World View: Ireland’s link with colonisation merits focus

Empire is seen as something visited upon us whereas we actually played an active role

“For me, ‘decolonising history’ expresses the goal of freeing ourselves from the Eurocentric narratives and concepts that have confined our understanding of the past. It means confronting the structural blindness that has enabled western historians to ignore the injustices, exploitation and destruction caused by empire.”

This is part of Irish historian Ian McBride’s reply to the question “What does ‘decolonising Irish history’ mean to you?” He goes on to say: “The project of decolonising Irish history immediately splits into two halves. Empire has usually been portrayed as something that was done to Ireland, whereas historians of the last 20 years or so have shown that empire was something the Irish did to other peoples.”

McBride is a co-convenor with Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid of a stimulating round table in the current issue of Irish Historical Studies on “Decolonising Irish history? Possibilities, Challenges, Practices”. Other participants are Shahmina Achtar, Dónal Hassett, Kevin Kenny, Laura McAtackney, Timothy G McMahon and Jane Ohlmeyer. A version is available online.

Literary theorists of post-colonialism raised many of these questions before historians did

They are diverse in their backgrounds, specialisms and views on decolonisation. Yet they share a conviction the subject merits re-examination in the light of changes over the last 20 years, including a much more multicultural and multiracial Ireland, great social movements like Black Lives Matter, the decade of commemorations and Brexit. They acknowledge that literary theorists of post-colonialism raised many of these questions before historians did.

And they agree it is time to revisit older debates on revisionism and empire.

Concepts and narratives

Structural blindness is a condition which prevents certain questions being asked because of the disciplinary power exercised by gatekeepers who control existing concepts and narratives. They can be partial and contemporary, even ideological. As the philosopher of history Bo Strath puts it: “History is not the past, but about the past. History is a translation of the past into our time, an act of interpretation. This translation necessitates a critical approach not only to the sources but also to their narrative embedding, and to the act of interpretation.”

The round table fruitfully bears out these points about contemporary affairs in its discussion of Irish history. Ireland was certainly colonised; however the meaning of that term is obscured and contested by the participation of many people from Ireland in British imperial projects. It is a nuanced and mixed picture, as befits a sophisticated historical discussion. But there is little comparative colonial history in Irish university or school curriculums and far more association with Oxbridge norms and research than with those coming from Cape Town, Delhi, Cairo or Dakar. Much could be learned about Irish nationalism, language use and “whiteness” by expanding such fields of vision.

The decade of commemorations about the Irish revolution of 1913-1923 has thrown up another stimulating historiographical debate on the comparative, transnational and global nature of the events recalled, as distinct from their primarily national significance. A special issue of Irish Historical Studies in 2020 drew on a large research programme entitled “A Global History of the Irish Revolution” led by Fearghal McGarry and Enda Delany and based in Queen’s University Belfast, Edinburgh University and Boston College (also accessible online).

Diasporic communities

They argue against a “methodological nationalism” in historical studies which would artificially restrict interpretation and research to events in Ireland and Britain. Imperial and colonial politics during and after the first World War were the indispensable setting for these national events. They were followed throughout the world by Ireland’s diasporic communities; but since they concerned the survival of, precedents for and futures of many other empires, colonies, peoples and nations, there was a deeply global aspect to them too – as Irish rebels well knew.

Imperial and colonial politics during and after the first World War were the setting for these national events

Their project shows how transnational responses to Irish events played out in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria during those years, as these new states emerged from other European empires. Throughout the Pacific world the same applied; in Korea, Irish events closely paralleled the struggle there against Japanese imperialism. In India and Egypt, Irish events were followed closely. The same applied in Soviet Russia and among left-wing movements in Europe and the United States – and in Britain.

These new perspectives on Irish history bear out the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce’s famous observation: “The practical requirements which underlie every historical judgment give to all history the character of ‘contemporary history’, because, however remote in time events thus recounted may seem to be, the history in reality refers to recent needs and present situations wherein those events vibrate”.