Tuesday 22 December 2020

The land of Ire


I began writing about Ireland when Britain and Ireland fell out over Brexit. Each time I did so I came to the conclusion that Ireland was well named. It is indeed the land of ire. Not only are the Irish angry about Brexit, they are angry about everything Britain has supposedly done to them for the past thousand years.

Whenever I raise the least bit of criticism about Ireland and specifically about Ireland’s hostility to Britain my timeline on Twitter is flooded with people with Irish names full of diacritics and equally full of ire. The substance of these people’s anger is usually Irish history and the blame for everything in that history falls on the British. The Irish are like the worst sort of Scottish nationalist on steroids. The grievance of the average SNP voter is mild compared to the grievance of the average Irishman. The storm clouds and thunderstorms of ire that drift across the Irish sea would make anyone suspect that the British were by far the worst people in Europe and indeed the world. But is this just?

My Irish friends routinely refer to Britain occupying Ireland for a thousand years, but in fact the processes that turned Ireland from being an exclusively Celtic speaking country to being a mainly English speaking country are nearly identical to the ones that turned Britain from being a Celtic speaking country to an English speaking country.

Celtic speaking Ancient Britons were invaded and settled by Romans, then Angles and Saxons and then Vikings and Normans. Celtic speaking Ireland was invaded and settled in almost exactly the same way.

British people don’t complain about two thousand years of Roman occupation that destroyed the language and culture of Boadicea, nor do we complain that Angles and Saxons pushed the Ancient Britons to the west into Cornwall, Wales and Brittany. I have yet to meet a British person who complains that we no longer speak Common Brittonic, nor have I met one who complains that we no longer speak Anglo-Saxon. No one complains that the English language we speak today was the result of migration and no one blames the migrants.

This is because the average Briton is a mixture of the Celtic, the Roman, the Anglo, Saxon and the Norman. What we are is the sum of the peoples who migrated here. To complain about these migrations is to complain that I exist, because I am the result of them.

Similar peoples and linguistic influences migrated to Ireland too. Without these migrants the modern Irish people and the modern Irish culture would not exist either. To regret that Angles Saxons Normans and later British people moved to Ireland is to regret the existence of Ireland as it is today.

Most Irish people today will have had ancestors who were Celts, Angles, Saxons and British. Many British people including me have Irish ancestry. This is not least because Irish people have been settling in Britain for centuries. The name Scotland comes from the Scoti, who came from Ireland. I have never once met a person from Scotland who complains that the Irish Scoti conquered Scotland and wiped out the indigenous Picts. No one calls this the plantation of Scotland.

So, an Irish person who regrets that Ireland was settled by people who brought with them languages that eventually became English is the equivalent of a British person regretting that the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain and were then superseded by the Normans. But such an Irish person is really saying I wish I had never been born. If Ireland today had been invaded by no one and was still a pristine Emerald Isle that had never been contaminated by English speakers, then almost every single Irish citizen would not exist, because every Irish citizen has a Norman, an Anglo-Saxon and a Brit in his family tree. It is for this reason above all that most Irish people have English as their first language. We learn language from our parents after all.

During medieval times Kings and Queens tried to expand their dynasties through diplomacy, intrigue marriage and war. If you look at the boundaries of modern Europe, you will notice that peoples were united into kingdoms in this way. They didn’t have much choice. No one asked a peasant from Aragon if he wanted to join with Castile when Isabella married Ferdinand. Border changes did not happen for democratic reasons. Rather there was a continual ebb and flow of dynastic boundaries in Europe due to the success or failure of authoritarian rulers. It was for this reason that Ireland became part of the British Crown. The process was no different from why Burgundy became of France and much later Saxony became part of Germany.

Did anything particularly unusual happen to Ireland while it was “occupied” by the British?

Ireland was involved in wars. For example, during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651) (the British Civil War) battles were fought all over the British Isles and also in Ireland. Lots of people died some of them in Ireland some of them in Britain. People were also persecuted. This was a war about religion. Which form of Christianity should be dominant in Britain?

But such wars also happened in Europe. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) in central Europe killed between 4.5 Million and 8 Million people. But I have never met a modern-day inhabitant of central Europe who blames anyone else for what happened in the 17th century. There was famine in parts of Germany during this period, plus persecution and mass murder, but no one in modern day central Europe talks of Wallenstein or Tilly in the way that Irish people talk about Cromwell.

Famine has been a feature of European life for centuries. Famine in France in 1709 killed 600,000 people. Famine in East Prussia in 1709-1711 killed 250,000 or 41% of the population. Few people in these places has any knowledge of these famines and they certainly don’t blame anyone living today for them.

If I asked the average Highland Scot if he had ever heard of the Highland Potato famine (1845-1857) I would be met with blank looks. Only specialist historians would know anything about it. So too with virtually ever other famine that happened from time to time in Europe.  

But the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1845) is remembered like no other famine in history, not because it was the worst, but because it can be blamed on the British.

The British of course did not want there to be a famine in Ireland. It wasn’t the British who made the potatoes go bad. If there had been no potato blight, there would have been no famine and no one to blame.

The British authorities like the authorities during every other European famine in history could have done more to save lives. They were incompetent, indifferent and worse. The ruling classes protected their own interest rather than look after their fellow citizens. But this was the same everywhere in Europe. There were revolutions in most of Europe in 1848 because the authorities did not care about how their citizens lived.

All over Europe including in Britain the poorest people faced hunger, poor working conditions and low wages. Soon after the Irish Potato Famine there were famines in Finland (1866-1868) and Sweden (1867-1868). I have yet to meet a Finn or a Swede who blames anyone for these famines. I doubt most Finns and Swedes are even aware of them.

Irish people were treated no worse than anyone else in Europe while being ruled by the British Crown and considerably better than many people in Europe. Russia only abolished slavery (serfdom) in 1861. At this time in Ireland many Irish people had the vote and would later use that vote to campaign for Home Rule.

But all through the centuries when Ireland was ruled by Britain the people who most directly ruled Ireland were the Irish gentry. The average ordinary British person had no influence whatsoever over how ordinary Irish people were treated. It was more often Irish gentry who ill treated other Irish people rather than Kings and Queens, not least because Kings and Queens would frequently be quite unaware of such things. The Tsar in Russia after all was quite unaware of every peasant who was whipped.

From the Middle Ages to the twentieth century it was landowners who ruled both in Britain and in Ireland. I have yet to meet a Russian who blames another Russian because his ancestor was a slave. Nor have I met a modern-day Brit who complains that someone else’s ancestor made his ancestor work in a factory or as a poor farmer.

Yet whenever I discuss Ireland the immediate response of Irish people is as if I personally am responsible for the Famine, Cromwell and one thousand years of occupation.

But I am not. Some of my ancestors lived near Dublin and they were as likely to have starved, been killed or persecuted as any other Irish citizen. What’s more the person who persecuted my ancestor was more likely to be another Irish person (a landowner) than a Brit. I don’t hate the people who persecuted my Irish ancestor, so why should Irish people hate me for the supposed wrongs that the British did to them? All of the perpetrators and all of the victims have died so why are we still blaming?

Irish people and British people are more closely related than anyone else in Europe apart from perhaps Germans and Austrians. We speak the same language, watch the same TV programmes, support the same football teams and if we can get over our differences about history usually get on well.

But there is poison in the relationship between Britain and Ireland. Perhaps it the way Irish children are taught in school, perhaps it is what they learn on their mother’s knee but scratch the surface of an Irish person and it is very common indeed to find hostility towards Britain and the British.

But a friendly relationship cannot survive such hostility.

No one alive today is responsible for any historical harm done to Ireland and a reasonable interpretation of history is that Irish people were treated similarly to people all over Europe while part of the British Crown. Ireland largely lost its native Celtic language and culture, but so did Britain and for the same reason. People migrated, just as they have always migrated and are migrating still. The Celts too migrated. They came from somewhere towards Asia. We are all the children of migrations whether we live today in Britain or in Ireland. Neither one of us is wholly innocent nor wholly guilty. If we dare, we might just forgive each other.

It is time to put aside historical grievance and build a future based on mutual respect and friendship.  Our shared past need not poison our shared future.