Ireland – an imperial past?


A chara, – Jane Ohlmeyer writes that the presence of spices, tea, coffee, chocolate, and potatoes in Ireland are somehow evidence of our participation in the British imperial project (“Ireland has yet to come to terms with its imperial past”, Opinion & Analysis, December 29th).

It is worth bearing in mind though that the same goods were available in countries that weren’t politically tied to Britain, such as Switzerland and Poland.

It seems that linking the existence of these edibles in a country to imperialism is a tenuous connection to be making.

As an independent country Ireland, with the exception of establishing some nearby colonies in the early Middle Ages, has not been imperialist in either its actions or its outlook and this is something to be commended rather than dissected.

While it is certainly true that Irish people decided, and in many cases were forced, to collaborate in empire building, these people did so as individuals. Michael O’Dwyer didn’t represent Ireland while governing Punjab, but Cecil Rhodes certainly represented Britain during many of his activities in Africa. – Is mise,



Co Dublin.

Sir, – Jane Ohlmeyer manages to catch the ambiguity of Ireland’s relationship with the English/British empire well, but fails to resolve any of those ambiguities.

Irish Catholics served the British army, both as administrators and soldiers, but the British empire was self-consciously Protestant, commercial, maritime and free. Most Irish Catholics were none of those things. The mainstay of English liberal thought, John Stuart Mill, counselled against sending Irish Catholics to the colonies on the grounds they were too downtrodden by religion and oppression to bring anything of use.

Boris Johnson may like to play the old imperial bulldog, but Brexit economics are anything but imperial. The call is for full, unequivocal free trade agreements with the whole world. These are the economics of Cobden and Bright and the Manchester School, steadfast opponents of empire. The empire operated a policy of free trade at the point of a gun, until a policy of imperial preference made more sense for the metropole.

A full, world-wide free trade regime will very likely destroy what is left of British manufacturing and suck all demand out of the lower end of the British economy, as China has done effectively to parts of the US.

The world has always been full of empires; madness manifesting as delusions of power is a common feature of imperial ruling classes on the way out. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 8.