The origin of the Irish Nationalism and its evolution after the Irish War of Independence
In this essay, I am going to discuss about the origin of Ireland as a nation and how the nationalism evolved after the Irish War of Independence against Britain, dividing the essay in two main parts. With this in mind, in this essay we will always take into account three main aspects: socio-economic, religious, political and historical, so that we can have the context and the reasons why it happened. This essay will also be seen from two different perspectives: the British because Britain was the nation which dominated Ireland until the Irish nationalism emerged, and the other is the Irish, seeing how their thinking was changing until they decided to become a nation.
When did it begin?
There are many events in history that could have determined the origin of the Irish nationalism, that is to say, the beginning of Irish history as a nation. But when can one talk about Irish nationalism? In 1904, a man called Eoin MacNeill, an Irish scholar and also politician, asked himself that question giving a lecture. He said it could be considered that its beginning was in the Gaelic or pre-Normand period, in other words, a traditional period of Ireland. Or even it could have started in the 16th century, in a revolutionary period. (Boyce, 2003:15)
Other aspects that he also took into account were the religious ones: on the one hand, during the 1640s when there was a big Catholic movement and, on the other hand, with the Protestants of the eighteenth century. And last but not least important, the author refers to the modern aspect, as for instance, the socio-political change of the 19thcentury of Ireland. It is for this reason that he says that a historian must decide between searching in the more ancient past writing in a theological way or beginning in a more modern period forgetting other historical events.(Boyce, 2003:15).
Therefore now Boyce, bearing in mind all these aspects, first defines the term nationalism to come later to the Irish case. Nationalism, according to him, is the feeling or belief of a community of people that share the same origin (with the same history and literature), that usually have a common language that differs from other nations (not always) and who might have the same religion. Consequently, he argues that this feeling would take on more importance in Ireland in the last quarter of the eighteenth century with the Acts of Union of 1801 with Britain. (Boyce, 2003:16)
The Act of Union (1st January 1801)
According to the author Larking in A History of Ireland, and as a result of the French Revolution in 1789, Britain would take advantage of this fact and would have the reason to unify the Kingdom of Ireland to its territory. The most revolutionary Irish leaders of the 19th century would see this union as a given and would work all this century (within the strict possibilities that Britain allowed them) against this union. The Union banned any possible representation of Irish people in their parliament, which had achieved more autonomy since 1782, forcing the representatives of the Irish parliament to go to the British one, in Westminster.(Larkin H., 2014:9)
From the British point of view, this was an historic and nonviolent act, and it would give Ireland a period of stability, but the most important thing for them was that it was the last step of a process that began with the annexation of Wales in 1535, Scotland in 1707 and finished with Ireland in 1801. (Larkin H., 2014:10)
Nevertheless, for Ireland it wasn’t a “real pacific period” and in time it divided both cultures and communities. England would try to convince Ireland in all the possible aspects showing the benefits of the Union, in the economic aspect they would explain the benefits of a more solid economy that would promote Ireland’s economic growth. However, having such unequal economies was very difficult to have parity in both of them, so it wasn’t as good as they expected (and furthermore if we include that there was a period of corruption).(Larkin H., 2014:15)
From the religious point of view, Larkin says that Ireland was composed of a majority of Catholics (for each Protestant there were three Catholics, proportion which would be just the opposite in the case of the Union between Britain and Ireland, that is, three against twelve, having British more options to control them. It is for this reason that Britain didn’t like the idea of having a Catholic parliament in Ireland. (Larkin H., 2014:15) Despite the fact that there was a Protestant ascendancy with the two major Protestant parties growing more and more (the Crown and the Tory party), the author McCaffrey in The Irish Question : Two Centuries of Conflict says that the Catholic majority refused to accept this pact because they believed that they would be in a huge inferiority. (McCaffrey, 2015:3)
However, it was more than an ideology which was counting for this union according to Larkin’s opinion. On the one hand, there were the Protestants that, even being a small group, monopolised land, politics and society. On the other hand, the Catholics were landless, “politically underprivileged”, poor etc. and controlled by the Protestant elite. This meant that if Protestants were for the Union, the whole Ireland would be part of Britain, and in fact that is what happened. Bearing in mind all these aspects, Catholic masses would have a serious problem of identity, partly because of the dependence on Britain and partly also because they couldn’t be taken into account as a nation. (Larkin H., 2014:4)
In conclusion, this period will create an Irish national sentiment, based mostly in a strong hatred against the British predominance in their territory. This feeling wouldn’t end until after the Irish War of Independence when Ireland was recognised as a country. This would, as well, affect in a devastating way its poor economic situation, which would trigger the Great Famine of Ireland, also known as The Irish potato famine (1845-1852) and one of the biggest migrations of its history. And, last but not least, from the religious point of view, the Catholics would have serious problems (especially in the 19th century), because of the Anti-Catholic laws of Britain that abolished their human rights like: voting, having a good education or job etc. being even persecuted.
After the Irish War of Independence: The Anglo-Irish Treaty
After the war, in December 1921 England and Ireland would sign The Anglo-Irish Treaty, despite the fact that they did not have much interest in having peace in both territories. This could be explained because in the last stages of the war many violent acts took place, according to what the author Michael Hopkinson says in The Irish War of Independence. The terms discussed in this treaty were: the safeguard of the defence of Ireland, the future of Ulster (an Irish Protestant region formed by six counties that was in favour of the union with Britain), the granting of fiscal autonomy and the self-domain in their twenty-six counties. (Hopkinson, 2002: 177) This treaty, signed by the provisional Irish government and by the British Prime Minister Lloyd George and his asembly of negotiators, had an acceptable degree of independence for his supporters. Nonetheless, for others there would be something missing and that was the partition of Ireland (despite the fact that there was little to discuss because they had already done it that same year). As well, this treaty was not accepted by those who voted against (the anti-Treaties or republicans) as it was inconceivable for them and, therefore, they refused to recognize the Irish Free State. Nevertheless, for the big majority it represented one more step for the Irish freedom, even if with this agreement they would continue to be subordinated to Britain in some economical aspects (Curtis, 2010: 106-107)
Northern and Southern Ireland
Meanwhile in Ireland, as I have mentioned before, the division of the territory affected the region of Ulster (situated in Northern Ireland) and the rest of Ireland. The conflict of Northern Ireland or The Troubles is believed to have a religious origin between Catholics and Protestants, but according to the author Joanne McEvoy the origin lays somewhere else: the national identity. Whilst Nationalists regard the Republic of Ireland as their ‘motherland’, the Unionists consider Britain their country, as they have very different objectives: Unionists want to be part of the United Kingdom and Nationalists want a united Ireland.Of course, in Ireland the religion divisions have always been explicit. It is known that during this period there were many cases of sectarianism because of this issue, but these discrepancies also coincide with other economical differences, historical facts and national political identity.(McEvoy, 2008: 8)
According to Andrew Sanders, the IRA or Irish Republic Army was considered heir of the Irish Volunteers, a small group of Irish volunteers that took part in the First World War. The Irish Volunteers split from the National Volunteers in 1914 and, encouraged by the Irish Parliamentary Party leader (John Redmond), would give their support to the Allies at the beginning of the war. The remainder was supposed to be a home guard in the Irish territory, but Britain refused to train a disorganised movement which couldn’t provide front-line soldiers, apart from the concern that they could provoke as they could have been used against them in nationalistic terms. As the war progressed worse, news about its divisions in their army arrived in Ireland and the threat of having to go to war increased, whilst support given to the National Volunteers was dicreasing. At the same time, the Irish Volunteers were becoming more and more numerous. That was specially influenced by Britain that created a Republican division in which the most important thing was the pragmatic significance of the war, in other words, what they will achieve at the end of the war. (Sanders, 2011: 1-2)
This movement would continue after the war until the decade of 1970s, when Nothern Ireland would suffer one of the most violent periods in its history. As a result of The ‘Troubles’, over two thousand people would be murdered and half of them in the hands of the Provisional IRA. In August 1969, the Official IRA would be created and it would split with the Provisional one. This movement was established because of the impotence experienced during that decade and with the purpose of being able to change it into a deadly insurgency fast. Nevertheless, they also began to have political activity, as for instance, claiming the recognitions of the parliaments of Stormont or Westminster, but having an extreme socialism orientation. (Sanders, 2011: 45)
The tendency towards politics of the IRA would start as a peace process, according to Sanders, that will be established during the following decades and continued until the 1990s when the IRA would make its final movement with two ceasefires. All this, added with the internal factionism of the movement and the transition of the Irish-American military support to political intervention, would finally end with the most abrupt period in the history of Nothern Ireland. (Sanders, 2011: 191) The beginning of the 21st century was in an uneasy calm, even if the final year of the previous century had only eight deaths, there was a straight relation between violence and politics that wouldn’t end till the last paramilitary group in Nothern Ireland, the LVF (Loyalist Volunteer Force) was disolved, arresting in October 2005 its leader. (Sanders, 2011: 226-227)
To sum up with this second part of the essay, it could be said that the period between the Irish War of Independence until our days was even more violent in some decades that the war itself. Having two main territorial and political isues, the complete independence of Ireland from Britain and the internal territorial division in the Irish territory, dividing it into two parts: Northern and Southern Ireland. Likewise, I have also discussed about the biggest paramilitary movement emerged in Ireland in the last century, the IRA, which I have considered very important for the understanding of the Irish Nationalism, because it would be crucial in the conflict of Nothern Ireland.
Boyce, D. G. (2003). Nationalism in Ireland (3). London: Routledge.
Curtis, K. (2010). Anthem Irish Studies : P. S. O'Hegarty (1879-1955) : Sinn Féin Fenian (1). London: Anthem Press.
Hopkinson, M. (2002). The Irish War of Independence. Montreal: MQUP.
Larkin, H. (2014). Anthem Perspectives in History : A History of Ireland 1800–1922 Theatres of Disorder? (1). London: Anthem Press.
McCaffrey, L. J. (2015). The Irish Question : Two Centuries of Conflict (2). Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.
McEvoy, J. (2008). Politics Study Guides EUP : Politics of Northern Ireland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Sanders, A. (2011). Inside the IRA : Dissident Republicans and the War for Legitimacy (1). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.