The British-Irish connection — an often  overlooked chapter in Ireland's history

The British-Irish connection — an often overlooked chapter in Ireland's history

Darragh Gannon’s latest book charts the development of Irish nationalism across the Irish Sea over the course of a historic decade in United Kingdom history – from constitutional crisis, to war, and revolution.

DANIEL MULHALL is our reviewer

HAVING served as Ambassador in London and Washington, I retain a keen interest in the Irish community in both countries and in their impact on Ireland over time. That impact was at its most pertinent when developments in Ireland were in overdrive during the revolutionary decade between 1913 and 1923, a period that has been the focus of our Decade of Centenaries that is just now drawing to a close.

The American strand of diasporic nationalism has recently been explored by Francis M. Carroll in America and the Making of an Independent Ireland (NYU Press, 2021), to which Darragh Gannon’s book could be seen as a companion volume, although that is not its purpose. The two studies illuminate the parallels and discrepancies between diaspora nationalism in Britain and America.

The historical deployment of Irish American influence is better known than the story of Irish nationalism in Britain. The American dimension to the Irish struggle was highlighted in the 1916 Proclamation, with its reference to Ireland’s ‘exiled children in America’. America’s role, epitomised by the conspiratorial exploits of the returned exile, Tom Clarke, led NYU’s Professor Joe Lee to write with inimitable verve: ‘No America, no New York, no Easter Rising’. Another reason why Irish American influence is more widely acknowledged is that it remains a factor to this day as was seen during the EU-UK negotiations on the out-workings of Brexit on the island of Ireland, when members of Congress weighed in to good effect to prevent the imposition of a hard border in Ireland. Yet, whereas Irish America always wielded its power from afar, the Irish community in Edwardian Britain operated in intense proximity both to Ireland itself and to an evolving British polity.

Darragh Gannon has mined a wealth of published and archival material to produce a compelling history of Irish nationalism in Britain through the phases of that hectic decade of war and revolution – charting its input to the Home Rule movement, the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers, the IRB and ultimately the IRA. In all cases, the Irish in Britain, including many who were British-born, played a measurable part, which this book brings to light.

Gannon pays a justified tribute to the Irish Parliamentary Party for its ability to appeal simultaneously to Irish and British opinion in support of Home Rule. He recounts how Irish MPs devoted enormous time and energy to speaking engagements all over Britain at a time when platform oratory was a mainstay of political campaigning.

Gannon’s account gives sustained attention to three Irish personalities in Edwardian Britain. The best known of these, T.P. O’Connor, held a seat in Liverpool for 44 years and was father of the House of Commons when he died in 1929. Gannon describes him as ‘the individual embodiment of the global diasporic nationalist’. For his part, London-born Art O’Brien became that city’s leading Irish nationalist who was actively involved in every Irish movement. A London Irish contemporary dubbed him ‘the God of our small world’. An immigrant from Derry, Charles Diamond ‘identified simultaneously with the politics of Irish nationalism, labourism and Catholicism’ and became an influential journalist as editor of the Catholic Herald. He was patriotically supportive of the British army during World War I, but was also sharply critical of the actions of British forces in Ireland during the War of Independence. In his backing for the nascent Labour Party, he represented the wave of the future as Irish voters gradually transferred their support from the Liberals to Labour.

The Easter Rising, in which 87 volunteers from Britain participated, was a watershed for Irish nationalism in Britain as Sinn Féin and the Irish Self-Determination League, founded by Art O’Brien, rapidly won adherents and undermined the supremacy of the Irish Party. Gannon shows how the Irish in Britain could be mobilised in impressive numbers behind nationalist causes, for example in support of Archbishop Mannix of Melbourne when in the summer of 1920 he was barred from landing in Ireland on account of his uncompromising nationalist views. Gannon has calculated that 140,000 people attended rallies in Britain in protest against the government’s treatment of Mannix. He raises the enthralling possibility that, had he been able to set foot in Ireland, Mannix might have succeeded Archbishop Walsh as Primate of Ireland which could have changed the Catholic Church’s approach to the republican cause.

For me, the most intriguing part of Gannon’s book comes when he delves into the profile of the Irish in Britain during the war of independence, when they acted as a vital conduit for the importation of weapons into Ireland and also engaged in acts of sabotage and intimidation in revenge for Black and Tan atrocities in Ireland. The most spectacular IRA operation was a major incendiary attack at Liverpool docks in 1920 when multiple timber yards and warehouses were set ablaze by local IRA units.

Whereas Irish American nationalism survived the arrival of Irish independence, that did not happen in Britain. When in 1922 T.P. O’Connor wrote to the Irish Party’s last leader, John Dillon, proposing continued nationalist activity in Britain, Dillon responded poignantly that it was ‘a closed chapter in Irish history’. And so it was.

A key difference between diaspora politics in Britain and America is that Americans descended from emigrants who left Ireland in the 19th century often retain a passionate interest in their ancestral homeland. There is ample encouragement for hybrid identities in the USA, something that does not apply in Britain. I wonder if that might change? As Britain becomes more diverse, more nuanced or hybrid notions of identity may become more feasible. With the shadow of IRA violence lifted from the Irish community in Britain, and the prominence of Irish people in so many areas of British life, is it too much to hope that my Scottish and English-born grandchildren may preserve a proud sense of Irishness in quiet defiance of their accents and the British environment in which they will grow to adulthood?

I hope to live to see them mature as Irish-Scottish and Irish-English amalgams, reflecting all that is best in those identities. It would be great to add Irish-Britain to the ‘Global Ireland’ constellation.

Darragh Gannon, Conflict, Diaspora and Empire: Irish Nationalism in Britain, 1912-1922 (Cambridge University Press, 2023)

Daniel Mulhall is a former Irish Ambassador in London and Washington and is a Resident Fellow at the Institute of Politics, Harvard University. His latest publication is Pilgrim Soul: W.B. Yeats and the Ireland of his Time (Dublin: New Island Books, 2023)