Sean French, ‘White and Colonised – Reflections and Methodologies for Studying a Complex Identity’

Walking up the Falls Road in Belfast in Northern Ireland, there are a series of colourful murals commemorating Irish Republican icons and addressing current Irish Republican issues. Alongside this, murals referencing global political struggles pepper the tapestry. The red, green and white cross of the Basque ikurriña flag – Not Spain. Not France. Nelson Mandela’s smiling face makes an appearance. One mural: NO to Israeli administrative detention! with the words ‘Hunger’ and ‘Strike’ joined by a chain is directly followed by another: End the forced strip searches. End internment (in Northern Ireland). It is preceded by a commemoration of the Irish hunger strikers of 1981. In my son’s veins flowed the blood of Irish rebels reads a mural in the Bogside in Derry, the words Ernesto Che Guevara Lynch arching above. It is hard not to compare these instances of colonised and oppressed people around the world, and this is not an accident. 

Against the backdrop of the Palestinian flag, an Irish man in a wheelchair brandishes a slingshot. The mural reads, ‘Oppression breeds resistance. They took his land, his legs, and finally his life’. Credit to the author.

A sense of ‘universal revolution’ (Arendt 1963) and universal solidarity permeates this street art. The Irish struggle is the same as any struggle of a colonised people, they seem to suggest. These murals are most prevalent in working-class areas which were most affected by the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I am a relatively more middle class Northern Irish Catholic but, standing on that street on a grey rain-spitting day looking at those images, I cannot deny that they still made me feel something. I would feel embarrassed to claim these struggles as if they were my own, but stories of family members who were involved in this dramatic violence feel ‘part of me’ to an extent and I cannot deny that this rhetoric registers with me on some vague sensory level. I encounter that rush of excitement, the literal hair on my neck responding, as something which feels beyond my conscious control, outside of me, my body reacts before my mind. The lines between identification and solidarity are easily blurred. To support these global struggles, do you have to feel that you are the same as the oppressed colonised people in them? Beyond perhaps some vague sense of ‘we’re all human’, of course not. Similarity does not predicate empathy. However, it certainly does seem to help in a lot of cases. A common theme of these murals is anti-colonialism and it is claimed wholeheartedly as an Irish affair too.

Standing there makes me think more about Irish Catholics as a ‘colonised people’ and about myself as a ‘colonised person’. Northern Ireland was colonised (and still is, technically) during the plantation of Ulster beginning in 1609. Irish Catholics were displaced and their culture suppressed for hundreds of years. However, a considerable chunk of Irish Catholics living in Northern Ireland nowadays, particularly middle-class ones, no longer quite ‘feel it’ as they once might have done. This is not to take away from the long-lasting and negative effects of the conflict on people in Northern Ireland or the structural discrimination against Irish people in the past. It’s just that, despite this, a considerable chunk of Irish Catholics generally do not claim the same level of discrimination as people from other colonial or postcolonial states. For one, we don’t have to contend with racism intersecting the legacy of colonisation. Nowadays, Caucasian-seeming Irish people are considered white and probably for a lot of people when they think of ‘Irish people’ they think of white people. On a side note,historically, this was not always the case (see, for example, ‘How the Irish became White’ by Noel Ignatiev [2009]). Similarly, the economy is doing well in Northern Ireland and is on the rise post-Troubles. For me personally, it is sometimes hard to feel that hard done by a legacy of colonisation. More of the legitimate righteous anger, at least in my case, is directed toward the past. That being said, the sense that ‘the peace process moves at two speeds’ is important to acknowledge, and a lot of people in working-class areas feel a clearer continuity with the past and present. 

Murals in Belfast interpreting the conflict in Northern Ireland. Credit to the author.

This ambivalence in a colonial identity should be put in context. Education reforms in 1940s Northern Ireland saw the introduction of a grammar school system as part of free secondary-level education for all which began a slow growth of a Catholic middle class, a social stratum previously dominated by Unionist Protestants (O’Connor 1993). The Catholic middle class continued to grow throughout the 20th century due to a number of factors including the introduction of fair employment legislation, expanded employment in education, health and welfare, and the increased educational opportunity previously mentioned (Elliott 2001). However, according to historian Marianne Elliott (2001), generally the Catholic community maintained an identity of being less privileged. Those Catholics who moved into the middle class often developed milder political views to those (often members of their own family) who remained working class (O’Connor 1993). This new social advantage was contrasted with a persistent sense of perceived Catholic oppression which O’Connor (1993) terms a ‘folk memory of shared disadvantage’ (89) and which can, she argues, result in a sense of identity conflict or guilt among Catholics who are in a generally more privileged position these days than in the past. Elliott terms this ambivalent attitude among Northern Irish Catholics ‘a resentful belonging’ (2001). 

This being said, it still inspires righteous anger in me when English people impersonate my accent after just meeting me or make assumptions about me because of it. It also irritates me when people confidently talk about Irish history without knowing the details. However, I wonder how different this is to the treatment of a working-class Northern English or a cockney accent in Southern England. Is it an issue of class connotations or a post-colonial legacy? Both, I suppose, but the experience today of being white and Irish in England is probably not a million miles away from class-based experiences of a white person in England. So when I look at the murals of global colonial struggles above and feel that affect stirring in me, I often wonder how legitimate it is. Should I indulge in it? A conflict between mind and body over that feeling – is it an identification with the colonised and oppressed? I am part-in and part-out. Mostly out, but there is something there. 

I wonder too sometimes why the Irish American identity is so popular in the United States. According to Wikipedia, nearly 12% of the U.S. population identify as Irish American. Despite huge waves of immigration from Ireland to the U.S., presumably all of this 12% are not just Irish but a mixture of ethnic backgrounds. Maybe the historical oppression of Irish people is a reason for its popularity today as an identity label. Maybe it is a means for white Americans to claim the ‘perks’ of being an underdog? A sense of heroic struggle and lineage of ‘pulling themselves up by the bootstraps’ without actually having to face any major structural barriers in the modern day? This is what Diane Negra (2006) has argued. Maybe I am doing something similar looking at those murals? 

Is this a factor as to why there have been so many Irish American crime dramas like ‘The Departed’, ‘The Town’, or ‘Gangs of New York’? The first few minutes of ‘The Departed’ is a monologue by the antagonist (or antihero) Frank Costello in which he says “Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a f****** job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That’s what the n****** don’t realise. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this – no one gives it to you”. While this character is the villain, he is a charismatic villain. Perhaps this narrative which conflates racism and colonialism is thrown in as something which is expected to resonate with an Irish American audience?

All this is to say, feeling colonised as an Irish person is complicated and has the potential to be problematic in many ways beyond the example above. However, global identification with the colonised is not an inherently bad thing and can be a positive force. In my own life, I remember a conversation with a Palestinian woman when I mentioned the parallels people draw between the Irish Catholic situation and the Palestinians, half-expecting her to dismiss the comparison as ridiculous. However, she already knew about this and was enthusiastic about the sense of solidarity. She said she was glad that there were people in Europe who cared as strongly as many Irish Catholics seemed to. 

This identity as colonised Irish people is something nuanced, unresolved, and ambivalent. So how best to study it? I suggest a methodology which foregrounds ambivalence is perhaps most appropriate. Attention to moments of contradiction in which multiple views become juxtaposed in the same person, or to moments of half-formed vague sensation, may be more productive than asking people in interviews to try and formulate some clear-cut view on the political situation in Northern Ireland. If someone asked me in an interview about these topics, I probably would struggle to sum up the complexity of the lived experience of it. However, alternative methodologies, such as attention to vaguely sensed affects like the ones I felt looking at those murals can shine light on how the past remains present. A colonial identity may live on in the vague sensations of the body, but this is incongruent with ‘the rational mind’ (however that ‘rational mind’ is imagined). 

Humour is also a means for playing with, re-framing, and juxtaposing various attitudes toward the same object. Attending to moments of creative play in humour could perhaps reveal more than looking at straightforward literal statements of what people say in an interview. Irony, in particular, can keep multiple attitudes alive at once without clearly resolving them into any clear literal view. Post-ironic meme culture is also alive and well in Northern Ireland and it is hard to know what the hell kind of relationship to a colonised identity some of them suggest. For example:

Is this support for Irish Republicanism (English 2008)? Is it a kind of playful familiarising of the IRA? Why is Republicanism sexualised? Is it kind of mocking Republicanism too? Who is the imagined audience for this meme? Whatever is going on, these kinds of memes are very popular in Northern Ireland. Looking at the ways people engage with a meme like this is probably a very fruitful way to explore the complexities and nuances of modern Irish Catholic identity, how people perceive themselves as ‘colonised’, and what ‘decolonisation’ might mean to young Northern Irish Catholics. 

Another method could be to ignore the history of colonisation and ensuing struggles entirely and only pay attention to it indirectly if it emerges in your interlocutors’ lives. As Karen Lane (2019) argues in her paper entitled ‘Not-the-Troubles’, there is a meta-narrative in Northern Irish studies which can reproduce a reductionist view of peoples’ lives as completely characterised by the political tension and colonial history. She therefore tries to foreground how people themselves understand their lives and see how they made the conflict more or less relevant to them. In this case, there is a complicated dynamic where an anthropologist studying a colonised location may focus on (de)colonialism but, in the process, portray people’s lives in terms with which they don’t agree. While this is not inherently a problem – it is fair to disagree with your informants – it still highlights the power dynamic between anthropologist and informant. If the anthropologist is writing from an institution which is part of a history of colonial relationships then perhaps determining their interlocutors’ lives in terms of colonisation against their will is problematic, or at least worth reflecting on?

These methods of studying (de)colonisation are relevant, I suggest, to the Northern Irish context of colonialism. However, the extent to which they apply beyond it to other colonial contexts is an open question and beyond my expertise. In other contexts, the sense of identification as an oppressed colonised people may not be ambivalent at all. Colonial and postcolonial identities are also highly intersectional with race. However, perhaps attention to ambivalent identification is also still relevant to some extent in these contexts. Class dynamics may privilege certain individuals from these backgrounds over others. I leave it as an open question and encourage other researchers to consider foregrounding ambivalence as a methodology in itself for studying (de)colonialism. 

Sean French is a third year Social Anthropology PhD student at the University of Cambridge funded by the ESRC. His research looks at Protestant marching bands in Northern Ireland, political alienation, and the role of sound in politics. Sean likes writing post-apocalyptic fiction, playing the banjo, and engaging in community development work. 


Affleck, B. 2010 The Town. Warner Bros.

Arendt, H. 2006 On Revolution. Penguin Books.

Elliott, M. 2002 The Catholics of Ulster. Basic Books.

English, R. 2003 Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. Oxford University Press.

Lane, K. 2019 Not-the-Troubles: disinterring the marginalised stories of the ordinary and the everyday. Anthropological Forum 29, 1:  62-76. 

Negra, D. 2006 The Irish in Us Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture. Durham: Duke University Press.

O’Connor, F. 1993 In search of a state: Catholics in Northern Ireland. Blackstaff Press.

Scorsese, M., J. Nicholson., L. DiCaprio, A. Baldwin, M. Sheen, M. Damon, M. Wahlberg, & V. Farmiga. 2006 The Departed. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video.Scorsese, M., H. Shore, A. Brown, & J. Atmajian. 2002. Gangs of New York. Miramax.