or themselves. There are many determinedly anti-recruiting songs from Mrs McGrath to Arthur McBride by way of Johnny, I Hardly Knew You. You would search long and hard for songs of the ordinary people which glorified our participation in the British conquests.

One of the more fascinating features of this entangled imperial story is how even though maybe a quarter or even a third of Wellington’s army were Irish mercenaries, many, or even most of our ballads, songs and poetry were in support of Napoleon – The Green Linnet, Welcome Napoleon to Erin, or Ráiteachas na Tairngreacht. Ditto and the same for the pointless Crimean War. While many unfortunate Irishmen were press-ganged into fighting for the British empire either physically, financially or culturally, it happened that the people at home disdained this loyalty with some passion and often with necessary humor.

The salient point is that we haven’t forgotten about our participation in Britain’s imperial wars at all, as Prof Ohlmeyerseems to imply. A central plank of the Irish liberation struggles is that we didn’t wish to be part of foreign conquests anymore. We never forgot our enforced imperial participation. We remembered it all too well, hopefully with shame. We just wanted to reject it, once and for all.
In a world of old empires dying and new ones being born it would be good if our rulers remembered that, now that we are members of the UN Security Council thanks to our rejection of that imperial past. – Yours, etc,