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Ireland: The Shirt of Nessus

Irish Nationalism: A History of Its Roots and Ideology

by Sean Cronin
Continuum, 391 pp., $19.50

Mr. Cronin’s book raises a fascinating subject: ideology in Irish nationalism. His own treatment of the subject is unsatisfactory, but he deserves some credit for making the attempt. In this article I propose to consider his treatment, briefly, and then the subject in itself, at some length.

Mr. Cronin’s book is based on a PhD thesis for the New School for Social Research, New York. In his introduction he tells us: “For the purposes of this study ideology means ‘the political ideas and outlook of Irish nationalism.”’ We are plunged immediately into confusion, for, as I shall argue, there is no such continuity of political ideas as might make the idea of Irish nationalism, as a distinct ideology, meaningful or useful. Irish nationalism is a historically formed amalgam of sentiments and traditions. Its “political ideas” are protean: at the end of the seventeenth century, for example, they took Jacobite form; by the end of the eighteenth century, a Jacobin form. Irish nationalism is not itself an ideology, but it has acquired an ideology: that of Irish Republicanism.

Irish Republicanism affects Irish nationalism—along with other forces, by far the most potent of which is Irish Catholicism—but the Republicanism is neither identical with the nationalism, nor coextensive with it. By treating Irish nationalism as itself an ideology, Mr. Cronin loses touch at the outset with what should be central to his subject matter: the relation between Irish nationalism and a quite distinct entity, the ideology which it has acquired.

The theoretical part of Mr. Cronin’s book goes down in that confusion, bravely flourishing irrelevant quotations from Mannheim and Morgenthau. But for the most part, the book is not theoretical but “historical”: a rambling survey of recent Irish history from an Irish-Nationalist-Catholic-Republican point of view, proving yet once more how right the Catholic people are, and how wrong the Protestants; politically speaking, of course. The book is not so much an analysis of its subject matter as a specimen of what the subject matter secretes and exudes.

Mr. Cronin’s title, however, suggests an interesting train of ideas, which I should like to pursue. There is a real continuity of Irish nationalism: not an ideological continuity, but a continuity of the traditions and feelings of a people. That people sees itself as the people of Ireland, and that perception is a large part of the problem. For these are not all the people of Ireland. They are the Catholic people of Ireland, formerly Gaelic-speaking. These were the losers in the seventeenth-century wars—wars that were dynastic, social, cultural, national, and religious, all at the same time. The forms of oppression which this people suffered—as a result of their decisive defeat—throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, were economic, social, and cultural, but justified by a politico-religious criterion: the presumed disloyalty of Irish Catholics to the British Protestant Crown. This presumption of disloyalty was generally well founded.

The main theme of Irish history, for nearly three centuries now, has been the recovery of the Irish Catholics: the Catholics getting their own back, in more senses than one. Throughout this long period, the Catholic clergy have been at or near the center of the process of recovery. It was a struggle, after all, not only against alien domination but against domination—until the process of recovery was already well advanced—in the name of an alien and false religion.

The tactics of recovery shifted widely: hence the impossibility of identifying any continuity of their ideology. At the time of the American Revolution, for example, the tactic pursued in the interests of Catholic recovery was demonstration of loyalty to the British Crown. By this tactic, Catholic leaders wrong-footed the Irish Protestant community—whose more radical members supported the American colonists—and at the same time sought to establish that Britain could now safely remove Catholic disabilities. That was the strategy of the leaders. What the mass of the Catholic people—then mainly Gaelic-speaking—thought about this matter, or whether they thought about it at all, we have no means of knowing. Gaelic literature of the period does not contain any reference to the American Revolution. Contrary to assumptions that later became general among Irish-American Catholics, enthusiasm in Ireland for the American revolutionary cause was exclusively a Protestant affair, at the time.

If the American Revolution left Irish Catholics cold, the French Revolution was very different. Only at this point does it become meaningful to talk about an Irish nationalist ideology, because up to this point no ideology distinguishable from Irish Catholicism exists among Irish Catholics. From the sixteenth century well into the eighteenth, the Faith and the Nation were one. The people are oppressed for their loyalty to their Faith: the people of Israel enchained by infidels—the parallel is explicit in Gaelic literature. The people had looked for deliverance to the Catholic powers of Europe: to the Pope and the emperor, the king of Spain, the king of France; or in practice to whichever of these happened to be at loggerheads with England at any particular time.

Long before the French Revolution, however, it had become clear to educated Catholics that no deliverance was at hand, from any Catholic power. The best hope seemed to lie in dropping all that, and pursuing equal rights for Catholics under the British Crown: in effect dropping what had been up to then the political aspect of Irish Catholicism. This was pragmatically sound, but psychologically difficult and divisive. The people’s songs were telling them quite different things from what their bishops were telling them. The old unity of Irish Catholicism was under stress.

The French Revolution not only vastly increased that stress; it created new and complex stresses and syntheses of its own. For Irish Catholics, the French Revolution was a wildly confusing and intoxicating phenomenon: anti-English and antilandlord, and powerful; all that was great, but was it anti-Catholic as well?

The confusion was greatly increased by the blazing simplifications of the revolutionary idea itself. There was to be an Irish nation modeled on la grande Nation itself. Irish revolutionaries, Catholic and Protestant together, transcending the outmoded superstitious animosities that monarchy, aristocracy, and the English had created, would make the new Ireland, of free, equal, fraternal citizens—“United Irishmen,” as the revolutionaries called themselves.

French revolutionary ideas, more or less in their original form, caught on among radical, educated Irish Protestants—mostly in what is now Northern Ireland—and among a few Catholics of the same class. But where it caught on in rural Catholic Ireland, as in Wexford, it caught on as an opportunity to overthrow Protestant landlords and their Protestant hangers-on, and the English power behind them. The story of the “United Irish” Risings of 1798 is covered in two splendid modern books which complement each other: Thomas Pakenham’s The Year of Liberty and Thomas Flanagan’s recent novel The Year of the French.

What is relevant to look at here is the condition of Irish nationalism and ideology as these developed in the period following the bloody and comprehensive repression of the 1798 Risings. One should note first the disappearance of Protestants from an Irish nationalism whose “French revolutionary” manifestations they had done so much to stimulate. Eastern Ulster, the only area where Protestants are in a majority, was henceforward committed, as it is today, to being no part of any united Ireland separate from Britain, or of any political union with Catholics. The course of the Rising (and particularly the massacres of Protestants in Wexford) convinced Protestants generally that “United Irish” ideas had been a disastrous illusion. Henceforward there would be isolated Protestant adherents to Irish nationalism but they would be adhering, in practice though not in rhetoric, to an Irish Catholic nation.

Some Protestant intellectuals—Thomas Davis, John Mitchel in the early nineteenth century, and later W.B. Yeats—played an important part in keeping “United Irish” ideas alive among Catholics. Charles Stewart Parnell, at the end of the nineteenth century, was a Protestant leader of Catholic people, on their terms.

Among Catholics, the primary effect of the Rising and its suppression was to reinforce the authority of the Catholic hierarchy, and the more conservative elements generally. The year 1798 was to look romantic in a far later retrospect, but in its immediate aftermath it had to be seen for the bloody disaster it actually was. The bishops, who had warned of the ruin attendant on monkeying around with French revolutionary ideas, were felt to have been proved right: no more of that, was a general feeling. Few Catholics seem to have thought any the worse of Daniel O’Connell for helping to crush the Protestant Robert Emmet’s hopeless United-Irish-type rising in 1803. O’Connell, as leader of the Irish Catholic people, pursued, in essentials, the course set by the Irish bishops in the eighteenth century: removal of Catholic disabilities, improvement of conditions for Catholics, under the British Crown. This was the general strategy of Irish nationalism, with mass support, throughout the nineteenth century. As democracy in the United Kingdom developed—Ireland’s separate (and Protestant) parliament was abolished in the aftermath of the 1798 Rising—political autonomy for Ireland under the Crown (“Repeal of the Union,” “Home Rule”) came to appear an essential goal.

That was the mainstream of Irish nationalism: pragmatic, Church-conditioned. But there was an undercurrent, and this took the form of a distinct ideology: Irish Republicanism. Republicanism, defying the bishops, took its inspiration from 1798 and the United Irishmen and especially from the teaching of Theobald Wolfe Tone, the United Irish leader and martyr. The goal was Tone’s: “To break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils.” The connection, of course, included the Crown, and this was what made the central formal distinction between the Republicans and the mainstream “constitutional” nationalists, who were willing to accept autonomous national status under the British Constitution and Crown. The Republican objective could only be attained, if at all, by physical force, and Irish Republicanism was and is a physical-force movement.

After yet another hopeless insurrection, in 1848, the Republican movement, like others of its kind in Europe, became embodied in a secret, oathtaking society. This was the Irish Republican Brotherhood, founded in 1858, begetter of the Irish Republican Army. The IRB had strong Irish-American links and its members were known as the Fenians.

The Church, or at least the bishops, condemned the Fenians: as carriers of the alien godless ideology of the French Revolution, as bound by a forbidden oath, and—above all—as inciting people into a hopeless, and therefore by Catholic teaching immoral, insurrection. After the Fenian Rising of 1867, one bishop proclaimed that hell was not hot enough nor eternity long enough to punish the Fenian leaders.

The mass of the people remained loyal to the Church, and supported the constitutional nationalists. But they also admired the Fenians, for their courage, their tenacity, and their uncontaminated continuity of Irish Catholic feeling. For what the Fenians were doing, and what the IRA is now doing (in practice, as distinct from rhetoric), was carrying on the political aspect of the Irish Catholic tradition, as it had existed in the Counter-Reformation times: root-and-branch hostility to the British Crown and all it stood for. The bishops, with their—relatively—novel doctrine of loyalty to the British Crown (and therefore the Protestant succession!) were on slippery ground, emotionally speaking.

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