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Would you take offence at being called a West Brit? The term has a muddled history

Sinn Féin’s Micheal Mac Donncha caused controversy when he made the remarks earlier this week.

EARLIER THIS WEEK there was controversy when Sinn Féin councillor Micheál Mac Donncha used the term ‘West Brit’ to describe the people who run Irish rugby.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Mac Donncha defended the remark, saying:

“It was a Facebook comment, it wasn’t a public statement. I think I reflects the attitude of a lot of people who regard the fact that there is no playing of the national anthem as being an anti-national attitude.”

micheal mac donncha Micheal Mac Donncha Source: Graham Hughes/RollingNews.ie

He was criticised for his comments by Fine Gael councillor Neale Richmond, who called them “petty sniping”.

Later, the Fine Gael senator Jim D’Arcy said the American equivalent of the term would be to call someone an ‘Uncle Tom’.

So where did the term come from? And how offensive is it?

How did the term come about? 

The origin of the term can be traced back to its use in the British House of Commons by Irish nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell, when he was proposing that it would be beneficial for Ireland to become a sort of ‘West Briton’.

The term later came to prominence through its use in nationalist magazine ‘The Leader’, with journalist D.P. Moran using it to described individuals he did not view as sufficiently Irish.

By the early part of the last century it had been firmly cemented as a term of derision, with the Gaelic League (below) using it to promote Irish identity, in opposition to pandering to the United Kingdom.

5719546933_e8966c5671_z Source: National Library of Ireland via Flickr

How offensive is it?

While it may have a muddled history, the term is now used only as an insult.

This most recent incident is not the first time that a Sinn Féin politician has found themselves in the spotlight over its use.

In 2011 Martin McGuinness used the term to criticise “elements” of the Dublin media during his presidential run.

Following this, it was noted by Miriam Lord in the Irish Times that it would be difficult for McGuinness to represent all of the people of Ireland if that was his attitude.

When asked about his comments McGuinness distanced himself from them, describing it as “an off-the-cuff remark”. 

In 2011, Anglican priest and journalist Patrick Comerford described the term as “racist and pejorative” and that its use is unacceptable in a pluralist democracy.

Read: Sinn Féin councillor’s ‘West Brit’ comment “like an American calling someone an ‘Uncle Tom’”

Also: Sinn Féin councillor defends calling people who run Irish rugby ‘West Brits’

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