Explaining the Irish to the English…at long, long last?

Explaining the Irish to the English…at long, long last?
The Irish Difference: A Tumultuous History of Ireland’s Breakup With Britain by Fergal Tobin (Atlantic Books, £18.99/€22.99)

This book grew out of the author’s exasperation at how ignorance of Ireland was an important factor in the pro-Brexit vote, especially in England as distinct from the other parts of the United Kingdom. The “fabled British elite…should have known better”.

So this book is first of all “addressed to a British, or more precisely an English, readership”. It aims “to explain the degree of Irish difference, such as carried us out of the United Kingdom a century ago and latterly made us such a stone in the Brexit shoe”.

The result is a witty and entertaining gallop over Irish history which Irish readers will savour but English readers, whether the “elite” or “dyspeptic, ill-educated and alienated provincials” to quote the author, might find the detail daunting. They will learn, for instance “Why Jackie goes to Ballybay.”


To make it easier, the author divides their forebears who crossed the Irish Sea into Old English (descendants of the Normans); New English (Elizabethan and Stuart adventurers, “stridently Protestant”); and the “Creoles” who were mainly the soldiers rewarded by Cromwell for their services in laying waste to much of Ireland in the 17th Century.

On firmer ground, Mr Tobin, who is a distinguished books editor in Ireland as well as an author, insists that the religious divide in Ireland must not be misunderstood. “It has been said a thousand times and bears repeating here that the divide in Ireland is not religious in any theological sense: it is not a religious war. But religious or confessional allegiance is the most visible marker of all differences in the Anglo-Irish imbroglio.”

The same proviso still applies in Northern Ireland. When the ‘Troubles’ broke out in 1969, French newspapers carried banner headlines about the ‘Guerre de religion’ prompting their readers to think back to their own clashes with 17th Century Huguenots.


The book is especially useful in describing how the various Land Acts by far-sighted British politicians such as Gladstone and Wyndham dispossessed the ‘Creoles’ of their vast, unworked estates almost without a shot being fired. They were paid off, of course, but it was a relatively painless process and the land annuities burden disappeared after a deal in 1938 between Éamon de Valera and Neville Chamberlain which also secured the return of the treaty ports, again without any gunfire.

The author also explains how the 19th Century Irish benefitted from education reforms, embraced cultural nationalism, found new pleasures in the revival of hurling and the invention of Gaelic football (replacing the widely played cricket and rugby brought by the planters).

How the course to a Home Rule relationship with London was rudely interrupted by the 1914-18 war and the plotting Republican Brotherhood in 1916 is explained with a note of wistful regret.

In the end there was no getting over the ‘Irish difference’ without blood being spilled. English readers owe Mr Tobin a debt. If only they could have read his book before the Brexit vote.