Decolonising Irish History? A Panel Discussion

Statue of Victoria being hoisted away in front of leinster house


In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, renewed attention has turned to decolonising the curriculum, a wide-ranging initiative which means different things to different people and in different contexts. As statues toppled around the world, similar dialogues have been underway about decolonising the public sphere, interrogating the frequently racialised assumptions which have underpinned monuments and statues, particularly from the Victorian era of high imperialism. As illustrated by the recent controversy surrounding the removal of the Shelbourne statues in Dublin and ongoing debates about the John Mitchel statue in Newry, these are also live issues in Irish public life. 

Irish history sits in a complicated position in relation to questions around decolonising the curriculum, with the nature and extent of British colonisation, shifting conceptions of 'whiteness', Irish emigrant experiences, and participation in the British imperial project all posing difficult questions to be untangled. On the one hand, Ireland experienced a long period of colonisation by England and later Britain - this process began, with varying degrees of brutality, in 1169 but accelerated rapidly during the Tudor Conquest of the 16th and 17th centuries. From this perspective, Ireland has frequently been called ‘Britain’s first colony’, and Irish people and Irish society were highly racialised by the British state. This has had lingering and serious consequences to this day - not least in attitudes towards the Irish language and Gaelic culture, and for the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. On the other hand, some parts of Irish society were heavily implicated in the expansion of the British Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries, with its attendant brutality and in some cases were involved in slave-trading. After the Act of Union in 1801, Ireland was formally part of the United Kingdom (although some colonial trappings were retained), Irish men served in both the British Army and colonial administrations, and Irish people continued to migrate in large numbers to the Anglophone world. As such, whether Irish history can represent a ‘decolonised curriculum’ is not a straightforward question. Commonly held assumptions and definitions around ‘whiteness’ do not neatly fit; as we know, in Irish history ‘white’ is a concept with a long and problematic history which reflects a wide spectrum of identities.

As the academy diversifies and decolonises, this is an opportune moment to examine the extent to which perspectives around decolonising the curriculum might bring new insight to the approaches, methodologies and sources that historians of Ireland and the Irish world adopt. This webinar will bring together a number of scholars grappling with the imperial and colonial legacies of Irish history, in dialogue with each other and with the audience, to consider the challenges, opportunities and sensitivities that a decolonising lens can bring to our work as historians. 


Our panel will include:

Dr Shahmima Akhtar (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Dr Dónal Hassett (University College Cork)

Professor Kevin Kenny (New York University)

Dr Laura McAtackney (University of Aarhus)

Professor Ian McBride (University of Oxford)

Dr Timothy McMahon (Marquette University)

Dr Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid (University of Sheffield)

Professor Jane Ohlmeyer (Trinity College Dublin)



Professor Ian McBride & Dr Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, Conference of Irish Historians in Britain


The organisers gratefully acknowledge the support of TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities) and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Ireland

Click here to register.

Further reading


Foundational texts: Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (1944); Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History (1982); Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London, 1978); Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000).


Other relevant works: Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (2005), Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (2010); Christopher A. Bayly, ‘Moral Judgment: Empire, Nation and History’, European Review, 14 (2006); Charles W. Mills, ‘Racial Liberalism’, PMLA (Oct. 2008), vol. 123, no. 5; Richard Drayton, ‘Where Does the World Historian Write From? Objectivity, Moral Conscience and the Past and Present of Imperialism’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 46, no. 3, (2011); Carole Pateman, ‘The Settler Contract’, in Contract and Domination, ed. Carole Pateman and C. W. Mills (Cambridge, 2007); Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (2010); idem, ‘“Settler Colonialism”: Career of a Concept’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 41/2 (2013); Caroline Elkins and Susan Pedersen, (eds.), Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century: Projects, Practices, Legacies (2005).


Ireland and empire: D. B. Quinn, ‘Ireland and Sixteenth-Century European Expansion’, in T. Desmond Williams (ed.), Historical Studies, I (1958); Joseph Ruane, ‘Colonialism and the Interpretation of Irish Historical Development’, in Marilyn Silverman and P. H. Gulliver (eds.), Approaching the Past: Historical Anthropology through Irish Case Studies (1992); Stephen Howe, Ireland and the Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture (2000); Stephen Howe, ‘British Worlds, Settler Worlds, World Systems, and Killing Fields’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 40/4 (2012); Joe Cleary, ‘Amongst Empires: A Short History of Ireland and Empire Studies in International Context’, Éire-Ireland, 42 (2007).


The Hidden Ireland: Vincent Morley, The Popular Mind in Eighteenth-Century Ireland (2017); Lesa Ní Mhunghaile, ‘The Legal System in Ireland and the Irish Language 1700-c.1843’, in Law and the Irish, 1689-1848: Power, Privilege and Practice (2011); ‘Bilingualism, print culture in Irish and the public sphere, 1700-c.1830’, in James Kelly and Ciarán MacMurchaidh (eds), Irish and English: Essays on the Irish Linguistic and Cultural Frontier, 1600-1900 (2012); ‘Re-Imagining Feminist Protest in Contemporary Translation: Lament for Art O’Leary and The Midnight Court’, in Moyra Haslett (ed.), Irish Literature in Transition, 1700-1780, vol. I. (2020).


Ireland and the Caribbean: Nini Rodgers, Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery (1645-1865) (2007); Richard S. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (1972); Thomas M.  Truxes, Irish-American Trade, 1660–1783 (1988); Donald Harman Akenson, If the Irish ran the world: Montserrat 1630-1730 (1997); Jenny Shaw and Karen Block, ‘Subjects without an Empire: the Irish in the early modern Caribbean’ in Past and Present, no. 210 (Feb. 2011); Jenny Shaw, Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference (2013); Orla Power, ‘The ‘Quadripartite Concern’ of St. Croix: An Irish Catholic Experiment in the Danish West Indies’, in The Irish in the Atlantic World, ed. David T. Gleeson (2010); Orla Power, ‘The 18th Century Irish Sugar and Slave Trade at St. Croix’ in Igor Pérez Tostado and Enrique García Hernán (eds.), Ireland and the Iberian Atlantic (1580-1823) (2010); Orla Power, ‘Friend, foe or family? Catholic Creoles, French Huguenots, Scottish Dissenters: Aspects of the Irish Diaspora at St. Croix, Danish West Indies, c.1760’, in Niall Whelehan (ed.), Transnational Perspectives on Modern Irish history (Abingdon, 2015); Nick Draper, ‘Research Note: “Dependent on Precarious Subsistences”: Ireland’s Slave-owners at the Time of Emancipation’ in Britain and the World, vi (Sept. 2013); Craig Bailey, ‘Metropole and Colony: Irish Networks and Patronage in the Eighteenth-Century Empire’ in Enda Delaney and Donald MacRaild, Irish Migration, Networks and Ethnic Identities (2007); Matteo Binasco, Making, Breaking and Remaking the Irish Missionary Network: Ireland, Rome and the West Indies in the Seventeenth Century (2020)


Swift, Burke and political writing: Ian McBride, ‘The Politics of A Modest Proposal: Swift and the Irish Crisis of the Late 1720s’, Past & Present, 244: 1 (2019); ‘Swift, Locke and Slavery’,; ‘Burke and Ireland’, in David Dwan and Chris Insole (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Edmund Burke (2012); Sankar Muthu (ed.), Empire and Modern Political Thought (2012), chapters by David Armitage (Locke) and Uday S. Mehta (Burke); P. J. Marshall, Edmund Burke and the British Empire in the West Indies: Wealth, Power and Slavery (2019).


See also ‘British Liberty and the Slave Trade’: