Home Reporting from Ireland The lingering impact of British rule

The lingering impact of British rule

The lingering impact of British rule
Dublin’s Custom House is still topped by the British royal crown. Photo by Nick Wrate.

As Ireland nears its 75th anniversary as an independent republic, the impact of hundreds of years of past British rule can still be felt. Originally gaining military and political control of Ireland in 1541, the British government played a dominant role in the history and development of the country. Under British colonization, native Irish people lived under a kind of apartheid system. They were pushed off of the most fertile farmlands, and forced to inhabit undesirable rocky areas in the West.

Today, the West coast is where most native Irish speaking communities are located, because these regions were so remote and ignored by the country’s political leaders that the English language failed to take hold. Beyond physical isolation, at certain points in history, the British outlawed speaking Irish in public, and made it illegal to have building or road signs in Irish. Education, signage, legal proceedings, government documents and medical and social services were all executed in English only, a huge blow to the Irish language. Whether one is walking in Dublin or in an Irish-speaking village in the “Gaeltacht” (pockets of Ireland where most people are native Irish speakers), the impact of Britain’s 700 years of rule quickly becomes obvious.

How the British influenced architecture

British influence over Ireland’s architecture is also obvious.  The top of the Custom House in Dublin features the British crown on top of a harp (the symbol of Ireland). Considering that Ireland was under British rule at the time of the building’s construction in 1791, the crown was symbolically placed on top of the harp to convey the dominance England held over Ireland.

Beside the harp are a lion and unicorn, two major symbols of the British empire that appear in England’s royal coat of arms. Their contemporary presence on the Custom House and other government buildings in Ireland is a reminder of the unfortunate colonial past.

Another blatant example of British influence can be seen in statues throughout Ireland that honor British lords and leaders. One is a statue of Prince Albert, the husband of Britain’s famed Queen Victoria, located by Leinster House (the former palace of the dukes of Leinster), now the home of Irish Parliament. Constructed under British rule in 1871, the proximity of the statue to Ireland’s governmental buildings still serves as a reminder of the immense power that the British government had over Ireland’s politics for centuries. There have been petitions to have the statue moved, as it is a constant reminder of this harsh past, but these efforts have been unsuccessful, due to conflicts regarding the legal ownership of the statue.

The empire’s influences can also still be found in Dublin’s architecture, mainly the Georgian style, named after Kings George I, II, III and IV, who ruled the British empire throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. One sees this style, reminiscent of buildings in England, throughout Dublin’s residential and business districts. There are five major Georgian squares in the city, including Parnell, Merrion, Mountjoy and Fitzwilliam squares (these latter two named for British lords of the 16th century who colonized Ireland), and St. Stephen’s Green. The General Post Office is also built in this architectural style, and St. George’s Church is nearly identical to London’s famous Georgian church St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

A large section of Dublin Castle is also Georgian, and the castle itself, built in the 13th century by King John of England, served as a military fortress, prison, treasury, court of law, and center of English administration in Ireland for about 700 years. This building, which attracts thousands of tourists each year, is more a homage to England’s colonial domination over Ireland than a symbol of Ireland itself. Saint Patrick’s Hall, a section of the castle, features a painted ceiling depicting King George III’s coronation, and a scene showing King Henry II’s power over the Irish people dating back to the 12th century. In this illustration, Irish leaders are vividly depicted surrendering their power to the British king, a visual reminder to viewers of Ireland’s history of subjugation to England.

Another physical sign of Britain’s impact on Ireland is Victorian architecture, named after England’s Queen Victoria, distinguished by a Gothic revivalist style. It is found throughout the country, such as in the George’s Street Arcade (Ireland’s first indoor shopping center, built in 1881), the National Museum of Ireland and National Library of Ireland (both founded in 1877), and buildings in the popular shopping area of Upper Baggot Street in Dublin.

Victorian architecture in Dublin. Ireland’s first indoor shopping center, George’s Street Arcade, opened in 1881, and is one of Europe’s oldest city markets. Photo by Nick Wrate

A few Protestants still live here

Though Ireland’s population has historically been overwhelmingly Catholic, the impact of English Protestantism can still be found, which may come as a surprise, given that Protestants have always been a small minority, and today comprise only 2% of Ireland’s population. Protestantism in Ireland is known as “the Church of Ireland,” established when King Henry VIII of England decided to break away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. Since Ireland was ruled by England at the time, the official church in Ireland was headed by King Henry. English rulers continued to promote Protestantism for hundreds of years afterwards, reserving the best jobs, schools, and living conditions for Protestants, and forcing the majority Catholic population into an impoverished and subordinate existence.

Trinity College Dublin, Ireland’s oldest and most famous university, is an example of this influence. It is officially named “The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin,” after Queen Elizabeth I who founded it in 1592. Catholics were previously only able to attend this college if they took an oath to reject Catholicism, so they were effectively not welcomed into the school. Various restrictions against Catholics at the school remained until 1873, preventing Irish people from entering the country’s top university simply because of their religion. This college, which was a way of expanding Protestant power in Ireland, remains a major university and tourist attraction.

Two of the other major tourist attractions in Dublin, Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, are both part of the Church of Ireland. Interestingly, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, founded in 1191 as a Roman Catholic cathedral, was later converted by the British into its current status as part of the protestant Church of Ireland. It remains a central focal point in the capital city – the location of important national ceremonies every year.

Thus, we can see how in Ireland’s capital the Catholic religion with which most of the country’s population identifies is overshadowed by Britain’s “Church of Ireland,” in terms of the most popular places that draw thousands of visitors each year. While people should, of course, be able to practice any religion that they choose, it is ironic that the Church of Ireland, an English-founded religious institution gets the major attention in Dublin.

Despite more efforts to feature bilingual signs, English still predominates. Photos by Nick Wrate

Languages of the land

The inescapability of the English language is perhaps the most obvious mark of England’s past control over Ireland. The domination of the English language throughout Irish history continues today, with only about 2% of the nation’s total population speaking Irish (Gaelic) as their primary language. While about 40% of the population claims to be able to speak at least some Irish (since people are required to study it in school), the language of choice for most of Ireland’s population is English.

English can be found on nearly every street sign, advertisement and building, particularly in large cities like Dublin and Galway. Newspaper stands feature publications entirely in English as well, as the only Irish-language newspapers in the country are small-scale, local weekly or monthly publications. Anything written by a private (non-governmental) business or group is almost always done exclusively in English, such as restaurant menus, informational flyers and mainstream media. Since the private sector isn’t covered by the Official Languages Act of 2003, aimed at reducing bias and increasing Irish language usage by requiring that government services and signage be provided in Irish, many business owners do not feel that it is worth the expense of incorporating Irish alongside English, since everyone in Ireland is fluent in English.

While the Irish language today is featured on street signs and government signage (as a result of the Irish civil rights movement in the 1970s), the Irish phrases are typically written in a smaller, italicized font or a less attention-grabbing color than the English equivalents. Even native Irish speakers are more likely to read the English signage first, because it is more legible and obvious. As Muiris Ó Fiannachta, station manager of the Irish-speaking station Raidió na Life, noted, these inclusions of the Irish language “feel like a box-ticking exercise” so that organizations and businesses can follow the law, while still doing the bare minimum to promote Irish.

Though it might not be too surprising to find English dominant in the capital, English is prevalent in the rest of the country as well, even in the Gaeltacht regions of Ireland, where Irish has historically been the predominant language.

For example, in the Irish-speaking village of Carraroe, many signs include both English and Irish. Under the Official Languages Act of 2003, Gaeltacht areas like Carraroe were no longer required, as they once were, to post English on their signs. Gaeltacht villages could choose to have Irish-only signage, but usually don’t do this, since it would cause problems for tourists and the majority of Ireland’s non-Irish speakers who visit or move to the area. At the local SPAR supermarket in Carraroe, a “now hiring” poster stated that for employees, speaking Irish was “a plus,” but that speaking English was “a necessity.”

I heard village teenagers speaking a mix of Irish and English, as some U.S. residents might speak “Spanglish.” Since most of the media and Internet content that native Irish-speaking youth encounter are in English, it is no wonder that they tend to speak more English than Irish in their daily lives.

Despite significant efforts to revive Irish, hundreds of years of British colonial rule have forever impacted Ireland’s landscape, culture and daily norms. Whether it be Georgian or Victorian architecture, major tourist attractions associated with Britain’s churches, or the persistence of English as the country’s main language, Britain’s former control of the land is still pervasive today.


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“Georgian Dublin.” Dublin City Council, https://www.dublincity.ie/dublin-city-parks-strategy/2-parks-and-landscapes-perspective/21-growing-dublin/215-georgian-dublin

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Muiris Ó Fiannachta, station manager of Raidió na Life

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