They, the people of Éire
Effie Deans is a Scottish blogger who writes tirelessly in favour of a United Kingdom, opposing Scottish separatist movements alongside her passion for Russophilia, novel-writing, and – more recently – her views on the “mistake” of being transgender, which Deans believes will soon “be looked on like phrenology”1This is not a joke. She actually said this.. Deans’ disregard for scientific advancement notwithstanding, Deans recently wrote about her understanding of Anglo-Irish relations, which – to paraphrase her blog post on the subject – Deans believes have led to an unnecessary and unfounded Irish animosity for the United Kingdom, one that fails to consider the Anglo-Irish shared history and the cordial diplomatic relationship enjoyed on both sides of the Irish Sea.
According to Deans, the population of Ireland are unique in their sustained hatred for British interests. On Twitter, after the publication of her article, Deans labelled Ireland as essentially unanimously “hostile to Britain and British interests”, quipping in her blog post that Ireland is aptly named, as – so far as she can see – “it is indeed the land of ire”. It should come as no surprise that her grasp of history, just like her grasp of gender biology, is most kindly described as loose and more honestly as deluded.
This article responds to arguments on Ireland found in The land of Ire, published by writer Effie Deans in December 2020. You may want to read that article first.
No European country
Perhaps the driving statement of Deans’ entire post is that – as said – the Republic of Ireland is somehow unique in the extremity of its hostility, both against British interests and against the United Kingdom. A fairly basic exploration of modern diplomacy suggests that this isn’t the case at all, and – I should note – it’s very, very convenient that Deans supports this most central, sweeping claim of antagonism with one allusion to “Britain and Ireland [falling] out over Brexit” and absolutely nothing more.
The reality, as is obvious, is not as simple as Deans claims, and is far from some sort of co-ordinated foreign policy hostility. Diplomatically, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are historically and uniquely close, with the UK enjoying a relationship with Ireland unlike any it enjoys among European nations. The UK and Ireland share open borders (officially the “Common Travel Area”) separate from their EU membership, are equal partners in the BIIGC, British–Irish Council, and the British–Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and – furthermore – have agreed to sustain all of these agreements, including the Common Travel Area, after the United Kingdom’s imminent separation from the European Union. Just six years ago, in 2014, the leaders of both the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland declared that cross-sea relations were of a historical warmth and closeness. I don’t believe it’s too difficult to see the answer to Deans’ rhetorical: we treat Ireland as a friend because it is a friend.
The Republic of Ireland is not, as Deans insists, “hostile to Britain and British interests”. Even more ludicrous is the assertion that it is the most hostile force of all European nations – what serious diplomatic contest do modern Britain and Ireland have that isn’t shared with Ireland’s 26 companions in the European Union? Brexit is hardly an Anglo-Irish issue, especially considering Ireland’s co-operation over the NI-ROI border, and I can think of several European nations2France, for example, recently issued a not-so-veiled threat to European negotiators that they may veto a Brexit deal that “gives too much away”. far more contemptuous of Britain’s economic sacrifice than our immediate neighbour. If we consider more easterly European nations, those outside of the European Union, how about Deans’ beloved Russia? Use of British soil as fertile ground for assassination attempts hardly appears to me aligned with the intentions of the British government.
The government of Ireland also has no plans to invade and annex Northern Ireland, by the way. Annexation, which the British themselves have never done, is not a top priority for the Irish government, and a 2015 opinion poll carried out by RTÉ and the BBC saw that a slightly greater number of ROI respondents wished for Northern Ireland to remain currently a part of the United Kingdom than wanted Irish reunification “in the short-to-medium term”344% of respondents wished for Northern Ireland to remain as part of the UK under either direct rule or devolution, against 36% whom wanted Irish reunification.. Rest assured, Effie, Irish invasion is hardly just around the corner.
Everything Britain has supposedly done
While Deans provides little (or no) support of her claim that the Republic of Ireland is uniquely hostile to the interests of the British government, she does provide a convoluted list of dates and historical events in attempting to support her dismissal of the ‘Irish complaints’. Regrettably, upon looking through said evidence, it is apparent that a significant part of its presentation is little more than an exploitation of tū quoque – or more specifically, an exercise in whataboutery. This isn’t even getting started on the “supposedly”, by the way, which we’ll get to later.
Deans appears to charge the Irish population at-large with overreacting, comparing her central focus of Anglo-Irish animosity – the 1845-494Deans gets these dates incorrect in her post, instead writing about the famine of “1845-1845”. I’m going to assume this was accidental and not a deliberate attempt to downplay the severity and length of the crisis. Great Famine (in Irish, an Gorta Mór) – with similar famines within Ireland, the UK and around Europe, such as the Highland famine of the same period or the earlier French (1709-10) and East Prussian (1709-11) famines (“you lost a quarter of your population? What about the 41% of East Prussia!”). According to Deans, despite being famine being contextually common, the Great Famine is remembered “like no other … not because it was the worst, but because it can be blamed on the British.” Deans argues that the focus on the Great Famine is merely an extension of anti-British sentiment, with the Irish perpetually “angry about everything Britain has supposedly done to them”.
This is untrue. All human crises inevitably have multiple causes and factors that led to such devastation. The East Prussian famine of 1709-11, for example, was caused and exacerbated by such factors as the historically cold 1708-09 winter, the ongoing Great Northern War (1700-21) and perhaps the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), and – most notably – the severe outbreaks of plague in the surrounding region. Scotland’s Highland famine, also mentioned by Deans, was primarily caused by potato blight but exacerbated in the British government’s decision to make some relief only eligible to those who met certain terms5Relief was unavailable to anyone with disposable capital (including livestock) and – even when given – was purposefully reduced, as to not make the starving Scottish “dependent” on government aid. In Ireland, relief was subject to similar restrictions under the so-called “Gregory clause” of the Poor Law.. Deans appears to pretend that crises such as the Great Famine have only one cause: potato blight. This is not the case.
Claims and evidence
I will give one point to Effie Deans here, as I and Deans certainly agree that Queen Victoria’s 1845 ministry probably didn’t genetically engineer a new potato blight microorganism, nor did they want there to be a famine if a magic switch could have been flicked to prevent it beforehand. However, Deans is wrong to lay sole fault for the Great Famine at the door of the spread of blight, and some historians would argue that the British did indeed want a famine – or, rather, that they preferred having a famine to increased government aid, a disruption of the markets or new controls on Irish ports. It should be noted that contemporary sources allege that food was actually plentiful in Ireland during the period, far from the blight-induced famine that Deans seems to believe was the root of all food shortages – Deans’ absolving of the British government of all responsibility simply because they didn’t want crop failure is cowardly and illiterate.
The initial British response to Irish crop failures, led by incumbent Prime Minister Robert Peel, was not as disastrous as may be widely seen, with the British government managing to secure supplementary food imports (albeit without implementing the port closures that had helped in the earlier 1782-83 famine). Irish historian F. S. L. Lyons, in his famous work Ireland Since the Famine (1985), remarked that Peel’s government oversaw a “relatively successful” approach, one that quickly soured upon Peel’s crisis-sparked resignation and the ascension of Whig politician Lord John Russell.
Upon the ascension of the new Whig administration, however, the implementation of laissez-faire economic policies devastated the relief effort, with the government in London refusing to cauterise the flow of desperately rare food out of Ireland and into the rest of the United Kingdom. The Irish-British historian and academic Christine Kinealy, in 19976This research was published in the magazine History Ireland (1997), issue 5, pages 32-36., found that almost four thousand vessels carried food from Irish ports to England in 1847 alone, a year in which 400,000 would die of starvation or related diseases. According to Kinealy, furthermore, the actions of the British government allowed exports of most livestock to increase during the famine, seemingly regardless of the destitution being experienced within Ireland itself – a sentiment reinforced in the writings of Ebenezer Jones, published as the Famine began to close 1849.
What Deans appears incapable of realising (or researching) is that the magnitude and devastation of the Great Famine was not inevitable, and not the result of natural forces. Instead, it was a direct consequence of the policies enacted by the British government. The main problem was not the absence of food but the price. Barring food exports in the earlier 1782-83 famine had caused food prices to decrease, saving many, and the British decision not to repeat that same successful decision saw millions of Irish citizens unable to afford the most basic of human requirements, even as European nations hit by blight (such as Belgium) successfully imposed export restrictions to drive down food prices. Ebenezer Jones’ writing, along with a now-famous 1861 quote from Irish nationalist John Mitchel, both summarise the effect of British rule concisely:
Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout the Great Famine. In total, more than one million Irish starved to death and another million left the country altogether. To say that the British government did not cause famine is to allege that the potato blight microorganism itself has the power to ensure that Ireland’s ports stay open and amend parliamentary legislation in favour of free-market capitalism. This is, of course, not the case.
I think it goes without saying that this is mildly (or very) exaggerated, to the point of being just untrue. Resentment of the British state or government institutions as a result of their clinical lack of compassion is expected; as we’ve discussed, it is not an uncommon opinion to hold the British government primarily responsible for the suffering experienced during the Great Famine (because they were primarily responsible). Neither Effie Deans herself, nor I, nor any British individual, is currently having the finger pointed at them for the Great Famine of the mid-19th century.
Ignoring again Deans’ invocation of sorry, but what about others who also lost their lives?, her admission that the British government “could have done more to save lives” represents both a significant understatement and a tacit (and perhaps reluctant) cognisance of the death directly caused by the British government. Deans’ argument that the British government should have done more but was ultimately not the cause behind most suffering is coincidentally a view Deans shares with Prime Minister Lord Russell, who wrote in 1846 that “it must be understood that we cannot feed the people”. This view, as argued by historian David Ross, was a pre-prepared excuse to offload responsibility away from government and onto ‘nature’.
Yes, such governmental neglect was seen across Europe – it was certainly one of the contributory factors that led to the Revolutions of 1848 – but this does not exonerate the British government of fault for the Great Famine. The commonality of administrative neglect during this time does not, as Deans implies, make the British decisions to allow food exports unabated and scale back all funding for relief in 1847, the year which would become the deadliest of the entire famine, alright/okay/acceptable/understandable.
I have to admit that I don’t completely understand what she means by this: British control or ‘occupation’ of Ireland is not explicitly related with the death of Celtic languages, and occupation can accompany persistent native cultures: the decades-long Japanese occupation of Korea, for example, contained a far more active push by the Japanese government to eradiate Korean culture7Primarily in naming and education changes, aided further by newspaper censorship and the confiscation of historical artefacts. – but one that was actively and fiercely resisted by the Korean population, resulting in a significant proportion of Korean language and culture persisting to this day. Occupation and cultural decline are often – but not necessarily – associated, and I think Deans likely could have done a better job at clarifying exactly how her “Irish friends” argue that British occupation resulted in the death of the Irish culture. I’m going to assume, nonetheless, that Deans here is criticising the notion that British occupation led to the death of Irish culture – instead, Deans asserts that Ireland became majority English-speaking for the same reason that England became majority English-speaking, as opposed to speaking the Celtic Common Brittonic. I’m not going to spend quite as long on this subject, but Deans’ account of history (the two processes being “nearly identical”) is significantly warped.
I generally agree that Common Brittonic was not actively forced out of regular use by the policy of any one nation-state, although there is a pretty credible argument to suggest that Celtic languages may have been in decline during the Roman occupation of Britain. Nevertheless, the emigration of Germanic languages that eventually gave way to Old English was relatively ‘natural’, and not defined by any Viking policy or programme that encouraged the eradication of native tongue by roughly the year 1000. Deans says that this slow, relatively natural process of language emigration is, in her words, “nearly identical” to what happened across the Irish Sea – but this simply isn’t the case. As early as 1367, Edward III had outlawed the use of the native Irish language by English colonists on the Irish mainland8Article III of the Statute of the Fortieth Year of King Edward III, also known as The Statue of Kilkenny (text accessible here)., a law extended in Henry VIII’s following 153791537 Act for the English Order, Habit and Language (text accessible here). and 154110According to Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc for The Irish Story. legislation, extended once again in 173711Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737 (text accessible here).. The Irish language was not driven out entirely by a slow-moving emigration of English-speakers to Hibernia – its slow diminishing as a native language was done at the encouragement of British legislation that attempted to enforce the English language in Irish law, politics, areas under British control and – eventually – wider society.
I should make clear that this is not an exhaustive list of the historical claims raised by Deans in her blog post (which I encourage you to read, to ensure you get the full range of her evidence). However, I’ve generally found that the remaining allusions to societal structure and power and control are either irrelevant, factually incorrect or the same whataboutery that we’ve already gone over. Deans’ long explanation of the grip the Irish gentry held is factual but unconvincing, especially as this gentry and the Irish citizenry at-large was still beholden to British legislation12The British government was able to close ports (but didn’t) and increase the aid of the Temporary Relief Act of 1847 (instead of cancelling it) regardless of the power of the gentry, but – in both cases – still decided not to, causing widespread starvation. after the Acts of Union 1800 merger of parliaments. Other statements – “the average ordinary British person had no influence whatsoever over how ordinary Irish people were treated” – are laughably irrelevant. Deans’ insistence that the Irish population then and now hold poor, powerless British individuals responsible for the famine is gross hyperbole, to the extent of being clearly untrue.
I bet it’s those darn teachers
Effie Deans concludes her blog post in an attempt to find a reason behind the modern Irish population’s unanimous hatred for Effie “Famine-Causer” Deans. Why, after all, should she personally be held responsible (which she isn’t) for a famine of the mid-19th century? Deans thinks she’s cracked the case: “poison”, Deans argues, “perhaps [from] the way Irish children are taught in school” or “on their mother’s knee”, is poisoning what should be friendly relations between the English and the Irish. This exposes one of the Republic of Ireland’s most closely held secrets: unbeknownst to the world, one of the most crucial teachings of an Irish child’s early life is that 21st-century British individuals are responsible for the actions of their early-modern and Victorian governments.
Considering that Deans doesn’t appear to have done much research on Ireland nor the causes of the Great Famine for her post on Ireland and the causes of the Great Famine, her disdain for education comes as little surprise. It’s remarkable, I might add, that Deans genuinely believes that she could be involved in friendly British-Irish relations, especially since as her pursuit of this friendship seems to be second in importance to her passion for flinging offensive hypotheticals about Irish teachers and parenting. Can anyone expect a warm welcome from an Irish person if they had previously described the Irish as “the worst sort of Scottish nationalist on steroids” and made a joke of “Irish names full of diacritics”? (I think not!)
Credit where credit is due: another point for that slam-dunk, poetical concluding sentence, even if it is almost unbearably ironic. Deans’ insistence that the Anglo-Irish “friendly relationship” cannot survive the ongoing anti-British-individual prejudices of the Irish population (that don’t exist) is perhaps a slight contrast to her insistence that Ireland is the most “hostile to Britain and British interests” of all European nations. Regardless, Effie Deans is (very) wrong about Ireland, past and present. The merit that may accompany arguments to “put down historical prejudices” is merit quickly lost when reinforced with lies and historical revisionism. I would – like Effie Deans – also like the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland to continue their “friendly relationship”, albeit with cognisance and respectful remembrance of the historical atrocities that could have been avoided. Speaking honestly and truthfully about our shared (and often difficult) past is surely the best way to avoid poisoning any shared future.
|↑1||This is not a joke. She actually said this.|
|↑2||France, for example, recently issued a not-so-veiled threat to European negotiators that they may veto a Brexit deal that “gives too much away”.|
|↑3||44% of respondents wished for Northern Ireland to remain as part of the UK under either direct rule or devolution, against 36% whom wanted Irish reunification.|
|↑4||Deans gets these dates incorrect in her post, instead writing about the famine of “1845-1845”. I’m going to assume this was accidental and not a deliberate attempt to downplay the severity and length of the crisis.|
|↑5||Relief was unavailable to anyone with disposable capital (including livestock) and – even when given – was purposefully reduced, as to not make the starving Scottish “dependent” on government aid. In Ireland, relief was subject to similar restrictions under the so-called “Gregory clause” of the Poor Law.|
|↑6||This research was published in the magazine History Ireland (1997), issue 5, pages 32-36.|
|↑7||Primarily in naming and education changes, aided further by newspaper censorship and the confiscation of historical artefacts.|
|↑8||Article III of the Statute of the Fortieth Year of King Edward III, also known as The Statue of Kilkenny (text accessible here).|
|↑9||1537 Act for the English Order, Habit and Language (text accessible here).|
|↑10||According to Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc for The Irish Story.|
|↑11||Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737 (text accessible here).|
|↑12||The British government was able to close ports (but didn’t) and increase the aid of the Temporary Relief Act of 1847 (instead of cancelling it) regardless of the power of the gentry, but – in both cases – still decided not to, causing widespread starvation.|