The Riotous and the Righteous: Ireland Was Britain's First Colony and the British Learned Much There That They Later Applied in America, Asia and Africa

By Rolston, Bill | New Internationalist, May 1994 | Go to article overview

The Riotous and the Righteous: Ireland Was Britain's First Colony and the British Learned Much There That They Later Applied in America, Asia and Africa


Rolston, Bill, New Internationalist


DURING the famine years of the 1840s and 1850s, Ireland lost a quarter of its population through death and emigration. The ideology of laissez faire dominated political thought with the result that, although groups such as the Quakers made heroic efforts to relieve the famine, the British Government did nothing.

Not so the Choctaw Indians of Oklahoma. Fifteen years previously they had been forcibly moved from their traditional lands to a 'reservation' 600 miles away. During their forced march 14,000 had died. When the survivors heard of the events in Ireland, they collected $710 and sent it for famine relief.

In 1991 the circle was completed. AfrI, an Irish agency formed to aid famine victims in Africa, held the first of its annual famine marches in County Mayo and Hollis Roberts, chief of the Choctaws, led the march.

Philip Sheridan was born in the village of Killinkere, County Cavan in 1831. Years later he became a prominent general in charge of the massacre of the Plains Indians in the United States. He was ruthless and brutal: 'If a village is attacked and women and children are killed,' he said, 'the responsibility is not with the soldiers but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack'. On another occasion, he spoke the infamous words: 'The only good Indians I ever saw were dead'.

In October 1992 Joanne Tall, a representative of the Oglala Sioux and descendant of those same Plains Indians, was welcomed in Killinkere. Two local men, Edward Sheridan and Gerry Clark, apologized to her on behalf of the Irish men who had participated in the genocide. Joanne Tall planted a maple tree near the house in which Philip Sheridan had been born.

It would be satisfying to believe that those two stories of links between oppressed peoples are the true legacy of Ireland's long apprenticeship in colonialism. The real inheritance could never be so neat. Ireland was Britain's first colony, its training ground for later imperial adventures and exploitations in America, Asia and Africa. And the conflict in the North is still permeated by the legacies of the colonial past.

Britain's oldest colony

By the time Columbus established a Spanish presence in the Americas, Ireland had already experienced centuries of colonization. But the new era of imperial expansion which Columbus represented was to change the nature of Britain's interest in and treatment of Ireland.

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Previously British influence on Ireland had been remarkably slight. The Normans had colonized Ireland since 1169, but their influence had for the most part been confined to a narrow strip on the east coast known as the Pale. Beyond the Pale Irish language, laws and customs prevailed and the Norman colonists were assimilated. Periodically this was a cause of concern to the Norman overlords in England. Such concern usually coincided with a fear that one of England's enemies would use Ireland as the back door through which to conquer England. The presence in Ireland of Normans who had become 'more Irish than the Irish themselves' was worrying. So laws were frequently enacted to ensure the separation of the colonists and the colonized - though they were spectacularly unsuccessful.

The Elizabethan conquest of Ireland in the late sixteenth century was driven by more global concerns than those of the Normans. Columbus's project in the previous century had been the first step in the creation of a global imperialism. Spain's greatest competitor in the imperial game was Britain, and Britain's oldest colony was now transformed from a remote area of no concern except when war threatened, to an integral link in the imperial chain.

As far as the Elizabethans were concerned, there was to be no part of Ireland that was beyond the Pale. Any means were justified in the country's conquest. Thus they planted Ulster with English and Scottish settlers; the Irish living on the lands confiscated for plantation were to be removed and British landlords were not to have any Irish tenants. …

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