Decolonial possibilities in Ireland:

Visions of relational becoming with the island

By Jimmy Caoimhghín Billings ©

Originally published in Airmid’s Journal May 2021 Issue

Decolonial possibilities in Ireland: visions of relational becoming with the island

My turn to state an equation: colonization = ‘thing-ification’. I hear the storm. They talk to me about progress, about ‘achievements,’ diseases cured, improved standards of living. I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out. So the real problem, you say, is to return to them. No, I repeat… For us, the problem is not to make a utopian and sterile attempt to repeat the past, but to go beyond.

– Aimé Césaire (1950)

‘Tuiscint na talún’ as an antidote for modernity by cultivating life beyond it

Coloniality describes the state of being colonised beyond just political and economic structures, but includes control over how we sense and perceive the world (Mignolo and Vázquez, 2013), and therefore encompasses domination over knowledge, social, psychological, sexual, gender, and spiritual realms (Lugones, 2007; Quijano, 2000). Coloniality is a total configuration of human reality within the confines of modernity, and encompasses our entire island. Colonialism developed a new reality for us, one without primeval forests, meaningful community, our language, and ancestral ways of being. We accept and perpetuate this reality to this day. Modernity is the other side of coloniality – one does not exist without the other (Mignolo, 2011). Modernity is a system constituted by layers of complex narratives, knowledges, and historical power structures “whose point of origination was Europe” (Mignolo, 2011). These narratives and structures determine what can be considered as legitimate knowledge and how that knowledge can be produced. This is achieved through the colonial enforcement of a singular universal reality on the whole planet and the erasure of other ways of knowing and being in the process. 

Thinking about decolonising invites us to consider what kind of futures we want to shape beyond modernity/coloniality on the island, rather than imagining a return to a ‘pre-colonial’ past. It asks how we might regenerate our ancestral wisdoms amidst the ‘knowledge crises’ – the “lack of a diversity of knowledges” – at the heart of the “far-reaching, impossibly complex and deeply inter-connected planetary cataclysms” that define our globalised world following “centuries of epistemic imperialism” by European and settler powers (Feldman, 2019).

The term ‘tuiscint na talún’, that I use as the name for my own work, can translate to ‘wisdom of the land’, a philosophy in which the wisdom that the land herself possesses is listened to. It is a call for us to listen to the land in a lived relational process and to re-centre her as the wise ancient being at the heart of what gives us cultural meaning and vitality. Listening is an “ethical orientation towards knowledge” that poses a “direct challenge to the processes of silencing and oblivion” (Vázquez, 2012). The task of listening to the wisdom of the land inherently recognises that there is a beyond to modernity’s confines that cuts off our attempts at living a relational existence in every direction. This call to listen positions us and all beings and ‘things’ of the island together as interconnected with the island herself. This interconnectedness is not limited by the present time: it includes all the ancestors, human and more-than-human, that have been and will be. It asks us to de-centre ourselves at the core of how our society is run and the values we inhabit day-to-day in our culture. It challenges the human/nature binary as the basis of how modernity, as a human-centric system, continuously commits its many violences through its underside of coloniality. As an antidote for living-knowing-being, tuiscint na talún calls us to envision new systems beyond the reaches of modernity’s ‘borders’ (Anzaldúa, 1987). Beyond its borders is where the space exists for us to revitalise ancestral wisdoms of land and fuse them with the rich genealogies of liberatory knowledges that have been generated as the ‘positive products’ of specific colonial histories across arts, scholarship, activism etc. Beyond is the ground in which our possibilities for germinating decolonial futures together lies.

Beyond a static past/towards relational time

The idea of there being a ‘pristine’ ‘pre-colonial’ or ‘pre-Christian’ past that we can or should somehow return to is a fantasy. There is no one static or perfect time or cultural moment for us to imagine was the time to seek a return to. As Aimé Césaire said, the problem for us is to go beyond. The beyond is the place of extraordinary possibilities. History as a set of static structures acts to produce a narrative which legitimises the position of the modern nation state at the centre of human existence. The state then defines cultural meaning for those within its jurisdiction. The Irish state, as any other, instrumentalises historical structures to build national narratives that consolidate its power in society, meanwhile suppressing other processes of re-membering “violent historical events” which “are erased, even denied, in small island cultures” (Joseph, 2020). Resultantly, Irish society is “underpinned by a profound colonial amnesia” (Feldman, 2019) that obscures the dimensions of how modern Ireland came to be and how our ‘indigenous’ ways are erased. The ways in which Official Ireland instrumentalises particular histories in its representation of ‘Irishness’ is opposed to a relational orientation to the past that seeks to engage ancestral wisdoms and knowledges in continuity, to re-embody a living culture. Decolonising “means reinscribing the suppressed, the ruinous, in the present” (Sanjinés, 2013).

Engaging relationality acknowledges the interconnectedness of all things, past and present. Interconnectedness speaks to how we and all things mutually constitute each other in reciprocal ways beyond any human definition. Our ancestors, both human and more-than-human, gave and continually give us life through the ‘ground of certainty’ (Chávez and Vázquez, 2017) of what has been lived: in our language, stories, knowledges, songs, lores, sacred places, the wisdom of the land, and the lived experiences of coloniality. Our ancestors are not “passive..but rather an active source of meaning and struggle” and the relationality between us and them is a “source of strength and understanding” (Vázquez, 2012). Relational time is holistic in its orientation to the past: the past is constitutive of and interconnected with our present reality, rather than being “a narrative [or] an object of the present” (Vázquez, 2012). Relational time is the ‘everywhen’ of Aboriginal Dreamtime (Vaughan-Lee, 2020) or the Irish fairy realm that exists within and all around the ‘physical’ plane. Building a relationship with time as ‘everywhen’ can be a step towards seeing ourselves as part of a continuing ancestral story, rather than consigning our ancestors to history books. But it also requires of us that we cannot ‘step over’ difficult elements of our history and present time. We must accept and confront our “complicity in the projects and outcomes of White supremacist, Western colonial Eurocentrism” (Feldman, 2019).

Regenerating relational knowing with the island

Ireland’s dual position as both colonised and coloniser, of “being located within both indigenous and Eurocentric cosmologies” (Feldman, 2019), can be seen as living caught between two incompatible existences. These existences have overlaps but exist mostly in tension around their relationship with the island. The ‘island existence’ of colonial Eurocentric cosmology is the dominant paradigm of everyday life in Ireland. This dominant paradigm is an inheritance of the past few centuries of violent colonial realities on the island. Through this paradigm the cultural identity of white European Irishness was developed over the last two centuries and became ascribed to the island itself. ‘Belonging’ to the island thus centred around this narrow and racist idea of ‘blood belonging’ within newfound ideas of white European Irishness. This ethnocentrism is also human-centric: our enthusiastic incorporation into whiteness has embedded us in colonial Eurocentric registries of knowledge and knowledge production as the universal way of knowing-living-being. Through this, we uphold coloniality. Irish society’s continual imposition of white human-centred ways of knowing onto the land is what defines our current damaged relationship with the island. This damaged relationship is underpinned by “mass deforestation [that] fundamentally transformed the ecology of Ireland, accompanied by radical forms of dispossession of indigenous populations and targeted destruction of non-human species and flora” (Deckard, 2016).

Healing our society’s damaged relationship with the island would mean ‘re-existing’ (Achinte cited in Mignolo and Vázquez, 2013) within our ‘indigenous’ cosmology. This cosmology is the ‘island existence’ that emanates out from our sacred lands, rather than the paved land of human-centred activities that keep us dependent on global capital as a “ and water haven” (Deckard, 2016). We require recognition of the fact that the erasure of our ancestral ways of knowing and being with the island was a dual process in tow with the destruction of the island’s forests, bogs, and other beings. Thus, regenerating our ancestral lifeways anew requires of us that we heal our relationship with the island herself. The reclamation and recovery of knowledge should be coupled with the reclamation and restoration of land to beyond human control. We can begin the process of remembering our ancestral knowledges through a relational existence with the island. Sandra Styres (2019) tells us that “ancient knowledges are (re)membered experiences that form deeply intimate and spiritual expressions of our connections to Land.” This is the call of ‘tuiscint na talún’: that we listen to the wisdom of the land as our cultural centre of meaning-making and becoming, so that we can regenerate futures beyond the borders of modernity/coloniality.


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