There was an odd dissonance, yesterday, as an Irish viewer of the military ceremonies to mark the 70th year of Elizabeth II Windsor’s reign on the British throne. The Royal Standard, flying high (and in an improbably large version) aloft Buckingham Palace retains, after all, in the bottom left quadrant, the Royal Harp of the Irish Crown.
The Irish Guards, marching past the Prince of Wales, taking his salute, did so to the sound of their old Irish – and unmistakably Irish – marching tune “Nora Creinne“. That tune is part of our history, played as it was while men from Dublin and Cork and Laois marched forward through cannonfire into the teeth of French gus and bayonets. When Prince Charles led the household cavalry off horseguards parade for the march down to Buckingham palace, it was to the tune of “Tell me ma” – one of the most recognisably Irish tunes, and again, one used historically by Irish soldiers. The commentator on Sky noted on several occasions how many of the tunes played by the troops originated on this island, and in Dublin, rather than London. The pageantry of the whole thing – the cannons, the red coats*, many of the flags – date to the Napoleonic Wars, where whole regiments of Irishmen (usually catholic Irishmen) served under Wellington to deal with the French from Salamanca all the way to Waterloo. There’s a very large extent to which, when you watch these events, you’re watching things that were part of the fabric of Irish life for centuries, for generations of young Irish men and women.
* An interesting story about Irish affinity for the red coat follows at the end of this piece, for those interested.
It sometimes feels like it is popular in Ireland to disclaim, and deny, all the historical ties between our two countries, on the basis that, at least from a modern perspective, those ties were always imposed and unwanted. We run away from them. The British, by contrast, almost unthinkingly embrace them as part of their history.
This piece is not an argument that independence was a mistake, or something we should regret. By and large, Irish independence has been a success. Aspirations for a United Ireland are legitimate, and indeed a United Ireland by consent is the editorial preference of this publication. Our relationship with Britain has long been rocky, and marked at times by some horrendous oppression, from the penal laws to the famine, to far too many years of turning a blind eye to sectarian oppression in Northern Ireland.
But just as Britain left an indelible mark in Ireland, so too did Ireland leave an indelible mark on Britain. Much of its history is our history too, though it’s a history that is increasingly convenient, politically, and ideologically, to forget.
Yet to this day, in Dublin Castle, we keep the throne. This Republic – a republic very proud of its Republicanism – proudly displays for foreign visitors, under a canopy of Royal Purple, the chair in which the Queen Empress, Victoria, was the last to sit. The walls of that building, if you visit it, are an odd mix of portraits and history. The Irish state will show you the room in which James Connolly awaited execution, and display the work of Irish artists – but 20 seconds down the corridor, there’s an enormous portrait, perfectly preserved, of George II. The great hall – in which state banquets are held, Presidents inaugurated, and foreign heads of state (including Elizabeth) toasted – proudly displays and preserves the family arms and history of every Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Oddly, none of our own Presidents are commemorated in that manner. Perhaps they should be.
The term “West Brit” is, these days, a favoured term of abuse. It is cast about, by and large, as an inferred description of people who would rather be British than Irish. Those of us who wear the phrase, even, do so ironically, almost as a self-deprecating joke. But all it is, really, is this: A recognition that for most of modern history, British history and Irish history are deeply intertwined, and that from those centuries, there are things to be proud of, and some memories to retain. You can, in fact, be a west Brit, and a supporter of Irish independence, and feel a degree of fondness and pride at the sight of an Irish regiment trooping its colour.
After all, it’s not for nothing that when Prince Charles visits here, he gets huge crowds. The people who cheer and welcome him are not bad Republicans, or even Royalists. It’s just that there is, still, a folk memory of a time in Ireland when the Crown was our Crown too. And while we may have hated the Black and Tans, there’s never been any evidence of a deep-seated anti-Royalism in the Ireland of the pre-rising era. Home Rule, at the end of the day, would have kept the Windsors, but ditched the Commons. Canadians and Australians are no less independent or self-governing than we are – they just chose a different model.
So, some of us, still, tuned in yesterday, and enjoyed it. That doesn’t make them, or us, bad Republicans. It just makes them people attuned to the fullness of Irish history, and the relationship between our two countries. And who recognise that, for all its flaws, Britain retains, in Elizabeth, an asset.
* Ireland and the red coat
As promised, a bit of Irish history you may not have learned (let’s face it, certainly did not learn) in school: The Red Coats worn by the British Army in 1700s, and through the Napoleonic Era, and indeed in ceremonial dress ever since, actually date to Cromwell’s New Model Army, who were the first to wear them. With the restoration of Charles II, the red coats were kept as part of the Royal Army. The Irish had a particular – and surprising – affinity for them. At the end of the Jacobite wars, the Catholic Irish soldiers of James II fled – in their thousands – to France, where they entered the service of Louis XIV. And to France, they took their red coats. The “Irish Brigade” of the French Army, alongside Louis’ Swiss guards, were the only regiments in France to wear red – the Irish keeping it as a sign that they were still fighting for their rightful King, James. For many years, the Irish fought for Louis and his successors – winning honours aplenty, including famously at the Battle of Fontenoy, where the Irish Brigade fought a decisive engagement against the English. Some estimates say that as many as 400,000 Irishmen fought, at one time or another, in the red coats of the French Irish brigade.
This service in France came to an abrupt end, however, with the revolution. The Irish Brigade were Catholic, and Royalist, to their core, and appalled of the new regime. And so it was that their commander, Daniel Charles, Count O’Connell, led the Irish Brigade out of the service of France, and back into the British Army, where, it was felt, there was a warmer house for Irish catholics. Daniel Charles O’Connell has two claims to fame, as a result: He is the only man in history known to have recieved a pension both as a General of France (awarded to him after the fall of Napoleon) and as a Colonel of the British Army.
He was also the Uncle of Daniel O’Connell, better known to us all as the Liberator. And a man who led Irish redcoats both for, and against, Britain.