‘Hybridized Britons’ or ‘Irredeemably Irish’? Irish-Imperial Identities in the Twentieth Century.

Seán William Gannon brings us a taste of his new book, ‘The Irish Imperial Service: Policing Palestine and Administering the Empire, 1922-66’, in this blog post on Irish imperial identities. It’s been brilliant to feature considerations of Irish imperial identities across the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries – and we look forward to continuing these discussions further!


The gradual emergence of what came to be called the Four Nations’ approach to the study of the British Empire has resulted in a large and, indeed, ever-increasing body of research on Ireland and Empire which, to varying degrees, interrogates the hitherto hidden history ofIrish participation in Britain’s imperial project. That this research is almost entirely confined to the eighteenth and long nineteenth centuries speaks to a historiographical assumption that Irish imperial services’ enlistment effectively ceased with independence in 1922. But while Southern Ireland’s secession from the UK did see its imperial connection irrecoverably compromised, the recruitment of Irishmen (and, to a lesser extent, Irishwomen) by the British Colonial Service continued, and an examination of the Colonial List for 1922-66 reveals a notable Irish presence at all levels and across all sectors. Many served in the colonies their entire working lives and a significant number remained on in retirement, forming, with compatriot missionaries and settlers, transient Irish diasporas throughout the dependent empire.

As Barry Crosbie has noted, this Four Nations’ approach seeks ‘to demonstrate how the different peoples and ethnicities of the British Isles … viewed the Empire in different ways and interacted with indigenous people and culture accordingly’, and there was a tendency amongst Irish imperial servants to view twentieth-century colonial life through an Irish national lens.[I] This was particularly true of anticolonial insurgencies, Irish analogies with which they accepted or rejected according to the lights of their individual political/socio-cultural ‘variety of Irishness’. However, with few striking exceptions (for example, the ‘irredeemably Irish’ Sir Michael McDonnell in Palestine, and Maurice Collis in Burma, whose actions challenged imperial state power), Irish imperial servants reached the same pro-British Empire perspective, one indistinguishable from that of the majority of their British-born colleagues.[ii] And, so too with their attitudes on race. In this sense, their Irishness made little difference to imperial outlook, and even less to imperial policy, as almost all of the professional approaches in which it discernibly resulted upheld the British Empire’s authority.

Is it then possible to speak of a distinctly Irish colonial-diasporic identity amongst career Irish imperial servants? Or did they simply become what Nicholas Canny called ‘hybridized Britons’?[iii] The Anglicizing current in colonial life was certainly strong, as too was the Weberian ‘status honour’ of the colonial ruling class. The British communal identity forged by minority status in alien lands was reinforced through immersion in the (upper)-middle-class English microsocieties created in the colonies as their expatriate populations expanded, the rituals of which (such as dressing for dinner, toasting the Crown, and the observance of British holidays) all officers were expected to observe. Such traditions not only butressed the antecedent ‘Britishness’ of Irish Protestant (and, indeed, Catholic) unionist/loyalist officers, but could dull the edges of Irish nationalist identities by making the heretofore stigmatized routine. This was particularly true of English team sports, which were central to British overseas social life.

The British corporate identity of the imperial services themselves further facilitated the dilution of national difference. Membership of the Indian Civil Service, the Sudan Political Service, and the British Colonial Service instilled  what Anna Crozier has described as ‘a sense of … privileged belonging’ to a ‘sturdy administrative tradition connected by implication … to a continuous line of British service overseas originating in India in the sixteenth century’.[iv] And although frequently riven with internal rivalries, these services promoted a cohesive British group culture which itself cultivated an esprit de corps which, like regimental identity in the army, generally transcended ethnic identity. Furthermore, the unity of professional purpose inspired by shared belief in the empire’s ‘civilising mission’ reinforced a sense of British imperial belonging, while the strong camaraderie to which service loyalty gave rise (facilitated in many cases by shared social class) resulted in the formation of personal friendships which further occluded national distinctions.

‘Performances’ of a specifically Irish identity did occur in the colonial space. Larger territories boasted Hibernian clubs and societies (most notably, the Irish Society of East Africa and Calcutta’s Hibernian club, founded in 1924 and 1928 respectively), while St Patrick’s Day was a red letter day in most British colonies throughout the twentieth century. Yet these were thoroughly imperialized affairs. For example, St Patrick’s Day celebrations were generally attended by the local colonial top brass and included toasts to the monarch and other aristocratic imperial patrons. Moreover, the Irish ‘patriotic’ songs sung were invariably sentimentalist, apolitical airs: for example, the 1939 Palestine Police St Patrick’s Day dinner included renditions of ‘Danny Boy’, ‘The Dear Little Shamrock’, ‘Come Back to Erin’ and ‘Molly Malone’, their lyrics helpfully suppiled in a printed programme. As one Irish soldier put it in the context of his own regimental celebration in India, the band ‘played a selection of Irish airs, but nothing Irish!’.[v]

Palestine Police St Patrick’s Day celebration programme, 1939.

Even the once-rebellious act of sporting shamrock was imperialized at the colonial interface, Queen Victoria’s 1900 instruction that ‘her Irish soldiers’ do so henceforth to commemorate their gallantry in the Anglo-Boer War transforming it into an apolitical expression of Irishness there. The imperial character of colonial St Patrick’s Day celebrations contrasted markedly with those held by Irish diasporas in the United States and the dominions (as well as in Independent Ireland itself), which were often of an overtly Catholic and republican cast.

On St Patrick’s Day 1900, the  British commander in South Africa, Frederick Sleigh Roberts(who had strong Waterford roots), followed the Irish regiments’ lead by wearing shamrock in his headdress ‘to show that asserting Irishness and loyalty to the Crown no longer contradicted each other’.[vi] And, for the great majority of twentieth-century Irish imperial servants, in whose minds Irish and imperial allegiances coexisted without complication, this was a self-evident article of faith.

But, in some cases, the Irishness of career colonial servants was completely subsumed by their British-imperial identities. Colonial administrator William Lindsay Murphy, for example, became so thoroughly Anglicized by a lifetime of imperial service that he took to toasting the Crown even when dining en famille, and he was so disgusted by the December 1948 enactment of an Irish Republic that he reproached his son, the celebrated poet Richard Murphy, for making his home there. (He himself retired to Southern Rhodesia). Similarly, with Henry Blackall, a colonial judge from Limerick who refused to become ‘a citizen of the Irish Free State or worse still the Irish Republic’, and denounced Britain’s decision ‘not [to] regard natives of Eire as foreigners’ after Ireland’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth as a Chamberlain-esque ‘policy of appeasement’.[vii] And so too with Michael O’Dwyer (the infamous Tipperary-born governor of the Punjab), a self-declared Irish Home Ruler whose deep ambivalence towards the Irish Free State’s dominion status cast him as a unionist in all but name. For men such as these, the term ‘hybridized Briton’ seems rather apt.


Dr Seán William Gannon is an independent researcher, whose work focusses on Twentieth-Century Ireland, the British Empire, and their intersections. He is the author of The Irish Imperial Service: Policing Palestine and Administering the Empire, 1922-66, recently published as part of Palgrave Macmillan’s Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies series.seanwgannon@yahoo.ie; @swgannon


Featured image: Christmas Day lunch at the Palestine police billet in Jaffa, 1947.

[i]Barry Crosbie, ‘Irish Religious Networks in Colonial South Asia, ca. 1788-1858’ in Colin Barr & Hilary M. Carey (eds), Religion and Greater Ireland: Christianity and Irish Global Networks(Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2015), 290-28, 210.

[ii]Commonwealth & Empire Museum, Bristol, Palestine Police Archive, uncatalogued, Box 11 Miscellaneous, Spicer to unknown, 12 July 1936. Born in London to Irish parents, McDonnell strongly self-identified as Irish and was viewed as Irish in Palestine.

[iii]Nicholas Canny, ‘Forward’ to Kevin Kenny (ed.), Ireland and the British Empire(Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004),vii-xvi, viii.

[iv]Anna Crozier, Practising Colonial Medicine: the Colonial Medical Service in British East Africa(London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 116.

[v]Irish Times, 17 March 1923, 9.

[vi]Kaori Nagai, Empire of Analogies: Kipling, India and Ireland(Cork: Cork UP, 2006), 83.

[vii]Bodleian Library Oxford, Commonwealth and African Studies, Henry Blackall papers, ‘British nationality: correspondence with Home Office re. my claim to retain it’, undated handwritten note, c. 1968; Blackall to Abrahams, 4 January 1949.

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