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.