By Jason Knirck, Professor of History, Central Washington University

The CWU history department started blogging in order to share some of the particular projects our faculty, current students, and alumni are pursuing, and to communicate the vitality and breadth of teaching, research, and outreach engaged in by the members of a relatively small history department at a regional public university.  Some entries, such as this initial one, will focus on research, while others will focus on aspects of our teaching or our engagement with the broader public. Ideally, the blog will also show the process of “doing” history, whether that takes place inside or outside of the classroom.

I am the department’s specialist on Britain and Ireland, and my research in general focuses on the political culture of the Irish revolution. When I was at the national conference of the American Conference for Irish Studies this past March, several of the papers and roundtable discussions got me thinking about my past work in a different way. I jotted some illegible notes on the back of the conference program and filed it until I had some time to work on it this past summer. What I wanted to look at was Ireland’s relationship to the rest of the world at the time of the Irish Revolution (c. 1916-1923). There has been a flood of good work in Irish studies lately about the global aspects of Irish history—Cian McMahon’s recent book about the “global nationalism” of the Young Ireland movement springs immediately to mind—and much of this has focused on the movement of Irish people, commodities, and ideas around various worldwide imperial and migratory networks. Michael Silvestri has studied how Irish guerrilla tactics were influential among Indian radicals, and Michael de Nie and Paul Townend have published on how Irish nationalists perceived Britain’s African conflicts. I have an article and a couple of chapters in my most recent monograph on how the Anglo-Irish Treaty—the peace agreement that purported to end the Irish revolutionary struggle against Britain in 1921—was placed in an imperial context by supporters and opponents alike. For this new piece, though, I needed to expand the focus beyond just Sinn Féin—the party I had previously studied, and the one that led the political movement for Irish freedom after 1916—to include some other research I have done recently on the Irish Labour and Farmers’ Parties. I wanted to analyze the invocations of the rest of the world made by Irish politicians during the revolutionary era. Like historians in the Renaissance, Irish politicians (this is certainly not just an Irish trait) saw world history as a storehouse of examples on which they could draw to make contemporary political points. Looking at when, how, and in what context Irish revolutionary politicians mentioned other countries provides insight into their views on the nature of Irishness and the island’s relationship with the wider world. This meant going back through fifteen years of disorganized notes from various Dublin archives, parliamentary debates, newspapers, and secondary sources (some of these, sadly, started life as WordPerfect files!). After spending the summer looking through these files, it seemed to me that Irish politicians used the rest of the world as a sort of evaluative mirror by which they asserted or assessed Ireland’s historic nationhood, its sovereignty, its level of civilization, and its economic development. I delivered a talk centered on those four categories last week as the Midwest Regional Meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

So who cares? Why does this matter? Ireland is a small, peripheral country and the intersections between Ireland and world history cannot be tremendously great. But the analysis of these intersections brings up several vital issues that have wider resonance. The first issue is that of race. Recent work in my field has focused, somewhat controversially, on the Irish assumption of whiteness, both in America and beyond. Bruce Nelson’s Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race, for example, argued that the Irish claim of whiteness made it more difficult to express sympathy with non-white victims of the British Empire. While I think this is true, I found that Irish nationalists were equally interested in distinguishing themselves from other white-settled regions in the British Empire. Nationalists did at times express sympathy with Egypt and India, but were also concerned that too close association with Egyptians or Indians would weaken the Irish argument for self-government and lower Ireland’s standing in the eyes of European and American audiences. Other times, nationalists sympathized with non-white peoples, but in hierarchical ways that indicated that Egyptians or Indians should learn from the Irish example, with the Irish held up as the tutors and non-white peoples as their pupils. More common, though, were attempts to differentiate Ireland from the white-settled parts of the British Empire, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Sinn Féin nationalists referred to such places as “colonies” (a word they never applied to Ireland) and saw them as fundamentally British in race, customs, and attitudes. Those “colonies,” according to Sinn Féin, were entirely British creations and wanted to be part of the British Empire. They therefore had no fundamental or inherent right to self-determination as did an “historic” or “ancient” nation such as Ireland. The conclusion was that Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa were products of colonialism, whereas Ireland was victimized by it. The Irish were white, European, ancient, and national, features thought to distinguish them from the other settler colonies and the non-white regions of Empire. This approach also entirely wrote out various groups in the settler colonies, as the Irish rarely talked about the Maori, or the First Nations, or black South Africans. Nonetheless, taken together this was thought to boost the claim of Ireland to complete separation from the Empire, instead of self-government within the Empire, as had been accepted by Canada and the other white-settled areas.

Studying Irish invocations of the rest of the world also speaks to the Irish experience with migration. Irish politicians, both within Sinn Féin and in the Labour party, spoke of Ireland as a “mother country,” and this production of a diaspora was another factor that they believed set Ireland above other white-settled regions in the British Empire. In short, Ireland was an originator of a diaspora, while Canada was merely the recipient or product of one. This vast Irish international network—most notably in the United States—was seen as a potent economic and political ally for independent Ireland, and gave the country an expanded global status despite its peripheral location and small size. A handful of nationalists admitted that one critical and troubling element of this diaspora were British soldiers—privates and officers alike—of Irish descent who were engaged in the suppression of a variety of other colonized peoples, but most emphasized more positive aspects of the diaspora such as the contributions made by Irish emigrants to their new homes.

Irish politicians also invoked examples from the rest of the world when plotting Ireland’s future economic course. Although there was some discussion of the revival of Gaelic economic principles after Ireland received independence, there was also an unspoken agreement on the essential banality of this phrase. As a result, Irish economic models often came from abroad. The most intensely debated of these was communism. The Irish Labour Party, naturally, looked to the fledgling Soviet Union as a model for potential economic development. Despite the vast difference in size and resource base, the USSR proved alluring to the Labour Party for the same reasons that it appealed to many such movements worldwide: as an example of an under-industrialized or underdeveloped country freeing itself from foreign capital and modernizing based on its own resources. Labour party politicians marked the various anniversaries of the Russian revolution, noted the expansion of educational and vocational experiences available to Russian workers, and observed the attempted creation of a non-parliamentary Soviet democracy. Communism’s detractors, on the other hand, saw any flirtation with socialism as a sign that Ireland’s level of civilization was crumbling. After centuries of being termed uncivilized by British colonial authorities, the Irish were eager to demonstrate the falsity of these assertions. As such, they wanted an Ireland that was orderly—“Mexican politics” was often used as shorthand for a state that was lawless, violent and fratricidal—economically responsible via a balanced budget, Catholic (although this was often implied rather than directly stated) and noncommunist. For opponents of communism, Spain was invoked as a warning for Ireland—a previously Catholic country where a combination of (according to Irish politicians) apathetic voters and an unwise experimental bent led to the creation of a weak Republic that proved a back door for communism and atheism.

Finally, the topic allows a discussion of Irish modernization. Despite the frequent (and incorrect) assumption that Irish nationalism was backward-looking, romantic, and agrarian, most Irish revolutionaries and politicians wanted some form of modernization. The Irish Farmers’ Party often looked to small European countries (such as Denmark and Belgium) as models for economic development. Denmark, for example, combined a strong export-driven agricultural sector rooted in rather small-scale farms with a healthy agrarian co-op movement, state-funded technical and agrarian education, and industrialization. The Farmers’ praise of Denmark shows the complex relationship between Irish parties, even agrarian parties, and modernization, as the Farmers’ Party often railed against features of modern life such as urbanization, secularization, the cinema, bureaucracy, and higher education, but it also demanded state-funded modernization of Ireland’s agricultural production and marketing. Modernization was not seen as all or nothing.

I hope that the study of the ways in which Irish revolutionary-era politicians used examples from the rest of the world raises issues that are vital to both a scholarly audience and to students in the classroom. I am now working on turning this talk into an article, and would also like to incorporate this as part of a new course on Ireland and Empire. A colleague at another university has offered a similar course at the graduate level, but my goal is to make it an undergraduate course. I think such a course could look at the somewhat anomalous position of Ireland structurally within the British Empire, as well as the role of various groups of Irishmen and Irishwomen (soldiers, missionaries, colonial governors, migrant laborers) in creating and shaping that Empire. I intend to spend next summer putting such a course together and continue building on the study of Ireland here at Central Washington University.