From top: the author’s grandmother (Helen Ennis, née Yates) being carried by her mother in Blessington Street, Dublin in 1907; Luke Brennan
I didn’t know it at the time, but I used to watch the British Empire crumble on Sunday afternoons as a seven year old. Empires crumble very slowly, but that wasn’t why I did not see it. I wasn’t aware that my grandmother, then suffering from Alzheimer’s was the end of the line for those that suckled directly on the Empire’s tentacles.
My grandmother, wonderful woman that she was, had been given every opportunity in life to realise her gifts. The late and only child of two doting parents, her father was a former newspaper editor and sports writer with the Irish Times, he had lovingly home-schooled her, providing all the care and attention a child could need.
She had put it to good use; an eager student, she won Feis Ceol gold medals at piano and also won national awards in both sculpture and painting while at the National College of Art.
My mother was eager on Sunday afternoons to share at least the faint echo of who her mother had been with us, for, more than her accomplishments, she had been a kind, generous and warm person.
My grandmother had shown her disinterest in any privilege by eloping to Merrion Square with an Ennis from County Wexford, my grandfather was neither approved of by her family or by his.
He was the eldest son of a proud farming family, he lived the wild life and was almost a destitute when she started dating him. His sister had been in Art college with my grandmother, and had almost tripped over him on Grafton Street, or so the story goes.
My mother was the third of six children. She was also her mother’s daughter, marrying a Brennan from Glasthule, to further diminish any chance the empire had of striking back.
The point made here, is that it is a separate thing, national identity versus any idea of empire. Irishness or Britishness is one thing. The British Empire is another entirely. It is an idea, or a series of ideas, and a system.
A highly effective system, most significantly effective at enriching the British nobility. Of course, there was trickle down, those that supported that system all shared the spoils to some extent. I saw the aging tendrils around my Grandmother’s house on Sunday afternoons. I see the same type of rooms, with the same fireplaces, the same objects in period dramas now. It seems the British empire is dying everywhere, all the time.
The British Empire is best portrayed on film by the actor Anthony Hopkins. You can see his latest, Oscar-winning masterpiece performance as ‘The Father’, a once respected highly skilled engineer succumbs to the ravages of dementia. An angry old man becomes fitful and nasty, along with provoking a sympathy that he finds hard to accept. He becomes a burden on those that care about him.
You can look further back and see the earlier phase of the demise in ‘The Remains of the Day’, when the reality of being a servant is made clear. The Empire was made to serve the nobility. Those who serve blindly with no opinions or conscience do as much damage to themselves as others.
Or you can look at the Silence of the Lambs and see the danger of a confused butcher who thinks he is smarter than everyone else in room and thinking that makes it all OK.
Again, important to separate the British people from the British Empire. The British people are the closest thing that Irish people have to cousins. Never mind that most Irish people have British cousins. Which is the real point of this piece, in that I don’t think we are fully cognisant of our relationship with the British Empire and it’s latest death rattle, Brexit.
Pause for a moment to consider the British post boxes around country of Ireland. Did painting them green really stop them being British post boxes? Now think about the postal system behind the post boxes, do we have any green paint that will cover them? What about the legal system? Tax system? Banking? Or the civil service?
Most commentary regarding Brexit revolves around how the English are shooting themselves in the foot, or the potential damage to cross-border trade, or tensions in the North. Are we not forgetting that our closest companion for many hundred years is no longer by our side?
We have one foot in the EU for the last 50 years, but that doesn’t amount to the same thing. Barry Andrews, MEP, last week visited Portugal as special guest for the Irish Portugal Business Network, his comments indicating we have some work to do, he said:
“With the UK out of the EU, Ireland has been left a bit isolated. Ireland would have been in alignment with the UK on certain issues, like justice and home affairs, tax issues, financial services, etc. As both countries are common-law and outside of the Shenghen zone, the MEP says, “we could have shared our homework.”
Andrews explained that the geographical isolation also makes it difficult for Ireland because it doesn’t have physical or regional alignment with anyone, the way that Portugal’s has a Mediterranean relationship with countries like Malta. Nor does it have proximity to the Nordic/Baltic nor the Franco-German relationships, so Ireland has to find less obvious ways to forge its own alignments, therefore Ireland is actively working to build on existing friendly relationships with these countries.
Doing your own homework may be more a burden than one might think, especially when you have no friends and someone else has been doing it for 800 years. This runs deep into who we are. We may have to re-assess our relationship with our oldest companion, also our most common foe.
We might even need to make some new friends.
Previously: Luke Brennan on Broadsheet