Land and ancestral revitalisation as decolonising practices in Ireland

By Jimmy Billings ©

Originally published in Unapologetic Magazine (Issue 1 – 2021)

Land and ancestral revitalisation as decolonising practices in Ireland

The decolonial task is to understand and face the loss of relational worlds and, with them, the loss of earth. It is about the restitution of hope in the possibility of enacting relational ways of inhabiting earth, of being with human and nonhuman others and of relating to ourselves.

– Rolando Vázquez (3)

Understanding ourselves as land

In conversations about ‘decolonising’ in the parts of the globe still dominated by settler colonialism, land is always a central concern of the struggle and movement. This focus on land has nothing to do with Western colonial conceptions of land ownership as property or blood and soil notions of nationhood and belonging. It has everything to do with land as the animate, sensuous, living, spiritual basis of non-Western relational worlds that are continually erased by the violent maintenance of the former conceptions. Indigenous activist groups and communities in Turtle Island (so-called North America) have been articulating their centuries-long intergenerational struggle to be free to steward their traditional lands again under the ‘LANDBACK’ slogan. The NDN Collective express that the ‘LANDBACK’ demand is, in part, “our belonging to the land – because – we are the land” (NDN Collective, emphasis added). Tuck and Yang (3) warn us that decolonisation is not a metaphor that can be overlaid on “other civil and human rights-based social justice projects” and that it “is far too often subsumed into the directives of these projects.” Decolonisation always relates to land and the reclamation of non-colonial ways of being with land. Taking the LANDBACK activists’ expression of being land, we can see that the centrality of the conversation about ‘decolonising’ on land is itself an enunciation from a decolonial position outside the parameters of Western colonial ways of knowing and being. Struggling for land back suddenly concerns a lot more than ‘just’ the land: it is about the reclamation of culture, language, and ancestral lifeways that are always in relation with land, and are understood to emerge from it just as we do as animals. In this formulation, land is the fundamental basis of everything we are, rather than something tangential to human activities. Land is who we all are as animals that emerge from it, are sustained by it, generate meaning with it, and return to it upon death. We have so profoundly forgotten this in modern white Eurocentric society, which is founded on human separability from Earth.

Vázquez reminds us that “the loss of earth is mirrored in the forgetfulness of our bodies as always already earth” (3). This forgetfulness of our bodies is enabled by the pervasive colonial conception of land as separate from our bodies (ie. our ‘selves’) and the continually violent historical separation from it. To re-member our selves as land would mean conceiving of both our selves and land differently. Simpson (15) tells us how the Anishinaabe concept of ‘Aki’ “includes all aspects of creation: land forms, elements, plants, animals, spirits, sounds, thoughts, feelings, energies and all of the emergent systems, ecologies, and networks that connect these elements.” ‘Dúlra’ is a similar concept in Gaeilge, which is a “collective term..meaning element, creature, thing, or being” and encompasses both “material things and beings” and “invisible essences” (Ní Úrdail). Such a conception of land and of what it means to be corporeal in this mystical web of relationships cannot be reconciled from within modernity’s epistemic borders which de-legitimise many of the diverse ways of being human and experiencing life. Furthermore, we are bound by the inherited anthropocentric myopia of coloniality if we ignore the basis of land in constituting our being, no matter what land we are on and our positionality in that place. It becomes a matter of navigating the precise tensions of our positionalities in the geopolitics of the specific place we physically inhabit.

Geopolitics of positionality in Ireland

What does this mean for our conversations about ‘decolonising’ in Europe – the birthplace of the multifaceted violent systems that have disinherited the entire planet of freedom to a relational life with land? More specifically what does it mean for these conversations in Ireland which sits on an intersection between both colonised and coloniser? Feldman (157) argues that “Irish people and the Irish state must be accountable to both positionalities, and to their consequences societally as well as globally.”

Kerry bard John Moriarty lamented that “Europeans didn’t only disinherit Aztecs and Incas. Continuously, since the sixteenth century, we have been disinheriting ourselves” (23). In the development of modernity/coloniality, the ‘luck of the Irish’ has been phenotypic white skin which enabled an ease of assimilation into the structural whiteness of Anglocentric imperialism following the devastation of traditional Gaelic ways of being and the land. We still actively uphold and benefit from these white supremacist Eurocentric structures that ‘Irishness’ has assimilated into, and been created by, over the past three to four centuries or so. Irish Travellers, who hold onto many non-colonial ways of being, understand the implications of the hegemony of Anglocentric white Irishness acutely, having endured brutal oppression at the hands of the Irish state over the last century. The subservient incorporation of ‘Irishness’ into modern registries of whiteness, Europeanness and civilisation has been at the continual expense of Gaelic ways of being/knowing and crucially the land they were irreducibly in relation with. Somehow the processes of becoming white enabled Irish people to adopt the violences of Eurocentric monoculturalism and to concurrently enact them on colonised people and lands elsewhere, and at home. This is not to ignore the many resistances against the processes of erasure and assimilation, but to interrogate the tension of what it means to inhabit the intersection of colonised/coloniser as a site of accountability that we all must now reckon with in our entanglements within Irish modernity.

The status quo of Irish modernity is one where there is 2% native tree cover; where Gaelic lifeways, spirituality, and language are actively marginalised; where sacred ancestral sites can be legally demolished to make way for capitalist development; where numerous more-than-human beings face and have already faced extinction due to human actions; and where non-colonial ways of life, such as nomadism, are outlawed. This state of affairs is perpetuated by an institutionalised colonial mindset that sees ‘nature’ as something external to humans. In this artificial fiction, ‘nature’ is understood as an inanimate and external backdrop to human affairs that can be manipulated for human ends, and the legal institution that upholds it is private property. The anthropocentricity of colonial Eurocentric knowledge is also its ethnocentricity. The violent confinement of all life to Eurocentric universalist knowledge is a story of human and non-human ‘Others’ being defined and quantified through the white epistemic lens. Modern expressions and practices of anthropocentrism are rooted in epistemic whiteness. Subsequently, if our long overdue conversations about decolonising in Ireland continue in an anthropocentric vein, or are limited to academic disciplinary arenas, we will have missed the central possibility of decoloniality in becoming accountable again to our position in the web of relationships that constitute life. Whiteness is re-centred by not considering the living earth, our more-than-human kin, and vitally, Gaelic ways of being/knowing as the ancient guide for how to live an ethical life with land in this place. This inherited estrangement from the rest of life is acquired only through violent histories of ecocidal annihilation, epistemicide, and cultural erasure that still continue. Deckard (150) notes that deforestation and the reorganisation of Ireland’s biodiverse bogs was necessary to integrate Ireland into the emerging colonial-capitalist world system, and to “eliminate the social and cultural bases of pre-capitalist modes of life.” That is to say that Gaelic ways of being/knowing are culturally embedded in land, and that the status quo ways of life and land in modern Ireland are inheritances of British colonialism.


Deckard, Sharae. “World-Ecology and Ireland: The Neoliberal Ecological Regime.” Journal of World-Systems Research, vol. 22, no. 1, 2016, pp. 145–176., doi:10.5195/jwsr.2016.641. 

Feldman, Alice. “Knowledge Justice as Global Justice: Epistemicide, Decolonising the University, and the Struggle for Planetary Survival.” Challenging Perceptions of Africa in Schools: Critical Approaches to Global Justice Education, edited by Barbara O’Toole et al., Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2020, pp. 142–159. 

Moriarty, John. Nostos. The Lilliput Press, 2011. 

NDN Collective. “LANDBACK Manifesto.” LANDBACK, NDN Collective, 2021, 

Ní Úrdail, Meidhbhín. “Dúlra (the Elements, Nature).” Museum of Irish Literature, Museum of Irish Literature, 

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 3, no. 3, 2014, pp. 1–25. 

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1–40. 

Vázquez, Rolando. “Precedence, Earth and the Anthropocene: Decolonizing Design.” Design Philosophy Papers, vol. 15, no. 1, 2017, pp. 77–91., doi:10.1080/14487136.2017.1303130.