06 October 2004

Whose Isles Are They Anyway?

As the discussion at chaplaincy tonight wound down, conversation meandered onto different topics and somehow the notion of Ireland and its relations with Britain popped up. Predictably that cursed term 'British Isles' came up, and just as predictably I got annoyed. The lad who said it tried to justify the term on the grounds of convenience, but I retorted 'Look, you ask a Portuguese bloke what it's like to live on the Spanish Peninsula and see how long it takes until he clatters you.'

It's strange to feel so strongly about a mere geographical term, but there you have it.

Look, the term's meaningless nowadays aside from in a political context where it appears to hint, at the very least, at ownership. It's no good banging on about it having been used for two thousand years.

Greek and Roman authors, it's true, did refer to Britain, Ireland, and their surrounding islands as the 'Prettanic' or 'Brittanic' islands, but that's because the two main islands had at one point been settled by European Celts called Priteni. Following the Romans, we've remembered these peoples as the Picts. Somehow I can't see the slightly more accurate 'Pictish Isles' catching on as a term. Even if it did, it'd be wrong.

In Ireland the Priteni are remembered as the Cruthin, which pretty much shows that they hardly left their mark on the country; if they had done they'd surely have gone down as the Pruthin.*

Bearing this in mind, it looks as though the ancient geographers got it wrong. Yes, there were Picts on both islands, but they had preserved their identity best in the north of Britain, while in Ireland they had really only settled in Ulster; Ireland was hardly a Pictish island.

Should we keep the term because of an ancient error?

Yes, the term was also used by Renaissance mapmakers, but then they were just following in the footsteps of their Classical forebears. Its meaning was purely geographical at that point, but it was soon to gain a political meaning, following the accession of Scotland's James VI to the English throne in 1603. From then on it was only a matter of time before he started calling his united kingdom 'Great Britain', a term which became official in 1707. Britishness, as a concept, only really began to take off in the eighteenth century, and the notion of 'British Isles' was clearly tied with ideas of dominance and ownership.

To be fair, I'd agree that Ireland was indeed a British Isle during that period. She may have had her own parliament, albeit one filled exclusively with the Protestant descendants of fairly recent English and Scottish settlers, but she was undoubtedly under the British Crown, and after 1801 all Irish affairs were conducted directly from London, which was clearly a great idea, as the hamfisted efforts to deal with the Famine of the 1840s showed. I always find it curious that the single biggest blow ever to the the population of the UK was the Irish famine, rather than either world war. I wonder why that's played down so.

(Niall Ferguson gives the famine about three lines in his recent book on how wonderful the British Empire was. I can't for the life of me think why.)

But anyway, yes, I think Ireland genuinely was a British Isle - in a purely political sense - for about three centuries, but it certainly hasn't been one in over eighty years. The term now is, frankly, offensive, suggesting subordination and British dominance.

But what collective name should we use for the islands off the north-west coast of Europe? One clumsy suggestion has been Islands of the north Atlantic, but I can't see that catching on. I suppose the Celtic Isles might work, in that both islands were heavily settled by Celts before being thinly settled by various northern European mobs. But let's face it, can you really see that catching on?

But does there even need to be a collective name for Ireland, Britain, and their surrounding islands? After all, if you divide up Europe as though on a Risk board you find plenty of places that don't fall into natural groups.

Think about it. Iberia (Spain and Portugal), France, The Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg), Germany, Italy, The Balkans (Albania, Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Crotia, Slovenia), Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, possibly Finland), yeah, sure, all these are recognised areas... but what then? Where do Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Switzerland fit in? Does anybody have a collective name for them? Aside from 'the group of crappy countries in the middle'? Does anybody need one? I'd hardly have thought so.

And for what it's worth, look at those clumps again. We don't call Iberia and Scandinavia the Spanish and Swedish peninsulas, do we?

With the Celtic Isles seeming unlikely to catch on, I think Norman Davies is right simply to refer to these islands as The Isles. It's a vague term, but if people can cope with 'The Gulf', and if medieval and early modern Greeks could cope with 'The City', then it should work out okay.

On a slightly related note, this shot of Europe at 11:19 GMT on 11 August 1999 is fabulous. It shows Britain and Ireland completely under shadow, owing to the solar eclipse that day. In fact, they were under cloud, and the cloud was under shadow, but there you have it. I was in Luxembourg at the time. And the following day one of the strangest episodes of my life began. But that's another story...
*A brief aside - the Celts of these islands can be linguistically divided into P-Celts and Q-Celts. Breton, Cornish, and Welsh are P-Celtic languages, which Irish, Manx, and Scots Gaelic are Q-Celtic. The two language families have a lot of words in common, but with the first letter being either a P in the first group or a C in the second.

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