Empire Shaped Ireland's Past. A Century After Partition, It Still Shapes Our PresentRoundup
tags: Irish history
Ireland is currently engaged in a process of recalling the transformative events of a century ago that culminated in partition of the island. Six of the nine Ulster counties remained in the United Kingdom and the rest of the island opted for self-determination and what would become an independent republic.
As president of Ireland, I have been engaging with our citizens in an exercise of ethical remembering of this period. This is not only to allow us to understand more fully the complexities of those times. It is also to allow us to recognise the reverberations of that past for our societies today and for our relationships with each other and our neighbours.
A feigned amnesia around the uncomfortable aspects of our shared history will not help us to forge a better future together. The complex events we recall and commemorate during this time are integral to the story that has shaped our nations, in all their diversity. They are, however, events to be remembered and understood, respecting the fact that different perspectives exist. In doing this, we can facilitate a more authentic interpretation not only of our shared history but also of post-sectarian possibilities for the future.
This journey of ethical remembering has allowed us to examine the nature of commemoration itself and how it might unburden us of history’s capacity to create obstacles to a better, shared future. It has entailed uncomfortable interrogations of the events and forces that shaped the Ireland of a century ago and the country we know today. Class, gender, religion, democracy, language, culture and violence all played important roles, and all were intertwined with British imperialist rule in Ireland.
It is vital to understand the nature of the British imperialist mindset of that time if we are to understand the history of coexisting support for, active resistance to, and, for most, a resigned acceptance of British rule in Ireland. While our nations have been utterly transformed over the past century, I suggest that there are important benefits for all on these islands of engaging with the shadows cast by our shared past.
In my work on commemoration, memory, forgetting and forgiving I have sought to establish a discourse characterised by what the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney calls “a hospitality of narratives”, acknowledging that different, informed perspectives on the same events can and do exist. The acceptance of this fact can release us from the pressure of finding, or subscribing to, a singular unifying narrative of the past.
It may be fruitful to consider the relationship of what has been titled – and not without dissent – the “European Enlightenment” within the project of imperial expansion for an understanding of how the mask of modernity has been used for cultural suppression, economic exploitation, dispossession and domination.
Such consideration also helps explain a reluctance in former imperial powers to engage now with their imperialist past and to examine that past with descendants of those previously colonised, many of whom still live with the complex legacies of that colonialism.
As I reflect on the instincts of those who have defended imperialism, I can see how the tool of an alleged “progressive modernity” could be so effective. Those on the receiving end of imperialist adventurism were denied cultural agency, assumed to be incapable of it, and responsible for violence towards the “modernising” forces directed at them.
From the perspective of the British imperialist mind of its time, attitudes to the Irish for example, were never, and could never be, about a people who were equal, had a different culture, or could be trusted in a civilised discourse of equals. From the perspective of the Irish, who had their own ancient language, social and legal systems and a rich monastic contribution to the world, this view had to be resisted.
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