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How Ireland served as a laboratory for the British empire

What we are bearing witness to in the Middle East and Ukraine are cruel - and often unacknowledged - legacies associated with the collapse of the Ottoman, British and Russian empires

The spectre of empire looms large. The harrowing conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine are legacies of empire, just as the Troubles (1968-1998) in Northern Ireland was.

From 1516 until the end of the first World War Palestine formed part of the Ottoman empire, which encircled the Mediterranean basin and included coastal territories in North Africa, the Middle East and much of southeastern Europe. In 1918, Britain conquered Palestine and ruled it as a “mandate” until 1948, when the country was partitioned into two states using legislation modelled on the Government of Ireland Act (December 1920) that had partitioned Ireland.

By the early 20th century, the British empire was the largest global empire in history, one on which the sun quite literally never set, with Ireland as its oldest colony. Britain’s great imperial rival on the world stage was Romanov Russia, which at its 19th-century peak stretched from the Baltic in the west to Alaska in the east and included much of central and northeast Asia. Russian expansionism had begun in earnest in the mid-17th century with the conquest and annexation of Ukraine, known as “Little Russia”, which went on to form an integral part of the vast landed Russian empire until it secured independence in 1991. The desire to recreate this Romanov empire now drives Vladimir Putin, just as nostalgia for empire fuels right wing English nationalism.

As the Ottoman, Russian, and British empires all illustrate, conquest and colonisation were not single events. They were complex processes that spanned centuries and impacted different regions at different times and in different ways.

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One thing is clear, imperialism was – and is – about the acquisition of territory, about settler colonialism, about the exercise of political and economic power, and about violence and coercion. Strategies about how best to turn conquest into profit, to marshal, mobilise and control natural resources, especially land and labour, varied from empire to empire but the often grim reality of everyday life did not change and provoked a wide variety of responses ranging from acceptance, accommodation, assimilation and innovation, to resistance, rebellion and deadly colonial wars.

What then of Ireland, where empire has a long history? England first invaded Ireland in 1169, which led Friedrich Engels to observe in a letter (1856) to Karl Marx that “Ireland may be regarded as the first English colony”.

Colonists followed the conquerors, settling across the island and especially in Munster and Ulster. By the early 18th century, nearly a third of the island’s population was of immigrant stock, descendants of 350,000 (mostly Protestant) settlers who had colonised Ireland during the course of the 17th century. The colonists brought with them their English language, fashions, culture, and commercial ways, which parliamentary legislation privileged while outlawing Irish language and dress, together with Irish agricultural, social, political and cultural practices.

As in the Ottoman and Russian empires, imperialism in Ireland ultimately rested on violence and the use of force. During the Nine Years War (1594-1603) English forces used scorched-earth tactics and starvation to secure submission. Roughly 20 per cent of the Irish population died during the war of the 1640s. Large numbers of non-combatants suffered death from war, exposure, famine and disease, along with hostage taking and dislocation. Refugees, the majority of whom were women and children, overran Dublin and other urban centres. Eyewitness accounts (known as the “1641 Depositions”) recorded the brutal assaults, stripping, torture, rape and reproductive violations inflicted on women. Politicians and propagandists – from the 17th until the 20th centuries – then seized on their trauma and suffering to instil fear, to stir up sectarianism and to justify retribution.

Sectarianism, cultural stereotyping, dehumanisation and expropriation underpinned early modern English imperialism. The revolution in Irish landholding, which began with the plantations of the early 17th century and culminated with the Cromwellian and later the restoration land settlements, resulted in the wholesale transfer of land – roughly eight million acres – from Catholic to Protestant hands. Moreover, Irish land, together with access to Irish labour, funded English imperialism in Ireland and beyond and provisioned colonies, especially in the Atlantic and India. By the end of the 17th century Ireland was well and truly embedded in a subservient economic structure, something that characterised the later British empire.

In this – and in so many other ways – Ireland served as a laboratory for the British empire. It was in Ireland that imperial and anglicising policies were formulated. Race-based ideologies were developed and “tools of empire”, such as mapping, were tested. Just as the Irish were victims of English imperialism, some – Catholics as well as Protestants – actively engaged in the business of empire or served in imperial armies and administrations.

As well as making empires, Ireland served as an exemplar for resistance to imperial rule and inspired freedom fighters across the British and other European empires. Today one hopes that Ireland, with our “two-state solution”, might also serve as a template for peace.

One thing is for sure. What we are bearing witness to in the Middle East and Ukraine are cruel – and often unacknowledged – legacies associated with the collapse of the Ottoman, British and Russian empires. The grim reality is that empires and imperial frameworks have shaped global history for millenniums and continue to do so.

Jane Ohlmeyer, Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History (1762), Trinity College Dublin and author of Making Empire. Ireland, Imperialism and the Early Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2023) and lead investigator on the new European-funded project recovering the lived experiences of women in early modern Ireland.