Ireland is inextricably linked to England in terms of geography and has had an uneasy relationship for over 800 years both as a conquered island and independent nation.
Two pivotal moments in Irish history are the Great Famine in the late 1900’s which killed a million people and forced the same number onto ‘coffin ships’ that sailed to America and the 1916 rising. Both are inextricably linked as ‘The Rising’ was funded and supported by settled Irish emigrants, hell bent on settling the score with Britain, who they saw as standing back and doing nothing to help during the famine. Immediately after the 1916 rising, the country saw the revolutionaries as upstarts and had they been jailed, would have been forgotten about and left condemned from the pulpit.
Only the British solution was to execute the fifteen leaders of the revolution over a period of ten days which set public opinion in the opposite direction.
And so began the war of independence, where Ireland stood against an empire on the wane and desperate to keep her possesions, coming face-to-face with Winston Churchill. Churchill wanted to use air-strikes with the RAF on Cork and Dublin, suggesting the shells contain mustard gas (which became the framework for my novel ‘Zinnman’). The cabinet in London didn’t like the idea and opted instead to send an army of de-mobbed irregulars; the Black and Tans, whose brutal methods cemented the nation against Britain. This began a period of blood-letting on both sides until a peace treaty was signed with the Northern predominantly protestant six provinces remaining part of the United Kingdom. A classic piece of Churchillian divide and conquer.
Once this treaty had been signed and the island split, we went to war, this time with each other. It took the assassination of one of the treaty signatories, Michael Collins to bring the war to an end.
A period of stability began; The Irish Free State became the spokesperson for small nations, we took our seat at the League of Nations to Churchill’s ire and as the state grew, the Catholic Church, uncertain of its role began to turn the screw. The 1916 leader’s envisioned a socialist republic, an ideal quickly killed off for fear of hellfire - Irishmen serving with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil war were interned on their return, while Irishmen fighting for Franco, were welcomed into the Irish police force (an Garda Síochána).
When WW2 broke out in 1939, Ireland declared neutrality and met Churchill again head on. Churchill drew up plans to invade Ireland for her ports, but shelved them as our ‘neutrality’ was for all intents and purposes a marriage of convenience and both British merchant ships and German U-Boats were refuelled, at times, side-by-side. German aircrews who bailed out over Ireland were held in an open prison – The Curragh and were allowed day passes to visit Dublin, they honoured the pass and returned back to the prison that evening. Ireland still played its part - 275000 Irishmen and women worked in English factories and signed up to fight fascism, only to be vilified by their fellow countrymen on their return home. Some remained on in England.
Britain was penniless after the war and in the 1940’s and 50’s Ireland suffered as the saying goes ‘England sneezes and Ireland catches the cold’ and another generation of Irish left the country.
Then the North caught fire in 1969; peaceful protest turned quickly into organised anarchy where two sets of Christian tribes, often just living streets apart, went for each other’s throats with tragic consequences. For 29 years a bloody and dirty war between the IRA and the English forces began, Churchill’s natural successor; Margaret Hilda Thatcher swept into power in 1979, and possibly the closest moment in English history that a right-wing dictatorship was in place. Thatcher’s answer to the Irish question was to bring Ireland to heel, bringing Anglo-Irish relations to its lowest ebb in 43 years. When her disastrous first term was coming to an end, the Falkland Islands were invaded. Nationalism is the last recourse to the scoundrel and Thatcher’s regime jumped at the chance of starting a populist war against a nation on the far side of the world.
Ireland remained neutral again and the chances of negotiating a peace in the North was treated as a gun to be pointed at the Irish governments head. The incendiary atmosphere escalated through the 1980’s and eventually it took the vision of another British war-monger, Tony Blair to take the gamble. Along with Bill Clinton and both communities wearied by conflict to sit down and sign ‘The Good Friday Agreement’ in 1998; and an uneasy peace remains to this day.
In three years’ time, the 1916 rising will be commemorated as the starting point of the nation’s eventual independence in 1949. In this often fraught century, we as a nation have lived a lie that we are free of English rule. We may have our constitution, our laws, our own army and police force, but ultimately we don’t like being ruled by ourselves. We speak English instead of Irish. We watch English TV, we follow English football teams, our young men serve freely in the British army. After the Celtic Tiger years and the collapse of the country’s finances, we are further from the socialist ideals of the 1916 rebels and closer to the rampant capitalism of America; we speak English with an Irish lilt and still quiver from the sermon from the pulpit.