The death of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 8, 2022 has ignited yet another discourse around the crimes of the British Crown. Throughout its history, the British government colonized the Indian subcontinent, a handful of Caribbean islands, South Africa, Egypt, Kenya and many others. Among the countries mistreated by the British was their neighbor, Ireland.
Ireland’s British problem began in the late 1170s, when the Norman rulers of England invaded and conquered Ireland. However, the Norman rulers did not effectively control the island, and many areas remained independent. The House of Tudor, which came to power in 1485, decided to establish control. In 1494, England seized control over Ireland’s parliament, and in 1541, King Henry VIII was crowned King of Ireland.
In 1582 and 1602, respectively, the Earl of Desmond and Hugh O’Neill, members of the Irish Gaelic nobility, led rebellions against English control. The British military’s practice of crop destruction in response to rebellion caused devastating famines. It is estimated that in Munster, Ireland, 30,000 people starved to death due to British military practices, while in Ulster, the toll was as high as 60,000. Those who fled the famines for England, Wales, France and other countries were often mistreated by those who saw the Irish as inferior.
By 1603, England controlled Ireland. The government of England encouraged its citizens to move to Ireland and buy land, establishing an elite class and violently displacing the Irish to establish control. The new Protestant landowner class passed a series of Penal Laws which discriminated against Catholics, the predominant religious group in Ireland. In 1801, the Irish Parliament fused with the British Parliament, but Irish Catholics had to fight for their right to hold political office among other political rights.
In 1845, Ireland experienced a famine unlike any ever seen before in Irish history. At this point in history, Irish people, especially the poor, had become dependent on the potato as a dietary staple. Due to the seizure of lands by wealthy, Protestant landlords, Irish farmers could plant a limited number of crops, forcing them to rely on the dominant crop, the potato. Because of this, when blight ripped through Irish potato crops, the people had little else to turn to for food, unlike during previous crop failures and periods of hunger, when there was more available farmland and more biodiverse agriculture. Over the next five years, one million Irish would starve and at least another million would flee. Ireland’s population still has not bounced back.
At the same time the Irish were starving, the government in London was exporting food out of Ireland. British Prime Minister John Russell believed in free trade and did not believe that the famine should interrupt the flow of exports and imports. British Treasury Secretary Charles Trevelyan believed that the Irish were lazy and did not need help and saw the famine as a way to “remove surplus population.” Trevelyan then shut down depots in which free corn was distributed to starving Irish people.
Queen Victoria, Queen of England from 1837 to 1901, was even called the “famine queen” due to her response to the Irish famine. Victoria contributed only 5 pounds in aid, an amount which totals slightly over $450 USD. Working class Irish migrants in New York City, on the other hand, contributed hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars, worth millions today. Even the Choctaw Nation, who were dying of diseases and had just been forced to march the brutal Trail of Tears, found the funds to donate over $5,000 in today’s money — far more than Victoria did. In fact, on the same day she donated 5 pounds to the Irish, she donated far more to a dog charity in England.
Sultan Abdulmejid I of the Ottoman Empire tried to help the Irish by sending 10,000 pounds to Ireland, but the British objected, and his donation was negotiated down to 1,000 pounds from his initial offer for fear that it would be embarrassing for Victoria to donate so little while Abdulmejid donated so much.
After centuries of oppression and resource extraction by the British, Ireland’s desire for independence was burning. In 1918, parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom saw the republican Sinn Féin party sweep into power in Ireland. However, members of the party refused to be seated at Parliament in London, instead forming their own parliament in Dublin and declaring Ireland a free republic. This set off a war, because the British refused to recognize the government in Dublin. War broke out in 1919, but Ireland won, and declared the Irish Free State in 1922, which excluded Northern Ireland. In 1931, Ireland became fully independent, except for Northern Ireland, which remains under British control.
The Irish Republican Army (IRA), which fought for Irish independence during the war, was not pleased with the terms of the agreement, and advocated the overthrow of the governments of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, aiming to replace both with a new government that controlled all of Ireland. The government in Northern Ireland, seeking to crush this republican spirit, passed the Special Powers Act, which gave the government dictatorial powers in order to preserve ‘law and order’, although these powers were used against nationalists even after the violence had died down. This act was also used to nullify the results of local elections in Northern Ireland which nationalists had won and gave power to unionists in elections where they’d lost the popular vote.
The period from the 1930s through the early 1960s was relatively calm for Northern Ireland, except for riots in Belfast and some brief military campaigns carried out by the IRA. From 1962 to 1966, Northern Ireland enjoyed a period of peace. However, that peace was marked by laws that disenfranchised, impoverished and discriminated against Catholics, with all dissent being met with extreme and swift crackdowns.
In 1966, Catholics in Northern Ireland began a civil rights movement and began to agitate against the discrimination they suffered. British Loyalists and fundamentalist Protestants often attacked these protests, with police approval. On the other hand, Catholics who broke the law were regularly beaten, brutalized and killed. Because the police gave impunity to Protestant violence and lawbreaking, while Catholics were brutalized, supporters of civil rights in Northern Ireland viewed the police as being on the side of the Protestants. The violence escalated to the point where Protestant Loyalists bombed critical infrastructure in Northern Ireland, with the violence being blamed on the IRA.
The violence got worse in the 1970s. British troops and the IRA clashed constantly, with many civilian casualties on both sides. The British Army carried out massacres of unarmed civilians who dared protest British rule, such as the Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971 and Bloody Sunday in 1972. Violence carried on into the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, with a stalemate agreement reached in 1998.
Regarding civilian casualties, the numbers alone don’t paint the Irish in a good light. About 60% of the civilian dead were killed by Irish republicans during the late 20th century. But this analysis discounts the centuries of displacement, land and resource seizures, extreme discrimination and the Great Famine of 1845, arguably caused by, or at least exacerbated by, the British Crown.
Because the Irish understand what it’s like to be oppressed, occupied and mistreated, Ireland has become one of the few European countries to regularly stand up against human rights abuses.
While the U.S. government declared South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela a terrorist and supported the South African apartheid regime, Ireland condemned the apartheid system in no uncertain terms. While the U.S. backed Israel’s destruction of East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in 2021, the Irish Parliament condemned it. And, while the Trump administration was sending Native Americans body bags instead of tests during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, donations from Ireland poured into the Navajo Nation during their COVID-19 outbreak, paying forward the kindness shown to the Irish by the Choctaw all those decades ago.
Is it any surprise that Ireland feels more solidarity with oppressed people oceans away than it does its own bully of a neighbor?