In the 1840s, a new voice would be heard in Ireland: the Young Irelanders, who urged the Catholic peasantry to return to their Gaelic roots. Literary and political radicals, the Young Irelanders sprinkled Gaelic terms throughout their writings long before the language was revived in order to redeem the Irish soul by de-Anglicizing it. They urged the Irish to learn their own history. Soon Daniel O’Connell, now mayor of Dublin, would become the voice of Old Ireland, but not before he declared 1843 to be Repeal Year: repeal of the Act of Union.
For the British, Catholic emancipation was different from granting repeal. Emancipation had been a concession to save the Union; repeal would destroy it. British troops poured into Ireland and O’Connell was convicted of sedition — a conviction that was reversed, causing a day of national celebration. But O’Connell was nearly 70 and no longer able to lead effectively.
Soon, Ireland would be shaken to its core. By 1841, Ireland had a population of more than eight million. The potato had become the basis of the Irish diet because it was cheap, easy to cultivate, and nutritious. In 1845, “The Great Hunger” came when a potato blight severely damaged that crop. During the famine years of 1845 to 1851, more than a million people died of starvation or of opportunistic diseases. In the ten years after 1845, two million Irish — a quarter of the population — emigrated in overcrowded ships to America or Canada. Often, a third or more of the passengers would be buried at sea, having died from illness.
The famine hardened Irish hatred for Britain whose mercantilist policies they blamed for starvation. During the famine, Ireland had produced bumper crops. Ships to England were laden with Irish wheat, barley, oats, rye, cows, sheep, and pigs, which Irish tenants had to sell to pay rent while their own families starved. For this reason, the famine was also called “The Great Starvation.” The British Corn Laws also increased Irish suffering. These duties on non-English grain guaranteed English farmers a minimum price for their crops. But, without competition, the British grain was so expensive that the Irish could not substitute imported grain for potatoes. Sir Robert Peel, prime minister of Britain, stated of the famine, “The remedy is the removal of all impediments to the import of all kinds of human food.” Protectionists within his own party, the Tories, cried out in opposition and Peel tendered his resignation to Queen Victoria. She refused to accept it.
The Corn Laws were repealed but, in another balancing act, a tough Coercion Bill was also introduced to repress a hunger-provoked crime wave in Ireland. When Liberals joined with pro-Irish delegates to defeat the Coercion Bill, Peel was forced to resign.
Famine had devastated Ireland, defeated a British prime minister, and hardened the hearts of the Irish and English against each other. It had another important effect; Ireland became devoutly religious. Before the famine, an estimated 40 percent of Catholics attended church; after the famine, estimates rose to 90 percent. The Irish archbishop Paul Cullen defined the burning question for Ireland: should God or the British rule? Just as land and religion had become intimately entwined centuries before, now patriotism became a religious concept. Ireland earned a reputation as the world’s most devoutly Catholic country and, as it became more Catholic, it became more anti-British.
The Irish in America
Immigrants to North America carried their hatred of Britain with them. In the Irish ghettos of America, children listened to recitations of Emmet’s call for freedom; they learned Irish history and songs. Almost every Irish-American community had a Repeal Club that sent dollars to Dublin and pressured American politicians to support a free Ireland. On St. Patrick’s Day 1858, a new movement was born simultaneously in Dublin and New York City. In Ireland, the movement was known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood or the IRB. In America, it was known as the Fenian Brotherhood after the Fianna of Irish legend who loosely resembled the knights of the Round Table. Soon members of both organizations were called Fenians. Both embraced violence as the way to overthrow English rule.
During the American Civil War, at least 150,000 Union and 40,000 Confederate soldiers had been born in Ireland. Second- and third-generation Irish-Americans greatly swelled those numbers. After the Civil War, combat-trained Fenians arrived in Ireland to teach soldiering to the IRB. Nevertheless, Fenian attempts at insurrection were dismal failures.
Meanwhile, a feud splintered the movement in America. Some members wished to invade Canada — a British colony — to apply pressure on British policy toward Ireland. In 1866, about 600 Fenians crossed the Canadian border but retreated upon hearing that a company of British was advancing. When President Grant finally announced that an Irish government-in-exile violating the frontiers of a friendly neighbor would not be tolerated, American Fenianism declined. But the seeds of a secret, violent society had been successfully resown in Ireland.
The basic Irish demands had remained the same through centuries: religious tolerance, a just land system, and adequate education.
The land issue
In England, William Gladstone — the dominant personality of the Liberal Party — pushed for a solution to all three. The British parliamentary session of 1869 was largely and successfully devoted to Irish disestablishment: that is, to removing the Anglican Church as the state church in Ireland. But a Land Act in 1870 and a University Act of 1873 did not satisfy Irish Catholics; it did, however, outrage the British and the Irish Protestants. In 1874 elections, Gladstone’s Liberal Party lost decisively — another political victim of the “Irish Question.”
Disenchanted Liberals created a political coalition aimed at home rule, in which cause they were joined by Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish Protestant in the British House of Commons. Parnell believed that the only way to persuade British politicians to give Ireland a home legislature was to persuade them of one thing: as long as Ireland was denied sovereignty, Britain would have neither peace nor security.
By 1879, the land issue again galvanized Ireland. After the Great Hunger, rents had increased by as much as 30 percent. Many tenants refused to pay the new assessments, saying the British had no right to charge any rent. Michael Davitt founded the Land League under the slogan “the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland.” It quickly became a mass movement aimed at breaking “landlordism” by refusing to pay rent and through militant acts — the most famous of which was directed against Capt. Charles C. Boycott.
Captain Boycott was an estate agent who ordered evictions. In protest, all farmhands and servants refused to labor on the Boycott estate. Shopkeepers refused to supply his household. Policemen had to deliver his mail. In despair, Boycott resigned and retired to England. Thus, a new word was added to the English language: “boycott.” Parnell, who became president of the Land League, explained the meaning of that word:
When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must show him on the roadside when you meet him, you must show him in the streets of the town, you must show him at the shop counter, you must show him in the fair and the marketplace, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him severely alone — putting him into a kind of moral Coventry — isolating him from his kind like the leper of old — you must show him your detestation of the crime he has committed.
Not all protests were nonviolent. In 1879, an unofficial land war broke out between tenants and landlords. Some landlords were murdered and, in a panicked reaction, the British government declared the Land League to be illegal and arrested thousands, including Parnell. In the surge of violence that ensued, the British reconsidered. Parnell was released in exchange for his pledge to support the Liberal government and an Arrears Act was introduced with the intention of restoring 130,000 evicted tenants to their farms.
But, as in 1846, the British government introduced a Coercion Bill. Then, to quiet the backlash of Irish Catholic outrage, it passed the Land Act of 1881, which went a long way toward achieving the Land League’s demands. Nevertheless, the Coercion Bill enraged militants. When two British officials arrived in Ireland, they were stabbed to death by a splinter group of the IRB. In retaliation, the British passed an even harsher Coercion Act. In short, British policy continued to swing wildly between liberalization and repression, between pacifying and trying to suppress the Catholics.
Believing the cycle had to be broken, Gladstone — once more prime minister — announced his conversion to home rule for Ireland. Horrified, many Liberals withdrew their support from him, and the Liberal government was once again discredited by the Irish Question.
The two communities of Ireland — North and South — were moving in opposite directions. The South cried Home Rule while the North cleaved to Britain. Religious differences became entangled with political ones. Ulstermen cried, “Home Rule Means Rome Rule” and, in the name of religion, there were riots in Belfast. Meanwhile, the home-rule movement deteriorated with a sex scandal that discredited its leader, Parnell.
In 1902, Arthur J. Balfour became Britain’s prime minister and adamantly rejected home rule in the belief that the Irish were incapable of self-government. Indeed, the British associated their own urban problems with the wild Irish who emigrated to work. The British upper class viewed the Irish as menials. The middle class saw drunks, criminals, and prostitutes. The lower class knew they were competition.
The new evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin were used as an apology for open racism against the Irish. Distinguished scientists correlated the shape of a man’s skull with his race and the likelihood of criminal behavior; the British skull was ranked among the best. The Irish one did not compare well. In reaction, Irish nationalists cried that British culture contaminated the purity of the Irish soul. A new Ireland arose from the seeds that Young Irelanders had sown decades before: an Ireland demanding not merely home rule but also the restoration of its lost traditions.
Gaelic language and tradition
In 1893, the Gaelic League had grown around the slogan, “A country without a language is a country without a soul.” Members traveled the country without pay to teach Gaelic language and culture. A literary movement of great distinction was sparked, with writers such as William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, George Russell, John M. Synge, James Stephens, James Joyce, and Sean O’Casey making Dublin one of the world’s literary capitals. The nationalist and poet Padraig Pearse enthused,
The Gaelic League will be recognized in history as the most revolutionary influence that has ever come into Ireland. The Irish Revolution really began when the Gaelic Leaguers met in O’Connell Street. The germ of all future Irish History was in that back room.
In a more violent arena, in the first weeks of 1903, the IRB conducted a campaign of dynamite throughout England — taking terrorism to English soil. Its main accomplishment was to further alienate the English public.
A less violent group also emerged under the guidance of Arthur Griffith: Sinn Fein, or “Ourselves Alone,” emphasized self-reliance. Its essence was a refusal to recognize British authority. Griffith called for Irish representatives to withdraw from the British Parliament and form a separate Council to set up an Irish Civil Service, an Irish stock exchange, an Irish bank, and a court system. But the focus on the Gaelic tradition only drove Catholics farther from Protestants, South farther from North. For example, the influential Gaelic Athletic Association declared the games traditionally played by Catholics to be “national.” Thus, the more British sports favored by Ulster Protestants were “foreign.” As well, the revival of the Gaelic language was more likely to appeal to Catholics who had heard it from grandparents than to Ulster Protestants who knew only English.
Meanwhile, in Britain, the costs of the Boer War in South Africa and a declining economy made the Tories unpopular and brought the Liberals to power in 1906. When the Liberals created the foundation of a welfare state, the British budget was strained. Taxes on inheritance, land profits, and high incomes were increased but the Tories used the House of Lords to veto such measures. To break the stalemate, the Liberals needed support from the Irish delegates in the House of Commons. The House of Lords had routinely vetoed any home-rule bill so the Irish delegates in the Commons refused to vote for the Liberal budget unless that situation was rectified. Thus, the Parliament Act of 1911 limited the House of Lords’ veto power to three consecutive sessions. When the Lords threatened to veto that Act as well, King George V threatened to pack the peerage with Liberals in order to secure passage. The Act passed.
This article was originally published in the June 2004 edition of Freedom Daily.