Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Britain and Ireland: ambiguities of Empire

Watch this video, in which Gemma Clark cites the settlement of Ireland as a key example of the complex relationships within the British Isles.
Hi. I’m Dr. Gemma Clark, Lecturer in British and Irish History at the University of Exeter. The geographical entity of the British Isles is made up of Great Britain, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and many smaller islands. The political and constitutional relationships within and between these islands have shifted over time, reflecting waves of conquest and settlement. What today we call Britain, or the UK, wouldn’t hold the same significance for English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish people a century ago. “Empire” also means different things to different people at different times. And the ambiguities of the British Empire are perhaps nowhere better seen than in the history of Britain’s closest neighbour, Ireland. Ireland’s colonisation began in the late 16th century.
The English monarchy and parliament secured control of Ireland through a series of confiscations of Catholic owned land and its plantation by Protestant settlers from England and Scotland. Religious conflict and social inequality, namely, the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the settler elite, would shape Ireland’s development into modern times. However, despite what some today see as the obvious, violent legacies of English, later British occupation, particularly in UK controlled Northern Ireland, others disagree that Ireland ever was a colony to begin with. These aren’t just problems of interpretation amongst historians. Ireland’s relationship with the British Empire also caused contemporary confusion and controversy. During the 19th century, a key period of imperial expansion, Ireland wasn’t a formal British colony.
The upheaval of the late 18th century– revolution abroad, and French inspired insurrection in Ireland in 1798– convinced Prime Minister Pitt the Younger to bring Ireland more firmly under British control. But the result was that Ireland, unlike other colonies or dominions, was made, legally, at least, an equal partner in the New United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland with representation at Westminster. Thus, the 1800 Act of Union abolished the Dublin Parliament. Ireland instead sent 100 MPs to the House of Commons and 32 members to the Lords to legislators on Irish, British, and imperial affairs. And whilst Catholics were barred from standing for Parliament until their emancipation in 1829, it wasn’t only the Irish Protestant elite who participated in imperialism.
For many ordinary Irish Catholics, empire also offered career and other opportunities. Yet, whilst Irish soldiers and administrators enforced imperial rule in India and elsewhere, at home, Irish men and women simultaneously experienced governance that, whilst not officially colonial, shared elements with the rule of faraway territories– A separate executive headed by a Lord Lieutenant, for example, an armed centrally organised police, the Royal Irish Constabulary. And outside the industrial north, the concentration of Scottish Presbyterian planters in Ulster had seen the region develop differently from the rural south. The Irish economy was forced to serve imperial markets over its own needs.
The great Irish famine of 1845 to 1849 not only exposed the weaknesses of recent economic union, but also focused attention on the historic conquests that had left Ireland invulnerable to mass starvation before the potato blight arrived. Like the disaster following the great drought in India of 1876 to 1878, Ireland’s famine began as a natural catastrophe. But the effects of crop failure were worsened by the continued export of grain to England and inadequate government relief measures. One million died, and 1.5 million departed Ireland permanently. Indeed, mass migration continued to characterise Irish life under British rule. Today, 18 million people worldwide claim Irish ancestry. And historically, the diaspora’s key destinations, the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have been former colonies.
Empire was both a chain and a key for Irish people. Thus, the diversity and ambiguity of the British Empire is evident even at its very heart in the complex relationship between Britain and its closest neighbour, Ireland.

In this video, Gemma Clark cites the conquest and settlement of Ireland as a key example of the complex political, constitutional and imperial relationships within the British Isles.

As you watch the video, consider what it means to be ‘British’, and how this has changed over time.

Discuss with fellow learners the following questions:

  • What were the political and constitutional relationships between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, during key periods of British imperial expansion and collapse?
  • How integral were Ireland – and Irish people around the world – to Britain’s imperial project?
  • Did Ireland gain or lose from the British imperial connection? Was Ireland a colony?

You may wish to visit the additional resources listed in the downloads section at the bottom of this step.

This article is from the free online

Empire: the Controversies of British Imperialism

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now