Written on: 23. 2. 2021 in the category: Uncategorized

The Aras Others other Others

Share this now:

Keeping your nose out of other people’s business is probably a sensible idea generally, but it’s a very good one indeed when you’re an elected head of state and it’s your job not to go gratuitously offending your neighbours. So why did President Higgins utter his broadside in The Guardian newspaper about the “feigned amnesia” of the British regarding their empire? Imagine the outcry if one’s critical musings about one’s former colony in Ireland had been publicly issued from Buckingham Palace.

Admittedly, Guardian readers love being told how horrible the British are, preferably by black lesbian transexuals in wheelchairs. Still, criticisms by a small but perfectly-formed poetry-writing Irish President can be pretty exciting also, particularly for readers wearing nipple-clamps. However, some might feel that the term “feigned amnesia” suggests a dishonest forgetfulness by those in Britain who really should know better but choose not to.

So just who are these people? There’s barely a university chair of history in Britain that is not occupied by a critic of British imperialism, and in 2003 reviewers tore Niall Ferguson’s partial defence in Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World limb from limb. In the summer of 2020, scores of statues of imperial “heroes” were defaced or toppled the length and breadth of Britain, the details of which were reported with considerable glee by the BBC and The Guardian. Yet President Higgins nonetheless declared: “As I reflect on the topic, I am struck by a disinclination in both academic and journalistic accounts to critique empire and imperialism.”


He contrasted the British attitudes with the “ethical remembering” and “uncomfortable interrogations” that have happened in Ireland. I’m not sure what “ethical remembering” is, but if it means public commemorations that are open-minded, accepting and forgiving, then that’s precisely what we didn’t get. In 2016, not one single politician was present to honour the two unarmed Dublin police constables who were cold-bloodedly murdered in broad daylight in 1916 by the Irish Citizens Army, though President Higgins himself paid a glowing tribute to a woman sniper of the ICA, apparently without experiencing any uncomfortable interrogations at all. In 2020, a small private ceremony organised by the Government to commemorate the 500 RIC killed between 1916-1922 was spared any possibility of any such interrogations, uncomfortable or otherwise, because it was rudely cancelled following opposition from Sinn Fein (ie, “IRA army council”).

President Higgins added that “Those on the receiving end of imperialist adventurism were denied cultural agency.” I’ve no idea what “cultural agency” means, but ‘imperialist adventurism” was not just a British phenomenon but a European one. Even little Denmark had its empire, with colonies in the West Indies (now called the US Virgin Islands), West Africa and of course India. For almost everyone’s “imperialist adventurism” led them to that sub-continent: the Portuguese, the French, the Persians, the Moghuls, the Afghans and of course the Macedonians. Did all these empires deny “cultural agency” to the governed? Or was this only true of the British? If so, is this not a case requiring evidence rather than simple sweeping assertions?

Anyway, the British did not conquer a free people in India but a variety of subject peoples, many of whom were literally slaves, and all of whom were unfree subjects of the Moghul empire, or of various princes, sultans and maharajahs. Furthermore, there was no state of “India” until the British made it. That’s not an imperial theory; that’s an empirical fact.

But what lifted the President’s speech into another realm was its presumption that the Irish, as well as being victims of British imperialism, were not also its creators. Two of the founders of the empire in India were Irish (and not ‘Anglo-Irish’, a term they would not have understood): the Wellesley brothers. One later became the Duke of Wellington, but the other, Richard, was an architect not merely of the empire, but also of the relations between the natives the imperialists and – ahem – the “cultural agency” for this process was Fort William College, which he founded in Calcutta in 1805. The men who were to run India for the next century were taught Persian (then the lingua franca, courtesy of an earlier empire), Indian languages and Islamic law. It was here that the Urdu and Hindi languages – until then, jointly known as “Hindustani”- were separately codified. Its graduates included the Irishman William McNaughten, a fluent speaker of Persian, Hindustani and other Indian languages, later to be killed in Afghanistan. A comparable fate awaited Richard Bourke, the Earl of Mayo who was Viceroy of India until he was bumped off while visiting the Andaman Islands. Those minor misfortunes aside, Fort William was the main reason why Calcutta witnessed the great flowering of Bengali culture in the mid-19th century. Is this what President Higgins meant by being “denied cultural agency”?

Pakistan today has a nuclear bomb – surely the very definition of “cultural agency” – largely because of one man: A Q Khan. He was educated at St Anthony’s High School Lahore, which was founded in 1875 by Irish Marist missionaries from Athlone. Meanwhile, the Catholic Bishop of Madras, Stephen Fennelly from Tipperary, asked the Irish Patrician Brothers to open a school in the city.  Three missionaries from Mountrath – Brothers Ignatius Rice, Paul Hughes and Fintan Parkinson – duly obliged; alas, history does not detail the Mountrath-to-Madras culture shock, which must rather have resembled an early A. Q. Khan special. In 1890, the height of empire, the school began to flourish under the guidance of Aloysius Hogan. For nearly a century, all the headmasters of St Patrick’s High School for Anglo-Indians were Irish, the last being Brother O’Brien in 1970. So when President Higgins spoke of “Forcing an acceptance on those subjugated of the inferiority of their culture as a dominated Other” was he referring to the role of the Irish clergy in protecting the dominant Otherness of the Anglo-Indian?

And yes, there really are people, Guardian-readers mostly, who say Other, capital O, as an adjective, noun and verb. And yes, it sounds like a creation of the Department of Linguistic Sociobabble in the University of Chicago, whereas it was invented by that monstrous fraud, Jaques Lacan RIP, sob. And yes, I’m genuinely sorry he’s gone, because it would be such fun to smOther him to death. SlOwly.

The funny thing about the O-word is that though Othering someone is usually bad, occasionally it’s laudable to Other other Others –  such as, for example, those horrible Brits who feign “imperial amnesia”. But what about Irish amnesia? There was probably no more vigorous imperialist than the Dublin-born Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley. You might say that he was of Ascendancy stock – but is that not Othering him?  Robert Halpin was of modest Wicklow roots and probably did more to connect the empire than anyone in history, laying 26,000 miles of cable linking Aden, Australia, Bombay, Brest, Canada, Indonesia, Madeira, Newfoundland, Singapore to London; the Otherland to the mOtherland.

Presumably, President Higgins didn’t want to upset his Guardian readers by mentioning the plus-sides to imperialism – English common law, cricket, railways and medicine. In this last category stand John Crimmin, William Temple, Thomas Moore-Lane and Peter Freyer, Irish giants of the Indian Medical Service. Moreover, during this decade of centenaries, should we not remember that Roger Casement began his career in the British Colonial Service and Erskine Childers was once such a vehement imperialist that he even clambered to biff Boers for Queen and Country? James MacNeill was a veteran of the Indian Civil Service before he joined Sinn Fein, later becoming the first Irish High Commissioner in London. Michael O’Dwyer, from Tipperary, formerly Governor General of the Punjab, was assassinated in London in 1939 in retribution for his inexcusable justification of the Amritsar massacre of about five hundred unarmed civilians in 1919. The man directly responsible for that slaughter, Reginald Dyer, of an Irish family and educated in Middleton College Cork, also deserved a bullet but (rather inconsiderately) had died in 1927.

Amritsar was a shocking atrocity, but how much is it primarily remembered in India today for the rhyming Otherness of its authors, O’Dwyer and Dyer? Putting aside the naked genocides accompanying partition in 1947, in which perhaps two million Indians were slaughtered by other Indians –  or even Other Indians – since independence, there have been around a dozen massacres in India greater than Amritsar’s. Police officers were unquestionably complicit in the slaughter of eight thousand Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. Many Indians have accused the authorities in the state of Gujurat of sedulously inciting the 2002 massacres of Muslims in which possibly 2,000 people were killed, with women being gang-raped before being burnt alive, all of which rather dwarfs Amritsar. The Chief Minister of Gujurat back then is now the Prime Minister of India. So is President Higgins planning any trips to New Delhi to offer some further thoughts on Otherness, Cultural Agency, Ethical Remembering, Uncomfortable Interrogations and perhaps other grand concepts beginning with capital letters?

I Certainly Hope So.

Share this now:
Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial