Visions

Charles Townshend

  • Theobald Wolfe Tone: Colonial Outsider by Tom Dunne
    Tower Books, 77 pp, $1.90, December 1982, ISBN 0 902568 07 8
  • Partners in Revolution: The United Irishmen and France by Marianne Elliott
    Yale, 411 pp, £15.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 03 000270 2
  • De Valera and the Ulster Question 1917-1973 by John Bowman
    Oxford, 369 pp, £17.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 19 822681 0
  • Sean Lemass and the Making of Modern Ireland by Paul Bew and Henry Patterson
    Gill, 224 pp, £15.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 7171 1260 8

The United Irishmen of the 1790s were unlikely initiators of a struggle against reality. Enlightened, rational Protestant bourgeois for the most part, they proposed feasible, Whiggish political change: efficient and just administration achieved through parliamentary reform, abolition of tithe, reduction in taxation and government expenditure, promotion of trade and education. When they set out ‘to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter’ it was – as Tom Dunne argues forcefully in his valuable new study of the ideas of their most famous publicist, Wolfe Tone – because only such a ‘cordial union’ could form an effective counterpoise to ‘the weight of English influence in the government of this country’. Their object was modest enough: ‘to maintain that balance which is essential to the preservation of our liberties’.

This reasonableness was not realism, however. At the core of the visionary union, cordiality was not much in evidence. Tone, whose pamphlet ‘An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland’, published in September 1791, established the ethos of the United movement, and the author’s celebrity within it, was intellectually contemptuous of Catholicism. The key to his attitude may be, as Dunne suggests, that as a ‘colonial outsider’ he retained the colon stereotype of the native Irish. Certainly such attitudes were reinforced, rather incongruously, by enlightened secularism when Tone achieved a second identity as a soldier of the French Republic. None of this, obviously, had much to do with Irish social realities.

In fact the élitist refinement of the United Irish Society insulated it from such realities. Marianne Elliott does not mince words in saying that it had ‘an instinctive fear of the people’. Hence its main practical tenet: that Ireland’s liberty could only be achieved with French assistance. This belief produced the odd relationship which is explored in Dr Elliott’s painstakingly researched book. Her title perhaps suggests too much. The link was erratic, dependent on the variable enthusiasm of individuals such as Carnot, Hoche and Bruix. More important, France under the Directory was barely a revolutionary polity. Driven by force of circumstance, it was descending from idealistic internationalism into chauvinistic imperialism. The hostility of the other great powers, culminating in the Second Coalition in 1798, made survival the sole priority.

Members of the United Irish embassy to France ran the risk – to which, as Dunne shows, Tone succumbed – of internalising French priorities. French doctrine predisposed the Directory to support the Irish national claim, and not to look too closely into the United leaders’ claim to represent the Irish nation. Even so, France’s main concern was strategic. Outrage at the British policy of fomenting revolts within France produced a desire for revenge. The existence of a revolutionary organisation in Ireland provided a dramatic opportunity, seized by Hoche to secure his position against the sudden rise of Bonaparte in 1796. This personal ambition had fatal effects on the expeditionary force that struggled into Bantry Bay without its commander. Hoche had been blown off course, and had kept the invasion plans to himself.

Dr Elliott rightly says that if the force had got ashore it would have altered the whole course of the Revolutionary Wars. There was little prospect of successful British resistance to fifteen thousand experienced French troops, even encumbered by untrained and unstable Irish mass levies. One must doubt, though, whether the French failure was as accidental as she suggests. The low efficiency of the French fleet, later demonstrated in the hapless operations of Bruix, made success improbable. One must also doubt the capacity of the United men to mobilise and direct the Irish peasantry. French doubts on this score led later to the creation of an Irish Legion, whose development into a kind of prototypical Légion Etrangère forms an interesting footnote to this story.

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