Media Library


Machnamh 100 Seminar II - Empire: Instincts, Interests, Power & Resistance “Versions of the ‘Other’ – As Tool in the Culture of Imperialism, and Rationalisation for Sources of Violence”

25th February 2021

In today’s address, I wish to reflect on the relationship between culture and empire and how their interaction, in the case of an assumed British cultural hegemony at the time, generated versions of the Irish ‘Other’ that accommodated and rationalised violence. It helped, perhaps, in what was described as a project for the restoration of order, to invoke as background, an ongoing project that was one of replacing an inferior set of Irish cultural values with what were perceived to be a superior set of values worthy of an empire. The mind of empire included assumptions as to the ranking of cultures and thus generated what could be a comprehensive ideology for the defence of an empire that was at risk. 

Notions of cultural superiority, of inferior peoples and their cultures has as intellectual background the European Enlightenment, and in particular its concept of modernity which holds a key role in imperialist adventurism. Those of imperialist mind-set sometimes invoked the Enlightenment’s tool of modernity quite openly in the service of imperialist expansion. A significant minority of others, such as Kant, Diderot and Herder, held within Enlightenment thinking an anti-imperialist view. As Sankar Muthu has noted, within the latter half of the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment era, is an anomalous period in modern European political thought:

“for it is only then that a group of significant thinkers attacked the very foundations of imperialism, not only defending non-European peoples against the injustices of European imperial rule, but also challenging the idea that Europeans had any right to subjugate, colonise, and ‘civilise’ the rest of the world”.

By the nineteenth century, however, a regression had taken place, with prominent European political philosophers choosing to be either agnostic on the issue of imperialism or, like John Stuart Mill, Tocqueville, Hegel, and Marx, explicitly accepting of what they saw as the inevitability of the extension of European categories on thought and European rule over non-European peoples. Karl Marx, for example, while acknowledging the moral right of Indian rebels against British rule, believed that India could not progress without a European imperialism opening up what were dismissively suggested as closed Asiatic societies.

That a critique of empire emerged at the very moment of expansive imperialisms is a testament to the importance that these radical dissenting minds attached to moral principles in both utopian and inter-people relations. Indeed, at this time imperialist expansion including that of Britain, France and other European empires presented their empires and their expansions almost exclusively as a force for moral good, political stability and economic progress.

Little space was allowed at the time for any consideration of the negative, destructive, distorting or debilitating effects that imperialism was having on the cultural and social development of indigenous societies, or the cultural trauma that results from such subjugation.

As Simon Potter notes in his paper on empire and cultures, stereotyped images of empire and of those peoples and cultures who were being colonised found their way into the homes of empires, including British homes, and may have constituted one of the most basic and pervasive ways in which citizens of empires at home were offered and consumed the experience of empire as a superiority in which they were partners, and thus came to hold as normal not only images of racial and cultural difference, but of superiority, and backwardness of different peoples.

Imperialism, by its very nature, creates, reinforces and maintains unequal relationships between peoples, favouring the more powerful. This is a core aspect of its modus operandi. When we consider cultural imperialism, heavily informed as the concept is by the work of Foucault, Derrida, the seminal work of Edward Said and other post-structuralist and post-colonialist theorists, we can see why within the realm of post-colonial discourse, cultural imperialism is constituted as the cultural legacy of a stage of colonisation that succeeds conquest, and is not limited by it, but rather secures the conquest, by forms of social action, co-operation and administrative institutional arrangements, that contribute to the continuation post formal independence of British and other Western versions of hegemony.

An ideology that regarded those threatening empire as a dangerous ‘Other’, as Richard Kearney might put it, and one prone to violence, is helpful in explaining the violence employed by British Forces, by way of response to guerrilla and random attacks during the Irish War of Independence. What is particularly distinctive of that response is the use of collective punishments and reprisals that resulted in several atrocities, be it Bloody Sunday in Dublin, the sack of Balbriggan, the burning of Cork City, to name just three well-known events. The philosophy behind the reprisals, while rooted in the British attempting to re-assert control, often involved resorting to arbitrary reprisals, not only against republican activists, but often their surrounding civilian population.

An unofficial government policy of reprisals with a community impact began in September 1919 in Fermoy, County Cork, when 200 British soldiers looted and burned the main businesses of the town, after one of their soldiers, Private William Jones, the first British Army death in the campaign, had been killed in an armed raid by the local IRA.

The pattern of killings and reprisals escalated in the second half of 1920 and into 1921. The policy of reprisals, which involved public denunciation or denial and private approval, was famously satirised by Lord Hugh Cecil who reportedly stated:

“It seems to be agreed that there is no such thing as reprisals but they are having a good effect.”

Many more reprisals occurred, which had a very deep community effect in all classes, such as the indiscriminate killing of Eileen Quinn, shot dead while seven months’ pregnant as she stood outside her house in County Galway with her three children by her side. Much of the reprisal-based violence was not sanctioned; indeed, officially sanctioned reprisals did not begin until January 1921 with the burning of seven houses in Midleton, County Cork.

It is important to bear in mind that the character of the violence between communities in what would become Northern Ireland at this time was different for a number of reasons including the proximity of the communities to each other and that the sources of such violence were not simply on a basis of religious difference. This will be the subject of a closer examination in a further seminar.

The move by the British forces towards attacks on creameries – which were major employers and sources of essential foodstuffs – marked an escalation in both the wider socio-economic impact and the sophistication of reprisal tactics.

The first such attack commenced on 30th September 1920 with the destruction of Tubbercurry Local Co-operative Creamery, during which bombs and rifle fire left the building and machinery beyond use. Nearby Achonry Co-operative Creamery was also destroyed that night. The destruction of the creameries posed longer-term challenges to the economy. Damages to the local dairy industry amounted to £20,000 in buildings, machinery and stock, depriving 1,500 farmers of their main source of income.

From the summer of 1920 onwards, British forces consistently responded to IRA activities by attacking co-operative creameries. By the time a truce between the IRA and the Crown Forces came into effect, 40 co-operative creameries had been destroyed, with another 35 rendered unfit for work. The destruction of each creamery put an estimated 800 farmers out of business.

The death and destruction unleashed by the War of Independence, illustrate how violence in conflict imitates violence, has a brutalising effect, and produces extremes of further forms of violence that are no longer within the control of the original instigators. The cruelties and hardship that ensued in collective punishment were characterised by a decidedly economic dimension. Both guerrilla warfare and reprisals saw loss of life and widespread destruction of property. But, as historian Patrick Doyle has noted, the targeting of co-operative creameries caused maximum economic damage by destroying a cherished public utility and became a key tactic in the security forces’ war against the IRA.

While reprisal-based violence was a key element of the British military strategy in the Irish War of Independence, it was not unique to the Irish experience, and had been used effectively by British ruling forces in India in the previous century. While conventional histories have counted only 100,000 Indian soldiers who were slaughtered in reprisal for the “India Mutiny”, Amaresh Misra argues that there was an “untold holocaust” in India causing the deaths of several million people over 10 years beginning in 1857, if rebels and civilians killed by British forces desperate to impose order are counted. Reprisals were, thus, a key tool in defending empire and in the imposition of colonial power, laws, attributes and ideologies.

Collective punishments –were also used some decades later as an official strategy to suppress the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in 1952, and again in Cyprus in the same decade in the form of evicting families from their homes and closing shops where British soldiers and police had been murdered.

The use of such punishment, and its justification to those who carry it out, is rooted in the notion of the collective as a version of the dangerous ‘Other’, a community harbouring the perpetrators of violent revolt in their midst. The othering of particular cultures, includes the attribution of particular tendencies and particular ideologies to those perceived as lesser. ‘Othering’, therefore, provided for an insidious rationalisation of collective acts of violence and reprisals.

The perpetrators of such became, of course, the oppressive ‘Other’ in nationalist perceptions, and to whom would be attributed real, and enlarged, fear-inducing attributes of character. The ‘Other’ was perceived as one which was indiscriminate as to who was to be included in reprisal, with tragic consequences for those not involved in the conflict.

As we know from Irish history, this tendency has been employed by militant republicans to enable the contemplation, execution and justification of acts of brutality against those perceived to be agents or beneficiaries, of British rule in Ireland.

The assumption of a cultural hegemony was not confined to the realm of State or military.  In his seminal work, Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said has shown the impact that imperialist thought and the unquestioned project of colonialism had was quite general on culture, including mainstream written culture, on English and French novelists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example. Themes of imperialism, anti-imperialism, and decolonisation are well exemplified in the novel Robinson Crusoe whose story centres on a European man who creates a fiefdom in a distant, non-European island. An older example, centuries earlier, is of course, Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

If the novel represents an aesthetic art form influenced by imperial expansion, it can be further argued then, that among Western imperialism’s most effective tools for domination of other cultures, its cultural assumptions of superiority if the powerful, and the lesser value of the culture of the ‘Other’, plays just as strong a role as political and economic strategies. Edward Said has put it succinctly:

“the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging”.

By “other narratives” of course he is referring to those that might have been lodged in either ancient practice, as in the Irish case, or indeed in the utopian visions of imagined futures. Either can impede the successful colonisation of a people and thus require to be quenched in the interests of both the security and the expansion of the empire. As Said puts it:

“For the enterprise of empire depends upon the idea of having an empire […] and all kinds of preparations are made for it within a culture; then, in turn, imperialism acquires a kind of coherence, a set of experiences, and a presence of ruler and ruled alike within the culture.”

His observation is acute, for while the great expansionist ‘age of empire’ largely ended shortly after World War II when most colonies gained independence, imperialism, as a set of assumptions, as a mind of policy, continued to exert considerable cultural influence after formal independence.

Indeed, it is illuminating to examine how colonialists and imperialists have employed ‘culture’ to control distant lands and peoples, how the self-justifying rhetoric in the literature of the past could be utilised to bolster imperialism and rationalise, for example, the West’s dominance and exploitation of non-Western people.

Even in modern writing, invocation of the ‘white man’s burden’ occasionally re-emerges, with its inherent arrogance and racism towards the objects of its gaze, accompanied perhaps with a nostalgia for a world of servants that sought to relieve the discomfort of heat and life among what are perceived as a backward people.

The cultural imperialism that was, and is, at the heart of empire, by its promotion and imposition of the culture of a powerful nation over a less powerful one – an experience that Priya Satia calls, “the imposition of an autocratic, racist, violent, and extractive form of rule” – resulted in the case of Ireland in a form of British cultural hegemony which attempted to shape and influence general cultural values in Ireland and among other peoples that were colonised. Culture is, however, a process, and the dominating culture would come to be changed itself by that with which it interacted, by what it experienced in the effort of colonisation, be it cricket in India or the West Indies or writing in the English language in the Irish case.

In the long sweep of its history, British cultural imperialism in Ireland took various forms, manifesting itself in a set of exclusionary attitudes and ideologies, formal policies that were discriminatory and which subjugated Irish cultural traditions and expressions to a lesser consideration. While there was a religious base to this, it was not exclusively so.

There were significant localised exceptions, such as that of the Presbyterian Church whose members have made, and continue to make, a singular contribution to Irish cultural practices old and new, including the restoration and development of the Irish language and music.

If we are to achieve ethical remembrance and the creation of a shared memory at peace, it is important to recognise the role that the mind of imperialism, and specifically cultural imperialism, had as a precipitating force in the Irish independence struggle, and that we seek to understand the response to it.

Irish cultural subjugation drew, by way of response initially, the re-assertion of what had been a suppressed cultural expression, one that would come in time to support a militant nationalism, as part of the independence movement. This took the form of campaigns for the revival of the Irish language, Irish sport, Irish music, religion and a wider Celtic reclamation. However, revivals that have the character of recovery of what was suppressed carry their own exclusionary danger. It is a danger which we have not been successful in avoiding.

All cultural expressions in all their adaptations to, and inclusions of, each other must be part of a shared future.

If there is a mind of the defence of empire that influenced events in Ireland a century ago, there is also a mind of Irish resistance to, and also anomalous accommodation to, empire, which had its exclusionary flaws, which it would go on to expand with some disastrous institutional consequences.

We also must acknowledge that the British found willing agents of Empire among the native Irish from the earliest days of conquest. While many were drawn through economic necessity, it cannot be denied, that both at home in Ireland, and throughout the expanding Empire, some Irishmen became even enthusiastic accomplices to the excesses, cruelty and hubris of colonialism.

In all of this, there is the grounding fact of humiliation, inflicted, experienced, recalled, remembered or imagined. The psychological impact of the cultural imperialism that was experienced over the centuries in Ireland, was perceived as a deeply ingrained urge to humiliate. This fact requires a profound meditation on a range of questions:

How have our attitudes towards ourselves been influenced by hundreds of years of colonialism, of being constituted lesser, violent, drunk, indolent, backward? – the grotesque dehumanising depictions of the Irish in Punch cartoons are a case in point, but they are of the past. Are there residues of post-colonial inferiority in attitudes to the Irish language and wider Irish culture? Do the terms so often used as something being “very Irish” or even that on occasion decisions are described as “an Irish solution to an Irish problem” reveal a residual belief that a description of being Irish is synonymous with being lesser.

Lifting oneself into the present with the hope of a more fulfilling shared future requires a movement from old assumptions, from both sides of the equation that is the experience of empire.

No more than with other European imperialisms, and there were many, and there are today States and Powers with imperialist tendencies, the legacies of imperialism have never been adequately addressed.

Empire rule, wherever its source, and whenever, has led so often to the exploitation of peoples, and their subjugation on the basis of race and culture in a system maintained via the brutal and systematic violence of an expansionist force. Nostalgia for empire and imperialism is too often combined with a reluctance to see contemporary racism and xenophobia as being sourced in the grounding assumptions of imperial and colonial power.

The time available today has permitted only a brief overview of some key aspects of imperialist-sourced violence, such as that which was part of the violences during the War of Independence, a war which led to the deaths of 2,000 people, of whom 750 were civilians.  We, thankfully, now have an opportunity to transact that which establishes the distance between us as peoples in terms of different narratives of violences recalled, we all can, with much benefit, face and critique the absolutisms that drove those impulses to this violence and all violences, and the careless and dangerous assumptions of ‘the Other’ from which are sown such violences.

The use of such violence on the part of the powerful ultimately became a decisive factor in the outcome of the War of Independence, having resulted in shock and outrage internationally, and garnering increased support for the IRA and the independence movement at home and abroad.

It is important to be wide and generous in our willingness to critique our assumptions. We have, I suggest, shown an energy that is welcome in critiquing nationalism, less so in relation to imperialism. That is why I have today simply sought, with humility, to redress the balance.

Today, we explore this past, not to air inherited grievances or seek justification for injustices perpetrated in our name, nor do we seek to compare atrocities committed in the name of nationalism, unionism or British Imperialism. We must have a deeper purpose: to gain a clearer understanding of what occurred and why, acknowledging the path that has led each of us to where we are today; and, in being open to the perspectives of others, we must hope to extricate ourselves from the grip of any uncritical, simplistic version of our complex story. This, I believe will enable us to grasp together, the possibilities for a brighter future together, based on mutual respect, common interests and trust.

It is my hope that by dwelling on some of the less-examined aspects, including the sources of violence and their repercussions, the context of a conquering empire in decline, and the challenge of fear of the loss of what was its most proximate part, that we can arrive at a more comprehensive narrative of the times, a deeper collective understanding, an ethics of memory and remembrance that may aid a process of healing for us all as we reflect on these events which have marked us so profoundly as a society.

In doing so, the prize of an inclusive commemoration, one that becomes emancipatory in its consequences, becomes possible, one that allows for uncomfortable truths to be acknowledged, and, by doing so, on all sides, becomes achievable, allows us to envisage lives lived together free from the snares of remembered violence.

Beir beannacht.