They were both people to whom the spirit of nationality had found strong manifestation, who had stood out even to the death against attempts to break their national independence. .. . They had both been through the fire of war and had both emerged with their spirit unbroken… It was perhaps easier for their people to understand and appreciate [General Hertzog’s] work than for most Europeans because the Irish, too, had their struggle and their quarrels.”

W. T. Cosgrave

Nationalism as an ideology can be defined as an adherence to the principle that the state, as a legal and political entity, is subservient to the nation – that is, the political interests of the dominant ethnic group inhabiting the state. For all nationalist movements, the establishment of a nation-state, in which all political organisations are subordinated to the interests of the state as a representative of the nation, has been a primary goal. 

Irish nationalism as a movement developed as a result of opposition to British governance in Ireland and the staunch recognition of Ireland’s right to independence as an entity culturally distinct from England. 

Likewise, Afrikaner nationalism was born from the encroachment of British Imperialism upon the national sovereignty of the Boers. However, Irish nationalism and Afrikaner nationalism are also similar with respect to the presence of racial divisions within the state, in Ireland the presence of the Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland was an obstacle to Irish independence whilst in South Africa, the Afrikaners had to worry about potential Kaffir forays into Boer settlements. 

Afrikaner historian Hermann Giliomee defines the prevalence of the Afrikaner nationalist movement as having been driven by a “demand for political sovereignty… in a multi-ethnic state.” The role of ethnic division within the state saw each movement rectify each issue with policies unique to their situations, in South Africa, the apartheid system was seen as instrumental for the preservation and propagation of Afrikaner culture and people, while in Ireland, partition and the creation of the Free State was “the freedom to achieve freedom.” 

The slow unfurling of Irish and Afrikaner ties to the British Empire was a purposeful political movement carried out by Irish and Afrikaner statesmen alike, with figures such as JBM Hertzog, advocating explicitly for the primacy of Afrikaner culture and language in South Africa. 

Irish and Afrikaner nationalists have throughout history maintained a sympathetic and supportive relationship, through a shared history and common goals, Irish and Afrikaners had fostered an affinity for each other that has shamefully been forgotten by Ireland. I believe that the omission of this aspect of Irish history has in part contributed to the modern perception of Irish nationality today as a form of anti-colonial posturing, which will inevitably develop into a monstrous civic nationalism as in South Africa. 

Consequently, this article aims towards unearthing an aspect of Irish history that has been largely forgotten, in hopes of determining how perceptions of Irish identity have changed over time, with the identification of Irish nationalism with the aims of foreign political organisations and groups throughout history being essential to this analysis. 

Irish-Afrikaner History 

It is well known that Irish immigrants played an important role in the development of colonial societies such as America, Canada and Australia, however, the Irish presence in South Africa seems to have been largely forgotten. Irish emigration to South Africa throughout the 19th century was primarily a result of the famine as well as economic factors like the South African gold rush, which saw notable Irishmen like Arthur Griffith reside in South Africa for a time. 

The Anglo-Boer Wars represented the expansionist interests of Britain in South Africa as being radically opposed to the national interests of the Boers. The First Boer War, saw a Boer victory preserve the independence of the Boer Republics of the Orange Free State and the Republics of South Africa, sometimes referred to as the Transvaal Republic, though at the cost of becoming suzerain states of the British empire. 

However, with the discovery of excessive gold reserves in the Witwatersrand region, British interests became focused on destabilising the Boer Republics for the purpose of developing the resources of the newly discovered gold mines. With attempted coups such as the Jameson Raid by the British colonial governor, political pressure was mounting on the Transvaal Republic 

The British government soon began exerting political pressure on the political system of the Boer republics, in which Uitlanders were denied voting privileges, which were strictly granted to Afrikaners, so as to preserve their political autonomy and group interests in their nations. Despite the denial of voting rights, Arthur Griffith speaks admirably of the Boer government and its national policies and fairness. 

It is true I possessed no vote; it is also true that I didn’t want one. It is true that I was taxed. The amount I was compelled to pay to a grasping Government was eighteen shillings per year. In return for this sum the grasping Government gave me the protection of its law-courts, guaranteed me the free exercise of my individual rights, policed the town and the country for me, provided me with well-kept roads, admitted me to share equally with every other man who paid his taxes in the division of any gold-field newly-declared open, watched carefully over my health, and guarded the borders from any Kafir incursions without bothering me to leave my business.”

Arthur Griffith 

The hypocrisy of the British concern for the Uitlander population was not only criticised as a result of its false nature but also the fact that at this time Britain had denied the Irish these same political rights in their own homeland. This policy gave the British government a pretext to mount considerable armed forces on its South African border, thus forcing the Transvaal Republic to declare war or else risk being unable to defend itself from an increasingly large British Army. 

The outbreak of the Second Boer War saw Irish nationalist, Major John MacBride establish the Irish Brigade and serve on the side of the Boers. The existing similarities between Irish and Afrikaner nationalist ideals created a sense of fondness amongst these groups, but with increased Irish involvement in South African affairs, the affinity for each other became more congenial. 

A demonstration of the Irish affinity for the Boer race is the opinion of MacBride himself, who had come to believe the Boers were “a kindly, hospitable, and chivalrous people passionately devoted to the ideal of freedom and intensely religious, without being intolerant of the beliefs of others.” A mutual respect between the Irishmen living in South Africa and the Boer population was swiftly cultivated, further demonstrated by the perception of Irish nationalism by Boer Generals such as Ben Viljoen. 

Ben Viljoen… was… a staunch friend of Ireland and the Irish. When famine was raging in the West of Ireland a couple of years since he was the first Boer to send in a subscription to the Johannesburg and Pretoria Irishmen who were collecting money for their starving countrymen at home. When our ’98 movement was starting in the Transvaal and the Rhodesian and Anglo-Jew journals yelped and snarled at us, Viljoen placed his two newspapers at our disposal to hit back at the traducers of our country. The day the Irishmen of Johannesburg marched through the city singing ‘Who Fears to Speak of ’98?’ Viljoen came up from Krugersdorp to be with them. ’Twas a great day. The Britishers watched the Irish Republican flag go by in sullen silence, but Boer and Hollander, Frenchman and German, Scandinavian and American saluted it as it passed. Old Burgomaster De Villiers came down to meet us that evening and we joined with the Free Farmers in singing the Volkslied and they sang with us ‘God Save Ireland.’”

Arthur Griffith 

The Afrikaners would go on to lose the Second Boer War, however, the Treaty of Vereeniging should be noted as having granted significant concessions, including Afrikaner political autonomy in the form of the creation of the Union of South Africa, a dominion of the British Empire. Afrikaner politicians subsequently advocated for a gradual distancing of South Africa from the British Empire, a political strategy that would later be employed in Ireland. 

Afrikaner political intervention during the Irish War of Independence, saw Ireland receive the support of Boer General and Statesman Jan Smuts, who as the Prime Minister of South Africa urged the British government to seek a peace settlement with the Irish Republic. Smuts’ negotiation would be instrumental in the creation of the Irish Free State as a British dominion and the partition of Ireland, an outcome which he had acknowledged as a temporary and undesirable solution. 

Ulster… cannot be forced, and any solution on those lines is at present to failure… My strong advice to you is to leave Ulster alone for the present… concentrate on the pull of economic and other peaceful forces, eventually to bring Ulster into [an Irish] State. I know how repugnant such a solution must be to all Irish patriots… But the wise man, while fighting for his ideal to the uppermost, learns also to bow to the inevitable… Ireland is travelling the same painful road as South Africa.”

Jan Smuts 

Smuts, among many other famous Afrikaner statesmen such as J. B. M Hertzog, D. F Malan and Louis Botha, held a great deal of sympathy for the Irish nationalist movement, which had been recognised as analogous to their own desire for political sovereignty. South African politicans remained in favour of the formation of a United Ireland, only lamenting the incompetence of Irish statesman such as de Valera in managing political policies and diplomacy. 

Irish and Afrikaner goals of political separation from Britain were emboldened by the 1926 Imperial Convention and its designation of dominions as “autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.” This declaration provided legal grounds for Ireland and South Africa to disassociate themselves from the Commonwealth, 

which culminated in the 1931 Statute of Westminster and the recognition of dominion independence. 

The Irish Free State and Union of South Africa maintained cordial diplomatic relations, and with the legitimisation of the apartheid system in South Africa, the Irish governments initial reaction was one of ambivalence and sympathy towards the Boer State, as it had been understood internationally at that time, that the apartheid system had been a policy devised in order to ensure the sovereignty, well-being and conservation of the Afrikaner people. 


The question then arises. Why has modern Ireland forgotten about this historic connection? The answer is in part to do with perceptions of identity and history. Much of the history recounted in this article would have been common knowledge at one time, but now it seems as if our common history with the Afrikaners has been forgotten in favour of a closer identification of Irish independence with civil rights and decolonisation. My next article will aim to discuss this change in the perception of Irish identity domestically and overseas, as the events of the troubles and international outcry against the South African apartheid system influenced the metamorphosis of Irish nationalism into a movement characterised by a colonial victim mentality and anti-British sentiment.

Posted by Ryan Kiersey

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