Musings of a ‘British’ historian in the age of Brexit

Joan Redmond, Lecturer in Early Modern British History (KCL), reflects on the nature of ‘British’ history following recent events which have forced the commonalities and distinctions within the ‘Atlantic archipelago’ into the political spotlight.

 

These past few weeks have been unusually lively ones for those of us working on Irish and British history. Political events, particularly surrounding the issue of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and indeed the wider question of the three-way relationships between Britain, Northern Ireland and Ireland have been exercising politicians, journalists and the wider public in a way not seen perhaps since the end of the Troubles. It also provides a rich opportunity however for those of us concerned with the long history of British-Irish relations to reflect on both ongoing and historical challenges that face the continuation of a healthy and mutually beneficial British-Irish partnership. King’s has proved a vibrant and stimulating environment for such study, with initiatives such as the Centre for Contemporary British History and my colleague Maggie Scull’s recent edited volume with Naomi Lloyd-Jones, Four Nations Approaches to Modern ‘British’ History.

I write this during my first year in post as lecturer in early modern British history. I will admit that this is a title that can sometimes feel ill-suited: is ‘British’ history exactly what I am ‘doing’ so to speak, given my research on seventeenth-century religious conflict, and wider questions of religious and ethnic identities with Ireland and – yes – ‘Britain’, even if such a term is problematic. Would I instead describe myself as an Irish historian, even though I am researching beyond Ireland? What about ‘British and Irish’ history, to use the title chosen by my doctoral supervisor Professor John Morrill, himself one of the great interrogators of ‘British History’? However such a distinction to me implies a certain cutting off or separation between Ireland and ‘Britain’, when in fact many of the questions that most fascinate me are to do with their bumping off one another, to tweak Conrad Russell’s ‘billiard balls’ imagery. Perhaps my confusion is simply emblematic of a much wider and more profound identity crisis that afflicts England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and this more illusive and slippery ‘Britain’ sitting between them all.

The results of the referendum to leave the EU, together with the resulting recent spat surrounding the future of the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland demonstrate to me the paramount importance of understanding the internal histories and dynamics of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom – including Northern Ireland. The divergent votes of England and Wales versus Scotland and Northern Ireland in the referendum challenge us to consider the long historical developments that influenced the Brexit result. These must also take into consideration issues such as Scottish independence, the debates surrounding devolution across the UK, and indeed the very future of the union itself. Of course, there needs also to be a strand of investigation which examines the interactions of these nations and their peoples, but as Tim Harris has argued, understanding the particular political, cultural and social structures from which each of the ‘British nations’ have emerged is paramount.

A protest in Manchester. By Ilovetheeu - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63104409

A protest in Manchester.
By Ilovetheeu – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63104409

Where then does this leave the early modern period? ‘British’ history has often been characterised as especially robust in the writings of sixteenth and seventeenth-century historians, interested in processes such as state formation: an interrogation of the dynamics of a British ‘coming together’ in these centuries, as argued by John Pocock. However, the challenge to me seems to be to look beyond these issues of constitution and the creation of a political ‘nation’ from four distinctive entities, and to examine other avenues of both coming together and pulling apart. This can help us in our quandary to examine both the internal histories of the four nations, while also accommodating an overarching strand – a ‘fifth nation’ perhaps, to borrow an idea from Maggie Scull and Naomi Lloyd-Jones in their introduction to the Four Nations book.

In my own research, those avenues take the form of investigations into religion and ethnicity. Religion seems a very fruitful potential source of interrogating both particular histories and pan-British trends: the continued adherence to Roman Catholicism of much of the Irish population is but one example. Trying to understand it involves the interaction of a number of ‘Irish’ factors, among which we can count the importance of local aristocracy, the relative strength of the late medieval Irish church, particularly the mendicant orders of Franciscans and Dominicans, and a lively popular piety that often tied both belief and religious heritage to the physical landscape of Ireland, from holy wells to St Patrick’s Purgatory at Lough Derg, believed by some to be an entrance to Hell. However it is also impossible to understand it without reference to wider, ‘British’ factors. Historians have spoken of the ‘Tudor discovery’ of Ireland, underlining that even as late as the sixteenth century, the English authorities in Ireland knew very little of their western fringe: this lacuna was to prove fundamental, since ignorance in turn produced tension and subsequently, tragically, conflict. The fusion of church and state engendered by Henry VIII’s break with Rome was, in the eyes of historians such as the recently-deceased Brendan Bradshaw, a fatal flaw as the increasingly aggressive policies of the English state became elided with the ‘new’ religion, engendering a widespread rejection founded on both religious and political grounds, as Protestantism was both heresy, and English. But what of more ordinary people? My own research into the 1641 Irish Rebellion has shown this toxic mixture of heresy and anti-English feeling fuelling conflict and at times unspeakable acts of violence. Violence and conflict can be an excellent microcosm for both these intensely ‘national’ concerns to be interwoven with much larger ‘British’ ones: the legacies of such events still resonate with us today.

However, the example above does not mean that we ‘British’ historians should be searching for a unified experience or entity in every aspect of the histories of our nations. It seems to me that, as both recent and very distant past events have shown, there is a need, indeed even an urgent need, to consider the specific as well as the ‘British’ – for without the former, the latter is rendered too general and meaningless. British history is perhaps then best imagined as a mosaic of both overlapping and discrete peoples, forces, events: tiles of many different hues that can be both a supporting border, as well as a single image. Now, how to fit one on my office door?

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