Ireland and post-colonial theory
Ireland and post-colonial theory

Edited by Clare Carroll and Patricia King
Cork University Press, 2003

Postcolonial theory has recently emerged as one of the most influential modes of socio-cultural analysis currently shaping Irish studies. It is a school of thought inspired largely by the work of Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, and Indian Subaltern Studies. The ``post'' means ``since colonialism began'' rather than ``after colonialism ended''.

Postcolonial theory in the Irish context is not strictly speaking the study of the economic, political and cultural effects of British colonial rule in Ireland. More specifically, it is about how Ireland has not only been a geographical entity dominated by the British state, but also a history, geography, culture and population written and represented by what the British said about them. The main object of postcolonial theory is that colonial system of representations. This collection of twelve essays is a representative sample of this kind of analysis influenced by the postcolonial paradigm. One of the strengths of postcolonial theory is that it widens the interpretive perspective, because it argues that the proper contextual frame for Irish studies is the wider historical and geographical span of colonial capitalism. As Joe Cleary puts it in his essay included in this collection, postcolonial theory effectively ``dislocates'' Irish studies.

Note: In their introduction, the editors note that Ireland has been ``both a transgressive and a founding site for postcolonial theory''. Transgressive, because it is geographically and culturally in Europe, and a founding site, because the country was England's first (and last?) colony. The fact that Ireland transgresses in many ways the different colonial models drawn up by scholars had led some to think that the idea of Ireland as a British colony has little conceptual merit.

Objectively, Ireland is an intrinsic part of Western Europe, in geographic, economic, racial and cultural terms, and has more in common with Denmark, Belgium or Poland than India, Algeria or the Congo. Subjectively, the Irish did not see themselves as a colonised people like the Indians or the Africans, but as a separate European nation. And finally, those critics point that the Irish, as soldiers and missionaries, were complicit in the process of imperial conquest, and participated in the genocide of natives in Australia and North America.

Joe Cleary and David Lloyd subject those arguments to criticism in their contributions to the book. The first argument ``assumes an essentially homologous relationship between the country's spatial location, its socio-economic composition and culture''. Ireland may belong to the same geographical area as other European countries, but it was integrated in a very different manner than its main European neighbours. Postcolonial theory contends that ``wider European currents were mediated through a society which was in its structural composition -- class and ethnic relations, land tenure systems, relationship with England and so on -- objectively colonial in character.''


It uncovers how ``the discrepant ways in which Irish political and cultural life, which were obviously shaped and textured by wider European development, were at the same time over-determined by the country's dependent position.'' If postcolonial theory insists on the discrepancy between Ireland and other European countries, at the same time it refuses false ``homologies'' between Ireland and India or the Congo for example. Postcolonial theory rests upon a ``differential approach'', marking the ways in which specific forms emerge in relation to the colonial process. Without such a differential approach, the analysis of colonialism ``tends toward either bad abstraction or a positivistic catalogue of singularities, and leads to a conceptual inanity in which the import of the singularity is permanently evanescent.''

Edward Said describes as a form of ``creative borrowing'' the way in which this differential approach uses examples from other colonial contexts, such as that of Palestine. To the argument, that the Irish did not see themselves as a colonised people, Edward Said responds ``but neither did the Congolese before Lumumba''. Finally, Amitav Ghosh in her chapter on the experience of Indian soldiers in the British Army, shows that the British Empire employed many soldiers of Irish and Indian origin who played a part in the expansion and consolidation of the Empire while at the same time being colonised people themselves.


Postcolonial theory sounds very ambitious, but in practice it deals more with things that are historically marginal details and footnotes of history. Most of the essays are of narrow historical interest, more likely to interest the academics and the specialists than the general reader. Clare Carroll compares Spanish representation of Amerindians in the second half of the 16th century as not barbarous with English accounts of the Irish from Gerald of Wales to Edmund Spencer, as ``natural slaves''. Luke Gibbons describes how the United Irishmen's belief in universal emancipation expressed itself in support for other colonised people. He mentions the interesting fact that in 1789, the Iroquois Amerindian nation nominated as honorary chief Lord Edward Fitzgerald, future leader of the 1798 rebellion.

Another essay by Joseph Lennon discusses Irish Orientalism from the 18th century to the early 20th century Celtic revival, showing how Irish representations of Asia are both similar and different from other European representations of the Orient. Gauri Viswanathan writes about James Cousins, an Irish poet who supported Indian nationalism, and explains how his interest in theosophy and Indian nativism provided the basis for his internationalism.

Seamus Deane has a fascinating essay on English as it is written by Irish authors, exploring the relations between the loss of the Irish language after the Famine and technical accomplishments of writers like Joyce or Beckett. The Irish language in their work is audible as silence, ``the silence of the other language that haunts the English language, sometimes in the shape of its syntax and grammar, or of its idiom and vocabulary, sometimes merely as reference or implication.''

Unfortunately, postcolonial theorists have the nasty habit of writing in a fairly obscure prose. This book is no exception, and it is not the easiest of readings. Finally, their lack of discussion of more contemporary problems is regrettable. For example can Northern Ireland be considered a colony if it is part of the British state? Is the Republic of Ireland a ``Neo Colony''? Has it overcome the legacy of colonialism? Can the Republican and Republican Socialist movements be considered anti-colonial national liberation fronts?

Those are crucial issues to which postcolonial theory should pay more attention.


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