Episode 4: Britain’s ‘Knowledge Gap’ about Ireland

Recent politics have revealed a common lack of knowledge about Ireland and Northern Ireland in the Britain at a time when it is of vital strategic importance. What is behind the blind spot? We call this phenomenon ‘The Knowledge Gap’, and investigate how it came to be by comparing the history courses taught in Ireland and the UK, with some striking results. We also hear from experts on Northern Ireland who found themselves in the eye of the storm following the recent election which brought the Democratic Unionist Party unexpectedly close to power in Westminster and unleashed huge demand for crash courses on Northern Ireland. This episode reveals that uncertainty about where the UK begins and ends is widespread — including among those whose job is to know.

4 Replies to “Episode 4: Britain’s ‘Knowledge Gap’ about Ireland”

  1. This was an interesting podcast, but I think that Irish people often overestimate the extent to which the English have ever cared about Ireland at all. As Swift said three centuries ago, `As to Ireland; they know little more of than they do of Mexico`. My own opinion is that England has been trying to disentangle itself from Ireland for 150 years, which is hard to believe if you are Irish, but it accords with the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869, the House of Commons voting for the 2nd Home Rule Bill in the 1890s (blocked by the Lords), or the passing of the 3rd Home Rule bill before the Great War. You can further see this in the deliberate keeping at arms length of Northern Ireland rather than imposing Direct Rule: hence Edward Carson bemoaning that Ulster had been turned into a second-rate Dominion. Harold Wilson as PM in the 60s was in favour of a united Ireland and successive British governments, whether through Sunningdale or the Anglo-Irish agreement, were happy to see the Republic given some role in governing the north.

    Incidentally I did OCR Britain and Ireland 1798 – 1921 for A Level a few years ago. I would check whether the course still exists. I don’t remember there being any particular bias towards either side, I think everything was covered in an fairly evenhanded way.

    The irony is that Ireland is sufficiently distant enough to not have been mentally absorbed by the English as countrymen, but not different enough for the English to regard the Irish as being properly foreign. I’m always amused that I have to show my passport when I travel to Ireland from England, but Irish travellers to England are treated as domestic flyers and don’t go through passport control.

    The ultimate difficulty is that Ireland is not as important to England historically as England is to Ireland. I don’t agree that England was embarrassed by losing Ireland in the 20th century because I think that it presupposes that the English were ever that bothered in the first place. Incidentally on the day that Ireland left the Commonwealth and broke the last ties, George VI (who had after all just been deposed as King of Ireland!) sent the following message to Sean O’Kelly, the new president:

    ‘I send you my sincere good wishes on this day, being well aware of the neighbourly links which hold the people of the Republic of Ireland in close association with my subjects of the United Kingdom. I hold in most grateful memory the services and sacrifices of the men and women of your country who rendered gallant assistance to our cause in the recent war and who made a notable contribution to our victories. I pray that every blessing may be with you today and in the future.’

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment and for listening in to the podcast. I think we’ll probably disagree on a fair bit of the above, which I’d caution as a bit of a ‘Whig’ history. After all, the induction of Ireland into the Union in 1801 can hardly be seen as an attempt to disentangle! And, while Whig politicians like Gladstone worked hard to put forward a home rule bill, at the end of the day it was rejected by the Westminster Commons, and then a second time by the Lords. So, while lots of English politicians hoped to secure a political separation from Ireland and its problems, lots of others clung on to the old order very tightly indeed. Remember Churchill threatening Eamonn De Valera that he would re-invade the Free State if necessity required! There’s also the economic factor – in the 19th century, Ireland was worth about as much to the UK economy as North Sea Oil fields were in he 1980s (a good disincentive to disentangle).

      One thing we can agree on, though, is that England has seldom shown any enormous degree of interest in the island – right back to Swift’s time, as you say. This is the central subject of our episode – since we thought this continued (and systematised?) indifference is rather strange, perhaps not so much regarding the Republic, but certainly when it comes to the UK territory of Northern Ireland! Thanks again for the message, which I think our listeners will definitely find very interesting!

  2. Hi John and Tim. I think we all probably agree that England is and probably always was indifferent to Ireland.. especially during the famine years.. or some might say the ethnic cleansing years.. and, it is possibly also fair to say Ireland is utterly indifferent to England too save and except she invaded us with no reason except the same expansionist policy for which Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland and surprisingly thinking this invasion was somehow different and somehow ok. It wasn’t and it wasn’t. There would, of course, have been no need to disentangle if there had been no entanglement to begin with.. just saying!

  3. As a Scot living in England for over 30 years , I think the English feel that the Irish ( N&S ) are inferior, as are most of the world’s people. This may seem trivial but it is the undertone of many decisions made by English politicians throughout the centuries.

Leave a Reply