Viewing King Charles from British Empire’s first colony – Ireland

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Living next door to a monarchy is a little like living beside a neighbour who is infatuated with an oddly niche interest, an Irish journalist reflected whimsically last year.

Clowns, for example.

The neighbour’s interest has led them to paint clown murals on the walls, and to have an unquenchable desire to discuss clown-related topics.

For those not interested in clowns – or not living in a monarchy – it is hard to understand the appeal, the Irish Times’ Patrick Freyne wrote.

“For the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown,” he wrote, comically capturing a view of the British monarchy from an Irish perspective.

History allows the Irish to lay claim to a unique perspective on their nearest neighbours.

First colony

Ireland was, after all, England’s first colony.

For more than 700 years, the Irish lived under and alongside the English, and later British, Empire.

Being the first colony, Ireland was where the British imperial project and its racist policies were formulated and then exported to other parts of the accumulating empire – Canada, India, Ceylon, for example.

Words such as “ethnic cleansing”, “racially inferior”, and “segregation” pepper texts on the British conquest of Ireland at the behest of royalty.

Ireland became what Professor Jane Ohlmeyer of Trinity College Dublin described as a “laboratory both for imperial rule and for resistance to that rule”.

The template, which the empire followed for partitioning India and Pakistan, and Israel and Palestine, was copied from the earlier partition of the island of Ireland and the creation of “Northern Ireland”.

The fallout from that partition is as present today in Ireland as it is in other partitioned lands.

As well as being colonised, the Irish were also energetic and active colonists in the British Empire, and soldiers in its armies – a fact that does not sit well with Ireland’s national narrative of imperial victimhood.

Complicated ties

To say the relationship between Ireland and Britain is “complicated” is a perilous understatement.

Yet, the death of Queen Elizabeth II has been officially marked in Ireland with words of condolence and flags on government buildings lowered to half-staff.

The inauguration of the new king, Charles III, is being closely followed, too, and welcomed by some.

The Irish Times wrote of how the new king – but, then prince – had been on regular “less formal and more relaxed” visits to Ireland since the mid-1990s.

“The British monarch has long promised to visit every Irish county before he dies … In all, he has visited more than half of the 32 counties” of Ireland, the newspaper reported.

Indifference to the queen’s death

There was also indifference to the queen’s passing, and on social media, in particular, expressions that were less than empathetic.

Still, the queen was popular for achieving a remarkable fete by forging a degree of reconciliation between both nations.

That occurred during a pioneering visit in 2011 when she became the first British monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland since the country won freedom in a war of independence against British Crown forces almost a century before.

Whether the new king can build on and deepen the historic process of reconciliation started by his mother remains to be seen, particularly as both countries are moving – politically and economically – in different directions since the UK departed the European Union.

Breaking barriers

Early signs were positive on Tuesday when King Charles made his first visit to Northern Ireland.

He was greeted by two leaders of the nationalist Sinn Fein party – once considered the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – who expressed their condolences on the death of the queen; the warmth in their mutual greeting was marked.

Charles thanked Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill for a message written on the death of his mother, and in which she expressed gratitude for the contribution the queen had made towards “advancing peace and reconciliation” in Ireland.

The late queen, O’Neill wrote, had “led by example”.

The king thanked her for “the incredibly kind things you said about my mother”.

A second senior Sinn Fein official Alex Maskey, acting speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, said the queen had personally shown how to break down barriers.

The Associated Press news agency reported that Charles had walked a delicate line in Northern Ireland on Tuesday, but it was unclear whether Charles could benefit from the goodwill his mother had accumulated in Ireland.

“She had decades to build a reputation as a steadfast leader even in the most difficult of times,” AP wrote.

“Not so, her son, who some see as aloof. And nowhere else in the lands that make up this less than United Kingdom is the divide over the crown so fierce” as in Northern Ireland, AP wrote.

But the historic divide is not solely an issue for the British monarchy.

Peddling of ‘nostalgia’

The reconciliation achieved by the late queen is now faced with the emergence of British nationalism and what Trinity College’s Ohlmeyer described as a nostalgia for empire which imposes upon the present.

In 2019, Ohlmeyer recounts, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wondered aloud as to why Ireland’s then Taoiseach [Prime Minister] Leo Varadkar – who is of Indian heritage – was not “called Murphy like all the rest of them”.

Johnson’s remark and the ethnocentricity that it exuded had a long history in Ireland, she wrote.

The peddling of “nostalgia” for empire amid the rise of English nationalism underlined the importance of revisiting history and understanding the legacy of empire today.

Because, she wrote, it is in remembering and understanding that “a proud nation of Murphys and Varadkars, can best engage with our nearest neighbour in the post-Brexit world”.

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