Ireland in the Union

Dr Garrett Fitzgerald, the Irish Taoiseach (Premier), in his Dimbleby Lecture for 1982, claimed that Britain's economic gains had frequently been at Ireland's expense; that low-cost Irish competition with Britain was suppressed in the Eighteenth Century; that Britain pursued a cheap-food policy at the expense of Ireland from the mid-Nineteenth Century onwards; that absentee British landlords had drained resources in the form of rents from Ireland; and that throughout the Nineteenth Century Britain had extracted taxation in excess of its expenditure in. Ireland. And he concluded with the reflection that 'it might be better for both our countries if facts like these featured as prominently in history taught in your schools as they have in the history taught in ours '.

Dr Fitzgerald's suggestion provokes two reactions. On the one hand is the fact that, increasingly, Irish history from an Irish point of view is being taught in English schools and universities. The Schools' Council Irish history project is being adopted in more and more schools, and many English universities now offer courses in various aspects of Irish history. But more important, perhaps, is what Dr Fitzgerald refers to as the 'facts' of Irish history. Regrettably, much of the Irish history taught in England until recently encapsulated many of the 'facts' referred to by Dr Fitzgerald. Examiners are all too familiar with stories of wicked absentee landlords, of mass evictions, of repressed nationalism, of missed opportunities for settling 'the Irish problem', of Pitt betraying Ireland over Catholic emancipation; of the British allowing Ireland to starve in the famine; of Gladstone providing Ireland with 'too little, too late'. Pace Dr Fitzgerald, English Irish history was, until recently, portraying just those 'facts' that he would seem to wish. Luckily, however, practitioners of both Irish Irish history, and English Irish history, have moved far beyond the 'facts' he proclaims.

In fact much of the recent work of Irish historians has been to suggest that earlier views were a compound of mythologies. Though it may, perhaps, be that the flourishing of the study of Irish history in schools and universities in England owes something of its popularity to the recent resurgence of Irish 'troubles', the revival of the study of Irish history as an academic discipline predates that resurgence, and indeed the schools and universities are in the happy position of being able to use the results of the work of a growing band of scholars over more than thirty years. And much of that thirty years' work on both sides of the Irish Sea has tended to undermine the certainties that Dr Fitzgerald assumes, and that until recently have been the stuff of English Irish history - as Dr Fitzgerald claims they still are of Irish school history.

Those historians who want to see British, as opposed to English, Irish, or Scottish, history lament the fact that in English school books about the Nineteenth Century, though the Irish Act of Union is itself given proper treatment, there is 'no caesura, no change of key or structure, no sense that the history of England has become part of something else, and requires to be written in new terms'. But (whatever the justice of J.G.A. Pocock's claim) there is a sense in which English history was not altered by the Act of Union in 1800. To many English politicians at the time, the Act of Union had merely created a greater England, rather than a United Kingdom. And even the effect of this was limited.

In spite of the ostensible Union, Ireland remained a distinct, separate country, in a way that Scotland, for all the preservation of, for example, a separate legal system, had not. The institutions of England and Ireland, Parliament excepted, remained distinct. Partly this was the result of necessity. The governing class of Ireland at the time of the Union was thin on the ground, reminiscent of later settlers in India or Africa; thus the structures which in England provided the personnel and expertise for local government were largely lacking in Ireland. The nearest Irish equivalent to the parish and the justice of the peace, for centuries the backbone of English local administration, was the larger unit of the county and the grand jury. But while, in spite of the great changes in English society in the Nineteenth Century, the justices survived, and with their colleagues of the urban elites remained an essential part of English government, in Ireland, with comparatively far less social change, the county authorities were rapidly superceded by centrally controlled bureaucracies in a way that made Irish local administration in the first half of the Nineteenth Century far more 'modern' than that of England. In terms of police, of its magistracy, of health provision, of central funding for local government projects, and most startlingly in terms of its education, Ireland had national provision while England (in the first half of the Nineteenth Century) had inadequate - sometimes non-existent - local provision, and a provision which defended its parochialism with perhaps surprising fierceness. Not merely at the local, but at the national level, too, Ireland retained its peculiarities from the England with which it was united in 1800. The Lord Lieutenant, in spite of often repeated threats of abolition, was retained, like a colonial viceroy, and the Chief Secretary was retained as a bridge between Whitehall and the still surviving Irish government at Dublin Castle.

The colonial parallel suggested by the thinly scattered governing class, or the survival of the Lord Lieutenant, was one that was not lost upon English or Irish contemporaries. In England there were those like the Tory Morning Herald, for example, who thought Ireland should be grateful for its colonial role, and took pains to point out that 'the connection of a poor country without manufactures, producing corn, with a rich manufacturing country often in want of corn, is not a losing affair for the poor country'. When, though, the rich manufacturing country continued to draw corn from its poor neighbour while Ireland was in the depth of famine, it was not just in Ireland that people were found to be sceptical of the theories of the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, Trevelyan, that the 'natural laws' of economics must be allowed to take their course; the Illustrated London News , for instance, was prominent in observing that the spectacle of exporting grain to England while Ireland starved was 'a painful and exciting one'. When Irish members of the united parliament suggested that, if a famine on the Irish scale had struck Yorkshire or Lancashire, then the United Kingdom government would have been more active, they were probably speaking no less than the truth. But the British government provided only public works and soup kitchens, and left Ireland totally reliant on its Poor Law.

The Irish Poor Law was a unique example of an attempt to harmonise the legislation of the two kingdoms in the half century following the Act of Union. Though the government was assured that the English Poor Law would not be suitable for Irish conditions, where even before the famine, in normal years, nearly a million people were living in conditions of what was euphemistically called 'distress', the government ignored the Royal Commission, and imposed the English Poor Law on Ireland. Inevitably the system collapsed under the strains of the famine, and Ireland was left with a massive burden of debt to the British government to pay for relief. In 1853 Gladstone, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, agreed to write off this debt, but in exchange imposed the income tax on Ireland, thus for the first time bringing the taxation systems of the two united countries into harmony. The Irish members of Parliament, not least those who had earlier protested that the Act of Union was meaningless, and that Ireland always received different treatment from England, were, however, vocal in their objections against thus bringing the systems of the two countries into line. The Poor Law was condemned because it did not treat Ireland differently; the income tax because it treated Ireland the same. Not surprisingly lesser statesmen than Gladstone gave up - or at least appeared to give up - Ireland in despair.

There were clearly areas in which Ireland needed separate treatment. Its economy, which in the Eighteenth Century had been sufficiently strong to frighten English and, more especially Scottish, merchants into resisting a free-trade area between the three Kingdoms, collapsed in the early Nineteenth Century. By the middle of the century only Belfast survived as a recognisable Victorian industrial town. Nationalist opinion not unnaturally blamed the economic decline on the Union, and saw the aftermath of the Union in economic terms as simply a continuation of the post-Jacobite suppression of Ireland's economic activity in England's interests. The provision in the Act of Union that Ireland should contribute two-seventeenths of the total revenues of the United Kingdom had seemed fair in 1800. But the prolongation of the Napoleonic wars meant that Ireland's debt grew much faster than had been anticipated at the time of the Union, so that Ireland (which did not have to pay until its debt, too, reached the two-seventeenths level) became a net contributor quicker than was expected; and the rapid growth of England's economy meant that two-seventeenths soon became an unrealistic level at which to assess Ireland's contribution. The English were not deliberately harsh or exploitative; the free-trade area between the two countries, due to come into effect under the provisions of the Act of Union in 1821, was postponed for three years in recognition of. Ireland's comparative weakness. But the Union was not, itself, responsible for that weakness. Lacking raw materials, such as coal or iron, and with a population growing as fast or faster than England, which clung to the soil, so that Ireland became increasingly rural, Ireland's difficulties were visible before the Union, and the Napoleonic wars, with their temporary boom conditions for Ireland, served to conceal weaknesses which were later blamed on the Union.

But nationalist opinion had another scapegoat, too, in the absentee (and, less commonly, the resident) landlords. When the economist J.R. McCulloch suggested that the Irish landlords were not as culpable as public opinion asserted, it was as if (so he said) he had defended murder. The evil reputation of the Irish landlords as a class was accepted on both sides of the Irish Sea, and as Dr Fitzgerald shows, their reputation is still not a high one. But recent research by historians like W.E. Vaughan or James Donnelly suggests very persuasively that the Irish landlords, whether resident or absentee, were not the wicked exploiters of their tenants, or the simple expropriators of revenues from Ireland that they were popularly believed to be.

Though revenues were remitted to England, they were never as high a proportion of Irish revenues as popular rumour alleged. Though evictions did take place, they were not generally an the scale popular mythology represented. Though rents were high in the pre-famine years, pressure for high rents came as much from land-hungry tenants as from grasping landlords, and in the period between the famine and the land war it was the tenants, rather than their landlords, who benefited from the rising prices for Irish foodstuffs. Landlordism never recovered from the land war. But it was with the active assistance (though not necessarily with the deliberate intention) of the British government that peasant proprietorship came to assume an increasingly significant role in Irish landholding. Irish landlords were by no means paragons of virtue; but there were probably few English landlords who would have tolerated, as Lord Londonderry did on his estates in County Down in 1852, eleven years' unpaid rent.

The landlords, of course, represented not just economic power, but political ascendancy. And in this sphere the Irish did have real grounds for complaint. When Irish legislation was different from that of the rest of the United Kingdom it was often at the behest of this ascendancy. Parliamentary and municipal reform in Ireland were diluted in an attempt to retain power in landlord - ultimately in Protestant - hands. Much of the history of Ireland under the Union could be written in terms of the attempts of the old pre-Union ascendancy to maintain its power. There were those who saw the Act of Union itself in this light, as giving Irish Protestants an additional ally against the Catholic and nationalist challenge. By the time of Parnell the remnants of the ascendancy (by then, outside Ulster, reduced to a social rather than a political elite) saw in clinging to the United Kingdom their one hope of resisting their own final disappearance. The links between the ascendancy in Ireland and the English governing class, in social, economic, and culturaI terms, as well as in terms of overlapping personnel, shaped much of the relationship between England and Ireland under the Union.

Fears that the ascendancy would be swept aside by a nationalist Irish tide were apparent in 1800, and even more so after 1829. But Lord Sheffield's fear, that English Members of Parliament would not dare to go to Westminster 'if they were there to meet 100 Paddies', proved unfounded. If Ireland needed special treatment, the Irish politicians more often than not failed to provide it. Partly this was because, however united - and even at the height of Parnell's power the Irish Party never comprised all Irish MPs - they were always a minority within the United Kingdom Parliament, as Grattan had warned at the time of Union. Partly it was because the temptations of British political life proved irresistible; the so-called Independent Irish Party of the 1850s lost its leaders to the attractions of office within the Aberdeen ministry. But also it was because Irish politicians naturally sought allies within the British political system, and thus frequently appeared more as a pressure group within a British party, rather than as a separate Irish party. Grattan became a Foxite, while Lord Downshire (who for almost opposite reasons also opposed the Union) found his assimilation into the Pittite ranks facilitated by Pitt's own resignation, after George III had opposed the Prime Minister's half-hearted attempt to deliver Catholic emancipation. O'Connell was not only a parliamentary reformer, but also a Benthamite administrative reformer, and even a corn-law repealer; even before the Lichfield House compact, by which he committed his supporters to Lord Melbourne's government, he was in many ways indistinguishable from an English radical. Parnell's great triumph was to get 200 English MPs to vote for Home Rule, where O'Connell had only converted one English MP to Repeal of the Union, and Isaac Butt barely a dozen. Yet this very triumph meant that the Irish party - with or without Parnell - was inextricably linked to the English Liberals, a legacy which, after a hollow triumph in 1912 when Home Rule was finally passed, was to turn to bitter ashes in John Redmond's last years. Moreover, for much of the Nineteenth Century, Whig and Tory were as significant political labels as Repealer or Home Ruler in an Irish political context.

The failure of political solutions encouraged violence. Englishmen delighted in portraying the Irish as rural ruffians or blood-thirsty killers. Violence at the Protestant-Catholic 'divide' in southern Ulster had been continual, and Irish rural crime was more common than English. But the English reaction, too, to Irish violence was itself a violent one. While Swing riots, Reform riots, and militant trade unionism seemed to convulse England in 1830-31, though the government feared revolution, they did not suspend Habeas Corpus , nor proscribe Nottingham or Bristol as revolted districts. Corn-law-repeal magistrates were not, even in 1842, dismissed from office in England. Troops were used in England with a degree of moderation that offended, for example, coal-owners faced with striking miners. In Ireland, on the other hand, the response to agrarian crime was more often than not force bills, coercion bills, or arms acts, while troops were used as rent-collectors in a way which many of the English military themselves, such as Sir Redvers Buller, noted would be unacceptable at home.

As well as violent crime, there was also a violent face of nationalism. O'Connell and Parnell set their faces against the armed struggle, but from Emmett in 1803, through Smith O'Brien in 1848, and the Fenians in 1867, to Pearse and Connolly in 1916, the tradition survived. O'Connell seemed at his most powerful when the implicit threat in his victory at County Clare in 1828, or in his monster meeting at Tara, was one of unleashing violent masses. Parnell's greatest triumphs came when he harnessed the revolutionary and agrarian traditions to the political movement in the 'new departure' of 1879. But political violence remained the recourse of a minority. Even in 1916 the rebels were condemned as much by their fellow-countrymen, whose sons were dying in the British army on the western front, as by the English 'oppressors'. When the British indicated that they were willing - in the case of Asquith or Lloyd George - or eager - in the case of Bonar Law - to condone the violent opposition to Home Rule in the north, violence became acceptable, and when they appeared to be about to suppress the south and give in to the north a majority began to sympathise with the 'martyrs' of 1916. Even Collins and the Treaty Party, however (for all their past violence), were eager to set violence aside once it had achieved its object - or as much of its object as Collins, Griffith, and a majority in the new Free State thought was possible.

The Union between England and Ireland was never - and never attempted to be - a perfect harmonisation of the two countries; even the Scottish model of 1707, to which appeal was frequently made in 1800, was an inappropriate parallel. But the Union was not simply the exploitation of one country by another, by rackrenting landlords, or those seeking cheap food and easy markets. In the 1850s and 1860s, and again in the 1890s, real progress towards making the Union a reality seemed possible. The ultimately colonial nature of the relationship, however, was always present; even while Sinn Fein were transforming themselves from an obscure pressure group advocating dual monarchy into the leading force for Irish opinion, English politicians were thinking in terms of such colonial models as federation or Dominion status. Ireland had a major impact on Britain in the years of the Union from 1801 to 1922; prime ministers like Pitt, Peel, or Gladstone, for example, were made and unmade by it. But the British connection also had a major impact on Ireland; and it could be argued that it was the Union which shaped, and possibly even created, the Irish nation for which Dr Fitzgerald rightly appeals for a greater understanding. It is to be hoped that as the historical revolution of the last generation has effect, the myths of the past - not least those shared by Dr Fitzgerald himself - will begin to disappear, and be replaced by a better understanding of Ireland under the Union.

By Alan Heesom

Back to Ireland Main Article
Further Reading
Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006 (Oxford History of Modern Europe)
by Paul Bew

Ireland: The Union and its Aftermath.
by O. MacDonagh

A New History of Ireland, Volume V: Ireland Under the Union, I: 1801-1870: 5
Ed by W. E. Vaughan


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