Thistle and Shamrock Entwined


  By Stephen Coyle
Scotland is a nation with nothing to lose but its fear by voting ‘Yes’ in the independence referendum.  I would contend that given the Irish community’s commitment to social justice, solidarity and a shared rich ancestral heritage with Scotland, we should be among the foremost advocates of independence.

Scotland and Ireland have a unique relationship which extends over a thousand years.  The earliest phase of our shared past, the settlement of the coastal areas of western Scotland by migrants from north-east Ulster belongs to the era before recorded history.

In the late 6th century the Irish crossed the Sea of Moyle to establish the kingdom of Dál Riata which encompassed roughly what is now Argyll and Lochaber in Scotland and parts of County Antrim in Ulster.  The earliest texts depict Dál Riata as a fully-functioning kingship, not as a colony looking to external authority. 

It was as Neal Ascherson writes, “a Gaelic-speaking Atlantic world connected rather than divided by the sea”. 

The very name of the emergent nation of Scotland was derived from its Gaelic roots – Scotia, the land of the Scotti, the original preferred Latin name for the Irish.  Irish Gaelic culture was still dominant in Scotland for much of the Middle Ages and Robert the Bruce, the hero king of the Scots, shows in his correspondence that he regarded himself as part of the broad Irish nation and he made a concerted attempt to unite Scottish and Irish political interests.

Under the Stewart successors to the Bruces, Irish-Scottish connections were maintained at a regional level through the flourishing military, economic and family relationships during the heyday of the Lordship of the Isles.  Native Irish chiefs faced with continuous English attempts throughout the sixteenth century to impose lordship, were able to count on armed support from their kindred among the Scottish clans who included the MacDonalds, the MacSweeneys and the MacDowells.

Since the Union of the Crowns of 1603 a unified and expansionist British State was able to bring its powerful naval and military resources to bear on the two Gaelic societies of the Western Highlands and Ireland.  Thereafter Scottish political and military connections with Ireland are more often than not thought of as distinctly British ones, starting with the Plantation of Ulster by Scots Presbyterians in the early 17th century. However, Celtic co-operation remained a distinct feature of Scottish-Irish relations.

The Scots and Irish were regarded the same to Henry VIII, whose servant Alen protested in 1549 against any ‘liberty’ for the Irish, which he said, was ‘the only thing that Scots and Irish constantly contended for’.  In 1630 the scholar Bedell included Irish and Scots in one single group.

At the Battle of Kinsale which terminated the great rising of the northern chiefs against their English foes and led to the Flight of the Earls, out of 900 Scots who fought on the Irish side, 800 were slain.

During the rebellion of 1641 the old Irish of Ulster exempted the Scots from their hostile measures due to them being of their own race, and this only a generation after the Plantation, when most of the evicted Irish must have still been alive.
The United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798 was chiefly responsible for the first great wave of Irish emigration to Scotland as political refugees fled the province to escape government repression.  Most settled in the west of the country and were employed as weavers, labourers or as operatives in cotton factories.  Many were Presbyterians and in the Calton district of Glasgow they worshipped in the Lodging House Mission which is still going strong.
There is evidence to show that the influence of Irishmen who came to Scotland on the United Scotsmen was considerable.  We know that 400 Irish in the Calton and Mile-End were under the control of a district board of the United Scotsmen.  Henry Joy McCracken, a founder of the United Irishmen would have been delighted to see his brethren across the channel join the struggle.

A poem attributed to him, called ‘The Social Thistle and Shamrock’ contains the lines:

The Scotch and Irish friendly are,
Their wishes are the same.
The English nation envy us
And over us would reign.
Our historians and our poets
They always did maintain
That the origins of Scottishmen
And Irish are the same…
And to conclude and end my song
May we live long to see
The thistle and the shamrock
Entwine the olive tree.

Following the failure of 1798 Robert Emmet led a subsequent revolt in 1803 which again proved unsuccessful, after a fight against overwhelming odds when his army was dispersed with heavy losses.  He was afterwards captured and hanged in Dublin, with his trusted lieutenant the Highland Scot, John McIntosh, and sixteen other patriots.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century the secret United Scotsmen lodges took a leading part in the work for the better treatment of the Scottish people and gave assistance to the Irish and English reform movements.  Numerous Irishmen took part in the Scottish Insurrection of 1820 and one of the leaders James Wilson was sentenced for high treason.

He led the Scottish Radicals in Strathaven who were drilled by United Irishman Matthew Roney.  Wilson’s last words on the scaffold were “I die a true patriot for the cause of freedom for my poor country”.  John Murdoch a member of both the United Scotsmen and Young Scots was, while in Dublin in 1848, involved with the Young Ireland movement and represented Scotland there. Murdoch went on to champion the rights of Highland crofters and combined their plight with the Irish people and the struggles of the urban working class.

The Highland land war of the 1880s was analogous, both in its origins and in the aims of the tenants involved in it, to the Irish land war of the same decade.  And the Irish example influenced crofters from the start.

In parliament Highland Land League MPs had the support of the Parnellites and of scarcely anybody else.  Gratitude for this tacit alliance undoubtedly underlay the crofting population’s almost unanimous backing for Irish home rule, backing which reached an almost feverish crescendo in the Irish crisis year of 1886.  That spring, for example, crofters on Skye urged Gladstone ‘to put an end to centuries of oppression and misrule in Ireland by granting to the Irish people the fullest measure of self-government’.

Crofters at Lochalsh were no less forthright; ‘they all approved of justice to their Irish brethren who had suffered so much from English misrule and tyranny in the past, and who had shown themselves such good friends to Highlanders’.

In the spring of 1887, Michael Davitt, Gaelic speaker, Fenian, and supporter of the land reform and labour movements, received a rapturous reception when he toured the Highlands.

The most obvious and celebrated Scottish connection to Ireland is in the person of James Connolly, socialist pioneer and Commander in Chief of the Republican forces in the Easter Rising.  Born in Edinburgh’s Cowgate on June 5th 1868, Connolly was executed by the British in Kilmainham Jail on 12 May 1916.

During the Irish War of Independence John Maclean, the great socialist republican, was deeply committed to supporting the struggle of Scotland’s fellow Celts.  This verse from Ian Davison’s fine ballad ‘Remember John Maclean’ encapsulates with admirable clarity, Maclean’s involvement with Ireland.

He fought for the Irish people,
He was Ireland’s greatest friend;
Against the might of Empire,
He backed them to the end.

In May 1920 Maclean began to write numerous articles in support of the Irish struggle and urged Scots, as fellow Gaels, not to be used as tools for murdering the Irish.  He published a pamphlet, The Irish Tragedy: Scotland’s Disgrace which sold 20,000 copies.

In line with these sentiments Maclean organised a successful ‘Hands Off Ireland’ campaign, which contributed to his deep popularity among the Irish on Clydeside who idolised him.  Evidence of contact between Maclean and Irish republicans is provided in a letter to his daughter Nan Milton in the late 1960s, by Seamus Reader who served as the official military representative to Dublin of the Scottish Divisional Board of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

In it he states, ‘your father had associations with the Irish republican movement in Scotland.  His activities were known to James Connolly and Sean McDermott of the Irish Military Council in 1916. I often carried reports to Dublin concerning your father. After the 1916 Rising and his release from prison he had contacts with some members of the Scottish Divisional Board’.

Reader also acknowledges the contribution that was made by Scots to the Irish struggle.  He states ‘credit is due to the men of the Clyde Valley, the Clyde Brigade, the Scots Brigade and Fianna na hAlba, the latter being the answer to Maclean’s pamphlet The Irish Tragedy.

They all saved Scotland from disgrace and we still have our noble tradition’.  Fianna na hAlba was a Scottish volunteer force which contemplated military action in the early 1920s for the liberation of Scotland, but the Irish leaders counselled against it because they were not in a strong enough position.

What I have attempted to demonstrate is that the Irish and Scots share a common ancestry and despite the devastating effect of the British imperialist policy of using Celt against Celt, including the disgraceful role of the Scottish regiments of the British army in keeping Ireland secure for the empire; a close examination of the historical ties between Scotland and Ireland affords us an alternative narrative to that issued by the imperialists in their efforts to keep us apart through the policy of divide et empera.

I would like to take issue with what I style the ‘green Brits’.  These people pay lip service to the cause of Irish unity and independence whilst defending the British imperialist state.  They seem to ignore the fact that through study, James Connolly came to the conclusion that political and social freedom are not two separate and unrelated ideas, but two sides of the one great principle, each being incomplete without the other.

In other words, as stated by him a month before his execution: “The cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland; the cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour.  They cannot be dissevered.”

I believe these words have a special relevance for the way that the Irish in Scotland should approach the independence referendum.  Instead of propping up a morally and politically bankrupt British State which is the stance of ‘Lord Naw Naw’ George Galloway, Lord John Reid, Michael McMahon and their ilk; the Connolly position and that of his friend and comrade John Maclean, was to break from the British State and restore national independence, as a prerequisite to achieving a socially just society free from the coat tails of empire.

Voting ‘Yes’ in the referendum would not only help bring about a better quality of life for the people that live here, but would aid the cause of Irish unity and independence for our ancestral homeland.

Mr Galloway would have us believe that that by opting for independence, we are somehow abandoning workers in Bradford and Liverpool to the vagaries of Tory rule.  My response to him is that Scotland is not a region of England but a nation that is entitled to self-determination.

Would he state that the workers of Dublin and Cork were wrong to have chosen to end British rule in Ireland because they had more in common with English workers?  The truth is that solidarity transcends national boundaries as Scotland has demonstrated in the past by its strong support for an end to Apartheid in South Africa and current support for the long suffering people of Gaza.
Irish for Yes is a campaigning group endorsed by Yes Scotland, which was formed in May of this year.  The initiative is a response to a feeling among many of the Irish diaspora, that we have a vital role to play in helping Scotland regain its independence.  We believe that voting ‘Yes’ is the best way to make our nation wealthier, fairer and more socially just.

Irish for Yes has its own website and twitter account and is actively promoting the independence cause among the diaspora at numerous cultural and sporting events through the dissemination of campaign materials and talking to people. 

This is an exciting time to live in Scotland and be part of a historic moment in the nation’s journey.  I am convinced a ‘Yes result would lead to the strengthening of relations between Scotland and Ireland as both nations can experience the status of successful sovereign and independent nations. For as Charles Stewart Parnell famously said: “No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation”.

This article was oroginally Published in the August edition of The Irish Voice

Stephen Coyle is an Irish community activist who has served on the St Patrick’s Festival Committee and was a trustee of The Irish Heritage Foundation. He is actively involved with the Irish for Yes group.  He is also an honours graduate of Modern History from the University of Glasgow and author of High Noon on High Street about the Glasgow Smashing of the Van incident in 1921. He is currently working on another book about Irish Republicanism in Scotland during the War of Independence for publication in 2016.