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Questioning the (bad) question: ‘Was Ireland a colony?’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

Stephen Howe*
Department of Historical Studies, University of Bristol


The title of this article is consciously provocative, and thus cries out for immediate explanation and perhaps, in some sense, for the provocation to be disarmed. Why, then, is ‘Was Ireland a colony?’ a bad question - or rather, a question often badly posed? Reasons include the fact that the question is so intertwined with other disputes, including directly political ones, and because there are problems with the term ‘colony’ itself, which has in so many varied contexts been overworked, under-theorised and even under-defined. The oversimplified, stark ‘either/or’ nature of the question is also problematic, when it would be more productive, and perhaps more precise, to think in terms of colonial features in combination with others, if not, indeed, of graduations and degrees of coloniality.

Ireland and the British Empire-Commonwealth
Copyright © Irish Historical Studies Publications Ltd 2008

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1 Nie, Michael de and Cleary, Joe, ‘Editors’ introduction’ in Éire-Ireland, xlii, nos 1 & 2 (2007), pp 510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 ‘Captain Colston’ (trad. arr. Irvine) on Dick Gaughan and Andy Irvine, Parallel lines (1982, Folk Freak FF4007; reissued 1997 as Appleseed CD. APS1017).

3 ‘Craigie Hill’ (trad. arr. Gaughan) on Dick Gaughan, Handful of earth (1981, Topic 12TS419; reissued 1989 as Topic TSCD419).

4 What is as yet lacking, it might be said, is an equivalent within ‘Irish empire studies’ to the blend of conceptual sophistication and empirical richness found in Guy Beiner’s study of ‘folk history and social memory’ in relation to the 1798 rising in the west of Ireland: Remembering the Year of the French: Irish folk history and social memory (Madison, W.I., 2007).

5 Perhaps the most intriguing recent contribution to these battles, notable for its unusually strong comparative awareness, is Gkotzaridis, Evi, Trials of Irish history: genesis and evolution of a reappraisal, 1938–2000 (London, 2006).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6 This notion is most often traced in the first instance to the influence of literary scholars associated with the Field Day enterprise.

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8 Seamus Deane, ‘General introduction’ in idem (gen. ed.), The Field Day anthology of Irish writing (3 vols, Derry, 1991), 1, xxi. The ‘revisionist’ historians thus accused are not precisely identified here, but elsewhere, Deane and others have often seen Roy Foster as their emblematic modern representative.

9 Deane, Seamus, Strange country: modernity and nationhood in Irish writing since 1790 (Oxford, 1997), p. 193.Google Scholar

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11 Ibid., p. 13.

12 Whelan, Kevin, ‘Between filiation and affiliation: the politics of postcolonial memory’ in Carroll, Clare and King, Patricia (eds), Ireland and postcolonial theory (Cork, 2003), pp 92108Google Scholar. Again, the historians thus charged are not very precisely identified, but appear to be those (loosely) thought of as ‘revisionists’.

13 My formulation here is indebted to Luise White’s remarkable The assassination of Herbert Chitepo: texts and politics in Zimbabwe (Bloomington, I.N., 2003), p. 3.

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24 Clayton, Pamela, Enemies and passing friends: settler ideologies in twentieth-century Ulster (London, 1996)Google Scholar; MacDonald, Michael, Children of wrath: political violence in Northern Ireland (Cambridge, 1986).Google Scholar

25 Wright, Frank, Northern Ireland: a comparative analysis (Dublin, 1987)Google Scholar; idem, Two lands on one soil: Ulster politics before home rule (Dublin, 1996). However, Sinn Féin’s tacit abandonment since 1998 of the ‘colonial model’ may have more positive effects.

26 For some preliminary thoughts on this, see Howe, Stephen, ‘Mad dogs and Ulstermen: the crisis of loyalism’, parts 1 & 2,, 28, 30 Sept. 2005.Google Scholar

27 Nevertheless, here, too, some important recent work is offering more complex, nuanced and contextually detailed perceptions; see O’Malley, Kate, Ireland, India and empire: Indo-Irish radical connections, 1919–64 (Manchester, 2008)Google Scholar, and several of the contributions to Foley, Tadhg and O’Connor, Maureen (eds), Ireland and India: colonies, culture and empire (Dublin, 2006)Google Scholar, and to the Éire-Ireland special issue edited by de Nie & Cleary.

28 The author wishes it were possible here to say more about the potential relevance to ‘Ireland and empire’ of archaeologists and cultural geographers, including the continuing significance of Estyn Evans’s work. It is not, but at least mentioning Evans fulfils, in tokenistic style, the promise not to omit reference to the Welsh.

29 Silverman, Marilyn and Gulliver, P. H. (eds), Approaching the past: historical anthropology through Irish case studies (New York, 1992), p. 6Google Scholar. A striking recent case in point would be the vigorous debate over the ‘geography of revolution’ in Ireland from 1916 to 1922.

30 Dunne, Tom, Rebellions: memoir, memory and 1798 (Dublin, 2004), p. 71.Google Scholar

31 Ibid., p. 72.

32 Ibid., p. 73.

33 Ibid., p. 75.

34 For a small sample of such work, see Pomeranz, Kenneth, The great divergence: China, Europe and the making of the world economy (Princeton, 2001)Google Scholar; Bayly, C. A., The birth of the modern world, 1780–1914: global connections and comparisons (Oxford, 2004)Google Scholar; Khoury, Dina Rizk and Kennedy, Dane, ‘Comparing empires: the Ottoman domains and the British Raj in the long nineteenth century’ in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 27, no. 2 (2007), pp 233-44CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bose, Sugata, A hundred horizons: the Indian Ocean in an age of global empire (Cambridge, M.A., 2006).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

35 Staler, Ann Laura, ‘On degrees of imperial sovereignty’ in Public Culture, 18, no. 1 (2006), pp 125-6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

36 Bill Schwarz, ‘Crossing the seas’ in idem (ed.), West Indian intellectuals in Britain (Manchester, 2003), pp 1–30.