Fri 31st Oct 2014 | Last updated: Fri 31st Oct 2014 at 16:19pm

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo

Comment & Blogs

Very few Brits understand how appalling our record in Ireland really is

Of course we must open ‘a new chapter’: but before we do, we must read and acknowledge the old one

By on Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Queen’s visit to Ireland is widely understood by most people in this country to be a series of occasions during which, by a series of powerful symbolic acts, she (as nobody else could, certainly no elected politician) is “drawing the line” under the troubled past relationship of our two peoples. With great magnanimity, most of the Irish people (and the Irish, as is well-known, have long memories) seem to be taking the visit in this light. We Brits should understand better than we do, however, just how much the Irish have had to remember, and how bitter the memory has been.

Before that line is drawn under our common history it would surely be a good thing if the British people were, one last time (and probably in many cases for the first time), to recall what it is that the line is being drawn under. We Brits, in contrast to the Irish, have conveniently short memories. By the time this post is online, probably, the Queen will have visited Croke Park, heartland of Irish nationalism and of the Gaelic Athletic Association. (In 1918 the GAA was banned by the British government.) I understand that this visit to Croke Park is taking place at the suggestion of the President of Ireland, the very impressive Mary McAleese, who is clearly making sure that the visit gives Her Majesty every opportunity for her to acknowledge, on our behalf, our own part in creating the bitterness of the past.

There is a good deal to acknowledge, for the fact is that we consistently behaved abominably in Ireland. We like to think of ourselves as a tolerant and civilised people; and on the whole we are. But we also have very selective memories; we are inclined to think that apart from a few untoward and probably unauthorised events, we can’t have been all that bad in Ireland. But what happened at Croke Park represents only the tip of a very large iceberg (of that, more presently). You can read about what happened on the first “Bloody Sunday” on the GAA’s website, in their own sober and incontrovertible account):

“The night before [a Gaelic football match at Croke Park in November 1920] Michael Collins sent his ‘Squad’ out to assassinate the ‘Cairo Gang’, a team of undercover British agents working and living in Dublin. A series of shootings took place throughout the night which left 14 members of the British forces dead.”

The following day British forces, including the infamous “Black and Tans”, exacted their vengeance: they opened fire on the crowd at the match in Croke Park, killing 14 civilians. That evening, three IRA prisoners in Dublin Castle were beaten to death by their British captors. In the GAA’s own low-key assessment, “The events of the day had a profound impact on the people of Ireland; it seemed as if the British authorities had deliberately chosen an easy target – a stadium full of innocent people – to exact revenge for a military loss suffered the night before. Bloody Sunday shocked the British public too and while it is too simple to say that it helped end the War of Independence it must certainly be considered a key factor”.

It is worthwhile, if we are to understand the background to this event, to look at the role, in the early 20s, in the British attempt to contain the IRA, of the Black and Tans – so-called because they were a scratch force, uniformed in leftover khaki uniform trousers and leftover British police jackets.

They soon gained a reputation for ruthlessness and violence as the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) campaign against the IRA and Sinn Féin gathered momentum. In December 1920, the British government actually sanctioned “official reprisals” in Ireland for attacks on the RIC and British army: it was not the SS who invented this means of warfare against a civilian population. Normally, reprisals meant burning the property of IRA members and of their sympathisers, not murder: but, of course, it inevitably led to personal violence: the Black and Tans were not subject to the same discipline as members of the RIC and their deaths at the hands of the IRA provoked often bloody retaliation against civilians.

They burned and pillaged towns and villages throughout Ireland, including Tuam in County Galway, and Trim, Balbriggan, Knockcroghery, Thurles and Templemore. They even, in effect, laid siege to Tralee, as a reprisal for the IRA’s murder of two RIC officers. All the businesses in the town were closed down and for a week no food was allowed in; three civilians from the town were shot dead. They killed a priest and threw his body in a bog. Most astonishing of all, they sacked and burned down the entire centre of the city of Cork, which the Queen, God bless her, will also be visiting. You can see footage of the Black and Tans in action (including the burnt out city centre of Cork) on Youtube.

As David Cameron points out in an article in today’s Irish Times the selection of locations being visited by the Queen shows “that part of the intention of this trip is to pay respect to those who suffered through the course of our shared history”. “But”, he continues, “this visit is not so much about the closing of an old chapter, but the opening of a new one.”

“Not so much?” Oh, I would have thought very much more. Mr Cameron’s unfortunate phrase might well be taken, if any were in a mood to take offence (thank God, they don’t seem to be), as dismissing lightly a chapter which is still a living issue for many Irish people. The new chapter can’t be opened without what these days is called “closure”, an over-used expression which in this context is entirely appropriate.

As it is still a real issue for many Irish people, I have to confess that it is also for me. If you want to know why I, an Englishman, am going on about this at such wearisome length, let me explain. Fifty years ago, I was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin. Coming from the blackness of a still soot-covered West Riding of Yorkshire to this wondrous place was one of the most momentous events of my life. I fell in love with Ireland and the Irish, hook, line and sinker. I avidly read Anglo-Irish literature (ie Irish literature in English). Then I learned about Irish history: firstly and least distressingly about the fight for Home rule (Parnell became my hero). Then I read about the Black and Tans. It was a dreadful shock: here were events about which few English people, to this day, have ever heard; I certainly hadn’t then. The more I learned, the more terrible it seemed: it wasn’t just the events of the “troubles” of the period beginning in Easter 1916; this was a deep-rooted phenomenon, going back hundreds of years.

Drawing the line under all that would be an amazing achievement; but most of the Irish seem to accept that that’s what the Queen has now come to do. It is a stupendous ambition and (so far) achievement, which we on this side of the Irish Sea should not underestimate. Only a monarch, surely, could so embody the national identity of her people as to make the symbolism of that simple gesture, of bowing her head before the memorial to those who died fighting her grandfather’s armed forces, so irresistible. Earlier in the day, as she inspected the guard of honour at Arus an Uachtarain, the presidential residence in Phoenix Park (how many times have I driven past it?) I found that tears had come to my eyes; when the tiny Irish airforce did a flypast, I was entirely undone.

Of course, the ground for all this had been well prepared, by President McAleese and her predecessor Mary Robinson, by Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, all the Taioseachs they had severally talked to, and everyone else involved in the Northern Irish peace process. But the chapter of our own fearful culpability in Irish sorrows (though it can never be erased) is now being, it seems, most wonderfully closed – by the generosity of the Irish people and by the bravery and the dignity and warmth of a monarch who hasn’t put a foot wrong. Now, Mr Cameron, we can open that new chapter. We can turn the page. Let’s do it.

  • Diffal

    The place of his/her majesty’s government or “crown
    authority” loom large in these past deeds and so her majesty’s visit will
    certainly bring healing. By the way  plural of  “Taoiseach” is

  • TeaPot562

     Some part of that Irish memory was carried to the USA by those who were inspired to leave Ireland a/c the potato famine of the 1840s.  Stories that children hear from their grandparents can stay in the family lore for centuries.

  • Jos

    I agree with much of what is written above however, to be fair to Mr Cameron I think you may have misunderstood his point.  To my mind he was going with your sentiment rather than against it – this is not about the closing of an old chapter, we cannot do that; what has happened has happened so instead, let us begging a new one.  Perhaps I am wrong but I would like to think that is what he is saying.

    I am truly amazed by what has taken place in the past few days.  It is obvious that there is a great amount of good will on all sides to move forward.  I never imagined that I would see this is my own lifetime or indeed never thought that I would be happy with anything other than a united Ireland.  This, despite my aspiration to see Ireland united, is better – united people.  Truly I would give up any hope for unity of land in favour of the unity of minds and hearts.

    There have been remarkable things happening for quite a while now.  Mr Cameron’s speech on the Bloody Sunday report astounded those of us from a Nationalist background.  He did not mix his words, that was a very brave thing to do.

    Peter Robinson’s ability to get over his prejudices is a great credit to him and restored my hope in politicians, as indeed did Martin McGuinness’s support for the PSNI at the death of Constable Ronan Kerr.

    If there is any sadness in these past few days for me it is in the fact that Sinn Fein did not take part.  I agree that this may not yet have been the right time for the Queen’s visit – the level of security may point to this and the lack of opportunity for the public to meet her – however since it was agreed to have the visit, it became the right time.  These are not days for dragging heels but to grab the chance provided and run with hope into the future.

    Ecce quam bonum et quam iucundum habitare fratres in unum.   Ps 132

  • Simon Strickland

    Too much sentiment and breast beating.  

  • Simon Strickland

    Too much sentiment and breast beating.  

  • W Oddie

    I’m sorry you think that: I brought my own feelings in here  because I think people on a subject like this have a right to know where one is coming from. And you may not think so, but there are still a lot of strong feelings around: this is an emotional subject. That’s why the Queen’s performance needed to be so perfectly judged, as indeed it has been. There is a lot to be thankful for.

  • W Oddie

    Thank you: but Irish is a difficult language, and i’m too old to learn it now. It’s also difficult for an English person to pronounce: what about the Queen doing a bit of it? Not bad?

  • Lee

     Wayyy. Toooo much force truths out here. What people seem to forget is not only did the Irish ‘independent’ start with Anglo-Irishman who were looking to be more ‘Irish’ than the Irish themselves but that the Catholic Church was never a big supporter of home rule movement because as they saw it, it harmed souls and created havoc especially when the Penal Laws ( Poynings laws were rather stupid) were been rescinded. Also, the Irish ‘ movement ‘independent’ was being led by people of questionable backgrounds one been the immigrant Eamon de Valera who had no place in the affairs at that time and also by weak British resolve ( starting with that tyrant and traitor David Lloyd George). Going back to the Queen bowing her head, Bravo, who cares, simple fact of the matter is that to bring Ireland in via soft power, the Queen has to be seen to being ‘repentful’ for past actions which even though excessive have no guilt to them. Simple fact is Ireland is apart not a territory but an integral part of the UK and the sooner we have true nationalists who see this in power instead of the ‘pragmatists of our age’ who have no ideological backbone, the better.

  • Tcmulvihill

    Excellent article, heartfelt and expertly explained. Mr Oddie you certainly lifted my spirits.

  • W Oddie

     NO GUILT! Exacting vengeance by firing on an unarmed crowd?  Who is this idiot? And what exactly is HIS agenda? 

  • RJ

    The English (I speak as an Englishman) have an appalling record in Ireland. Unfortunately, it is overlooked in our  history lessons.
    It is a great testimony to the Christian faith of the Irish that they are, by and large, so forebearing, given our general ignorance.
    It is good for us to acknowledge the past. 

  • deerpark

     A superb piece.

  • Weary Convert

    It is interesting that Mr Oddie attended Trinity College, Dublin fifty years ago.  Had he been a Catholic at that time, I think that he would not have been allowed to do so.  According to the 1999 biography by John Cooney, in his 1967 Christian Unity letter (sic!), Archbishop McQuaid “reminded his flock that the Trinity ban had not gone away.”  This caused The Irish Times to describe McQuaid as representing, “the very incarnation of all that it was believed that Pope John with his loving heart was trying to rid his Church of – obscurantism, self-righteousness and spiritual apartheid” (page 386).  One could hardly get a better description of so many postings on this website.

  • Anonymous

     Thanks for your sensitive comments, William as it shows that you come from the best traditions of English decency.  You exhibit a commendable grasp of Irish history and appreciation of the terrible events which occurred in the long involvement of the British in Ireland.  I am from an Irish nationalist background but hope that the unprecedented visit of Queen Elizabeth 11 of Britain to Ireland will be another major landmark in the continuing road to full reconciliation between Ireland and the UK.  I think that the final destination will be the re-integration of the Irish national territory but that can only come about through with the full consent of the majority of  inhabitants of the North of Ireland.

  • W Oddie

     Catholics were in fact allowed to attend Trinity: but not if they lived in the archdiocese of Dublin; quite a few English Catholics attended it. Dublin Catholics sometimes established residence in other dioceses so that they could, too. But it was still an officially Protestant establishment then; it had been founded by Queen Elizabeth I to further the aims of the Reformation and of the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland: hence the historically understandable ( though decreasingly indefensible) ban. Now, the Protestant chapel is Catholic. I was still a protestant in those days, and Mr Cooney’s  was certainly my view of Archbishop McQuaid  then. I have been told since by a very liberal Dublin priest who knew him that he was in fact a deeply pastoral bishop. But I don’t know. 

  • W Oddie

     Sorry, I meant decreasingly DEFENSIBLE.

  • Chrisb

    Of course it wasn’t only during the early 20th century that the British did some terrible things to the Irish people. My fellow countrymen would  start to gain an understanding of the misery inflicted on Ireland by the English over centuries by reading  Robert Kee’s admirable book ” A History of Ireland”

  • Weary Convert

    Thank you for the clarification.  Most interesting. 

  • Anonymous

    “We Brits should understand better than we do, however, just how much the
    Irish have had to remember, and how bitter the memory has been.”

    Not British – English.

    Sinn Feinn would like that article for sure. As for the “long memories”: the only virtue of having a long memory is that it allows the aggrieved to realise how horrible others are. That’s why the Orthodox still resent the Fourth Crusade, why many Catholics in the US still chew over the Reformation and the Irisgh Famine of 1845-7, why many Scots have a chip on their shoulder about “puir wee Scotland” and the nasty English. That “Christ among the nations” drivel may flatter the ego of the
    nation that was encouraged in it, but Ireland has no need of it.

    So the Irish have suffered. What nation or people hasn’t ? Don’t we all ? One would call grievance-hugging, and encouragements to it, childish; but that would be unjust to children, whose moping and self-pity, when indulged in, have the excuse of immaturity and inexperience, as they know no better. Grown-ups ought to know very much better – they have no such excuse. Maybe the crimes of the IRA, PIRA, & UDA can be regarded as settling the score. Or did the 1,800 or so people killed by the IRA “deserve it”, for not being anti-English ? One begins to wonder.

    What is the point of this wretched grovelling and breast-beating anyway ? What good is it doing ? Whom is it helping ? And what is anyone of us who reads it meant to do with it ? 

  • Cant Oves

    I remember reading a number of years ago an excellent book by Tim Pat Coogan which I believe was entitled “The Troubles” and explored a large chunk of Irish history from a couple of hundred years ago right up to the 1990′s when I think it was written (might have been late 80′s). It was very in depth and, as I recall, about as objective as anyone writing on Ireland can be.

    I would reccomend that book to anyone who is interested in finding out the faults of both sides.

    (I admit that when I brought it I was at university and it was purchased for the sole purpose of making me look intellectual and impressing girls who might see it laying casually on my desk in my room but don’t let that detract from the above statement…)

  • Weary Convert

    ” Martin McGuinness’s support for the PSNI at the death of Constable Ronan Kerr.” I wish that I could believe that was sincere rather than the slightest of political gestures.  If he really wanted to find the killers, could not McGuinness simply lift the telephone and ring up some of his “former” colleagues.

  • Maryp

    Thank you for this excellent piece. I was recently driving my uncle through a local town, whilst he was visiting from Ireland. He was flabbergasted to see a road named after Oliver Cromwell. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t realised the terror wrought by him in Ireland.

  • Lee

    Exacting vengeance was the action of company commanders, not the National Government. Also with such a vague statement, what are you trying to get at ? 

  • Lee

    Ok What about the Irish in the Caribbean who owned countless numbers of slaves along with their celtic brothers in arms ( The Scots) from Jamaica to Barbados to British Guiana. Or what about the majority of the British Army’s officer compliment and huge cadre of civil service after the consolidation of control from the East India Company, Majority Irish and Scottish with a the biggest segment between the two been Irish. I just get so damn fed up when its ‘The English’ this and that. Every nation upon Earth has their own guilty secrets. Should Norwegians and Swedes along with Danes be going to Dublin to pay condolences for the countless numbers of souls taken and slaughtered by their swords when they were Vikings or the fact that much of the East and South East of Ireland has Scandinavian ancestry as a result of quite gruesome conquest. People need to get a grip and start reading some balanced history instead of reading self flagellatating HIStory.

  • Daniel Hayes

    I was taught in my history lessons to hate myself and my country for our record in Ireland, far from being ‘ignorant’ of the past. The visit of Her Majesty was not about friendship between two countries, we were being made to grovel to our smaller, weaker neighbour. Only we were apologising for the actions of our ancestors, the murderous forces of Irish Republicanism got away scott free. This national disgrace was personified in President McAleese’s egalitarian greeting of Her Majesty at the former Viceroy’s residence.

  • Wullie

    On the subject of past wrongdoings, lest not forget the atrocious treatment of Scottish and  English settlers in the 1640′s? Or is that going back too far? 

  • James

    Talking of selective memories, what about the record of the Catholic Church in Eire? Christian Brothers’ schools, Magdalene laundries, DeValera giving way to Irish cardinals? We Brits have an appalling history in Ireland and it must be acknowledged but the Church is not whiter-than-white either.

  • Urscanb

    excellent article Mr Odie. Lee, you don’t have a clue.

  • Geraldodoire

    Well, James, you are not above condescending to a small nation with the archaic term ‘Eire’ that you have utilized to describe the Republic Of Ireland.  This is the sort of language that an Imperialist like Churchill would have used in the 1930′s or 40′s.  Indeed the recent revelations concerning the Catholic Church in Ireland are not very edifying and the consequences have been very dire.  But these very deep wounds are self-inflicted unlike the bloody involvement of of an foreign power England and then it’s later reincarnation Britain in Ireland

  • al

    it is sad you have little understanding of the true amount of slaughters by the English in Ireland going back centuries ( such as Drogheda where the streets ran inches deep with the blood of Irish Catholics trapped in the city and given no quarter by us English  ) maybe if we English had endured such things by foreign powers your thoughts might be different

  • Carver1

    are you a Catholic for your words suggest you are not?

  • Gookin93

    It seems to me that the significance here that there is still the potential for a great deal of tension and conflict whereas the other situations you refer to no longer do. My ancestors slaughtered Native Americans, family history makes no secret of that, but I don’t go around apologizing for it. On the other hand, when the actions of people in my town toward people on the nearby reservation in the recent past caused a rift in one of my classes, I *did* apologize even though the original situation was years ago.
    (And as for the Vikings…does the name “Brian Boru” mean anything to you?)

  • Davidmeadehall

    It was the British government (english, welsh and scots), not the people who were culpable. It id disingenuous to blame the population as a whole for the crimes committed.

  • Hamish Redux

    William Oddie probably knows the following verse by G.K. Chesterton:

    My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
    Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
    But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
    And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
    For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
    Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

    I take the first couple of lines to have something in common with “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” (L.P.  Hartley)

    The cause of peace is not served by reminding the British of bad things some of our Army did 100 years ago, or, for that matter, by reminding the Irish of the bad things some of their own people (such as the infamous Collins) did.

  • Jonny

    If there are irish people who are prejudiced against the British then that is there business. Prejudice against nationalities and races of people cannot be justified because of what previous generations have done in a different time. Irish people who hate the British should be condemned for their attitude!

  • Mark Mitchell

    maybe its bigots like you who drive irish catholics from their faith plus the briitsh governments hatred and sectarianism is the precise reason we had to leave the UK and most irish people don’t want to live under the queen thank you very much. get over your insecurity and accept we have an independent state. end of story.

  • Mark Mitchell

    just accept wer’e allowed to run our own country and remember our history the way we want to and don’t engage in whataboutery to deflect your own country’s crimes then again you wouldn’t mind being up to your necks in fenian blood like a certain bigoted glasgow club

  • Daniel Hayes

    I am a Catholic and love the Church, and Ireland incidentally.