Media Library


Niamh Gallagher: Unpacking the history of nation, sovereignty and empire

25th February 2021

A Úachtaráin, colleagues,

Thank you, President Higgins, for inviting me to respond to Professor Horne’s paper on the wider dimensions of the centenary we are now living through.

I want to take this opportunity to reflect further on the themes of sovereignty, nation, and empire which he raises. I have found, President, your own reflections on ‘ethical remembering’, Richard Kearney’s ‘hospitality of narratives’, and on challenging what you call a ‘feigned amnesia’ around the uncomfortable aspects of the shared history between Britain and Ireland to be very useful when contemplating the themes of sovereignty, nation and empire.

Prof Horne reminds us that sources of sovereignty were not fixed in the period leading up to and after the First World War. He has reminded us that the world of 1920–21 looked very different to that of today. We are often accustomed to remembering only one empire when we think of Ireland in these years, but this was a world made up of empires. The British Empire was joined by the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and German Empires, whose  territories extended across continents and incorporated a diverse array of peoples, ethnicities, and nationalities.

This is to say nothing of the East, where the Qing Dynasty of China had recently ruled large parts of the Asian continent, and the Empire of Japan continued to exercise rule across sections of what we would now call Russia, China and the pacific. Some of these entities, such as the Ottoman Empire, had existed for over 600 years. We often anticipate the demise of empire when we think about Ireland one hundred years ago, but we have forgotten just how powerful these entities seemed to the people who lived in their midst, and that many Irish and British people of all backgrounds came up with solutions to the question of Irish self-government in an imperial, rather than a post-imperial, world.

Prof Horne has discussed how physical force nationalists vied with home rulers over the question of Irish sovereignty, and how resistance in Ulster cultivated an opposed sense of nationality, but there are complexities within these binaries; a ‘hospitality of narratives’ that are often neglected when we think of nationalists and unionists before and after 1914.

To give three examples: in 1904, Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin, devoted himself to thinking about what the future of Ireland might look like. He published a series of articles, later included in the second edition of his book, The Resurrection of Hungary, in which he dwelt on what he considered to be the historic fallacies of British governance in Ireland. He argued that the late eighteenth-century Prime Minister, William Pitt (the Younger), had missed an historic opportunity to create an Anglo-Hibernian empire, modelled on what would later become the Austro-Hungarian empire under the 1867 Ausgleich. Griffith’s analysis of empire was not one of subjugation, or repression, but was instead about the spread of power relations across Europe, in which he felt that Ireland could have been co-equal with Britain in managing its overseas empire. His vision for the future, two kingdoms of Ireland and Britain modelled on the Austro-Hungarian example, was an imaginative use of empire to solve the question of Irish sovereignty.

These ideas were the very opposite of what James Connolly proposed. In his 1910 work, Labour in Irish History, Connolly wrote that ‘the progress of the fight for national liberty of any subject nation must …keep pace with … the struggle for liberty of the most subject class in that nation.’ For Connolly, democracy, and the essential sovereignty of the people, lay within the working classes, not within the middle and upper classes, who had been corrupted by capitalism and exploited the workers for their own gain. For Connolly, these were the true imperialists. No question of sovereignty could be solved by territory alone when the imperialist class continued to exploit the sovereign—the working classes of the world who had no territorial boundaries.

Both of these nationalists used ideas of empire and imperialism in different ways to explore the question of Irish sovereignty, and the same is true for those who resisted Irish self-government. Leopold Amery, a renowned academic, journalist, imperialist, and British Conservative politician, wrote an extended essay in 1912 called Home rule and the colonial analogy to make the Unionist case against self-government. Nationalists such as John Redmond, the leader of the Home Rule party, and Erskine Childers, a one-time imperialist turned republican, had repeatedly referred to some colonies within the British Empire where self-government had been a success. Amery argued that their comparisons were ‘based on a series of confusions due… to … the vagueness of the phrase ‘Home Rule’, and to the general ignorance of the origin and real nature of the British Colonial system.’

Quite simply, Amery showed that governance within the British Empire took a wide variety of forms; there was no easy parallel between Ireland’s case and the colonial model. Canada was practically a sovereign nation state, whereas South Africa had little more than county council powers; the Isle of Man continued to be operated on the age-old principle of ascendancy that resembled the much-hated law in Ireland, Poynings’s Act, passed in 1494 and repealed only in 1782.

After demonstrating that there was no single model of colonial legislation, and that nationalists who dwelt on the colonial analogy were fudging a complicated reality, Amery went on to dismiss the much-touted Unionist case against Home Rule—that Ireland was richer because of the 1801 Act of Union. He argued that the Union had never really united all of Ireland with Britain; it had privileged some parts and exploited others. In contrast to many nationalists however, his solution was not one of separation, but of further integration by extensive social and economic improvement.

For Griffith, Connolly and Amery, their respective visions for Ireland involved, resisted, and complicated empire in ways we are not accustomed to remembering. In our rush to explain our past in simple binaries, such as imperialists versus the colonised; physical force versus Home Rulers; nationalists versus unionists; we have done our own shared history a disservice. We have simplified complicated realities into easily accessible narratives about our past.

This is especially true when we think of the First World War. In recent years, Ireland has engaged in much soul-searching about this contested conflict, and the efforts of the President and former President McAleese have been of tremendous significance in bringing the Irish who served in that war back into the forefront of our national memory. It is difficult for us today to understand what that conflict was about. It has none of the certainty that comes with the Second World War, where moral judgements on good versus evil are much easier for us to make today. But participation in the First World War made sense to millions of Irish people at the time. Motivations to back it were wide ranging and varied.

We are used to hearing the well-worn view that many nationalists signed up to secure Home Rule while unionists did so to prevent it, but the reality is less stark than this simple binary suggests. To take a few examples: Francis Ledwidge, the Catholic poet, famously joined up after a spat with his girlfriend; Charles Brett, a northern Presbyterian, couldn’t really work out his motivation until he saw the hundreds of dead civilians washed up in Cobh in Cork, following the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German U-Boat on 7 May 1915.

The Home Rule MP Thomas Kettle was in Belgium when the conflict began, and the atrocities he witnessed by the invading German Army encouraged him to join the Allies as ‘an Irish soldier in the army of Europe’.

These men undoubtedly had other motivations as well, which differed from the incentives that enabled them to endure the war. And a similar variety can be seen in the millions of Irish women who rendered support on various home fronts and in field hospitals near the front lines.

But all of this was framed by a general belief that we can find difficult to understand today, that the Allies were fundamentally in the right while Germany was in the wrong, and Prof Horne has shown how the discourse of Prussianism, that Britain had resorted to barbaric methods, even endured in the War of Independence.

He has also reminded us that the war did not end in 1918 and has suggested that it was part of a greater crisis that lasted until 1923. I would add that other chronologies are equally important. Grief and disability had timelines which do not map onto the dates we commonly recall when thinking about centenaries.

In 1915, the former Trinity College Dublin student, Captain David Campbell, lost his friend, Levis, at Gallipoli. Campbell wrote his memoirs in the 1970s and said that ‘I remember him every Armistice Day, and mourn his loss afresh’. Two weeks ago I read a story in The Guardian of the second eldest person in France, who had just celebrated her 117th birthday. Sister Andrée, born in 1904, now in a care home in the south of France, had miraculously survived COVID. When asked why she felt she had lived so long, she answered ‘no idea… I’ve had plenty of unhappiness in life and during the 1914–18 war when I was a child, I suffered like everyone else’.

For Sister Andrée, that conflict was still painfully present in her recollections. For David Campbell, and the tens of thousands of Irish families who also lost loved ones in that war, the conflict did not end in 1918 or in 1923 but had its own timeline. For all of us who have experienced grief, and the present moment deserves its own reflection, a common humanity that transcends time and space can assist us when relating to historical actors even if our ability to understand the events that they participated in has changed.

The binary of nationalist versus unionist enlistment in the First World War, and the problems of marking start and end points when thinking about centenaries, is especially clear in the years that followed the War of Independence. Remembrance Day ceremonies across Ireland, which began in 1919, accelerated after 1923 when the civil war formally came to a close. They often demonstrated a sense of solidarity between Protestants and Catholics which had been fostered in various capacities during the war. The First World War may have honed the politics of nationalism and unionism, but other forms of understanding based on a shared sense of loss, participation and, for a time, righteousness, inspired other forms of inclusivity that continued to endure throughout much of the 1920s and even into the 1930s despite changing domestic political realities.

I wish to briefly say a few words on some other aspects of empire which we are not accustomed to remembering. The historian, Cormac O’ Gráda, has reminded us that in the devastating famine of the 1840s, emigration was a vital lifeline that allowed many Irish people to survive. It enabled them to gain employment, freed up resources in Ireland so that those who stayed could manage, and helped successive generations build futures that were simply not possible in Ireland.

Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain, parts of Africa and of course the United States all became homes for Irish people during the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and now 21st centuries, all of which had been part of the British Empire at one time. The ‘feigned amnesia’ that the Empire was somehow divorced from the dominions and territories through which millions of Irish people actively chose to make their home, is an important reality that co-existed with the more negative narratives of Empire that are more commonly recalled.

Prof Horne has reminded us of the hard power and abuses wielded by imperial administrators. But if we look at the processes by which ‘hard power’ was wielded, it continued to have a history in independent Ireland both before and after the constitutional changes of 1921, 1937 and 1949.

Civil society, the state, and religious institutions wielded forms of repression that victims would find difficult to distinguish from the imperial power exercised within the British Empire. Penalties enacted on single mothers, separated families, those suffering mental disorders, and people of different sexualities were just as severe as some of the repression meted out to populations that were marginalised, incarcerated, and who were forced to suffer civil disabilities within the Empire. Ireland was not unique in marginalising groups of citizens and interwar Europe was hardly a beacon of popular liberalism, but some penalties did endure in Ireland longer than elsewhere. If we are to really adopt a ‘hospitality of narratives’ about our past, we need to think harder about the processes behind nationhood, power, and Empire, and to recognise that after 1921, sovereignty was not granted to all of our citizens in an equal share.

Briefly, I want to say a few words about partition, which created new majorities and minorities across the island. The creation of two states came with a corresponding sense of statelessness for southern Protestants, northern Catholics, and republicans, both north and south. In Northern Ireland, two hegemonic narratives of nationality and sovereignty are deeply intertwined with modern political identities, yet here too history can show us that a multiplicity of experiences existed which temper these dominant narratives. My hope is that the President’s call to ‘ethically remember’ the past might inspire a capacity for reflectivity that can assist and complicate, rather than threaten and simplify, different understandings of nationhood and sovereignty.

Thank you, President Higgins, for giving me the opportunity to reflect on Professor Horne’s paper today and I hope my response provokes some tho