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Britain and Ireland: ambiguities of

Empire
Hi, I'm Dr Gemma Clark, lecturer in British and Irish history at the University of Exeter. The
geographical entity of the British Isles is made up of Great Britain, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland,
and many smaller islands. The political and constitutional relationships within and between these
islands have shifted over time, reflecting waves of conquest and settlement. What today we call
Britain or the UK wouldn't hold the same significance for English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish people a
century ago. "Empire" also means different things to different people at different times, and the
ambiguities of the British Empire are perhaps nowhere better seen than in the history of Britain's
closest neighbour, Ireland.

Ireland's colonisation began in the late 16th century. The English monarchy and parliament secured
control of Ireland through a series of confiscation of Catholic-owned land and its plantation by
Protestant settlers from England and Scotland. Religious conflict and social inequality, namely the
concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a settled elite, would shape Ireland's development
into modern times. However, despite what some today see as the obvious violent legacies of English,
later British, occupation, particularly in UK-controlled Northern Ireland, others disagree that Ireland
ever was a colony to begin with.

These aren't just problems of interpretation amongst historians. Ireland's relationship with the British
Empire also caused contemporary confusion and controversy during the 19th century, a key period of
imperial expansion. Ireland wasn't a formal British colony. The upheaval of the late 18th century,
revolution abroad, and French-inspired insurrection in Ireland in 1798 convinced Prime Minister Pitt
the Younger to bring Ireland more firmly under British control. But the result was that Ireland, unlike
other colonies or dominions, was made legally at least an equal partner in the new United Kingdom of
Great Britain and Ireland, with representation at Westminster.

Thus, the 1800 Act of Union abolished the Dublin parliament. Ireland instead sent 100 MPs to the
House of Commons and 32 members to the Lords to legislate on Irish, British, and imperial affairs.
And whilst Catholics were barred from standing for parliament until their emancipation in 1829, it
wasn't only the Irish Protestant elite who participated in imperialism. For many ordinary Irish
Catholics, empire also offered career and other opportunities.

Yet whilst Irish soldiers and administrators enforced imperial rule in India and elsewhere, at home,
Irish men and women simultaneously experienced governance that, whilst not officially colonial,
shared elements with the rule of faraway territories, a separate executive headed by a lord lieutenant,
for example, an armed centrally-organized police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary, and outside the
industrial north, the concentration of Scottish Presbyterian planters in Ulster had seen the region
develop differently from the rural south.

The Irish economy was forced to serve imperial markets over its own needs. The great Irish famine of
1845-49 not only exposed the weaknesses of recent economic union, but also focused attention on
the historic conquest that had left Ireland vulnerable to mass starvation before the potato blight
arrived.

Like the disaster following the great drought in India of 1876-78, Ireland's famine began as a natural
catastrophe, but the effects of crop failure were worsened by the continued export of grain to England
and inadequate government relief measures. One million died and 1.5 million departed Ireland
permanently. Indeed, mass migration continued to characterise Irish life under British rule. Today, 80
million people worldwide claim Irish ancestry and historically, the diaspora's key destinations, the
USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have been former colonies.

© University of Exeter, 2015 Empire: The Controversies of British Imperialism


Empire was both a chain and a key for Irish people. Thus, the diversity and ambiguity of the British
Empire is evident even at its very heart in the complex relationship between Britain and its closest
neighbour, Ireland.

© University of Exeter, 2015 Empire: The Controversies of British Imperialism