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Home Uncategorized Down on the Plantation

Down on the Plantation

Seamus Deane

Religion, Landscape and Settlement in Ireland: from Patrick to the Present, by Kevin Whelan, Four Courts Press, 284 pp, €45, ISBN: 978-1846827563

Sylvester O’Halloran, in what seems like a proto-Nietzschean moment in his Introduction to the study of the history and antiquities of Ireland (1772), wrote:

The reception of Christianity was a mortal blow to the greatness of Ireland. This new religion introduced a kind of doctrine before unknown to the people. Instead of those elevated notions of military glory, of intrepidity, and independence, so much cherished by their ancestors, they were now taught patience, humility, and meekness.

Christianity was bad enough for Ireland, but the reformed kind that came after was much, much worse. And worse again was the Scottish Covenanter brand, beside which the Vikings appeared of a fragile and courteous disposition. Early Christianity had merged peacefully with paganism; reformed Christianity was, for the mass of the Irish people, a catastrophe of massacre, dispossession, ruination and enslavement the like of which not even Europe before the Peace of Westphalia (1648) could match. Yet when Catholicism reasserted itself after the Famine, it too became a monstrous institution, not as violent as its Protestant predecessors but almost as hypocritical on the issue of violence and even more insidiously corrupt on many others, especially sexual abuse. But with it too, the fatal paroxysm came when it merged with the political state.

O’Halloran indeed had a point. His was one of many eighteenth century appeals to a pagan past as a conciliatory alternative – almost as a healing memory – for the sectarian Christian present. They fell on deaf ears; it was the appeal to an imperial future, of the sort Lord Castlereagh offered in 1801, that won the greater support. The Union and sectarian Christianity, both allergic to enlightenment and revolution, prevailed.

Only nine years before O’Halloran, Edmund Burke had written that “those miserable performances which go about under the names of Histories of Ireland” – he meant those of Sir John Temple and Clarendon – consistently lied about the Irish rebellions: “these were not produced by toleration but by persecution … the most unparalleled oppression”. In specifying the fatal linkages between the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, Burke claimed they both won adherents who belonged to different religions rather than countries; this broke bonds of national and local loyalty. This prefigured those twentieth-century attacks on the Russian Revolution, on the new people – communists – for whom a new and ruthless religion had replaced “natural” national feeling. Both Burke and O’Halloran were trying to account for a devastating history in which each, in his different way, saw Christianity, especially the reformed kind, as having played a foundationally destructive role. Yet both were Christians.

It is difficult, on reading Kevin Whelan’s book, which begins with Saint Patrick and brings us up to the present, not to be reminded of the late eighteenth century Irish historians. Whelan’s scope is much wider than theirs. He is a geographer, a historian, a cartographer, a teacher; he has practically walked the entire island. None of its thirty-two counties is unvisited by him. He has examined what Burke called “its monuments and records” with minute care. But, starting in effect with the medieval church, then the Gaelic church, the Reformations, Catholic (Old English) and Protestant and beyond that, surveying the Irish landscape, its churches and sects right up to the present, Whelan, no more than they, can understate the thoroughness of the ruin that has been visited on this island. Only ruin and ruins produce so many revivals; Whelan’s jackdaw samplings from several centuries haunt like those “anatomies of death” of the pioneering seventeenth century Munster massacre that to Edmund Spenser “spake like ghosts crying out of their graves”.

It is appropriate that among several foreign visitors to Ireland considered by Whelan the most famous, Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, should have gone there after completing their analyses of the American political and prison systems. Ireland was in fact, de Beaumont found, itself a prison regime misnamed a polity. That was in 1839. In 1835, de Tocqueville wrote that the “forms of liberty”, earlier established in England, would kill the tyranny of the Protestant Irish system: “The Protestant had in the eyes of the world the honour of liberal principles, and enjoyed the actual consequences of tyranny.” For instance, making an already impoverished majority pay tithes for a tiny religious minority was regularly defended by its episcopal beneficiaries. The Anglican tenth of the population, Whelan tells us, “was supported by universally imposed and state-enforced tithes”. Presbyterian opposition in Ulster kept the “Tything Table”, fixed in 1629, lower than elsewhere; it was there that the Oakboys launched early agrarian resistance to tithes. But when it was fixed on potatoes (not on stock, owned by Protestant landlords), there was widespread resistance – Whiteboys and Rightboys from the 1770s are the best-known in the long litany of groups who fought the tithe system and were therefore “rebels” whose actions were “outrages” or had a “Catholic conspiracy” behind them, the same one that has been behind so many calls for justice since then and up to and beyond the civil rights movement of 1968.

The figures, the maps and the quotations from printed and manuscript sources that Whelan provides are overwhelming in their exposure of the system that de Beaumont looked upon in such shock. Whelan cites the Cork painter James Barry’s warning to the Earl of Shannon in 1778 that “an eruption would occur if Irish Protestants continued to insist on their right ‘to despoil, distress and torment the great majority consisting of more than three-fourths of the inhabitants’, ‘keeping them as sauntering, ragged skeletons to keep the crows away’”. It had been a different proportion in 1600. Then, Whelan tells us, there were only one hundred and twenty Irish-born Protestants on the whole island; a mere twenty Irish-born attended Protestant service in a Dublin that had a population of ten thousand. The shifting patterns of population altered in the post-Cromwellian landscape, in which new settlements incorporated the sites of what had been villages. In Tipperary alone, we are told, there are one hundred such sites. With the immense surge in the population from the late eighteenth century to the Famine, there began the call for justice for the “seven millions” against a dwindling minority. In an important way it is the pressure of numbers, the quantitative and metric aspects of Whelan’s book, that bathes the political and ethical dimensions of the narrative in an unforgiving, revealing light.

The list, the inventory, the chart, the table, the catalogue, the series, the cartographic distribution in maps, the architectural variations in photographs, ground plans and elevations, in churches, chapels, houses, cottages, castles and forts are among Kevin Whelan’s most formidable instruments in the creation of this almost congested text in which factual accumulation becomes in itself a mode of indictment even as it asserts its objectivity. Yet the seduction of numbers, although powerful, does in one way need to be resisted. The sectarian colonial system is not better or worse because of its numerical disproportions; these do not alter its central coercion, its capacity to normalise atrocity, always with the help of law and the blessing of religion. Crimes occur within a legal system; but in colonised Ireland crimes were created and committed by the legal system for the preservation of a sectarian faction. The number of the victims does not make that system more or less damnable in any ethical sense. Military law applied in Ireland in eighteen of the first twenty-five years after the Union. But in the other seven years in effect the same system operated. The populace was being waterboarded, with occasional respites. The respites are part of the torture. Law was and is a decision of government disguised as a system independent of it. Numbers do not alter that. But they may make the fiction of law more obvious or blatant; they show violence is constitutive, not an anomaly. Whelan confirms this time and again, using an amazingly wide range of examples.

As the age of statistics dawned in Ireland and in Europe in the second decade of the nineteenth century, numbers began to carry more political weight than had been possible before. The very title of Edward Wakefield’s An Account of Ireland, Statistical and Political (1812) indicates the beginning of a new world; it is a distant predecessor to Whelan’s own work, along with the antiquarian researches of Grose, Charles O’Conor, Vallancey and others. There is a chemical interaction between these disciplines that has been immensely fruitful in Ireland; scientific geography, botanical research, archaeology, cartography and sociology have all contributed and profited. Further, as Britain’s domestic and imperial bureaucracy mushroomed, government became increasingly a matter of administration. The truly wondrous system of British parliamentary reports and the Irish realist fiction of the early nineteenth century produced the two classic works on agrarian disturbances, Thomas Moore’s Captain Rock (1824) and George Cornewall Lewis’s Local Disturbances in Ireland (1836). Lewis proposed “to trace the history of the various local disturbances … and to explain the nature of these disturbances”. Although it has nothing of Moore’s satiric verve, it does what it says on the tin.

Watching this rather sudden expansion of bureaucratic modernity, through which the “Irish problem” was to a degree analysed, while the embedded religious (and racial) bigotries waxed and waned, we see archaism and modernity fuse as basic ingredients of the new Ukanian state. These were incorporated into Ireland, or Ireland into them, in drastic forms indeed, although the volcanic fires of industrial Britain were drastic for the populace there too.

Many visitors noted that the destitution of Ireland was at once integral to and contradictory of the whole United Kingdom system. French Catholic visitors or commentators in the 1830-50 period were shocked at the treatment of their fellow religionists. Given the enslavement in Ireland, it is no surprise that Britain initially supported the Confederate slave state in the American civil war. But it is interesting to read, in the once-famous The Education of Henry Adams (1903), how shocking it was for Adams, of the famous Bostonian political family, visiting pre-war Washington, to see a slave state:

Slavery struck him in the face; it was a nightmare; a horror; a crime; the sum of all wickedness! Contact made it only more repulsive. He wanted to escape, like the negroes, to free soil. Slave States were dirty, unkempt, poverty-stricken, ignorant, vicious! He had not a thought but repulsion for it; and yet the picture had another side.

Ultimately, in his mind, “Slave power took the place of Stuart kings and Roman popes.” Later, such convictions disappeared; of all that changed, the “disappearance of religion puzzled him most”. I cite Adams here to suggest that slavery was, at one and the same time, a linkage and a difference in the Anglo-American world of the nineteenth century. In the USA it was an institution and a central issue in a civil war; mutated into a carceral system it remains so. Because it was not an institution as such in Ireland, the condition was reclassified as an almost ontological one, that of “poverty”. It had a natural alliance with “Irish”, as had “negro” with “slave”, in the phantasmatic racial hierarchy that helped to assuage class bitterness among whites.

This phenomenon still operates widely among Protestants in the North of Ireland. Whatever they are, at least they are not Catholics. The hostilities there, long honed by Orange marching, rioting, employment policies and the evangelical rant, have made rage a form of duty. Whelan mentions Rev Hugh (“Roaring”) Hannah (1821-92), a precursor of Paisley, reminding his “flock” of its “duty of aggression” towards “the audacious and savage outrages of a Romish mob”. His contemporary Daniel O’Connell deluded himself into believing that the Irish slave state could be absorbed, even dissolved, into the constitutional system. Marx and Engels came too late to disabuse him. Whelan does not mention them among the foreign commentators. Yet in a telling moment he notes, in relation to the Irish language: “No word for Reformation even appeared in Irish until Ó Raiftearaí in the 1820s.” This is cited to illustrate the initial weakness of the Reformation. But it surely also illustrates how blindsided the Gaelic culture was. In what direction had it been looking for two hundred years? The Irish argued, in the harshly limited publishing conditions allowed them, that they were culturally equal to or superior to the English and should be treated as such. But they were treated culturally as savages and economically as helots. They stayed in denial of these actualities for far too long. Whelan provides the evidence for this but does not explore the mentalité of the Irish-speaking groups as extensively as one might have hoped. Certainly he is better placed than most to do so.

At one point, writing of the Old English, Whelan notes that their sense of Irish identity was precociously sharpened by the hostility of the atmosphere it breathed and that “the lived experience of Irish Catholics was dignified by being so richly amenable to biblical interpretation”. But of what group, especially in Reformation Ireland, could that not be said; isn’t “biblical interpretation” part of the problem? Look at the Protestant Second Reformation (1822-27); look at all those crazed evangelical outbursts, the lunacies of groups like the British Israelites (note the Israeli and Palestinian flags in Northern Ireland) and the common claim that they are under threat from people they have tyrannised without end so as to justify their continuance of doing so, all of this to save the blood-soaked “saving remnant”?

Bondage in Egypt, the Promised Land, crossing the Red Sea, the Jordan, the Last Days, the Rapture – these allegories of Biblical reading are now part of the mass production of evangelism, televangelism, the immense farrago of reactionary political propaganda led by zealots and cynics that pollutes the contemporary atmosphere more thickly than carbon emissions. Readings of Irish history jostle in there too. Which tea party should we like to be invited to? The Boston Tea Party, the Glenn Beck one or the Mad Hatter’s?

Whelan notes, in a fascinating section on graveyards, how the notorious Anglican Archbishop Magee of Dublin (1766-1831), who once neatly described Catholicism as “a church without a religion” and Dissent as “a religion without a church”, did his best to stop Catholics being buried in Protestant graveyards, even though they had often had to pay for the privilege. It was hard to live in Ireland in any decade; after the 1820s it became for a time harder to die and get buried, unless as a political prisoner or as a popular criminal, when you would be buried within the grounds of the jail to prevent protest demonstrations. There was often bitter resentment. The hangman who executed the judicially murdered Father Nicolas Sheehy in 1766 was himself stoned to death by an angry crowd just after he had hanged someone else four years later. Then, after the Famine destroyed the rituals of burial, it was the carefully staged obsequies of the Fenian Terence Bellew McManus in 1861 that created the mass political funeral as an instrument of political protest; the cemeteries at Goldenbridge and Glasnevin became pantheons for heroes. The gravediggers “but thrust their buried men / Back in the human mind again”, as Yeats wrote.

In the soil between Cré na Cille and Finnegans Wake we’ll find the pipe stems our ancestors buried there at the wake, before or despite clerical approval. Without Kevin Whelan, how many would know to look for them? He mentions Milltown as a graveyard but none of the political funerals it has seen. It’s ridiculous to ask for everything to be included, but he includes so much it provokes one to ask for even more. More about keening, more about missions, the “Catholic Empire”, more about what he calls “the malign hybrid of British colonialism and Roman Catholicism”. Or the economic relationships that governed them; capitalism too had its Reformations, in which prosperity and poverty escalated to levels beyond any moralisable justfication (even by faith).

A final quantitative measure to indicate a qualitative change beyond measure. We learn from Whelan that the earliest identified Irish church is in Caherlihillan, Co Kerry. Galway cathedral, “marooned in its car park”, known as the “Taj Micheál” (referring to Michael Brown, former bishop of Galway), cost one million pounds in 1965, at the height of Catholic domination in the late twentieth century. Whelan computes: “Five hundred and seventy four Caherlihillans would fit into Galway cathedral.”

Sylvester O’Halloran gave an unkind view of the arrival of the Christian past. For balance, I offer his mocking glimpse of what then seemed to him an improbable future. This brings us down even closer to the living present: “for argument sake suppose in some future age, England by her intestine commotions, reduced to her primitive obscurity, and America become the centre of power and riches”. Imagine. This conspectus of settlement in Ireland, greatly to be welcomed and admired, is yet profoundly unsettling. We really need to do something about our past; replace O’Halloran’s “America” with “China” and it’s already looking like our future.


Seamus Deane, formerly of UCD and now emeritus professor of Irish Studies at Notre Dame, USA, has published widely on Irish and French themes of the post-Enlightenment era.



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