Canada, Catholicism and Colonial Monuments

In the past few weeks, indigenous and progressive forces in Canada have mobilised in response to further revelations about a mass genocide carried out against indigenous children. 215 unmarked graves of children were discovered in Kamloops Indian Residential School in May of this year These callous murders were committed by the Catholic Church, in collusion with the Canadian settler-colonial state.

Some of the details will be familiar to Irish people and raise the spectre of the Mother and Baby Homes, although there are key differences owing to the settler colonial context of Canada. Residential Schools were schools created by the Canadian state to “assimilate” First Nation children into Canadian settler society. They first began in the early 19th century, and the final school was only dismantled in 1996. 

Indigenous children were forced to attend these schools where they would be “civilised” and removed from the evil influence of their own parents and culture. These schools were boarding schools also, and attendance was mandatory, the children essentially being kidnapped from an early age and forced to undergo brainwashing to remove their “savagery”, their language, cultural practices and beliefs systematically eliminated. Every colonised people have suffered a similar destruction of their culture and way of life, as Irish people know only too well.

The Residential School system can only be understood as part of the ongoing genocide of First Nation peoples in Canada, a process which began as soon as the first European settlers arrived in the territory. These schools were largely maintained by Churches, both Protestant and Catholic. 

Conditions in these schools were appalling, with thousands of indigenous children succumbing to starvation, disease, or corporal punishment meted out by the schoolmasters. Sexual and physical abuse was rife. The buildings themselves frequently caught fire or collapsed due to poor building materials. Thousands and even tens of thousands of indigenous children are believed to have died. The recent findings of new mass graves have only hammered home the horror, and with the people taking inspiration from mass movements such as Black Lives Matter, provided a focal point for Indigenous anger and anti-colonial sentiments. 

The response has been explosive. So far, at least 6 Catholic Churches and two others from other Christian denominations have been burned down on indigenous land. Statues of Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria have been knocked down and defaced by crowds of protesters. In this Canada is joining a trend in other imperialist countries of mass anger being directed against symbols of colonialism and Empire. Despite this however, and despite the fact that many in Ireland take their cues from goings on in North America and Britain, there has been no similar movement in Ireland this year. Nor have historical revelations about crimes committed by the Church in Ireland lead to such fiery outcomes. 

Colonial Monuments

Like Canada, Ireland is still littered with monuments to the glory of the British Empire. From Prince Albert outside Leinster House to Islandbridge to Queen Victoria in Belfast. Our street names still glorify ancient English Lords and Bishops. Much of our most treasured architecture still legally belongs to Anglo-Irish aristocrats whose titles are held on behalf of the British crown.

Struggles against anti-black racism in America and elsewhere have galvanised many within Ireland in the past year and a half. This has had positive and negative aspects, with the most positive being that the new generation of Black Irish people born since immigration into this country began in earnest in the early 2000s have become more involved in politics. With these changes has also come a great deal of discussion about decolonisation, and what it means to truly come to terms with Ireland’s past within the Empire. Inevitably however this has led to a rise in the revisionist argument alleging on Irish individual “complicity” with past colonialism, rather than what could be done to genuinely remove the influence of colonial ideas and symbols in Ireland, let alone the British occupation of the six counties.

This is largely a result of the fact that the media and academia in Ireland is dominated by revisionist ideas which seek to justify British colonialism in Ireland, with the more liberal wing arguing that the Empire benefited Irish people greatly enough to counter-act the more horrific aspects of colonialism. As a result the de-colonialism being argued for is entirely toothless, but also totally excludes the very real ongoing examples of colonialism and imperialist domination in Ireland. Very rarely does the Irish Language revival enter the equation either, so Anglocentric is the perspective of decolonisation advocates. What is suggested instead is national navel-gazing and denunciations of Irish privilege. Naturally this is no threat to the Garrison Class which remains strongly supportive of British, EU and North American imperialism, and which has a romantic attachment to the days of direct British rule in the 26 counties. 

In fact there has been far more discussion about the destruction of Republican symbols such as the statue of Sean Russell in Fairview Park, than the removal of the thousands of monuments, street names and buildings which commemorate the most brutal Empire this world has ever known. Unlike Britain, America and Canada there has been no destruction of statues in Ireland, despite our history and the opposition of many. A true anti-colonial and anti-racist mass movement in Ireland would primarily be aimed towards their destruction and replacement. The establishment hostility to the only movement that has ever seriously opposed colonialism in Ireland, the Irish Republican movement, is key to why current efforts at “decolonisation” are totally defanged and superficial right from the start. 

Since the 19th century, Irish Republicans have always set about to replace and destroy British colonial symbols in Ireland. The most spectacular example being the destruction of Nelson’s Column on O’Connell St in 1966 by Volunteer Liam Sutcliffe. On the cultural front, it is also the Irish Republican movement that has most consistently fought for the rights of Irish Language speakers, and done the most to promote Irish as our national language. The fact that Irish people are largely unable to speak their native tongue has only accelerated the process of enmeshing us in Anglo-American culture, and helped foster a growing identification with imperialism. 

It is also the Irish Republican movement that has extended moral as well as real concrete support to anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements worldwide. The struggles in India and Egypt were a source of great inspiration in the revolutionary period of 1913-1922. The IRA in the 1970s, 80s and 90s had links to radical movements such as the ANC, ETA, PLO and many others, trading material and technical expertise. 

It is this spirit of internationalism among the Irish people that needs to be revived more than any other, by drawing from our history and the best traditions of the Irish working class, as well as the radical sentiments of Irish people of African and Asian descent. Suggestions that Irish Republicanism is exclusionary and narrow must be combatted at every turn, and there is no better example of that narrow mindedness than the suggestion that to be Irish is to be Catholic. 

Catholicism and Irish Republicanism

While there has long been attempts to conflate Irish Nationality with Catholicism, the reality of our history is that the Catholic Church hierarchy has always been at the forefront of encouraging colonialism and imperialist subjugation in Ireland. The Irish Republican Army was ex-communicated en-masse on several occasions, with priests being ordered to preach surrender from every pulpit. Even in times of great hunger and strife in Ireland, the Church’s official position has always been to encourage grovelling subordination to our colonial masters, with resistance of any kind branded a mortal sin. They have also served to dispose of whoever the State considers “undesirables” wherever they have been established, whether that is the Native people in Canada, or single mothers and their children here. 

When the IRA fought the Black and Tans in Cork, the Bishops denounced them as murderers. When the Anti-Treaty forces refused to accept the surrender to imperialism, they were ex-communicated and forbidden the last rites. When the Hunger Strikers fought criminalisation in Long Kesh in 1981, the official position of the Church hierarchy was that their struggle constituted the mortal sin of “suicide”. 

Attempts to argue Irish Republicanism is merely Catholic Nationalism has been immensely damaging to the Republican movement. It is not surprising that this narrative is one that is heavily employed not only by Unionists and British Imperialism, but Irish fascists. It is a pure revision of the secular and universalist basis of Irish Republicanism as established by Wolfe Tone and the largely Protestant United Irishmen. Unfortunately at times Republicans have not been at the forefront of criticising the Church and its many crimes against the Irish people, particularly once it was integrated into the power structures of the Free State. The Magdalene Laundries and Industrial Schools attest to the horrors that ensured. The Church can never be allowed to hold such influence ever again, and its remaining hold in schools and hospitals must be broken.

While there have been many thousands of heroic Catholic Irishmen who have fought for Irish National Liberation and Socialism, the Church hierarchy has always been and remains an enemy of Irish Freedom, and a friend of the capitalist, the imperialist and the robber. As Connolly wrote in 1910:

“Is not this attitude symbolic of the attitude of the Church for hundreds of years? Ever counselling humility, but sitting in the seats of the mighty; ever patching up the diseased and broken wrecks of an unjust social system, but blessing the system which made the wrecks and spread the disease; ever running divine discontent and pity into the ground as the lightning rod runs and dissipates lightning, instead of gathering it and directing it for social righteousness as the electric battery generates and directs electricity for social use.”

What Is Needed

While Anti Imperialist Action Ireland does not advocate that Catholic Churches be burned, we stand in solidarity with the First Nations in Canada in their struggle against Canadian Settler colonialism. This struggle has been ongoing for centuries, and the Church has often operated on the front lines of the genocide committed against their people. It is the Church Hierarchy and the Canadian settler state that bear ultimate responsibility for any destruction that results from indigenous resistance. 

In Ireland, the watering down of Republican ideas and the pro-imperialist ideology of the ruling class have both contributed towards neutering the genuine anti-colonial sentiments of the Irish working class.

As Socialist Republicans who follow in the steps of James Connolly, we assert that Irish National Liberation is not only political, but cultural and economic as well. As such we seek not only to remove the British occupation from Ireland and unite this country, but to sweep away the rotten colonial culture that comes with it. This means removing colonial statues, seizing the land held by aristocrats, renaming our streets after our heroes, reviving the Irish language as our first language, helping Irish arts and culture to flourish and so much more. All the rubbish accumulated over centuries of imperialist domination need to be swept away, and its place a secular, universal, democratic, socialist and proudly Irish culture built. 

In this struggle there is a part to be played by all. Irish Republicans, Socialists, Anti-Racists, Anti-Fascists, Irish language activists can all play a key part in building a genuinely anti-imperialist anti-colonial mass movement as we are seeing the beginnings of in Canada, and of rebuilding the All Ireland Republic that James Connolly dreamed of. 

From Ireland to Canada – One Struggle Against Colonialism and Imperialism!

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