The Republic of Ireland is about to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising. This weeklong rebellion in 1916 has become the cornerstone of the country’s national story, but the idea that it was a battle to oust a foreign foe simply serves to perpetuate an invented Ireland — one that its own people before independence would not readily have understood.
For almost a century, Ireland has been Roman Catholic and, officially at least, Gaelic-speaking, but before the insurrection of 1916, a sense of national identity molded around those characteristics hardly existed. The Irish have always had a British heritage.
The notion of “Ireland for the Irish” was rooted in the political turmoil of the late 19th century that followed the failure of the separatist Fenian movement to achieve independence. Aside from participation in the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Fenians never had much of a cultural program, and some nationalists realized they needed more concrete reasons for their call for Irish sovereignty.
When Arthur Griffith, a journalist and the founder of Sinn Fein, published “The Resurrection of Hungary” in 1904, he tackled the fundamental problem that faced Irish nationalists. The Irish needed an identity that set them apart from other Britons. The basis for independence, he argued, ought to come from a reawakening of Gaelic culture.
Griffith was not alone in this. In the years leading up to the Rising, there was a renewed interest in the Irish language, as well as traditional customs and dress, to demonstrate that the Irish had a unique ethnicity, one that deserved special treatment. Irish identity was reimagined in opposition to an alien English culture.
The ultimate statement of this came in the revolutionaries’ 1916 Proclamation that the British were a “foreign people.” Some elements of this new Irishness — like the Tailteann Games (founded as Ireland’s answer to the Olympics, after the formation of the Free State in 1922) and kilt-wearing by the nationalist youth movement Na Fianna Eireann — were inauthentic and kitsch. But without otherness, there could be no nation.
The Gaelic revival movement, however, tended to overlook the many Irish people who identified with Britain, before and after independence. Even the Dublin-born writer Brendan Behan, a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army in the 1940s, commented that he never felt like an outsider in the company of young men from British cities like Liverpool and Manchester with whom he had much in common.
Similarly, those who thronged the streets of Dublin in 1916 before the shooting started had little difficulty accepting their shared British heritage, if not the ideals of empire. Those ordinary Dubliners enjoying a holiday that Easter Monday from work at dockyards, factories and railways would have felt a kinship primarily with the army of labor that toiled in other parts of the British Isles.
Crowds, too, had thronged the streets when King Edward VII visited Dublin a few years earlier. George Wyndham, a Conservative member of Parliament who accompanied the royal party on that occasion, remarked that the onlookers “worked themselves into an ecstasy and all sang ‘God Save the King.’” Likewise, when a corporal with the Irish Guards, Michael O’Mara, wrote home from the battlefields of France in October 1914, he saw no apparent contradiction when, in affirming his sense of native pride, he added: “We are British soldiers and proud of the name.”
A century ago, then, much of Ireland identified with a modern, progressive Britain, or United Kingdom. By the same token, it is an oversimplification to suggest that the nationalist movement embraced a majority of Irish people, apart from a few civil servants at Dublin Castle and the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Before independence, thousands of ordinary Irish people identified, to a greater or lesser degree, with British society; for many of them, independence must have been a traumatic experience. These included a significant number of Catholic unionists who lived in the south.
During the early years of the Irish Free State, the reaction against empire morphed into anti-British sentiment, particularly thanks to the trade war of the 1930s, when a popular slogan, borrowed from Jonathan Swift, was “burn everything British but their coal.” The Rising was dreamed up largely by a group of educated visionaries, but when much of this leadership was executed at Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, the creation of the Free State was then left to Irish Irelanders whose atavistic Gaelicism ushered in a church-dominated, anti-modern society that served only to reinforce Ireland’s economic isolation for decades after.
A century later, attitudes have changed significantly. The demise of protectionism, accelerated after Ireland’s entry into the European Economic Community in 1973, has brought the country closer to Britain. From Birmingham to Dublin, virtually the same chain stores can be found everywhere. Irish society is increasingly consumer-driven, and across the British Isles, people find common ground in the goods and services they buy, the websites they visit and the TV shows they watch. The shift in Anglo-Irish relations has an economic as well as a political basis.
The enemy has always been processes, not people: We would be doing a disservice to the memory of ordinary British men and women, many of whom did no better under the flag of empire, if we allowed a chauvinistic anti-British sentiment to infect this commemoration. Instead, we should grasp the opportunity to demonstrate that Irishness is a multifaceted thing — one that accommodates a diversity of faiths, races and beliefs.
After the republic separated from the United Kingdom, the Irish postal service sundered its ties with the Royal Mail and painted the mailboxes green. But to this day, one has only to scratch the surface of an old pillar box to find a trace of red paint. Ireland’s links with Britain run deep.
Barry Kennerk is a historian.