Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Why praise our colonial past?

The publication of the Mahon Report last week has shown once again that Ireland has inherited a dysfunctional system from its colonial past, writes Conn Mac Gabhann in London.

A Wordle graphic highlighting the most used words in the Mahon tribunal's 3,000-plus page final report

Wed, Mar 28, 2012, 01:00


The publication of the Mahon Report last week has shown once again that Ireland has inherited a dysfunctional system from its colonial past, writes Conn Mac Gabhann in London.

At a St Patrick’s Day reception in London last week, I listened to the Minister of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Leo Varadkar speak glowingly of our shared language, our shared judicial and parliamentary system. I listened, and I wondered to myself, given the disastrous condition of the Republic of Ireland, is our colonial past and present something to be treasured?

I am wary of this kind of talk. I realise alarm bells go off when someone mentions ‘colonial’ in the contemporary Irish context. It evokes thoughts of a De Valera wet dream– a vision of an Ireland without the planter, the prod, the Gall, without Tone, McCracken, Hyde or Yeats. Indeed, using ‘colonial’ in Irish intellectual terms seems to mean wanting a good dour Mass on Sunday morning, a brutal but fair shellacking on the hurling pitch in the afternoon and an evening spent in chaste yearning for the maidens dancing at the crossroads (miraculously producing multitudes nine months later). I therefore tread lightly.

But it seems that other countries which have gained partial or full independence from Britain in the 20th century do not see a problem in engaging in critical and analytical terms about the effects (and thereby the solutions) of colonialism.

If Leo Varadkar is right about our intertwined relationship to Britain, a question arises. As we have learned this week through the Mahon Report that there were corrupt officials at high levels of state, are the benefits of colonialism all they are cracked up to be?

Is it not appropriate to reflect maturely on the damage caused by a blithe acceptance of the status quo following the departure of most of the British forces from the 26 Counties following the Treaty?

Over the years, the news stories move from Charlie, to Michael, to Ray, to Padraig, and on to Bertie. As an alternative to demonizing particular individuals, might it not make sense to look instead at the inherited parliamentary and legal system that we take for granted? The current system has given us a dysfunctional state, economy and church; it seems not to have served the people in creating a republic in spirit.

Mr Varadkar, we do indeed owe Britain for our inherited legal and parliamentary system. We owe them for a system which facilitated, encouraged and left unprosecuted people such as those the Mahon Report highlights.

Perhaps commentators feel discussions on ‘colonialism’ indicate that they harbour hostility towards the descendants of colonizers or even hostility to newcomers today. And perhaps, as a result, news coverage seems only to examine individual culpability not the framework in which corruption flourished, a colonized framework.

The analysis that so much of Irish public life is due to a sui generis cute hoor culture or even defective individuals be they politicians, developers, bankers or priests is not proven.

Take for example, the Irish Church, the institution which we now know as hierarchical, secretive, paternalistic and arrogant. It was once a radical movement with popular support providing an enviable source of European learning and radicalism up until the late 1700s. Then came the Church of men like Cardinal Conway. A church founded by the British through the establishment of a training college, Maynooth, funded by the British and whose members took an oath of loyalty to the Crown.

The Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o said that, ‘The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.’ More broadly perhaps in Ireland’s case, the ghastly phrase, ‘our shared history’ is part of our current ‘spiritual subjugation.’

Rather than simply picking names out of the Murphy or Mahon Reports, we might reflect like Thiong’o on the fundamental errors accepted as fact following the outward removal of colonialism. And when our government ministers and diplomats praise our former colonial masters for giving us a system that seems not to work for us, we would do well to ask why we are praising that system.

Or perhaps, it is simply a flaw in the Irish character; like Africa we are unfit to govern ourselves.

Conn Mac Gabhann is manager of the Traveller Project in the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain.