When an Italian talks about visiting her casa colonica in the countryside, she means no more than a farmhouse. This echoes the harmless original etymology - in Latin, a colonus was a cultivator or tiller - of what has become one of the fighting words of our age. Some of the past century's most bitter physical and verbal battles have been fought over colonialism. There were movements for colonial freedom, on behalf of what the left used to call "the colonial peoples". Then there was neocolonialism and, as an academic residue, "colonial discourse analysis". As Stephen Howe writes, a once simple word has been put to ever wider and more problematic uses.
Nowhere has the concept of colonialism been more problematic than in Ireland. England began some form of conquest in the 12th century, subjugated and ruled all of Ireland from the 16th to the 18th century, attempted to incorporate it politically in the 19th century, and still holds sovereignty over a corner of it as the 21st century begins. There were also repeated colonial settlements - in the literal sense, plantations of farmers to till the land - under the aegis of the English crown. From those unarguable facts, republicans claim that, in Kevin Toolis's words, "Ireland was the first English colony and it will be the last".
But what does this mean? And is it true? Can the troubled history of Ireland's connection with England usefully be seen in the same light as European dominion over the rest of the world? Howe's fascinating book examines the "colonial paradigm" to see how it has been discussed in Irish historical and political writing.
He gives an entertaining account of the debates between revisionists - another fighting word - and nationalists, both academic and political. The revisionists have been scrutinising what Giovanni Giolitti, the Italian prime minister 100 years ago, once called "the beautiful national legends" that nourish a country. Nationalist reaction to their work has been most revealing. "What revisionism has done", Gerry Adams says dismissively, "is tell people they can't be satisfied with what they come from. That's putting things you thought of as constant under attack." Not a bad definition of critical scholarship, come to think of it.
More tellingly still, Mary McAleese, now the president of the Irish Republic, describes Conor Cruise O'Brien as an "arrogant man . . . in the process of revising everything that I had known to be a given and a truth". As Howe writes, this is not the statement of an open mind, "but the lament of a religious believer whose faith is questioned". Like those revisionist historians in Israel who have been looking at some different national legends, the work of these writers can sometimes be faulted. But in either case, they are free spirits who are not satisfied with patriotic myth, which can take the form of the "old history" taught to generations of Irish schoolchildren, or the newer fashion for seeing Ireland in third-world terms.
Although the colonial paradigm may seem tempting, one problem is that, if you go back far enough, we are all colonised and colonists. This applies notably to the British Isles. To be sure, 500 years ago there were no Scots Protestants in Ulster, just as 1,000 years ago there were no Normans in Leinster (or England); 2,000 years ago there were no Anglo-Saxons in Britain; and 3,000 years ago there were no Celts in Ireland. Does that make Celtic Ireland a colony? If, as Howe writes, "Ireland's story was indeed a colonial one, it was as part of a picture in which, literally, all European history is colonial history".
Howe is particularly illuminating on the way in which recent Irish rhetoric of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism has projected modern concepts on to the past. It would be nice for republicans if there really were a long history of Irish anti-imperialist discourse. The trouble is that, before the 1960s, nationalists simply "did not use the colonialism-anticolonialism model". It gets worse. As Howe drily writes, colonial discourse has supposedly dealt with the "disturbance in the visual field" - the stubborn fact that the Irish are observably white - "by insisting that somehow they were really black". But that was not how earlier nationalists saw it. Admittedly, John Mitchel was an extreme case. For him, the worst aspect of the Irish Famine was that it had happened to "White men! Yes, the highest and purest blood and breed of men." He combined his nationalism with warm support for slavery in the American south, hoping to see an independent Ireland with its own slave plantations.
But then, Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, was likewise disgusted by any idea that an Irish nationalist should "hold the negro his peer". A hundred years ago, Irish nationalists were indeed united in one "anti-imperial" cause, but an awkward one in retrospect. They cheered - and, in a few cases, such as Major John MacBride, fought for - the Boers in their war with England. That is, they supported the nation that created apartheid. Michael Davitt was another passionate pro-Boer, who thought that the South African blacks were "savages".
The people who did perceive Ireland in terms of imperial interests were English unionists, Tory or Liberal: for them, Home Rule was a threat to the British empire. But even this scarcely fits the colonial paradigm. English unionists wanted to keep Ireland as part of their own country and parliament, with representative constitutional government. Did they want the same for India or Africa? Even the Troubles of 1919-21 take on a different light in "Comparative Perspectives", as one of Howe's chapters is called. At exactly the same time, the British empire was dealing with a rising in Iraq. This was suppressed by the newborn Royal Air Force, whose bomber aircraft wantonly butchered villagers into submission. As Howe maintains, for all the brutality of the Black and Tans, it would have been unimaginable for the RAF to bomb republican villages in West Cork or Kerry.
Howe's book may not be written for the general reader, but anyone interested in Ireland, North or South, should read it. He takes no overt political position (although he teaches at Ruskin College, Oxford, and his footnotes reveal that he has written leaders and book reviews for the NS). His tone is reasonable in contrast to many of the books he discusses - the tendentiousness and ignorance of which occasionally provoke his asperity. In recent years, most of the nonsense has stemmed from the extreme nationalist side, or from that area where republicanism overlaps with the modish left. Howe's demolition jobs are all the more impressive because they come from a scholar who isn't a Telegraph unionist.
Thus Anthony Coughlan's claim that Marx and Engels formulated their theory of imperialism from their observation of Ireland is "entirely false", because they had no such theory. Engels rarely mentioned the Irish, and he had a regrettably low opinion of them, holding that independence would not alleviate Ireland's distress, but instead "lay bare the fact that the cause of Irish misery, which now seems to come from abroad, is really to be found at home" (an insight that was empirically verified after independence, when the bulk of productive economic assets in the Free State were indigenously owned). As to Paul Foot's effusion Ireland: why Britain must get out, Howe writes (correctly, I'm afraid) that "Foot's historical account condenses almost every conceivable myth about Ireland's past as well as perpetrating very basic factual errors. Quite obviously he - like many external 'friends of Irish freedom' - has not even second-hand awareness of any modern writing about the country's history."
One writer who does win Howe's approval is Fred Halliday, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, a long-time member of the editorial board of the New Left Review and, as it happens, Irish by birth. Howe mentions Halliday's joke that, if Irish republicans want an historical hero, they should choose the first man to have ruled a United Ireland, King Henry VIII. This would win few smiles from republicans, who are not distinguished by their humour, nor by their grasp of history, Irish or otherwise. The weakness of their agitprop is shown by the way that, while invoking faraway struggles, difficulties are avoided by insisting on what Howe calls "an implicit or explicit belief in Irish exceptionalism".
This is not true of Halliday, who knows quite enough about Ireland, but whose life's study is the Arab and Islamic worlds. In his absorbing new collection of essays, Nation and Religion in the Middle East, he looks at the monarchy in the Middle East, the conflict between Arabs and Persians (which led to one of the bloodiest wars of recent times, with both sides invoking the seventh-century battle of Qadisiyya), and fundamentalism. The book includes reportage from Iran, which first appeared in the NS, and a delightful essay, worthy of Richard Cobb, on Arab merchants in Manchester.
Halliday's range allows him to make many penetrating cross-cultural comparisons. Discussing "'Terrorisms' in Historical Perspective", he exposes the argument that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" as a relativist fallacy. He rightly asserts that the majority of acts of terror, past and present, have been committed by the powerful against the powerless. And yet, even when a cause is just, "there must be violent actions which everybody, whatever their cultural background, can agree are illegitimate", especially in democratic societies, as "in the cases of the IRA and ETA; their use of violence is not legitimate tout court". Expressing such opinions has distanced Halliday from sections of the left, which says more about them than it does about him.
Halliday devotes a chapter to "the nationalism debate", which has recently engaged some of the best historical minds, and from which important lessons can be learned for both Ireland and the Middle East. In the end, one can't help feeling that the real division is not between either side in that debate, revisionists and traditionalists, left and right, orange and green, but between those who know what they are talking about and those who don't. Here are admirable books by two men who do.