IRELAND and ENGLAND
Part 3 – The Hanoverians
We left Ireland at the start of the eighteenth century in a sorry state. On the other hand, through the century the Ascendancy, as the originally English landowning classes were called, often came to identify themselves with Ireland. They resented what they considered neglect by the English (now British) government, and some even went so far as to side with the native Irish. That is why what was left of the old bardic tradition survived in the households of sympathetic English landlords. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick's, Dublin, made himself a very effective spokesman for the Irish people and a thorn in the flesh of the government. Even so, Hanoverian Dublin prospered mightily. It became as much a great secondary capital city as did Hapsburg Prague. Handel's “Messiah” received its first performance there. One may perhaps detect a gradual easing of the laws against the Catholics after the final failure of the Jacobites in 1745. Additionally, the British government were quite happy to accept Irish Catholics in the Army and Navy, no doubt to ease recruiting problems; the Navy in particular was in those days the only career that was open to all talents.
Furthermore, the population of Ireland was expanding rapidly. Emigration, particularly to the American colonies, relieved some of the pressure. However, a social situation developed where the younger children of a family were not allowed to marry until the eldest was settled. Even in my youth the drunken Irishman was a recognised character in England; such men were younger sons as a rule. Less obvious in England were the staid, pious, respectable Irishmen who formed the backbone of society; these were the eldest sons. It would be a mistake to alienate such people; but the British authorities often tended to lose all common sense when dealing with Ireland, and both countries suffered for it. One solution adopted by the younger children of the poor was to move to the rocky areas in the west of the country. It was possible to make a living outside the cash economy by growing potatoes. This would prove disastrous in the end.
The War of American Independence was fought largely by King George III's German troops and George Washington's French allies. However, the Scots-Irish immigrants also fought hard on Washington's side. The ostensible issue was the right of the British government to tax the colonists; the main issues were the preservation of slavery after Lord Mansfield's Judgment had declared that the institution of slavery was unknown in English Law, plus protection of the vast profits to be made from smuggling; and for the Scots-Irish the issues were the desired expansion over the Appalachians to find more space for cattle ranching, plus resistance to the government's attempt to limit and tax the production of poitín (moonshine). For the French, the example of successful resistance against the monarch bore fruit in the French Revolution. For the Irish, the examples of the American Colonies and of France were irresistable. The 1798 Rebellion under Theobald Wolfe Tone (a Protestant) and the United Irishmen severely threatened British domination over Ireland. Alas, it ended up with the usual three amateur armies, defined by religious affiliation, committing dreadful atrocities against ordinary citizens, so that a casual reader of the history of the period is thankful when Lord Cornwallis (who lost the colonies) turns up with a disciplined professional army.
The government acted fast. Because the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland was seen to have been successful, they decided that Ireland would benefit equally from union with Britain, and the 1801 Act of Union was passed. Unfortunately things did not go to plan. The Scots, in sacrificing their parliament, were sending their despised and dissipated aristocracy to London (and the English were welcome to them) while they retained their own legal system and religion. Scottish merchants soon latched on to English trading enterprises (especially slavery), and Edinburgh became one of the twin intellectual capitals of Europe (the other was Lausanne). Of course the Irish sent their aristocrats to London, but these were Ascendancy landlords, whose loyalty, such as it was, to the Irish people quickly evaporated. Nineteenth century politics is remarkably dominated by the attempt of these absentee landlords to maintain their wealth at the expense of their tenants. Even worse, Catholic Emancipation was supposed to be a trade-off for such Irish autonomy as there was. But King George claimed that it was against his coronation oath to allow it, and it was quietly ignored. Also, the 1801 census, the country's first, gave the population of Britain as twenty million and the population of Ireland as an astonishing eight million.
Even so, there is evidence that the Union was living up to its promise. Factories were built, and a splendid railway network was laid down. But here too there were difficulties. For a start, railways meant that rural populations, not just in the British Isles, but throughout Europe, were liberated and made able to emigrate to the towns. Thus Dublin became increasingly Irish. Railways also enabled the gentry to send their sons to the new English public schools, instead of being taught at home, so they learned to speak Public School Cockney and to acquire the manners of the posh people in London, thus alienating them too from their Irish roots. So the Union coincided with a period of alienation that could not have been foreseen. So the potato famine came at exactly the wrong time.
The trouble was that the Irish poor did not know how to grow potatoes. In Ecuador, where the vegetable originates, each village appoints a potato monitor to ensure that all recognised seventy-five varieties of the crop are being grown, so that if disease should damage one crop the villagers will not starve. The timing of the potato blight corresponded with bad grain harvests in much of Europe, which was the fundamental cause (plus railways) of the Year of Revolutions (1848). Presumably there was a natural cause, such as a large volcanic eruption. The potato blight also affected western Scotland, though we do not hear much about that. The disaster was amplified by the Union Government's inability to take remedial action. A generation previously, the Royal Navy had been drafted in to carry grain to starving Jamaica. But now the Government was being run on minimalist lines. A start was made in setting up road-building schemes to create a cash economy where none had existed before; but that was not much use if the workers did not have any food to buy. The population of Ireland sank from eight million to four million; the loss was more or less equally accounted for by emigration to Britain; emigration to the United States, and death by starvation. The Union had failed catastrophically. Emigrants to the USA and Australia formed Fenian societies to finance rebellion against the Crown.
Reform of the franchise by Disraeli and then Gladstone meant that Irish people, for the first time, had the opportunity to vote for their own representatives in the Westminster Parliament. Irish politics became dominated by the land question, that is, tenants' rights. So an Irish Party grew up, magnificently led by Charles Stuart Parnell, who Asquith later described as one of the great statesmen of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, it would have been difficult for an Irish voter to avoid cynicism. For when the ruling party depended on the Irish vote, it was “yes sir yes sir three bags full sir”, but when they did not, it was “Go to Hell, Parnell”. The House of Lords had the right of veto over legislation emanating from the Commons, and the Lords themselves were anxious to protect the rights of landlords over their Irish tenantry. Thus the British government blew hot and cold, and the Fenians committed a series of outrages that achieved nothing politically but made the perpetrators feel better.
There was not much humour to be extracted from this miserable situation. One of the best stories concerns one William O'Brien, a Fenian prisoner, who declared that he would not go to the toilet unless his demands were met. This matter was known as “The Constipation of O'Brien”, and bets were placed in London gentlemens' clubs on how long he could hold out. (He managed nine days.) This case suggests that the English at any rate were not disposed to treat the Irish seriously. Gladstone famously declared “My mission is to pacify Ireland”. But this could be taken, and was, in two ways. The government tried either to remedy Irish grievances or to repress their expression. Both possible outcomes were doomed to failure.
A friend of mine who is a native Afrikaans speaker told me he is descended from a young Irishman who travelled to South Africa in order to fight agains the British Empire during the Boer War. This illustrates the failure of Gladstone's policy. Furthermore, Parnell, whose skilful manipulation of the political system had kept the Irish Question at the forefront of British politics, was hounded out of the system altogether by the publication of the “Parnell Letters”. Parnell had been living with one Mrs O'Shea for years, and everybody knew about it, especially her husband Captain O'Shea. But a conspiracy was hatched to make the affair into a newspaper scandal to discredit Parnell, which it did. This did not solve the Irish Question, but damage to the Irish leadership in Parliament meant that extra-parliamentary activities were boosted.
Perhaps the Twentieth Century deserves a new essay. What ought to be said, at the end of the day, is that as soon as the Dáil got the authority to pass its own legislation and have it carried out, the Irish Land Question vanished into thin air.