Irish Nationalism and Unionism Between State, Region and Nation

Irish Nationalism and Unionism Between State, Region and Nation
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  Chapter 11 Irish Nationalism and Unionism Between State, Region and Nation Joost Augusteijn Within the debate on the srcins of modern nationalism the Irish could be put forward as an ironclad case by the proponents of the primordialist camp, which argues that nations were essentially already present in the middle ages. Ireland has after all a long history of separateness, both politically as well as culturally. Although never really united in one state  before the English kings extended their control over Ireland, it had its own parliament from the late middle ages until 1800 and shared a common language and culture distinct from the English, Scots or Welsh well before and right into the nineteenth century. For movements trying to prove the existence of an Irish nation, there were therefore sufficient common and distinct features to tap into even apart from the mere existence of a separate geographical entity. Although as was the case for many other European peoples the existence of a cultural distinctiveness was largely mythical by the nineteenth century, the argument for the creation of a separate Ireland could nevertheless easily be supported in perceived fact and indeed occasionally found resonance with large sections of the population when combined with other concerns.Due to the successes of the nationalist movement in the twentieth century, leading to an independent state in southern Ireland and the recent recognition of the Irishness of  Northern Ireland, the claim that the Irish have always seen themselves as a separate nation with a right to independence has been accepted both in public discourse as well as in historiography. The widespread recognition in Ireland of the institutional links with Great Britain throughout the (early-)modern period has consequently been ignored or simply arguedaway by pointing at British suppression or even by defining Ireland as a colony. There is, however, a good case to be made to see nineteenth-century Ireland as essentially a region of the United Kingdom with only a vague but ever stronger memory of independent statehood. The demand for political rights and later home rule in the nineteenth century can then be seenas demands for political modernisation or a form of particularism and not directly as nationalism, despite the fact that many Irish started to present themselves as nationalists.  Based on the international discussions on the rise of regionalism this paper wants to take a fresh look at the formation of an Irish identity in the nineteenth century and the various attitudes of its people to the institutional relationship with Great Britain. Historical background Although the first political presence of the English in Ireland stems from 1169, the complete submission of the traditional Gaelic power structures to the English crown was only completed well into the seventeenth century. In the process various complicated relationships were woven into the political and cultural landscape in Ireland. During the initial extension of English influence from the twelfth century, Norman knights took over some of the positions of power from the Gaelic aristocracy. This new elite, however, often integrated very well withthe Irish elite and in some sense adopted elements of Celtic culture. As a result some of them on occasion came into open conflict with the English state, particularly after the Reformation.During the English Civil War of the 1640s many of these families participated in a concerted attempt by the Irish elite to break the ties with the English. Although this was eventually  brutally repressed under Cromwell, the experience allowed a certain shared identity to develop in Ireland even among those who initially represented the English state.The continuous rebelliousness of the Irish clans and aristocracy well into the seventeenth century was attempted to be remedied by the introduction of a system of  plantations, under which Protestant farmers from England and Scotland were transplanted to Ireland to defend the interests of the English King. These men and women, often Scottish Presbyterian rather than English Anglican, were used to keep down the so-called ‘Wild Irish’  but over time also slowly developed a distinctness associated with Ireland. With their help Catholics were nevertheless subjected by a Protestant Ascendancy during the eighteenth century. Towards the end of that century, however, economic development and the ideas of the Enlightenment brought middle-class Protestants from Anglican and Presbyterian  backgrounds together with Catholics in a quest for more political power. Inspired by the American Revolution they initially concentrated on obtaining more political rights for the Irish parliament, which had been made subordinate to Westminster in 1494. After this succeeded in 1782, a reform movement called the United Irishmen developed from among these same groupings striving for equal rights for members of these three religions and a stronger middle-class representation in the political structures, just like the revolutionaries in France and elsewhere demanded. The United Irishmen were instrumental in the abolition of  most of the penal laws introduced in previous centuries to limit the rights of Catholics as wellas Presbyterians. However, the outbreak of a war between Britain and revolutionary France in1793 prevented total emancipation of these groups. As a result the struggle for political rights for non-Anglicans continued into the nineteenth century.In this context the scientific inquiry into the past of ethnic groups which became  popular in Europe during the Enlightenment was taken up early.<xen> 1 </xen> The presence of a living Celtic language in many parts of Ireland and remnants of a Gaelic aristocracy made a regeneration of srcinal cultural expressions stemming from the medieval and early modern period quite easy. Dictionaries of what is commonly referred to as the Irish language were first published in the 1730s and towards the end of that century a growing number of  books appeared about Irish grammar, bards, music, poetry and clothing.<xen> 2 </xen> This inquiry into their own past was initially especially popular among the Protestant elite and connected easily with the growing patriotism which developed at the end of the eighteenth century. The political demands for more autonomy for the Irish parliament were, however, not a direct result of the ethnically based historic investigations but were largely driven by concepts, also generated during the Enlightenment, about the relationship between the people and the state. The failure of the government to complete the movement to full equality of all its citizens at the end of the eighteenth century did radicalise sections of the United Irishmen and led to a democratic revolt in 1798 which demanded total independence for Ireland. Although this was primarily an expression of the desire of the middle classes for good government and a share in political power, their call for political independence eventually required a definition of Irishness as separate from Englishness or Britishness. This could be found in the romantic notion of the nation which developed internationally as a collective  body sharing a common language, culture and territory.<xen> 3 </xen>A real coming together of this cultural component with its political counterpart would,however, take to the end of the nineteenth century to materialise. After the repression of the  bloody and sometimes sectarian 1798 rebellion and the consequent abolition of the Irish  parliament and creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800, the Protestant elite, which had been prominent in the attempt to salvage the historic Irish culture up to then, translated their quest for its revival into an apolitical idealisation of the past. They continued to publish on the Irish language, monuments, popular culture and religion but did not get involved in politics as a group.<xen> 4 </xen> The changed political structures also resulted in a growing bond between Irish Protestants and England.  The first steps taken towards a modern expression of a separate identity grew out of the successful struggle for legal equality for Catholics in the first decades of the nineteenth century under Daniel O’Connell. After full emancipation of Catholics had been achieved in 1829, the movement led by him began to ask for a restoration of the Irish Parliament through a repeal of the Act of Union of 1800. The long struggle for emancipation had made clear that grievances of Irish Catholics in particular would not be settled voluntarily by the parliament in Westminster and that having their own parliament would be far preferable. This Repeal movement essentially demanded reform of the political institutions to a federal type structure and as this was not based on a separate Irish national identity it should be seen as a regionalistorganisation comparable to the demands in Germany, Spain and Italy discussed elsewhere in this volume. This was most apparent in the late 1830s when the movement went into a formalcompact with the Whig Party in England in an attempt to improve the position of Catholics within the Union. O’Connell clearly postulated the issue that was at stake: ‘The people of Ireland are ready to become a portion of the Empire, provided they be made so in reality and not in name alone; they are ready to become a kind of West Briton if made so in benefits and  justice; but if not, we are Irishmen again.’<xen> 5 </xen>In the 1840s the Repeal movement came to contain an element of young middle class,often Protestant, intellectuals which propagated the romantic ideal of a lost Irish nationhood. They came to be referred to by the term Young Irelanders and spread their ideas to a growing Catholic urban middle class through books and newspapers like The Nation , first published in1842. They not only circulated a lot of material on Celtic culture but connected this for the first time with political demands. Their most famous representative, Thomas Davis, stated: ‘Anation should guard its language more than its territories – ‘tis a surer barrier and more important frontier than any fortress or river.’ Due to their unwillingness to reject the use of force in principle, the Young Irelanders came in conflict with the parliamentary policies of O’Connell aimed at improving the lot of Catholics in Ireland. A small section of these Young Irelanders radicalised and led a rebellion to free Ireland in 1848, the European year of revolutions.The unrest in Ireland associated with the struggle for Catholic emancipation and the concomitant growth of political activism alarmed the government. It saw the Irish demands asa threat to the political stability of the Empire and was unwilling to contemplate its regionalist potential to reconcile the Irish with the link to Britain. Instead it initiated an active policy to tie the Irish population to the state in a nation-building effort mirroring developments elsewhere in Europe. Apart from the attempts to bring upper middle-class  Catholics into the existing power structure, the most direct expression of this that affected ordinary Irishmen was the introduction of a national school system in 1831. This attempt to  propagate the English language and culture in Ireland long pre-dated similar efforts to nationalise the population in England where state-funded education was only established in 1870. In a linguistic sense the schools were very successful. By the late nineteenth century Irish had become the language of a minority of illiterate and poor farmers mainly in the west of Ireland, and was largely considered a sign of backwardness even by those who spoke it.In the short run the government policies also seemed politically successful. After the failed small-scale rebellion of 1848 and the socio-economically devastating Famine of 1845– 1851, demands for autonomy or independence became irrelevant for a while. A resurgence nevertheless eventually emerged largely as a consequence of the relative economic  backwardness of Ireland. Large sections of a slowly growing Catholic urban and rural middle class who failed to participate in the enormous growth of the British economy and were not seriously considered for state employment felt more and more left out. Resistance grew amongst them against the economic and social policies of the government which were not in the interest of many Irish. These sentiments were initially harnessed by the Fenians, a radical separatist movement which came to expression in the 1860s. The initiative for this movementcame from among the Irish diaspora in the United States where a large group of disgruntled Irish men and women had settled following the Famine. The Anglo-French crisis of 1859 and the success of nationalist movements in Europe inspired them to actively initiate the Fenian organisation. Although generating a fairly large popular following, the level of politicisation among its members was low and the organisation faded away quickly after the failure of their uprising against English rule in 1867.<xen> 6 </xen> Political and cultural nationalism The mobilising potential of the above movements was primarily based on economic and social issues. Although often looking for a form of political independence, they did not explicitly base this on a cultural distinctiveness of Ireland. The interest in Irish heritage remained strong among the elite and became more romantically inspired, but this was not  politicised. In essence most of the population was at this stage not fully nationalised, neither in an Irish sense based on its ethnic uniqueness nor in a United Kingdom sense centred around a type of shared British identity. The government recognised this and in response to the Fenian uprising of 1867 introduced a number of further reforms which were intended to  bring Catholics into the British economic and political system. In the immediate aftermath,
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