Monthly Archives: March 2015

Ireland in Five Easy Pieces III: Revolution, Partition and Independence

This third piece in the series is a complicated one but it concerns a tremendously exciting, romantic, tragic and formative period.  In covering the ideological roots of Irish republicanism and unionism, I have to detour you back before the Great Famine and then rejoin the process that created not just independent Ireland but Northern Ireland.

The years between 1916 and 1922 are probably the most studied of modern Irish history, graced as they are additionally by the literary ferment that accompanied the action, most memorably Yeats’ magnificent poem ‘Easter 1916’.  Here Yeats intones some of his most famous lines, including his prescient realization about the Easter Rising;  “All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.”

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The rebels struck at Easter1916, seizing a ring of key points around Dublin and taking the British completely by surprise.  When the Rising’s front man and ideologue Padraig Pearse read aloud the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from the steps of the rebel headquarters at the General Post Office (GPO), he set in motion a sequence of events that would reshape Ireland.  In Yeats’ lapidary phrase, “a terrible beauty” had been born.  The fighting between the rebels and the British Army was fierce; the destruction of the centre of the city very considerable; just over half of the 485 fatalities were civilians; and the shock at the turn of events was followed quickly by public distress at the execution of most of the leaders.

Here we must pause to consider an ideological seam in Ireland that had its roots in the French Revolution and survived the 19th century, only to explode into catalytic significance in Dublin in 1916 and in Northern Ireland in 1969, namely Irish republicanism.

The notion of a republic of course dates back to ancient Greece and was adopted by 18th century European revolutionaries as an ideological alternative to the oppressive anciens régimes of Europe.  It was a rights based ideology, vesting in the individual inherent rights to determine the political order through democratic means, to personal liberty and to equality.  America adopted it in its struggle against their British rulers.  It reached its greatest clarity, potency and drama in the French Revolution.  Irish intellectuals in the late 18th century watched the events in Europe keenly and saw in republicanism an ideology that could transcend the inherited divisions between native and settler, Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist.

For a brief period it seemed to point the way to the future as the late 19th century Irish Volunteers united in demands for greater powers for the local Parliament in Dublin.  However London wakened to the dangers and played on the fears of the Protestants in Ireland, convincing them that only British rule in Ireland could guarantee their social and economic interests at the top of the social pyramid.

So where the Protestant Scots-Irish settlers became the most ardent of revolutionaries in America, in Ireland they became the chief bulwark of Britain’s colonial rule.  They would sublimate the attractions they found in republicanism in the alternative virtues of the freedoms won in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of King William and his defence of Protestant liberties against the conniving schemes of Roman Catholic ‘popery’.

Such dilemmas did not affront those native Irish who adopted republicanism as the core ideology in their struggle against British rule. Figures such as Wolfe Tone forged links with the French revolutionary regime, notably under Napoleon, and secured the launch of French military expeditions to Ireland; General Humbert actually landed in Mayo in 1798 to assist the Irish revolutionaries who had just launched their insurgency.

The insurrection of 1798 was heroic but too weak against the British and its local Protestant militias.  It was violently repressed and militant republicanism was driven underground, becoming a preoccupation for a very small but determined group that would pass on their ideological commitments down the generations.  Robert Emmet gave revolution one more effort in 1803 in Dublin but it was a small and thwarted affair that led to his execution, his indictment hallowed by his famous speech from the dock.

By then London had connived and bribed the Parliament in Dublin to abrogate itself, the furniture of benches and accoutrements was ripped out (of what is now the Bank of Ireland in College Green) and the Act of Union of 1801 was passed to secure Ireland as part of the British Empire.

Irish republicanism in the form of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (IRB) aka the Fenians, would subsist and scheme, guided by the motto that “Britain’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”.  Fenianism crossed the Atlantic along with the post-Famine emigrants and there form a crucial nexus of support for efforts to support the struggle of the ‘old country’ against British rule.

Back in Ireland, the IRB saw an opportunity with the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1914.  They maneuvered their personnel to take over leadership positions in the new movement.  In 1915, with war raging in Europe, they began to actively plan for rebellion.  Quite accurately1916 has been characterized by historians as having been organized by a minority of [the Irish Volunteers] of a minority of [the National Volunteers] of a minority [of nationalists].

The 1916 Rising was as seminal an event as had been hoped by its organizers.  The rebel leadership had anticipated that their willingness to sacrifice their lives would in some way sanctify and authenticate the claim to independence.   Its impact was more deeply impressed on the nationalist conscience – to what extent is impossible to assess – by the execution of the Rising’s leaders by the British.  Two men the British did not execute would go on to play decisive roles in the ensuing struggle for independence; Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins.

The end of World War I precipitates a series of dramatic and historic events.  The revolutionary impact of the Easter Rising is seen in the results of the 1918 elections.  The Irish Parliamentary Party is wiped out and Sinn Féin candidates sweep the board: while Sinn Féin had not been involved in the Rising, as the most nationalist of parties it rode the wave of popular support.  For the Rising has caused a paradigm shift in Irish views of its relationship with the British Empire.  The genteel campaign of persuasion for Home Rule was cast aside in favour of an outright demand for independence, validated not simply by the Rising but the landslide election of 1918.

The struggle for independence takes two tracks.  On the political track, Sinn Féin’s successful candidates boycott Westminster and form their own First Dáil (assembly or parliament) in Dublin in January 1919, deemed of course “illegal” but the British.  On the second track, units of Volunteers take action against the British in what was to become the War of Independence.   Eventually those fighting would become the army of the republic, the Irish Republican Army or IRA.  The British responded to the guerrilla war by deploying veterans of the World War in units that became infamous for their savagery, the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries.  As Minister for Finance in the First Dáil and effective leader of the IRA, Michael Collins embodied both fronts in the struggle for independence.  The President of the First Dáil and leader of the country was Eamon de Valera who spent much of the war in the US drumming up support.

In a blatant contradiction of the ostensible cause of the Great War (defending little Belgium) and respect for national democracies that lay at the heart of the new world order being negotiated at Versailles, Britain fought a bloody war of counter-insurgency in Ireland between 1919 and 1921.  The British priority was to accommodate unionist resistance to Irish home rule, which meant inexorably partition.  When the British convened the first Northern Ireland parliament in Belfast in June 1921 – its jurisdiction over six counties designed to create an unassailable unionist majority in perpetuity – they were free to pursue a truce with the IRA, which was agreed the following month.

The Treaty negotiations with the British continued in London until the end of the year, first under de Valera and then by a team headed by Collins.  British Prime Minister Lloyd George led a formidable British team.  The Treaty was agreed and signed in December.  On return to Dublin Collins and his delegation found two diametrically opposed views of the Treaty.  For Collins and those who supported it, the dominion status offered – Ireland would be the Free State – was short of a republic but a crucial stepping-stone to independence.  For de Valera, Collins had contravened his instruction not to sign anything; and the terms themselves betrayed the republic.

The Government of Ireland Act was passed by the British parliament in December 1921 and the following January Collins oversaw the withdrawal of the British Army and administration from an Ireland that now comprised twenty-six counties as a result of partition.  For republican veterans of the War of Independence the Treaty’s provisions fell too far short of the republic. The “Free Staters”, who supported the Treaty as unpalatable but sufficient for now, were pitted against Republicans in a vicious civil war between 1922 and 1923 that claimed the life of Michael Collins.

Some salient points about the struggle for and achievement of Independence are worth considering.

The first is that the Treaty itself did not survive its own contradiction and de Valera essentially unpicked it with his 1937 Constitution.  What did survive of the Treaty was the caesura it and the ensuring civil war had inflicted on Irish politics.  The split over the Treaty was to become a foundational one and the primary source of political difference between Fine Gael (tracing its roots to the Free Staters) and Fianna Fail (tracing its roots to the Republicans and their leader, Fianna Fail founder Eamon de Valera).  This has been pointed to as explaining the absence of a meaningful left-right divide in Irish politics and the loss therefore of all the attendant socio-economic policy choices.

The second is that Northern Ireland did not really feature in either the Treaty negotiations or as a contributory cause of the civil war.  Indeed, for the opening fifty years of the new State, Northern Ireland did not intrude on the South’s affairs, or even much of its attention.

The third point is that the revolution was a political one without any redistribution of wealth or change in socio-economic relations.  Certainly the 1916 Declaration made fine references to treating all of the nation’s children equally and suggested that the nation’s natural resources were a public good, but these remained declaratory and were never interpreted as directive.  The more radical republican wing of the nationalist struggle had lost the civil war and many of its veterans would quietly leave for America and speak no more of their early revolutionary adventures.  Those who assumed the reins of power in 1922 had had to fight and win a civil war as well as grappling with the demands of establishing a national government.  Earning respect as a nascent state was a vital validation of the long struggle.  Their signal achievement was independence and the establishment of a truly democratic state that could and did weather the ideological buffeting that lay ahead for Europe in the 1930s. Irish revolutionaries were in essence conservative, correcting the aberration of colonization.

The fourth point was that partition left the new state without the industrial base of Belfast and its environs.  There was some small local manufacturing but nothing close to the industrialization in the twenty-six counties.  Independent Ireland’s economy was really one big farm supplying Britain’s urban centres with meat and dairy.  Economic opportunities in Ireland were limited and emigration therefore would continue unabated, independence or no.  By the 1950s, as the State’s population dropped to below 3 million, there would be real fears that the country was unsustainable.

The fifth point, also due to partition, was that the new State was overwhelmingly Catholic in population, with an already entrenched Catholic Church now matched by a pious and respectful national government that was happy to leave education and health services (not to mention youth detention) to the Church, that was relieved to do so, that probably could not conceive of any alternative and certainly believed it could not afford to provide such services from tax revenues.  More broadly, the demographic dominance of Catholicism fused with the nationalism that emerged from the struggle for independence.  The long frustration of the Home Rule movement had led to the emergence of a singular form of nationalism that ignored the fact that Irish society was composed of many strands of identity, tradition and loyalty.

Finally, Independent Ireland had been formed amidst global upheavals and opportunities that would continue for the rest of the century, including the Great Depression, WWII, Marshall Aid, the establishment of the United Nations, the Cold War, the decolonization of former empires, economic development, conflict in Northern Ireland, and the creation of the European Economic Community, later to become the European Union.  Independent Ireland and the apparatus of State would grow and develop as it met each of these challenges, admirably filling the void in self-governance left by centuries of colonization.  By the end of the twentieth century, nationalist Ireland had achieved its long sustained ambition that Ireland take its rightful place among the nations of the world.

At home, two great challenges faced independent Ireland; the unfinished business of Northern Ireland and economic development.  We will look at these two issues in the final two pieces.

Eamonn McKee

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Ireland in Five Easy Pieces II: Ireland in the Empire

Ireland by the end of the 19th century was than just a Catholic strong farming class and a deeply embedded Catholic Church. There were small farmers and large ones too; there were the estates of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and their hybrid British Irish families straddling two worlds; there were members of the Protestant elite fascinated by the ancient native lore and archaeology around them, and therefore part of a general European intellectual fashion that discovered (or created) Celtic, Norse and Anglo-Saxon antecedents; Unionists, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian, were concentrated around industrialised Belfast and its rural hinterland in Antrim, Down and Armagh.  

Dublin, second city of the British Empire, had lost some of its Georgian glamour when the Irish parliament was abrogated with the Act of Union in 1801 (obliging Irish members of parliament to travel to Westminster when it was in session) but it retained its bustle and intimacy.  The British crown was represented by the Lord Lieutenant whose viceregal court was based at Dublin Castle, a focal point for executive power and for the aristocracy’s social calendar.  Many of the strands of Irish and British Irish hybrids mixed in the capital city and gave a rich texture to its daily life: lords and ladies, aristocracy and peasants, protestant professionals and the rising Catholic middleclass, a vibrant Jewish community, colourful Irish Regiments in the British Army, Anglo-Irish and Irish writers (Gregory, Yeats, Synge, O’Casey) and artists of many cultural hews (Orpen, Henry, Clarke, Jellet, Sheppard, Hone).  Politically and artistically, Ireland was in ferment as it neared the end of the century.

If the strong farmers were the bedrock of nationalist Ireland in the closing decades of the 19th century, its leadership came from the emerging Catholic middleclass.  While academically minded members of the Protestant Ascendancy had done the pioneering research on ancient Irish society and culture, it was this Catholic elite, aided certainly by nationalist-minded Protestants, that would adopt that knowledge for their own ends and use it as a reservoir from which to draw strength in many forms; as nationalist imagery, as a source for literary inspiration, as native language for a renewed nation, above all as a justification for the political independence that they sought.  In short, a new identity was being actively created to put a face on the nationalist Ireland emerging from the social and economic forces at work since the Famine.  And it was this energy that continued to strain Ireland’s relationship within the Empire in a way not evident in either Wales or Scotland.

The struggle for electoral reform (Catholic Emancipation) and then home rule (overturning the Act of Union) in the first half of the 19th century was led by Daniel O’Connell, a democratic agitator of European significance.  As the Great Famine had taken hold, one of his last political acts was to plead in the House of Commons for relief for the starving Irish in a voice sadly diminished by age and illness.

Charles Stewart Parnell, a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy (though having an American mother), took up the reins of the political struggle in the second half of 19th century.  His aloof charisma, strategic sense and organizational skills as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party forged a new and ruthless political discipline that revolutionized the conduct of politics on the floor of the House of Commons at Westminster.  Parnell combined parliamentary action, the agitation for land reform led by Michael Davitt, and the tacit support of the physical force movement under the secret Irish Republic Brotherhood, also known as the Fenians.  Alas Parnell would not win Home Rule, despite the support of the Liberal Party under Prime Minister Gladstone who tabled the First Home Bill in 1886.  Parnell’s fall from grace because of his love affair with Kitty O’Shea and his death shortly thereafter in 1891 would rend Irish politics and society apart for a generation.

Rebuilding the constitutional nationalist movement in the wake of Parnell’s death was the great achievement of John Redmond who brought legislation granting Irish home rule to passage but not enactment; enactment was postponed in 1912 for two years and was then overtaken by the outbreak of World War I. Why had the obstacles to Home Rule proven so obdurate?

Most native Irish were nationalists in the broadest sense of the term, happy to lend their support to the political campaign for what was genteelly called ‘Home Rule’.  Home Rule as a term conveyed the notion that it was only reasonable and efficient to have a local say in one’s internal governance, that it was not a threat to the integrity of the British Empire and that it did not pose any revolutionary threat to the political or social order.

The gentility of the term could not however disguise its implications.  For the loyal Unionists in Ireland – the very instrument of British control – Home Rule would mean becoming a political minority to the Catholic majority and set the clock ticking on the loss of their social and economic supremacy.

The British could see this too but far more worryingly granting Home Rule to Ireland presented a potential inspiration to every society ruled by its Empire.  For just as surely as the overseas Empire had begun in Ireland, its ruin would be spelled by Irish self-determination and its salutary example around the world.

For there was an abiding contradiction at the heart of the British Empire and its flattering notion that it was the bringer of progress to less developed societies and far corners of the world; its message was that you may enjoy social and economic progress but you can have neither democracy nor autonomy.  This contradiction between being free but not free enough to leave the Empire bedeviled Anglo-Irish relations, with tragic consequences.

The Conservative Party in Britain forged an alliance with Unionists in Ireland to oppose Home Rule as a mortal danger to the Empire.  There was political opportunism here too in that Home Rule had been an objective of the Liberal Party since Gladstone had adopted it in the 1880s.  What became known as “playing the Orange card” – a reference to Willian of Orange, the 17th century hero of Irish unionists – combined then a number of Conservative Party ambitions.

The Conservative Party openly flirted with the notion of extra-parliamentary pressure and even insinuated that opposition to Home Rule justified the use of force.  Unionists in Ireland would take matters into their own hands to form the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in January 1913, a part-time military outfit that today seems distinctly odd: private citizens organized into an army with uniforms and eventually weapons, thanks to the successful gun-running in April 1914 through the small port of Larne, just north of Belfast.  Irish nationalists thought that this was a great idea and promptly formed the Irish Volunteers, organizing its own gun-running through Howth harbor, just north of Dublin.

These were, to be sure ominous developments. Ireland shared in the widespread European enthusiasm for militarism, a kind of boyish eagerness that set the scene for the romantic welcome given the outbreak of war in 1914.  Throughout Europe, the war was seen as an occasion for the assertion of male virtues and martial values like courage, glory, sacrifice and love of one’s country.

In Ireland both unionist and nationalist volunteers paraded openly, both illegally imported arms, and both had diametrically opposed objectives of preserving the Union and breaking it.  All this parading and weapons training was done cheerfully assuming that it was to be used as leverage against the British and little thought seemed to be given to the possibility that the UVF and Irish Volunteers might actually face off in a dreadful confrontation pitting the million-odd Unionists against the native Catholic nationalists.   Had that happened, it would have most assuredly been a bloody, cruel and sectarian episode.

Predicting an armed clash between them would have been logical enough had not the outbreak of world war intervened.  The UVF saw the war in Europe as a chance to prove their loyalty.  The sacrifice of the Ulster Division at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 would become an iconic rallying point for unionism.

For Irish nationalists, it was a more complicated decision:  Fight for ‘Little Belgium’ and the rights of all small nations; or stay at home and keep your powder dry for an assertion in arms against Britain if required.  The question split the nationalist movement.  The majority National Volunteers heeded Redmond’s advice and went to war believing that it was a form of down payment on independence.  The Irish Volunteers however stayed at home, its ranks filled with men more inclined to fight for Ireland if it came to that.

For now, the assumption shared my most people in Ireland of whatever political hue or opinion was that the Irish question would only be addressed once the war was concluded. Only then would the two great questions raised by the momentum toward some form of Irish autonomy be addressed, namely the precise relationship between Ireland and the Empire and the relationship between Irish nationalism and Irish unionism.

Reflecting on19th century Ireland, it is striking how political were the course of events.  Though the Fenians had given insurrection one more chance in 1867, it was a paltry and even farcical affair.  Between the rebellion of 1798 and 1916 nationalist energies had focused on parliamentary politics to achieve its aims.  Certainly there were agrarian ‘outrages’ associated with the campaign for land reform that ran in parallel with Parnell’s campaign for home rule but neither it nor the Fenians ever amounted to a serious security threat to the Union.

The Irish Parliamentary Party had held the field of Irish nationalism for more than thirty years and, despite the frustrations of British resistance, had managed to put Home Rule on the statute books, if not enacted, by 1912.  The suspension for two years brought the Party under Redmond tantalizingly close to its goal, only for the outbreak of European war to postpone it once more.  All the Party had to do was to hang on until the end of the war to implement the Home Rule Act.  And yet by 1918 the Irish Parliamentary Party had ceased to exist as a political force.  How had it been so dramatically displaced?  We’ll look at that inIreland in Five Easy Pieces III.

Eamonn McKee

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Ireland in Five Easy Pieces I: Famine, Church and Society

Explaining modern Ireland must start with the impact of the Great Famine in the middle of the 19th century.  Certainly around the Irish countryside you will see a lot of remnants of older times, from the megaliths of the Boyne and tall Norman towers of the early medieval period to the squat late 18th Martello towers that dot all but the northeast coast to warn the British of any Napoleonic invasion.

However it is the Great Famine between 1845 and 1851 that laid the foundation on which modern Ireland was built socially, economically, politically and in many ways psychologically.

We start with Ireland on the eve of the Famine.  For the bulk of the population it was a tough but free wheeling existence, deeply rooted in its Gaelic language, culture and traditions.  The potato crop grown in small plots was nutritious enough to sustain a family.  That allowed early marriage and high fertility rates. It required repeated subdivisions of the land to accommodate and feed the growing population that would reach well over eight million by the eve of the Famine (the island’s population today is six million). By all accounts it was a healthy diet, providing strong bodies and many a stout recruit for the British Army.

Hedge schools convened outdoors by wandering schoolteachers, a tradition from Penal times when Catholic education was outlawed, provided much of the basic education.  The Gaelic peasants spoke Irish and enjoyed a rich oral tradition of songs, poems and Homeric-style tales from older, even ancient, times.

Wandering musicians, poets, story tellers and dancing masters, all orphaned by the loss of the Gaelic aristocratic courts since the Flight of the Earls in 1607, mixed and mingled with the peasants, earning enough to live on through sharing their lore and skills and recalling the great days when Gaelic chiefs ruled.

Old beliefs and superstitions founded on pre-Christian belief systems – sometimes disguised as Christian saints – still competed with Catholic orthodoxy.  The parish priest would have had to contend with this and without a clear social role would not have enjoyed great local authority or status.

The potato had proven an unreliable crop subject to over twenty recorded prior failures due to weather or disease.  One damp morning in 1845, the peasants awoke to a sickly sweet smell wafting from their potato drills.   This time the crop was struck by blight, a fungal infection, which had begun in North America, crossed to devastate the crop in Europe and had arrived in Ireland to a uniquely vulnerable population. Even tubers that were fine when freshly dug soon rotted. Reserves were used, even the seed potatoes held for next year’s crop; what goods were to hand were sold to buy food, for food was plentiful other than the potato.  Some who had money or capital sold up and sailed to England or America.

The following year, the crop failed again as it would for successive years.  By 1851, the pre-Famine population of eight million had lurched downward with one million dying of starvation and disease and another million leaving, most taking ship to England and America.  Those who crossed the Irish Sea flocked to cities like Liverpool, Manchester and London.  Those that survived the journey across the Atlantic disembarked malnourished and barely clothed, taking shelter in whatever base accommodation they could find in Boston, New York and other east coast ports. The soil of Ireland had let them down; they would make their new lives in cities.

The conveyor belt of emigration was now in train and would endure to this day as a response to poor economic opportunities at home.  By the 1950s, the population in the south of Ireland would fall below three million.

British culpability in turning an ecological event into a humanitarian disaster was clear enough; the economic ideology of the time was that market forces must rule supreme even if it meant exporting food at a time of starvation, that dependency on charity be avoided at all costs, that the system of peasant landholding was demonstrably unsustainable and that the population had to be allowed to crash to a new equilibrium.

Ameliorating actions were taken at various levels by landlords and charities but too little and too late. Would the callous adherence to ideology have prevailed if starvation stalked England? The Great Famine was for many Irish the confirmation of the evils of imperial rule, a belief seared deep into the hearts of those forced to leave.

As the immediate tragedy passed in the 1850s, its social and economic impact created new imperatives for land holding and marriage that would fundamentally reshape Irish society. The subdivision of land to provide a smallholding for the next generation came to end and small landholdings were consolidated into larger units.  Unsustainable holdings were cleared by death and emigration, consolidated often by the local Irish agents of the absent Anglo-Irish landlords, descendents of the English who had conquered Ireland in the 17th century.  The Catholic ‘strong farmer’ class was being born by the revolution in land holding.

It should be said that the actual impact of the Famine is a matter of ongoing debate amongst Irish historians. Changing patterns of landholding had begun to emerge well before the disaster. But in my view the disaster accelerated them catastrophically and the social trauma vastly reinforced their economic rationale and created the kind of shock that would reshape social mores like marriage and inheritance.

Affinity with the land (where virtually every knob and hollow in the landscape has a name), the extraordinary salutary example of what the famine had wrought amongst the landless, and continuing uncertainty about tenure under the landlord system, fused to created a virtual obsession with land possession.

The emerging strong farmer held the land in lease arrangements from the landlords but would use their increasing political greater leverage to look for better terms over the coming decades.  As successive generations deepened their hold on the land, they would wage a long battle – sporadically violent, mainly political – to secure ownership, culminating in the Wyndham Land Acts of the early 20th century that gave them title to their land and sounded the death knell of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy.

The Famine dealt a near fatal blow to the Irish language not just because many of those who died as a direct result of the failure of the potato crop were native Irish speakers but because speaking English became a skill for survival, advancement and, for many, emigration: the Irish language was now burdened with the stigma of failure. Census returns would show the children of Irish speakers becoming bilingual and their children monolingual English.

Beyond its demographic impact, the Great Famine shaped Ireland through its impact on landholding and inheritance. The imperative was now to pass the farm on intact to one son, not subdividing it between two or more. If the non-inheriting sons were lucky and well educated they could get a job in the civil service or the bank, become a teacher or even a priest in the newly elevated Church; become a barman or shop clerk; join the British Army. If not, the emigrant ship beckoned. Women faced reduced marriage prospects because marriage now depended on inheriting the farm. They had far fewer local economic opportunities than males.   No surprise then that in the last quarter of the 19th century more women than men would emigrate.

In Ireland, a new Irish piety emerged, reflected in the iconography of the landscape (Churches and statues), of the home (Sacred Hearts, images of Christ and the Virgin Mary) and of the person (rosary beads, miraculous medals, scapulars). Mass going, recitations of the rosary, pilgrimages and reverent observance of Holy Days would condition the rhythm of life, reinforcing submission to Catholic morality.

Obedience to the Catholic Church’s sexual ethics was fused with the imperative of preserving the integrity of the family farm; an unexpected pregnancy and forced marriage would upset the careful sequence of inheritance. Family and Church interests were now firmly forged together. The impact of the new pattern of inheritance on male-female relations had myriad personal, familial, psychological and cultural consequences.

For men with limited chances of marriage or marriage at a late age when the farm came under his control, social life was to be focused on the pub. Land possession, church and pub formed a solid and enduring triangle that defined the parameters of economic, social, cultural and political life.

When they emigrated to America, the Irish would recreate in their new communities a similar structure, rapidly sponsoring the building of Catholic Churches, associated schools and of course frequenting a local the pub established by one of their own. Their deep sense of social reciprocation – born in an Irish village but now a vital coping mechanism in the New World – would evolve into and shape local politics, leading to the eventual development of the famous machine politics of Irish America.

The important role of the priest in rural Ireland was reciprocated by the farming classes who provided the funds for the erection of the classic high-walled rural parish church and who politically supported the British Government’s co-option of the Church as a partner in the provision of education and health.

The Catholic Church then, backed by the strong farming class, emerged in the latter half of the 19th century as a key national institution, pre-dating independent Irish government by half a century, and accruing the kind of status and power that would influence (or intimidate depending on your perspective) the fledging native governments for most of the twentieth century.

Once the question of landownership was settled by the end of the 19th century, attention turned to the politics of sovereignty. The strong farming class combined with the growth of the Catholic middle class and the evolution of the ideology of romantic nationalism to forge a renewed effort to reset relations with Britain that had been defined by the Act of Union of 1801.

The cultural definition of Irish identity and the contest between parliamentary agitation and militant republicanism would shape the struggle for independence and with it many of the identifying features of independent Ireland. We’ll look at that in the second piece.

Eamonn McKee

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Ireland in Five Easy Pieces

As a diplomat you are often called upon to speak on Ireland.  This usually focuses on the economy and the Northern Ireland peace process; sometimes too on aspects of Ireland’s literary heritage with Yeats the reigning star, followed by Joyce and Beckett.

Irish history can feature in talks too but compressing it into a presentation is always something of a challenge.  Explaining Ireland means of necessity compressing our history into a narrative that traces our development as a society in fairly broad patterns.

However the exercise can have a value in helping to organize our complex history. Many people around the world, charmed and intrigued by Ireland and Irish culture, delve into our history. However while they find episodes of our history fascinating and compelling, at times the overall historical narrative can be elusive and confusing, and joining the dots can become a real challenge.

I will blog over the coming weeks Ireland in Five Easy Pieces as a modest attempt to knit together a broad explanatory narrative.   It begins mid-19th century because that I think is when modern Ireland really takes shape.

The five easy pieces are ‘Famine, Church and Society’; ‘Ireland in the Empire’: ‘Revolution, Partition and Independence’; ‘Northern Ireland and British Irish Relations’; and ‘Economic Development’.

It is necessarily an act of compression, excision and simplification. It is too, obviously, a wholly personal perspective. All comments welcome.

I hope you enjoy them.

Eamonn

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