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What have the Brits ever done for us?

Ahead of Queen Elizabeth’s upcoming visit to Ireland, Eleanor Fitzsimons asks questions about Ireland’s past, our sense of identity and our complex relationship with our closest neighbour.

Eleanor Fitzsimons

THE DECISION OF Queen Elizabeth II to visit the Republic of Ireland this Tuesday signifies a maturing of the relationship between our two nations and affords us a timely opportunity to reflect on the complex intertwining of our shared history, a history that stretches back through the millennia but is often characterised solely in colonial terms; the oppressor and the oppressed.

Undoubtedly the annexing and reshaping of this small island has profoundly skewed our national character and has contemporary resonance in terms of our collective sense of identity. This is something that is so ingrained in our psyche that we scarcely question it unless we are confronted by its reality, as I was when I was asked to research a tie-in programme commissioned by our national broadcaster and scheduled to be broadcast Sunday on RTE1 at 9.30pm.

Provocatively titled “What Have the Brits Ever Done for Us” this one hour documentary takes on the almost impossible task of examining our relationship with our nearest neighbour and asks if perhaps our historical antipathy toward the ‘Brits’ tends to mask the reality that this uniquely complex relationship represents in many instances a two-way exchange.

Any attempt to examine how Ireland might have developed in the absence of British influence was quickly discounted by many of the historians I spoke with. Dr. Larry Geary of UCC discounted any notion that we could attribute the spread of British diseases to colonization as there had been so much to-ing and fro-ing between the proximate landmasses over the millennia that we had long ago shared what infections were to be found in the region. Likewise the development of our sporting pursuits ran parallel. Historian Paul Rouse is fascinating on the pan-European emergence of peasant sports like cock-fighting and bull baiting. However, they did give us cricket – once the most widely played sport in Ireland – rugby and soccer and we gave them croquet. Also the codification of traditional Gaelic sports and the emergence of a vibrant GAA was a kickback against the foisting of English sporting pursuits amongst the natives in an attempt to foster a cult of muscular Christianity.

Shane Hegarty, author of The Irish and Other Foreigners debunks the notion that “they” came and wrecked any halcyon idyll that existed here. In reality, he contends, Ireland was a wild, undeveloped, brutal place full of feuding tribes and warring kings. This notion of the ruination of a misty Celtic island is the stuff of myth and fantasy. It could even be argued that the British gave a previously disparate people our sense of identity as it was the reaction to their involvement here that prompted us to think about the whole notion of “Irishness”.

However, we did suffer the loss of a language; the suppressing of a rich culture; the supplanting of our Brehon Law with a system of common law that survives almost intact to this day; and the stifling of industrialization as all our resources were devoted to satisfying an insatiable British market for butter and beef on the hoof. They didn’t cause the famine but neither did they respond appropriately to the terrible suffering that resulted. Even their sudden withdrawal led to turmoil as we grappled with new-found independence and arguably allowed a strong and dysfunctional church to fill a vacuum and set us back further.

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In contemporary terms they shared their pop culture with us, giving us punk and new wave; Mods and Goths; the miniskirt and much more. They remain our main trading partner, a major market for our musicians, authors and fashion designers, and have offered employment to many of us, including myself. Like a couple who have split up but have had a child together we will always have a relationship. It would be better for us all that it be a harmonious one.

About the author:

Eleanor Fitzsimons

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