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.
After the premature death of Hoche the partnership became still more spasmodic. Indeed a more truly ‘revolutionary’, but quite ineffectual partnership was that between the United Irishmen and the shadowy United Englishmen. The quirky decision-making machinery of the Directory combined with embarrassing dissension within the Irish leadership to weaken French planning. The spectacular action of Humbert’s small force in Mayo in 1798, ‘the year of the French’, showed what might have been achieved. As late as 1811 Bonaparte was displaying serious interest in Ireland. In the meantime, however, the United Irishmen were pushed back into self-reliance, manifested in Robert Emmet’s attempted insurrection of 1803. Elliott gives this as much space as Hoche’s expedition, though it had no concrete connection with France.
Like the rest of her book, apart from broad-ranging introductory and concluding chapters, this account is formidably detailed. It is, moreover, a commentary rather than a narrative, a doctoral thesis left apparently untouched by an indulgent publisher. There are few concessions to the general reader – fewer, in fact, than in the author’s scholarly article on the ‘Despard conspiracy’ in Past and Present – and the style is allusive and at times opaque. But it illustrates well the power of Irish nationalists to manipulate myth. While Tone was transformed from a Whig into the symbol of Republican intransigence (‘break the connection’), and even of social radicalism (thanks to his appeal as a last resort to ‘the men of no property’), Emmet’s conspiracy became the transcendent example of heroic sacrifice and ‘the triumph of failure’.
Dr Elliott holds that Emmet’s attempt was more than a heroic gesture. It was intended to succeed, and might have done so, but for the usual train of unfortunate chances. Some readers will remain sceptical about the value of hastily-formed popular armies. The only form of warfare in which such forces can survive is irregular or guerrilla war, and Emmet had no idea of this. (Indeed Elliott shows that the United leadership had a ‘terror of popular guerrilla warfare’.) The inner contradiction of conspiratorialism, which she does not really confront, is that the secrecy vital to the preparatory stage – which Emmet achieved so well – necessarily dooms the popular uprising to failure. It is not enough for the leaders alone to be prepared. The prospective followers must be trained if they are to engage in open combat, or even to assemble after the flag of revolt has been raised.
This contradiction blighted the efforts of the United Irishmen’s successors – the Young Ireland confederates of 1848 and the Fenians of 1867. Effectively it did so again in 1916, when Emmet’s most fervent admirer led a rising conceived as a blood-sacrifice. This time there were armed and trained followers, though only in Dublin. The idea, held by some of Pearse’s fellow organisers, that the revolt would spark off a national uprising proved to be as illusory as ever.
The repetition of these efforts, however, and the resilience of the Republican physical-force tradition in Ireland, owed much to the aura of the United Irishmen. Hesitant converts to Republicanism and physical force alike, with no sympathy for the real aspirations of the masses, they nonetheless established the political framework of modern Irish history. Its base is the idea of ‘one nation’. The extension of the common name of Irishman to all inhabitants of the island was initially a magnanimous concession by the ‘Protestant nation’. But what’s in a common name? Tone recognised that the Catholics were ‘the Irish properly so called’ (they had earlier been called the ‘mere Irish’). The United principle of ‘giving political value and station to the great majority of the people’ created the possibility that they would become dominant, and a decisive step in this direction was taken by the mass movements of O’Connell, whose instinctive identification of ‘Irish’ and ‘Catholic’ was the despair of the Young Ireland intellectuals.
The latter were perhaps the most pious exponents of the ‘one nation’ ideal. Thomas Davis lived the spirit of the United exhortation to think ‘little of our ancestors, much of our posterity’. The finest of their many fine phrases, it was, sadly, among the vainest. The past resisted all efforts to subjugate it to the future. Reality remained impervious to dreams. Beneath the thin veneer of United rhetoric, the masses were driven by longing for revenge and for the restoration of lost land. The flourishing of Protestant nationalism, as Elliott says, was only made possible thanks to its insulation from the people. As soon as the Catholics mobilised, polarisation occurred. One of the grimmest facts of the grim 1798 civil war was that in Meath, where the United Irish Society had initially been exclusively Protestant, not a single Protestant joined the rebellion.
This polarisation reappeared in the later 19th century as the Irish nation became more unequivocally Catholic and Gaelic. It led to the struggle of the Northern Protestants against Home Rule, and to the demarcation of their territory as a separate political unit. Yet the nationalists never modified their vision to incorporate this ugly reality. Their incomplete mental adjustment to the fact of partition is the subject of John Bowman’s remarkable study. His revisionist stance may seem unnecessarily aggressive – it is after all no secret that in the private session of Dail Eireann on 22 December 1921 de Valera endorsed the so-called ‘county option’ – but he points out that de Valera is still invoked as the weightiest support of Republican intransigents. De Valera’s attitudes therefore possess continuing political importance.
Bowman’s narrative, presenting meticulous research with real elegance and clarity, must undermine the belief that although de Valera was forced to compromise in practice, he never compromised in principle. While he dismissed the Loyalist case for self-determination as that of ‘the robber coming into another man’s house and claiming a room as his’, he was prepared for an ‘accommodation’. This point cannot be pushed too far. Bowman suggests that de Valera’s complaint on 3 December 1921 that while Griffith might comprehensibly give up independence for unity, he had actually got ‘neither this nor that’ indicates a flexibility of outlook which he was to cast off during the split. Yet it is clear that he was not expressing flexibility on unity: unity was so crucial that independence might be traded for it. And although de Valera later showed political realism in resisting pressure to extend the Fianna Fail organisation into the Six Counties or to invite Northern representatives to sit in the Dail, and in tirelessly repudiating the use of force to achieve unity, his verbal subtlety allowed him to preserve his purity. One can only admire the aplomb with which he could proclaim that ‘we must, of course, recognise existing facts, but it does not follow that we must acquiesce in them.’ Here words lose their meaning, but intention survives.
The core of Bowman’s narrative is de Valera’s unwavering naivety in assuming that the island of Ireland was the only unit to which the principle of self-determination could be applied. This belief, consistently held by nationalists since the United Irishmen, was never questioned. De Valera’s constant denial that religion was a factor in the Irish problem derived from the millenarian strain in the nationalist faith. He proposed in all seriousness to ‘put a south of Ireland Catholic on a platform in Ulster and an Ulsterman on a platform in the south, and in ten words they will have dispelled the bogy-illusion of religious differences.’ His exhilarated Irish American audience felt no need to inquire what these miraculous ten words might conceivably be.
The sad irony was that this unshakable confidence permitted de Valera to pursue policies which actually reinforced partition by heightening Protestant hostility. The Irish-language policy, fundamental to the Gaelic revival from which Sinn Fein sprang, was self-evidently divisive. Even if de Valera saw this, Bowman’s account shows that he was less interested in the formality of unification than in the inner nature of the Irish state. The overriding priority was that its culture should be Gaelic (and also, inescapably, Catholic).
De Valera exhorted Protestants to embrace the glorious national tradition of Ireland, sublimely ignoring the fact that this tradition was in its very nature divisive. He never showed any awareness of the need to find a mechanism which might enable Protestants to embrace it. Indeed, while he repudiated the use of force, his language often threatened a resolution of the problem with or without Protestant consent: if they rejected the national movement ‘they would have to go under’: ‘as they were in the minority they had nothing to do but give way to the majority.’
At this level de Valera emerges with his Republican credentials surprisingly intact. Indeed his consistency makes the later parts of this book quite hard going, especially after the baseless but hopeful flurry of Anglo-Irish negotiations during the Chamberlain Government. A sense of unending repetition sets in, in spite of Bowman’s unfailingly stylish writing and intelligent use of the concepts of political science. A worthwhile concept of his own is the ‘ratchet effect’, a metaphor to describe the constant unidirectional shift of Republican minimum demands.
Bowman’s outstanding achievement, however, is in his bold and lucid opening chapter, which tackles head-on the political assumptions that have followed from geographical accident. The island of Ireland has always provided the mental image of the state for which Irish nationalists struggled. The ‘map-shape’ impressed on popular consciousness is that of the whole island (as shown, for instance, on the postage stamps marked ‘Eire’). Bowman remarks that few citizens of the Republic can have a clear map-image of their state as such. The importance of this subliminal vision can hardly be overstated. It creates the view of partition, as Conor Cruise O’Brien put it, not just as ‘a wrong’ but as ‘wrong’.
This simple fact helps to explain how the persistent failure of nationalists to build bridges to the North has been paralleled by their uncanny success in ‘eliciting the siege reflex’ – by actions such as the Belfast boycott in the 1920s, the misquoted but widely reported threat to ‘punish Ulster’ in the 1930s and, above all, the 1937 Constitution with its claim to sovereignty over the whole island and its recognition of the ‘special position’ of the Catholic Church. The self-consciously besieged Protestants have responded with their own ubiquitous map-image of ‘Ulster’ (not in fact resembling the historic province). Using nationalism’s own terms, Bowman stresses that at root ‘Ulster unionists manifestly do not share with Irish nationalists a “consciousness of great shared events ... of having ‘gone through something’ together”.’ Every great event has been marked, if not caused, by contention.
The political implications of this are so uncomfortable that few people, either in Ireland or in Britain, care to draw them openly. What has happened in practice has been quiet extension of de Valera’s ‘recognition’ towards ‘acquiescence’. The most hopeful moment in this process was the first meeting between prime ministers of Northern Ireland and the Republic, in 1966. Paul Bew and Henry Patterson now analyse the political record of the latter, Sean Lemass, in the 20 years before this event. During this time he came to be seen as the leading proponent of modernisation, the man who ‘hauled Ireland out of the morass of the past’, abandoning, among other things, the primitive economic nationalism of early Fianna Fail ideology.
Bew and Patterson have little difficulty in demolishing the idea that Lemass was a consistent moderniser (or anything else). But their positive explanation of the ‘real’ reasons for the adoption of programming – the watered-down form of planning – government economic intervention, and the pursuit of foreign capital, is more doubtful. In the light of their declaration that their book’s point of departure is ‘the irrepressible reality of the class conflict generated by the capitalist structure of the Irish economy’, their conclusion that the major policy development of this period was merely ‘the triumph of one line of bourgeois politics over another’ may seem to be having it both ways. Internal pressures and struggles within a postulated but loosely-conceptualised bourgeoisie, rather than class conflicts, fill the book. Indeed, so little was class-consciousness evident that Fianna Fail was able, in the authors’ view, to maintain its ‘hegemony’ over the masses and head off the challenge of the Labour Party by a minor tactical adjustment.
This is a book based on solid and intelligent research, but its relentless revisionism – a reinterpretation in almost every paragraph – is at times as tiring as it is enlightening. So is its inelegant style, which bears the marks of hasty writing, and which often obscures its argument. This is a pity because the question of whether and how the Irish economy, and consequently Irish attitudes (or is it the other way round?), can be detached from ‘dreams of worn-out yesterday’ is of real importance. Irish nationalism has taken giant strides backwards since the United Irishmen. There are some signs now that concern for posterity may, at last, come to outweigh the worship of ancestry.