Irish Nationalist Movement Since 1800

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Irish Nationalist Movement Since 1800

During the nineteenth century, Ireland evolved to take a unique position in the colonial world. Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom, but unlike England, Scotland, and Wales, it had a colonial administration that answered to Britain's Colonial Office well after Ireland had achieved Catholic emancipation, that is, after the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, which permitted Catholics to sit in the British Parliament. Thus, politically, Ireland largely ceased to be a colony, while it simultaneously retained a colonial economic structure and the culture and symbols of a colonial people.

This hybrid of political, economic, and cultural structures engendered two corresponding Irish nationalist traditions. Parliamentary representation produced a constitutional tradition that became state-conscious and largely defined Irish independence as self-government, a goal that advocates held could be achieved through parliamentary or constitutional means. The continuation of a colonial economic structure, on the other hand, combined with Irish cultural nationalism to sustain a revolutionary, or republican, tradition throughout the twentieth century. This tradition sought an independent Irish republic, which supporters believed could only be achieved through physical force.

In the wake of the 1798 rebellion, in which the United Irishmen attempted to establish an independent Irish republic, Britain responded with the Act of Union (1800), placing Ireland within the United Kingdom but without the promised Catholic emancipation. In 1823 Daniel O'Connell's (1775–1847) Catholic Association began political agitation for emancipation. In doing so, the Catholic Association created Ireland's first mass movement and initiated a constitutional nationalism that served as an alternative to physical-force republicanism. Achieving emancipation in 1829, O'Connell, who was known as "the Liberator," shifted his agitation toward repealing the Act of Union and returning self-government to Ireland.

O'Connell's National Repeal Association organized "Monster Meetings," which were attended by hundreds of thousands of people and were to culminate in a national rally at Clontarf, near Dublin, in 1843. The government, however, proscribed the Clontarf rally, and O'Connell, the constitutionalist, complied. His retreat from Clontarf and the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s destroyed O'Connell's movement. With the limits of constitutional nationalism exposed, some of O'Connell's followers organized into the Young Ireland movement, which rejected constitutionalism and launched a futile uprising in 1848.

The Great Famine killed one million Irish and forced another million to emigrate. Many of the emigrants viewed themselves as exiles, adding a transatlantic dimension to Irish nationalism. In 1858 revolutionary nationalists established the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) simultaneously in New York and Dublin. The IRB, or the Fenian movement, committed itself to a democratic Irish republic through force of arms. By the time the Fenians rebelled in 1867, the government had fully infiltrated their ranks and their insurrection was little more than a gesture. The IRB, however, survived the Fenian uprising and continued to influence the nationalist movement, principally through Irish-American organizations and their financial contributions.

Until 1879, neither constitutional nor revolutionary nationalists had attached their nationalism to the land question, that is, addressed the central Irish socioeconomic issue that a small minority of protestant and Anglo-Irish landlords owned the overwhelming majority of land in Ireland and leased the land to the Irish Catholic majority. This changed when Fenian Michael Davitt (1846–1906) established the Land League, which physically resisted the practice of landlords evicting their tenants and agitated for peasant proprietorship. Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–1891), an Irish member of Parliament dedicated to home rule (i.e., Irish self-government by means of an act of Parliament), became the Land League's president. The IRB, in a "New Departure," agreed to join the campaign, producing an alliance between revolutionary and constitutional nationalists. The league's agitation, known as the Land War (1879–1882), centered on ostracizing those who broke its code of conduct, as happened to Captain Charles Boycott (1832–1897), whose name became synonymous with the tactic. Britain responded to the agitation, which often included underground violence, with a Land Act (1881) that granted tenants' rights but fell short of the league's objectives.

Parnell moved away from agrarian agitation and directed the league's mass movement toward home rule, building a party that soon held the balance of power in the House of Commons. Parnell threw his nationalist party's support to the Liberal Party, led by William Gladstone (1809–1898), which introduced a Home Rule Bill (1886), only to have the Conservative Party and Liberal defectors defeat it. The Conservatives, now in power, attempted to "kill Home Rule with kindness," by enacting a series of land acts that bought out landlords and created a peasant proprietorship.

Gladstone eventually passed a Home Rule Bill (1893) in the House of Commons but Britain's House of Lords rejected it. Parnell, however, did not live to see this happen. He was destroyed politically and his party split when an 1890 divorce case revealed that he had committed adultery; he died the following year.

After the fall of Parnell, "Ireland's uncrowned king," nationalist aspirations were increasingly expressed through cultural nationalism. In 1893 the Gaelic League was established to revive the Irish language and culture, and although its founders saw the league as nonpolitical, it eventually came under IRB control. The Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884 to prevent the spread of English games in Ireland. Fenians dominated the Gaelic Athletic Association from its inception, as was evident by its rules, which excluded those who were members of the police or military. In addition, a number of nationalist literary groups emerged whose members based their work on Gaelic literature and folklore, a movement that culminated in 1904 with the establishment of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

In 1905 the Sinn Féin ("ourselves") Party, founded by Arthur Griffith (1872–1922), emerged as a political alterative to Home Rule nationalism. Sinn Féin advocated a dual monarchy under the English Crown through a passive resistance in which Irish members of Parliament would withdraw from the British Parliament and form an Irish assembly.

When the Liberals passed the third Home Rule Bill (1912), the reformed House of Lords could only delay it for two years. Facing such a reality, the Protestant minority in Ireland, who were known as Unionists, formed the Ulster Volunteers and threatened armed resistance if the government implemented home rule. Nationalists responded by forming the Irish Volunteers to safeguard home rule. Elements within the British Army asserted that they would not impose home rule (i.e., as an act of Parliament), and as such, Britain confronted a major constitutional crisis and the prospect of civil war. This did not happen; World War I permitted Britain to suspend home rule for duration of the war.

Britain's inconsistency, however, was not lost on Irish nationalists. When nationalists had sought independence though physical force, Britain crushed their efforts and encouraged them to proceed with constitutional means. When they achieved home rule through constitutional means, the government permitted it to be blocked by threats of physical force.

Most of the Irish Volunteers went off to fight in World War I, but a minority remained in Ireland, ostensibly to defend the achieved home rule. Unknown to most Irish volunteers, the secret oath bound by IRB had infiltrated the organization's leadership and was now preparing it for a rebellion. In 1916 Patrick Pearse (1879–1916) led the Irish Volunteers in a rebellion that began on Easter Monday. The smaller Irish Citizens Army, led by revolutionary socialist James Connolly (1868–1916), joined them. Pearse and Connolly proclaimed an Irish Republic and seized the Dublin city center. It took the British Army a week to crush the Easter Rising. Britain later executed its leaders.

Although Griffith had nothing to do with the Easter Rising, the British termed it "the Sinn Féin Rebellion," as Sinn Féin had become a pejorative term to describe all nationalists who rejected home rule. In 1917 a new "Republican Sinn Féin" emerged, led by Eamon de Valera (1882–1975), the highest-ranking Irish Volunteer to survive the Easter Rising and the subsequent executions. Although the party was republican dominated, Sinn Féin developed into a coalition that included constitutional nationalists, such as Griffith. Nonetheless, Sinn Féin contested the 1918 election on the proclaimed Irish Republic of Easter 1916 and won seventy-three out of seventy-nine nationalist seats in the British Parliament.

In 1919 the elected Sinn Féin members of Parliament abstained from Westminster, that is, boycotted the British Parliament and formed themselves as Dáil Éireann (assembly of Ireland). Simultaneously, the Irish Volunteers, now calling themselves the Irish Republican Army (IRA), launched a sustained guerrilla war against British forces in Ireland. Britain responded with a counterinsurgency against the IRA, while working to separate the constitutional nationalists from the revolutionary republicans within Sinn Féin and the Dáil.

In 1921 a ceasefire led to negotiations that produced the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The treaty partitioned Ireland into two states: Twenty-six counties were given some powers of self-government as a dominion within the British empire, while six counties in Ulster (Northern Ireland) remained part of the United Kingdom—much more than home rule, far less than an Irish republic. The Dáil accepted the treaty by a vote of sixty-four to fifty-seven, and its supporters, led by Griffith and Michael Collins (1890–1922), the IRA's director of intelligence, formed the Irish Free State. Three-quarters of the IRA, however, rejected the treaty, leading to the Irish Civil War (1922–1923). The Free State Army, supported by Britain, defeated the IRA, but the IRA leadership ordered its units to place their weapons in secret arms depots and to disperse without surrender.

The defeated republicans, embodied in the self-described "semiconstitutional" political party Fianna Fáil ("soldiers of destiny") and with IRA electoral support, gained control of the Irish Free State in the 1932 election. Led by de Valera, however, Fianna Fáil did not declare an independent republic; their opponents, a five-party coalition government led by fine Gael ("kindred of the Irish"), did that in 1948 when they briefly won power.

Britain responded by reasserting its sovereignty over Northern Ireland, where in the late 1960s revolutionary nationalism returned. In the thirty-year conflict that followed, both the IRA and Sinn Féin reemerged. The most recent phase of "the troubles" ended with the IRA ceasefire in 1994 and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that committed Sinn Féin to constitutional politics. To further the peace process in Northern Ireland, the IRA announced an end to its armed campaign in 2005. It reasserted its commitment "to building the republic outlined in the 1916 proclamation," but to do so through peaceful means.

Although often cited as England's first colony, scholars continue to debate the extent to which Ireland was a colony. Revisionist historians have challenged nationalist histories, arguing that the British-Irish connection was far more complex than a simple colonial relationship and that partition reflected that there were always two nations within Ireland. Given that such revisionism emerged during the resumption of physical-force nationalism in Northern Ireland, its opponents argue that it is a conservative, perhaps even Unionist, ideology designed to confront change in Ireland and that it serves as little more than an apology for British colonialism. More recently, literary and cultural studies have developed postcolonial theories that locate Ireland firmly within the third world experience, essentially viewing Ireland's colonial past and resistance to British imperialism within the same framework as, for example, India or Ghana.

see also Ireland, English Colonization.


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Boyce, David George. Nationalism in Ireland, 3rd ed. New York and London: Routledge, 1995.

Brady, Ciaran, ed. Interpreting Irish History: The Debate on Historical Revisionism, 1938–1994. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1994.

Garvin, Tom. Evolution of Irish Nationalist Politics. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1981.

Garvin, Tom. Nationalist Revolutionaries in Ireland, 1858–1928. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Hachey, Thomas E., and Lawrence J. McCaffery, eds. Perspectives on Irish Nationalism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.

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Irish Nationalist Movement Since 1800

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