From the 16th to the 19th century, Britain developed an empire on which “the sun never sets”, subjugating local peoples from North America to East Africa to Australia. But as three University of Manitoba scholars, Aziz Rahman, Mary Anne Clarke and Sean Byrne, wrote in 2017, he developed many of the methods he used in his colonization much closer to home: in Ireland.
For many centuries, write Rahman, Clarke and Byrne, the Gael population of Ireland had a clannish political system and a legal system known as the Brehon laws. These institutions survived, albeit in modified form, after the Viking invasion of Ireland between the 7th and 11th centuries and even continued after the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1179. At this time, English settlers in Ireland often intermarried with the local population and integrated into Irish society.
The real decline of native Irish institutions came after Britain established English and Scottish Protestant colonies in Ulster in the 17th century. From 1603, the Plantation of Ulster enabled these settlers to seize land from Gaelic Catholics.
Unlike previous invaders, the authors write, these British Protestants saw the Catholic Irish as racially inferior. Newcomers rarely intermarried with locals. In 1649, Oliver Cromwell’s forces arrived in Ireland under the orders of King James I to “plant Ireland with Puritans and root out Papists, and then secure her”. The result was a brutal genocidal campaign.
A few decades later, the military defeat of Irish Catholic forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 allowed Britain to impose the Penal Laws on Ireland. They banned Catholics from public service and the legal profession, limited their opportunities for education and practice of their religion.
The authors compare Britain’s conduct in Ireland to the actions of Canada, as a collection of British colonies and later as part of the British Commonwealth. As the British Crown recognized the sovereignty of “Indian Nations” in 1763, it also undertook to displace First Nations peoples from their lands. Like the ethnic Irish, Native North Americans were classed as racially inferior and barred from participation in many institutions.
In both parts of the world, Britain used techniques such as religious repression, apartheid-style division and well-organized violence to gain access to land and its products. In the process, he evicted local people from their land. During the Irish Potato Famine, a crisis caused in large part by British policies that forced Irish farmers to grow crops for export, the empire sent families on dangerous “coffin ships” in North America. In Canada, it has pushed indigenous peoples to small reserves or to urban areas.
Resistance to colonial policies also took similar forms in both places, with Native Irish and North Americans striving to maintain and revive religious practices, languages, land ownership, and cultural traditions. These themes also resonate around the world, something Irish Republican activists recognized during the Easter Rising of 1916, when they pointed out the similarities between the oppression of workers in Ireland and the Congo, Brazil and in Peru.