‘British Isles’…a constant irritant

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2002), News, Volume 10

Few terms cause as much annoyance to Irish ears as the title ‘BritishIsles’. In 1951 the Minister for External Affairs, Seán MacBride,complained because particulars relating to Ireland were entered underthe heading ‘British Isles’ in a table in the Economic Bulletin forEurope published by the United Nations in Geneva. He considered ‘theinclusion of Ireland under this group is quite inappropriate’ andrequested that ‘in future publications where countries are beinggrouped under regional group headings particulars relating to Irelandshould appear under the heading “WESTERN AND SOUTHERN EUROPE”’.
The Geneva UN office apologised saying that the grouping was purelygeographical. ‘However, should the need for a geographical groupingagain occur when both the United Kingdom and Ireland would have to beput together under the same heading, we should refrain from using theterm ‘British isles’, wrote Hal B. Lary, Director, Research andPlanning Division, Geneva.
Three years later the Department of Industry and Commercecomplained that the publication Monthly Climatic Data for the Worldissued by the US Department of Commerce Weather Bureau included thestations Valencia, Shannon and Dublin under the heading ‘British Isles’and noted that ‘other European stations appear to be listed correctlyaccording to political territories’. The Department of External Affairswas asked to raise the issue with the US authorities and responded byinstructing the ambassador at Washington to make ‘appropriaterepresentations’. On 13 March 1954 Ambassador Hugh McCann informedDublin: ‘I have to report that representations in this matter were dulymade to the State Department and the State Department now informs usthat they have taken the matter up with the Department of Commerce andthey expect that the position will be rectified in future issues of thepublication as soon as the word filters down to the section of theagency responsible for the preparation of the bulletin’.
On 9 December 1954 Fógra Fáilte (a publishing adjunct of BordFáilte) communicated with External Affairs regarding a calendar whichwas being distributed by the European Travel Commission and in whichIreland was referred to as part of the ‘British Isles’. The departmentadvised Fógra Fáilte to draw the attention of the commission to the‘inappropriateness of the title’.
Four years later the ambassador at Washington drew attention to aUS State Department map headed ‘British Isles US Consular Districts’and was instructed to make representaions to the State Department. Ashort time later the embassy noted a telephone communication from theState Department which stated: ‘With reference to your call on JimSwihart the other day, I am happy to inform you that the Office of theGeographer will alter the title of the consular map to ‘United Kingdomand Ireland…when the map is reprinted’.
A reiteration of External Affairs policy is contained in a letterof 20 May 1969 from the office of the minister (Frank Aiken) to DónallÓ Móráin. Ó Móráin, himself an educational publisher among otherthings, had complained about a reference by Seymour Press, London, onthe occasion of the publication of an Irish language schoolbook to ‘anative language of the British Isles’. The letter clarifies ‘gurb épolasaí agus gnás an Rialtais an téarma “British Isles” a sheachaintagus “Éire agus an Bhreatain” nó téarmaíocht den chineál céanna a úsáidina leaba’. [‘that it is the policy and custom of the Government toavoid the term “British Isles” and to use in its stead “Ireland andBritain” or some such terminology’.]


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