Article by Victoria Hales. Edited by Hannah Lyons. Additional Research by Ellie Veryard.
Whenever British colonialism is mentioned, the mind automatically thinks of Asia and Africa, yet the first established British colony is to be found much closer to home. Ireland has been a part of the British Empire since the twelfth century and the consequences of this relationship are still felt right into the twenty-first. Just this year there was a renewal of the conflict in Ireland as two British soldiers were killed in March and the Real IRA claimed responsibility for the killings. So why don’t people recognise Irelands history as colonial history?
Ireland was for many centuries under the control of the British. The British government had political control, English landlords had economic control, and the Protestants had religious control, which was followed predominantly by English migrants to Ireland.
Thus Ireland was almost completely dominated by England; in much the same way as England dominated parts of Africa during the nineteenth century. However, the Irish people have always engaged with the British government, rather than just accepting orders from it. For instance, they have always been represented in the House of Commons. This suggests that perhaps Ireland was not a colony in the same way as other colonies such as India. The majority of colonies have no political input at all. The Irish were not necessarily seen as subordinate to the British, for they always had a role in the British government. I believe that Ireland was a British colony due to the almost complete control that the British government had over the country. It was not until 1920 that Ireland would gain any form of autonomy from the British although even that Act, which created Northern Ireland, ensured that a part of Ireland would always remain within the United Kingdom.
Ireland has been an issue for British rulers since the reign of Henry VIII, who was the first monarch to be both King of England and King of Ireland. Ireland suffered many hardships due to British involvement in the country. Principal among these hardships was starvation and religious conflict, both of which have ensured that Ireland has continued to play an important part in British politics.
During the eighteen hundreds Ireland was one of the most important issues in British politics and inspired incredible amounts of debate, centring for a long time around the idea of Home Rule for Ireland. Home Rule would involve the devolution of power from Westminster to Ireland. However, the Irish government would still perform within the British government as a whole and the British government would retain some powers, including the control of Irish interaction with other international powers such as trade links. The Home Rule bills took some serious battering from the two Houses of Parliament. The first Home Rule bill was introduced in 1886. However it took until 1914 and the third Home Rule Bill before Home Rule would get through both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
It would be 1920 before the bill would finally be implemented as the Government of Ireland Act. This Act allowed for the partition of Ireland, creating Northern Ireland and what was supposed to be Southern Ireland. However, Southern Ireland never became an actual state; instead the Irish Free State came into being in 1922. The reason that Home Rule took such a long time to become implemented is because during the nineteenth century the British government were unwilling to allow Irish independence as they were worried that it would begin a chain of events whereupon other British colonies would also demand a degree of autonomy. This reluctance shows that English contemporaries viewed Ireland as a colony as they did not want to lose face by giving it its independence. This is comparable to the situation in the 1770’s when England fought bitterly against the American demand for independence.
The Irish and American examples are also similar due to the Western beliefs about race. The dominant Western belief in the inferiority of other races was what allowed these two colonies their independence long before other, non-western colonies. Ireland and America were white colonies, thus thought of as capable of running their own government. It is this early, forced, British decolonization of America and Ireland that leads in part to the different view people hold of these two colonies compared to those colonies that gained their independence in the 1960’s on the African continent.
Yet still in contemporary culture The Republic of Ireland’s past does not seem to be equated with colonialism. Even Northern Ireland is only discussed due to the problems of violence within the United Kingdom. The three decades of ‘The Troubles’ during the twentieth century are not viewed as colonial conflicts, instead seen mainly as a religious conflict between the Catholic and Protestant factions within the country. However ‘The Troubles’ were a consequence of the English Protestant settlement in the North of Ireland centuries before. This led to years of discrimination against Catholics, who suffered politically, economically, and endured worse schooling and opportunities. The Catholic population of Northern Ireland began a civil rights movement in 1967, establishing the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association to ensure equality with the Protestants of Northern Ireland. It was this attempt at reform, to reverse centuries of colonial discrimination, that sparked Northern Ireland’s troubles that came to a climax during the latter part of the twentieth century.
Ireland’s history is littered with the consequences of British colonialism. It should not remain Britain’s forgotten colony. People should not think that British colonialism began and ended in Africa. Our small, rainy island has conquered and lost vast sections of the world in the last century. The English exploits in America and Ireland need to be remembered as colonial ventures as well as England’s domination of Africa or India.