On Ireland’s century

Published Dhaka Tribune Feb 2021

When Bangladesh celebrates the 50th anniversary of Victory Day this December, an independent Ireland will be about half a century older than liberated Bangladesh. 

Approximately. The political history of both countries is too interesting to be oversimplified.

It is no coincidence both have populations who enjoy debate for debate’s sake. 

Ireland’s president, Michael D Higgins, has termed as “feigned amnesia” the attitude some members of the British ruling class have towards the legacies of colonialism and partition. The past few years have certainly displayed this in spades, with some UK ministers not knowing basic facts and tying themselves up in knots over Brexit’s impact on the island of Ireland. 

Not that it is straightforward. Ireland’s history is complex enough for it to lack an official Independence Day. Higgins’s point is that given their nations’ intimate ties and long, often bloody history, there is no excuse for British politicians to be ignorant about Ireland. 

On December 6, 1921, Great Britain agreed to Ireland having the same self-governing status as Canada by signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and creating the Irish Free State.

The Irish War of Independence, which preceded the treaty, is a key landmark in the story of 20th century decolonization struggles. In the eyes of the world, it was the first time the British Empire had been forced to the negotiating table to recognize a new breakaway state since the 13 US colonies. Britain would concede the Raj less than three decades later. 

The empire had endured major military and political setbacks before, notably in Afghanistan and South Africa, but Ireland stood out for its closeness to London and for having been formally part of the UK since 1801.

The treaty allowed for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK if it so chooses, a status that Dublin and London both stood by through the thick and thin of the provinces “troubles.”

More controversial than partition within the new Irish Free State was the fact of its dominion status requiring allegiance to the Crown. This was a step down from the Irish Republic declared by the First Dail (parliament) of nationalist MPs in 1919, prompting its President Éamon de Valera to object to ratification of the treaty.

While election results in June 1922 backed the pragmatic intentions of the treaty, which was also ratified by the new dail, anti-treaty factions were strong enough to start a bitter 11-month long civil war, in which the pro-treaty leader Michael Collins was assassinated. 

The pro-treaty side prevailed, but de Valera soon returned to parliament before going on to dominate Irish politics from the 1930s to 60s. Along the way, a new constitution changed the country’s name to Ireland (Eire) in 1937, and in 1949, it formally left the British Empire upon declaring itself a republic. 

An interesting point of difference with the sub-continent: Indian and Irish freedom movements shared a long common interest in resisting British imperialism, and both watched and supported each other’s progress closely, across the political spectrum. 

From famines and economic exploitation to freedom fighters and hunger strikers, to debates about the wars in which hundreds of thousands of their countrymen voluntarily fought for the colonizers, the struggles had plenty in common. 


Nehru and de Valera expressed mutual admiration. Yet, while the latter in office abstained from the Imperial Conferences of Dominions which preceded the present-day Commonwealth, Nehru was content to see the rules changed after Ireland’s departure in 1949, allowing India to become a republic while remaining a member of the Commonwealth in 1950. 

Aside from anti-colonialism, there were also cultural affinities. Most famously perhaps, a translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s 1910 poetry collection Gitanjali was fervently promoted by William Butler Yeats a year before Tagore became Nobel laureate in 1913, with Yeats following in his footsteps to win the literature prize a decade later.

No doubt this is an attractive story on which to dwell. But, as the Bangladesh A cricket team is hosting a tour by the Ireland Wolves, (an animal even rarer in Ireland than tigers are in Bangladesh), it is more pertinent to look at the differences. Ireland was colonized for centuries, but was also part of the colonial metropole. Its people were subjected to exploitation and racism, but they have also been an integral part of British life and society in the same way as the Scots and Welsh. 

In 1920, an Irish private James Daly who had been part of a soldier’s protest in the Punjab about the Black and Tans in Ireland, became the last member of the British armed forces to be shot for mutiny. 

Months before, the Irish-schooled Col Dyer became known as “the Butcher of Amritsar” for firing on an unarmed crowd at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. He was following the instructions of Punjab’s Lieutenant Governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer, who was born in County Tipperary, (and years later assassinated at a public meeting in London in 1940, by the Indian revolutionary Udham Singh.) 

The past is a different country. Ireland today is one of the richest countries in Europe with a higher per capita GDP than the UK. 

In a few decades, it has transformed from a land people migrated away from, into a land that draws immigrants, from a society dominated by a socially conservative church into one that votes to legalize gay marriage and abortion. 

This is no accident or stroke of luck. Ireland has long had the advantage of a highly educated population, known for its strong literary tradition and influence. 

Unlike Bangladesh, where 50 years after independence, over a quarter of the population is illiterate, a century ago at independence, Ireland had a more literate population than most of Europe. 

Political scandals and economic crises in the 1970s and 80s may have added to negative perceptions about the country being destined to remain a depopulated backwater. But the key to transforming into the “Celtic Tiger” economy of the 1990s was already present, unlike in Bangladesh.

At least Bangladesh is like Ireland in the sense of being much-changed economically from 1971. 

By some reckonings, (distorted by its small size and tax policies,) Ireland’s economy is now in the world top five for per capita GDP. A giant leap in less than five decades. Almost unimaginably so.

Can anyone imagine Bangladesh following a similar trajectory in its second half-century?