Victoria’s Ireland: Britishness and Irishness, 1837-1901

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 2001), News, Volume 9

Last April’s conference of the Society for the Study of Nineteenth-Century Ireland at the University of Southampton, whose theme was chosen to reflect the centenary of Queen Victoria’s death, opened with a classic rendition of the music hall ditty ‘Killaloe’, written by Robert Martin, landowner, unionist and composer of popular songs and musicals. Music hall is not something commonly associated with the Irish musical tradition. In fact, nineteenth-century Ireland is rarely described as ‘Victorian’. The notions of respectability, thrift, self-help and industry, which are so frequently attributed to Britain, would not be terms usually used to describe Ireland’s social and cultural ethos. This conference, however, showed quite clearly that in many respects, Ireland was deeply ‘Victorian’ and shared many of the assumptions and values which permeated British culture. At the same time, the conference also revealed ways in which the Irish experience diverged from that of its neighbour.
One way in which Ireland reflected the broader trends of the Victorian period is in the area of public policy. In the early nineteenth century the British government fully endorsed laissez-faire economics and the policy of non-intervention. By the end of the century, however, the growth in social policy legislation reflected an increased willingness to curb at least the worst excesses of a market economy. Peter Gray’s (Southampton and conference host) and Virginia Crossman’s (Warwick) papers well illustrate this shift. Gray detailed the changing interpretation of the Famine amongst British and Irish economists. In the 1850s, the Famine was celebrated as an opportunity for Irish regeneration. By the 1860s there had been a decline in providentialist thought and the Famine came to be seen in increasingly negative terms. Clearly, laissez-faire policies had not worked. Crossman showed that in the late nineteenth century, the government was much more willing to intervene in large-scale economic crises and provide a wide range of emergency relief. That said, government officials remained obsessed with the need to avoid ‘the abuse of relief’.
Ireland has also been an important element within the study of the British Empire. While it is usually discussed in terms of its colonial status, several of the papers revealed interesting complications in this interpretation. Jennifer Ridden’s (Cambridge) survey of liberal Protestant families from Limerick and Clare showed that the idea of ‘empire’ and their sense of their own ‘Irishness’ worked in tandem. On the one hand, these families strongly believed in the advantages deriving from the empire and used the language of ‘empire’ to stress their equality to the British. On the other hand, ‘British’ identity which the Empire fostered was sufficiently flexible to allow them to maintain and promote a clear sense of Irishness and of their distinct role, as ‘Irish’ within it.
The fascination which many English Victorians had for archaeology and natural science, the occult and exotic cultures, it was revealed, were well represented among the Irish. William Wilde and his folklore-collecting made an appearance (Fergus O’Connor), as did W.B. Yeats (Jessica de Mellow). Nick Allen (TCD) unearthed the connection between George Russell and Flinders Petrie, an archaeologist and Egyptologist, whose findings caused Russell to speculate about the origins of Ireland’s ethnic makeup. Richard Hooper, in his paper on Lord Houghton, Chief Secretary from 1892-5, revealed that even Queen Victoria was concerned with the supposed fairy abduction of Bridget Cleary.
The growth of organised sport was a prominent feature of Victorian Britain. Similarly in Ireland where the development of sport was more diverse than simply the GAA. Brian Griffin (Bath Spa) talked about the growing popularity of cycling and of cycling magazines which were concerned not so with ‘national’ issues, but with the increasing number of women taking up the sport. According to Tom Hayes (Limerick), the tensions between Limerick unionists and nationalists in the 1870s were not manifested in their adoption of different sports, but in the rivalry between two local boat clubs. The only difference between the Royal and the Shannon was that the former toasted the queen and sang ‘God Save the Queen’, while the latter abandoned the most offensively loyal toasts and sang ‘God Save Ireland’. It wasn’t until the 1880s that nationalists would locate their sporting identity within the GAA.
The growth of nationalism in late nineteenth-century Ireland was a serious and sustained challenge to the dominance of a middle-class, English-based Victorian culture. And although nationalists and their political parties and cultural associations became increasingly popular amongst the Irish people, it was still possible to have the odd contradiction. In his keynote address, delivered at Queen Victoria’s summer residence at Osborne, Isle of Wight, James Murphy (All Hallows) examined the way in which Ireland and Irish nationalism contributed to the changing construction of Queen Victoria. In 1849, leading nationalists were isolated critics of her visit to Ireland, which was greeted with universal popular acclaim. The enthusiastic reception which the Prince and Princess of Wales received in 1885 prompted nationalist leaders to take a much stronger anti-monarchical stance. Only in 1900 were nationalists (ironically led by the Anglo-Irish women Maud Gonne and Anna Parnell) able to take Victoria’s visit and use it to construct her as the ‘Famine Queen’.

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