In an intriguing opinion series recently published over four weeks this summer in The Irish Times, Conor Gearty wrote: “Democracy is a product of a particular moment in each of our collective pasts, in Britain following the emergence of the labour and suffragette movements for example, and in Ireland after independence.”
I wonder if that is true. I always thought Irish democracy was the result of a long haul featuring not one but many crucial moments. In the early 1930s, when much of Europe was in thrall to authoritarianism and democracy was widely seen as morally corrupting, there was in Ireland a peaceful handover of power between forces which had fought a civil war a decade previously. This is a curious phenomenon that requires explanation. I can’t think of much in the 1920s that helps.
If the interest is in crucial moments, one of them occurred a full century before the 1920s. The gifted historian Fergus O’Ferrall describes a crucial Dublin election in the 1820s:
In the election in February 1823 to fill the vacancy Co Dublin became sharply divided between Sir Compton Domville, representing the “no popery” and Orange interest, and Colonel Henry White, son of the famously rich [and liberal] Luke White … O’Connell and others formed a committee to organise the Dublin freeholders behind White. O’Connell, using techniques for the first time which were to become synonymous with the Catholic struggle, went to “the towns of Rush and Skerries and harangued in the streets of each”. This public engagement with parliamentary politics led directly to the second, private, event which was to have such profound consequences for the future. During the election campaign a private dinner party took place on Saturday 8 February at Glencullen, in the Dublin mountains, the home of Thomas O’Mara, O’Connell’s close friend. Among the guests were O’Connell, Sheil and Lord Killeen, a son of the Earl of Fingall.
The topic of conversation was the state of Catholic politics. Views were exchanged on the “utter want of system and organisation” among Catholics … Sheil was now convinced that O’Connell’s leadership was necessary in a totally new democratic organisation. They both agreed to contact leading Catholics to lay plans for a new body which would fight for Emancipation and end “the total stagnation” which had made the political monopoly of Protestants and the abuses of the Ascendancy so secure. It was agreed that the comprehensive and democratic nature of the new initiative, which O’Connell had in mind, should not at the outset be made clear; if the attempt was to be successful … Quickly after the dinner party came the very encouraging result in the Co Dublin election. White narrowly defeated Domville … O’Connell … and his supporters savored this victory over the Orangemen; they mounted a procession to chair White from the hustings at Kilmainham into the city centre. This infuriated the staunch protestants in Trinity College, as O’Connell related to his wife: “I never saw such a crowd. I was in the first carriage next to White’s chair …We passed through the Liberty etc., stopped to give four cheers for the King at the Castle and so went on to College Green. The College lads attacked the people with stones etc. but they were soon put to the rout. I had a great view of part of the battle. In short, no popular triumph was ever half so great.”
Mass democratic politics developed in Ireland from that point and to date the political culture that resulted has proved a bulwark against those who feel they know better than the popular will.
Correction: In an earlier version of this blog Fergus O’Ferrall was described as “The late and ‑ I think it is accurate to say ‑ brilliant historian Fergus O’ Ferrall”. Dr O’ Ferrall is indeed a brilliant historian of the O’Connell era but, as we are very happy to report, is very much alive. We apologise for this serious error.