Ireland in the Age of Imperialism and Revolution 1760-1801 
by R.B. McDowell.
Oxford, 740 pp., £28, December 1979, 9780198224808
Show More
Show More

Dr R.B. McDowell knows and tells far too many relevant good stories to require the enhancement of his prose by specimens of the ‘Irish bulls’ of Sir Boyle Roche, who single-handedly did so much to make them the symbol of the age under discussion, but the published volume seems to embody a set of paradoxes that approach bullish status. The author’s text goes on for over seven hundred pages, and his felicitous style and speed of narrative hold the audience’s interest better than most works one-third the size. The general reader may occasionally be bewildered by the mass of detail, yet cannot fail to enjoy a book whose publishers have priced it so firmly out of his reach. The high price is offset by some of the worst proof-reading and copy-editing with which the Clarendon Press has to date seen fit to favour its readers. The book is worthy to be placed on the same shelf as that 19th-century masterpiece, Lecky’s multi-volume History of Ireland in the 18th Century, but it will find the proximity of works of its own century much more uneasy company. Not only does the title invite endless tutorial discussions on why this particular period should be singled out as the ‘Age of Imperialism and Revolution’, but the meaning of ‘Ireland’ as here discussed opens up a Pandora’s box of controversy.

Whatever the disagreements on Dr McDowell’s approach, his industry and detail of primary research deserve all praise. The least he and we could have expected, therefore, would have been that his illustrious publishers could be trusted to deal with spelling errors, consistency in capitalisation, accuracy and comprehensiveness in index-references, elimination of undue repetition, clarification of allusion to persons by their old names and their new peerages, and the provision of a couple of useful maps. In fact, the publishers seem to be operating under some new Parkinson’s Law: copy-editing contracts in inverse proportion to the rise in net price. We meet ‘Queen’s Country’ (for ‘County’) on page six, ‘suprising’ on page 16, Blakeney, the defender of Minorca, is ‘honoured by a statute in Dublin’ on page 62, Chief Secretary Rigby is ‘shrewed’ (not, one assumes, a chauvinistic allusion to his wife) on page 209, the Regency crisis of 1788 is in part ‘a constitutional problem with gave implications’ (page 339), page 286 tells us twice in three lines that William Ogilvie was a Scotsman; Whitley Stokes is ‘thanked for his answer to Paine by the board of Trinity College’ on page 199, with the exact words repeated (apart from the belatedly respectful capitalisation of ‘Board’) in the ensuing footnote; John Fitzgibbon, Earl of Clare, is variously Clared and Fitzgibboned all over pages 602-3 with maximum confusion for readers who do not know he was both; and, as Bertie Wooster would say, so the long day wore on, so to speak. Occasionally the text is in flat self-contradiction. Page 263 tells us that ‘Ireland was not a target’ for French invasion ‘in 1779’, but page 503 makes it clear that initially it was (although the author might, have added that ‘Edward Bancroft, the American diplomat’ suggested by Lafayette for preliminary reconaissance, was also Edward ‘Edwards’ the English spy, which may have had something to do with the failure to hit the target).

But the real difficulty about the book lies in the meaning of the word ‘Ireland’. And it was also the real difficulty about the period. ‘Ireland’ meant one thing to the British Government, another to the Irish Protestant Episcopalian Ascendancy, a third to the Presbyterians of Ulster labouring under civil disabilities, a fourth to the Catholic bourgeoisie slowly rising despite even graver penal legislation, a fifth to the largely Gaelic-speaking Catholic peasantry and labourers. Dr McDowell quite clearly shows the changes in some of these different ‘lrelands’ from the beginning to the end of his period, but he does have difficulties in defining them, and even, it often appears, of remembering that some of them existed. The book’s price in this respect tells more than its blurb. We are largely dealing with the Ireland of the ‘haves’, not that of the majority, the ‘have-nots’.

At certain points, despite what is obviously the most fair-minded will in the world on the part of the author, the present reader, as an Irish Catholic, found himself reading with the eerie sensation of being an American Southern or South African black reading a history of his country written a quarter of a century ago. His ethnic group, however much of a majority, seems invisible for much of the time, and while in the world of British administration and Irish Parliamentary politics it very largely was, it is chilling to see how closely Dr McDowell seems to adhere to the mind of his period’s political élite. ‘Throughout the century Irish intellectual, cultural and fashionable life was dominated by England, or rather it might be said by London and its outposts.’ In the still large Gaelic-speaking section of the population that was simply not true. Various references to ‘the public’ or ‘the Irish public’, and their views of Parliamentary representation or individual viceroyalties, are clearly formulated with no sense of the Catholic majority in mind. This is not to say that the Catholics were particularly hostile to the British administration or the Protestant Episcopalian Parliament (though the more aware of them probably knew their peril through most of the century to be from the latter): Irish nationalist historiography has dreamed up a legacy of consistent rejection of Britain which has little basis in fact until the local insurrections at the end of the century. But when Dr McDowell speaks of ‘the electoral machinery’ seeming ‘to have satisfied the public’, he is not thinking of the Catholic part of it. There is a wealth of difference between Catholic acquiescence and Protestant satisfaction in the caste-ridden Ireland of the 18th century. We run into the same problem just after Dr McDowell has very correctly pointed to Irish Catholic support for the British Government’s repression in America on the outbreak of revolution there; he then records hostile response to the pro-American sermons of the Presbyterian minister William Steel Dickson, commenting that it ‘shows that Irish opinion was not unanimously favourable to the American cause.’ He has already cited such evidence as can be given on its lack of favour in the eyes of the Catholic majority: in context, it is clear that ‘Irish opinion’ implies ‘Protestant’. That unspoken implication says even more about the period he is discussing than his 700 pages on it.

When he is confronting the Catholics, they are visible all right, but oddly out of focus. ‘Understandably ... catholic landowners tended to conform to the established church.’ ‘During the earlier decades of the century when the church was proscribed and lay catholics subjected to a wide range of disabilities, it was reasonable to suppose that Irish Catholicism would wither away.’ Both statements are kindly meant, but they savour of the achievement of the alchemist, not of the historian: we are dealing with iron, not putty. The Irish Catholic landed gentry did largely resist the enormous temptations to conform to Protestant Episcopalianism until the major proscriptions were relaxed; then, when the barriers to their advancement were chiefly social rather than legal, several of them did go over. Similarly, the Protestant Ascendancy did not keep its penal legislation on the books for as long as it did in expectation of the extirpation of Catholicism, but rather with the intention of fixing the place of the untouchable caste. The penal laws were shrouded with phrases which might seem to imply a will to speed conversion of the Catholics, but in fact an increase in competition for the privileges restricted to the élitist minority was the last thing the Ascendancy wanted. Even in the early 19th century the advent of a sincere Evangelical movement from within the Protestant Episcopalian Church appalled the old élite. A caste system, even one largely buttressed by memory, seemed a surer prophylactic against social revolution than a class one. And the memories of the caste system, on both sides, kept the iron in the soul where it belonged.

In the concrete, Dr McDowell is firm enough on the implications of Catholic disabilities, but certain of his more abstract remarks seem strangely remote from the realities. For instance, he tells us that ‘during the century Irish Catholicism contributed considerably less to theological literature than did the much smaller English catholic community.’ True, no doubt, but seldom has comparative history been brought into play with less justification. The English recusant identity was shaped by a distinguished élitist social minority; the Irish recusant identity was determined by a mass Gaelic-speaking lower-class majority. We are worlds away from the refined speculations of chaplains enjoying the patronage of the Norfolks. Eighteenth-century Irish Catholicism was conditioned by the fact that the bulk of its votaries were grindingly poor, often nomadic, generally illiterate, and frequently with only the smallest hold on English.

Dr McDowell diagnoses the cultural condition which characterises his own writing when he notices how extraordinarily seldom the English-speakers adverted to the fact that the majority of the population was still Irish-speaking. Yet even at that point he raises a further problem: ‘the Gaelic language, excluded from large areas of intellectual and practical life, narrowed, and by the 18th century was the medium of a popular culture, expressing itself in ballads, folk tales and proverbs.’ He goes on to acknowledge that poets bewailed the fall of the Gaelic lords and that country gentlemen occasionally entertained poets. But in fact, while narrowing may have taken place in some respects – and it is agreed that by the end of the Middle Ages Irish bardic culture had been greatly narrowed in any case – the new audience had induced a broadening.

The Gaelic Burnses sang for the people at large now, rather than for the noble patrons of yore. And the intricacy of their poems, the wealth of Biblical, Greek and Roman allusion, the development of new modes of satire and baroque fantasy, the rediscovery of a highly personalised religious poetic devotion, the concentration of pastoral and even naturalistic lyric, all testify to a new cultural strength for Gaelic literature on the very eve of its death. It may have been an Indian summer; it may have been the last leaping flame of the guttering candle; but it was the equal of anything Ireland was producing in English poetry – including Goldsmith. Its last two giants – Eoghan Ruadh O Súilleabháin and Brian Merriman – reflected in their different ways the tendencies which in the larger island were to produce Byron as well as Burns. The rhetoric of sexual celebration, of ironic and discursive epic, of consciously ludicrous classical invocation, of oscillation between Gothic satire and Gothic horror, were so pointedly marked in their work as to induce anguish in the more puritanical ranks of the early 20th-century Gaelic revivalists. And these last new departures in the late 18th century would seem to argue for a Gaelic which caught some of the spirit of its European age.

As these passages indicate, Dr McDowell seriously wishes to do his duty by Irish social and cultural history within his chosen period. His survey is a valuable one, and yet it is less than is needed. Social history, to be used properly, should be integrated with the political and administrative, if only in the form of illustration as to the workings-out of the latter. There is too much readiness to follow the example of Macaulay’s History in its third chapter, and segregate the subject, and too little to profit by his methods elsewhere, embodying its integration. Dr McDowell has been generous with innumerable charming details enhancing his narrative of events, from personal eccentricities to Maupassant-like destinies: but his book would have been the richer had he laid himself under heavy obligation to the Maria Edgeworths and William Carletons. Admittedly, the Irish 18th century lends itself so readily to superlatives that his caution is to be admired, and the Ascendancy deserves some defence against the obvious caricature of a wholly self-interested, dissipated, brawling, corrupt, hedonistic, materialistic élite intoxicated by the exuberance of its own rhetoric and anything else it could get to cross its throat.

For all of that, some of the finest portraits here are those of that élite, when its historian is letting himself go. He does a conscientious justice to his succession of English lords lieutenant and chief secretaries, but his heart is not with them. His readers will thank him for doing his work, but they will remember with delight such masterpieces as McDowell’s John Hely-Hutchinson, who so ambitiously sought to transform his provostship of Trinity College, Dublin into a fief of his political domain; such cool assessments as his Grattan, mixing rhetoric, ideology, philanthropy, self-interest, vanity and insight; such wise reassessments as Flood and Clare, hitherto victims of their champions even more than of their critics; such hilarious and felicitous testimonials as tell even more about their originators than their targets – for example, an opposition legislator’s generous acknowledgement that although Lord Lieutenant Townshend ‘bullied and blustered he was merry and loved his bottle’. The protagonists have by no means the monopoly of all the wit. Macaulay, since we have mentioned him, would have been glad to have anticipated Dr McDowell in such a line as: ‘The Sheareses showed themselves to be very energetic, courageous and incompetent conspirators.’

The book, then, has all the virtues and all the weaknesses of history from the top. It is good, austere, academic history, with a professional lifetime behind it and a wealth of (private and public) archival evidence. (It is perhaps a little churlish in the paucity of its reference to the work of other scholars: Dr McDowell is a good deal less interested in other footprints on his chosen sands than was Robinson Crusoe.) But what happened to all these strange and conflicting Irelands that he writes and doesn’t write about? Well, in one respect their spirit is still alive. We continue to witness loud affirmations of the will of some Ireland or other which is the sole and true Ireland, all others being false and pernicious and to be extirpated from the mind of man. In Dublin, Ireland is described as doing or (more frequently) demanding X or Y with no thought of one million Ulster Protestants to trouble the unblemished genealogy of that personification. In Belfast, the same is true, save that the lady is now operating under the trade name of ‘Ulster’, and is equally indifferent to the claims to visibility of half a million Ulster Catholics. In some hell-mouth well stocked with munitions of war, draft begging letters, and receipts from the international drugs racket, the Godfathers of the IRA invoke yet another Ireland. And in various ghettoes and redoubts across the world the children of long-vanished migrants celebrate the Ireland of their choice in all of its eternal beauty, vigour, martyrdom and invincibility. Naturally, these speculations are far from the sober scientific history of Dr McDowell, where ‘protestant’ and ‘catholic’ are decapitalised for fear of prompting emotive responses, although Loyalty sometimes raises her egregious head for that Board of Trinity College.

The immediate fate of the 18th-century conflicting Irelands is nevertheless a major part of the story. The entertaining if self-devoted élite ultimately committed hara-kiri in accepting the Union of Parliaments: for the future, the polarisation was much more clearly between Catholic masses and British government. But like the Irish Bronze Age warriors obliterated by the invading Celts, the old élite went on to become gods to the next generation. Daniel O’Connell, the great leader of the Catholic masses in the 19th century, readily drew on the tradition and rhetoric of the once nominally independent Irish Parliament in order to win support for a Repeal of the Union which by now carried with it an inevitable rise of Catholic power – hence the gibberings and squeakings in the Roman streets of all the sheeted dead of that lost bastion of Irish Protestantism.

The Ulster Presbyterian truculence, even rebelliousness, against governmental tyranny may be becoming more today than the recollection of an indulgent tradition. The Catholic bourgeoisie’s ideals of Ireland have not particularly changed: what need they, being come to sense, but fumble in a greasy till and endow Yeats lectures with the profits? John Hely-Hutchinson would find himself thoroughly at home in the Ireland of today – and he would be in demand, too, as an entrepreneur eminently capable of maximising his opportunities and making culture pay. And Grattan would be persona grata also: the self-congratulations of high-flown rhetorical nationalism have excellent profitability. From a shop-window point of view, it would be particularly acceptable that they were Protestants.

The one Ireland that really is dead and gone is the one that remained invisible – or at least inaudible – to Dr McDowell, who in this sense is an appropriate spokesman for our age: the Ireland of the Gaelic poets. It had nothing in common with the self-rejuvenating vampire Yeats called Cathleen Ni Houlihan; it had nothing in common with the official aridities of the governmental linguistic resurrectionists of the mid-20th century. As is eloquently symbolised by Thomas Flanagan in his brilliant and invaluable novel about the 1798 revolt, The Year of the French, it was the most hopeless victim of politics turned into warfare. What was left of it starved to death or emigrated in the great famine.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences