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Ireland as an imperialist country

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Submitted by George Callaghan…

In Ireland it is the love that dare not speak its name: imperialism. We Irish are one of the most imperialistic peoples on the globe. Many a philodox will tell you that we were not imperialists.

Ireland has not been an imperialistic country on its own. Usually we have been imperialists in close concert with our kith and kin in Great Britain. Irishmen were soldiers, sailors, missionaries, bureaucrats, engineers and businessmen in the British colonies from the Falklands to Nigeria and Hong Kong. New Ireland in the Pacific Ocean is an island that was named by an Irish British imperialist in honour of Erin.

Under the aegis of Britannia Irishmen brought emancipation, literacy, medicine, modern agriculture, advanced technology, jurisprudence and parliamentarianism to the less enlightened zones of the world.

In ancient times we were far behind China or India. More advanced nations assisted us despite our occasional unwillingness to learn. But in recent centuries we have been among the most lettered and civilised people in the world.

For good or ill we have been imperialists for many centuries. We can be justifiably proud of the innumerable splendiferous accomplishments of men of our stock. It is true that some Irishmen wrought enormous evil as imperialists too.

At the zenith of British imperialism a third of the British Army was Irish. This was higher than our proportion of the UK populace. So many Irishmen have risen to the highest ranks in the British Armed Forces. Viscount Wolseley, Sir John French (Viscount French of Ypres), the Earl of Cavan, Sir Henry Wilson, Lord Gort, Lord Montgomery of Alamein, Sir Richard O’Connor, Lord Alanbrooke, Sir Garnet Wolsey and so on are some of the Irishmen who became part of the top brass. Admiral Sir George Callaghan served imperialism at sea.

In Soldiers Three Rudyard Kipling had three British soldiers in India recount their experiences. Each speaks his local patois. The three he chooses are an Irishman, a Yorkshireman and a Cockney.

Before the UK was formed the Irish were so often confederates of the English and Welsh in their foreign wars. When the King of England also claimed to be the rightful King of France there were Irishmen who fought for him as their liege lord. They sailed to France to do battle on behalf of the Lord of Ireland. In Shakespeare’s Henry V Captain MacMorris represents this.

The Harmsworth brothers were Dubliners whose newspapers did more to blazon forth the cause of imperialism among the working class than any other. They founded the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. These brothers were ennobled for their efforts.

The Indian Civil Service was a career open to talents. Irishmen chose to share in this cornucopia.

Do not imagine that we Irish were only squaddies. We rose to the highest levels of imperialism. John Nicholson was an army officer who was instrumental in maintaining British dominion in India in 1857. He laid down his life for this cause. John Bourke (the Earl of Mayo) was Viceroy of India in the 1870s. His lordship paid with his life for his service to the cause of imperialism. He was slain by a prisoner when he inspected a prison. The memory of Lord Mayo is immortalised in a school in Ajmer named in his honour. Under British tutelage cruel practices such as suttee and slavery were terminated.

In Africa the indigenous nations in place such as Nigeria were often at war against each other. Irishmen were the pacificators of such places. It is true that Nigerians and other Africans have helped to end Europeans fighting each other in the world wars and subsequently in UN missions.

There are places in Africa which have names of Irish origin. Rorke’s Drift is an example. Even in Jamaica there are toponyms which refer to Ireland.

The Marquess of Dufferin and Ava was the Governor-General of Canada. There was a MacCarthy who was sent to the Gold Coast (Ghana). His ineptitude sparked the Ashanti War.

You have heard tell of the Hussein-MacMahon correspondence. This was a series of epistles exchanged between the Hashemite chieftain and an Irish civil servant during the First World War. Admittedly MacMahon was born beyond our shores. But to paraphrase that apocryphal utterance attributed to the Duke of Wellington a horse born in a donkey’s stable is a horse not a donkey. MacMahon was Irish. His name means son of a bear.

The Marquess of Wellesley was one of the first Governors-General of India. He was a Dubliner and the elder brother of the Duke of Wellington. People claim that Wellington said he was not Irish. However, there is no documentary proof of this. As quotation attributed to him after his death has negligible evidentiary value. He wrote that he was ‘un gentilhomme d’Irlande.’ The real surname of His Grace was ‘Colley’. He was a distant relative to the Fine Gael politician George Colley. Though the family has English forbears they had been in Hibernia for centuries prior to the duke’s birth.

I have heard people say that the Irishmen who were governors-general and suchlike were only Protestants. There are those who say that Protestants are not real Irish people. This is sectarian furphy. I reject such bigoted bile. There were Catholic governors-general too such as a Governor of Hong Kong.

Sir Michael O’Dwyer was the Governor of the Punjab which was perhaps the most important Indian province. It included much of what is now Pakistan. He was another Catholic who rose to high office. Sir Michael was a distinguished Tipperaryman who was an oustanding undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford. He did sterling work in India. However, he ruined his good name by his appalling act in 1919. Brigadier Reginald Edward Harry Dyer ordered his Indian troops to open fire on a largely unarmed crowd at Jallianwala Bagh. Dyer’s men killed hundreds of people. Sir Michael had not ordered that this be done. But he offered a postfactum apologia for this odious and infamous massacre.

Many Irish nationalists and republicans will say that we Irish were not imperialists since Irishmen only furthered imperialism when we were part of the United Kingdom. This is ludicrously incoherent. It is as preposterous as saying that the English were never imperialists since then only ever acted in an imperialistic manner when part of the UK or when united with Wales.

There was of course a wicked side to imperialism. The infernal evil of slavery is part of that. Unfortunately, some men from Ireland took part in this baleful traffic. That is why so many African-Americans have Irish surnames. Some of the wars in which Irishmen fought were fought for unrighteous causes.

Irish-Americans were imperialists too. Americans were once not ashamed to say that they were imperialists. Benjamin Franklin said the US was an empire of liberty. Manifest destiny was imperialism. The Native Americans were sometimes ill-used. The Great White Chief sometimes reneged on solemn treaties signed with Native American nations promising to respect their sovereignty. Not much has changed!

The US was imperialistic with regard to North America. It was also imperialistic in relation to the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific. The US ruled the Philippines. The United States garrisoned China and took German ruled islands in the Pacific.

Irishmen in Australia were imperialists. When I put it to another Irishman that we were imperialistic in Terra Australis Incognita he said, ‘we did not go to dominate’. My riposte was, ‘Were we not imperialist to the Aborigines?’ The autochthonous people of that land suffered but they also gained from our arrival.

In New Zealand we were very imperialist. The Maoris came under British dominion partly through our endeavour.

In China Irishmen were imperialists. As missionaries, Irishmen brought the Gospel to the smooth Confucian. The International Zones in Shanghai and Beijing were guarded by Irish soldiers as part of various armies.

Irishmen moved to Austria. Those who did were the Wild Geese. Irishmen there entered into the service of the Holy Roman Empire. This empire ruled over much of Central Europe until 1918.

Irishmen in France were imperialists. In 1691 many Irishmen sailed overseas. These were Catholic supporters of James II. These Jacobites entered the service of Louis XIV. Irish-Frenchmen helped to build the Gallic empire in Quebec, Algeria, Senegal, Indochina and other places.

MacMahon was a President of France of Irish descent. He advanced imperialism.

There were Irishmen who served in the Pontifical Army. Do not forget that until September 1870 the Pope ruled the whole of Rome. The pope was in a sense a successor to the Roman emperors and took the title Pontifex Maximus because a high priest in pagan Rome had had that handle. The Bishop of Rome gave his imprimatur to European imperialism. The flag follows the cross. Many Catholic clergy were bringing the blessings of salvation to what they considered the benighted heathen.

The Catholic Church was an ardently imperialistic force at the height of imperialism. The Church was an inveterate opponent of nationalism. It was anathematised in Syllabus Errorum.  The Church blessed imperialism and by the Treaty of Torremolinos divided South America between the Portuguese and the Spanish along the Pope’s Line.

Irishmen in Spain were imperialists. In the service of His Most Catholic Majesty men of our blood carried la sangre y oro to Latin America. O’Higgins was an 18th century governor of Chile.

In South Africa Irishmen were imperialists. Alfred Taylor was a Southern Irishman who fought in the Second South African War on the British side. He was one of those charged with various crimes at the same time as the Irishman Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant. Some of the Irish folk in South Africa were British imperialists. Taylor was acquitted on all charges. This jackeen then retired to Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). He did not enjoy a good reputation. But he is an example of the many Irishmen were imperialism in that region of Africa.

Other Irishmen in the region fought for the Afrikaners. The Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State were scions of Dutch imperialism. The Irish Brigade fought alongside the Afrikaans speaking people in the 1899-1902 war. Among this brigade was a certain Mr Lynch who later fought for the British cause in 1914. John MacBride was another doyen of the Irish Brigade. He was later put to death for high treason in 1916. Catholic support for the Transvaal and the OFS was hypocritical since these states denied Catholics the right to vote. The Catholic majority in Ireland had legal equality. But republicans were so Anglophobic that they were willing to back anti-Catholicism so long as it was also anti-English.

Arthur Griffith was an ardent apologist for the cause of the Afrikaner states. He went so far as to found the Transvaal League in Ireland. Griffith wanted a dual monarchy for Ireland. He later inclined towards republicanism. He never objected to European imperialism but just felt that Ireland ought to leave the UK.

The Irish Brigade in the German Army in 1916 was also serving an imperialistic cause. Sir Roger Casement had been a passionate imperialist when he exposed gross abuses in the Congo Free State. Though he became a republican he was not against imperialism per se.

In ancient times were invaded an annexed much of what is now Scotland. The Scots were an Irish tribe. We defeated the Picts. That is why Scots Gaelic is much the same as Irish.

In the 5th century we raided the west coast of Great Britain for slaves. St Patrick was one such captive who was forced into thraldom. Is that not imperialism?

All across the globe our beneficent influence is felt. People bibble Guinness partly because of our imperialism.

I can already hear the brontide of rage. How dare I tell the plain truth? People may say it is churlish to recount the history of Irish imperialism. But no unbiased person can doubt that we were very imperialistic indeed. No people is hypermnesic. It does not suit some individuals to recall our imperialist past.

Irish imperialists have written our name higher than ever before.

There are pros and cons to imperialism. For good or ill we Irish were extraordinarily imperialistic.

Vivat Pax Hibernica.


The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

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John Ellis
July 17, 2020

Ireland giving tax free havens to multi-national corporation engaged in legalized plunder and wealth extraction, yes, that is imperialism most satanic.

Sue Rarick
Sue Rarick
Reply to  John Ellis
July 18, 2020

So that makes enterprise zones in American urban areas Imperialistic and satanic places as well?
Keep the poor poor and the elites elite…. good plan (if you are an elite)

July 17, 2020

 “In ancient times we were far behind China or India. More advanced nations assisted us despite our occasional unwillingness to learn.”———That is an absolutely bogus and a preposterous statement, George Callaghan. My Fellow countrymen built Newgrange over 5,200 year ago, which is about 600 years before the Egyptian pyramids were even constructed. Newgrange is located in the Boyne Valley, which is about 20 miles from where i live. For anyone unaware, Newgrange is an Astrological Ancient Temple. On the shortest day of the year (The Winter Solstice) a beam of light penetrates into the Central Chamber and the whole Chamber… Read more »

Sue Rarick
Sue Rarick
July 18, 2020

By this loose definition of Imperialism, everyone is an Imperialist. In fact the definition has been stretched so wide as to become meaningless. Just one example is using the fact that Scot Gaelic is close to Irish Gaelic. Reality is that there are records of Phoenicians trading with Celts and using their alphabet to write down Celt words. How do we know? The words are still used in the Gaelic language. So who borrowed from who and this goes back over 3000 years ago. If slavery was an indication of Imperialism then aren’t the African’s themselves the biggest Imperialists? They… Read more »

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