The Irish Are Not, and Were Not, British

January 23, 2010 § 3 Comments

There are very few things in academia that get my goat quite like statements such as the following: “In all, there were 2,544,101 British born living in foreign counties [in 1861].  Most of these were accounted for by emigrants to the United States [,] 2,476,132 (of whom 65% were Irish and 4.5% were Scots).” (my italics)

The Irish don’t belong in this categorisation.  Ireland isn’t part of Britain.  Nor was it ever.  The island itself, of course, is part of the British Isles, but that is not what people refer to when referring to “Britain.”  Britain is the other major island, on which the nations of England, Scotland, and Wales can be found.  In 1801, an Act of Union was forced upon the Irish following the failed United Irishmen uprising of 1798.  But the kingdom created out of this union was known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  Today, the UK is comprised of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

This annoys me for two reasons: 1) I am an historian of the Irish diaspora and, I also include myself in that diaspora, and 2) it is just historically, definitionally, and factually wrong.  Prior to Irish independence in 1922, it is true that people born in Ireland received UK (more colloquially referred to as British) citizenship.  But so did Canadians, prior to the creation of Canadian citizenship on 1 January 1947.  It is also true that one can claim UK citizenship based upon ancestral UK citizenship of someone (i.e.: a grandparent) born in pre-independence Ireland.  But that doesn’t make the Irish British, either historically or today.  It made the Irish citizens of the UK, just as someone who is from Northern Ireland is today a UK citizen (although, due to the Repbublic of Ireland’s citizenship laws, some Northern Irish/UK citizens can also claim Irish citizenship). 

The point is that the relationship between Ireland and Britain (or perhaps more properly termed, England) is complicated.  But it’s just laziness that causes academics to lump the Irish in with the British in discussing emigration. 

When writing my dissertation, my supervisor and I had an argument about some random fact of the Irish past (I was right, it turned out), but he made a good point: as an academic and a scholar, you don’t want to make little stupid errors, because they sap your credibility.  He was bang on.  I see stupid errors, even typos, and I find myself questioning the credibility of the source.  I read historically, definitionally, technically, and factually incorrect statements in peer-reviewed scholarship, and I find myself dismissing the larger argument being made.  Call me fickle, call me a stickler.  Factual correctness matters.


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§ 3 Responses to The Irish Are Not, and Were Not, British

  • […] See the rest here: The Irish Are Not, and Were Not, British « Spatialities […]

  • Mike Innes says:

    Ahem. Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe…


  • Interesting site! Tiny little error – all Northern Irish citizens can claim Irish citizenship, if they choose, as well as British. It was part of the Good Friday Agreement that all people born in NI can choose to be “Irish or British or both”.

    Here’s the text of the Good Friday Agreement – it was regarded a pretty revolutionary compromise at the time:

    (vi) recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.

    Looking forward to reading more of your site!

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