Irish History Live

Nationalism and Unionism in Nineteenth-Century Ireland:

Some Themes in the Recent Historiography

Professor S. J. Connolly


I. Introduction
II. Unionism
III. Nationalism
IV. The birth of modern Irish politics, 1867-1886
V. The Construction of the Unionist and Nationalist Coalitions
VI. The Role of Ambiguity in Irish Nationalism



I. Introduction

Any attempt to understand nineteenth-century Irish history must balance the dangers of reading history backwards against the need to take account of long-term trends.  Comerford (1.1) parodies the distortions produced by excessive present-mindedness.  But others, like Foster ( 1.2), insist that it is pointless to ignore basic religious and political divisions.


II. Unionism BACK TO TOP

The origins of a unionist tradition can be traced back to the first decades of the nineteenth century.  The dismantling of the religiously exclusive institutions of the kingdom of Ireland, along with the rise from the 1820s of Catholic mass politics, meant that self-government became a luxury which most Irish Protestants were convinced they could not afford ( 2.1).  But in seeking to understand this tradition, it is important not to look backwards from the perspective of twentieth-century Northern Ireland ( 5.3).

  • Nineteenth-century unionism was not yet centred exclusively on Ulster (5.3).
  • The Protestant population had its own divisions of class, economic interest and religion, all of which had to be set aside in the construction of a united Unionist movement from the 1880s ( 2.2).
  • The mobilisation of Irish Protestants against Catholic emancipation in the 1820s and Repeal in the 1840s can be seen as foreshadowing the emergence of unionism.  But Protestant politics during the nineteenth century involved a variety of causes.  From Thomas Davis to Douglas Hyde it was Protestants rather than Catholics who took the lead in developing cultural nationalism.  Protestants were also prominent, out of all proportion to their numbers, in both Liberal and moderate nationalist politics (2.3).
  • In taking up the causes of cultural nationalism and moderate reform, Protestants were in part seeking to defend their community against the rise of an exclusively Catholic nationalism.  Against this background it becomes easier to understand the apparently puzzling career of Parnell ( 2.4).


III. NationalismBACK TO TOP

Where nationalism is concerned historians have recognised the central contribution of O’Connell in creating the first mass nationalist movement.  They have also stressed the extent to which his success depended on his ability to be all things to all men, and his contribution to linking nationalism with Catholicism (3.1).  Fenianism is often presented as the key element in a ‘revolutionary’ tradition existing side by side with the constitutionalism of O’Connell or later Parnell. Comerford questions whether it  in fact should be taken seriously as a revolutionary movement ( 3.2).  You might feel that his argument that it was primarily a social club – and Foster’s reference to ‘publicity coups’ – are clever rather than wholly convincing.  On the other hand Foster is clearly right to emphasise that the Fenians made more impact in defeat than as a functioning revolutionary movement ( 3.3)


IV. The birth of modern Irish politics, 1867-1886BACK TO TOP

Most historians of the period would now follow Walker ( 4.2) in emphasising that it was only at a relatively late stage, the mid-1880s, that Irish politics became polarised between Protestant Unionism and Catholic Nationalism.  Although both movements appealed to the past, both were in fact the products of recent change:  the emergence in the south of a more prosperous rural population dominated by the tenant farmer class, urbanisation in Ulster, the growth of literacy, improved communications, the widening of the franchise.  Hoppen ( 4.1) sees the late 1860s and 1870s as the real turning point in popular politics.


V. The Construction of the Unionist and Nationalist CoalitionsBACK TO TOP

The key feature of both the Unionist and the Nationalist movement that emerged in the mid-1880s is that they represented coalitions of disparate elements (5.1, 5.3).  Historians of Parnellite nationalism have laid particular stress on the way in which the rhetoric of ‘the land for the people’ concealed  what were in fact sharp conflicts of interest between medium and larger farmers and the landless and land poor, with the latter being marginalised as Home Rule returned to the centre of the Parnellite programme ( 5.2).


VI. The Role of Ambiguity in Irish NationalismBACK TO TOP

The final quote picks up points already hinted at in the comments on hindsight (1 above) and on the revolutionary tradition (3 above).  MacDonagh suggests that what made Irish nationalism so successful was not its emergence as a clearly defined ideology, with constitutional and revolutionary wings, but on the contrary its lack of definition.  Both ‘repeal’ and ‘home rule’ were slogans whose effectiveness depended precisely on their vagueness as to the level of Irish independence they promised.  The two most successful political leaders, O’Connell and Parnell, were masters of the art of combining militant rhetoric with a clear-eyed pursuit of the politics of the possible. John Redmond – for those going on to look at the period 1916-23 – did not have the same gift.  Is this one reason why his party was so suddenly swept aside during the special circumstances created by the First World War?



Click on the extract to jump to it's position in the article.

1. Two Views of Nineteenth-Century Ireland

1.1. R.V. Comerford in W.E. Vaughan (ed), New History of Ireland, vol V: Ireland under the  Union I 1800-1870 (1989)

From that perspective [‘the preoccupation of popular historiography with the mythic march of the nation’] the quarter century after the Famine is fundamentally of little interest apart from the emergence of Fenianism:  the ‘nation’ hangs helplessly on the ropes for a few years, then gradually recovers sufficient spirit to put up a splendid fight, under Mr Parnell’s coaching, in the next important bout of Irish history.  [In fact] Fenianism notwithstanding, Ireland between the Famine and the Land War was settling as never before, or after, into an accommodation with English power within the United Kingdom.

1.2. R.F. Foster, Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (1988)

‘[The union] formed the rhetorical issue in Irish politics:  the thing to be for or against, the simple reason for everything.  It also came to symbolise the confessional divide that remained the structural reality of Irish politics.’


2. Protestant Politics after the Union

2.1. G.D. Boyce, Nationalism in Ireland (2nd ed. 1991)
‘The Union did not destroy Protestant nationalism ... but it did destroy the Protestant Nation.  ... the Anglo-Irish could only maintain their supremacy, their ascendancy, by coming to terms with the Catholic majority, or – as they came increasingly to perceive – by coming to terms with the reliance on British power that many of them acknowledged had saved the day in 1798.’


2.2. B.M. Walker, Ulster Politics: The Formative Years (1989)
‘... there were marked differences in the social profiles of the Presbyterian and Church of Ireland communities.  Although Rev. Henry Cooke in the 1830s had urged an alliance of the two denominations, many Presbyterians remained hostile to the Church of Ireland. ..  In part this hostility arose from religious objections ... It was also caused by radical opposition to an establishment of which “the landlord class and the Church of Ireland were seen as two aspects of the one thing” [quoting A.J. Megahey].’

2.3. K.T. Hoppen, Elections, Politics and Society in Ireland 1832-85 (1984)
Nationally, the remarkable success of Protestant Liberals in maintaining an electoral presence out of all proportion to their numbers is shown in Table 32.

   Catholic MPs  Protestant Liberal and Nationalist MPs

1847    33    31
1857    35    24
1868    36    30


2.4. Alvin Jackson, Ireland 1798-1998 (1999)
‘[Parnell] saw unjust legal and economic privilege as the barrier that divided landlords from active participation in the national movement, indeed perhaps national leadership ...[He] believed that the land war might be directed in a manner which would underpin the unity of the Irish nation and create the conditions for subsequent landlord participation.’


3. Nationalist Politics after the Union

3.1. K.T. Hoppen, Ireland since 1800 (2nd ed. 1999)
‘By ... combining within his own personality a jumble of different and seemingly contradictory attitudes – Gaelic traditionalism, popular understanding, Catholic nationalism, contemporary liberalism and utilitarianism – [O’Connell] brought to Irish life an influence at once powerful and unique.  He also, however, canalized into narrower channels the denominationally more inclusive politics of the United Irishmen.’

3.2. R.V. Comerford, ‘Patriotism as Pastime: The Appeal of Fenianism in the 1860s’, Irish  Historical Studies (1981)
‘Learning (under the cover of a Sunday excursion or the darkness of night) how to step in line and manoeuvre in unison at the command of a militiaman or, more rarely, an Irish-American officer, was the most characteristic of all Fenian activities, and it was a social rather than purely military business.’

3.3. R.F. Foster, Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (1988)
‘Above all, Fenianism created a mentality. ...It developed a genius for publicity and for conducting ‘secret’ affairs in public.  Literary Fenianism was a vital development  ... in a sense their attempted invasion of Canada in 1866 and 1870, and the Irish ‘insurrection’ of 1867, were equally well-managed publicity coups.  The subsequent arrests, trials, speeches from the dock, imprisonments, sufferings and occasional daring rescues constituted the real effect.’


4. The Birth of Modern Irish Politics 1867-86

4.1. Brian Walker, ‘The 1885 and 1886 General Elections – A Milestone in Irish History’, in  Peter Collins (ed), Nationalism and Unionism: Conflict in Ireland 1885-1921 (1994)
‘The crucial politicization of the countryside came about in the late 1860s and during the 1870s ... The Amnesty movement, dissatisfaction with the Land Act, the failure of Gladstone’s government to understand Irish problems, all encouraged increasing political involvement by farmers and the beginnings of a national organisation in the (admittedly at first inadequate) shape of the Home Rule League.  Thus, when the depression of the late 1870s occurred, rural Ireland was not unprepared for protest.’

4.2. Brian Walker, ‘The 1885 and 1886 General Elections – A Milestone in Irish History’, in  Peter Collins (ed), Nationalism and Unionism: Conflict in Ireland 1885-1921 (1994)
‘The elections of 1885-6 saw the emergence of two distinct political movements, based firmly on  particular religious groups, with strongly opposed views on the nature of the nation, the state and the central issue of sovereignty.  Both sides would claim ancient historical roots for their position but in fact the conflict that emerged was greatly influenced by contemporary political and social developments.’


5. The Construction of the Unionist and Nationalist Coalitions

5.1. G.D. Boyce, Nationalism in Ireland (2nd ed. 1991)
‘[Parnell] had to work within the constraints imposed by the many-sided nature of Irish politics: the votes of the Catholic tenantry, the Irish Americans, the Fenians, the Catholic church; and he had to operate at different levels:  the public meeting in the west of Ireland, the closed doors of the Irish parliamentary party, the forum of the British House of Commons, and devise appropriate responses to all these levels.  [His] leadership was fluid, not static.’

5.2. Donald Jordan, Land and Popular Politics in Ireland (1994)
‘The shift in the [Land] League’s allegiance from the small western farmers to the large south eastern and southern graziers demonstrated that the capitalization of Irish agriculture after the Famine was not going to be interrupted by a social revolution of the type envisioned by the small farmers and their Fenian allies.  Ultimately the land agitation proved another vehicle for the post-Famine consolidation of the political and economic power of the new rural elite.’

5.3. Alvin Jackson, Ireland 1798-1998 (1999)
‘Unionism linked southern landed capital with the world of northern Presbyterian embourgeoisment: it bound commercial magnates with Orange labourers.  Unionism commanded a working class constituency in late Victorian Dublin no less than in Belfast ... And yet this luxuriant diversity was swiftly pruned down to a northern core, very largely middle class in its leadership ... The stolid and – for the most part – undifferentiated bourgeois ministers seated around James Craig’s cabinet table were merely the remnants of a once more varied and sophisticated political culture.’


6. The Role of Ambiguity in Irish Nationalism

6.1. Oliver MacDonagh, ‘Ambiguity in Nationalism:  The Case of Ireland’, in Ciaran Brady (ed),  Interpreting Irish History (1994)

‘Like his successors from Parnell to Griffith, O’Connell was a separatist who saw the measure of separation as ultimately to be determined in Great Britain.  His demand, like theirs, was therefore expressed in essentially meaningless, but apparently precise and precedented, abstractions.’

‘... the orthodox Irish antitheses, constitutionalism and physical force, Home Rule and a republic, open and covert organisation, and the rest, are in some respects misleading. ... there are no immutable commitments or objectives, no final differences of feeling between the contending groups.’




See also: PowerPoint presentation on Nationalism and Unionism by Professor Liam Kennedy or an article on Unionism before 1912 written by Dr Andrew Holmes. 

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