Ireland has yet to come to terms with its imperial past

Some celebrate and some excoriate connections with the British Empire

In July 2019 Boris Johnson asked why Leo Varadkar isn’t “called Murphy like all the rest of them”. This ethnocentricity has a long history in an Ireland that for centuries was a laboratory for empire, where racist ideologies were formulated and then exported around the rest of the British empire.

As we approach Brexit, Johnson might like to remember that nation states working together in federations like the European Union – and not empires – are the mainstay of our world today. Educated at Balliol College Oxford, the intellectual epicentre of the 19th-century British Empire, on a classical curriculum, Mr Johnson continues to peddle a nostalgia for an England and an empire that no longer exists.

What does Mr Johnson’s nostalgia for empire mean for Ireland? How do we understand our own role in the development of empire?

Ireland was England’s first colony. We lived as part of the English, and then British, Empire for over 700 years. The Normans first conquered Ireland in 1169 and aside from a brief decade of independence during the 1640s Ireland formed an integral part of the English imperial system, until 1922 and the foundation of modern state. As well as being colonised the Irish operated as active colonists in the empires of Britain and other European powers.


Over the past 100 years most of the imperial statues have been removed or destroyed but the legacy of empire lives on in our street names, our built heritage

Over these centuries, Ireland also served as laboratory both for imperial rule and for resistance to that rule. Structures, policies and ethnocentric ideologies were first formulated in colonial Ireland and later transferred to other parts of the British empire. This included modes and structures of governance; policies and practices associated with Anglicisation, especially the promotion of English culture, language, religion, and education; the law, particularly as it related to the use of land and other natural resources; and, finally, knowledge collection.

How then is Ireland’s engagement with and experience of empire remembered (or not) and represented and mis-represented? White supremacists in the USA, for instance, misleadingly suggest that Irish indentured servitude in the 17th-century Caribbean equated to white chattel slavery and thereby distort the true meaning and misery of black slavery. In Ireland, over the last decade, we have marked a number of very significant centenaries, including the first World War (1914-18), the most imperial of conflicts; the 1916 Rebellion, which helped to trigger the unravelling of the British empire; and the partition of Ireland (1920), which served as the template for the later partitions of India and Pakistan, and Israel and Palestine. This period of commemoration, combined with the recent campaigns associated with Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall, are forcing a fundamental re-examination of our history, how we remember, and how we forget.

Over the past 100 years most of the imperial statues have been removed or destroyed but the legacy of empire lives on in our street names, our built heritage (plantation towns, big houses, government buildings), our universities and their curriculums, in the collections in our libraries and museums, in our language, fashions, folklore, and foodstuffs (spices, tea, coffee, chocolate, and the potato are the most obvious).

Until recently few fully appreciated the significance of Ireland’s imperial past but this is changing and there is a growing awareness of the importance of discussion and debate. The fact that the great Irish philosopher George Berkeley owned slaves on his plantation in Rhode Island in the 1720s made national headlines over the summer, as did the revelation that John Mitchel, a revered 19th-century Irish patriot, supported slavery. Our imperial legacy is complex. The great 18th-century statesman Edmund Burke was a vocal critic of the East India Company and compared Ireland and India on the basis that they were “similarly victimised”. Burke thought that empire was morally indefensible; yet he had interests in sugar and slaves in the Caribbean. Recent research into the scale and nature of Irish Catholic involvement in the British army during the first World War has given people permission to talk – without shame – about family members who took “the king’s shilling”.

The rise of English nationalism has kindled a greater awareness of the importance of revisiting the history of empire

Wider discussions of engagement in empire by Irish men and women are, however, muted. A single example highlights this. On April 13th, 1919, up to 1,500 Indian men, women and children were butchered at what is now known as the Amritsar Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in the Punjab. When this was aired across Irish media as part of the commemoration of the massacre, people struggled to comprehend the bloody role played by the commanding officer that day, Colonel Reginald Dyer, educated in Middleton in Co Cork, and his superior, the lieutenant governor of the Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, a Catholic from Co Tipperary. Stories like this challenge the master narrative of the Irish as victims of empire, not active perpetrators of it. As it happens O’Dwyer was, like Johnson, a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford.

Today in Ireland some celebrate and some excoriate connections with the British Empire. Others have either conveniently forgotten or are simply ignorant of Ireland’s imperial past. However, the decade of commemorations (2012-2022) and the rise of English nationalism has kindled a greater awareness of the importance of revisiting the history of empire, if only to better understand its legacy and how it has formed the present. How we, as a proud nation of Murphys and Varadkars, can best engage with our nearest neighbour in the post-Brexit world.

Jane Ohlmeyer is Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History (1762) at Trinity College Dublin and Chair of the Irish Research Council. Starting on January 22nd, 2021 she will deliver the James Ford Lectures at the University of Oxford on Ireland, Empire, and the Early Modern World