We need to recognise Irish participation in the British colonial story

Emigration is elephant in the room when thinking about Irish people and the Empire

The violence and coercion exercised within the British Empire to acquire land, resources, and trading routes casts a long shadow on peoples and communities. The Ashanti Wars (1870s-1900s), Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80), Anglo-Zulu War (1879), Anglo-Boer Wars (1880-1; 1899-1902), Occupation of Egypt (1882), Matabele Wars (1893-7), Amritsar massacre (1919), Mao Mao Uprising (1952-60) and Cypriot War of Independence (1955-9) are just some of the modern conflicts where the worst excesses of imperialism were employed.

The reprisals enacted during the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) by the Black and Tans and auxiliaries were viewed by republicans at the time to have been part of this continuum. Following the death of Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork who died in Brixton prison on hunger strike in 1920, Art O’Brien, the president of the Sinn Féin Association of Great Britain, remarked that “it isn’t just for Ireland that the Lord Mayor has died; it is so that the whole British Empire is destroyed”.

The Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd brought to the fore in Britain legacies of imperialism that have gone unchecked for too long. The mixed reactions to the toppling of the statue of Bristol slave-trader Edward Colston, and the rallying of right-wing groups to prevent the defacing of Winston Churchill’s memorial outside Westminster, demonstrated not only a nostalgia for greatness but a total unawareness that the type of British history which is commonly remembered has too often silenced people of colour and railroaded over the unsavoury aspects of Britain’s imperial past. While museums and civil society groups like the Runnymede Trust have worked hard at countering this narrative, a political unwillingness to properly consider Britain’s national history suggests that little will change in the near future.

Bengal Famine

Oliver Dowden, Britain’s secretary of state for culture, recently criticised the National Trust when its research mentioned that Churchill had been prime minister at the time of the 1943 Bengal Famine. Dowden accused the Trust of taking an ideological position, but in fact revealed his own ideological proclivity for a narrative that has exorcised elements of Britain’s past. His reaction also exhibited a sense of defensiveness which emerges when someone realises that their deeply held beliefs about “history” might not be so historical after all.


A political unwillingness to engage with the legacies of empire is the opposite of the Machnamh 100 initiative of President Michael D Higgins. The president desires to put a “hospitality of narratives” back into the forefront of national life. As a contributor to the second series on Empire held last week, I was pleased to see such considered reflections on the range of motivations that inspired individuals to engage in violence, the differences between Ireland’s experience and that of other colonial conflicts, and how the choices made by previous generations regarding what records to archive have influenced the history we recall today. Yet even a three-hour seminar was not sufficient to scratch the surface of Ireland’s complex history with the Empire, and if we are really concerned about history, we need to recognise aspects of Irish participation that complicate the colonial story.

One of these is Ireland’s role in the imperial project. There are several individuals with Irish connections who participated in the worst excesses of imperialism. General Reginald Dyer, born in the Punjab in 1864, was the son of an Irish brewer and educated at Midleton College in Cork. He gave the command at Jallianwala Bagh to open fire on a crowd of 20,000 civilians (officials say 379 persons were killed. The Indian National Congress claimed it was nearer 1,000). While one might question Dyer’s “Irish credentials”, it is more difficult to ignore that the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab during the Amritsar massacre was Michael O’Dwyer, a Catholic from Tipperary who had joined the Indian Civil Service (ICS) in 1882. The historian Kevin Kenny has shown that Trinity College Dublin and the then Queen’s Colleges in Belfast, Cork, and Galway saw career opportunities within the Empire. Between 1855-63, 24 per cent of ICS recruits came from Irish universities. For the working-classes, the Army was a major employer (42.2 per cent of British Army recruits were Irish-born in 1830, though this had considerably declined by 1900).

Missionary activity

We might also think about religious imperialism. The Protestant reawakening during the early 18th century and significant emigration of Ulster Presbyterians to the American colonies established evangelism which endures until this day. Missionary activity exercised by both Protestant and Catholic churches during the 19th and 20th centuries was part of a project to “civilise” and “make godly” indigenous populations whose folk beliefs were deemed dangerously pagan. From the mid-19th century, institutional expansion in the “White Dominions” and “developmental projects” in Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria (to name but a few) eroded indigenous customs and supplanted local beliefs with those of a white, civilising mission. They also, however, brought healthcare, education, and campaigns against practices such as female genital mutiliation, complicating our moral judgments on what was essentially informal imperialism.

The legacy of emigration and settlement is the elephant in the room when thinking about the Irish and the Empire. Between 1801-1921, 8 million people left Ireland, often for British dominions and territories, while a further 1.5 million went to Britain between the mid-1930s and 2000. While we can empathise with the “exile” of perhaps two million Irish poor during the 1840s Great Famine, the reality is that most Irish people willingly left Ireland.

There is no single reason behind emigration, but a more precise interrogation of push and pull factors can reveal uncomfortable realities, especially after independence had been achieved. For single mothers, separated families, and people of different sexualities, Irish sovereignty did not bring freedom to everyone, and more progressive attitudes which emerged in Britain and parts of the Commonwealth during the second half of the 20th century were incentives to leave conservative Ireland.

President Higgins has called for a multiplicity of narratives about our past. While defensiveness surrounding uncomfortable historical realities can be understandable, an unwillingness to be open to the complexity of history can have long-term political consequences. The history of the Irish in the British Empire requires engagement with a multi-layered history, even if our ability to understand those realities, and our judgment of them, has changed.