1. Community
December 13, 2017updated 02 Aug 2021 9:32am

What should we call the collection of islands on which the UK and Ireland happen to sit?

By Jonn Elledge

There’s a headline that got me in trouble a while back. I thought it was pretty innocuous, so was surprised when people kicked off, but nonetheless they did. See if you can guess what they were angry about:

“Dublin offers the best quality of life in the British Isles. But can its economy withstand Brexit?

See the problem? I bet you can if you’re Irish.

The problematic phrase is “British Isles”, and as I said, I’d always assumed it to be pretty innocuous.  You might argue that that’s because I grew up in Britain, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. The two big and several thousand small islands that belong to the archipelago off the coast of North West Europe are actually known as the British Isles across the English-speaking world, and they’re Les îles Britanniques in France, too. Consequently, that’s how they’re generally referred to in news reports pretty much all over the world; it’s what their Wikipedia page is called, too.

The problem, as I hinted, is how the phrase reads in Ireland. The word “British”, after all, can also be followed by “Empire”, and Ireland had a pretty appalling experience of empire. To find that nearly a century after independence the country is still sometimes described using the name of the colonial oppressor must, on the whole, be pretty galling.

And so, the Irish government doesn’t recognise the term, and tries to discourage its use. So, I learned when I used it in a headline, do a lot of Irish people. Which, to be fair, seems pretty reasonable: if someone had starved my great-great-grandparents to death, I’d probably prefer not to be described using their name, either.

Here’s the problem, though: there is not currently a widely recognisable alternative term. A number have been suggested – but, well, look:

Content from our partners
The key role of heat network integration in creating one of London’s most sustainable buildings
The role of green bonds in financing the urban energy transition
The need to grow London's EV infrastructure at speed and scale

“Dublin offers the best quality of life in the Atlantic Archipelago”


“Dublin offers the best quality of life in the  Anglo-Celtic Isles”

Sorry, what?

“Dublin offers the best quality of life in the Islands of the North Atlantic”

What, like, Greenland?

Official government documents – back before Brexit, when it didn’t seem to be official British government policy to alienate Ireland at every available opportunity – tended to avoid the controversy by referring simply to “these islands”. That’s actually a rather lovely phrase, but while that may work in a context where the identity of “these” islands is clear, it’s not much use to an online media organisation whose output might pop up on Google searches made in Albuquerque or Afghanistan. 

By the same token we have a lot more readers in the United Kingdom than we do in the Republic of Ireland – not least because there are a lot more people in the United Kingdom than in the Republic of Ireland. There are something like 4.8m people in the Republic. Even if you were to assume that half the population of Northern Ireland finds the term “British Isles” offensive too, as seems probable, that’s still only about 5.7m people.

There are more than ten times that, around 61m, on the island of Great Britain. Is it really worth avoiding a term familiar around the world, purely because it’s offensive to such a small number?

Well… yes, actually, I think it is. Because while Britain may have largely forgotten its terrible record in Ireland, that doesn’t get us off the hook. Because the Brexit negotiations have been a reminder that random bouts of rudeness towards Ireland is the mark of an arsehole. And because it’s generally a good thing not to go about pointlessly pissing people off if you can avoid it.

Since none of the alternatives have so far gained any real currency, I suppose we shall have to describe the archipelago, when it comes up, as “the UK and Ireland”. That’s not ideal, if I’m honest –it’s a political label rather than a geographical one, it doesn’t quite fit (the Isle of Man is not technically part of either), and what’s more it’s just plain ugly. 

But as our occasional Dublin correspondent Aoife Moriarty put it when I quizzed her on her thoughts about all this, “I know it’s ugly – but so is history.” It’s a fair point. So until one of the other phrases becomes generally recognisable I supposed we’re stuck with it.

If you have a better idea, mind, do let me know. 

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.    

This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
Topics in this article :
Websites in our network