Leabharlann na Meán


Eunan O’Halpin: Nation, empire, partition and commemoration

25th February 2021

A Úachtaráin agus a chairde, 

Thank you, President Higgins, for inviting me to participate in this series of reflections on John Horne’s framing document. 

The Irish ‘nation’ and the challenge of ethical commemoration

Nationalist Ireland was unified, and to an extent radicalised, as much by the conscription crisis of 1918 as by the 1916 Rising and its aftermath.  We citizens of Ireland should be careful that we in turn don’t now attempt to conscript everyone on the island into a single commemorative cohort.  Our island includes people who see themselves both as Irish and as British, and others who are British through and through.  

Commemoration is not legitimised simply by inclusiveness, by remembering Ulster’s as well as nationalist Ireland’s dead of the First World War, or by belatedly discovering the role of women in the Irish revolution. Richard Kearney’s cheery nostrum of a ‘Hospitality of narratives’ is all very well, but we must recognise that some people will not wish to avail of it, just as we expect others to respect James McClean’s well-grounded unwillingness to wear the poppy. 

In 2018, I complacently observed how the selection of Heather Humphreys, a Border Protestant woman, to handle centenary commemorations had been an inclusive masterstroke. Afterwards a man who identified himself as a ‘Donegal Protestant’ told me that the use of the defence forces to bring the national flag and the proclamation to primary schools in 2016 had greatly troubled some in his community. Furthermore, precisely because of her commemorations role, Minister Humphreys could no longer ‘speak for us’.  Not only nationalists north and south continue to grieve about the consequences of partition: there are families and communities in this state who feel still on the wrong side of the frontier. What should we expect of them as the centenary cycle continues?  Should that cycle conclude not in 2023, with the miserable trailing away of the civil war, but with the rejection of the Boundary Commission’s report in 1925 and the dashing of faint hopes along the unchanged frontier?

 Equally, how should we commemorate the nationalist experience in the newly created Northern Ireland, enduring what Diarmaid Ferriter terms ‘the tyranny of the ‘Special’’?  

In 1921-2 many hundreds of them lost their homes and livelihoods, and scores their lives, in sectarian attacks. In 1922 my newly married Co. Down republican grandparents had to choose between the near certainty of my grandfather’s indefinite detention, or exile in the new Ireland.2 How many other republicans faced that choice I don’t know, but the vast majority of Northern Ireland Catholics remained in a home rule Ulster which neither trusted nor respected them. Though not oppressed by the state’s agents, many Unionists and Protestants in the new Ireland felt the same, and at least until 1924 had every reason to be fearful and resentful of unofficial intimidation and violence.  Should we commemorate such difficulties, or is it best to follow Basil Fawlty, and just not ‘mention the war’?   

This leads on to the question of whether we can ethically commemorate what we don’t yet fully understand. The 1916 centenary was notable for good humour more or less all round, but it did valorise rather than problematize the use of physical force by a small unsanctioned militant minority operating in tandem with ‘gallant allies’ who themselves were, incidentally, genocidal imperialists in colonial Africa. Former Taoiseach John Bruton was scarcely alone in arguing that an uncritical focus on the Rising risked discrediting the achievements of peaceful constitutional politics under John Redmond, which had culminated in the 1914 Government of Ireland Act. Valorising 1916 might also validate the use of armed force ever since, provided only that this was in the name of the unachieved sacred republic.  Where does that leave electoral politics? People will differ on the achievements and limitations of the Irish state since 1922; most would surely recognise that Ireland’s unbroken century as a functioning electoral democracy merits both explanation and respect, rather than passing acknowledgement on the margins of 1916 and War of Independence pageantry.

The same phenomenon is visible in contemporary India. The overwhelmingly peaceful political means by which India - and Pakistan - won independence and partition are largely overlooked in favour of a teleological public narrative of successful armed struggle, although with never a mention of the one group which remained unconquered, the Pashtuns (Pathans) of the ‘tribal areas’ of the North West frontier –these are Muslim, and in any case are now their hated neighbour Pakistan’s problem.  

The state has done well in enabling family, communal and academic research into the revolutionary era through the release online of the 1901 and 1911 censuses, the Bureau of Military History records and the extraordinary Military Service Pensions archive.  These initiatives made long-closed records available uncensored and unfiltered not only in Ireland but across the world.  Yet acute problems remain.

Firstly, revolutionary records intensify focus on political violence and the relatively small number of people involved, at the expense of wider reflection on Irish society.  That is why work such as Fionnuala Walsh’s new study of Irish Women and the Great War, exploring women’s lives on this island within a wider international framework, and Padraig Yeates’s quartet of studies of Dublin life between 1913 and 1923, are so valuable.4  We need far more such scholarship on what might be termed prosaic lives and ordinary living on the island during and after the revolutionary era, if we are to have holistic histories. Such studies in social, economic and cultural histories are far more advanced elsewhere, not least in Northern Ireland.

But to study ordinary lives in extraordinary times, people need records.  This state is failing in that ethical and democratic challenge: the inaccessibility of the 1926 census records, and of the Land Commission’s vast archive, have delayed the systematic exploration of key human questions relating alike to ordinary lives and to the experiences of religious minorities during and immediately after the revolutionary decade.  How can we understand what forces drove the dramatic decrease in independent Ireland’s non-Catholic population between 1911 and 1926 without data?  How can we work out how many northern minority families migrated south after partition, if they did not just emigrate?  These are questions of rather greater moment and moral weight than how many people were in the GPO in 1916, or the size of Tom Barry’s pension. Yet without these sources which we know the state possesses, we cannot meaningfully explore the questions which John Horne’s paper begs, of how politically driven Irish migration and emigration compare with what was experienced in the new Europe created by the collapse of the continent’s empires.  In this, the state is failing in its duty both to the past and to the present.


The new states of post-First World War Europe all contained uncomfortable minorities as well as ethnic majorities. Almost all nursed ethno-territorial grievances which poisoned relations with their new neighbours. Even today, Hungary mourns the loss of Transylvania. Russian minorities implanted by Stalin in the Baltic states after 1940 are both resented and resentful. Germany herself became two states after the defeat of Hitler, and although reunified in 1990 – not without help from Charles Haughey during Ireland’s EU Presidency – never regained her pre-1938 eastern borders. What was once German Konigsberg is now, bizarrely, part of Russia. 

What is striking about Irish partition is, in comparative terms, not its existence, its anomalies and its arguable injustices – still quietly felt as much in minority communities in parts of East Donegal or Cavan or Monaghan, as amongst Irish nationalists generally - but its persistence.  The Irish/UK land border is one of very few confirmed in the early 1920s – Turkey and Afghanistan are other rare instances – which have remained unchanged for a century. British India was partitioned in 1937, when Burma was hived off. Neither of the two states created in 1947 – Pakistan, which lost secessionist East Pakistan in 1971 after decades of brutal misgovernment, and India, which ceded territory to China in the 1962 war – hold the borders which the British left them.


Empire, imperialism and colonialism are easily denounced in the abstract. Varieties of conquest, migration, exploitation and expropriation have been the way of the world for as long ago as history and archaeology permit us to look. We may indict Christopher Columbus and stout Cortez for bringing European hegemony, despoilation and cultural ruin to the Americas, but colonisation and imperialism did not begin with them. Spain had itself just been freed from Moorish domination. Writing with all the confidence of modernity in the 5th century b.c., Thucydides speculated that there had once been a time when places and peoples had not communicated, traded, fought with and conquered each other. But he wrote of the struggle for mastery of the Greek world between democratic and yet relentlessly colonising Athens, and authoritarian, monarchical, austere and colonising Sparta, with the Persian empire waiting in the wings. His work still shapes how we conceptualise interstate conflict and conquest.  

John Horne’s paper reminds us that we must appraise Irish independence in parallel with the break-up of European empires and the emergence at the ‘Wilsonian moment’ of a range of new states, all of which faced complex internal ethnic and other difficulties.  Irish separatists certainly looked to Versailles in 1919, but the British government was thinking of Ireland entirely in imperial terms. Britain was facing what the late Keith Jeffery termed ‘a crisis of empire’, yet that was then seen as a crisis essentially of expansion, not of disintegration.5  Russia’s collapse in 1917 appeared to reduce future competition in Persia and Central Asia; the Middle Eastern mandates conferred on Britain and France promised opportunities as well as responsibilities. Compared to these challenges, fixing Ireland, once the Government of Ireland Act 1920 was in the bag, was an irritating second-order problem. 

It is no accident that the British Treaty delegation’s key advisor on constitutional matters in 1921 was neither diplomat nor lawyer but Lionel Curtis, apostle and architect of empire reform. He had already drafted the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms introduced in India in 1919, designed as the first step towards home rule and perhaps even qualified dominion status once Indians acquired sufficient experience in disciplined governance.

A cynical friend wrote: ‘he was anxious, by bringing India into a parliamentary system, to cast her for a chief role in his master plan … He it was who had the chief part in devising the constitution of the two Irelands … while his theories did much to advance popular causes both in India and in Ireland, there were many who forecast that his main political objectives –a united Empire – would never get off the ground’.(6)

The British aim in the Treaty negotiations, partition being already a reality, was to achieve an autonomous twenty-six county Ireland which over time would blossom within an empire reimagined by Curtis as a Commonwealth of near-equals.7 To an extent they succeeded: the new Ireland and the United Kingdom concluded a treaty which more or less disposed of the Irish question in British politics for fifty years, and produced a surprisingly robust working relationship which generally met the needs of both states.  Ireland under Cosgrave proved a surprisingly ‘restless dominion’, to borrow from David Harkness, but not an impossibly difficult one (indeed, in 1933 a party stalwart appealed personally to Curtis to secure ‘financial support for the Party supporting Mr Cosgrave’, to ensure that ‘Ireland is to remain in the British Commonwealth’).(8) Free movement of people was maintained without fuss or fanfare until the Second World War, and quietly reinstated as soon as possible thereafter.(9)

Britain’s overseas empire remained an employment magnet for Irish people in civil, military, police and missionary roles. Even de Valera, seen as an unpredictable anti-Christ when elected in 1932, did, through the ingenious External Relations Act 1936, maintain what Britain regarded as the essential unity of the empire as he methodically dismantled obnoxious features of the 1921 Treaty.

Irish religious denominations continued to colonise souls abroad, inside and outside the British empire. 2018 marked the centenary of the Maynooth Mission to China, now the Columban Missionaries, in which order two of my uncles made their lives. However noble their intentions, or those of the longer-established Dublin University Mission, we might reflect on the ethical implications of challenging indigenous belief systems across Asia and Africa. The trope of the Irish, whether as soldiers, policemen, officials, or male and female missionaries, as somehow magically capable of relating to indigenous peoples runs through British writings.  We don’t have to rely on Kipling for examples: an English woman missionary, reflecting on Assam in the 1930s, recalled ‘the Irishness of the Dublin University Mission … the Irish folk are far more like the Indians than the English, in that time means nothing to them, they sit there, accepting people as they are’.  

It is perhaps too easy to congratulate ourselves as having a special empathy for the oppressed because of our own preferred narrative of colonisation, of exploitation, of famine and of a freedom paid for in blood. In Africa and Asia, we may not have been all that much holier than the British ‘thou’.