Róisín Healy is Lecturer in Modern European History at the National University of Ireland Galway. She received her Ph.D. in German History from Georgetown University in 1999 and has spent time as a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University, Potsdam University and, most recently, Leipzig University as an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow. Healy’s research centres on German, Polish and Irish history, with a special focus on transnational and comparative themes. Her publications include the co-edited volumes, The Shadow of Colonialism on Europe’s Modern Past (2014) and Small Nations and Colonial Peripheries in World War I (2016), and a forthcoming monograph, Poland in the Irish Nationalist Imagination: Anti-Colonialism within Europe.
Reflections on Colonialism and Anti-Colonialism in Ireland and Poland
Historians of Central Europe have often defined the region as distinguished by a high degree of religious and ethnic complexity, unstable political borders, and the competing claims of multiethnic empires. There is much to be said for this view of the region. Yet in defining Central Europe, scholars need to be careful not to overestimate the homogeneity and stability of Western Europe. The case of Ireland reminds us that religious and ethnic diversity and unstable borders, along with linguistic shifts and political violence, could also be found on Europe’s western periphery. Divided between a native Irish Catholic majority and a settler Anglo-Irish Protestant minority, Ireland witnessed violent revolution from the Easter Rising in 1916 to independence in 1922.
Indeed it can be argued that Ireland and the subject nations of Central Europe had a common experience of colonialism, in that they were both victims of colonial-type rule and agents in the global process of empire-building. For instance, British rule in Ireland and German rule in Prussian Poland displayed some characteristics of colonial rule, such as discourses of cultural inferiority, the denial of political aspirations, and economic disadvantage. At the same time, however, Irish and Polish subjects availed of opportunities to contribute to empire-building in Africa and Asia. Irish and Polish nationalist anti-colonialism rested in large part on a perception that, as white Christian Europeans, they were not the proper targets of colonialism. Yet after independence, Irish nationalists, while far more implicated in colonial practices abroad, built on anti-colonialism to support decolonization in the mid-twentieth-century. By contrast, Polish nationalists appeared to be slower to distance themselves from the colonial project. This paper reflects on the similarities and differences between the Irish and Polish experience of colonialism in the long nineteenth century and its implications for post-independence attitudes to colonialism.