The Br!t!$h Isles?! Or, how to upset and annoy (some) Irish people without really trying

What’s in a name? Quite a lot and far more than we might suppose. A veritable frenzy arose from a fairly routine shout out from performers at a music gig in Dublin last night.

Pop group The Scissors Sisters‘ banter with the crowd hit a rocky note when lead singer Ana (Lynch) Matronic welcomed people from all over the ‘British Isles‘ to the concert. Cue a chorus of boos.

Today, a report of the incident, and responses to it on Twitter, on The website sparked a long stream of comments. Over 800 people read, wrote or rated contributions on whether Ireland is or isn’t, was or wasn’t, part of the British Isles. Obviously a sensitive subject and of interest to many people.

History, or at least what people believe to be history, was deployed in the arguments – closely bound up with politics past and present. Tempers frayed in some cases, passions rose in others while a few cool heads maintained an even keel.

That an off the cuff and innocuous remark by a singer on tour, who herself is of Irish extraction and bears a Celtic Cross tattoo in recognition of her heritage, should provoke such an instant and energetic response is interesting in itself. The number and variety of comments online, even more so.

Despite the many posts emphasising Ireland’s very definite separate identity from Britain, the volume and vociferousness of the reaction suggests not conviction but insecurity. A slip of the tongue by a busy singer in the middle of the constantly moving ‘bubblesphere’ of a world tour should be readily seen and easily understood for it was – an unfortunate turn of phrase by someone who has rather a lot on her mind trying to entertain 10,000 people in whatever city it is today. It might rankle a bit that we got mixed up with our neighbours but these things happen.

Instead, a storm of protest about Ana Matronic‘s intelligence, cluelessness and general all-round unfitness to be a celebrity. I look forward to X Factor, America’s Got Talent, The Voice and maybe even Jersey Shore and the tabloids adding a general knowledge test before anointing the Next Big Thing to grace our screens.

Until then maybe we could just not get so het up over an understandable and very minor mistake.

If it was a mistake, and the jury’s still out on how ‘legitimate’ the term British Isles is as a geographic term. Whether we as citizens of the Republic of Ireland like it or not, it is a long-standing and well known term. All of the islands in the region have a British presence and/or involvement,at least politically, by right or default, and again whether we and our Manx and Channel Islander neighbours like it or not. These things can be changed but it takes time – which is still more familiar to many of us, Bombay or Mumbai? East Timor or Timor Leste?

Blame history for that, not Ana Matronic. Better still leave aside blame altogether – let history and common sense shed some light on why things are the way they are. That won’t be possible by depending only on history taught in primary school, or secondary; or by reading one book, or even a handful of books. The more research done, the more books read, the more confused, complicated and uncertain will things be.
Britain turns out to have been named after the oldest Celtic-speaking inhabitants of the island – the Britons: their closest descendants are probably the Welsh and Cornish. And also closely related linguistically and culturally, the Bretons in Brittany – or little Britain, which might get confusing with other (bit of) Britain to the north, so that for clarity and because it was larger and more populated became great(er) Britain. The Romans were the people responsible for this attempt at making things crystal clear.

By this original meaning, British technically might not include English people, many of whose ancestors were (or at least are seen and widely believed to be) Anglo-Saxon. But ironically it could be expanded with accuracy to include the majority of Irish, Scots and Manx, who linguistically and culturally share a close connection with the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons.

Then again, ‘Britain’ as a modern geographic or political idea meant very little once the Romans had left, at least until much later. When King James VI of Scotland also became King of England in 1603, enthusiasm moved him to call himself King of Britain and design a new flag to mark the occasion. Both ideas were roundly disliked and swiftly ignored by English and Scots, who found sharing a king was quite enough, thank you very much.

Oddly though, it is in Ireland that ‘British’ pops up as a descriptive term next. A separate lordship (from 1171) and then kingdom (from 1541), the island was dominated, if not completely controlled, from London – where policies were decided and key decisions made. Not always with great success – by the late 1500s religious divisions had been added to ethnic, linguistic, cultural and economic differences to make government and administration difficult and constantly demanding of time, money and attention in London.
Settling new English and Scottish colonists (those present already, the Old English were almost as problematic as the Gaelic Irish when seen from London) might be a way to make the island more manageable – and from 1607 a policy of plantation brought thousands of people from England and Scotland to assume ownership of confiscated lands. Often isolated, and frequently a small minority the newcomers came to think of themselves as part of the same enterprise and identify with each other as broadly ‘British’. So, irony of ironies, ‘British’ as an accepted label gains currency in Ireland in the 1630s and 1640s.

Britain as a state and political entity though is an even later creation – only dating from 1707 and the Union of Scotland and England to create Britain. This was the first time the entire island had been ever united – and the name for the new country was a problem, especially in French. An old problem returned: the French department of Brittany in French was called Bretagne.  The island of Britain and thus the new state was also known as Bretagne. What to do? Grand Bretagne, Great Britain, solved the problem. With the France of Louis XIV being the dominant cultural and political superpower of Europe the solution, Great Britain became the recognised and accepted term. Ireland being ruled from London, though not formally and legally yet a part of the Union, came to be included within the reference as an easy shorthand that acknowledged reality. Reality joined with technicality in 1801 when Ireland was united with Great Britain to form the United Kingdom; few people outside Ireland knew or cared about the alteration. Britain remained the term most often used, the most familiar and the handiest – as it does today.

No separate name to describe someone from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland ever came into use. Ireland had little or no influence or impact upon the structure of the Union initially, and the change in status was little known and seldom mentioned in the wider world. Britain, British and British Isles came to be the easiest way to describe everyone within the United Kingdom in collective terms. And the easiest way for a European to pick out a British subject? Someone speaking English.

By 1922 such habits were hard to break, despite independence for the Irish Free State. Not surprisingly in the midst of rebuilding lives and countries after the horror of World War I while simultaneously trying to survive the Great Depression, many people failed to register events in Ireland in great detail. Ireland’s place and importance in the wider world since then and in global consciousness today tends to wildly overstated and overestimated by many Irish people. Perhaps at heart we recognise this, and this accounts for the knee-jerk reaction to any confusion, mix-up or misunderstanding, no matter how accidental or unintended. Or maybe a people of whom 99.9% speak English, very many watch English TV, read English newspapers and magazines, shop in English stores, and even support English football teams might have deeper fears about their identity……………

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