‘An Irish Empire’?: Aspects of Ireland and the British Empire Keith Jeffery (eds.) (Manchester University Press, £40)

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (Autumn 1996), Reviews, Volume 4

The British empire balks large in Irish history and the Irish experience but is one of such ambivalence that it rarely gets examined in a thoughtful and systematic fashion. The ‘Studies in Imperialism’ series has provided Keith Jeffrey with an opportunity to start filling in this gaping hole. His introduction, nuanced around whether Ireland’s role in the empire was semi-colonial (i.e. exploited) or semi-imperial (i.e. exploitative), is masterly in its range of issues from passports and street-names to imperial policing and Jan Smuts. He even touches on theory, though of the strictly empirical school, when he relates Robinson and Gallagher’s famous maxim of British free trade imperialism ‘informal rule where possible, formal rule where necessary’ to the geopolitics of the 1921 settlement. The editor’s own contribution to the volume is an examination of the Irish military tradition at the time when nationalism was making military service a highly politicised issue. Four hundred nationalists fought in the Transvaal Irish Brigades with the Boers but simultaneously 28,000 of their countrymen fought in the British army against them. Queen Victoria established the Irish Guards regiment in to mark the country’s loyal service. Irish recruitment in HM forces had always been proportionately higher than the rest of the UK population but a decline now set in. Better economic opportunities in other walks of life rather than heightened nationalist sentiment is the explanation given here. The same goes for the First World War which is Jeffery’s main focus. He suggests that British and Irish recruitment patterns were similar until conscription boosted the former and threatened the latter. Jeffery sees Ireland fitting into the (loyal) metropolitan, (assertive) dominion and (mercenary) colonial styles of recruitment rather than any single category.

Alvin Jackson’s essay on Irish Unionism and the Empire is both readable and insightful, a rarity in terms of contemporary history-writing. The Anglo-Irish gentry did not have a preference for imperial service in the army or colonial administration out of some higher sense of duty; rather they were eager to escape—a need which they ironically shared with their own increasingly nationalist tenantry—the relative poverty of their class. Their sense of imperial mission was acquired through service rather than an active spur to it. The Protestant working-classes of Belfast, it appears, weren’t particularly jingoistic either until the mass cultural production associated with the period of high imperialism was imported from England. Good use is made of newspaper sources for music hall and early cinema showing that ‘Empire’ was a passing fad in a longer and stronger loyalty to Church (in the broad Ulster sense) and King. Meanwhile Jackson has the Protestant middle class jigging happily in the Celtic revival at the same time as they basked in the heyday of imperial success. The most important aspect of this essay is to reveal the hitherto unremarked fact that the South African conflict had as galvanic an effect on Unionism as on Nationalism. James Craig whilst a captain in the Royal Irish Rifles was wounded and captured by the Boers; Fred Crawford, the future Larne gunrunner, was an artillery officer; Edward Carson was defence lawyer in the trial of the Jameson raiders before the war and crown prosecutor in the trial of Colonel Arthur Lynch of the Irish Transvaal Brigade afterwards. The irony of all this is that in 1912-14 the rhetoric of empire in the Unionist vocabulary was simply that and their case as presented largely parochial. Philip Ollerenshaw looks at Ulster businessmen and the imperial connection in the same time frame as Jackson and reveals a not dissimilar picture. Before the First World War the captains of industry were more interested in free trade than empire—for instance more Belfast-built ships were destined for the North Atlantic route than anywhere else. The empire only became objectively important to Northern Ireland in the subsequent years of trade slump and raised tariff barriers when in fact the ties binding the whole edifice together were becoming increasingly stretched. Ollerenshaw shows home-rule Northern Ireland attempting to get preferential trade deals at imperial conferences with the dominions such as Canada in a self-effacing, self-enhancing fan-dance which displayed loyalty to Britain and separateness from the Free State.

The title of this collection comes from the researches of David Hume who quotes the C of I Bishop of Down Frederick D’Arcy in 1917:

We cannot realise the best thing in us as a people except though association with England. We are not a separate race from the English… The British Empire is an Irish Empire as well as an English Empire. We share in all the wealth of that grand inheritance which they, with our help, have created.

Hume’ s article is on Empire Day in Ireland. This celebration was conceived by the Earl of Meath, a retired diplomat, after the near disaster in South Africa. The Boy Scouts and the Officer Training Corps shared the same catalyst and the same founding spirit of eugenics, efficiency and muscular Christianity. By 1907 50,000 schools in the UK had taken on board Meath’s imperialist message; in 1916 in the midst of war 24 May was officially sanctioned; in 1958 it was renamed Commonwealth Day. By this time India, the most populous of the pink areas on the world map, and the subject of another essay, had gained independence. As Professor Fraser rightly says there would have been little to actually connect Ireland and India had it not been for the existence of the British Empire. Fraser is one of the few contributors to delve into the eighteenth century, showing how three very different Irishmen—Laurence Sullivan, George Macartney and Edmund Burke—saved the East India Company by promoting honest government. He also details Irish military exploits in the late Company and Mutiny days though he omits to mention Sir Charles Napier’s famous single word message to his superiors after overrunning a north-western province—’Peccavi’ (‘I have sinned’). Writing concisely and avoiding the pitfalls of over-speculation, Fraser shows that only a few maverick Home Rule MPs took an interest in Indian nationalism and that the Indian National Congress founded in the same year as the failure of first Home Rule (1886) bill likewise kept the Irish question at arms length fearing that they would be condemned by association in the light of the negative British press coverage of the ongoing agitation. However it is plain that government itself saw the parallels readily enough, especially when it came to partitioning the subcontinent. One thing that it is apparent from this collection is that the Ulster rebellion of 1912 had an exemplary effect elsewhere in the Empire every bit as much as Irish nationalism either in its constitutional or physical force modes. This is the message of Donal Lowry’s striking essay which should be read by anyone wanting a wider context for the Northern Ireland problem. He shows how white settlers in Kenya, Rhodesia and Natal reacted to changing imperial priorities (the last two wanted to avoid union with South Africa) with plans for Curragh-style mutinies, talk of conditional loyalty and provisional governments. In 1955 an Ulster-derived covenant was signed by 33,000 Natalians at Durban City Hall in the vain hope of preventing incorporation in the new Republic of South Africa. The developing situation in Rhodesia did not go unnoticed at home with the reformist Terence O’Neill nonchalantly telling Harold Wilson, ‘I do not intend to be the Garfield Todd of Northern Ireland’. The differentiating point, as Lowry clearly recognises, was and is Northern Ireland’s parliamentary union with Great Britain and its preponderance of unionists.

This essay collection could have done with a more rigorous editorial hand. It is neither a swing through the history of Ireland’s role in the British Empire—there is nothing on Irish indentured labourers in the sugar islands of the seventeenth-century Caribbean nor on the Ulster Presbyterian emigrants to American colonies—nor an attempt to theorise about Ireland in a global context which might have involved the reactions of Irish soldiers, explorers, missionaries and settlers to indigenous peoples as well as the economic and cultural impact on the whole island of its inclusion in the world’s largest-ever empire. As with every other collection of essays by different authors the results are mixed and the coverage uneven but here two of the contributions are more or less extraneous to the subject. ‘Ireland, the Empire and film’ by Richards is a mind-numbing rehearsal of pictures with Irish subject-matter (most of them made by the Irish-American director John Ford with a couple of interesting paragraphs on the empire thrown in. ‘Ireland, sport and empire’ by Bairner is little more than a potted history of the GAA with some theoretical window-dressing and a few allusions to the development of mass participation sports in other British territories. With more comparative research these essays could have been made relevant. Fortunately for Jeffrey’s collection the jewels in the crown outshine the black holes of Calcutta. As a result the book should be welcomed as a promising start to a long overdue debate and a useful sideways look at the British Empire itself.

Hiram Morgan


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