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Queen Victoria in Ireland, August 1849
Collection of Queen’s University, Belfast. See www.naughtongallery.org
A Sidelight on the Development of Nationalism and Unionism
Professor Sean Connolly
The eleven-day visit to Cork, Dublin and Belfast of Queen Victoria on 2-12 August 1849 took place against what at first sight seems like a highly unpromising background. The preceding years had seen the rise of a mass agitation for repeal of the act of union, and more recently, in 1848, the armed insurrection associated with the Young Ireland movement. The Whig government had declared that the social crisis caused by the failure of the potato crop was over, and had ended emergency relief works. Yet the Famine, all too evidently, was still happening. The workhouses were full and deaths from starvation were once again commonplace. Cholera, appearing in March 1849, cut a further swathe through a population weakened by prolonged food shortages. Despite all this, however, the queen and her entourage were received, in all three centres they visited, with displays of fervent loyalty. ‘The enthusiasm and excitement shown by the Irish people,’ she recorded in her diary, ‘was extreme. .... We feel so deeply touched at the affectionate loyalty of the poor Irish.’ Her lord lieutentant, the earl of Clarendon, agreed. ‘ ... when one considers how much might have gone wrong in bringing the sovereign and this excitable country together for the first time, it was equally pleasant and strange that all went as if by clockword and as one could desire the whole time Her Majesty was in the country.’
Claredon’s relief related to the queen’s visit to Cork, where the royal yacht anchored on the nights of 3 and 4 August, and Dublin, where she stayed for a further six days. As a result of the municipal reform act of 1840, both towns were under the control of nationalist councils. Clarendon, indeed, called Cork’s municipal authority ‘the most notorious ruffians in Ireland, worse even than their brethren of Dublin’. In the third town on the queen’s itinerary, Belfast, which she visited for five hours on 11 August, things were very different, in that all forty seats on the town council were held by the Conservative party. Here what impressed observers was the willingness of the citizens to set aside their already notorious sectarian divisions and present a united front of loyalty. The Catholic bishop, Cornelius Denvir, was a member of the organising committee, and the Catholic butchers of Hercules Street, so often the shock troops in the town’s sectarian affrays, were among those who erected a banner to welcome the queen.
The other striking feature of the queen’s visit to Belfast was the widespread use, in the banners and emblems that greeted the royal procession, of symbols of Irish identity. ‘ ... the favourite motto written up everywhere on most of the arches & in every place’, the queen noted in her diary, ‘was “Cead Mille failte”, which means “a hundred thousand welcomes” in Irish, which is very like [Scots] Gaelic & is in fact the national language.’ The slogan appeared even in front of the offices of the staunchly Protestant and Conservative Belfast News Letter, alongside the royal arms and the letters V and A (for Victoria and Albert). Elsewhere too harps and shamrocks sat alongside the conventional symbols of British loyalism, such as the union flag, the cross of St George, and banners proclaiming ‘God Save the Queen’. All this, of course, was long before the rise of the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association had politicised issues of language and culture. Yet the enthusiasm with which such symbols were flourished is nevertheless significant. Belfast, in the years immediately preceding the visit, had emerged as a strong centre of opposition to any weakening of the act of union. Its inhabitants were also increasingly fond of pointing to the contrast between their industrial success and the depressed condition of urban centres in the Catholic and nationalist south. Yet they did not at this stage show any disposition to deny that theirs too was an Irish town.
The triumphant success of the royal visit has left historians of Irish nationalism slightly at a loss. For J.H. Murphy the episode, and further successful visits in later years, provides evidence that the influence of republicanism in nineteenth-century Ireland has been exaggerated. Instead, he suggests, there was a deep ambivalence towards the crown and the royal family, continuing into the early nineteenth century. James Loughlin, on the other hand, offers a more short term explanation. The queen’s visit, he suggests, offered colourful and attractive ceremonial, and it came at a time when, with nationalism in disarray and the economy in turmoil, there was no consistent set of opposition beliefs to provide a basis on which it could be challenged. The alternative assessment of the lord lieutenant, the earl of Clarendon, is also worth considering. The Irish, he believed were pleased not just with the queen’s gracious demeanour, but with themselves: ‘it has raised the people in their own estimation. ... They are no longer “outside barbarians” whom it was unsafe for the Queen to approach but have placed themselves on a level with the English and Scotch.’
At the same time that he thus expressed his satisfaction with the outcome of the queen’s visit, Clarendon offered a sober assessment of the long term outcome. The presence of the queen for a few days ‘cannot of course produce social reformation, not at once remove evils that are the growth of ages’. And, indeed, the general harmony of August 1849 did not last. The queen made further visits to Ireland, but her enthusiasm for the country waned as its inhabitants showed themselves to be, in her view, ungrateful and disloyal. Scotland, not Ireland, became her preferred holiday destination in the Celtic fringes of her kingdom. In Belfast, too, sectarian squabbling quickly resumed, while over the next few decades political attitudes hardened to the point that any display of interest in Gaelic antiquities or language was taken as evidence of political disloyalty. Yet despite these long term outcomes, the queen’s Irish visit of 1-12 August 1849 deserve to be remembered. It provides a snap-shot of nationalism and unionism in the process of taking shape. In doing so it reminds us that political identities are constructed only slowly and unevenly, and that if we want to understand the attitudes of people in the past it is never wise to read history backwards.
For recent discussion see James Loughlin, ‘Allegiance and Illusion: Queen Victoria’s Irish Visit of 1849’, History, 87:288 (2002), 491-513; James H. Murphy, Abject Loyalty: Nationalism and Monarchy in Ireland during the Reign of Queen Victoria (Cork, 2001). There is also a lively account of the visit in Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-9 (London, 1962). Quotations from Queen Victoria’s journal are from the Royal Archives, Windsor, by gracious permission of Her Majesty the Queen. Quotations from Clarendon are from the Clarendon Papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford, by kind permission of the Duke of Clarendon.
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