Category Archives: Anglo-Irish

Ferns, Irish History Ground Zero

Larry Smith is a passionate man; about Ireland, about our history and about Ferns as the ground zero of Irish history. An erudite and loquacious OPW guide at Ferns castle, Co. Wexford, he has had an adventurous life as a Garda who has seen service with the UN in a range of conflict zones around the globe. He knows how history works and how people fare when conflict engulfs them. From the roof of Ferns castle a stunning vista of Wexford bocage beckons. Larry points to a conical hill, the infamous Vinegar Hill of 1798, and quotes Heaney’s Requiem for the Croppies, where the hill ‘blushed’ with the blood of the rebels and their families as British grapeshot slaughtered them.

But Larry has a bone to pick.  Not enough visitors come to Ferns. Yet it is the fulcrum of our history, the home and conspiratorial centre of the infamous Dermot MacMurrough who invited the Normans to our conquest. Where would history have taken us without this deed? This is a question to test the imagination. Had there not been a Norman conquest, we would hardly be commemorating the centenary of 1916 not least because small changes magnify through time and the coming of the Normans was to prove no small thing to Ireland at any number of levels.

The Normans altered Ireland in more ways than we like to concede. They brought villages, cottages, markets, manors, estates, revenue, proper castles and incorporated cities. They altered the pattern of regnal wars fought by petty Irish kings and produced great new dynasties that dominated Irish politics for hundreds of years, most notably the FitzGeralds.

Through allegiance to Henry II and King John, the Normans established the connection to the English crown.  John founded Dublin Castle initially as a treasury but ultimately as the irreducible foreign presence that would endure without interruption as the heart of the Pale and seat of British power until 1922.

So Ferns is the holy of holies of Irish history, the fundament of our conquest. We can only understand the significance of 1916 by spanning the time back to the 12th century when Dermot made his plans from his fortress there and acted as agent for the small band of Normans who landed at Bannow Bay and seized Wexford city. They were preparing the way for their Marcher Lord, Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow to arrive with the main force.

And amidst the carnage of Waterford city, Dermot would play father of the bride as he gave his daughter’s hand to the victorious Richard de Clare, Strongbow. Their march north through Wicklow, evading the waiting Irish to the west under the High King Rory O’Connor, would see them take Dublin, a prize the colonists held thereafter for eight hundred years.

When the rebels struck in 1916, their plan to take and hold Dublin was as much a psychological act of defiance.  And for the week that they did so, they achieved something unprecedented in our history of conquest and colonisation.

Dermot would pay a heavy price; his son was hostage to the High King whom Tiernan O’Rourke persuaded to kill after Strongbow and Dermot raided O’Rourke’s kingdom of Breifne.  Dermot would retire to Ferns in the winter of 1170, evidently a broken man, to sicken and die in May 1171.

So think about heading to Ferns for a day trip. If you live in Dublin, it is just over an hour south of the M50. The visitor’s centre is discrete and pleasant and Larry and his team of guides to the castle enthusiastic. The tower that is intact is charming and evocative and the view from the roof is magnificent. You can see why the Normans grabbed this lush and fertile land.  The whipped ice cream in the shop across the road is some of the best in Ireland. Wander down the road to the site of McMurragh’s burial and the ruins of the abbey which he had funded and where he died.

If you’re up for it, head back up the M11 and turn off at Arklow to drive up through Avoca, Glendalough, passing by Lough Tay and via Glencree into Dublin. You will not only be passing through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the east of Ireland but you also might just be tracing that first and fateful Norman march to Dublin.

Eamonn

Coda: Dermot’s fortress was made of wood and had been burned before he had died.  Strongbow and Aoife had a daughter, Isabel, who as a young girl of sixteen was married to probably the greatest knight in Christendom, William Marshall.  As the daughter of Strongbow, she was  an immensely rich heiress. Marshall was in his forties, a tall and impressive man of unequalled martial accomplishments and ties of loyalty to the crown.  Their marriage was apparently a happy one.  With her husband, Isabel returned to Ferns and stood on the knoll of her grandfather’s fortress.  There they built a castle of stone in the Norman manner.  It can only be seen as a act of reclamation by her, a statement of affirmation of her grandfather and his ambitions, and a defiant gesture to the local Gaelic chiefs displaced by the Normans.  Its remains today bear all the scars of subsequent Irish history but the restoration of the remaining tower has preserved its original Norman features and is one of the most evocative and intriguing ones of its kind.

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Ireland and Waterloo: Looking Back and Looking Forward

In Ireland we’re thinking of centenaries but this month we should spare a thought for the bicentenary of an event that involved or affected many Irish and whose outcome influenced the country’s fate.

From an Irish perspective, the echoes of Waterloo are faint. But they are worth recalling because the Irish dimension to the battle was an important one.  The nature of Ireland’s multifaceted response to the French Revolution and to Waterloo also tells us much about Ireland at the time. Moreover, how we reflect on Waterloo tells us much about Ireland today and how in looking back, we are also looking forward.

***

On 18 June 1815, the Irish-born Duke of Wellington, aided by the decisive late intervention of Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher of Prussia, defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo. Since his escape from Elba, Napoleon had enjoyed hopes of triumph for ‘One Hundred Days’. With Waterloo those hopes ended and with them an era.

News of Napoleon’s escape from Elba electrified Europe. Hearing of Napoleon unbound, the recently restored Bourbon Louis XVIII fled Versailles.  The heads of states, diplomats and notables devising the post-Napoleonic shape of Europe in Vienna condemned Napoleon as an outlaw and assembled a coalition of armies to engage him.

From his landing on the Cote d’Azur, Napoleon advanced north through France like some force of nature, gathering troops and intent on splitting and defeating the coalition forces of the Anglo-Dutch and the Prussians. They in turn were scrambling to combine their forces and crush him. He intended to engage them in turn on the plains of Belgium, the game board of European struggles for many centuries.

Napoleon just missed the mark, failing to keep the two armies apart.  His staff officers were rusty; even his famed Marshal Ney showed hesitation, failing to capture the vital crossroads of Quatre Bras on 16 June. That engagement saw three Irish captains die defending it.

On the day of the battle at Waterloo, Napoleon was fatigued or unwell.  Stubborn defence by Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch force held off the ferocity of Napoleon’s trademark mobility of horse and use of artillery. That was fatal because it meant that the French had not won the field before Blücher arrived.  Even still, the climactic battle was, as Wellington remarked, “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” Had Napoleon won, he might just have fought again and even won again. Whether he would have reasserted his mastery of Europe seems questionable. Too many European powers had determined to fight him together.

Napoleon returned to Paris to reassemble an army as the British and Prussians surrounded the city. Rather than see the city stormed, the French surrendered. For Napoleon, the game was finally up and after abdicating he boarded HMS Bellerophon to capitulate to the British.  He was soon was on his way to exile on the island of St. Helena, accompanied by Irishman and surgeon Barry O’Meara, who became his doctor and wrote of Napoleon’s last years there.  Louis XVIII was escorted back into the city by the Prussians who returned him to the palace at Versailles that he had so recently and rapidly vacated.

Waterloo ushered in an era of peace after twenty-five years of war. However not everyone welcomed Napoleon’s defeat.  For many he was the avatar of modernity, the destroyer of ancien régimes, the harbinger of a new era of liberalism.  Irish nationalists had waited for the arrival of his troops in Ireland to rebel once more but such hopes were finally extinguished. For progressives and radical reformers across Europe, his defeat at the hands of the established powers returned the reactionaries to dominance.

With Waterloo Britain achieved its strategic objective in Europe; a balance of power in which it was the central source of influence.  It took this opportunity to establish itself as a world power of a scope unprecedented in modern times. In the16th century Spain had been Britain’s continental rival, followed by France in the 17th and 18th centuries. But because of Waterloo Britain would not face another European rival until the rise of industrialised, imperial Germany in 1871. In a twist of history, the rise of Germany was in part due to Napoleon’s reorganisation of the hundreds of Rhineland principalities into what became the thirty-nine states of the German Confederation.

***

In many ways, Ireland’s destiny was shaped by the strategic threat that Britain perceived it to represent. There is something of the ‘folly of the consequent’ in this. Having conquered and colonised Ireland as its first overseas possession, it had created a resentful population because of land expropriate and systematic anti-catholic discrimination that was designed to ensure that catholics could wield no influence or develop a political leadership. Looking to throw off the English yoke, Irish nationalists naturally turned to Britain’s European enemies for succour and support when opportunity allowed.

Spain landed troops in Ireland to support the O’Neill rebellion at the end of the 16th century. Revolutionary France sent forces in both 1796 and 1798 to support an Irish rebellion. The military thinking of both Spain and France was similar: deploy a relatively small expeditionary force to spark rebellion in Ireland and tie down a disproportionate number of British troops, diverting them from the main theatre of war. (Nazi Germany pondered a similar diversionary campaign though since Ireland was independent at that stage one has to consider its planning as little more than a feint. One might even counter-factually speculate that had Ireland been left alone by England and developed as an independent country, it would not have been inviting invasions from Spain or France.)

Denied opportunities at home because of their religion, leading Irish Catholics had long emigrated to France for education in the Irish colleges there and to seek careers in the church, banking and medicine. They also joined the military, notably the ‘Wild Geese’ of the Irish Brigade, whose decisive intervention had swung the 1745 Battle of Fontenoy in favour of the Franco-Prussian alliance against the British and their allies. That intervention handed the Bourbon dynasty a new lease on power.

Well before the Revolution, then, links between Ireland and France were strong, if tilted toward the establishment. The Irish community in Paris had carved out a niche for themselves under the Bourbons.  Through their wits they survived the threats and turmoil of the Revolution itself.

Back in Ireland and inspired by the French Revolution, the United Irishmen comprised Protestants and Catholics together demanding more liberties from London, in effect self-determination. For the elite Protestant members of the movement this was a particularly principled and brave demand since any realization of their ambitions would have inevitably led to Catholic demands for a reversal of the land appropriations on which the Protestant Ascendancy was established, the very class from which they themselves came.

The United Irishmen sent emissaries to Paris to lobby the Revolutionary government and then Napoleon for support for an uprising back home. These emissaries were in effect leaders in exile, determined to return and lead an Irish revolution. They added a new dimension and much intrigue to the Irish community in Paris in the 1790s and early 1800s.

The United Irishmen were actually initially very successful in their efforts with the Directory and with Napoleon. The Directory dispatched some 15,000 troops along with Wolfe Tone in 1796 but events and one of the stormiest winters in a century conspired to frustrate its landing. For two vital years, the British had the opportunity to weaken the rebels though paradoxically the repression also helped generate the rebellion it was designed to forestall. By the time a French force actually landed in Mayo in 1798 to support the rebellion, the balance of forces were in Britain’s favour and the rebellion savagely repressed.

After the rebellion, Dublin Castle, the seat of British power, used draconian laws, force and intelligence gathering to ensure that any lingering rebelliousness was leaderless and lack organisation.  Robert Emmet’s 1803 rebellion was quickly snuffed out and he executed. The British military built roads deep into the wilds of Wicklow to thwart future rebels taking refuge there again. The squat Martello towers erected to warn of a French invasion were dotted all around the coast except for the loyal northeast.

The political response by London to 1798 was in many ways it most fateful. By abolishing the Irish (albeit Protestant) parliament through the 1801 Act of Union, Britain created a precise and singular demand for Irish nationalists that would define and dominate their agenda until its achievement, namely the restoration of local autonomy.

Despite the defeat of the Irish rebellions in 1798 and 1803, Napoleon still thought that Ireland could play a key part in his plans to invade England. He formed the Irish Legion in 1804 to catalyse rebellion and then lead it, hoping that the sight of the Legion landing on Ireland’s shores in its green livery would foment revolution. But its mandate was uncertain – was it a nascent political elite for an independent Ireland or a spearhead military force? This would dog its development and frustrate the United Irishmen in Paris. The problems of the Legion played into a broader frustration and growing disillusion with Napoleon, leading many United Irish leaders to emigrate eventually to America, much to the satisfaction of watchful British officials.

The Irish Legion’s history was not then a happy one, its officers mainly Irish but its ranks mixed, including amongst Irish soldiers English prisoners of war, Poles and Prussians.  Yet it would earn its place in Napoleon’s Army on European battlefields, the only foreign regiment to be granted a regimental eagle standard.

The 1805 Battle of Trafalgar stunted Napoleon’s ambitions of conquering England, though he would revisit the notion again and with it the role that Ireland might play. As Marianne Elliott notes: “Napoleon’s treatment of the Irish Legion after 1806 became the temperature gauge of his attitude towards Irish liberation in general…..but the conflict between the military and the political conception of the Irish Legion’s role was never quite resolved, in the minds either of the Irish themselves or of the French officials.” (See suggested reading below, p.349)

***

Exiled rebels working with the French is a romantic and compelling part of the Irish story, satisfying to the nationalist narrative. However, it is a partial one because the vast majority of Irish fighting at Waterloo did so in the livery of the British Army, just as they had done throughout modern history. If there were plenty of Irishmen willing to rebel if the odds were good, there many on the other side of the equation; the loyal Anglo-Irish aristocracy filled the ranks of the British cavalry and Irish labourers and weavers (unemployed thanks to the French blockade and then war with America) joined the ranks for an income, adventure and a career.

There is not a great deal written about the Irish in British ranks at Waterloo. On the Irish participation in Waterloo there is one piece of research available on the internet. Peter Molloy’s thesis is, as far as I know, unpublished but it is a vivid and engaging piece of work. He captures well the ferment caused in Ireland by the return of the “Destroyer of Men” (a well earned epithet, since Napoleon’s wars cost about six million lives). You can find his thesis here

Ireland was thrown in excitement and movement by the news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba. For most people the immediate visible impact was the surge towards the ports as troops and supplies were moved to embarkation points around the coast.

The Inniskilling Dragoons and Fusiliers prepared for action in what for them would prove to be a brutally heroic engagement. They were joined by the 18th (King’s Irish) Hussars. Molloy records that these regiments comprised the three official Irish contingents at Waterloo. Other Irish regiments that had fought under Wellington’s command in the Peninsular Wars had been deployed to America for the War of 1812. A convoy of troops just out of an Irish port and heading to Bermuda were overtaken and told to head to Belgium, much to their relief. Dublin and Cobh bustled as ships were loaded, anchors weighed and sails raised. You can easily imagine the flutter of conversation at homes and taverns throughout the island at this thrillingly awful turn of events.

Irishmen were enlisted in many British regiments, not just those associated with Ireland. Young James Graham from Monaghan, who had some years before joined the Louth Militia, was now a serving NCO with the Coldstream Guards as the orders came to mobilise.

How many Irish were actually in the British Army at Waterloo is a surmise. By 1830 it has been reckoned that over 40% of the British Army were Irish and while probably not far off one cannot assume this to have been case at Waterloo. From Molloy’s sampling, it would seem that somewhere in the region of 30% of British regiments comprised Irish enlisted men and NCOs. Add to that a good quotient of officers (including three generals) plus camp followers and one can firmly state that Irish representation at Waterloo was very significant indeed and probably not far off 40% even with so many Irish units absent.

Molloy writes:

“Indeed, it is possible to go a step further and argue that the British army of the Waterloo campaign offers a genuinely representative cross-section of Irish society at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Irishmen of all descriptions saw active service in 1815. Some, mostly members of the officer class like Major General Sir William Ponsonby or Captain Edward Thomas Fitzgerald, hailed from relatively privileged and influential backgrounds in the country. At the opposite end of the rank and wealth scale at Waterloo were common soldiers like Private Terence Gallagher of Kilmore, County Mayo; a twenty five year old former weaver who had enlisted into the 1st Foot for a term of unlimited service in December 1813.” (p. 35)

The pace of events accelerated as the confrontation approached, the Waterloo campaign itself lasting a mere four days of furious movement and intensive fighting. Some 200,000 combatants fought in an area about half the size of the Phoenix Park, often hand-to-hand and no more than a couple of hundred yards apart when firing at each other. Casualties have been estimated at up to 54,000 men killed or seriously wounded, along with 10,000 horses dead or injured. The carnage of men and horses in such a concentrated area shocked even hardened veterans.

The 1st Battalion of the 27th (Inniskillings) Foot found itself in the centre of Wellington’s line after a two-day forced march to the battlefield. Their square formation endured repeated assaults by French cavalry and artillery fire. By the end of the day more than half of their 750 troops were casualties. Indeed Molloy writes that “Due to its frequent featuring in secondary literature, as well as the references to the battalion’s stand in a large number of British primary accounts from the battle, it is probably no exaggeration to suggest that the ordeal of the Inniskillings at Waterloo remains perhaps the single most widely discussed and visible element of Irish participation in the campaign” (p. 37).

Our Sergeant James Graham found himself as part of a garrison at a farm complex called Hougoumont on Wellington’s right flank. The French attacked it repeatedly, since if breached and taken they could outflank the Allied forces. They broke in but Graham rushed forward to close the gate and save the day. For that and other heroics, he was recognised as one of two of the bravest soldiers on the day.

Another Irish hero of the day was cavalryman Captain Edward ‘Waterloo’ Kelly whose exploits in the thick of battle earned him his sobriquet. As he wrote to his wife, as quoted by Molloy, “Donnybrooke [sic] Fair was nothing to the fight we had here… there were a great number of wigs on the green” (a figure of speech about gentlemen taking to Stephen’s Green to settle arguments in combat where words had failed them).

***

Had events allowed, the Irish in the British Army could well have found themselves facing off against Napoleon’s Irish Legion. As it happened, on Napoleon’s first abdication the officers of the Irish Legion had sworn loyalty to Louis XVIII, re-establishing the pre-revolutionary commitment of the Irish Brigade to the Bourbons.  Napoleon’s arrival on French soil prompted them to swear loyalty anew to him.  Garrisoned at Avesnes near Calais, they were not called into the battle. One has to think that uncertainty about their loyalty might have played a role in this. After Waterloo and in retaliation for the oath to the great usurper, the restored Bourbon regime under Louis XVIII disbanded the Legion, burned its flags and destroyed its regimental eagle.

Ireland was enthralled and deeply engaged by the ‘One Hundred Days’ of Napoleon’s return. His defeat was widely celebrated throughout the island, notably in Dublin where a new bridge was named Waterloo Bridge in 1816 though today it is better known as the Ha’penny Bridge.  To this day the Wellington Monument dominates the Phoenix Park and Waterloo graces a brace of place names.

After 1815, Irish nationalist agitation for political reform and home rule would dominate the rest of a century bisected by the Great Famine of 1845-51. Daniel O’Connell, a champion of democracy of truly international repute and significance, fought politically for catholic emanicipation, home rule and relief of famine victims.  Wellington actually played a key role in securing catholic emancipation.  This did not stop O’Connell from taking pleasure in goading Wellington, inventing the spurious claim that Wellington responded to jibes about his brith in Ireland by saying birth in a stable did not mean one was a horse.

While constitutional politics would dominate Ireland for the next one hundred years, the republican tradition of armed revolt inspired by the French Revolution would live on in Ireland in secret, a subterranean drumbeat kept alive by oath-bound revolutionaries. The next time Irish nationalists looked to Europe for support, it would be to Germany or “our gallant allies in Europe” in the salutation of the 1916 Proclamation.

Elliot’s masterful account of the United Irishmen and France, Partners in Revolution, makes a crucial point about their legacy: “…it was the myth of noble failure, the sanctity of the hopeless struggle, which paradoxically was to exercise most influence on nationalist imagination, and in the 1848 and 1916 risings, republican nationalists used the myth in justification of rebellions pre-ordained to fail” (p.370).

And as she notes, “in fairness, it was a myth initiated by the United Irishmen themselves when things started to go disastrously wrong.” As we look back on our history, even with the best intentions, Elliot’s points is an important cautionary one about how self-conscious history making is not history but its abuse.

The tragedy of Ireland’s divided loyalties were starkly illustrated when in one engagement in Dublin the rebels of 1916, very much sons of the French Revolution, faced off against the descendent unit of the heroes of Waterloo: The Inniskilling Fusiliers (12th Reserve Battalion) were dispatched to help deal with the Rising and suffered two fatalities and some injuries in the fight.

***

Waterloo lives on in many different ways. Napoleon’s vision of a European power bound under one (his own) rule recalled Charlemagne’s ambitions. Its peaceful manifestation today is the European Union. The EU may not excite British antagonism as Napoleon did but the island-nation’s relationship to Europe remains unsettled enough to generate an upcoming referendum on continued membership.  The United Nation’s reputedly got its name from Byron’s description of the Allies at Waterloo when he wrote ‘Here, where the sword united/nations drew…’ (see History Ireland, May-June 2015, p. 26).

In literature, Stendhal called on his own experiences with Napoleon’s campaigns to paint a vivid picture of the Battle of Waterloo in his famous and charming novel, The Charterhouse of Parma. That would in turn inspire Tolstoy’s famous account of the 1812 Battle of Borodino, the climax of War and Peace when Napoleon’s Grand Armée stumbles and fatally loses its momentum on the way to Moscow. (Indeed, one might note en passant, that Waterloo is unimaginable without the disaster of Napoleon’s Russian campaign since Russian pursuit and Allied convergence led directly to his tenure in Elba: see Russia Against Napoleon by Dominc Lieven and as a companion piece read Count de Ségur’s diary of Napoleon’s Russian campaign pubilished as Defeat, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign with an introduction by Mark Danner. Lieven contradicts Tolstoy by arguing that it was not merely Russian stoicism that won but logistical organisation by the Russian Army that sustained the pursuit of Napoleon all the way to Paris.)

For the 27th Inniskilling Fusiliers, their heroic unflinching defence in the maelstrom of the battle became a part of their soldiering ethos. As the Royal Irish Rangers they were merged with the Royal Ulster Rifles whose own stout defence of Seoul against the formidable “Chinese waves” during the Korean War were pivotal to the communist defeat (see related blogs under ‘Korea’). Having been merged again with Ulster Defence Regiment in 1992, today the Fusiliers live on in the Royal Irish Regiment.

Molloy again:

“Quite apart from historical study, Waterloo remains a cherished battle honour for the British Army’s contemporary Royal Irish Regiment – ultimate successor, through a complex series of amalgamations, to the 27th Foot of 1815. On 18 June 2011, Waterloo Day, the 1st Battalion of that regiment marked its return from a demanding tour of Afghanistan with the awarding of campaign medals. At the close of the medal ceremony, the battalion was marched off the parade ground by its non-commissioned officers: a symbolic nod to Waterloo, with regimental tradition maintaining that so many of the Inniskillings’ officers had been killed or wounded by the close of that engagement that the unit was commanded by its NCOs instead.” (fn. 98)

***

That there is not much written about the Irish at Waterloo is undoubtedly a result to some degree of the great occlusion of British-Ireland created by the struggle for Irish independence. As Irish self-determination was frustrated throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, the republican revolutionaries who had bided their time found events turning their way again. The Rising of 1916 and all that flowed from it sanctified a singular perspective on our historical narrative. The republican nationalist narrative focused attention on the lineage of the victors and their heroes: the United Irishmen, Wolfe Tone, 1798, and Robert Emmet’s doomed 1803 revolt.

We are re-stranding Irish identity with new lineages from history that suffered from the great occlusion. This is in part thanks to the liberation of the Northern Ireland peace process. It is in part a result of our evolution as a society which is increasingly inclusive, a sure sign of our security when it comes to our identity. Time and reflection allows us review our narrative as we approach one hundred years of independence. It is also in part a result of the decade of centenaries now upon us that demand our attention and consideration.

So, for example, Irish involvement in the British armed services during World War I is now acknowledged and commemorated. Irish defence force personnel who deserted to fight in World War II can be acknowledged rather than besmirched and penalised. As this process develops, the exploits of the Irish in the British Army throughout its Empire in the 19th century will overtime receive more attention.

In reflecting soberly and openly on our past, our history can no longer be considered, as Joyce termed it no doubt accurately at the time, a nightmare from which we must awaken.

And how we respond to Waterloo, as we respond to our history in general, tells much about Ireland today and our appetite for reflection on what constitutes our heritage and what it means to be Irish.

As we recover and embrace so many aspects of our past, that is a very positive story of where Ireland stands today, looking back on a far richer narrative than we have hitherto allowed and looking forward to a genuinely inclusive future.

 Eamonn McKee

Tel Aviv

Some suggested reading:

Peter Molloy, Ireland and the Waterloo Campaign of 1815, (MA Thesis, NUI Maynooth, 2011)

Thomas Pakenham, The Year of Liberty, The History of the Great Rebellion of 1798 (New York, 1993)

Marianne Elliott, Partners in Revolution, The United Irishmen and France, New Haven, 1982)

Liam Swords, The Green Cockade, The Irish and the French Revolution 1789-1815 (Dublin, 1989)

Dominic Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon, the true story of the campaigns of War and Peace (New York, 2010)

Mark Danner (ed.), Defeat, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur (New York, 2008)

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Sebastian Barry and the Re-Stranding of Ireland

There is a pivotal observation by Dr Grene in Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture that ‘it is sometimes forgotten the effort that was made in the twenties to include all shades of opinion in the first Irish senate, but it was an effort that soon lost heart. Our first President was a Protestant which was a beautiful and poetic gesture. The fact is, we are missing too many threads in our story that the tapestry of Irish life cannot but fall apart.’

Irish life is not falling apart because we are in fact re-stranding Ireland in a process of reflection and recovery thanks to the centennaries that are now upon us. As a writer, Barry fearlessly explores what history did to the Irish in the mid-twentieth century.  He has few equals when it comes to summoning into daylight Ireland’s secret histories. In his interlinked novels centred on the McNulty family from Sligo, these secrets and their cruelties are generated for the most part by the dislocations of revolution and the highly straitened and oddly self-conscious society that was Catholic Ireland after indepedence.

For Barry’s central male characters, their tragedy is borne of the changed power structures after British withdrawal. In the novels, men are cheated of a place at home by the sudden turn of history that reshapes the meaning and implications of loyalty; they go to war in British uniform and return to an Ireland in which British service is no longer acceptable (Long Long Way; and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty).  Their fate is to be an emigrant, an exile or even an outcast.

The cruelest fates await Barry’s tragic women. Women are particularly put upon: in post-independent Ireland young attractive women are the dangerous innnocents, liable to incarceration of various sorts (mental institutions or convents) or exile (The Secret Scripture). Most innocent of all were the children born out of wedlock and therefore into shame. Secrecy was shame’s antidote, though the price was heavy. As Roseanne writes of Sligo’s Garravogue river, in The Secret Scripture, the river ‘took the rubbish down to the sea… bodies too, if rarely, and poor babies, that were embarrasments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend of secrecy.’

Secrecy indeed, the heavy price of shame: Shame and secrecy were double entries in the ledger between family and Church. In The Secret Scripture, the terrifying Father Gaunt, whose intense accountancy of public morality and norms has fed his lust for power just as surely as it has strangled any instincts he may have had for mercy and compassion, appears briefly but devastatingly. Not since Bram Stoker created Dracula has Irish fiction produced such a monster.

Jack McNulty, Eneas’ brother, is the narrative voice of Barry’s latest novel, A Temporary Gentleman. Jack’s sad fate is largely of his own making thanks to gambling and alcholism. His larger crime is his capacity to excuse and elude the consequences of his own actions. Only in forcing himself to write an account of his life in the steamy obscurity of a small African town does he find some way to assess it.

For a number of Barry’s characters, the true confessional is not in the Church but in the act of writing. There may be a broader point too; Ireland’s literary tradition is a form of redemption, a corrective commentary and assessment of the more oppressive expectations and narrow official narratives of mid-century independent Ireland.

One could say of course Barry has consigned unflattering roles to the architects of independent Ireland – the revolutionaries, local politicians and priests who define and rule their fiefdoms after the ebb and flow of the struggle for independence. But his novels and his importance as a writer are the richer for that; his very iconoclasm when it comes to the paragons of Irish independence is what give us pause for reflection. Moreover, if the soldier deems to take life, the priest to judge it and the politician to lead it, then they can at least suffer such interrogations in the corrective narrative of Irish fiction.

Association with or service in the British Armed Forces features heavily in Barry’s novels.  It is interesting to reflect on the distance that Ireland has travelled on this issue. Post-independent Ireland’s definition of nationalism was perforce too narrow to embrace the varieties of identity. For as Ireland struggled to free itself from the insistent embrace of the British Empire, a dialect process was set in play that frustrated the moderates and emboldened the radicals who were committed to republicanism and the use of force. Prevarication and delay in promulgating Home Rule (since it had been put on the agenda generations earlier by O’Connell, Parnell and Redmond) had fatally rationalised the arguments of Irish republicanism in favour of armed rebellion, just as machismo, militarism and romantic notions of the battlefield were reaching a climax across Europe.

One of the main casualities of this “de-stranding” of Irish identity in the twentieth century was British Ireland, the web of private associations created by individuals through family heritage, connection, career choice or emigration. It was only in the latter half of the 1980s that Irish service in foreign armies was begun to be officially commemorated in Ireland. As a new diplomat serving in Anglo-Irish Division at the end of the 1980s I recall the novel and delicate consideration of the new protocols of the remembrance service for those who served in the armed forces of other states.

Truth be told, we were only really sensitive of the British services. For in reality a good portion of this sensitivity arose from the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland during the conflict.  The Northern Ireland Peace Process has cleared the space for the current reflection:  Think, for example, of the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday and its redemptive effects.

Remembrance today now unashamedly embraces those Irish who served with the British military. One of the highlights of my time as Ambassador in South Korea was in 2013 when we welcomed Irish veterans who served with British units in the Korean War, mainly in the Royal Ulster Rifles. They and their units had distinguished themselves in the grim pivotal battles to save Seoul. Being part of such events and commemorations is now a regular and welcome feature of the public activities of Irish Ambassadors around the world.

The Ireland-Britain nexus is a much wider community than those who served in uniform, or even the wider catchment of the Anglo-Irish. It embraces all those who, comfortably or not, moved between both worlds even as they kept their travels across the Irish Sea secret or at least discreet. It includes too all those Irish who have made Britain their home and who felt a powerful liberation during President Higgins’ state visit to Britain last year. His visit, and the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 2011, were both profound waypoints in our development as a nation, our understanding of the past, and the re-stranding of Ireland.

Tolstoy once wrote that “A historian has to do with the results of an event, the artist with the fact of the event.” As a novelist, Barry does this fearlessly, poignantly and beautifully.

Eamonn McKee

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Ireland in Five Easy Pieces, I-V

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.

Ireland in Five Easy Pieces as a modest attempt to knit together a broad explanatory narrative.   It begins mid-19thcentury 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.

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.

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?

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.”

***

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.

Ireland in Five Easy Pieces IV: Northern Ireland and British Irish Relations

Seventeen years ago, the Good Friday Agreement was brokered between the parties in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish Governments in talks chaired by Senator George Mitchell.  I was privileged to be part of the Talks Team fielded by the Department of Foreign Affairs for those climatic negotiations. 

The Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was an historic breakthrough, the culmination of a series of statements, principles, declarations, reports and innumerable ingenious formulations deployed on the long road from conflict to peace.  [You can read more about it and the text of the Agreement here https://www.dfa.ie/our-role-policies/northern-ireland/the-good-friday-agreement-and-today/ ]  

The fourth piece in this series looks at the conflict in Northern Ireland in terms of its deep origins in Irish history and how the peace process untangled the complicated strands of British Irish relations bequeathed to us by that history.

* * *

The conflict in Northern Ireland lasted over 30 years and cost over three thousand lives, tens of thousands injuries and immeasurable grief to those directly affected.  It was brought to an end by ceasefires in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.  The work of realizing the society envisaged in that Agreement goes on, as does dealing with the consequences of the past, the realities of a divided society and the consequences of an island partitioned.

At its essence, the origins of the conflict in Northern Ireland lie in divergent identities, themselves the legacy of our history.  On the one hand there is the Catholic nationalist identity with its roots in an ancient Gaelic society untouched by Roman conquest but subsequently impacted by successive invasions, including Viking, Norman, Tudor, Stuart and Cromwellian.  By the end of the 17th century, Catholic Gaelic Ireland was conquered and a Protestant Anglo-Irish gentry, under the sovereignty of the British crown, ruled the land from their estates and over time increasingly from London.

Nationalist resistance to British rule was profoundly influenced by the French Revolution and it adopted the ideas and nomenclature of republicanism; eventually the term ‘republican’ would be synonymous with a commitment to the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland and the establishment of an independent republic.   The flirtation with the French Revolution and the subsequent rebellion of 1798 came at a price: after the rebellion was suppressed, the local parliament in Dublin was abolished and the Act of Union of 1801 made Ireland part of the United Kingdom.

Nationalist symbols included the shamrock, the harp, the field of green, the Celtic cross, and the tricolour of green, white and orange representing the two traditions joined in peace.

The conquest of Ireland generated several attempts at ‘plantation’, that is the settling of British farmers on land in Ireland.  This only really worked in the northeast, the historic province of Ulster, where Scottish settlers crossed the narrow straits and settled in the four counties nearest the coast.  For them, the Union with Britain was a mark of their identity and their guarantee of safety, prosperity and stability.  Conversely movement toward even limited home rule for Ireland was regarded as a grievous threat to their identity, culture and well being.  For the Unionists in Ireland, some one million concentrated in the northeast, their identity was fused with totemic symbols; the Crown, the Union Jack, the Red Hand of Ulster, and King William of Orange on his white horse defeating the Irish at the Battle of Boyne in 1690.

Once it became clear in 1914 that Home Rule for Ireland was to be enacted, though on hold until World War I was concluded, the Unionists opted for their second choice – partition and their own home rule.  While nationalists fought British resistance to Irish independence from January 1919 onwards, unionists were accorded their own home rule with the opening of their parliament in Belfast in June 1921.  Though the province of Ulster comprised nine counties, this would have given unionists only a perilous majority so they opted for jurisdiction over six counties.   With the unionists catered to, the British Government offered a truce to the nationalists.  Subsequent negotiations resulted in the Treaty of December 1921 and the withdrawal of Britain from the remaining twenty-six counties in January 1922.

Without any options, the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland had little choice but to knuckle down.  They suffered persistent discrimination over the years.  Northern Ireland was, as the saying goes, a ‘cold house’ for nationalists.  Against the international backdrop of civil rights protests in the US and student unrest in Europe in the 1960s, a new generation of young and educated nationalists launched their own civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, triggered by a number of high-profile cases of discrimination involving public housing  allocation.  The unionist authorities were alarmed and suppressed these marches, igniting sectarian riots and leading to the re-emergence of the republican movement in the form of the Provisional IRA.

The Provos, as they were called, wanted the British out and partition ended without reference to the wishes of the unionist population. From their perspective, partition had been imposed by the British contrary to and before an act of national (island-wide) self-determination.   After a crescendo of violence in the early 1970s and the collapse of an attempted power-sharing administration in 1974, the Provos settled down to the ‘long war’.  The problem was that neither the IRA nor the British Army could dislodge each other; the long war became in effect the long stalemate.

Meanwhile, the moderate nationalists of the SDLP (Social Democratic Labour Party) under John Hume in Northern Ireland argued that the problem was not solely the British presence but the relationship between the various parties; between unionists and nationalists, between Ireland North and South and between Britain and Ireland.  The formulation that peace could only be achieved through the totality of relationships became the lodestone and eventually architecture of the peace process.

Successive efforts to forge talks between moderate unionists and nationalists foundered under the weight of violence and hard-line unionist opposition.  Throughout these years too brave individuals and groups reached out across the sectarian divide to encourage dialogue and mutual understanding, building a network of contacts and relationships that encouraged an end to the violence and long term peace building.

By the early 1980s, and with London being encouraged by the White House to undertake a political initiative, the British and Irish Governments began to engage with each other diplomatically and politically, a process that led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.  This was a major diplomatic achievement and a genuine breakthrough.  It established a formal intergovernmental conference of both governments with a standing secretariat near Belfast of British and Irish officials dealing with an agenda that sought to address the causes of conflict in Northern Ireland.  This process worked assiduously over the years to deal with discrimination, alienation, security issues like harassment and the use of lethal force, prison issues, confidence in the administration of justice, identity issues and economic marginalization.  This strengthened the relationship between Dublin and London and made considerable progress in reducing the causes of conflict.

The political stalemate began to loosen when the leader of the moderate nationalists within Northern Ireland, John Hume, opened discussions with the leader of the republican movement, Gerry Adams in early 1993.  Since the IRA’s campaign was still underway, it was an act of uncommon political courage on Hume’s part.

The outstanding achievement of Taoiseach, Mr Albert Reynolds TD and his advisors was the creation of the conditions for ceasefires by the paramilitary organisations. He did this by negotiating with British Prime Minister John Major what became the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993, a breakthrough formulation of enormous import which led directly to the IRA ceasefire in August 1994.

The Declaration set out principles agreed by the British and Irish Governments: that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland was required for unity with the South; that the British Government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”; that it was “for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination”; that both Governments would create institutions and structures which reflected “the totality of relationships” and which, while respecting the diversity of the people of Ireland, would enable them to work together in all areas of common interest; that the achievement of peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence and a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods.

Even Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution, the doctrinal expression of nationalism’s view of Ireland’s territorial integrity, was open to reformulation in the event of a settlement, according to the Declaration. For an Irish nationalist leader, this was political leadership of a very high order indeed.

With the active support and engagement of President Bill Clinton, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair embarked on inclusive talks in 1997, including those elected to represent paramilitary organizations (though without the participation of the more hard-line Democratic Unionist Party).

The talks led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a comprehensive settlement that mandated power sharing within Northern Ireland, formal North-South cooperation between the Governments in Belfast and Dublin and formal structures for consultation and cooperation between Britain and Ireland i.e. it addressed the totality of relationships.  The Agreement took a rights-based approach approach, grounded in the notion of equality and mutual respect between people and the traditions sharing the island.  The Agreement was voted on by both jurisdictions on the island on the same day in May 1998, thereby expressing self-determination by the all the people of Ireland and enshrining the principle of unity by consent alone.  The Agreement also mandated many reforms, building on those of the AIA of 1985, including an overhaul of policing and the administration of jutice: security sector reform was a critical in the transition from conflict to a peaceful, shared society.  Much time and energy was expended on getting the IRA to decommission its weapons.  New policing and the complete decommissioning of IRA weapons cleared the way for the establishment of a power-sharing government in March 2007.

This is a highly compressed and simplified version of what was a complicated, frustrating, tragic, heroic, futile, and inspiring narrative.  Lives were lost and ruined by injury, the death of loved ones, imprisonment, poverty, alienation, and marginalization.  Much energy that should have been devoted to social and economic betterment was diverted into violence, counter-insurgency, protests, resistance, negotiations without progress, frustratingly slow conflict resolution and many more of the reverberating consequences of a society in turmoil.

However, the forces of history and the imperatives of identity that roiled Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations were deeply rooted and it took much determination, courage, infinite patience and finesse to deal with them.  The violent expression of those forces was finally tamed so that, in Seamus Heaney’s immemorial words, ‘hope and history rhymed’.  The consequences of conflict and division however live on in many ways, much work remains to be done to bridge the sectarian divide, the peace process itself requires consistent vigilance and attention, and the work of peace building goes on.

In the years following the Good Friday Agreement the success of the peace process allowed an historic reconciliation in British Irish relations.  This was epitomized by the visit of the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, to Ireland in May 2011, the first visit by a British Head of State to independent Ireland.  During the visit, she laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin dedicated to those who had given their lives in the cause of Irish freedom.

The peace process also encouraged within Ireland the recovery of the many strands of Irish identity and experience attenuated by the nationalist struggle, including for example the service of many Irish in the British Army, especially those who had fought in World War I.

In March 2012, the Irish and British Prime Ministers issued a Joint Statement of principles governing the development and enhancement of British-Irish relations in the decade ahead, a decade marking the centenary of the seminal events of the struggle for independence.

The visit of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, to Britain in April 2014 marked another milestone in British Irish relations.  The President addressed both houses of Parliament, laid a wreath at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey and reviewed the Colours of the five Irish regiments of the British Army disbanded in 1922.

[For more information on British Irish relations see https://www.dfa.ie/our-role-policies/northern-ireland/british-irish-relations/ ]

Peace in Northern Ireland, developing concord on the island of Ireland and the deep, multilayer rapprochement between Ireland and Britain are signal achievements when set against our history.  They allow us to approach the centenaries in the years ahead with generosity and confidence, embracing inclusively the richness of our heritage.  And they are too an intrinsic part of mutual understanding that is the ultimate guardian of the peace that we have won.

Ireland in Five Easy Pieces V: Economic Development

In the final piece in this series, we look at Ireland’s economic development up to the present day.  Economics is not called the dismal science for nothing, not least because it is continually freighted with ‘what if?’ questions: what if this or that was done instead?  Did we do well or, as one leading Irish academic put, why were we so poor for so long?

My own view is that a narrow economic analysis (costs, productivity, capital etc.) does not capture the full panoply of forces, circumstances, institutions, decisions and expectations that combine to create national economic development.  The overall assessment is dramatically influenced by the fact of partition and independence which so altered the nature of both the economy and governance on the island.

As you will see, my personal view tends toward the positive; that despite very considerable problems and obstacles, we found a way toward economic development while maintaining our rich social capital.

* * *

One of the major critiques of British rule in Ireland by nationalists was the state of the economy.  Irish economic development, they alleged, had been repressed by its subjugation to British trade interests.  If there was one object lesson in indifferent, not to say inhumane, British management that nationalists could point to it was the Great Famine.

Conversely, and ipso facto, nationalists believed that Irish management of the economy would allow its potential to be fully realised; our native creativity would see entrepreneurship flourish and Ireland’s fertile lands would provide food for its people and for export.  Native management would see to the exploitation of natural resources on behalf of the people.  There was no good reason, nationalists argued, why Ireland could not be as prosperous as its nearby European neighbours, save for its colonial subjugation.

In order to offset generations of economic repression at imperial hands, nationalist intellectuals believed that after independence Ireland was entitled to a period of protectionism to allow its fledgling native industries to grow until they were ready to compete internationally.

For the first ten years of independence the Cumann na nGael Government maintained the free trade with Britain that was vital to Ireland’s main exports.  There were overwhelmingly food-based since the 1921 partition had shorn the new state of the industrial base in and around Belfast.  More than that, after the Famine, most of Ireland’s agriculture was pasture yielding dairy and beef, an activity light in employment with little added value in processing the basic produce.  The food and drink sector provided what little non-agricultural economic activity existed.  High levels of emigration provided economic opportunities abroad for those who could not find them at home.

The new Government imposed selective tariffs in certain manufacturing sectors, created the beginnings of a central bank in the Currency Commission, launched a major infrastructural project with the Shannon Hydro-Electric scheme and established a number of state agencies to undertake activities beyond the capacity of the private investors such as the Dairy Development Board, the Electricity Supply Board, and the Agricultural Credit Corporation.

A strong proponent of protectionism was Eamon de Valera, a surviving commander of the 1916 Rising, former Presidnet of the revolutionary republic and, in 1927 founder and leader of Fianna Fáil.  The party’s rank and file derived from those who had taken the republican side in the civil war and whose electoral base was the small farmer and urban worker.  De Valera did not see protectionism as a mere transition.  He took the economic nationalist approach much further in seeing protectionism as a permanent feature of national policy.  He was deeply committed to a vision of Irish nationalism that saw Ireland’s Christianity as divinely ordained and manifestly so in our history.

Based on this set of beliefs, de Valera framed social and economic policy around two key instruments, namely protectionism and accelerated land division.  The parceling out of land from the large estates to their farming tenants had been underway and managed by the Land Commission since 1881.  It had continued after independence but for de Valera its new purpose was now to be a key national objective, namely the settling of as many people on independent holdings that were in turn to be as self-sufficient as possible.  For de Valera, independent Ireland itself would replicate the virtues of the small farm on a national scale; self-reliant, based around the stem family, devotional, living the life, as he put it in a celebrated 1943 radio broadcast, that God intended.

De Valera’s vision of independent Ireland has been much mocked since but it had the virtue of being internally coherent.  He held that because of economies of scale Irish manufacturing could not compete with industrial behemoths like Britain, Germany and the United States.  He also knew that the price of protectionism was a loss in competitiveness, just as land division could not be as competitive or productive as larger holdings.  The economic cost of both would be accepted by Irish people because of the societal values thus made possible.  Exports from surplus food and small-scale decentralized manufacturing would be required only to the extent that Ireland needed imported commodities like oil, coal, steel and tea.

De Valera was far from alone in his belief that materialism and urban living were conditions for spiritual corruption.  It had its roots in the Enlightenment and European romantic nationalism.  The Judaeo-Christian tradition itself conflates frugality (read poverty) and virtue.  Indeed looking at Irish history some clerical observers were led to conclude that Ireland’s history of oppression and poverty was divinely ordained to keep the Irish spiritually pure and devotional.  One priest warned that Ireland should not so much fear Anglicization so much as Los Angelesation, for many the materialistic Mecca of western capitalism.

De Valera’s accession to power in 1932 gave him the platform to implement his ideas.  De Valera’s determination to reset Anglo-Irish relations helped precipitate protectionism.  Because of his refusal to continue compensation payments arising from the land acts, Britain imposed punitive tariffs on Irish agricultural exports in what became known as the ‘economic war’.  By the time this was sorted out in 1938, world war was in the offing.  When hostilities broke out in 1939, de Valera declared neutrality and the Irish economy suffered if not an actual embargo by the Allies (spurred by Churchill’s rage at Ireland’s position), then certainly a highly straitened regime of imports.  Ireland could feed itself but shortages of fuel, grains, tea and tobacco were to be acute during the war and in following years.

Surely, you may well suggest, this provided the perfect conditions for de Valera’s vision of Ireland – self-sufficient and aloof from the depredations of a materialistic world gone mad? It did not work out that way.  The planned acceleration of land division ran out of steam, much to de Valera’s deep frustration, and droves of Irish people went to the munitions factories of Britain searching for a steady income and a better life.  Emigrants sent vital money home, to the tune of about £100 million a year.  The Irish economy remained in desperately poor shape, completely dependent on the British market and even more pointedly on the dollar convertibility of British currency.

The isolation of World War II, the refusal of Irish people to embrace frugality and the realities of economic life both domestically and internationally put paid to de Valera’s vision.  However, it would take many years and the economic nadir of the 1950s to spur the evolution of an alternative economic approach.

So limited were the entry points for capital investment in Ireland that the injection of some $116m from the Marshall Plan between 1948 and 1951 merely boosted consumption and imports, leading to a balance of payments crisis and the abject deflation of the economy in 1952.  Emigration to Britain and the US soared during the bleak 1950s.  The State’s population declined to below three million.  Doubts began to creep in about whether the whole notion of independence had been a valid one.  Hand Ireland back to the British and apologise for the state we’ve left it in, quipped writer and former IRA man Brendan Behan.

A series of initiatives put in place the building blocks for economic development.  Irish education created a talented workforce. The Industrial Development Authority (IDA) was established in 1947.  By the early 1950s, European leaders were committed to trade liberalisation and that would lead to the EEC and European Free Trade Association.  For trade reasons alone if Britain was a part of these developments, Ireland had to be too.

De Valera finally retired from active politics and passed the torch to Seán Lemass, a man long determined to bring about the development of the Irish economy without any philosophical hankering after an Irish Ireland.  Along with the head of the Department of Finance, the pioneering, if very careful, official Ken Whitaker, Lemass launched the First Programme for Economic Expansion (1958-63), and reiterated it with the Second and Third Programmes covering the rest of the 1960s and early 1970s.

There is a debate about whether these programmes were more symbolic than real but they did capture a sense that a new Ireland beckoned if it embraced the possibilities of economic development as a virtue in and of itself, and if Ireland looked to engage in the outside world.  Lemass gave political and democratic authority to the pursuit of economic development.

Behind the language of the programmes lay a new direction for the Irish economy.  Given the failure of the indigenous non-agricultural sector to develop any reach beyond the tiny domestic market, Ireland would have to import investment to boost exports and growth.  The IDA was mandated to bring foreign manufacturing to Ireland. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) was to become the engine for Irish economic development up to the present day.

Ireland was particularly well placed to attract newly mobile international capital.  It was English speaking and had a well-educated young workforce and elastic labour supply.  The US began running large deficits in the 1960s to finance the Vietnam War, adding to the availability of the dollar as the medium of global capital.  Petro-dollars boosted the supply of international mobile capital.  Once Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973, it had the distinct advantage for US firms of being inside one of the largest and largely closed markets in the world.  European funding (some €69 billion over 40 years) and the imposition of European health and safety standards would add to Ireland’s development as a modern economy.

It would not be an early home run though, and momentum built only slowly and falteringly in the 1960s and 1970s.  The oil price crisis in 1973-74 hit the Irish economy hard.  Expansionary fiscal policy helped, but only at eventual cost to the exchequer.  Thirty years after the budget deficit crisis of the early 1950s, Ireland was hit again with a budget deficit crisis and economic decline in the 1980s, with high unemployment and mass emigration.

By the late 1980s, however, the fiscal situation had stabilized, the Irish workforce was competitive, the impact of EU supported infrastructure was increasingly evident, the IDA had had major success in attracting FDI mainly from the US, and the world economy was taking off thanks to globalization and deregulation.

The IDA used access provided to US boardrooms through Irish American connections to sell Ireland; sealing the deal was down to hard bargaining in a highly competitive market.   The IDA certainly relied on the Government’s 12% tax regime, access to the European market and the quality of the Irish workforce too.  But the IDA also consistently adapted to changes, rolling FDI through cycles of development from ‘screw driver stuff’ to software, high tech, pharmaceuticals and services.

The IDA’s success was in fact transformative.  Irish incomes began to rise and unemployment to fall.  By the early 1990s, Irish growth rates were taking off.  By the early 2000s Ireland had become the Celtic Tiger, boasting sustained double-digit growth.  Involuntary emigration, the curse of Irish families since the Great Famine, came to an end.

However, all was not well by the mid-point of the first decade of the new millennium.  Increasingly economic growth was switching from being export-led to being demand driven.  Irish competitiveness was slipping because of the boom’s impact on costs and expectations.  The construction sector was burgeoning beyond a normal share of the economy.  Personal debt was accelerating.  House prices were booming, fueled by cheap and available Euros.

The creation of the Euro – in non-physical form January 1999 and as legal tender in January 2002 – put this process into overdrive by boosting Irish credit.  As Eurozone capital looked for better returns in an era of low interest rates, Irish banks became willing recipients, offering good returns for investments.  In many ways this was how the Eurozone was supposed to work; moving capital from areas of low marginal rates of return to areas of high return.  However, the investors and regulators did not look too closely on the use this money was put to – retail banking, personal credit and, increasingly, mortgages.  The flood of Euro capital into Ireland put the property market into overdrive.

After a second thirty-year interlude, Ireland was faced with a budget crisis in 2008 as US banking troubles sent a tsunami of financial collapse around the globe.  With property prices plummeting, Irish banks saw vital equity disappear.  Without taxpayer’s money, they were insolvent.  However, governments across Europe now found that the Eurozone was not an aggregated risk as investors quickly disaggregated the national bond markets.  Irish bond rates became unsustainable and Ireland was obliged to apply for an EU/IMF bailout.

How did Ireland cope with this unprecedented crisis?  By any measure Ireland has done remarkably well.  It grappled with the budgetary crisis by slashing expenditure, public sector salaries and increasing taxes.  A series of austerity budgets applied painful but fiscally effective medicine between 2008 and 2014.  It pumped €64 billion into the banking sector and restored two pillar banks to bring the sector more into line with the economy so that banks could serve the economy rather than the other way around.  It created a vehicle for non-performing property investments in NAMA, theNational Assets Management Agency. Ireland exited the bailout ahead of schedule.  Meanwhile, the IDA aggressively pursued foreign direct investment, hitting a record in 2013.  Irish economic growth is now one of the best in the Eurozone, despite a generally depressed global economy.

We should not forget the cutbacks in services, the high unemployment, the loss of wealth and pensions, the negative equity in the property sector – all salutary lessons about the dangers of willfully blind credit and demand-led growth.  However Ireland had successfully faced down the gravest financial challenge it had encountered since independence.

Even if we paid a high price for the Celtic Tiger years, I don’t think its possible to look back on them without some fond memories and positive impressions.  They were great years of confidence and optimism.  They coincided with the Northern Ireland peace process and the resolution of deep-rooted antagonisms between Ireland and Britain.  Anglo-Irish relations blossomed.   Young entrepreneurs flourished in those heady days, creating an invaluable reservoir of expertise that will stand to us.  ‘Riverdance’ enthralled us, and the world, with its brio and energy, its sensuality a long awaited riposte to post-Famine strictures.  Dublin flourished with new restaurants and culture, with towns across Ireland soon following.  Above all, we had achieved full employment and ended enforced emigration.  Now we’re getting back on our feet economically and financially, but this time with greater deliberation and maturity.

I hope this series of blogs has been helpful and that it encourages you to look at Ireland’s story more closely in the wealth of historical publications, literature and material available online.  The study of our history rewards the reader well, enriching an understanding and appreciation not just of the centennial commemorations ahead but also of Ireland today and how we got to be who we are.

Eamonn McKee

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Ireland in Five Easy Pieces IV: Northern Ireland and British Irish Relations

Seventeen years ago, the Good Friday Agreement was brokered between the parties in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish Governments in talks chaired by Senator George Mitchell.  I was privileged to be part of the Talks Team fielded by the Department of Foreign Affairs for those climatic negotiations. 

The Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was an historic breakthrough, the culmination of a series of statements, principles, declarations, reports and innumerable ingenious formulations deployed on the long road from conflict to peace.  [You can read more about it and the text of the Agreement here https://www.dfa.ie/our-role-policies/northern-ireland/the-good-friday-agreement-and-today/ ]  

The fourth piece in this series looks at the conflict in Northern Ireland in terms of its deep origins in Irish history and how the peace process untangled the complicated strands of British Irish relations bequeathed to us by that history.

* * *

The conflict in Northern Ireland lasted over 30 years and cost over three thousand lives, tens of thousands injuries and immeasurable grief to those directly affected.  It was brought to an end by ceasefires in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.  The work of realizing the society envisaged in that Agreement goes on, as does dealing with the consequences of the past, the realities of a divided society and the consequences of an island partitioned.

At its essence, the origins of the conflict in Northern Ireland lie in divergent identities, themselves the legacy of our history.  On the one hand there is the Catholic nationalist identity with its roots in an ancient Gaelic society untouched by Roman conquest but subsequently impacted by successive invasions, including Viking, Norman, Tudor, Stuart and Cromwellian.  By the end of the 17th century, Catholic Gaelic Ireland was conquered and a Protestant Anglo-Irish gentry, under the sovereignty of the British crown, ruled the land from their estates and over time increasingly from London.

Nationalist resistance to British rule was profoundly influenced by the French Revolution and it adopted the ideas and nomenclature of republicanism; eventually the term ‘republican’ would be synonymous with a commitment to the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland and the establishment of an independent republic.   The flirtation with the French Revolution and the subsequent rebellion of 1798 came at a price: after the rebellion was suppressed, the local parliament in Dublin was abolished and the Act of Union of 1801 made Ireland part of the United Kingdom.

Nationalist symbols included the shamrock, the harp, the field of green, the Celtic cross, and the tricolour of green, white and orange representing the two traditions joined in peace.

The conquest of Ireland generated several attempts at ‘plantation’, that is the settling of British farmers on land in Ireland.  This only really worked in the northeast, the historic province of Ulster, where Scottish settlers crossed the narrow straits and settled in the four counties nearest the coast.  For them, the Union with Britain was a mark of their identity and their guarantee of safety, prosperity and stability.  Conversely movement toward even limited home rule for Ireland was regarded as a grievous threat to their identity, culture and well being.  For the Unionists in Ireland, some one million concentrated in the northeast, their identity was fused with totemic symbols; the Crown, the Union Jack, the Red Hand of Ulster, and King William of Orange on his white horse defeating the Irish at the Battle of Boyne in 1690.

Once it became clear in 1914 that Home Rule for Ireland was to be enacted, though on hold until World War I was concluded, the Unionists opted for their second choice – partition and their own home rule.  While nationalists fought British resistance to Irish independence from January 1919 onwards, unionists were accorded their own home rule with the opening of their parliament in Belfast in June 1921.  Though the province of Ulster comprised nine counties, this would have given unionists only a perilous majority so they opted for jurisdiction over six counties.   With the unionists catered to, the British Government offered a truce to the nationalists.  Subsequent negotiations resulted in the Treaty of December 1921 and the withdrawal of Britain from the remaining twenty-six counties in January 1922.

Without any options, the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland had little choice but to knuckle down.  They suffered persistent discrimination over the years.  Northern Ireland was, as the saying goes, a ‘cold house’ for nationalists.  Against the international backdrop of civil rights protests in the US and student unrest in Europe in the 1960s, a new generation of young and educated nationalists launched their own civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, triggered by a number of high-profile cases of discrimination involving public housing  allocation.  The unionist authorities were alarmed and suppressed these marches, igniting sectarian riots and leading to the re-emergence of the republican movement in the form of the Provisional IRA.

The Provos, as they were called, wanted the British out and partition ended without reference to the wishes of the unionist population. From their perspective, partition had been imposed by the British contrary to and before an act of national (island-wide) self-determination.   After a crescendo of violence in the early 1970s and the collapse of an attempted power-sharing administration in 1974, the Provos settled down to the ‘long war’.  The problem was that neither the IRA nor the British Army could dislodge each other; the long war became in effect the long stalemate.

Meanwhile, the moderate nationalists of the SDLP (Social Democratic Labour Party) under John Hume in Northern Ireland argued that the problem was not solely the British presence but the relationship between the various parties; between unionists and nationalists, between Ireland North and South and between Britain and Ireland.  The formulation that peace could only be achieved through the totality of relationships became the lodestone and eventually architecture of the peace process.

Successive efforts to forge talks between moderate unionists and nationalists foundered under the weight of violence and hard-line unionist opposition.  Throughout these years too brave individuals and groups reached out across the sectarian divide to encourage dialogue and mutual understanding, building a network of contacts and relationships that encouraged an end to the violence and long term peace building.

By the early 1980s, and with London being encouraged by the White House to undertake a political initiative, the British and Irish Governments began to engage with each other diplomatically and politically, a process that led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.  This was a major diplomatic achievement and a genuine breakthrough.  It established a formal intergovernmental conference of both governments with a standing secretariat near Belfast of British and Irish officials dealing with an agenda that sought to address the causes of conflict in Northern Ireland.  This process worked assiduously over the years to deal with discrimination, alienation, security issues like harassment and the use of lethal force, prison issues, confidence in the administration of justice, identity issues and economic marginalization.  This strengthened the relationship between Dublin and London and made considerable progress in reducing the causes of conflict.

The political stalemate began to loosen when the leader of the moderate nationalists within Northern Ireland, John Hume, opened discussions with the leader of the republican movement, Gerry Adams in early 1993.  Since the IRA’s campaign was still underway, it was an act of uncommon political courage on Hume’s part.

The outstanding achievement of Taoiseach, Mr Albert Reynolds TD and his advisors was the creation of the conditions for ceasefires by the paramilitary organisations. He did this by negotiating with British Prime Minister John Major what became the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993, a breakthrough formulation of enormous import which led directly to the IRA ceasefire in August 1994.

The Declaration set out principles agreed by the British and Irish Governments: that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland was required for unity with the South; that the British Government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”; that it was “for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination”; that both Governments would create institutions and structures which reflected “the totality of relationships” and which, while respecting the diversity of the people of Ireland, would enable them to work together in all areas of common interest; that the achievement of peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence and a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods.

Even Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution, the doctrinal expression of nationalism’s view of Ireland’s territorial integrity, was open to reformulation in the event of a settlement, according to the Declaration. For an Irish nationalist leader, this was political leadership of a very high order indeed.

With the active support and engagement of President Bill Clinton, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair embarked on inclusive talks in 1997, including those elected to represent paramilitary organizations (though without the participation of the more hard-line Democratic Unionist Party).

The talks led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a comprehensive settlement that mandated power sharing within Northern Ireland, formal North-South cooperation between the Governments in Belfast and Dublin and formal structures for consultation and cooperation between Britain and Ireland i.e. it addressed the totality of relationships.  The Agreement took a rights-based approach approach, grounded in the notion of equality and mutual respect between people and the traditions sharing the island.  The Agreement was voted on by both jurisdictions on the island on the same day in May 1998, thereby expressing self-determination by the all the people of Ireland and enshrining the principle of unity by consent alone.  The Agreement also mandated many reforms, building on those of the AIA of 1985, including an overhaul of policing and the administration of jutice: security sector reform was a critical in the transition from conflict to a peaceful, shared society.  Much time and energy was expended on getting the IRA to decommission its weapons.  New policing and the complete decommissioning of IRA weapons cleared the way for the establishment of a power-sharing government in March 2007.

This is a highly compressed and simplified version of what was a complicated, frustrating, tragic, heroic, futile, and inspiring narrative.  Lives were lost and ruined by injury, the death of loved ones, imprisonment, poverty, alienation, and marginalization.  Much energy that should have been devoted to social and economic betterment was diverted into violence, counter-insurgency, protests, resistance, negotiations without progress, frustratingly slow conflict resolution and many more of the reverberating consequences of a society in turmoil.

However, the forces of history and the imperatives of identity that roiled Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations were deeply rooted and it took much determination, courage, infinite patience and finesse to deal with them.  The violent expression of those forces was finally tamed so that, in Seamus Heaney’s immemorial words, ‘hope and history rhymed’.  The consequences of conflict and division however live on in many ways, much work remains to be done to bridge the sectarian divide, the peace process itself requires consistent vigilance and attention, and the work of peace building goes on.

In the years following the Good Friday Agreement the success of the peace process allowed an historic reconciliation in British Irish relations.  This was epitomized by the visit of the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, to Ireland in May 2011, the first visit by a British Head of State to independent Ireland.  During the visit, she laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin dedicated to those who had given their lives in the cause of Irish freedom.

The peace process also encouraged within Ireland the recovery of the many strands of Irish identity and experience attenuated by the nationalist struggle, including for example the service of many Irish in the British Army, especially those who had fought in World War I.

In March 2012, the Irish and British Prime Ministers issued a Joint Statement of principles governing the development and enhancement of British-Irish relations in the decade ahead, a decade marking the centenary of the seminal events of the struggle for independence.

The visit of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, to Britain in April 2014 marked another milestone in British Irish relations.  The President addressed both houses of Parliament, laid a wreath at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey and reviewed the Colours of the five Irish regiments of the British Army disbanded in 1922.

[For more information on British Irish relations see https://www.dfa.ie/our-role-policies/northern-ireland/british-irish-relations/ ]

Peace in Northern Ireland, developing concord on the island of Ireland and the deep, multilayer rapprochement between Ireland and Britain are signal achievements when set against our history.  They allow us to approach the centenaries in the years ahead with generosity and confidence, embracing inclusively the richness of our heritage.  And they are too an intrinsic part of mutual understanding that is the ultimate guardian of the peace that we have won.

Eamonn McKee

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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.”

***

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 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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