The Ireland-shaped hole in British history

The Ireland-shaped hole in British history
World of Books by the Books Editor


I was struck the other day, while reading Anthony Dent’s book Lost Beasts of Britain, by a remark in his preface. He is explaining that he deals largely with the extent of Britain known to the “good emperor” Antoninus Pius, builder of the Antonine Wall in 142 AD, which excluded the Highlands of Scotland.

“Wales is included,  but Ireland is treated only marginally; that is to say, it is used where necessary to set the scene where conditions are comparable or a contrast illuminating, in order to set the British picture in a meaningful frame.”

This quite casual remark reveals the common English habit of mind, for when writers such as Dent refer to Britain, they really think in terms of England. Often the terms are inter-changeable, for many it was not the British, but the English Empire.

This habit of mind has untoward results. Alas it seems our activities here do not set the British picture in a very attractive frame. They may happily claim Joyce and Yeats and Heaney, but that is it.

One of the surprising outcomes of the Brexit controversies, which affect Ireland and Irish culture greatly, is the revelation of just how strangely ill-informed prominent English leaders, especially those eminent in the Conservative and Unionist Party, are about Ireland.

Of course, liberal minded people will always think that conservatives are ignorant of history; they would not appeal so often to tradition if they weren’t.

But it is difficult for Irish people, for whom the errors of the past still loom so large, and the looming-even-larger errors of the future, are so fearful, not to have a view of history that is inevitably very different.

For us the British presence was almost overwhelming. We cannot but believe that the Irish presence over 700 years must loom equally large in the mind of the British.

But this is not the case. In their view of history, popularly supposed to be dominated by King Alfred and the cakes, Henry VIII and his wives, and Churchill and the defeat of the Hun, there is a very large Ireland-shaped hole.

Ireland is a nice place for a holiday, but not to be taken seriously. Given the devotion to British sport and TV today in this country, not to speak of the consumption of  books and newspapers, Irish people know more about British activities than many British people do, from Liverpool FC to the leadership of the Labour Party, we have opinions (often deep set) about them all.

For the British Ireland is Father Ted and Mrs Brown’s Boys: enough  said.

Yet this outlook affects the writing of history too. Take the Tudors. The British cannot fully understand what happened in the “English Renaissance” without involving Ireland, Essex in Ireland, the Reformation, Cromwell, the fall of the Stuarts, all involve Ireland.

Can all those Irish MPs in the Victorian House of Commons have had no affect on British affairs then. What effect did the ‘British’ policies of the Irish Party have on legislation? There’s a theme for a PhD.

Yet one can read many books about Victorian Britain in which Ireland and India, even Africa are hardly mentioned, except in so far as they “frame the British pictures’’. They are not seen as part of the composition, an irremovable part of the complete panorama.

This is not a matter of ignorance. People like Jacob Rees-Mogg [pictured with former UKIP leader Nigel Farage] received the best education that Britain can provide and yet their shallowness astonishes one. But what is sadder still is that for all their superficial culture, they cannot see themselves as they are. Or as the poet put it: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!”

But then I suppose Robert Burns was some sort of Celt (no letters please), and so he too was not part of the picture, merely a vulgar section of the frame, literally the ‘Celtic fringe’ perhaps.

But by leaving Ireland out of their history as they do British historians cannot hope to understand, not just the local scene in the industrial Midlands or commercial London, but also ‘the larger picture’ to which they so often appeal.

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