Luke Gibbons has speculated that the problem with Ireland and postcolonial studies is simply that 'a native population which happened to be white was an affront to the very idea of 'white man's burden', and threw into disarray some of the constitutive categories of colonial discourse' (Transformations is Irish Culture, 149). Perhaps it is simply this problem that Ireland contradicts what would otherwise be clear borders for a universal understanding of postcolonialism but the objections to Irish postcolonialism that aggravates historians. Paul Gough' article in the Victorian Web'Why Ireland wasn't a Colony' relays typical fears among those who are unwilling to apply cultural theory to static notions of history. Gough's second point that England and Great Britain are not perfect synonyms is of course true, but more problematic is the desire to revert postcolonial studies into a linear time-line testimony, aimed at providing an unambiguous narrative, a reductive representation of the past through reconstruction, when history is too large to be all-inclusive and too random to be conformed to a scientifically recorded set of events, making official colonial status under King James inconsequential to the overall value of this approach.
Gough's objection is more famously extended by Liam Kennedy, whose position attempts to deny Irish aspirations to postcolonial inclusion by inverting the assertion into an argument that actually incorporates Ireland within English centrality. Kennedy poses that: 'Ireland, in effect, was a junior partner in that vast exploitative enterprise known as the British Empire' (Colonialism, 176). While inconclusive 'evidence' is provided with regards to Irish roles in the empire, this argument conveniently ignores the role that the subaltern, and other generally accepted postcolonial states, played in supporting the British Empire. Furthermore, by only representing the history of the Unionist perspective, Kennedy neglects the objections that have generally been made on behalf of Irish support of such issues as Home Rule, conscription to the World Wars, the land acts, the language question and the Gaelic sport movement.
Kennedy seems to link Ireland with statistics similar to western European nations rather than with those of traditional postcolonial African and Asian nations. However, it has been noted that these facts ignore the individual representations of Irish life and consciousness and even from a factual point of view: 'Ireland's underdevelopment in relation to other small European nations' which was well known, is not adduced, as this fact 'was attributed usually to British rule' (Ireland After History, 9). David Lloyd also notes Kennedy's failure to account for Irish emigration, the negative effects this had on the Irish labour pool, the landscape of the country, the psychological damage to the nation, or perhaps what would be most important to Kennedy's essay, the effect that the graphs would have been significantly more similar to African and Asian statistics had the Irish not been in a position where emigration was possible (Ireland After History, 10-12).
To reject Ireland's postcolonial status is to undermine the postcolonial literary project of other national literatures. Ireland's postcolonial status can make no claims as to being the same as another colonial situation, but no colonial situation is exactly the same. What is more important than establishing guidelines as to what the cut off points are for official recognition of postcoloniality, is the recognition of how Irish writing, has been influential to postcolonial literature abroad.
Irish postcolonial status may have been overlooked because of the unique conditions of postcoloniality in Ireland. In The Empire Writes Back the Ireland is portrayed as not understanding of its own history, as being a somewhat lacklustre member of the United Kingdom. From the opening chapter of the study's discussion of models of postcolonialism, it is suggested that Ireland's 'subsequent complicity in the British imperial enterprise makes it difficult for colonized peoples outside Britain to accept their [Irish] identity as post-colonial' (33). There is no objection to be made that the Irish colonial experience was different compared to their African and Asian counterparts, or that the Irish at times benefited as a result of their closer colonial ties with England than those of other colonial states, but to overlook the Irish resentment at, and challenge to, colonization is to disregard a significant aspect of Irish history and national development. By the nature of the quote and the absence of any reference to Irish writers outside of Yeats (who is essentially viewed as an English writer by the study), the problem of Ireland's position with respect to postcolonial legitimacy begins. Declan Kiberd explains: 'The Empire Writes Back, passes over the Irish case very swiftly, perhaps because the authors find these white Europeans too strange an instance to justify their sustained attention' (Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, 5). Whatever the reasons for the Irish exclusion, the case not only for Irish inclusion can be made but the case for Irish inclusion must be made. Irish writers who have been written into the English tradition have provided inspiration for the more recognized postcolonial writers. Examples of Irish inspiration include Achebe's Things Fall Apart, which was inspired from Yeats' 'The Second Coming' (Walder, Post-Colonial Literatures, 15), while J.M. Synge's Playboy of the Western World is not only equated to Franz Fanon's ideal of the decolonising text, but the play was later adapted by Mustafa Matura in Trinidadian as The Playboy of the West Indies (Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, 185-188).
Perhaps the most fundamental of errors in terms of excluding Ireland's writers as postcolonial pioneers, is in the case in Empire Writes Back where West Indian novelist, Wilson Harris' novel Assent to Omai, is given credit for pioneering the use of the English language in a free way, apart from the tradition of binary bases, dismantling literature, language, history and time (49-50). This summary not only undermines Harris' work, but also is factually incorrect, as the methods described above do not originate in the Caribbean, but from the European James Joyce. The problem this distinction creates for the argument of The Empire Writes Back is a serious one. Essentially, the postcolonial writers of the Caribbean, Asia and Africa did not discover their own voice and perspective within the English language and literature, but merely copied a style that originates from a member of the centre, the United Kingdom's James Joyce's and his novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. The importance here lies in admitting Joyce's role as outsider, maybe not in the same context as Achebe, Rushdie or Harris, but none the less, as a hybrid on the border between the colonizer and colony. Joyce's unique colonial perspective creates the opportunity for the other postcolonial nations to envision themselves as the ones in power of their English language, their art, and essentially their sovereignty.
Finally, Ireland fits into the postcolonial concept if for no other reason than because its writers, say so. Consider Seamus Heaney's comment:
The child in the bedroom listening simultaneously to the domestic idiom of his Irish home and the official idioms of the British broadcaster while picking up from behind both signals of some other distress, that child was already being schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament, a future where he would have to adjudicate among promptings variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, sceptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and taken altogether, simply impossible. ('Crediting Poetry', 452)
The Irish national consciousness has long seen itself as oppressed by its English colonizer and despite differences between the types of oppression in other colonies, Ireland will always maintain a history that includes the story of British oppression. Ireland's politics, from the Act of Union, through de Valera's economic war, has centred around the Irish-English relationship that had until 1922 been voiced in Westminster. Even Irish independence has failed to distance the nation's identity questions. The nationalist movement that lead to independence, that created the Free State, also refined the nation's political interests to those that shared a confining nationalist and religious position, effectively based on a converse of English rule yet strangely mimicking it. Furthermore, Ireland since the English arrival has seen unprecedented transformations in culture. Perhaps only the Caribbean colonies have seen greater changes and more forced hybridism than Ireland. Although not all of these changes in Irish culture can be attributed to colonialism, the changes began with colonialism.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Postcolonial Literatures. London: Routledge Press, 1989.
Gibbons, Luke. Transformations in Irish Culture. Cork: Cork University Press in association with Field Day, 1996.
Heaney, Seamus. 'Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture 1995' Open Ground Poems, 1966-1996. London: Faber and Faber, 1998.
Kennedy, Liam. Colonialism, Religion and Nationalism in Ireland. Belfast: The Queen's University of Belfast, 1996.
Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of a Modern Nation. London: Vintage, 1996.
Lloyd, David. Ireland After History. Cork: Cork University Press in association with Field Day, 1999.
Walder, Dennis. Post-Colonial Literatures in English: History, Language and Theory. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
Last modified: 26 May 2003