Why British History Needs Irish History, and Vice Versa

This roundtable will bring together scholars at various levels to discuss the necessity of doing British and Irish history in tandem, rather than as separate fields. Each panellist will offer a brief (five minute) intervention on how Irish and British history are mutually constitutive in their own work. The rest of the session will be spent in a facilitated discussion on the topic with the audience.

In June 2016, Ireland came back into the world news, as British commentators realized, belatedly, that Brexit would have a profound effect on the fragile but enduring peace in Northern Ireland and on the complex relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The study of Irish and British histories are overwhelmingly practiced separately, with different journals, conferences, and institutions. Yet in fact the subjects, like the countries, are utterly intertwined. Irish agricultural produce that pours into the British market, British hedge funds are headquartered in Dublin, and millions of Irish, English, Scottish, and Welsh people have taken boats and trains (and later Ryanair flights) across the Irish Sea in search of better lives, new opportunities, or just something a bit different. This panel seeks to find new methods for approaching these places which does justice to their entangled histories. In so doing we seek to explore how partitioning of Irish and British history as discrete has served to elide and normalise a series of relations of power which must be foregrounded and unpacked. Moreover, we consider how transnationalising the histories of both states leads to a richer understanding of the trajectories of both – with a particular emphasis on how globalisation has shaped the history of these islands in the second half of the twentieth century.

When are the categories of ‘Irish’ and ‘British’ deployed? What work does this do? Does exiling some areas of the history of this collection of islands to an ‘Irish’ story, and so beyond the remit of British history, exclude some challenging narratives: of sectarianism, violence, underdevelopment? On the island of Britain, have other histories, of the poverty of Irish cleaners and builders in post-war Britain for example, been excluded through their seemingly sectional interest as part of Irish diasporic history? How has the category of ‘Irish’ functioned within the history of race, ethnicity, and prejudice in Britain? How did the transience of post-Famine seasonal migrants contribute to the invisibility narrative? In what ways does ‘Irishness’ serve as a marker of difference, and in what ways has it been deployed in order to police the boundaries of whiteness and white supremacy? The Irish in Britain have been doubly invisible: largely ignored within both Irish and British culture. What does taking a granular approach to these stories, and the processes through which they were rendered culturally invisible and politically inert tell us about both Ireland and Britain?

At what times is the Irish story brought into a British mainstream? At what times is it distanced? Does the Irish story merely become part of British history when it impacts on British elites—for example, Parnell, the conscription crisis, Bloody Sunday? How does British history change once Ireland is fully integrated into the narrative, and to what extent do existing categories of British historiography in fact rely on submerged Irish issues? For example, in what ways were the Irish Famine and the Irish Question crucial to the construction of Victorian Liberalism? How did the Irish War of Independence contribute to the development of the interwar Conservative hegemony? How did the Irish shape the British experiences of empire and decolonization — for example, to what extent was Ireland an architect of the Commonwealth during its years as a dominion? With a critical eye to when these labels are deployed, can we discuss a history of partition which is discursive, rather than spatial, and which has served to reinforce narratives of British modernity?

How do narratives of Irish violence (in its widest physical, institutional, gendered reading) unsettle British history when the divisions between an ‘Irish’ and a ‘British’ past are collapsed? If Irish underdevelopment is brought into the centre of British political and economic systems how does this reshape our understandings of British development? Similarly, how does Celtic Tiger Ireland, on the cutting edge of neo-liberal economics and urbanism, and which pioneered many of the spatial and economic models associated with contemporary British politics, reshape our understandings of these trajectories?

What did the Brexit vote mean for Ireland, and what can Ireland tell us about Brexit? Some issues were clear even to the most tone-deaf London-based commentators. Foremost, the border: once a place of barbed wire and gunmen hiding in hedgerows, still sensitive, and now, perhaps, the place where Britain meets the European Union. The management of this region, always delicate, is once again problematic. Secondly, the place of the Irish economy. Ireland’s biggest trading partner is the UK, and has today found itself dragged into uncertainty by the political choices of its nearest neighbour, a decision which had profound ramifications for millions of people who did not get a vote. Finally, as an island which endured through a period of seemingly increasing modernization and toleration during the post-war years, shattered by the polarization of opinions and the emergence of violence, does the case of Northern Ireland have something to tell us about the slippage of social norms and the maintenance of order?

Session Chairs: Mo Moulton and Erika Hanna

Shahmima Akhtar
Ciara Breathnach
Darragh Gannon
Carole Holohan
Peter Leary
Conor Mulvagh
Kevin O’Sullivan