Perhaps no group of people have been more ambivalent about their English identity than those of us born in England of Irish descent.
It is no secret that the history of Anglo-Irish relations is in large measure a story of conflict. At different times, each nation has defined itself in opposition to the other, leaving little room for those with connections to both.
But it was not always so. At the very dawn of English literature, the Venerable Bede records the first contact between the two nations, a literary and spiritual flowering which first brought Christianity to the English, and then brought orthodox Catholicism to the Irish.
“This seemed to happen by a wonderful dispensation of God’s grace, in order that the nation which had willingly and ungrudgingly laboured to communicate its own knowledge of God to the English nation might later, through the same English nation, arrive at a perfect way of life which they had not hitherto possessed,” Bede wrote in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
This pattern of mutual influence between the two countries is visible even in later, more troubled periods of history.
By the Seventeenth Century, the Anglo-Saxon era had come to be seen as a golden age of English liberty, to be contrasted with the ‘Norman Yoke’ of later monarchs by Protestant radicals such as John Lilburne.
Just as the spread of literacy aided the rise of insular Christianity a millennium before, the new thinking was spread by a new technology, printing, that disrupted old power networks.
Lilburne was arrested in 1637 by officers of the Stationers’ Company, the official government-backed printing monopoly, for distributing subversive books imported from Amsterdam.
He was brought before the royal prerogative court of Star Chamber, where he faced Archbishop Laud, who led the Crown’s attempts to suppress the rising tide of seditious pamphlets being produced by the puritan underground.
Lilburne refused to answer Laud’s questions, a stance which would provide a key precedent for the emerging doctrine of the right to silence. His punishment was to be whipped from the Fleet Prison to Westminster.
He remained in jail until 1640, when his case was taken up by the MP for Cambridge, Oliver Cromwell, as part of the Long Parliament’s revolutionary challenge to Charles I’s regime. It was Archbishop Laud who now found himself in prison, as his system of censorship was replaced by an unprecedented era of free speech. The prerogative courts were abolished, and the King was banned from levying taxation without the consent of Parliament.
It was Ireland that provoked the final break between King and Parliament. After rebellion broke out there in late 1641, both sides agreed on the need for a military expedition to put down the insurgents and their newly constituted government, the Irish Catholic Confederacy. £1 million was raised in the City of London in return for promises of land to be confiscated from the Irish, making the project a huge exercise in military capitalism.
The parliamentary leadership now faced a crucial problem. It had to ensure that an army could be raised against the Irish, whilst also preventing that army from being used against the English. It was this dilemma that sparked the English Civil War.
The royalist defeat in that conflict opened up a unique window of opportunity for democratic ideas. The parliamentary forces met at Putney in 1647 to agree proposals for a new constitution.
The New Model Army’s commanders, led by Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton, argued that political rights should be restricted to the propertied classes. The radicals argued, in the words of Col Thomas Rainsborough, “that the poorest he that is in England have a life to live, as the greatest he: and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.”
The radicals had by now formed what was effectively the first modern political party, the Levellers, in support of their proposed constitution, the Agreement of the People.
Along with Lilburne, the most prominent figure was William Walwyn, a London merchant who boldly argued that religious toleration should be extended to Catholics as well as Protestants. However, the key to the Levellers’ strength was their support in the army, whose membership was far broader than the narrow social stratum represented in Parliament.
With Parliament’s planned invasion of Ireland threatening to destroy this powerbase, the Levellers appealed to the troops in a pamphlet entitled the English Soldiers’ Standard:
“For consider as things now stand, to what end you should hazard your lives against the Irish. Will you go on still to kill, slay and murder in order to make them [the army commanders] as absolute lords and masters over Ireland as you have made them over England?”
In the course of rejecting their arguments, the Cromwellian paper, The Moderate Intelligencer, published the Levellers’ alternative proposals:
“Whether if the state of England, now in their full strength, should send and proclaim Ireland a free state, repenting of all the evil themselves have acted and intended, and that our kings have formerly acted against that nation, and that they will not further act to their prejudice: but only sit down by them as a neighbour state, as Holland doth: desire only to be in mutual league as friend, to seek the peace and welfare of each other, not countenance or assist or protect each other’s enemies, nor any that shall disturb the peace of nations, only require some considerable seaports or towns for security and bond to tie the Irish to performance of covenants, and whether this may not be every way as advantageous to the state and people of England as a conquest of them, the charge considered.”
This proposal might have been acceptable to the Irish leader Owen Roe O’Neill, who was in secret negotiations with Colonel Monk. It was not however, acceptable to the Army commanders. An Irish invasion would secure the support of the City of London, and get rid of the troublesome agitators in the ranks. It was all too easy for them to whip up fear of the Catholic Irish as an implacable, existential threat.
Nevertheless, influenced by the Levellers, several regiments refused to embark for Ireland. They were attacked by Cromwell and Fairfax at Burford in Oxfordshire in May 1649. In the aftermath, three soldiers were executed, Cornet Thompson, Corporal Church and Corporal Perkins.
With the defeat of the Levellers, the invasion of Ireland became inevitable, and England lost its last chance of securing a democratic constitution for centuries. Without Ireton, who was killed in Ireland, Cromwell proved incapable of delivering any kind of stable republican constitution at all, paving the way for the ultimate restoration of the monarchy after his own death.
The consequences of the invasion are well known: the bloody sieges of Drogheda and Wexford, the expulsion of thousands of Catholics ‘to hell or Connaught’ and the transportation of many thousands more as slaves to the West Indies.
Yet the spirit of the Levellers was not entirely dead in the New Model Army. Despite the efforts of its officers, many of its soldiers married Irish women and were absorbed into the Catholic majority.
By the Eighteenth Century, the Baptist and Independent communities established in Ireland under Cromwell’s rule had become Presbyterian congregations. Their radical tradition expressed itself in the demand for greater powers for the Irish Parliament. With the Volunteer Movement of 1782 this campaign took a form remarkably reminiscent of the Levellers.
Eventually the demand for self-government merged with the call for Catholic emancipation and the older tradition of Irish nationalism. A new generation of radicals, led by figures like William Drennan and Theobald Wolfe Tone created an organisation whose name represented this fusion: the Society of United Irishmen.
It was the birth of a new phenomenon, Irish republicanism, whose radical Protestant strand remained visible in later generations. In the Nineteenth Century, it was represented perhaps most clearly by Thomas Davis who called for “a nationality which may embrace Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter, Milesian and Cromwellian, the Irishman of a hundred generations, and the stranger who is within our gates.” As recently as the 1960s, thinkers who are clearly in this tradition, such as Roy Johnston and Desmond Greaves, were key figures in the Civil Rights Movement.
Irish republicans have often fallen short of these ideals, because of the same dangers of sectarianism and militarism that brought down their Seventeenth Century English counterparts. Nevertheless, this tradition has played a decisive role in shaping Irish national identity. Ireland, like the United States, drew on English ideas to define itself against the British Crown.
That tradition is still alive in England today, the legacy of the Levellers, Tom Paine, the Chartists and their successors. Their demand for the sovereignty of the English people is more relevant than ever. That idea, and the people who have fought for it down the ages, are what England means to me.
Tom Griffin is a Londoner of Irish decent, his online journal is The Green Ribbon.