Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Saturday, 14 May 2011 12:01 UK

Ireland and the Empire: Divided by a shared history

By Fergal Keane
BBC News

The Queen's visit to Ireland will not only highlight the historical divisions between the UK and the Republic, it will also bring to mind the days when troops from both sides fought for the British Empire in African battlefields .

The Battle of Colenso 1899
Irish regiments fought in the British army at the Battle of Colenso in 1899

Across the valley, through the warm air, came the ancient sounds of the mountains.

I listened to the call of the herd boys and the tinkling of cowbells as the herd moved down the slopes and through the dried-out riverbeds, making for the evening kraals (enclosures).

There the cooking fires were already being lit and, in an hour or so, they would be the only flickers of light in a darkness so complete that it seemed as if the world had vanished.

Even with two decades of experience of travelling in Africa and countless visits to Zululand, I am always captivated by its strange beauty.

I say strange because it is the most restful place for those who are weary with the world - and yet war after war has been fought out here.

Queen Elizabeth will visit Ireland 17-20 May
First state visit by a reigning British monarch since 1911
Schedule will include Croke Park, where 14 people were killed on Bloody Sunday in 1920 - and the Guinness Storehouse

From the great conquests of King Shaka in the 19th Century, to the battles I witnessed between the African National Congress and its enemies in the Inkatha Freedom Party in the 1990s, the land of the Zulus has rarely been at peace.

Gazing into the dusk from the front step of Reg Stroh's farmhouse, I tried to imagine how this African valley had seemed to the teenaged boys from Dublin who had tramped through here in 1899 - soldiers of the Queen Empress Victoria, making their way to do battle with the Boers at the bloody field of Colenso.

Many, if not most, were the so-called "shilling-a-day" men whose fathers and grandfathers had served the British Empire, not out of patriotic fervour but to feed their families, or escape the misery of the tenement slums of Dublin or Galway or Cork.

Their forebears had also served the British Empire to feed their families, or escape the misery of the tenement slums

Men of 12 different Irish regiments fought in South Africa and more than 1,000 of them are buried there.

It is a story that tells much of Ireland's divided past.

Because facing the Dubliners at the battle of Colenso were Irish nationalists who had come to South Africa to fight on the Boer side.

"It was the next best thing to fighting the British in Ireland," recalled Reg Stroh, the great-great-grandson of the Boer president, Paul Kruger.

Mr Stroh, who puffed determinedly on a long-bowled Boer pipe, told me his own father - who had also encountered the Irish - had been a little afraid of them.

"Afraid?" I asked, surprised.

'Well they were a bit rough," he answered.

Sowing the seeds

In Ireland, the Boer War became a great test of loyalty to the British Crown.

When Queen Victoria visited in 1900 - the last British queen to do so - pro-Boer sympathisers demonstrated. And out of this movement would spring the nationalist advance guard which rebelled against the Crown in 1916, and led the way to an independent Irish state.

Irish soldiers parade at their barracks in 1939
Many Irish citizens volunteered and fought for Britain in World War II

Growing up in Ireland, it was that rebellion and nationalist triumph that defined the national narrative.

The subject of the Irish and the Empire was taboo.

Only years later, when I had developed an interest in history, did I notice that the names of the great South African battles - Colenso, Talana, Ladysmith, Spion Kop - were etched into the archway that led into the most popular park in the city.

Fusiliers Arch at St Stephen's Green was built in honour of the Dubliners who fell in South Africa. Irish nationalists called it Traitors' Gate.

It was possible to grow up in Ireland without ever learning of the role - sometimes benevolent, at other times inglorious - of Irishmen in the conquest of other nations.

The name Sir Michael O'Dwyer - one of the most famous imperial civil servants and a Catholic from County Tipperary - was unknown.

But it was Sir Michael who presided over the brutal regime of repression in the Punjab which included General Dyer's massacre of unarmed civilians at Amritsar in 1919.

Enforcing the Empire

From near my own home in Cork came another giant of the imperial age, Sir John Pope Hennessy - Catholic and Tory and one of the most enlightened of all colonial administrators.

Wreath being laid at Dublin's Garden of Remembrance
Visiting heads of state normally lay a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance

Today one of Hong Kong's busiest streets still carries his name.

From South Africa to Lahore, New Zealand to the West Indies, Irish administrators and soldiers enforced the writ of empire.

Some did it for a soldier's pay, others because the colonial civil service offered middle-class Catholics opportunities for promotion that they were denied in the more sectarian confines of Ireland itself.

Only now, with the advent of the peace process and the profound changes that have taken place north and south of the Irish border, is it possible for the story of the Irish and the Empire to be told.

There has been a huge upsurge in interest in the topic, with a rich variety of books and pamphlets and university study courses.

When Queen Elizabeth visits Ireland, she will go the national Garden of Remembrance dedicated to the rebels who helped break the link with the Crown.

But she will also pay tribute at another memorial, a garden of stone near the banks of the Liffey, where thousands of Irishmen who fell fighting in British uniform are commemorated.

These two gestures, in the same city, would have been unthinkable when I was young.

But Ireland and Britain are changed - separate nations but no longer hiding from the past we share.

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Read more or explore the archive at the programme website .

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