Acts of Union and Disunion: everybody needs good neighbours

Linda Colley’s brilliantly perplexing essay on British politics and Ireland.

The family and relations of Irish republican leader Eamon de Valera (1882 - 1975) follow his tri-coloured covered coffin at his funeral service at Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, 4 September 1975. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images.

Acts of Union and Disunion
BBC Radio 4

An ongoing series of short programmes written and presented by the historian Linda Colley (weekdays, 1.45pm), concentrating on various aspects of Britishness that are “contested and in flux”, has looked at the monarchy, our islands, liberty and the sea. Intriguing episodes titled “Pasts and Futures” (about UK development following the independence vote) and “Constitutions” (exploring Britain’s lack of a written one) lie ahead but her recent essay on Ireland was outstanding. Colley continually and hypnotically, with her clear, headmistress-like voice, presented the facts and figures that establish the intertwining of our nations.

By 1830, for example, the so-called British army contained more Irish than British troops and the Irish were “intrinsic actors in the empire, both as administrators and colonists”. By 1881, 800,000 Irish lived in England, hence the six million people in the UK now claiming Irish ancestry. Colley kept on with this point (she is devastating with a statistic; the figures come tumbling out), reinforcing how deeply intermingled and codependent the Irish and British experiences have been – varieties of people struggling with varieties of unworkable acts of union.

My grandfather was in the IRA. Trained as a young teenager by Michael Collins and a member of the Tipperary flying column, he fought, sometimes shoeless, in the Easter Rising of 1916: I have seen a photograph of him looking very small and not nearly warm enough, holding a rifle, with the other boys and young men in the column, who were equally cold. He spent time on death row with Éamon de Valera after partition, with his brothers (who were more sympathetic to Collins) as his jailers. He escaped and later came to London, without apparent rancour (although I often think of the inner turmoil) and lived the rest of his life as a labourer, residing off Abbey Road, helping to build the M1.

In many ways, this is a perfect demonstration of the symbiosis that Colley was talking about. The strange give and take, the head-lolling, hard-to-understand connections; the opportunities and loyalties. The various, deeply compromised acts of union in Ireland, she said, have simply been too crude. Colley called for “more messy political solutions”. (Although what might they be?)

At the beginning of the programme, she mentioned Seamus Heaney. Standing, as he did, above the fray with pure poetry and refusing for the most part to confound or nuance the set views of either republicans or nationalists, Heaney was also demonstrating those same connections, aspirations and loyalties – although it wasn’t activism in conventional political terms. Indeed, by the end of Colley’s brilliantly perplexing essay, you began to wonder how useful an adjective “political” ever is.