For most Irish nationalists, the term “British Isles” will elicit a sneeringly hostile reaction. This is due to the fact that for a large swathe of the Irish population, far from all, Ireland’s relationship with Britain is viewed through the myopic prism of historic injustice and past conflict. While I’m not denying historical wrongdoings, the perpetrators of which also treated the English, Scottish and Welsh masses with disdain, a true understanding and appreciation of the complex and interwoven history of our islands involves acknowledging the overlapping ties of culture and ancestry that span the entire British Isles. One of Irish nationalism’s greatest myths is that the Irish and British are completely separate peoples. For instance, before the English even existed as a people in Britain, Gaelic tribes of northeastern Ireland and northwestern Britain formed the Kingdom of Dal Riata, which traversed both islands during the 6th and 7th centuries. Even the emergence of Irish nationalism in the late 18th century had a distinctively British flavour: the Wolfe Tone’s Society of United Irishmen was largely headed by Presbyterian Ulster-Scots and Anglo-Irish Dubliners descended from the Cromwellian plantation of Ireland who were suspicious of monarchy.
In the aftermath of Brexit, the pro-EU Irish media and political establishment are ever so keen to emphasise the Europeanness of the Irish people. Of course, us Irish are one of the peoples of Europe, but the other Europeans we share the most in common with are the people of Britain. This reality is one rarely acknowledged and seldomly less celebrated by a political and media class who would have you believe that the Irish are closer to Latvians and Belgians despite all the evidence that shows our closest ties lie twelve miles off the coast of Antrim and less than seventy from Dublin. As a friend of mine in Dublin pointed out, most Irish people could tell you what their favourite British sitcom is or which British novelists they admire, but they would be clueless on French popular culture or Spanish cinema. There’s a reason why most of the Republic pay for British satellite TV packages and not continental ones.
Britain is still the number one destination for Irish emigrants
Despite Dublin’s political and liberal cultural elite waxing lyrical about how we are an integral part of the EU, Britain is still the number one destination for Irish emigrants, as it always has been. The UK has far more Irish born permanent residents than all EU countries combined. It is one of history’s greatest ironies that for centuries many Irish people longed to be rid of British rule, but during the century since the Republic’s independence was achieved, hundreds of thousands of us couldn’t get on a boat or to an airport quick enough to avail of the advantages of being back under the crown. We complained about the English for centuries, but as soon as they left it seems like we missed them so much that we decided to follow them home. When we are not migrating to Britain or marrying Britons in far greater number than other Europeans, we are mostly choosing life outside of Ireland in other parts of the English speaking world such as Australia or Canada rather than anywhere in the EU. Culturally, we are not only part of the British Isles, but also the global Anglosphere.
As in most western countries, there is much emphasis in the Republic of Ireland these days about welcoming immigrants, celebrating cultural diversity and being inclusive. Yet, there is little emphasis or celebration from the Irish political and liberal cultural establishment that, before more recent arrivals to Irish shores, we already belonged to a set of diverse islands in which the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh share an enormous degree of common culture. These links have existed for centuries and (to take just the post war era) can be seen from politics and literature to sport and music. To name just a tiny few, we are the people of: Billy Connolly, Terry Wogan, John Lydon, The Smiths; Snooker star Ronnie O’Sullivan; the actors Claire Foy, Michael Gambon, Michelle Dockery, Michael Caine and Neil Morrisey. Former UK Prime Ministers James Callaghan, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher all had Irish ancestry. Mrs.Thatcher’s ancestral links to Ireland is one of those facts Irish republicans aren’t too keen to celebrate.
Many Irish nationalists are willing to include recently arrived Poles and Nigerians, but those who wish to emphasise and celebrate our ties to Britain are often ridiculed and sneered at by these same champions of inclusivity. For many of us, being British and Irish are not mutually exclusive identities but two interwoven strands that span both sides of the Irish Sea. Because I was born and reared in the Republic of Ireland and have a Catholic, Gaelic, Northern Irish mother, many people would presume that I lament the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century by lowland Scots and English settlers. However, if several centuries later a descendant of one of those settlers from Britain hadn’t turned a glad eye towards my Gaelic Irish mother, then I wouldn’t exist today. As with millions of others across our islands, the links between our peoples is etched into my DNA.
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