There’s been a bit of a storm in a teacup over An Post’s decision to commemorate the plantation of Ulster. John Waters registered his displeasure with a letter to his own paper the Irish Times. It was riposted by Ewan Kelly in the letters pages a few days later, who noted:
If we, as a society, ever want to have a mature relationship with our own culture, our history and even, God forbid, our neighbours, we need to give up this chip-on- the-shoulder mentality that wont even allow the English a bit of room on a stamp. Our history, like every nations, is full of tragedy and triumph. Side-stepping either is simply ridiculous.
Irish nationalist versions of history have often been too narrow in their scope. This simplified version of history is still trotted out by some tourist guides taking German and Japanese tourists around places like Dublin Castle and Kilkenny Castle. Here are all these wicked colonial oppressors who brought so much suffering to Ireland and here are the brave rebels who represented the risen people. In truth, this black-and-white narrative is hokum. There were far more nuances of colour in the true story.
The British Empire, for example — far from being hated as an oppressor — was regarded benignly by the majority of the Irish. It provided jobs — at one point about a third of white people employed by the British Empire were Irish — and opportunities often not available at home. It hugely facilitated the Irish Catholic Church in its overseas missions (and the Catholic Church helped the British Empire, too, by building schools and hospitals in Africa, India and the Far East). Most of the Irish were not “anti-colonialist” — they were the colonials!
This is not to deny the energy and persistence of Irish nationalist movements, which were often the engine of political change.
It seems to me that what’s hovering behind much of this commentary so far are the horrific events of the 1640s, which arguably traumatised the political memories of both sides of Ireland’s national divide. Traumatised to such a degree that there is no sight or mention of the connective tissue that runs between Tone, the energetic philanthropy of the Protestant merchantile class of Belfast, the long shadow of the Scottish enlightenment, the United Irishman insurgency and the birth of Irish Republicanism all of which were, to a large degree, gifts of that same Ulster plantation.
Is it time to stop viewing our history as some kind of dead wood burden that must be reluctantly shouldered and carried then transmitted whole and entire onto future generations? The Irish Post Office seems to think so…