Most histories of modern Ireland tend to marginalise or completely disregard questions of language and culture. This neglect occurs within various fields, be it the study of the conquests of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the rise to power of Ascendancy Ireland during the eighteenth century, the expansion of the modern technocratic state during the nineteenth century as well as in the study of quasi-independent Ireland during the twentieth century.
Barring work by a handful of notable scholars there remains a dearth of studies which grapple with questions of language, culture and conquest from a purely historical – rather than a literary – perspective.
As the advertisement for an upcoming Leverhulme funded doctoral position at Oxford noted of eighteenth-century Ireland, there existed “a complex linguistic division which remains largely invisible to historians”. Furthermore:
“…it is only during the last ten years that historical and literary scholars such as Niall Ó Ciosáin [sic], Lesa Ní Mhunghaile, Margaret Kelleher and Nicholas Wolfe [sic] have begun to analyze the complex varieties of bilingualism that existed (focusing mostly on the nineteenth century)”.
We could add the likes of Breandán Mac Suibhne to that list of nineteenth century historians and Vincent Morley for the eighteenth century. Yet, the point made about “invisibility” still stands and the reason for it is simple; most Irish-speaking academics focus on questions of literature, poetry, folklore, linguistics and education, while most historians in Ireland are English speakers and therefore cannot consult the necessary Irish language source material.
This means that the wide-ranging “history from below” that has been written on labour history and women’s history, to provide but two examples, has not yet been written about Irish language speakers.
This is true even into the twentieth century, with a noticeable absence of academic publications in either Irish or English on Irish language movements and historical personalities that interrogate sources inaccessible to non-Irish speakers. The exception here is Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh and his sterling work on the revolutionary period, while recent publications by Tom O’Donoghue and Teresa Doherty entitled Irish speakers and schooling in the Gaeltacht, 1900 to the present, and Irish speakers, interpreters and the courts by Mary Phelan, are also welcome.
By and large, however, the importance of the history of Irish language speakers, their place as a subaltern (or, a “doubly oppressed” group) during the modern period, as well as the story of their negotiation of the English speaking world, their revivals, and their movements, has not received the attention it deserves.
Kevin Collins’s 1990 short book, The Cultural Conquest of Ireland, published by the still vibrant Mercier Press of Cork, is less an academic attempt to address this imbalance than it is a treatise railing against it. Considering the aforementioned dearth, his complaint is still valid and his book thus worth reading.
The book, which also addresses varieties of culture other than language, reaffirms – often in interesting ways and utilising international comparative examples – the fact that there was a cultural conquest. It brings to light, too, the modern ramifications of that conquest, or what we might today call the “cultural cringe” – in layman’s terms West-Britishness, or in Irish Seóníneachas.
This Collins argues is the end product of a cultural invasion that has proceeded through a number of stages. All these “elements of cultural invasion – inhibition, mimicry, alienation – are present from the outset of invasion but as the process progresses one element or other becomes dominant, so it is possible to assign this dominant trait to an historical phase”.
Only by examining these elements, and the broader cultural conquest of which they formed components, can we understand the recent attempt by the Irish state to commemorate British imperialism and situate it as a result of a much longer process, or longue durée.
Thus, the purpose here is not to detail the colonial functions or war crimes of the Royal Irish Constabulary and Black & Tans, but to contextualise the desire by some in contemporary Ireland to engage in state-led commemorations for these forces.
In the first stage, prior to the psychological effects of cultural invasion taking a firm grasp, the invader establishes control of the territory to be invaded through military conquest. This is rather straightforward, and students of Irish history are already aware of the general contours, beginning with the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169.
But Collins points to the “tenacity” of Irish institutions, language, law and modes of expression over a long period. This he places in contrast to the feudal societies which emerged from the ruins of the Roman empire and the “barbarian invasions”. This resolve was made clear by the failure of the Statutes of Kilkenny, passed in 1366 to quell the Irish language and culture. Ultimately, the edicts “proved to be so ineffective that even the business of the colonists’ parliament was conducted through Irish”.
Thus, the Normans became “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. Yet, the gradual and cumulative effects of conquest began to impact the psyche of the Gaelic Irish – even at this early point prior to their complete military defeat at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. Between the 14th and 16th centuries many of the Gaelic kings surrendered their lands and titles, instead becoming “chiefs” or “earls”.
This was the thin end of the wedge as “the Gaelic princes were admitting to the principal that the king of England had prior rights” and “their minds were becoming used to alien concepts, their minds were becoming colonised”.
By controlling the territory of the invaded, the invader creates the necessary pretext for the second stage of cultural conquest – that of inhibition. During the phase of inhibition, the daily routine of the native is disrupted and controlled, and their preferred mode of behaviour is replaced by the preferred mode of the invader.
This entailed the breakup of the pastoralism of Gaelic society, the physical dispossession of Gaelic lands – “to Hell or to Connacht”, in Cromwell’s words – and the conglomeration of the Gaelic Irish into shanty towns on the outskirts of English controlled urban settlements.
Nonetheless, the early 16th century witnessed a resurgence in Gaelic intellectual activity. It had been the “the filí [poets] and bards as upholders of the native tradition who instigated that quiet cultural conquest of the Normans which preceded the politico-military resurgence of the Gael”.
Now, following the 1607 Flight of the Earls there was yet another resurgence. But by mid-century Cromwell had crushed any hopes of a rebirth so that “the main legacy then of the English conquests of Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the destruction of an independent intellectual tradition. This was the supreme act of inhibition as understood from the perspective of cultural invasion”.
At this juncture, argues Collins, a “dualistic” society came into being – as characterised by the “inferior” Catholic, incumbered by penal laws, existing in the same society as their “superior” Anglican rulers. While this picture is largely true, the existence of the Presbyterian community – also burdened by penal laws – complicates things and Collins, eager to mould the evidence to his theory, fails to address this head on.
Of the Anglicans, he notes that by “calling themselves the ‘Irish nation’, the English colonists of the Protestant Ascendancy had not gone native”. Instead, they were Irish only insofar as George Washington and his compatriots declared themselves American but in doing so had not become Native Americans or Indians.
That the default mindset for many of the colonists was one of detachment from the Gael cannot be doubted, but few would question the genuine patriotism of others of planter stock such as the United Irishmen. For Collins, the United Irishmen occupied a rung above the Catholic masses, as represented by the Defender movement with whom they formed a coalition in 1795:
“In the final analysis it would perhaps be best to see the United Irishmen as translating the aspirations of an ancient people into the language of a modern ideology and whatever of the contradictions within the movement and above all the absence of a coherent cultural policy it should not be overlooked that in the west they enabled the Gaelic Nation to rise”.
Again, while there is truth in this within a cultural context, the picture is complicated by the spread of a grassroots republicanism that was absorbed by the descendants of the Gaelic nation to which he alludes. Folk memory of dispossession mixed readily with more modern levelling philosophies and an understanding that to “break the connection with England” meant ridding the country of the Gall (foreigner, i.e. the English).
The 1798 rising was crushed, however, and the opportunity to smash the “dualistic” society which had developed over the previous century was lost. The Acts of Union (1800) set the scene for the emergence of a technocratic state that would usher in a further debilitating stage.
Collins contends that two key features of the nineteenth century demonstrate the phase of mimicry: the character of middle-class Catholic nationalism and schooling.
The movements of Daniel O’Connell for Catholic “Emancipation” and later Repeal of the Union highlight this first point. O’Connell was less a Gaelic chieftain type character and more an aspiring Anglo-Irish landlord and politician, albeit a Catholic one. He uttered about the Irish language that he was “sufficiently utilitarian not to regret its gradual abandonment”.
Through his rejection of Young Ireland, who sought to utilise the language to forge a secular, culturally cohesive nation, and through his refusal to use Irish even when addressing largely Irish speaking crowds, O’Connell acted as an integral cog in the cultural conquest of Ireland.
For Collins, this was a mentality not only confined to “The Liberator” but was a class issue and one that defined upwardly mobile Catholics. This demographic was “incapable of seeing an independent future for themselves and for their country”. This was “indicative of the advanced stage of psychological conquest that had been reached”.
Furthermore, “their outlook was conditioned by the belief that the Irish nation was a spent force, a lost cause. They did not, as had their ancestors, reject the English civilisation: they merely wanted a bigger slice of the English controlled cake”.
In the emergence of Daniel O’Connell and his Loyal National Repeal Association in the first part of the nineteenth century we see the origins of a sycophantic Catholic nationalism that has stayed with us to this day. O’Connell was an anti-republican (he had helped suppress the United Irishmen in his youth) and a crypto-monarchist (he once referred to Queen Victoria as “my darling little queen”).
This might sound familiar to those who have kept abreast of developments in Ireland over the past fortnight. Fine Gael, traditionally the political party most oriented towards Britain and its monarchy, and now busily engrossed in a neoliberal nothingness, sought to foist a false consensus on the Irish populace.
This was to take the form of a commemoration for the colonial forces of the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Black and Tans – thankfully the proposal has been deferred due to the backlash, ordinary citizens having viewed it as “a revisionist step too far”, to borrow the words of historian Brian Hanley. In all of this it is important to remember that it is no coincidence that Fine Gael, despite some symbolic gestures, have also been the party most apathetic towards the Irish language.
To return to the nineteenth century and Collins’s second point: the establishment of the National School system in 1831 led to a corrosive mimicry which has had, and continues to have, a lasting impact. In tandem with economically driven parents, who deployed corporal punishment in the form of the bata scoir (tally stick) against children using Irish, the school system instilled in the populace a hatred of Irish and a desire to mimic “Britishness”. Collins argues that for parents:
“to go to such lengths to raise up their children as English speakers then they must have been overwhelmingly convinced that it was for the children’s good; this implies great parental concern, great love. For love to take on such a perverse form the parents themselves must have been convinced psychologically to an amazing degree of the good of their actions. The invader was forcing his way into the innermost depths of the Irish mind”.
The final stage is a complete psychological and spiritual rupture with the former way of life. Here Collins flags “cultural inauthenticity” as an important component of this alienation, whereby a recognition emerges among the invaded that they are “neither one thing nor the other”. A cultural chasm has thus opened between the genuine culture of the nation and the alienated and conquered subject.
The Irish, in the post-Famine era, became convinced of their own illegitimacy, or, as Mac Suibhne has recently termed it; “infidelity”. As the language died, so too did the culture – culture being “largely transmitted through language”.
What replaced Irish language and culture in some quarters was a culture of fawning West-Britishness, perhaps best personified today in the figure of Minister for Justice and Fine Gael TD Charlie Flanagan who pushed the idea of commemorating the Royal Irish Constabulary and Black & Tans hardest.
Collins notes the interconnection of culture and economics at this point. He differentiates between “being” societies and “having” societies, where the former is obsessed with the acquisition of material goods. The alienation inherent in a “having” society is reflected in the English language where subjective experiences are replaced by ones that are divorced from the person. For example, an English speaker would often be heard to say, “I have a cold”, whereas in Irish the same notion would be expressed by “tá slaghdán orm”, that is “a cold is on me”.
The spread of the culture and language of the “having” society went hand in hand with the spread of agrarian capitalism – in other words, private property – into the countryside and the destruction of the old values of commonly held land, as embodied in the rundale system.
As Collins notes, drawing on the words of Anthony Arblaster in The rise and fall of Western liberalism, liberal thought accompanied and facilitated this growth. Liberalism was, and still is, presented as an unwavering force for good:
“We all tend to associate liberalism with Locke and Mill, with such admirable values as personal liberty and the ‘open society’, rather than with Malthus and the New Poor Law … Liberalism is thought of as a benign creed … but there is a dark side to liberalism: the harshness of its economics, its blind attachment to private property, its typically bourgeois fear of the ‘masses’, and even democracy itself”.
Paradoxically, the destruction wrought during the Famine by laissez faire capitalism engendered the birth of a new culture – a Fenian military culture that was transnational in scope. The post-Famine economic boom in Ireland, which created a young proto-revolutionary urban working class, combined with mass migration to America, and a deeply felt sense of injustice, allowed for the growth of Fenianism.
Although primarily a military movement, Fenianism’s role in maintaining an Irish republican continuity, or what scholar Matthew Kelly calls the “Fenian ideal”, over several decades is important. From this emerged the “literary Fenianism” of the 1880s, where key figures such as John O’Leary promoted the Young Ireland Societies – reading and debating clubs for young nationalists. From a similar milieu emerged the Gaelic Athletic Association and Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League), both heavily influenced by Fenianism at different points.
These groups sought a complete break from English civilisation, in a cultural sense. Yet, Collins is quick to highlight a glaring contradiction in their approach. To break completely with “Britishness” culturally, the economic structure must also be uprooted or at the very least radically transformed, for, ultimately, the entire capitalist socio-economic system was alien to Ireland.
This was something the petit-bourgeois leaders of nationalism never grasped. By the turn of the twentieth century they had come to head the political movement which the cultural revolution of the 1890s had engendered. Arthur Griffith, leader of Sinn Féin, in his Resurrection of Hungary pamphlet of 1904, complained in essence about a suppressed Irish capitalist economy. Griffith never envisaged the transformation required to actually see through a real cultural revolution based on a complete socio-economic overhaul.
By contrast, James Connolly, writing around the same time, foresaw how, without the establishment of a socialist republic England would still rule Ireland “through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs”.
During the twentieth century, with an economic programme overly dependent on foreign investment and later evolving into a strategic tax haven, the Irish state merely lurched from dependence on English “individualist institutions” to American ones.
These multinationals – Google, Facebook, Amazon – are, to borrow Connolly’s analogy, watered not with the tears of Irish mothers but with those of Iraqi, Iranian and Afghan women. They are watered with the blood of the people of those countries as the Dublin government continues to allow US warmongers the use of Shannon Airport for their immoral overseas exploits.
Towards the close of the book Collins muses on how things might have been different had this capitalist/imperialist order not sunk its roots so deep in Ireland, for:
“Gaelic society’s affinities are with, among other things, the Anarchist tradition of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon which aimed at replacing the state and other large corporate institutions with communes based on free co-operation, mutual agreement and arbitration … Had a secure material base and other aspects of modernity complimentary to their spirit been added to communities such as these they would surely have provided a model of existence more convivial to us than Anglo-American capitalist Coca-Cola culture. Perhaps a new Age of the Saints would have been born”.
Lastly, Collins advocates for what he calls the “greening of Ireland” whereby a harmony would exist between the “subject, ‘object’ and environment”. It is not fully clear what he means by this, though he alludes to the advance of green technology as being key.
He envisages two major obstacles to a rebalancing of the material and cultural wealth of the country – the European Economic Community, now the EU, which he calls “an exclusive club of former imperialist countries”, and the gulf that continues to exist between town and country. On this second point Collins remarks that “we seem to be a long way from the days when Brendan Behan could see his urban Dublin community as peopled by exactly the same kinds of folk as the Dingle Gaeltacht he loved so well”.
While he is not wrong to highlight these stumbling blocks to any major advance in wellbeing, Collins is over-reliant on green technology as a solution in and of itself. Since writing his book in the early 1990s, the science, design and engineering around such technology has come on leaps and bounds.
Yet, as we stand on the precipice of climate disaster in the 2020s, we can now patently see that it is not the mere existence of this technology that can bring about a reversal in our fortunes but the ownership of these means of energy production.
Other flaws exist in the book, such as a propensity in places to gloss over the culturally destructive role of the Catholic Church, a conflation of Marxism and its diverse thought with a single strand of Trotskyism, and a few too many typos.
A reader will not find here a book of superb academic rigour – Collins crams eight centuries of history into 114 pages – but, as already mentioned, this is a well-researched polemic against establishment historians and commentators and their lack of awareness about very real phenomena pertaining to cultural conquest.
Although some of these gaps have been addressed in the intervening years, many have not. The value of this book, therefore, is to be found in its ability to encourage us to think on why that might be and to then take the necessary steps to address it.