Many nineteenth century French commentators were impressed by Britain’s capacity for historical compromise, that is, by its capacity for avoiding social conflagration through judicious concession to those who could no longer be ignored. French liberals saw this as an aesthetically and morally attractive means of achieving progress while avoiding the sort of extreme events that had characterised the French Revolution.
Madame de Staël was typical of this strand in French thinking. She was a true daughter of the Enlightenment and an earnest admirer of les lumières, but she did not care for the Terror. She was a proponent of moderate and ordered political progress which she felt would eventually terminate in democratic republics. In the meantime intermediary arrangements were required and the British model of a constitutional monarchy was seen as the most attractive.
British reform was not confined to clipping the wings of the monarchy, which was completed well before the revolution in France; in the 1830s parliament and the electoral franchise were also reformed. It was the sort of thing the French liberals and others admired. Indeed the Reform Act of 1832 is often credited with preventing a rising of the masses in Britain. Yet the people en masse were certainly not empowered by the 1832 act, which simply brought prosperous elements of the middle classes into a share of political power. One might well ask how that can be said to have prevented the masses rising. The answer, it seems, is that it prevented middle class intellectuals – the English version of the philosophes ‑ inspiring a bourgeois alliance with the poor to destroy the possessors of hereditary power. It all worked out well from a moderate point of view. If the middle classes had backed the Chartist revolt in the 1840s, Britain would probably have had its revolution. But why would they do that when they were already enjoying the fruits of political power?
When, as part of the Union, Ireland received the benefits of reforming British culture, the effect was the very opposite to the reduction of political pressure which had resulted in England. In Ireland, bringing the Catholic middle classes into the tent actually increased political pressure. This was primarily due to a fundamental incompatibility between national and imperial thinking. Ireland was something between an imperial possession and a colony but Westminster had to act as if it were no different from any other part of the Union. This was to cause quite a bit of head-scratching in Westminster as successive attempts were made to square a very awkward circle.
In Ireland the application of measures taken to ameliorate the position of the middle classes empowered them to agitate on national matters, which they did, almost without pause, until 1921.
One of the areas reformed in the 1830s was local government, a reform completed in England in 1835 and in Ireland in 1840. The franchise in Dublin became democratic, subject to a property qualification but without any confessional qualification. This opened the door to the rising Catholic business class.
The middle classes in Dublin were largely split along sectarian lines but a small number of Protestant intellectuals joined with the O’Connellites in pursuit of national legislative independence. The most notable of these was Thomas Davis. Before Davis and his friends founded The Nation newspaper he wrote extensively for The Citizen, which in 1841 celebrated the popular victory in the first democratic election to Dublin Corporation. Here is what appeared in The Citizen:
DUBLIN MONTHLY MAGAZINE
No. XXV. NOVEMBER, 1841 VOL. IV
FIRST MUNICIPAL ELECTION FOR DUBLIN, OCTOBER 26th, 1841
With all our heart we wish all those who value practical freedom, and who love the rights of equal citizenship,—joy. Yesterday’s work has been thoroughly and nobly done. The reign of sect is over. Religious liberty is at last become the operative law of the land ; not a mere word-law, not a mere statuteable form, but a living governing paramount law, expressive of the will, conservative of the interests of the entire people. ’Tis a great thing, this, that has come to pass amongst us. Our children after us will be self-governed citizens in their own city;—fellow-citizens, we again reiterate our hearty and enthusiastic congratulations on your account and on our own.
The result of the first election for Town Council, in our at length emancipated metropolis, is briefly this:
Eleven wards are represented by the candidates of the people’s choice, exclusively. In three aristocratic districts, the friends and members of the old corporation have been elected. Let us take what we have got and be thankful.
To attempt any perfect analysis of the liberal majority, as divided by subordinate hues of opinion, would as yet be premature, and perhaps impossible. That the whole bears emphatically the character of wealth, respectability, and patriotism, is beyond all question. Many of our new aldermen and councillors are distinguished for their long tried fidelity to the cause of country, and for their immoveable consistency in evil and despairing times. Their youth and manhood were consumed fighting in the shade; it is the justice of heaven that their old age should be gilded by the sunshine. Long may they enjoy the honours, they have so richly earned for themselves and us!
There is one topic that we cannot overlook, in this first and necessarily hasty notice of our municipal triumph; and that is the complete answer, which the popular nomination of civic representatives has given to the slanderous imputation, so oft and so vehemently reiterated, that the change, sought by the claimants of Municipal Reform, would only be, from one sort of exclusiveness to another. While in every ward, the Tory candidates were exclusively Protestants, the popular party selected indiscriminately men of different religious denominations. The verdict of the people has affirmed the principles whereon the latter choice was made. The people have by their written votes of yesterday declared, that they are sick of sectarian ascendancy, and that so long as they exercise the rights of self-government, they will not suffer its resumption in any sort. ’Tis a great step taken in the onward march of our long impeded land. The country has always, in a considerable degree, been influenced by the sentiments of the capital; justly so, for the metropolis is the thinking head and throbbing heart of every land. There is cause then for the country to rejoice, FOR ITS CAPITAL IS FREE!
Despite the optimism and celebratory tone, the road ahead was not entirely “gilded by sunshine”. Being something between a colony and an imperial possession meant that Ireland was unlikely to adhere to the dominant British narrative.
In Dublin prosperous Protestants accelerated their migration to self-governing suburbs such as Rathmines, Pembroke and Clontarf . By 1896 only eleven out of sixty councillors were Protestant. This, combined with a general economic decline, meant there was a shortage of businesses and prosperous individuals on whom rates could be levied, which in turn meant that Dublin Corporation itself was impoverished.
The merchants, industrialists and lawyers who came into the reformed corporation in 1841 were slowly replaced. As the city declined, the emerging Catholic entrepreneurial class became a petit bourgeoisie of limited ambition. By 1890 one third of councillors were either grocers or publicans or both; there had been no publicans listed amongst those elected to the reformed corporation in 1841. The residual Catholic elite in the dilapidated capital of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were relatively modest traders who in the course of their business could develop a politically valuable intimacy with sections of the electorate.
The two giants of the era, James Joyce and WB Yeats, were not impressed. Though quite different in most respects, both shared a profound frustration with the social decline of Dublin. Yeats could hardly believe the grandeur of the past had wound up with nothing more than “fumbling in a greasy till”. Driven to aesthetic desperation and looking around at the faded splendour of Georgian Dublin he began to lionise the vanishing gentry, just as some others were idealising the all but vanished peasantry. Anything but what you saw when you went out your door!
By this time the Anglo-Irish gentry were in deep trouble due to British interventions designed to pacify the Irish through concession. In an effort to cease the endless clamouring of the Irish, who had even managed to turn Westminster’s sedate procedures upside down, it was decided to dispossess the gentry of the land which their ancestors had expropriated some centuries earlier. The compensated gentry shuffled off to places like Brighton and Palmerston Roads in a remarkable piece of low fuss social and economic engineering.
One suspects that Madame de Staël would have approved. When the Irish revolution occurred a few decades later the landed gentry were almost wholly absent. If the British had not made the concession of land reform the whole business could well have taken on a French aspect and those historians eager to find evidence of sectarian terror in West Cork might well have been spoilt for riches.
French approval, however, would hardly have extended to an admiration of Dublin’s petit bourgeois elite. Indeed Madame de Staël’s aesthetic preferences appear to have lain closer to those of Yeats. She had been involved in a long-term relationship with the Austrian Irish aristocrat Count Maurice O’Donnell, a descendant of a native aristocratic family who lost vast landholdings to what became the Anglo-Irish. However, it is unlikely that her relationship with O’Donnell would have turned the earnest devotee of progress towards a hankering for the restoration of the native aristocracy in Ireland. Yeats adhered to his idealisation of the Anglo-Irish as “no petty people”. As late as 1925 he spoke of their resurgence, which he believed would be followed by a transformation of the country. When that didn’t work out, he turned in the direction of the apocalyptic right.