November 13, 2012
By Shelly Horowitz
In the script of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Molly Ivors teases Gabriel by calling him a “West Briton.” Judging from Gabriel’s reaction, he obviously deems this term quite offensive, but why? Well, as it turns out, there’s quite a bit of history behind it—
Although the relationship between Ireland and England was tumultuous for centuries, the two countries were united in 1801 into one kingdom: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (UK). As a part of the UK, Ireland retained a separate legal system from Britain, but their Parliament was disbanded. However, the Irish believed that whatever benefits they lost in legislative independence would be made up for by Catholic Emancipation—the removal of long-time restrictions on Roman Catholics in Britain and Ireland. But once the UK was formed, King George III turned out to be deeply opposed to Catholic Emancipation, and refused to introduce the bill.
Understandably, after the promised Catholic Emancipation didn’t arrive, many Irishmen were resentful of Ireland’s reliance on Britain. Although Catholic Emancipation was eventually passed in 1829, there were strong voices for the next century calling for Ireland’s independence from Britain. These groups were called Irish Nationalists; they celebrated traditional Irish culture, while calling for Ireland’s secession from the UK.
Irish Nationalists disdained Irishmen who they deemed “too British”, believing them to have abandoned their Irish roots. “West Briton” is an insult used by Irish Nationalists to describe Irishmen who they believed behaved as though Ireland were simply a western district of England. (Irish independence was finally won in 1922, eight years after Joyce published “The Dead”)
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