Ireland and the British Isles

Augustus Petermann, Hydrographical Map of the British Isles, 1849

Figure 1. Augustus Petermann, Hydrographical Map of the British Isles, 1849

Is Ireland in the British Isles? The Oxford English Dictionary seems clear. It tells us that the British Isles is:

A group of islands, including Britain, Ireland (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands, the Isles of Scilly, and the Channel Islands, lying off the coast of northwestern Europe, from which they are separated by the North Sea and the English Channel.

This establishes the matter by authority. The authority of the Dictionary settles the matter. Perhaps. The Dictionary itself allows some doubt to obtrude, glossing its declaration with this further observation:

The term is generally regarded as a geographical or territorial description, rather than as one which designates a political entity. The term is deprecated by some speakers in the Republic of Ireland.

We might wonder why. Intention, Authority, Roots, and Usage: these are at four ways to consider the meaning of geographical terms such as the British Isles, and I might add, the North Sea or the English Channel.

Humpty Dumpty, an illustration by John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll, Alice through the looking glass, 1871

Figure 2. Humpty Dumpty, an illustration by John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll, Alice through the looking glass, 1871


The first is perhaps the least helpful, allowing labels to mean whatever the speaker intends. This is Humpty Dumpty’s approach:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Humpty Dumpty would be Master, establishing the meaning of words by fiat. In France, the waters called by some the English Channel are known as La Manche, the sleeve, after its shape rather than following the proprietorial practice of their English neighbours. Which is to be Master? The North Sea lies to the north of Holland from whence the English took the term, although until the nineteenth century many English maps gave it in Latin as Oceanus Germanicus (see Figure 1 above), and the Danes styled it Vesterhavet, or West Sea. Which is to be Master?

Samuel Johnson's dictionary, 1806 edition

Figure 3. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, 1806 edition


What sort of authority does a Dictionary claim? It might seem to be an authority on language but it clearly comes from a particular place. The Oxford English Dictionary is from Oxford, it is British. Webster’s is from the other side of the Atlantic. Which is to be Master? The great dictionary projects date from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, and they were about fixing meaning, about establishing what it meant to speak and write correct English, or French. In France Cardinal Richelieu set up the Academie Française in 1635 and charged it with preserving the fidelity of the French language, an obligation it discharged, in part, by publishing a Dictionary. In his Dictionaries and the Authoritarian Tradition: Study in English Usage and Lexicography (De Gruyter Mouton, 1973), Ronald Wells, referring to a prospectus produced in 1747 by Samuel Johnson, remarks that Johnson’s intention was that his Dictionary would:

[S]tabiliz[e] the [English] language, and provide the much-sought authoritative standard.

Webster's Dictionary, the 1828 edition

Figure 4. Webster’s Dictionary, the 1828 edition

Wells noted that in 1796, Noah Webster, in proposing his own Dictionary, explicitly addressed the question of authority, and its relations with nationalism. Webster believed that:

[A] national language is a national tie, and what country wants it more than America? (Wells, p. 56).

In determining a language, these dictionaries claimed a nation. Presenting the term, the British Isles, as no more than a geographical expression, quite unrelated to politics, the Oxford English Dictionary asserts a separation between geography and politics, belied both by the origins of dictionaries themselves and, in this case, by the nature of the term it claims to fix. The geographical term that interests us, the British Isles, weaves together matters of identity and of territory. It is unavoidably political.

Raymond Williams, author of Keywords (Croom Helm, 1976)

Figure 5. Raymond Williams, author of Keywords (Croom Helm, 1976)


In his miniature masterpiece, Keywords, Raymond Williams explicated the social and political histories plaited into many of the big, important words that help us think about our place in the world. Words like culture, or class, or oppositions such as that between country and city, were inheritances that provoked and likewise limited our political imagination. Williams was sure that these terms need:

[T]o be made at once conscious and critical.

The questions we might ask include the following: under what circumstances did these words come into our language and what work do they do? Williams was proud of his Welsh heritage and yet among his century of Keywords he did not include ‘English’, ‘British’ or ‘Welsh’.

18th century engraving of 'Ancient Briton'

Figure 6. 18th century engraving of ‘Ancient Briton’

When the Romans invaded Britain, Britanniam, they subdued a group of peoples Julius Caesar identified as Britannos (H. J. Edwards (ed.), Caesar. I. The Gallic War (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1917), Book IV, ch. 21, p. 206). Caesar referred to Britain as a single island, triangular in form (Insula natura triquetra, V:13, p. 250), with a southern side opposite Gaul (France), and another coast facing

[T]he west, in which direction lies Ireland (Hibernia), smaller by one half, as it is thought, than Britain; the sea-passage is of equal length to that from Gaul to Britain. Here in mid-channel is an island called Man; in addition, several smaller islands are supposed to lie close to land (V:13, p. 251).

For Britanniam, Caesar was only the first of many invasions such that over the next millennium-and-a-half, the genealogy of the ruling elite in Britain was not so much interrupted as imported. For quite some time this mattered rather little to the monarchs involved since states were more or less the collected estates of the monarch, the places from which revenue and armies could be raised. They had no more coherence than that lent by force of arms.


Figure 7. A 1922 King George V 'seahorses' postage stamp featuring Britannia, with an Irish Free State overprint

Figure 7. A 1922 King George V ‘seahorses’ postage stamp featuring Britannia, with an Irish Free State overprint

This changed in two ways. The legitimating ideologies of states changed and the British state developed into its modern imperial form. From the eighteenth-century, as Anthony Smith argued in The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), a more demotic version of nationalism developed and each state was now supposed to be the spatial expression of a nation, or a people, united in some polity that was legitimate. The genealogy of the nation now became more important, even if it had to be invented, and hence a whole series of rituals and emblems that amount to The Invention of Tradition (eds. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, Cambridge University Press, 1983). Britons and Britannia were important elements in this mythology. Britannia was a personification of the Britons variously resisting Roman invasion or establishing their own Empire by virtue of naval superiority. Britannia was also conflated with martial representations of other British women such as Boadicea, Elizabeth I, and Victoria. In this political iconography, Britannia is shown as martial and Hibernia as poetic (see Figure 8 where Britannia has a shield and trident, and Hibernia has a harp and an olive branch). Again, we see Britain, and hence British, presented as counter, or partner, but certainly as distinct from, Ireland and hence Irish.

Figure 8. Memorial coin (Kuchler) commemorating the Act of Union between Ireland and Britain, 1801

Figure 8. Memorial coin (Kuchler) commemorating the Act of Union between Ireland and Britain, 1801

The second development makes the antagonistic nature of the British label even clearer. In Britons: forging the nation, 1707-1837 (Yale University Press, 1992), her study of how a British identity was made, Linda Colley concludes that the coming-together of England, Wales and Scotland as a coherent British nation was achieved by focusing upon threats to the Protestantism and by sharing in a common project of establishing a transatlantic Empire. Colley recognizes that the Catholic “Other” was also found closer than Continental Europe, notably with the Irish in Britain and in Ireland, but so was her Empire. Nicholas Canny has written of Making Ireland British, 1580-1650 (Oxford University Press, 2000) focusing on the period of the Munster and Ulster plantations. I think we might take up the implicit suggestion of Colley and ask if this venture made Britain British. The collaboration of English with Scots in Ulster suspended, at least for a time, the tensions between the Presbyterian and Established churches, uniting both in a militant fight for Empire and against Catholicism, in Ireland and against the Irish.

Figure 9. John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, 1676

Figure 9. John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, 1676

As part of an Empire, then, Ireland becomes incorporated into a broader Britain (see Figure 9). This feeds what Thomas Leslie Herron refers to as the plantation aesthetic in poets such as Edmund Spenser (The plantation aesthetic: Irish colonial culture in Spenser and Shakespeare, PhD thesis, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2001). The British project was the subjugation, if not extirpation of the Catholic threat from Ireland, and this was best achieved by dispossessing, and perhaps even expelling, the Irish and establishing instead on these lands, loyal British subjects. In this way England, or England with Scotland, become Britain, and Ireland becomes an imperial possession, a British isle. Returning to our Dictionary, we find that the illustrative quotations for early use of the term British Isles includes a tract on fishing, Thomas Jenner’s London’s blame (1651) and the phrase occurs in a description of the power of the:

States of the Commonwealth of England

said to be:

[N]ow almost Commander of all the British Isles, and hath also enlarged their Dominions over a great part of the Western Indies; by means of which extent of Empire, crossing in a manner the whole Ocean, the trade and persons of all Nations moving from one part of the world to the other, must of necessity come within the Compass of their Power and Jursidiction (pp. 13-14).

From Britanniam to England to British, as from Hibernia to Ireland to British, was a history of state and then empire building, reflecting the domination of England within the archipelago. The British Isles is no more an innocent product of history than would have been the acceptance of the Hibernian Isles as a label in its stead. As Humpty Dumpty said:

Which is to be master–that’s all.


Recall that the Oxford English Dictionary in defining the British Isles reminded us that

The term is deprecated by some speakers in the Republic of Ireland.

I wonder if there are very many occasions on which we intend more than merely Ireland and Britain when we might need to speak of the British Isles. In which case, the narrower term has felicity without giving offence. If we do intend a more comprehensive listing, then, it might be better to give it, since what goes unsaid may go unnoticed. There is a colonial history embedded in the term, the British Isles and insisting that it is a geographic rather than political term claims an unwarranted innocence.

Gerry Kearns, 30 November 2016


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