Analysis: The different experiences of Ireland as a partitioned island has greatly shaped how Irish history is written, ensuring a tradition of history framed with a South/North division, or few explicit investigations of how British colonial policies shaped it.

By Dr Dónal Hassett, University College Cork, Dr Hussein Omar, University College Dublin, and Dr Laura McAtackney, University of Aarhus.

Recent months have seen a flurry of media coverage on the involvement of Irish people in overseas colonialism, ranging from the insightful, to the insipid and the incendiary. As scholars of Empire working on the margins of Irish history, we welcome the renewed focus, public and scholarly, on Ireland's imperial pasts.

At the same time, we make a plea for a more structural understanding of Empire and a more open acknowledgement of the limits of the capacity for historical research to undo the legacies of colonialism within our educational institutions and our society more broadly.

The recent dismissals in some quarters of current debates on Ireland's historic relationship with Empire as being 'revisionist wars 2.0' should not be completely ignored as they reveal enduring discomforts: an acute awareness of exploring the complexities of Irish history while living in a troubled present steeped in the politicised legacies of that past.

The original revisionist debates took place against a backdrop of the Northern Irish Troubles and saw accusations about the integrity and ethics of presenting nationalist interpretations of Ireland's past while witnessing political violence on the streets of Northern Ireland on an almost daily basis.

The discomfort historians felt at witnessing how alive and political the past was in the North was understandable but it has had enduring repercussions.

The very different experiences of Ireland as a partitioned island has greatly shaped how Irish history is written. It has ensured a partitionist tradition of history framed with an implicit South/North division, few explicit investigations of how British colonial policies have shaped the island, or had enduring impacts, and limited engagements with post/colonial theoretical frames.

Circumstances have changed since the Belfast Agreement brought relative peace to the province in 1998 but still a lack of knowledge, insight and understanding of the peculiarities of the othered North have largely persisted in more general Irish history writing.

This situation reflects a long-term disengagement with the North in public discourse as well as historical circles and requires addressing despite entering a new period of heightened, contemporary tensions.

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From Radio 1's The History Show, Myles is joined by Professor Jane Ohlmeyer of Trinity College Dublin, to talk about her recent lecture series Ireland, Empire, and the Early Modern World (section starts at 21:30).

As a result of the 'Brexit' Referendum in 2016, the underlying 'parity of esteem' ingrained in the Belfast Agreement - that allowed for co-existing national identities in the North - has been unsettled.

Perhaps it is fitting that the centenary of partition coincides with a time when the national question is once again centre-stage but it has also made some seasoned historians sense a renewed revisionist war when the discussion of colonial pasts and legacies are current.

For some, it is a delicate time for historians to be opening up discussions of colonialism and its legacies, but we argue any historical investigation of Ireland's relationship with Empire must take into account the realities of colonialism over space and time that have resulted in very different experiences and legacies on the island today. It is not enough to simply ignore the North due to ignorance or discomfort.

Indeed it may be an unwillingness to think through, and with, the North that has made many Irish historians so staunchly opposed to postcolonial theory on the one hand, and committed to a methodological nationalism on the other.

Irish historians, for the most part, have preferred to treat empire as a bygone fact instead of examining it as a living structure. Partitioning and policing the boundary between the purely historical and the profanely political becomes an avoidance strategy: one that refuses to name, describe or explain the North.

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From Radio 1's Morning Ireland Vincent Kearney, Northern Editor, discusses violent protests in Northern Ireland in recent days; Tony Connelly, Europe Editor, reports on the prospect of a new joint document on resolving the outstanding issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol.

An ideological and methodological conservatism bequeathed to the profession by the Troubles has found itself reinvigorated not just by Brexit but by an uneasiness around, and, in some quarters, open hostility towards, the rise of Sinn Féin as a political force across the island.

And yet no discussion of empire can be meaningful without the North just as discussions of empire in terms of a by-gone past cannot and do not have the capacity to absolve us in the present.

A real engagement with Empire in Ireland’s pasts and presents requires us to look beyond both the specificities of Irish historiography and contemporary debates in the former imperial metropole, Britain, to consider how other post-colonial societies have grappled with the complex legacies of colonialism.

Efforts to frame these discussions in terms of the revisionist wars not only sells short some of the excellent research that has been and is being done around this topic but also reflects a Hiberno-centricity that suggests that empire is only of interest if it can be pre-packaged in a recognisable form for an Irish audience.

The tendency in some parts of the media to refract these questions through the lens of public discourse in the neighbouring island, sometimes in its most polemical form, is indicative both of an enduring post-colonial mindset that places Britain at the centre of the intellectual world and a broader unwillingness to think of Ireland in the same analytical framework as former colonies, especially in the Global South.

Comparison is not about flattening out differences but rather about understanding Ireland's evolving position within the imperial structures that shaped the world in which we live.

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From Radio 1's Drivetime, Dr Patrick Walsh, Assistant Professor in Eighteenth-Century Irish History, tells us why Trinity College Dublin has promised to re-examine and explore its own Colonial past.

Thinking of Ireland’s history alongside and entangled with the histories of India, Egypt, Palestine, Algeria, and a whole range of colonial spaces well help us move beyond broad assertions of Irish exceptionalism and critically engage with empire as a system and not simply a period or an event.

The goal here is not to negate the importance of race in shaping both the lived experiences and the contemporary legacies of colonialism, nor is it to elide the multiple ways people from this island participated in colonialism overseas.

Instead, it's to understand these complex histories as part of a broader global history of Empire in which the relationship between Ireland, Britain, and its colonies is just one constituent part.

All too often discussions of empire imagine themselves to be bringing about some historical reckoning -- the racial diversification of departments or the 'globalization’ of’ syllabi.

And yet to think that our genteel discussions about eighteenth century statues is an adequate response to movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #DecolonialDialogues or #EndDirectProvision is naive fantasy at best, or a dishonest PR stunt at worst.

While the move to take the colonial legacies of our respective institutions is indeed overdue, it cannot be a proxy for the serious reckoning with the structures of racialisation, that continue to marr our institutions, and of which most of us are direct beneficiaries.

Irish historians like to imagine that their history is more complex than most, but such complexity is often a euphemism for the profession’s reluctance to accept that its ‘neutrality’ may equate to moral cowardice by prevarication.

Dr Dónal Hassett is a lecturer in French in University College Cork, Dr Hussein Omar is a lecturer in Modern Global History at University College Dublin, and Dr Laura McAtackney is Associate Professor of Archaeology and Heritage at the University of Aarhus.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ