Ireland's past cannot be hidden (Bernard Bisson/Sygma via Getty Images)

April 5, 2023   6 mins

My fall from innocence happened at the age of seven. I was sitting with my mother on a Manchester bus when I decided to pipe up with an Irish rebel song. Even as a small child I knew quite a few bloodthirsty Irish ballads; in fact, I had even composed one myself, so excruciatingly bad that even today the thought of it brings a blush to my aged cheek. It wasn’t as though my family sported shillelaghs and said “Beggorah” (nobody in Ireland has ever been known to say “Begorrah”). My parents were first-generation English, which put me at some distance from the auld country.

There were, however, some Irish republican sentiments among my relatives, tales of Gaelic martyrs and dastardly British politicians which had rubbed off on an impressionable child. My Ulster grandfather spoke of Ireland in hushed tones as “sacred soil”, though he had abandoned the place almost as soon as he could walk and hadn’t the slightest intention of returning. He would, however, probably have agreed with the 18th-century Irish scholar who demonstrated conclusively that Irish was the language spoken in the Garden of Eden.

It was only when my mother told me to shut up that I realised that there was something taboo about this stuff. Like sex, it was a shameful affair that you didn’t parade in public. For a long time there have been far more Irish people living outside the country than inside it, and an immigrant culture learns to adapt its talk and behaviour to the mentality of its hosts. I now knew what it was like to be a divided subject, though because my skin was an acceptable colour I could hide this clash of commitments as some others couldn’t. I looked like a native but was actually an alien, furnished with a secret knowledge of Orangemen and Oliver Cromwell while having a laugh with my English friends about pissed-up Paddies and feckless Micks.

In those days, the way to resolve this dilemma was known as the Catholic grammar school. My own grammar school contained about 700 boys, almost all of whom had surnames like Murphy and O’Flynn, Connolly and O’Donovan. Yet I wasn’t aware that these were Irish names, and I don’t remember the words “Ireland” and “Irish” being used once in the whole of my time in the place. The school’s job was to hoist us out of the bog and install us among the English middle classes, a task at which it was supremely proficient. The school choir sang the national anthem at Speech Day to an audience of parents from Dublin or Kerry or Mayo, all of whom sang dutifully along. We played rugby and cricket, learnt about Britain’s imperial heritage and in general behaved like an inept parody of an English public school. We weren’t taught that our parents or grandparents hailed from Britain’s oldest colonial possession, the first colony in the world to achieve (partial) independence in the 20th century.

It was the Northern Irish Troubles which changed all that, at least for some of us. British Catholics, being a minority, can understand something of the problems of their co-religionists in Derry or Newry. No doubt many of my former schoolmates took the standard English line on the question — that there were two warring sectarian communities in the North, each as bigoted and blood-stained as the other, and the role of the British government was to mediate between them. When in doubt, head for the middle ground. It’s hard to see how this very English even-handedness applies to women versus rapists, slaves against slave-owners, minority communities versus the Met Police and so on, just as it’s hard for those who know something of the history of this conflict to swallow such liberal platitudes.

Northern Ireland was born of a cynical exercise in gerrymandering to ensure a permanent Protestant majority in the region. The Catholic population was denied the right to share in the self-determination enjoyed by its compatriots in what was then the Irish Free State. (As far as titles go, a lot of the British still talk of “southern Ireland”, even though some of the Irish Republic is to the north of some of Northern Ireland.) Instead, Catholics were subjected to the rule of a Protestant elite which feared for its own privileges if it were to join the rest of the country in its freedom from colonial power. To maintain those privileges, it built a system of discrimination against the Catholic minority brutal enough to win the approval of the founder of South African apartheid, Hendrick Verwoerd.

“What is it you dislike about Catholics?” a British journalist once asked an Ulster Protestant. “Are you daft?” was the indignant reply. “Their religion, of course!” Yet it was always an ethno-political conflict, not a religious one. Nobody on Belfast’s Shankill Road gives a toss about the Catholic theology of the Eucharist, just as nobody on the Falls Road loses sleep over the Protestant doctrine of predestination. What is at stake is a matter of power and inequality, not a spiritual divide. Nor is it primarily a question of culture. The two sides share much of the same working-class cultural interests, and in this respect have a lot more in common than they do with the Belfast bourgeoisie who flock to productions of Brian Friel. Neither is the problem one of a breakdown of understanding, as liberals like to believe about such antagonisms. The two communities understand each other perfectly well.

It isn’t that the North is stuck in the Dark Ages while the Irish Republic has forged ahead into the modern era. For one thing, nationalism is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, as well as a thoroughly internationalist one. For another, the Republic has become an enlightened, liberal-minded society not because it has overcome its past but because it refuses to confront it fully. It doesn’t do to talk of Elizabeth I’s near-genocidal campaigns in Ireland when you’re trying to reinvent yourself as an equal partner of Britain. Becoming a low-tax haven for US capital or the world’s leading producer of Viagra means sweeping a history of famine and enforced mass emigration under the carpet.

Modern Irish historians have become adept at whitewashing colonial crimes. For many in the Republic, the Northern Troubles were less disturbing than embarrassing, like an aspiring entrepreneur shamed by his uncouth sibling. Yet the sharp-suited technocrats in Dublin and Galway are themselves the heirs of a nationalist revolution, a fact which it’s now convenient to suppress. It’s not easy to do so when enmity in the North continually reminds you of it. Nations which have come of age are those which are able to affirm what’s precious in their past without fear of sentimentalism or nostalgia. To disown the past is to be just as constrained by it as to think of nothing else.

The Good Friday Agreement, signed 25 years ago, inaugurated a new epoch. Mutual hatred in parts of Northern Ireland remains as virulent as ever, but this needn’t matter much as long as there are mechanisms to avoid a return to bloodshed. And there’s a younger generation for whom all this stuff is as dead as the Peloponnesian Wars. Yet the Agreement works within the framework of colonialism rather than dismantling it. However one might seek to democratise the North, it remains politically speaking a sectarian state, organised to a large extent along denominational lines, and it was colonial occupation that made it so. Dressing this up as cultural diversity has its limits. When Ireland cast off British rule in 1921, it had the same right as any other state to sovereignty over the whole of its territory. It was deprived of that right by Ulster Unionism and the British government, and continues to be deprived of it today. Ukraine is fighting for that form of sovereignty at the moment, and the British are zealous in their support for it. They aren’t quite so keen on extending the same right to Dublin.

Of course, many nations were born of invasion, occupation and usurpation, but after a while they come to live this scandal down and become respectable. The further you are in decades or centuries from the original sin of establishing a state, the more chance you have of a stable existence. If, however, that founding moment remains within living memory, or almost so, and if those who were defeated and humiliated by it are still around, what has been repressed, as Freud argues, is likely to return. This is as true of Israel as it is of Northern Ireland. Both countries are plagued by the trauma of their birth. The British are welcome to visit Ireland and enjoy some of the most sublime scenery in Europe, as well as some of the most expensive commodities. But they are not entitled to own any of it, any more than the Irish are entitled to own the Home Counties.

One of the benefits of being a victor is that you don’t need to keep worrying about who you are. It is those who are oppressed or excluded who have to carry the problem of their identities around with them like a daily burden. Some Irish nationalists, like some members of ethnic and sexual minorities, believe that they know who they are well enough; the only problem is that they aren’t being allowed to express it fully. As long as you are a second-class citizen, however, you can’t be sure how much of your current identity arises from that very fact. What you need to do is not to express a selfhood which is currently being repressed, but to create the conditions in which you are free to find out what you want to become.

And to do that involves transforming your political situation, which in turn involves having a certain amount of assured identity. The goal, however, is to get to the point where who you are no longer really matters, since nobody is using it to make you miserable anymore. Once you have done that, you can spend your time thinking about something more interesting than yourself, like the extraordinary nature of King Charles’s ears or whether there really are captive aliens in the Nevada desert. It is a freedom of which the Irish can only dream.

Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.