Ireland’s Colonial History

The accepted narrative on the Irish conflict is that it is a religious conflict, that it is fought over the line of protestants versus catholics. This is a false assumption covers the real nature of the conflict, which is the colonial legacy of Great Britain. The one solid differentiation between these two populations after centuries England first colonized Ireland is religion. The divide is truly much closer to whose allegiances to these two populations are.

In 1532, King Henry VIII was denied a divorce from his wife Catherine by the Pope, and in spite he rejected the Roman Catholic church. It was at this point that England left the Catholic faith. Ireland by contrast, never broke with the Catholic church and a majority of its citizens still follow the faith today. In breaking with the Pope, Henry was able to finally to get a divorce.

From this point on, England became a Protestant nation that considered Catholicism an outdated, barbaric religion. It was from this point that England began to see Ireland, as a Catholic nation, as a possible threat under the Pope’s influence. It saw Ireland, along with the two other Catholic nations, Spain and France as possible pawns of the Pope to bring England back into its control.

By the end of the 1500s, England had conquered Ireland and had confiscated the country’s land to be worked for English benefit. This developed over the next two centuries with the rise of colonialism and imperialism. Plots of Ireland were sold off to the British elites. They themselves had no intentions of going to oversee the working of the land in Ireland. So instead they sent overseers as landlords who kept the rent coming and kept a steady flow of agriculture exports flowing to England.

The Irish who worked the land were made to live in awful conditions through minimal wages for backbreaking work. Failure to make a rent payment would mean that the house constructed on the land you had rented would be burned down and you would face immediate eviction.

This then led to what has been called the Irish potato famine during the 1850s, and the whitewashing of history has made this portion only about potatoes. This is incorrect. At this time, Ireland was producing many different types of food, but the problem was that it was immediately being exported to England.

While the potatoes did have fungus infecting them, cows were being exported, and the penalty for stealing food was severe. Workers would lose their jobs, if not spend time in prison. The Irish potato famine is a nice name to a very dirty deed in which English overseers put profit margins above the lives of the workers. It was a man made campaign of starvation that ended up costing Ireland, through deaths and emigration, 25% of its population during this period. This was not what is typically thought of as the definition of famine.

The overseers and landlords didn’t want to have to be forced to live with the Irish, who they saw as lazy, stupid, and prone to drunkenness. Those who had come from England mostly settled in the northern part of the island, where there was fewer for them to have to deal with.

Strong communities with ties to England had existed for several hundred years in the northern part of Ireland, and even as more of the natives began to move into this part of the country, they maintained strongly knit communities throughout this region. This was a block of the country where those who had links to England had the status of a ruling class. When the Anglo-Irish treaty came in 1921 to establish the Irish free state, the ruling class of the north used their concentrated numbers to opt out of the home rule treaty.

The six counties of the north, majority were descendents of overseers, were able then to remain a part of the United Kingdom while the southern part of the country split from the union. Two different nations were born out of a single island, one that was purely native Irish in heritage and the other made up of the landlords of the past ruling over a minority of natives.

This religious division of the two populations of the north is not a division of beliefs or conviction, it is a way that is still available to differentiate the allegiances of the two populations. What Protestant is a stand in for is one who believes that Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom, while Catholic is a stand in for a person who believes that Ireland should be one united nation.

This difference of political beliefs is where the divide truly is. It is not in religious beliefs or influence of the Pope, or anything like that. It is a mere myth to say that this is a religious conflict because it is not about religion, and it is much more about a link back to colonialism and about who had the right to rule over Ireland. The British empire remains in control of Northern Ireland through the unionists in that country. The need to destroy colonialism is alive and well on the island of Ireland, and dressing this up as a religious or holy war only seeks to add a level of mystique to what is a very simple problem.  

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  1. Wow! What a partisan and limited view, astonishing for a post in The Global Millennium blog. The first statement to catch my eye was that the King of England rejected Catholicism “out of spite”. He was a pretty mean and cruel fellow but this was about power, control and religion. Henry had been a very passionate Christian but didn’t let that stand in his way if he could square his God with the authority he needed. Luckily the answer was at hand in Protestantism, with a strong hold already in parts of Europe, including Scotland and England. Then there was immigration from Scotland to the northern provinces of Ireland, not just rich blokes.
    Whatever the origins of the division the people of the North have settled the region for centuries and have a right to choose their own destiny. “England” would not deny them if they voted to unite with Ireland (nor would they deny Scotland its independence if the Scots wanted it – so far they don’t, in the majority).
    Most countries have been invaded or occupied by immigrants at some stage in their history, frequently in a bloody way, and that includes North America. At what point do you draw the historical line on the legitimacy of the current population to determine its status?
    This article might have been written by anti-colonial Marxist, Jeremy Corbyn (UK Labour Party leader), who famously, or rather infamously, supports or sympathises with those who take a more radical approach to resolving such situations, befriending the killers of the IRA, Hamas and others. Of course the killing is bad but quite understandable given the background, in his view.
    I am staggered by the one-sided, simplistic “analysis” presented here.

    It is important that Americans in particular have a more mature understanding than a romantic view of a brave people struggling to free themselves from their colonial oppressors. Not until 9/11 and the Boston bombing did some begin to understand that any terrorists, anywhere, targetting innocent bystanders is wrong so that funds from Noraid to IRA killers dried up, forced them to stop. I hope the author will think again.

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