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Postcolonialism is a generalized term used to describe the variety of events that have arisen in the aftermath of European decolonization since the nineteenth century. Among the events included under the rubric are social change, cultural redefinition, and political upheaval on both the small and large scale. The term implies a breaking free or a breaking away from a colonizing force, but essentially the study of postcolonialism addresses issues of power, subordination, race, gender inequity, and class— and examines how these issues linger far after the colonizer has exited. It is sometimes understood that colonialism ended in the early to mid-twentieth century, but the vestiges of colonial power and influence remain in many parts of the once colonized world. These vestiges can be seen in the unequal sharing of power in government, especially when Western interests are at stake, as well as in inequities in military control, resource allocation, and economic benefits when more powerful governments and entities participate in economic exchanges with postcolonial nations.
Postcolonial theory has been developed in various fields, including philosophy, literary studies, and sociology. From its beginnings in the 1960s and 1970s, with Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, postcolonial theory has addressed issues such as identity, gender, race, ethnicity, and class. It also examines how once colonized nations develop their own identities and how information among the exploited populations has been produced and used both by the colonized and the colonizers. In literary studies, postcolonial theory addresses the question of how the writing produced by the colonized and by those who colonize them responds to colonial legacies.
Postcolonial theorists can trace much of their initial discourse to Antonio Gramsci, who, in his Prison Notebooks ([1929–1935] 1992), examined the subaltern, or those who were excluded from power by virtue of their race, class, gender, ethnicity, or colonial status; this study was later taken up by Partha Chaterjee (1993), among others. Fanon, in the Wretched of the Earth ( 1963), a work considered a landmark in colonialism studies, expressed clear anticolonialist sentiments in his discussion of the Third World. In a highly influential 1978 book, Edward Said argued that a set of attitudes he dubbed orientalism was a way for the West (here meaning Europe) to differentiate itself from its progenitors. Even though Europe in its modern form was essentially a product of the East, to rationalize its ascent to power it aspired to colonize the East through many means, including the physical and economic. Gayatri Spivak, another significant postcolonial theorist, has, like Chaterjee, focused on the subaltern, though as a gendered category—both in terms of those who are colonized and those who have colonized (1988). Feminist postcolonial theorists have additionally discussed sexuality, gender and diasporic communities, power and globalization, and the idea that the feminine in any capacity or context can be equated with a subaltern position.
To make the above comments more concrete, the remainder of this entry will seek to illustrate many of the issues postcolonial theorists are concerned with through a brief examination of one postcolonial country: Ireland. Ireland was a colony of the English for eight hundred years, but perhaps due to its position as a Western country, is often not understood in the same light as other colonies. Its affluence today (the ‘Celtic Tiger’) also makes it easy to forget that it is less than a century since that independence was gained. Since the turn of the twentieth century, Ireland has moved from being a long-term colony of England to being a postcolonial power on its own. The next section examines how Ireland became a colony, its response to colonization and the plantation system, and how it has developed its national identity in the decades following independence in 1922.
Ireland has been a colonized nation since the time of the Vikings in the ninth century. The Vikings were followed in 1169 by the Normans (the “Old English”), who began “civilizing” the native Irish. In more recent times, as with many colonized nations, Irish perspectives on the colonial situation varied based on the nature and closeness of economic relationships with the colonizer, and whether those relationships conferred economic advantage. During the plantation era, Anglo-Irish, who had thrown their lot in with the English, could hold lands and resources their Irish brethren were excluded by law from owning. Lower-class Irish were indentured laborers on plantations, though a few could hold small plots of land; Irish who once had held political or social power were stripped of their valuables, land, homes, and driven into exile—either to another country or into the poor counties of western Ireland.
The Reformation was brought to Ireland by Oliver Cromwell in 1649. He was not the first Englishman to arrive on Irish shores, but he was among the first to come with arms and the intent of suppressing the Irish people as a class and forcefully instituting Protestantism. In that he was very successful. A brutal military strategist, Cromwell destroyed entire towns and villages, including the walled city of Drogheda, where he burned 3,000 people alive. From then on, Ireland remained under the control of the English. Though a variety of short-lived uprisings and revolts occurred over the centuries, it was not until the Potato Famine of the mid-nineteenth century that the Irish were able to bring their plight to the attention of the rest of the Western world. Millions starved to death, millions more were forced to leave Ireland. In the space of ten years (1846–1856) Ireland’s population halved from eight to four million. The 1916 Easter Uprising, led by Padraig Pearse, loosened the hold the English had over the country. Though principally limited to urban centers such as Dublin and Cork, the Uprising reverberated across the country. When the heroes of the uprising were executed or jailed in the months that followed, civil war broke out. In 1922 Ireland gained independence from England, but was partitioned—most of Ulster would remain under the English flag while the Irish Free State was inaugurated in the south.
Despite their hard-won freedom, Ireland remained closely linked with England and depended on it economically for several decades. During this time, however, following the lead of people like President Eamon de Valera, and poets and authors W. B. Yeats, Brendan Behan, and Patrick Kavanaugh, the Irish began to consciously express their own national identity through a revival of Gaelic culture. This revival, known as the Celtic Twilight, was based on a vision of Ireland as a rural idyll, in which people were closely tied to the land. With the Celtic Twilight came a revival of the Irish language, which had been on the brink of extinction, and now became part of the school curriculum. This restoration of a national language separate from that of the colonizer is a common response to decolonization. Traditional Irish music was also revived and is now popular throughout the world. The Gaelic Athletic Association, which organizes hurling and Gaelic football and was first established in the 1880s, has steadily risen in popularity as well.
Only recently, beginning in the 1970s, has Ireland truly developed a modern national identity and become an independent economic powerhouse. Since the 1990s, Ireland has been dubbed the “Celtic Tiger,” a reference to its new wealth and status. As of 2006, Ireland has the fourth strongest GDP in the world behind the United States, Norway, and Luxembourg (ESRI 2006). In July 2006 Ireland ranked second among the wealthiest nations in the world behind Japan (RTE 1, 2006).
- Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen T 1989. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Postcolonial Literatures. London: Routledge.
- Chaterjee, Par 1993. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Economic and Social Research Institute, Ir Irish Economy Overview. Dublin: ESRI.
- Fanon, F 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove. Originally published as Les damnés de la terre (Paris: F. Maspero, 1961).
- Gramsci, Antonio. [1929–1935] Prison Notebooks. 2 vols. Ed. Joseph A. Buttigeig; trans. Joseph A. Buttigeg and Antonio Callari. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Kiberd, D 1996. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of a Modern Nation. London: Vintage.
- Said, Edwar 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.
- Spivak, G 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg, 271–313. Chicago: University of Illinois.
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