The ‘British Isles’; A Brief History of a Term from A Four Nations Perspective

The ‘British Isles’; A Brief History of a Term from A Four Nations Perspective

This week, Macdara Dwyer argues that, while ‘British’ is not an explicit political term, it reflected a political reality in which four nations grew to share one sovereign from the Tudor period onward. Contemporary usage is residual. However, as the idea of ‘Britain’ predates 1603, so too has the process of political fragmentation in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland created a context in which ‘British Isles’ is becoming taboo due to its perceived political connotations.

The impending referendum on UK membership of the EU – and the Scottish independence referendum – place a perennial problem in sharp relief. That problem is the terminology used to express the concept of a closely-knit geographic entity subject to political fragmentation, regional differences, and national sensitivities. The reference is, of course, to geographic and political space inhabited by the ‘four nations’ of the island group in the northwest of Europe.

It is an axiom in academia that all denominating activity is to some extent political. This attitude has been absorbed by pedestrian political discourses – from Irish nationalist hostility to the demonym ‘British’ to the Plain English Campaign. This academic assumption perhaps fails to account for the fact such acts of naming reflect extant and accepted political realities – as well as fatally underestimating the human inclination for convenience.

In particular, it surprises many people to learn that the ‘British Isles’ does not have a common usage in the Republic of Ireland – for obvious historical and political reasons. The logic is loose, but runs thus – that such naming equates to a subtle claim of ownership or failure to consider the existence of a separate sovereign state in the Archipelago.

However, just as political contexts inform the increasing use of deliberately bland descriptions such as ‘these islands’ (at least in official announcements and parts of the media) so too does the use of ‘Britain’ and ‘British Isles’ stem from a particular political context at a specific historical juncture – namely, the sixteenth century.

It is from this juncture – the period between the Anglo-Welsh Union of 1536 and the Union of Crowns in 1603, that we date the reintroduction of the term ‘Britain’ and the use of the more expansive and contentious term ‘British Isles’.

It is worth noting that term predated James VI & I’s accession and organically emerged during the messy – and occasionally brutal – process whereby four nations came to share one sovereign.

This term, then, derived from a combination of the broadening horizons of the sixteenth-century and the effectiveness of Tudor efforts to centralize power. Part of that centralization effort involved expanding power in Ireland and heightened interaction between the religious authorities and royal courts of England and Scotland. Wales was in the vanguard and by 1536 was integrated enough to be the first entity to be politically incorporated with England.

This growing political interaction involved a concentration of power in the south-east of England – but it also entailed increasing intrusion by non-English individuals and entities in the lived reality and political affairs of England. In the case of Scotland, the impact is obviously dynastic and religious – Mary’s Catholicism and challenge to Elizabeth and James’ accession to the throne being the most prominent. For the Welsh, the impact was social, represented by the sizable Welsh presence in sixteenth-century London. And Ireland served as an outlet for the ambitious young men of late Elizabethan England – besides compounding the centralization of state power through the need to mobilize for Ireland’s frequent wars.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, this political coalescence was a nascent reality searching for a name. Historiography provides the best illustration. Polydore Vergil’s History of England was a misnamed – it comprehended entire island of Britain. The term we know as ‘British Isles’ appears to derive from the mystic and intimate of Queen Elizabeth, John Dee’s Arte Navigation (1577). William Camden further popularized it by embracing the revival of an old name for the Roman province for England and Wales – Brittania (1586).

There have been many creative attempts to integrate the national identities of the archipelago into this ‘British’ terminological framework. Thrusting Scots reclassified themselves as ‘North Britons’ after the union of 1707 and, in Ireland, ‘West Briton’ was used in a similar manner after the act of 1800.[i]Today, the latter remains a derogatory reference for an Irish person affecting English mannerisms. Sadly, no attempts were made to designate the Welsh ‘Middle Britons’ – though one Welsh regiment of fencibles named themselves the ‘Ancient Britons’. Needless to say, these attempts at identity engineering failed and the national identities of each of the ‘four nations’ have generally persevered as primary in senses of self.

Recent history has been one of increasing controversy – and ultimately rejection – of the term. Again, the impetus came form the nations. While the 1970s saw the first stirrings of a Scottish nationalism that might effectively render the term redundant, it was the Northern Irish Troubles that eventually rendered the term taboo in much discourse.

The settlement of that conflict after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 opened up a Pandora’s box of alternatives, from the aggressively un-capitalized ‘these islands’ of intergovernmental dialogue to the uncomfortably racial-sounding ‘Anglo-Celtic’ Isles.[ii]Indeed, schoolbooks in the Republic of Ireland referred to the ‘British Isles’ throughout the period of the Troubles – when one would expect heightened sensitivity about such usage. However, the term was removed from such textsonly in 2007.

Today, it has been superseded in official and media parlance. The Irish government flatly rejects its use.[iii]The UK Interpretation Act 1978 implicitly rejects it, but applies a geographically impossible definition of ‘isles’ as the ‘United Kingdom, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands’.[iv]

These developments are reflected in the explicit abandonment of the term in academia – particularly by historians. This was a trait evinced by the mischievous A.J.P Taylor as well as the thoughtful and scrupulously diplomatic J.G.A. Pocock. The former expressly rejected the term ‘British’ as alien to his native (i.e. English) lexicon[v]while Pocock may have invented the term ‘Atlantic Archipelago’.[vi]Similarly, the historian Hugh Kearney has stressed that Irish history is incomprehensible without the integration of a British dimension to any analysis – and entitled his pan-archipelagic work The British Isles: A History of Four Nations.

While a ‘four nation’ perspective is undoubtedly useful in considering the history and contemporary realities of the archipelago, it should be noted ‘four nations’ has a cultural and political ring distinct from strictly geographic terminology. As such, in a future archipelago which is politically divided, it would be impractical to list the constituent nations in the way that ‘Britain and Ireland’ is loosely used today.

It could become attractive – even convenient – to use ‘British’ or ‘British Isles’ as a label to designate Irish and Scottish republics and a ‘rump UK’ – or whatever constitutional kaleidoscope emerges. Indeed, should ‘Britain’ no longer exist as a political entity, any sensitivities would be moot. Perhaps in a period of fragmented sovereignties twinned with the fact of shared political, legal and linguistic cultures, ‘British’ might yet undergo another revival as a shorthand for something indefinable but ubiquitous.

[i]Colin Kidd, ‘North-Britishness and the Nature of Eighteenth-Century Patriotisms’, Historical Journal, 39, 2 (1996).

[ii]The Northern Ireland Peace Agreement, Declaration of Support, n.3.

[iii]606Dáil Debatescol. 593 (28 September 2015)

[iv]Interpretation Act 1978, s 5.

[v]A.J.P. Taylor, The Oxford History of England: 1914-1945 (Oxford, 1965), p.v.

[vi] J.G.A Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’ in The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 47, No.4 (Dec., 1975), p.605.

Macdara Dwyer attained his PhD in November 2015 (KCL). His thesis researched theories of ethnicity in eighteenth-century Ireland with a particular focus on the historian Charles O’Conor. 

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