Political Ideas in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, S.J. Connolly (ed.) (Four Courts Press, £35) ISBN 1851825568

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 2000), Reviews, Volume 8

Sean Connolly opens this volume, the third in the Folger Institute series, with a quotation from R.B. McDowell’s Irish Public Opinion, 1750-1800 (1944). Remarkably and regrettably it is only within the last decade or so that scholars have begun building on the ground broken by McDowell over half a century ago, and for that reason alone this volume is welcome. Perhaps—as Connolly points out—the main reason for the absence of any sustained critique of Irish political thought is the absence—aside from the awkward figure of Edmund Burke, who produced his politico-literary corpus in England—of ‘major’ or canonical Irish political theorists. In the days when the history of political thought meant primarily the analysis of ‘great books’ the sort of ‘minor’ pamphlet literature, by diverse and sometimes obscure hands, surveyed by McDowell scarcely qualified as ‘political thought’ at all. That presumably is why he deployed the concept of ‘public opinion’; it also underlines the originality and intellectual achievement of his study at the time.
All that is now changed, thanks not least to the paradigm-shifting work of John Pocock, doyen of the ‘new’ history of political thought, whose Centre for the History of British Political Thought at the Folger Library in Washington DC sponsored the seminars on which this and the two companion essay collections are based. Pocock and others seek to relocate political ideas within their historical and discursive contexts, or in Ian McBride’s apt phrase, to de-familiarise political concepts ‘by restoring them to the vocabularies which first gave them meaning’. Instead of (or in addition to) explicating classic texts, they set themselves the task of tracing and reconstructing densely-textured political ‘languages’, articulated through pamphlets, newspapers, handbills and other media as well as through set-piece theory. Thus, while several contributors to this volume note the pragmatic, polemical, unsystematic and inconsistent character of much of the writing under consideration, they are nonetheless free to explore a number of co-existing political languages. These include ‘patriotism’ (Sean Connolly), economic self-help (Robert Mahony and Patrick Kelly), corporatist ideology (Jacqueline Hill), nationalism and republicanism (Ian McBride), and conservatism (Connolly and James Kelly).
A number of contributors also note the highly derivative nature of Irish political thought in this period. But although contemporary British discourse provided the conceptual framework for Irish writers, they did not merely borrow from the likes of John Locke or Charles Davenant; rather they adapted and applied British (and continental) ideas to highly specific Irish conditions in ways which were creative and illuminating. Connolly, for example, shows how Irish Protestants took a more practical view of the revolution of 1688 than their English co-religionists (the Scots have yet another story). Because their position was more precarious than that of English Protestants, the Irish were more ready to accept de facto authority which offered effective protection against their Catholic enemies and, correlatively, were less troubled than their English counterparts by the subversion of dynastic legitimacy. Patrick Kelly demonstrates how Bishop Berkeley in particular evolved ‘a full-blown theory of the differences between the developed and undeveloped economies, with the perception that the prescriptions evolved in relation to the developed economy were not merely not necessarily applicable to the poorer economy but in practice actually harmful to it’. James Kelly, elaborating on an insight of J.J. Sack, argues persuasively that Irish Protestant defences of the constitutional centrality of the church establishment inspired and informed British conservatism.
From Molyneux in the 1690s to Tone in the 1790s, historians, when they turn to political ideas at all, have tended to concentrate on the ‘patriot’ variety. That imbalance has been somewhat redressed in recent years, by Robert Eccleshall’s work on Anglican political thought for instance, and by James Kelly’s explorations of unionist discourse and of the ideological origins of ‘Protestant Ascendancy’. This volume continues that process. Connolly looks at the critics of the Patriots as well as at the Patriots themselves, at Richard Cox as well as Charles Lucas. And if Lucas is sometimes seen as a precursor of ‘republican separatism’ he appears in Hill’s essay as a champion of ancien regime corporatist values (of course he may well fit both bills).
These essays go a long way towards retrieving the variety, complexity and ambiguities of eighteenth-century Irish political ideas. Swift’s rhetoric takes centre-stage in Mahony’s contribution, whereas Patrick Kelly cautions against treating the dean as representative. After a careful and instructive summary of recent historiography McBride concludes that the United Irishmen stood at an ideological cross-roads, both looking forward to Young Ireland ‘blood-and-soil’ style nationalism and upholding ‘an enlightenment ideology focused on citizenship’. There is however a large zone of political thought in this period which is left largely unexamined: that of Catholic Ireland. James Kelly writes about Irish Protestant conservatism, and Pocock’s concluding reflections are equally explicit in their discussion of the Protestant community. There is a little in this volume, but not much, on Jacobitism, on the post-Jacobite Catholic quest, led by Charles O’Conor, to reach an accommodation with the Hanoverian state (they were all good Whigs by then), or about Catholic conservatism. Unsurprisingly neither Archbishop Troy nor Dr Theobald McKenna shared in the anti-popery of Kelly’s neo-conservatives of the 1790s, they did, on the other hand, share in their anti-Jacobinism. In response to this gripe it might be argued that no single volume can cover all the ground, that Catholic Ireland lies outside its remit and that the Protestant elite generated most of the discourse anyway. True enough, and yet after all these years one imagines that Daniel Corkery would have remained underwhelmed by such arguments.
There is a further caveat. Connolly declares that ‘the authors of this volume are all concerned to demonstrate that ideas had a significance in the world of politics’; insists upon ‘the real but indirect influence of ideas on practical politics’ and reiterates the importance of understanding the impact of ideas on ‘practical political outcomes’. This is not merely a salutary position but a necessary one. Recent research, he confirms, emphasises ‘the extent to which patriot rhetoric could mask vested interests and the pursuit of political power’. Clearly the ghost of Namier (if not Corkery!) continues to haunt the imagined political landscape of eighteenth-century Ireland. What a volume such as this ought to demonstrate is that ideas matter. Unfortunately the agency of ideas is here more often asserted, or assumed, than proven. It would be wrong however to conclude on a negative note. This volume manages to combine diversity with coherence and the essays, including two from Connolly in addition to his introduction, are of a uniformly high standard. Together with its companion volumes this book places the history of Irish political thought on a firmer footing. It seems unlikely that the silence which followed McDowell’s Public Opinion will be repeated.

Jim Smyth

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