The Shadow War: Michael Collins and the Politics of Violence, by Joseph EA Connell Jnr, Eastwood, 409 pp, €18.99, ISBN: 978-1916137509
The following essay draws on many books in addition to The Shadow War and takes as its main subject the politics of Irish legislative autonomy since 1800.
The Shadow War, Joseph EA Connell Jnr’s latest book on the revolutionary era, is a thoughtful account of the post-1916 period, particularly the years 1919-22. Its strength rests on an intelligent and extensive reading of primary and secondary sources. The author considers many issues around the war, such as the relationships and connections between the Dáil, Sinn Féin, the IRA, the IRB, the strategic decisions taken by Collins and GHQ, the role of local leadership, the levels of public support, the political and military responses of the British, the reasons on both sides for accepting a truce and the debates and thinking around the treaty. Connell, who has a military background, also looks in some detail at the war in the context of other twentieth century insurgencies. His observations are invariably informative and stimulating. However, he does not compare the War of Independence with the Provisional war of the late twentieth century, and thus avoids a trip wire at the heart of politics in independent Ireland, one which is considered in some detail in the course of this essay.
One of the patterns confirmed in Connell’s study, and indeed in the work of other historians, is the fervour with which independence was sought in the post-1914 period. In Vivid Faces, Roy Foster argues that a radical intensity was building from the fall of Parnell. This is true, but it was part of a wider political disillusion with the Irish Parliamentary Party, a disillusion which varied in type and intensity.
Parnell was generally seen as an effective political practitioner who advanced national objectives through a calculated undermining of Westminster’s political processes. His successors, however, were widely seen as less effective and, as a result, the standing of parliament-based agitation suffered. The loss of political faith in parliamentarianism, or at least in parliamentarianism alone, was reflected in the emergence of a politics of organised cultural nationalism, which was often intense, but also in the attitudes of many who did not engage with the new romantic radical current and whose political aesthetic remained essentially Parnellite. One such was James Joyce. In 1907 Joyce commented: “… the Irish Parliamentary Party is bankrupt. For twenty-seven years it has been agitating and talking”; and “You ask me what I would substitute for parliamentary agitation in Ireland. I think the Sinn Fein policy would be more effective.”
In time, the public abandoned the IPP in favour of Sinn Féin and the War of Independence duly followed. As conducted by Michael Collins, Florence O’Donoghue and the GHQ officers, it was essentially a Southern war, and one which delivered a Southern result. Arguably, following independence, it should have been an uncomplicated matter to commemorate it as such. But this did not prove to be the case.
The partition of the island which occurred during the War of Independence was politically traumatising to both nationalist and unionist communities in the South. The erection of a border was an overwhelming emotional disruption and had the effect of diluting nationalist enthusiasm for the independent state which emerged. For many, including many in government, it became a case of two cheers – and less in some cases ‑ for the Free State.
The border issue had exceptional emotional heft; it moved people more than arguments around the state’s legitimacy, the oath and the ideal of the Republic. Next only to economic issues, partition became the absorbing issue at the centre of Irish politics. Indeed it sometimes subsumed economic questions, being blamed for underdevelopment. Partition permeated the political culture of independent Ireland and continues to do so. To this day it frequently has to be explained to first-year university students that the Civil War was not about partition. In public consciousness this issue tended to displace concerns once thought to be momentous.
The independent Irish state, unlike its continental European neighbours, was not supported by a professional historiography that would have charted its historical emergence through the application of accepted, evidence-based method. Ciaran Brady recently wrote, in relation to the nineteenth century: “In the case of historiographical development, as in other matters, Ireland, in short, presented a case of arrested development.” He blames the complexities which followed from the Union of 1800. The typical Western European experience was different.
Interestingly, the situation did not change much with independence. The celebrated “institutional innovations” of the 1930s did not herald a substantial professional history of the modern Irish past. The disappointing Edwards, Williams history of the Great Famine, finally published in the late 1950s, signalled that a new method-based historiography, focused on the imperially contested struggle for an Irish nation state was not in train. One reason for the lack of drive was perhaps an intellectual ennui in relation to the state, generated by the partition impasse. Another reason, which will be looked at in more detail in this essay, was the intellectual incoherence which followed from a cultural rupture with the formative nineteenth century.
Joseph Lee’s Ireland 1912-1985, which caused considerable intellectual stir when published in 1989, barely mentions the War of Independence. The cause of the book’s deserved popularity was its concern with economic underdevelopment in independent Ireland, a subject of consistent interest and political concern in the country. The book was written in the depressed 1980s, before the substantial growth of the 1990s had begun. Lee was a little unlucky in his timing. Had he published a decade later his thesis would presumably have been modified.
Events in the 1990s were transformative, in particular the Northern peace and the economic take-off in the Republic. Among other things, these events created the conditions necessary for ending historiographical torpor in Irish universities around the origins of the state and for generating a publicly directed professional historiography. The change did begin, but not instantaneously.
The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (2012) and the Atlas of the Irish Revolution (2017) are massive landmark publications issued by Cork University Press and represent the emergence of a new celebratory or, as in the case of the Famine, assertive professional history aimed at the general public. They are an ebullient departure from earlier patterns of ideological stagnation. It is undoubtedly significant that these volumes were issued in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, which in the republic, was widely regarded as an acceptable settlement and expected to last into the future. That these works were published following the advent of both economic prosperity and population growth is also telling.
Unease around the achievement of the 1919-21 period became acute following Northern events in 1969-70. Two countervailing, though sometimes interwoven, forces became apparent in the political culture of the Republic. The first was the established desire to end partition, which persisted and was understood as an historical imperative. The second was a repudiation of the Provisionals’ thirty-year war, undertaken to achieve precisely that result. For some the effective conclusion was that celebrating the foundational events of the 1916-22 period indirectly endorsed the Provisional war to end partition. For others there was little point in celebrating the war of Independence, as it did not result in a unitary state.
John Regan is associated with the argument that historians during the Provisional war became politicised and promoted what he termed “southern nationalism”. It is a fascinating argument but the evidence for Southern nationalism during the Provisional war is slim. A Southern nationalist history would have to have been based on embracing and celebrating the 1919-21 guerrilla war as a foundational event in the emergence of the Free State and the Republic. But no such history emerged before the Good Friday Agreement. For many years the standard text on the war was by Michael Hopkinson, the son of a Church of England clergyman from Wolverhampton.
In the pre-1969/’70 period, 1916 and 1919-21 were often explained as historically singular, involving a major departure from the main currents of nineteenth century nationalism. One of many examples that could be offered is Douglas Hyde’s statement in a 1941 speech, made on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Rising, and apparently largely written by de Valera, that in 1916 “the chains that bound us began to be broken at last”. Such explanations implied that little was achieved before 1916 and that the leaders of the preceding century were failures, in so far as they did not adopt the clearly superior measures of 1916 and the 1919-21 period. This is a perspective which was endorsed, directly and indirectly, by both the former Sinn Féin factions who dominated in post-independence Ireland. It is tempting to see it as an exercise in self-aggrandisement and perhaps also as an example of history as the propaganda of the victors. In any event, it amounted to the erection of an ideological partition between the politics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, while the importance the nineteenth century was effectively denied, its legacy did not disappear.
In the 1920s, as Maurice Walsh observed in Bitter Freedom, there was a pattern of pulling back from the drama of the war years. Walsh quotes George Russell writing in 1923: “The mass of people in the country continue to think as they did before the revolution” and adding that “The momentum of the old order carries us along in Ireland hardly deflected a hair’s breadth from the old cultural lines.” There is much evidence to support Russell’s contention. There was a widespread desire to do something about economic growth, but growth would be based on the existing economy and property relations. The instinct was to go back to the quotidian and to work from there. Radicalised individuals, who remained engaged with the war’s uncomplicated verities, including its freedom from political nuance, and who were unable to engage or re-engage with the democratic process, found they were politically rejected by mainstream society. This number included the bulk of those who put their lives at risk during the war.
A fairly ruthless pragmatism had been hard-wired into Catholic Ireland from the early eighteenth century. From the pragmatic point of view of the public, the compromise that John Redmond brought home in 1914 was unacceptable, whereas that brought home by Michael Collins in 1921 was acceptable. Nothing further of a military nature was required and this included steps to end partition and measures to reverse the social and economic damage done in the nineteenth century. Significantly, the ideal of the Republic did not especially animate people in the post-civil war period. Indeed, the evidence from the extensive detailed scholarly writing on the revolutionary period suggests there was never a widespread passionate engagement with that ideal in the first place and that it was the unsentimental objective of winning the greatest possible autonomy, by whatever name, that animated political activists and the public alike.
The rejection in the 1920s and thereafter of those who believed they were entitled to act outside the democracy did not solely affect republican idealists but also the more sinister elements, many of whom were well-placed within the state, who conspired to reject the result of the 1932 election. That proto-fascist cohort found it necessary to retreat quickly and cover their tracks, as it became clear there was little appetite for authoritarian government.
Those in the Cumann na nGaedheal tradition have sometimes wondered why they did not receive greater electoral acknowledgement for having founded the state. The conundrum is explained by the culture of a hard-headed pragmatism. Independence was worth little in itself: it was a question of what you did with it and in particular whether you addressed the disastrous economic and demographic legacies of the nineteenth century. De Valera’s party was more highly regarded in this respect. Other examples of the pragmatic spirit arose in relation to abandoning the Irish language, the treatment of those unable to secure an economic foothold through the era of population decline and more recently in the relegation of the Catholic church to the social fringes.
The new political establishment, which quickly came to include de Valera and his many followers, did not see violence as offering a model for the pursuit of their objectives. The democratic process was decidedly the preferred method. This, in effect, was a reconnection with the dominant participatory and democratic current of nationalist politics established in the nineteenth century. But the connection was tenuous. The contradictory ideology of the new state highly valued the political violence associated with its emergence while simultaneously rejecting political violence as a method.
Due to the ensuing incoherence, and despite placing revolutionary violence in aspic, there was no “rediscovery” of the nineteenth century as modern Ireland’s foundational experience. The break with the nineteenth century was effectively a break with the formative culture of twentieth century Ireland and was not without consequence. An intellectual torpor in the universities, sometimes accompanied by Catholic intellectual escapism, was one result. Outside the universities there were signs of independent intellectual exuberance and creativity. Individuals responded and reacted, often in journals, to the constricting cultural parameters of the time. Interestingly, these energies, which did not, and probably could not have cohered into a serviceable public ideology, mirrored the constrained creativity and anguished energy evident in the writing of many post-Union Protestant thinkers, whose situation will be touched on later in this essay.
The totemic status of 1916, which was understood in terms similar to those implicit in the speech written by de Valera in 1941 was central to the discounting of the nineteenth century. The Rising was widely accepted as the state’s originating act, which was perfectly valid in the sense that it triggered the specific and immediate chain of events which were to culminate in the substantial level of autonomy achieved in 1922. The words in the proclamation which read “In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms” were understood as celebrating armed rebellion as preferable to other forms of political activity. But this is a misreading of the words as written.
Naturally, given that the Rising was an armed action, there was a positive reference to the history of armed rebellion in the proclamation. That the armed tradition was overstated was natural in the circumstances, nor was it to be expected that the proclamation would register the fact that outbreaks of political violence had been relatively easily suppressed. But significantly, the words also acknowledge and do not reject other forms of political assertion. Mathematically, over twelve generations, they are given equal billing in the proclamation. This is not surprising, as the nationalists of the time were well aware of the debt owed to their agitational predecessors.
Post-independence readings of the proclamation tended to miss this significant element. Those involved in the Rising were happy to brand the politics of John Redmond a failure but would have seen the rejection of nineteenth century nationalism as absurd. The criticism of Redmond was essentially that his concessions were too great. Sometimes in the radical nationalist press of the time Redmond was depicted as having been hoaxed. More frequently he was accused of having departed from Parnell’s high standards and succumbed to a species of imperial proselytism.
Indisputably, Redmond found himself out of step with the political feelings of society in general, as the 1918 election result was to make clear. Many who continued to support him probably felt, as Collins did in relation to the 1922 settlement, that what was on offer could be expanded and built upon. Be that as it may, it is of limited historical significance. The judgement of the time was that Redmond gave away too much for much too little. The view, repeated again and again in the newspapers and literature of the time, was that his Home Rule offered no financial control, no customs control and no control of economic policy. It was far weaker than the self-rule enjoyed by Canada and Australia and was unacceptable. As expressed in The Irishman, the widely held nationalist view was: “We want the rich cream of liberty, not a preposterous measure of legalised impotence.”
Connell’s depiction of the post-1918 period essentially sees the public which had supported Redmond becoming enthusiastic allies of those developing new tactical departures. In much of the radical nationalist press of the time, the nationalist tradition of the nineteenth century is seen as admirable and is certainly not rejected. There are frequent positive references to Parnell and to the parliament of 1780 ‑ a constant reference point for O’Connell ‑ which is celebrated as having achieved vastly greater freedoms, especially in the economic area, than Redmond was prepared to accept. Pearse himself stood as an Irish Parliamentary candidate when substantial Home Rule still seemed possible. In the sixth issue of the advanced nationalist journal Nationality, published in July 1916, Eoin MacNeill’s much advertised and anticipated pamphlet Daniel O’Connell and Sinn Féin was reviewed positively by the editor. In the course of the review, which endorses MacNeill’s positive estimation of O’Connell, it is said that “O’Connell’s political principles were in fact neither more nor less than the principles of Sinn Fein”.
Despite post-independence misreadings, there was, in fact, no historical rejection of the nineteenth century tradition involved in either the proclamation, the Rising itself or the general culture of advanced nationalism. Indeed it is clear that neither the Rising nor the War of Independence could have occurred without the preceding century of agitational nationalist politics and, moreover, that the 1919-21 tactics would not have worked at any point in the nineteenth century. The idea that 1916 and the War of Independence were sui generis and did not issue from the politics of the nineteenth century only gained substantial traction in the post-1922 period.
O’Connell was not a pacifist, and neither was Parnell. The tactics they pursued in advancing the cause of autonomy were tactics for their time, as were those of the individuals conducting the War of Independence, who in turn were not dyed-in-the wool militarists, far from it. The political objective was always the same: Irish control over Irish affairs. As Collins said of his era: “Ireland’s story from 1918 to 1921 may be summed up as the story of a struggle between our determination to govern ourselves and get rid of British government and the British determination to prevent us from doing either.” This, in fact, was very much the nationalist ambition throughout the preceding century. What Redmond settled for was seen as a very nominal independence.
In their opposition to nominal freedom, the radicals were in the nineteenth century tradition. None of the great popular leaders and political thinkers from the time of Daniel O’Connell onwards sought a nominal independence. None was prepared to settle, as it were, for a round tower, a wolfhound and a few shamrocks carved above the door. Throughout the nineteenth century and beyond, the highly politicised nationalist public wanted the substantial freedoms and national possibilities which were conceivable only with an independent economy. The argument offered in the present essay then is that the War of Independence was more connected with than disconnected from the nationalist currents of the nineteenth century and was fought in pursuit of political objectives established in that century. Implicit in this approach is the view that the fixation on the interpretative centrality of physical force versus unarmed agitation ‑ a consensus found across the political spectrum in Ireland today ‑ as a means of understanding the Irish past is an unilluminating cul de sac.
Indeed it is more than unilluminating: it is damaging, being one of the strands to feed into contemporary Ireland’s history wars, whose negative effects extend far beyond the academy and have, for example, restricted what is arguably an essential discussion on future directions for the republic, which might appropriately have taken place during the Decade of Commemoration. Interestingly, Sean Lemass was more successful in promoting future-oriented discussion in 1966 than has proved possible in the period around the centenary of the rising. Notably, rejection of Provisional violence did not give rise to much in the way of “southern nationalism” but rather to a politically dysfunctional interpretation of the revolutionary era. Some historians have adopted a persistently critical and hostile position towards the guerrilla War of Independence. There have even been attempts to depict it as a squalid ethnically based event rather than the culmination of a long struggle for Irish legislative autonomy. That this tendency has lasted well beyond its pre-1998 heyday is related to the continuing attraction of the bogus physical force/peaceful methods dichotomy as a means of historical explication.
The cultural conflict described has been pervasive and has contributed to an ideological incoherence within the state itself. The most striking evidence came with the government’s initial suggestions for commemoration of the 1916 centenary. These amounted to little more than a bland marketing project, post-historical in tone, which seemed to offer the public a politically meaningless prizes-for-all interpretation of the event which led to the founding of the state. In 1991, the seventy-fifth anniversary was largely ignored by the state. Revising the Rising, published at the time, was an intellectually interesting but independent effort to address some of the questions swirling around the topic. Its connections with the academy were slim, the editors being a medieval scholar and a Cork poet.
The cultural conflict also manifests itself currently in the press, evident with the emergence of “specialist” journalists eager to report on rebel actions from the 1919-21 period, where moral shortcoming can be implied. Again, several articles have recently been published highlighting, as an urgent matter, Irish individuals who were involved in British imperial oppression internationally. They appear to be written with the implicit and bizarre intention of suggesting that the existence of these individuals somehow compromises the moral legitimacy of the Irish struggle for legislative autonomy.
President Michael D Higgins, who is unconnected with either of the Sinn Féin factions which dominated politics in independent Ireland is perhaps the only public intellectual voice addressing the issues being touched on here. For his pains he recently had a journalist, of a revisionist hue, radically misrepresent his arguments, earning a rare if not unprecedented rebuke from the president’s office.
The need to understand the Irish nineteenth century experience, including its multiple traumas, is now also pressing for wider reasons. As Irish prosperity and economic success which, of course, were rendered possible by the successful conclusion to the War of Independence, become thought of as the norm, they distance contemporary Ireland from the Irish nineteenth century experience. Indeed, there is evidence that society is increasingly confounded by the legacy of its foundational period, which, nevertheless, is one with which it must live. Unfortunately, the still continuing history wars have not provided twenty-first century Ireland with very much in the way of interpretive tools to address this legacy.
A recent example of that legacy’s disruptive potential is the Mother and Baby Homes scandal. It is a particularly illuminating example, in that it primarily involves social structures as opposed to, for example, the timeless criminality of child abuse. One of the questions implicit in the shocked public reaction to the discovery of what struck many, quite understandably, as a mother and child gulag, was whether their forebears were bad people, morally inferior to the present population.
Explicatory, as opposed to exculpatory, historical enquiry appears to the present writer the only means of avoiding the cultural self-loathing which must follow from the discovery of such baffling and upsetting phenomena. In this case, a close look at the long-lived traumas of the nineteenth century can help explain how a society which once prioritised the social virtue of charity and which was relaxed around issues associated with sexual behaviour and reproduction slowly collapsed into one where close reproductive regulation, harshness and a visceral attention to self-interest came to dominate in personal and family life.
The interrelated topics that will be touched on here, in looking back to the formative events of the nineteenth century ‑ all of which require much greater examination than can be offered in a relatively short essay ‑ include the extraordinary conditions around reproduction and sexuality, the rise and nature of Catholic social power, the self-curtailment of Protestant energies in post-Union Ireland, the overarching disaster of depopulation and the associated undermining of economic potential, the nature and consequences of Irish anglicisation through the nineteenth century and the politically futile, yet prevailing, attitudes towards the success of the Ulster Plantation. The overarching argument of this essay is that it is only by looking at the manner in which these phenomena were historically interwoven that contemporary Ireland can hope to avoid becoming overwhelmed and disorientated by its complex historical legacy.
The main characteristic of the War of Independence, as prosecuted by Collins and his colleagues, was its controlled low-level character, just enough pressure to continually needle the British and to prevent Westminster governing as usual. The message was essentially that the campaign for autonomy would continue to innovate tactically, that it would simply never cease. It was a powerful message. Westminster was weary of Ireland. Indeed, Britain was weary in general after the Great War, and was feeling the baton of world dominance slipping away to the US, where a large and powerful Irish diaspora resided. Calibrated violence was a strategy of genius for many reasons, not least in that it served to prevent the British using their full military power. The success of this approach, facilitated by Collins’s celebrated intelligence capacity, twinned with inspired propaganda and international publicity, was instrumental in forcing a level of concession that agitational politics had failed to achieve.
There was, however, another more subtle factor which made a low-level war the easier choice. For all the marching and military rhetoric since 1914, the Irish political class of that time was not particularly warlike. Moreover, this group, which was predominantly middle class, was integrated into a version of Victorian urban and rural respectability. This process of integration, which had its origins in the Union of 1800, is worth considering.
From the British high-politics point of view, the Union was supposed to solve Irish problems which had come increasingly into focus during the eighteenth century. In essence, these were the twin questions of how to treat the demographic minority of Anglican Ireland and how to treat the demographic majority of Catholic Ireland in a manner compatible with British interests. The northern Presbyterian population was not a major concern, in that any difficulties associated with it would be dealt with in the course of addressing the difficulties posed by the Anglican and Catholic communities.
With the 1798 rebellion it became strikingly clear that the Williamite ascendancy did not have the ability to maintain social order or control in Ireland, never mind the capacity to achieve genuine social harmony. Additionally, it had become clear that the integrative potential of the penal laws, which was arguably their primary political purpose, had fallen short. A significant number of propertied Catholics had converted but not sufficient to effect lasting change. For Westminster, the conclusion was clear: the penal laws no longer served a useful purpose. Increasing rural disorder had pointed in the direction of Williamite failure but the events of 1798, especially in the south east, were conclusive. Additionally, the Anglican order was potentially disloyal to Britain’s interests. Anglican Ireland had shown clear signs that, if the problem of the Catholic majority could be dealt with, it would press for autonomy. Finally, again from the English perspective, it was quite simply impractical to maintain the very considerable Catholic population as an alienated helot class. The integration and loyalty of this massive, and in significant instances, prosperous population was necessary for the orderly running of a country which was becoming increasingly modern, complex and sophisticated. Harmonious relations were also invaluable to Britain from a geo-political point of view.
Union was the unavoidable answer. A union of Britain and Ireland which included Catholic Emancipation would, in theory, erase all the difficulties around the majority and minority populations in Ireland. All would meld into the British polity. Adam Smith, British intellectual, economist and friend to William Pitt advised that the measure would result in the Irish and British becoming “one people”.
In England however, the political logic of religious toleration was grasped by only a few in power, faintly perceived by others and beyond the imaginative ken of most, including the monarch, George III. In this area the British empire lagged considerably behind the Habsburgs. Anti-Catholicism and negative feelings about the defeated Irish were culturally embedded in England. The attitudes that survived into the late twentieth century in Protestant Ulster were widespread in England at the time of the Union. These were deep-seated components of English cultural and political life, promoted by the state over centuries. They could not be simply be shrugged off at the behest of strategising political intellectuals.
The many who were convinced that Catholicism was a conspiracy, that it was a false religion and that it could not be countenanced by a Protestant crown and people could not be dissuaded. Thus Pitt, who advocated Catholic Emancipation for reasons of English national interest, resigned, along with a few other strategic thinkers, and a non-integrationist Union was passed into constitutional law, wherein the Williamite ascendancy’s dominance and security were implicitly underwritten as the everyday responsibility of Westminster.
Significantly O’Connell, who devoted his career to winning Irish legislative autonomy, opposed the Union on national grounds. This was to become the consensus Catholic position, promoted through the nineteenth century and articulated through a disruptive politics that was to run until 1922. In post-Union Ireland, a creeping integration was however unavoidable. But instead of being something orchestrated at the level of high politics it took on its own autonomous dynamic. Thus, the nineteenth century, simultaneously, became a period of both progressive cultural integration and organised political alienation.
There were various Union-related forces driving Catholic integration. The greatest was the growing democratisation and reform of nineteenth century Britain which could not, at least for long, be withheld from Ireland and which the politicised Catholic middle classes grasped at every opportunity. In taking advantage of new opportunities, middle class Catholic Ireland became more integrated in British political culture and governance while simultaneously adding to Catholic social and political power. This process accelerated following Emancipation and increased steadily throughout the nineteenth century. Michael Collins’s employment in the Post Office in London was an expression of Catholic integration, as were Catholics in the RIC, the civil service, the imperial service and the army.
George IV did not like the idea of emancipation any more than his father, but he was finally convinced, in a Britain which was slowly moving away from its Reformationist identity, that the measure was an evil which had to be endured in order to avoid rebellion. When emancipation was achieved in 1829, it was felt by Catholics, with considerable justification, that it had been wrung from a recalcitrant Westminster through the creative and unrelenting political pressure orchestrated by Daniel O’Connell, thereafter known as “The Liberator”. O’Connell’s new politics of mass organisation, unprecedented in the world, was a force which disrupted Westminster throughout the nineteenth century. Many victories were won by nationalists except, of course, that which was most fervently desired, full political autonomy.
The twin forces of British reform and Irish agitation transformed Ireland. Reform covered such matters as extensions of the franchise and the democratic restructuring of local government, the extension of administration and the reform of entry into the civil service, which were all embraced by nationalists. As the century progressed, Dublin came in many ways to resemble a British Victorian city, albeit one whose core was increasingly run-down. Catholics became entrenched in the administration, in the professions and as merchants, large and small. Middle class Catholic education expanded greatly and had a distinctive British hue to it, reflecting employment opportunities. The Jesuits offered places to the sons of professionals, while the Christian Brothers educated the sons of the smaller shopkeepers, the “respectable” working class and clerks. There were also schools for those who fell in between. All who studied in these schools were prepared for employment in what was a decidedly British world. The countervailing commitment to promoting independence co-existed with this culturally transformative dynamic. Tellingly, there was also an impressively organised extension of education for the daughters of the Irish middle classes. It was not just a question of preparing young men for employment opportunities: a modern Catholic middle class society was under construction. This was the class which was to inherit in 1922. Ideologues have often baulked at the middle class, property-owning character of the Irish “revolutionaries”. That too was a consequence of the nineteenth century, which saw ruthless treatment of the poor and preservation of the middle class. Indeed, from the eighteenth century, a central dynamic of Catholic Ireland was the preservation and protection of its property-owning element.
In the nineteenth century, the middle class effectively included all those who cherished the possibility of their children, or at least some of their children, being able to remain in the country, employed and enjoying at least a modest level of material comfort. It did not include elements such as the underclass, agricultural labourers, exploited shop workers, slum-dwellers, unskilled urban workers and the surviving peasantry. Many in these categories were progressively eviscerated through economic want and emigration. The welfare of these classes would not be a priority for the new state, which is not to say that nothing would be done to ameliorate their conditions. It was middle class elements who managed to survive in the economic and demographic desert of nineteenth century Ireland and it is worth noting in passing that the process of middle class social and national consolidation would have been impossible without making use of the institutions which only the Catholic church was capable of providing.
This highly politicised middle class which sought legislative independence from Britain lived in British-style Victorian and Edwardian houses, ate with knives and forks from Sheffield, spoke English, took English-style trams and trains to work, admired the great English writers and in many respects identified aesthetically with English manners. Today, numerous middle class Irish households have photographs of their early twentieth century forbears displayed. These ubiquitous Edwardian compositions embody evidence of the scale of middle class integration that developed through the nineteenth century. Yet these were the people who maintained the steady political pressure which made 1922 possible.
Increasing cultural Englishness did cause some unease within the nationalist middle classes. The cultural politics of assimilation and anti-assimilation feature prominently throughout the century and beyond. They are captured by Joyce in “The Dead” with Miss Ivors’s ribbing of Gabriel Conroy as a West Briton for publishing a literary column in the the Daily Express. The willingness to wag the finger perhaps reflected unease at the degree of complicity there was in the growing level of anglicisation which affected all.
In the context of the War of Independence, the area of integration which became a decisive fault-line was membership of the RIC. The war was, after all, largely one between the RIC and the IRA. The RIC had long been a political arm of the state, but, notwithstanding, members appear to have been mostly accepted by the public. But this was not sustainable once the war began. The urging of RIC men to resign, which was taken up to a considerable degree, was a recognition of the reality of integration. Many RIC men inadvertently found themselves as the main agents of British actions designed to obstruct the clear wishes of their own people. As late as 1920 one RIC man resigned dramatically, unable to bear the anti-Irish slurs of an English superior officer.
It is perfectly possible to sympathise with certain individuals within the RIC, as individuals, and to choose not to characterise them as inveterate national enemies, while recognising their effectively pro-imperial and anti-democratic actions, especially in the 1919-21 period. But to suggest that in this context it is proper for the state, which owes its existence to a war waged against the RIC, to officially commemorate the RIC is a sign of serious confusion. Most states will choose a few historical events to officially commemorate their origins. For Ireland, the obvious ones are Tone, O’Connell, Parnell, 1916 and the War of Independence. Commemoration is not a meaningless occasion for the display of pomp but primarily a social, psychological and emotional need within the nation state, as the level of popular enthusiasm around the 1916 commemoration revealed in Ireland.
Whatever about the relative comforts of some of the middle classes who found an economic space in Victorian Ireland, Irish society was dying rapidly, from the feet up. The country was experiencing a demographic decline without parallel in Europe and comparable, in the nineteenth century, perhaps only to that experienced by the indigenous peoples of the United States. The grim figures are available in an essay by John FitzGerald in the Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland.
The population of what became the Republic fell from a high approaching seven million in 1841 to a low of under three million around 1961. FitzGerald tells us that population declined every year but one in the fifty years following the Famine, and that the population fell again in forty-five of the sixty years between 1901 and 1961. However, it should be noted that following independence the rate of population decline fell significantly.
Even in Italy, which saw enormous emigration, the population more than doubled between 1850 and 1950, as the longer-term beneficial effects of the Risorgimento took effect. As FitzGerald notes, the demographic pattern in Ireland was “exceptional”. It was exceptional in Europe, and also exceptional within the Union. In the nineteenth century the population of Scotland, a country which experienced steady emigration, rose from 1.6 million to 4.47 million, an increase of 279 per cent. The population of Wales increased by 342 per cent and that of England by 400 per cent, from 7.75 million to over 30 million.
What is missing in John FitzGerald’s analysis is a credible explanation for the Irish population collapse. The author repeats the explanation which is offered by virtually every commentator on the subject: “The dramatic fall in population in the nineteenth century [was] caused by the Great Famine.” But was it? The Famine, the death of large numbers from starvation and associated disease, was over by 1851. The potato crop recovered to normal levels. Yet the great population decline lasted until the 1960s, some twelve decades after the Famine ended. How can it have been caused by the Famine?
The obvious, though under-recognised, truth must surely be that demographic collapse over twelve decades had to do with what happened and what didn’t happen in the Irish economy, and not with a limited period of potato blight. Its fundamental cause was political. People living at the time were aware of this, which explains why in the century preceding 1921 the Irish were probably the most politicised people on the face of the earth. They, naturally enough, sought ways to terminate the draining away of their population, with its ominous potential for bringing about effective national obliteration. Their belief was that, through the securing of political and economic independence, economic development would become possible. One of the reasons for the new tactics of the War of Independence was that the Home Rule Redmond had been offered did not allow adequate economic autonomy. Those historians who argue that the Rising can be regarded as unnecessary because Home Rule would have been granted, miss this essential point. The whole purpose of nineteenth century political agitation was economic growth.
Similarly, Roy Foster wonders why the materially comfortable subjects of his Vivid Faces became intensely nationalist. Finding no answers, he turns to metaphor and like FSL Lyons before him talks of “an anarchy in the mind and in the heart”. But really there is no need for poetic metaphor. Is it so surprising that when the ship was holed below the water line, those occupying the first-class deck chairs became sensible of the danger?
Stated bluntly, Irish emigration, the highest by a distance in Europe, was caused by the absence of economic opportunities in Ireland as a result of the country being politically prevented from making decisions which would have promoted economic development. A great many people responded by working for political autonomy.
Kevin Kenny, in the Cambridge History of Ireland, says that emigrants did not leave Ireland as part of “an involuntary mass exodus”. He does, however, note the “infamous ‘Gregory Clause’ of the poor law extension act of 1847 [which] denied public relief assistance to any head of household renting more than a quarter-acre who refused to relinquish the holding to its proprietor”. Government was involved in a restructuring of Irish agriculture, in conjunction with landowners, which progressively eliminated the high-density peasant agricultural economy. Undoubtedly, many peasant communities would have been satisfied to resume the old practices.
The work of Kirby Miller, the great chronicler of Irish emigration leaves no doubt that mass Irish emigration was involuntary. Breandán Mac Suibhne recently commented on the forced character of Irish emigration and quoted one of Miller’s emigrant letters,
I have everything that would tend to make life comfortable but still in spite of all I can never forget home … At night when I lie in bed my mind wanders off across the continent and over the Atlantic to the hills of Cratloe.
Many immigrants to the US, including Italians, returned to their home countries. The Irish, along with Jewish people, had the lowest rate of return emigration. This was not due to a deficit in nostalgia. The problem was there was little to return to.
In his analysis ‑ which it should be acknowledged is mostly concerned with figures over an extended period ‑ John FitzGerald does refer to the underperforming economy. But “underperformance” is left hanging there unexamined, as if it were something beyond the realm of human agency. Similarly, Kevin Kenny, a historian sympathetic to the plight of the peasantry, refers to “socio-economic trends” at the time of the Famine, without reference to the Repeal campaign of the 1840s, a national campaign which engaged rich and poor and which, at root, sought the freedom to influence prevailing and damaging socio-economic trends.
When the American Asenath Nicholson, who was not previously much interested in politics, visited the country on the eve of the Famine she found the poor to be enthusiastic advocates of Repeal, with one poor man asking her “And do you think we will have the repale?” She comments “It was affecting to see how the hearts of these poor ill-paid labourers were everywhere intent on that one object, repeal.” Can the passionate political preoccupations of a people be usefully passed over in the discussion of any period? Can there be any doubt that like the subjects of Vivid Faces, the poor of the 1840s passionately desired a better future for their country?
The failure to link population collapse with politics and particularly with the politics of the economy is not unusual. There has long been a tendency to speak of post-Famine economic failure as if it were unavoidable, indeed as if it were similar to potato blight. The absence of iron and coal are traditionally cited. But, of course, there were many areas in Europe which developed without ready access to iron and coal and, as has been noted, population increase was general throughout Europe.
Would the twelve decades following the Famine have been different had the independence sought by the O’Connellite bourgeoisie and supported by the poor been won in the 1840s? Very probably yes, and very probably very different. The bourgeoisie of the time were obsessed with economic development and industrialisation and were convinced, at a time when Ireland’s population was eight million to England’s fourteen, that with legislative independence, economic development would take place. Large numbers were then engaged in trade and industry. An embryonic industrial economy was in position, Robert Kane’s Industrial Resources of Ireland, which appeared in 1844, is a landmark publication. However, it should be noted that it reflected a long-standing obsession of the Repeal leadership with Ireland’s industrial potential. In addition to economic growth, Repeal Ireland would also have seen a moderation of the universalist political ideology typical of early nineteenth century nationalism. The influence of Romantic aesthetics was well under way in the 1840s. There can be little doubt that the Irish language would have survived in Repeal Ireland, as would some level of cultural link with the Gaelic past.
It is also certain that a post- Repeal Ireland would have introduced measures to protect the economy against the workshop of the world, as other European countries had done and would continue to do. The seeds of a formal policy were well established in the 1840s. Economic development was the sine qua non of the Irish autonomy movement. In the recently published Parnell and his Times, Paul Bew tells us of Parnell’s attempts to win economic sovereignty and his realisation that protectionist measures would be necessary for economic development. In 1885 he was prepared to abandon his Whig allies in favour of the Tories because, as Bew observes, he believed the Tories were “more likely to concede protection of Irish industry”.
When de Valera introduced protectionist measures in the 1930s, he was acting in the tradition of O’Connell and Parnell, and of course Griffith. As the work of Joseph Lee, Mary Daly and Cormac Ó Gráda shows, significant growth in industrial employment occurred in the 1930s. However, the internal market was no longer supported by a population of seven million and continuing industrial growth proved elusive, as the nineteenth century pattern of demographic decline continued.
The social function of an economy may reasonably be said to be to support the population in which it is based. The Irish economy failed this test for twelve decades. The remorseless and wholly exceptional demographic decline was set in motion and built up its substantial dynamic while Ireland was subject to political control from Westminster. What occurred and was permitted to occur over a long period of time was, at a minimum, morally reprehensible. Kevin Kenny says that professional historians shy away from the word genocide. Perhaps they are right. Intent is difficult to prove. But if this is so, there can be little reason not to acknowledge the demographic and economic cataclysm that befell nineteenth century Ireland and its political cause. Sociocide is perhaps the most accurate term to apply. Recognition of this sort does not prevent the development of positive neighbourly relations with England; in fact, it is a precondition of genuine cordiality.
The negative cultural and social effects of demographic decline within Ireland were immense. Economic and demographic failure shaped the circumstances people were obliged to negotiate in their individual lives. They formed the backdrop to life, culture, literature, marriage, love, family, inheritance, property, birth and death. The effect in all these areas was profound and, usually, profoundly negative. In many respects Ireland became internally vicious, changing from a culture where charity was the greatest public value to a society where survival was the primary concern. To envisage the challenges of living in a time of continuous decline, it could be suggested that Ireland resembled an overcrowded lifeboat. The viciousness and extremities associated with survival at sea found their equivalent in Irish life. In essence, the situation was that there was not economic room in the country for the numbers born every year and, more than that, there was not even room for the existing population. Social solidarity and toleration cannot be expected as instinctive everyday practices in such circumstances.
In conditions of insufficient economic and human space, attitudes towards reproduction and sexuality, changed as did those towards all vulnerable and “disposable” members of society, that is people who had not secured an economic foothold. Reproduction became culturally regulated. KH Connell in Irish Peasant Society showed how the restructured Irish economy led to late marriage and high levels of celibacy in rural Ireland. A comparable situation existed in urban Ireland where there was no guarantee of admission to administrative or commercial employment. The trauma of demographic decline was felt in both urban and rural Ireland. It affected and shaped the circumstances in which everyday life took place.
Those brave individuals who opened factories and followed standard European bourgeois norms found the going tough and the opportunities limited. John Stanislaus Joyce, who died in a sparsely furnished room on Dame Street with little more than a copy of his son’s famous book to his name, started adult life as a bourgeois with significant capital. He is generally regarded as feckless. Certainly, he didn’t have the focus required by the time. However, in a different European city he might have been a reasonably successful burgher. In Dublin, Cork and other urban centres, the opportunities were more limited.
Certain tendencies within Catholic religious thinking proved a good fit with the social need for sexual and reproductive restraint. The apocryphal priest of the early twentieth century armed with a blackthorn stick and chasing the young out of ditches after dances was doing society’s bidding. Human reproduction was increasingly socially regulated and restricted, which meant that women were increasingly regulated and restricted. The unattractive strain of thinking within Catholicism which associated sexual activity, and even giving birth, with impurity was often embraced. It was a convenient morality in a society where an illegitimate child or even an inappropriate or early marriage could bring familial dislocation and forced emigration. The many hair-cutting attacks on women during the War of Independence, as opposed to rape, where the incidence was low, reflected the culture of reproductive and female regulation.
The middle classes, broadly defined as those whose children had some potential to remain in the country at even a basic level of material comfort, were the class which was desperate to hide their pregnant daughters. In the post-independence era these were the families who brought their daughters to Mother and Baby homes, where full confidentiality was guaranteed. The really poor, many of whom lived in conditions of abject squalor, did not rely on these institutions. Indeed only a minority of known pregnancies outside marriage were associated with Mother and Baby homes from the 1920s to the 1940s. The Carrigan committee report of 1931, whose motivation was the protection of women, girls and boys from sexual abuse, makes it clear that there was a high level of unrecorded “illegitimate” births among the poor, who frequently made their own arrangements and were not subject to a high level of social and clerical supervision. It was, it would seem, the middle classes who relied on these institutions and it is the broader dynamic of middle class conformity which lies behind the astute observation of John McGahern that the middle classes were the greatest victims of clerical oppression In Ireland.
The inherent social problem with Catholicism, as opposed to Anglicanism, is its propensity for authoritarianism and political meddling. This has meant that through history it has regularly been cut down to size by political forces. Something of that nature has happened in Ireland since the advent of economic prosperity. It remains to be seen what level of acceptance the Catholic church will enjoy in a purely religious sense in the future. The relevant chapter on Catholicism in the Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland offers a solid and insightful historical account.
In the sixteenth century, Henry VIII turned the English church into an instrument of state and since then church “meddling” has never been a problem. The established church just doesn’t do it. In a recent example of Anglicanism’s tendency to be politically loyal, an English clergyman and academic, Nigel Biggar, offered readers of The Irish Times a critique of President Higgins’s thinking and an intellectually plucky, if unconvincing, defence of English imperialism as a force for good in the world.
O’Connell, in his time, had made it clear that the church was expected to follow on political matters, that he was a sincere Catholic but not a papist. But with the defeat of the O’Connellite bourgeoisie in the 1840s, the stage was set for the church to take on a political role. It was a long process which, arguably reached its apotheosis in 1951 when taoiseach John A Costello declared: “I am an Irishman second, I am a Catholic first, and I accept without qualification in all respects the teaching of the hierarchy and the church to which I belong.”
Only three years after independence, divorce was made illegal in deference to Catholic teaching. This was the beginning of a significant upscaling of Catholicism’s political opposition to the Enlightenment values which had historically constituted a strong current within modern Irish nationalism. It was a betrayal of many, including many Irish Protestants who had supported the politics of Irish autonomy, and it prompted Yeats’s famous speech in the senate.
We against whom you have done this thing, are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence. Yet I do not altogether regret what has happened. I shall be able to find out, if not I, my children will be able to find out whether we have lost our stamina or not. You have defined our position and have given us a popular following. If we have not lost our stamina then your victory will be brief, and your defeat final, and when it comes this nation may be transformed.
This assertive and angry speech, with its light dusting of condescension, tells a story both backwards and forwards. The victory on divorce, which lasted until 1995, was not exactly brief. Whether Irish Protestants lost their stamina and if they did, whether it is gone for good are questions worth asking.
It is some time since Irish Protestants, on turning on the news, had to endure the wearying experience of broadcasters prioritising the utterances of some bishop or other Catholic luminary, or indeed of the bishop of Rome himself. Ne Temere’s teeth have been pulled, and when Protestants in the Republic now marry into other religions it is more likely into a non-coercive setting, if not a secular one. The evidence of integration is widespread, but integration, even into a culture of lapsed Catholicism, also involves a potential loss of connection with the Protestant current in Irish history.
In 2019 Heather Humphreys called for the establishment of a Protestant cultural centre and said that the story of Protestants in the Irish Republic has never been properly told. This is true but, in excavating Irish Protestantism, it is necessary to go back much further. It is desirable to uncover the full story and avoid the temptation to focus on the spectacular elite individuals as Yeats did in his senate speech. The real story is much more interesting and much more complex. Thus far Protestant Ireland has not shown much interest.
In a revealing sleight of hand Yeats declines to acknowledge a central fact from the century preceding his speech: most Irish Protestants were not in sympathy with the movement to achieve legislative autonomy. Why this was and what the effects of it were are also questions worth asking. Once again, the Union of 1800 is the crucial turning point.
The Protestant elite of pre-Union Ireland were not a petty people, as the architecture of Dublin city centre attests, nor did they have pettiness imposed on them. However, in post-Union Ireland, spectacular figures notwithstanding, Irish Protestantism embraced a petty future. In 1800 the legacies of oppression, expropriation and religious enmity left the Protestant leadership ‑ which was the economic and social elite within that community ‑ culturally unable to entertain the integrative vision of Tone, a vision which continued to be on offer from nationalist Ireland throughout the nineteenth century and which continued to be rejected by the majority of Irish Protestants.
The integration preferred, and acceptable to Protestant Ireland in the early nineteenth century, involved politically hopeless visions of mass conversion of Catholics. With the failure of the Second Reformation ‑ discussed later in this essay ‑ and comparable secular projects, an innovative people with exceptional national achievements behind them became, for the most part, supporters of the English Tories. Their once ambitious politics collapsed into supporting those in Britain who opposed democratic social change. Politically, Irish Protestantism became a century long exercise in rearguardism. It was a major and voluntary transformation which did not occur without anguished debate, the history of which has yet to be told.
Even the most hardened anti-Catholics toyed with the idea of a national alliance. Dr Charles Boyton of Trinity College offers one example. He founded the Conservative Society, in opposition to O’Connell’s Catholic Association. Like O’Connell’s association, the Conservative Society collected a penny rent from its members. In December 1830, after O’Connell started his first repeal campaign, Boyton wrote to Lord Farnham, a leading political Evangelical who was viscerally hostile towards all manifestations of Catholicism:
As to repeal of the Union, it is quite plain to me that it is the equivalent to the abolition of all our establishments and the creation of a Roman Catholic government in Ireland …
He added however that unquestionably good consequences would follow from that measure, even though it would mean “utter destruction”.
However, we have agreed here to throw out the possibility of looking at the question with a view to seeing if we might join the Catholics in pressing the expediency of a repeal …
O’Connell was delighted with these stirrings, which, however, came to nothing. Throughout his career, a central objective for him was a political alliance with Protestant Ireland. This he saw as the best means of achieving political autonomy in his time, and he was undoubtedly correct. In his wish to attract Protestant support he failed, apart from a minority segment of the Protestant community which included some outstanding but unrepresentative figures, such as Thomas Davis.
The inclusive political character of O’Connellism is not always acknowledged in historical commentary. For example, in an essay on minorities in The Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland it is claimed:
Daniel O’Connell … helped to embed the myth that Ireland was a religiously and ethnically homogenous society with a monocultural and unchanging identity.
This statement is wholly inaccurate and to an outlandish degree. In the view of the present writer, it suggests the pitfalls of employing standard European interpretive models when dealing with the many exceptionalisms of the Irish nineteenth century.
Returning to Yeats’s question as to the stamina of Irish Protestantism. Just as contemporary Ireland can benefit from a recognition of the Catholic nineteenth century experience, it can also benefit from knowledge of the Southern Irish Protestant past, which includes but extends beyond exceptional individuals. It is also a past quite different from that of Ulster Protestantism.
This brings us again to the final and, as regards the state, perhaps the most immediately pressing matter to be considered which is the question of the North as force which has generated and continues to generate political and ideological problems in the South.
On the island of Ireland there is considerable variation, the most significant being the political difference between North and South. This dissimilarity has existed from the early modern period and derives from the fact that the Ulster Plantation was the only plantation of scale on the island, the only imposition of population in recorded Irish history which successfully replaced a pre-existing society over an extensive geographical area.
The great manifestation of the plantation, which was followed by spontaneous immigration into east Ulster, was a largely self-sufficient body of Protestants, mostly Presbyterians, who were persistently hostile towards the religion, culture and political ambitions of the displaced population, and indeed of the majority population on the island.
Whereas geo-political developments eventually allowed the phenomenon of hyper- Protestantism to reduce in potency throughout most of Britain, a different geo-politics kept it alive and bristling in Ulster. Northern Ireland was the only point where Protestant Britain physically abutted European Catholicism. Protestants sitting on that fault line were naturally more self-consciously anti-Catholic than those from the British heartlands, particularly so given the history of expropriation in Ulster.
The result of the plantation, particularly following the partition introduced during the War of Independence, was a Northern Unionist politics which was exclusivist, and for which the only acceptable form of democracy was a hegemonic majoritarianism. It was a frequently oppressive hegemony, based on power politics, whose oppressive application was tempered only by socially positive measures introduced throughout the British state, especially in the post-1945 period, one of whose results was an educated nationalist leadership capable of conceptual politics and strategic thinking.
The Northern state structure, whether to be within or separate from the rest of the UK, was conceived from the outset as an exclusivist undertaking. Its territorial ambitions were consciously determined by the maximum area over which its electoral control was believed to be secure in perpetuity. This choice reveals a dark concomitant to the simple desire for security within the British state, which was open to defence in basic democratic terms. The desire to maximise territory suggests ambition for a greater Ulster, incorporating a substantial subject population. It was this overreach which, more than anything, ensured that the Northern arrangements set in place in 1921 would not endure historically. Had unionists settled for three or four counties, their position would be unassailable.
In the South, with no comparable plantations, things played out very differently. With military matters resolved at the turn of the eighteenth century, the challenge from the victor’s point of view became that of accommodating the defeated within the new Protestant order. A policy of extirpation, which had been suggested for consideration ‑ along with some less extreme proposals ‑ a century earlier by Edmund Spenser and others, as a logical solution to the problem of enjoying unfettered access to resources, had ceased to be a strategically valid option by the first years of the eighteenth century. As is frequently the case with imperialist undertakings, the defeated population proved necessary for the exploitation of the newly secured resources.
Restless elements of the English population had departed for America at the rate of 38,000 per annum from approximately the late sixteenth to the late seventeenth century. These numbers might have contributed to a successful plantation in the south had it not been for the much greater lure of the New World. Instead of confronting native Irish, these English settlers found themselves confronting native Americans. Comparably restless elements in Scotland, however, did not focus on the New World but rather on Scandinavia, Poland and above all Ulster. Jonathan Bardon tells us that up to “a quarter of a million British crossed over to Ireland between 1586 and 1700, most of them to Ulster …” The bulk of these people would have been Scottish.
Outside Ulster, the defeated had to be embraced and subjugated at the same time for the simple reason that the defeated population was crucial to running things. An element of “getting on” with the subject population became a feature of Anglo-Irish culture, and indeed in reverse, of the defeated Catholics’ cultural practice. In retrospect, it might be argued that this reliance on the majority population ultimately doomed the Williamite order, unless at some point political and cultural integration were to occur. Visions of integration are at the kernel of modern Irish history. Indeed, from the early eighteenth century, Irish politics can be said to have revolved around contending visions of integration.
The Protestants of the North felt no great necessity for the limited everyday conviviality common in the South, and in consequence of this important difference, different political cultures developed in the two parts of the island. There are numerous evidences of difference, both large and small. In the North, prime minister Lord Brookeborough could declare in a tone of firm principle that he wouldn’t have a Catholic about the place. A Protestant landowner in the South might have thought: “It is easy for him; he doesn’t need Catholics to run his estate or rent his lands.”
The substantial political difference between North and South is also sharply reflected in the different histories of religious conversion and proselytism in the two areas. Projects for the conversion of Catholics reflected the desire for Protestant-led integration. In the South, converting the majority to Protestantism was a serious political desideratum, present through the penal era (indeed, it was, arguably, the main political purpose of the penal laws) and in the early nineteenth century through the attempted Second Reformation. In the latter case, extraordinarily high levels of energy and commitment were expended by Southern Protestantism on a campaign whose objective was the conversion of the poor to bible-centred Protestantism. It amounted to a considerable extension of the less ambitious penal law conversion strategy, which had primarily targeted the numerically small class of landowning and upper class Catholics. Both were attempts to achieve a managed integration by means of what might be termed a reverse takeover.
The attempted Second Reformation was a dramatic innovation born of the political change represented by the Union of 1800 and driven by the same Protestant energies that had sought and won autonomy and prosperity in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The Union, though grudgingly accepted by Protestant Ireland, was understood by that community to constitute a threat to their autonomy, prosperity and prospects. The economic arguments for separation were no less valid in 1800 than they were in 1780. Early nineteenth century proselytism was an attempt to reverse the deleterious effects of the Union in what was, at its political core, a final and powerful, if doomed, expression of the desire for Protestant-dominated national autonomy.
Mass conversion held out the possibility of solving virtually all the former colony’s political problems at once. It would turn Catholics into Protestants and end division by bringing into being a new Ireland demographically dominated by Irish Protestants. Success would certainly have brought the question of political autonomy for Protestant Ireland back into focus. It would also, almost certainly, have seen the survival of the Irish language and a public political culture which drew symbolically on the Gaelic past. Indeed, a process of cultural appropriation, expressed chiefly through antiquarian activities as part of the Protestant national experiment, had begun in the eighteenth century and continued, as such, until at least the 1830s.
The Second Reformation was a hopeless project from the outset. It did not enjoy anything resembling the “greenfield” character of Protestant missions to African countries. It had an immediate political purpose, which was the maintenance of elite Protestant supremacy. This was perfectly well understood by the Catholic population, which overwhelmingly declined to see Protestant missionaries as disinterested Christian zealots. Moreover, the missionary form of integration, championed through campaigns of proselytism, facilitated the continuation, and indeed the intensification of the Protestant establishment’s long-standing visceral hostility toward Catholicism. Catholic Ireland recognised the oppressive character of this dynamic and that the social forces offering it did not propose a dilution of historic oppression but simply a means of disabling potential opposition. Persistent Protestant hostility towards equitable integration was evident at the time of the Union and in post-Union Ireland not only in the attempted Second Reformation but also in the fierce opposition to Catholic Emancipation.
Despite the everyday realpolitik of limited mutual toleration, there was not and could not be ‑ despite the persistent wishful thinking of liberal ascendancy intellectuals ‑ an organic relationship between the peasantry and elite Protestant landowners. The real organic relationship existed between the Irish poor and the emergent Catholic bourgeoisie. This new and highly energetic social formation was led by the man most hated in Protestant Ireland, Daniel O’Connell. His victory in achieving Catholic Emancipation was the Second Reformation’s death knell. It was a failure which left Protestant Ireland in the political doldrums and is the background to that community’s long embrace of a conservative cultural and political somnambulance.
The political character of the attempted Second Reformation is under-recognised in Irish historiography. In the Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland, for example, it is said that the “missionary awakening” was “primarily motivated by religious conviction”. This was patently not the case, as the literary remains of the campaign clearly reveal. In the same Cambridge essay, it is acknowledged that the movement was primarily a Southern, Church of Ireland phenomenon and reference is made to “evangelical landlords such as the Farnhams of County Cavan”. The reference to the Farnhams is interesting, as few individuals reflected the political character of the movement more than Lord Farnham. He took over the Dublin Evening Mail in the 1820s and thereafter directed it as a medium of unrelenting Protestant political propaganda. Moreover, when worried about the security of the Protestant interest he engaged in the illegal importation of arms from Birmingham, for which he was arraigned. His political views were common within Irish evangelicalism of the time, a movement which was quite different in character from the revivalist current found elsewhere in the Protestant world.
In the North, the planter community had little interest in converting Catholics, despite Presbyterianism being, arguably, a more natural theological fit for evangelical activity than Anglicanism. In Scotland, for example, there were many missions sent to Africa, a cultural practice which continues into the twenty-first century, often in association with Irish Presbyterianism. However, even during the excitements of the Presbyterian revival of the mid-nineteenth century, Northern protestants in the Dissenter tradition showed little interest in converting the Catholic population around them.
The South has long had difficulty with the success of the plantation. Katherine Simms’s latest work, Gaelic Ulster in the Middle Ages, reveals the complex and sophisticated culture of this most Gaelic of Irish provinces. Its annihilation counts as one of the island’s great cultural tragedies. It will never be known how it might have modernised and what form a modern Ulster with organic links to its Gaelic medieval past might have taken. But of course connection with the sophisticated Gaelic medieval world has been lost throughout Ireland. Historians with the necessary skills and imagination can introduce this world to us, but the organic connection has long disappeared. Notwithstanding the work of historians such as Simms, for the most part contemporary Ireland is uninterested in, and only marginally aware of, the vanished millennium of Gaelic civilisation.
The persistent Southern sense of loss over the plantation is not cultural: it is material and turns on ideas of expropriation and restitution. Because of the power and persistence of this understanding, the separateness of Protestant Ulster and its political specificity have never been accepted by nationalist Ireland. There are countless examples of this in the records. For example, in the leading article of the twenty-eighth number of The Irish Nation, published in December 1916, it is impatiently declared:
Let us be clearly understood. We are anxious to have the Orangeman enter the national ranks and take his place with his Catholic and Protestant countrymen in the fight for the emancipation of Ireland; but we have no intention of going on our knees to implore him to do so. To put the truth bluntly, Mr Orangeman is a usurper. He is in possession of something to which he has no just right. If he is permitted – permitted, Mr Orangeman ‑ to continue in possession he must become a good citizen by becoming a good patriotic Nationalist.
Neither O’Connell nor Davis accepted the strength of feeling underlying the Ulster Protestant hostility to the movement for legislative independence. When in the 1840s it seemed to some that O’Connell might secure Repeal, Northern Protestants made it clear they wanted no part of it. There was talk of separation, which was ignored. Forty years later, Parnell was dismissive and amused by the idea of a separate Ulster parliament.
The implicit assumption throughout the nineteenth century was that following national independence Protestant Ireland, North and South, would adapt to the inclusive ideology of Irish nationalism. The War of Independence threw up some stark examples of Northern difference. When Collins arranged for the execution of Inspector Oswald Ross Swanzy in Lisburn in revenge for his murder of the mayor of Cork, Tomás Mac Curtain, anti-Catholic rioting broke out. Catholic businesses and homes, including that of the parish priest, were burned down. Connell says that “after three days of looting and destruction the entire Catholic population of 1,000 could take no more and fled en masse”. Collins asked what else he could have done, whereas nationalists in the north might, like Pyrrhus, have felt: “another such victory and we are done for”. When Pearse and Connolly insisted in 1916 that not a shot was to be fired in Ulster, they recognised the danger of intra-communal violence. That violence came to pass in 1922 in the form of pogroms which saw more than 25,000 Catholics forced to flee.
It is unlikely anything could have overcome Northern Protestant hostility in the early twentieth century, which was then fully endorsed by the English establishment. This hostility persists. Brendan Clifford recently pithily described Protestant Ulster’s hostility towards nationalist Ireland as “ineradicable”. In retrospect, it can be seen that the failure of the South over time to engage with the minutiae of Northern difference did not serve the interests of the Northern minority. Southern ineffectuality regarding the interests of Northern nationalists continued during the War of Independence, and during the talks which ended it. The treaty talks, for example, did not feature demands from nationalists for protective measures for the Catholic minority within the new Northern configuration. No British red line would have been involved in conceding a bill of rights and a structural political role for that minority as an amendment to the 1921 settlement. Similarly, securing a cast-iron agreement that there would be a county-by-county plebiscite on inclusion, which might well have seen a four-county Protestant Ulster, was not a focus for Sinn Féin when politicking either in Dublin or London. These are measures which might have been bartered for the oath, later declared to be an empty formula. Ironically, given his lowly standing in the national pantheon, Redmond had been quite exercised by the desirability of including Tyrone and Fermanagh in the Home Rule area.
In independent Ireland the sense of injustice remained and was incorporated in the constitution, which implied a right to take action. Nevertheless, the rarely articulated realpolitik was that the South would not be attempting any military activity. This was a fudging which it was possible to maintain until the late sixties. However, it was not possible to maintain following the events of 1969-70. After a brief period of confusion, Jack Lynch made it clear, to the great relief of the public, that the Army would not be intervening in the North and, moreover, it also became clear that the state would not be engaging with the Provisionals as proxies. The public’s greatest fear, that violence would “spill over” into the Republic, was allayed.
Around that time, it also became embarrassingly clear that the Republic had done little or nothing to ameliorate the conditions of the Northern minority. Sean Lemass was the only taoiseach who had shown any promise in that area. The deficiency was now energetically addressed. With the aid of an exceptional SDLP leadership, thrown up by a thoroughly frustrated nationalist community, the Irish state finally knuckled down to the task of winning political rights and national recognition for its minority in Northern Ireland. This process had many stages and culminated with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. In the South this was greeted with huge relief and was believed to be a long-term settlement, compatible with an aspiration to unity by consent.
Assisting in this process was a relatively easy decision for the state to make during the Provisional war. Amongst other things, it served to deprive the Provisional movement of the political initiative. However, prior to 1998 there was a resistance to change in some other policy areas.
One question which arose in the minds of some in the 1970s was whether the state, representing the nationalist political tradition, was willing to depart from the idea that the Northern polity represented an inherent injustice, and that the only acceptable long-term solution involved its dissolution. Some politically marginal elements at the time suggested a framework which would allow for a politics that supported both civil rights for nationalists in the North and a recognition of Protestant Ulster’s right to withhold consent to a United Ireland indefinitely. In these suggestions, a United Ireland by consent was not precluded as a possibility. Significantly, the state declined to do this, and on that matter had widespread backing from the public and political parties of any size. Articles in the constitution which embodied the idea of an unjust expropriation would not be changed.
It was not until the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998 that Southern society was willing to change its constitution. The mood then was that the great problem bequeathed by the Irish past had been solved. Congratulation and self-congratulation were widespread among politicians. The articles in the Republic’s constitution claiming sovereignty over the North-East were dropped, with substantial public support. After this there was less emphasis on the North. It seemed the South was content to leave it alone to develop the new power-sharing structures, while also hoping that at some point in the future Protestant Ulster would consent to unity.
However, it seems the dormant politics of coercion may be about to get a new lease of life. It has become clear recently that the Belfast Agreement contains a majoritarian subtext. A simple majority in a referendum requires Westminster to endorse a United Ireland. This majoritarian principle has also been included in the Irish constitution. Given demographic trends and the original Protestant territorial overreach, it is now recognised that Unionists just might, at some perhaps not too distant point, lose a referendum on the question of a unitary state. This offers a radically altered scenario. The Provisionals’ futile and bloodstained efforts to bomb unionists into a United Ireland now seem quite dated. The new plan is to vote unionists into a United Ireland.
Consent has taken on quite a different meaning from that generally understood post-1998. In effect older coercive Southern notions of consent have re-emerged. Those associated with or sympathetic to the Provisionals’ objectives have suddenly found themselves armed with the very language of democracy which was employed by their critics for decades. A referendum and “the will of the people” are the new battle cries. Moderate nationalists in the South are clambering aboard and are busy offering sugar-coated options to unionists. Ideas reminiscent of Jack Lynch’s suggestion of a federalist solution are in circulation. Jim O’Callaghan has proposed guaranteed unionist seats in cabinet. And of course there is the taoiseach’s Shared Island initiative. The Shared Island idea has much to recommend it, but unless the question of majoritarianism is addressed it will come to nothing.
From the unionist point of view, it must seem that every day sees a new gift-wrapped Trojan Horse at the gates. There are already signs of Ulster wagons being circled. A debate in the South as to what is meant by consent offers possibly the only means of interrupting the negative dynamic which has begun. It will not be an easy matter as the subject is surrounded by a dense fog of obfuscation.
At the heart of the problem is the Southern myth of 1798, from which derives the “lost sheep” view of Protestant Ulster. Many people feel it is a badge of generosity to claim they are motivated by the 1798 ideal. Even a figure as unlikely as Eoghan Harris recently declared that he was a Wolfe Tone republican and more recently indicated he was a “real republican” who regretted the “loss” of the dissenter tradition. Michael McDowell also recently described himself as an admirer of the vision of Thomas Davis. This type of language has been ubiquitous in Southern political discourse for a long time. It all seems high-minded and decent. However, there is a fudge at the heart of the unity-by-consent argument. It is only credible as a non-coercive democratic measure if the right to withhold consent, in perpetuity if desired, is equally acknowledged, which it rarely if ever is. Without genuine consent, the 1798 unity-by-consent approach amounts to a programme of integration through political conversion. Like the Second Reformation, it requires the consent of the converted and like the Second Reformation it does not concede the validity of refusal. In one case false religion could not be entertained, in the other false consciousness cannot be endorsed.
RTÉ recently screened a Prime Time programme on the subject of a United Ireland. Mary Lou McDonald and Leo Varadkar, ideologically disparate on so many issues, faced each other. However, there was no bun fight, with both approving of a border poll and disagreeing only on the timing. DUP MP Gregory Campbell, who joined by web link, was half-laughing and half-furious: “You just don’t get it,” he said through his teeth, “We are British.” A well-groomed loyalist gentleman also appeared who, unlike early iterations of the type, seemed to have taken a course in media presentation. He politely indicated that in the event of there being a vote for a United Ireland, very much to his personal regret, there would be violence.
The possibility of a referendum means that border poll politics will now take on a life of its own. The proposal for a referendum, even if one does not come to pass, cannot be put back in its box. And, of course, were there to be a referendum in the North there would have to be a referendum in the South. Debate, however, will come first; the South may finally be faced with a moment of truth. This time a fudge may not be possible. The question will be whether the South is willing to democratically coerce Northern unionists into a United Ireland or is the South prepared to say that that while it aspires to a unitary state, unity by consent entails the right of Ulster Protestants to withhold consent. It may be that the time for a plain answer has finally arrived.
Joseph EA Connell Jnr’s new book, The Terror War, will be published later this year.
An essay such as the foregoing necessarily uses a broad brush. There has not been time to describe the numerous smaller social formations and individuals of note who rejected the general patterns of their time. Such an undertaking would offer the means of a “reverse depiction” of Irish society, but must be deferred for another time. Please also note that as the above essay is primarily focused on the Republic, or the area which was to become the Republic, the terms Irish and Ireland may be taken to refer to the South unless otherwise clear from the context.
Maurice Earls is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.