Ireland – An island of reluctant West Brits and enthusiastic East Yanks?

When the very mention of “British” axiomatically throws up the spectre of the Black and Tans or Charles Trevelyn, it’s natural that any positive material contribution to Ireland made by Britain is ignored or lost to amnesia.

I’m Irish, the “other Irish” – an Irishman with an Irishness that is conjoined to a Britishness. My sense of British national pride is weakened by historical wrongs as much as any American’s patriotism is reduced by the awful wrongs visited upon native Americans – It triggers an emotional impact and sense of remorse but it does not fatally undermine. 

The “real Irish” of the Irish republican patriot is marked by an anti-Britishness that is strident, aggressive and interminable. An Irishness that black marks every British foot, from the first to the last, in Ireland. 

Michael D. Higgins recently gave a speech on Michael Collins in which he itemised British atrocities in Ireland, (while factually correct) this exercise continues the Irish habit of reflecting what it is to be British through a 800 year lens; ignoring wholesale what it is to be British for a great many people in the north-east of Ireland, generally utterly apolitical and entirely in the present. 

It is an exercise not only in black marking, but also amnesia, something Michael. D Higgins has implored the Irish to guard against. 

An amnesia of a British legacy in Ireland that, regrettably for some, is still enduring and isn’t all black. 

Much of the republican critique, even venom, of unionism is based around the premise that unionist culture is that of le colon, de facto supremacist. 

But much of republicanism and Gaelic history is based the belief that Gaelic culture is vastly superior to that of the Anglo-Saxon. 

A republican former paramilitary advised the writer Angeline Kelly that there were fewer Protestant protagonists in Irish fiction because “Protestants do not have the romance of the native Irish.”

Councillor Morahan who was involved in the Mayo librarian scandal said that “Trinity culture…  is poison gas to the kindly Celtic people.”

This is tied in with the further belief that Catholic and republican represents Erin and virtue, while Protestant is alien Saxon and guilt.

Is this not a form of supremacy? As George Orwell asked:

“But why is it that the worst extremes of jingoism and racialism have to be tolerated when they come from an Irishman?”

The orthodox Irishness of the deep green is based upon a conceit and active amnesia. 

The question (if I may ask it) “What did Britain ever do for Ireland?” cannot be answered with a tapestry of unmitigated evil. It includes great wrong, but not wrong alone. 

Hugh Linehan writing in the Irish Times today, asking and answering the same question, said:

“Ireland’s cultural relationship with Britain has been a source of double-think at home and confusion abroad since the foundation of the State.
It hasn’t stopped people trying, but it’s hard to argue that, culturally speaking, the Irish and the English are totally different.

Unless you ignore the language we speak, the food we eat, the books and newspapers we read, the buildings we construct, our legal and educational systems, our sense of humour, our taste in clothes and the weather we stoically endure, we clearly have a lot in common.
Hundreds of thousands of us live over there and hundreds of thousands of them live over here.”

A Pearsian vision of Ireland, rid of every last vestige of Britishness is not only impossible, but it is everyday repudiated by Irish citizens and an Irish culture that embraces British past and present British ways. 

Louis MacNeice wrote that Dublin had a custom of “appropriating all the alien brought”, and with almost a third of the Irish population living in the Dublin metropolitan area Irish cultural life never has been singular and fixed, but is fluid and informed by many sources, no more so than Britain

Latterly Irish culture has been deeply touched and shaped by the hegemon of bourgeois American life. 

Irish patriots have fought against the Saxon tide, and have disparaged anyone with an excess of Britishness, derided as “West Brits”.

Yet could we not call many urbane Irish with their American speaking ways, clothing and viewing habits “East Yanks“?

There is not the same urgency to block the encroachment of US culture into Ireland as there has long been to forestall the reach of John Bull’s island.  

It’s like when Niall O’Dowd looks with a lucid and accusing eye upon the dispossessing Protestants of Ulster but perfectly blinds himself to the stolen land his Manhattan office stands upon. 

My main point for this post is: without Britain there is no Ireland as the world now knows it and celebrates it for. (Certainly, a land of Gaelic speakers untouched by the course Saxon wouldn’t be able to sell itself to Apple.)

Contrary to what the former republican told Angeline Kelly, the Anglo-Irish and Irish Protestants are the great generator and protagonist of recent Irish literature and culture. As W.B. Yeats said:

“[Protestant Irishmen] have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence.”

Patrick Kavanagh said the fathers of Irish wit and humour have nearly all been Protestants:

“You get the same thing among Irish Protestant writers in general. It is not without point that the fathers of “Irish wit and humour” (more inverted commas) have nearly all been Protestants. They were trying to bypass Rome on their way to the heart of Ireland.”

What is Ireland without Yeats, Wilde, Swift, MacNiece, Burke, Bernard Shaw, the Duke of Wellington, Parnell, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Hubert Butler and every Anglo-Irishman who created the bulk of Ireland’s literature and heroes, Ireland’s most celebrated and lucrative resource? Colm Toibin said:

“Like Yeats and his brother the poet, and the playwrights Shaw, Synge and O’Casey, Beckett was a Dublin Protestant… His Protestantism shows up in some lovely moments, however, such as when he bathes at the Forty Foot in Dublin in 1936 and sees a Father McGrath, ‘red all over with ingrowning semen & exposure’. The footnote remarks drily: ‘It is not known to which Father McGrath SB refers.’ Beckett’s South Dublin Unionist background emerges also in some wonderful moments, such as an attack on the police force of the Free State: ‘There is no animal I loathe more profoundly than a Civic Guard, a symbol of Ireland with his official Gaelic loutish complacency & pot-walloping Schreinlichkeit’.”

In 1966 Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote a polemic on 1916 for the New Left, ‘The Embers of Easter 1916-1966’, in that he suggested that the Irish state is culturally part of Britain:

“The Irish state is culturally part of Britain, distinguished from the rest of the archipelago mainly by its practice of a puritanical form of the Roman Catholic religion and by marked deference to ecclesiastical authority.”

On February 6 1933 the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera officially opened the new high-powered RTÉ radio station located at Athlone in the centre of the country, he said in his speech, ‘Among the Nations’:

“Anglo-Irish literature, though far less characteristic of the nation than that produced in the Irish language, includes much that is of lasting worth. Ireland has produced in Dean Swift perhaps the greatest satirist in the English language; in Edmund Burke probably the greatest writer on politics; in William Carleton a novelist of the first rank; in Oliver Goldsmith a poet of rare merit. Henry Grattan was one of the most eloquent orators of his time – the golden age of oratory in the English language.”

Terry Wogan said in a 2007 interview with the Times:

“Despite what people think Ireland is a bit like England. We felt that when we wanted to be in Ireland, places like Kenmare, West Cork, south Kerry and Clare, we would want to be in our garden at home.”

He also said, with frank and almost blasphemous honesty:

“I’m an effete, urban Irishman. I was an avid radio listener as a boy, but it was the BBC, not RTÉ. I was a West Brit from the start. 

Although born in Limerick, I’m a kind of child of the Pale. I think Gay was able to communicate better with the country people than I would be. I’m too metropolitan. I think I was born to succeed here, I have much more freedom than I had in Ireland.”

V.S. Pritchett said in 1985:

“Like many English people I loved being in Ireland, and the British and the Irish privately got on enormously well together, and that was quite a revelation to me.”

And as George Orwell wrote:

“It is very rare to meet a foreigner, other than an American, who can distinguish between English and Scots or even English and Irish.”

I know why so many Irish republicans loath Britain, but I can’t understand it. 

If a “West Brit” is a label for a pathetic sell-out Irishman, what does that mean for Irishmen and women that are both proudly British and Irish?  

“West Brit” it an awful term, just as nasty and supremacist as “Uncle Tom” in American. It is not only nasty but delusional, for it is based upon an untainted and impossible Ireland and Irishness. 

But more importantly, why is a lackey to British ways bad but a lackey to American ways is OK?

Britain like America in Ireland today is unavoidable, and as  Jim Gibney said in 1997, “Irish republicans, we have got to recognise the British in us” and that “there is a Britishness to the Irish people”:

“Irish republicans, we have got to recognise the British in us and the unionists have got to recognise the Irishness in them and I think that that type of notion is quite revolutionary if you come at it from a straightforward republican point of view, but nonetheless I feel that the proximity of the two islands, the interplay at a human level, the shared history of the two islands-all of this mix indicates clearly that there is a Britishness to the Irish people, whether nationalists or unionists, and that I think is where I believe you can map out for the future a plan for negotiation, a plan for sharing different institutions etcetera within the island.”

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