Irishness, Empire & class

One of the small mercies provided by this terrible pandemic is that we are not afflicted with television images of Irish politicians cavorting around the White House genuflecting before the global hegemon. Many people who should know better have lost the run of themselves, predicting that Joe Biden will grant Irish republicans all their wishes at once.  Let’s get something very clear. Rather than facilitators for a better future, Biden’s administration is more likely to impede the type of United Ireland that will benefit working-class people North and South. You are going to get a load of guff shoved down your throat about not being allowed to alienate Washington so as not to derail the unity train. The reunification of the island depends on the Irish people and the construction of a popular democratic coalition intent on securing a just society for all. If you want some indication of what our ‘friends’ in Washington and Brussels will ‘deliver’ you need only look at the transition from Apartheid in South African, which has led to the consolidation of the most unequal society on earth! As I write this on St Patrick’s Day, it strikes me that the elastic nature of a concept such as Irishness is often employed in the interests of the current incumbents of political and economic power. We hear a lot about Irish soft power, we hear little at all about modern-day US imperialism or condemnation of oppression, except where it parrots liberal opinion in London, Washington or New York.

Over the past year, three inter-related issues have forced ‘Irishness’ to the forefront of popular debate. Irishness on the island and the constitutional link with Britain within the Brexit imbroglio, Irishness in terms of the legacy of slavery and contemporary racism during the Black Lives Matter protest and more recently the related issue of Irish involvement in British imperialism and colonialism. Three aspects of these debates struck me as symptomatic of the current neo-liberal hegemony within Irish, British, and European elite opinion. Mirroring D. H. Akenson’s questionable thesis of the Irish as ‘ideal pre-fabricated collaborators’, many liberal commentators and historians conflated the concept of Irishness in dealing with historical racism, slavery and empire, but then tellingly insisted on a narrow ethno-religious definition in terms of the constitutional position vis-à-vis Ulster Protestants, or those in the North of Ireland who today predominantly identify as British. Secondly, this conflation mirrored a similar unhistorical reduction of Irish nationalist and republican attitudes to British people as an almost universal Anglophobia, paying scant attention to class distinctions in Ireland and Britain or indeed the economic motivations for Irish peoples’ involvement in the British Empire. Thirdly, this particularistic rather than systemic reading of history and society occludes the significant [and across large periods majoritarian] anti-imperialist and anti-colonial tradition in Ireland that rested on an anti-sectarian conception of a civic Irish nation.  

Therefore, the historian Niamh Gallagher recently urged readers of the Irish Times to recognise Irish participation in the British colonial story (2 March 2021). Gallagher begins by rightly extending her account of the ‘worst excesses’ of British imperialism well into the twentieth century, but does not continue the story past 1960, a curtailment that might surprise the populations of Fallujah or Helmand province. I would agree wholeheartedly, however, regarding the profound ‘political unwillingness to properly consider Britain’s national history’ in terms of its imperialist legacy. Yet, what struck me about Gallagher’s contribution was the barely disguised agenda of false equivalence that underpins the project of ‘reconciliation’ that increasingly appears to dominate a great deal of recent historical commentary. Gallagher identified a ‘need to recognise aspects of Irish participation that complicate the colonial story.’ This, to my mind, represents a confected exercise in navel-gazing that ignores the fact that historically Irish republicans consistently opposed British imperialism and expressed solidarity with other oppressed peoples, while remaining fully conscious of other Irish people’s engagement with Empire.

When James Clarke one of the many Irishmen who joined the Army and saw the world for economic reasons in the nineteenth century warned his son that defying the British Empire meant banging his head against a wall, the young man retorted that he would just keep going until the wall fell down. Born on the Isle of Wight in 1858, the year that the Fenians were founded, Thomas J Clarke would lead the 1916 Rising. He was joined in the GPO by Pádraig Mac Piarais, a leading exponent of the Gaelic revival and son of an English monumental sculptor and James Connolly the Edinburgh-born son of two members of Ulster’s rural proletariat who had himself taken the shilling to escape the slums of Cowgate. Too often a false Irish essentialism is used as a foil to supposed academic nuance, which serves as a device to obscure fundamental contradictions in our history that survive to the present day. Neither Clarke, Connolly or an Piarsach would have failed to identify the Tipperary Catholic and the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab during the Amritsar massacre, Michael O’Dwyer, as anything other than a Shoneen imperialist butcher.

I might add that a recent criticism of my work by Patrick Maume in History Ireland claimed that I dismissed anyone with whom I disagreed as a liar or a brainwashed zombie. My late grandfather might have replied with one of his famous quips like “what would you expect from an asshole only shite?”, but then I might appear guilty as charged as I chased Dr Maume down the pathway of ad hominin insult. My reply will appear in History Ireland’s next issue, but several points in Maume’s piece might help elucidate the analysis above. Maume noted that Moody–Edwards tradition [what I have called revisionism] assumed that an examination of Irish historical myths necessarily produced reconciliation rather than conflict. Indeed, the Edwards–Moody school apparently [and despite what they proclaimed from the rooftops] did not seek to write value-free, objective history, but sought ‘to raise professional standards’ and write ‘within a liberal nationalist framework aimed at creating a shared-island narrative of the type desired by Thomas Davis’ [March/April 2021]. Dr Gallagher’s fine research in Ireland and the Great War epitomises this type of reconciliation, arguing that rather than a rejection of Britain’s war ‘substantial support for the Allied war effort continued largely unabated not only until November 1918, but afterwards as well’. What all this reconciliation and nuance consistently fails to acknowledge is that the majority of Irish people on the island rejected this analysis in 1918 and that a vibrant tradition of Irish anti-imperialism underpinned this rejection.

What a great deal of history as reconciliation seeks to do is to reconcile us to empire, exploitation, and the contemporary neo-liberal consensus. For almost a century now, the vast majority of Irish academic historians have downplayed the coercive nature of the British state’s relationship with Ireland and its people and sought to legitimise partition or as Maume would have it: ‘the thought struck me that if Ireland was entitled to break away from Britain because the majority desired it, Northern Ireland could stay with Britain if the majority there desired it (Ibid.)’ Here we have the grotesque site of mechanised imperialist slaughter on the continent which claimed the lives of over thirty thousand Irish people being touted as the basis for national reconciliation between Orange and Green – I am sure Thomas Davis would be suitably impressed! His political heirs in the Fenian movement outrightly rejected the British empire, while they sought to foment mutiny amongst Irishmen in its army. Leo Varadkar’s poppy-shamrock speaks to the deeply Orwellian nature of establishment ideology and avoids issues of empire and class that still resonate today. Nevertheless, in their 1867 proclamation, the Fenians unequivocally declared that ‘unable longer to endure the curse of Monarchical Government, we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour.’ This remarkable document concludes thus

we intend no war against the people of England – our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields – against the aristocratic leeches who drain alike our fields and theirs. Republicans of the entire world, our cause is your cause. Our enemy is your enemy. Let your hearts be with us. As for you, workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms. Remember the starvation and degradation brought to your firesides by the oppression of labour. Remember the past, look well to the future, and avenge yourselves by giving liberty to your children in the coming struggle for human liberty. Herewith we proclaim the Irish Republic.

1867 Fenian Proclamation

Many liberals construct straw men, portraying republicanism and its adherents as irreconcilable Anglophobes. Yet, it is they who operate from reductions and caricatures. From John Doherty of Lancashire’s call in 1829 for ‘union of all trades’ to Fergus O’Connor’s involvement in the Chartists, Irish people have a venerable tradition of democratic and socialist mobilisation in Britain. Yet, despite the sneers, the democratic struggle in Ireland consistently exhibited real solidarity for British workers. Irish syndicalism supported and received support from the Tonypandy strikers of 1910, who two years later issued the Miners’ Next Step which proposed workers’ control of industry or ‘real democracy in real life making for real manhood and womanhood any other form of democracy is a delusion and a snare’. These workers galvanised the two hundred thousand Welsh miners who came out in 1915 and whose leader A J Cook coined the famous slogan: ‘not a penny off the pay not a second on the day’. Or John McClean and the shop-stewards of the Clyde who led ten thousand Glasgow engineers out the same year and exhibited real internationalism and solidarity before going on to form the national unemployed workers committee after the 1920 slump. Or the courageous members of the Independent Labour Party who opposed the war while Arthur Henderson and Labour’s right-wing acted as Lloyd George’s doormat. Or the London dockers who refused to load the SS Jolly George with munitions to be sent against the Bolsheviks in 1920 – the only instance in Britain of direct action for purely political ends, but a tool the Irish Labour Movement had already successfully used twice up until that point in the course of Ireland’s revolution. I will let James Connolly put it more simply than I ever could

We mean to be free, and in every enemy of tyranny we recognise a brother, wherever be his birthplace; in every enemy of freedom we also recognise our enemy, though he were as Irish as our hills. The whole of Ireland for the people of Ireland – their public property, to be owned and operated as a national heritage, by the labour of free men in a free country.

Workers’ Republic, 5 August 1899

Let us now examine the rights of Ulster Unionism in this period. Before the war, the right to subvert parliamentary democracy, liaise with the Kaiser to arm their own paramilitary force and instigate a mini coup in the Army. A right underpinned by sectarianism, violence and a colonial-settler mentality informed by racial supremacist currents shared by their supporters in London and other purveyors of the white man’s burden globally. After the war, the right to destroy the trade union movement in Belfast, strangle a growing anti-sectarian working-class constituency in East Ulster and the right to establish an Orange economy based on intimidation and violence sanctioned by Britain. The right to expel, intimate and subjugate the vulnerable East Ulster Catholic minority in the name of loyalty to crown and Empire when that very community had proportionately contributed as many recruits during the First World War – so much for Leo’s poppy! The right to engage in mass work-place and residential expulsions as part of the Belfast pogrom, carry out something approaching ethnic cleansing in Lisburn, Banbridge and Dromore. The right to establish a one-party discriminatory enclave with the highest ratio of police to population in Western Europe, extensive coercive powers that were the envy of South Africa’s apartheid regime, all fed on a drip-feed of subsidy from the metropole. Honestly look at the pro-Trump reactionaries that populate modern-day political Unionism and ask yourself if their ideology is deserving of respect?

The southern establishment has sought to reconcile these Orange fascists since the inception of the Free State. This has represented the stated policy since May 1922, as outlined in a Memorandum from Ernest Blythe, ironically himself an Ulster Protestant and future Fascist. What impact did this policy of reconciliation have on Unionist intransigence? None! None, because it was not designed to have any impact but rather to act as a fig leaf for the abandonment of anti-sectarian republicanism and the consolidation of the southern state dominated by many of the same Shoneen capitalists who would have admired the actions of Michael O’Dwyer in the Punjab. How then did the Orange state implode? By virtue of its own internal contradictions and human agency or more pertinently the refusal of the northern nationalist working-class to be cowered. What did the southern political establishment do to facilitate this? Nothing! Every function of Anglo-Irish diplomacy and relations since 1969 has been reactive as are contemporary attempts to engender reconciliation without addressing the causes of conflict or acknowledging that imperialism, yes, imperialism still exists and the political establishment in Dublin serve it loyally.   

Irishness like all notions of identity is elastic it intersects with history, class and indeed imperialism. It transcends the confines of state, capital and labour and in order to understand it properly we need to move from the particular to the systemic. This does not involve mechanistic reduction and structuralism a là Althusser.

History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth”, it “wages no battles”. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.

Karl Marx, The Holy Family

Rather it requires understanding of history as process through a Marxist dialectic, wherein apparently opposing forces merge to determine the direction of historical change. The economic base does condition but does not override peoples’ behaviours in ways that make certain outcomes more likely than others: or “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” This tension emerges most clearly during a structural crisis consequent of capitalism’s inherent contradictions – just like the one we have been experiencing since 2008. This does not make socialist revolution inevitable, but it also means that historical blocs and ideological alignments are not immutable – no matter how much academic historians might claim so according to their own synchronic common sense.

The ridiculous notion that Irish people generally believe that the democratic republican tradition constituted the only grouping in our history or that Irish people are blind to the fact that the country contained many imperialists, oppressors, sycophants and toadies content to suckle at the tit of empire, monarchy and big business ignores the very obvious fact that many are painfully aware that there are still far too many such creatures left here today! Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig! But never be under any illusion that St Patrick drove all the snakes from Ireland.

2 thoughts on “Irishness, Empire & class

  1. Reblogged this on Socialist Fight and commented:
    Some good stuff here:

    I will let James Connolly put it more simply than I ever could

    We mean to be free, and in every enemy of tyranny we recognise a brother, wherever be his birthplace; in every enemy of freedom we also recognise our enemy, though he were as Irish as our hills. The whole of Ireland for the people of Ireland – their public property, to be owned and operated as a national heritage, by the labour of free men in a free country.

    Workers’ Republic, 5 August 1899


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