1798, a Bicentenary perspective

Published in Issue 3 (Autumn 2003), Reviews, The United Irishmen, Volume 11

Thomas Bartlett, David Dickson, Dáire Keogh and Kevin Whelan (eds)
(Four Courts Press, E50)
ISBN 1-85182-430-8

Eleven years ago I wrote that the study of Ireland in the 1790s was still in its heroic phase. It was then, to be sure, in robust good health, as the work of Louis Cullen, Thomas Bartlett and others confirmed. Yet there was still much to do. Some idea of the challenge presented, and the possibilities open, to scholars of Ireland’s revolutionary decade is indicated by the depth, range, sophistication, maturity and sheer volume of the historical literature on the English, American and French revolutions. Since 1992 much has been achieved: Nancy Curtin’s reconstruction of the United Irishmen’s formidable organisation in Ulster, for example, or Ian McBride’s finely shaded mapping of eighteenth-century Presbyterianism. Yet there is still much to do. 1798, a Bicentenary perspective is not ‘definitive’, to which unattainable status, the preface tells us, the editors aspired. Nor in the last decade have we quite witnessed the ‘tidal wave’ of publication also claimed in the preface. But this collection of 33 essays, plus eight ‘linked commentaries’ (or, to use Declan Kiberd’s term, ‘inter-chapters’), does offer the most comprehensive treatment of the 1790s to date, and serves notice that the historiography of the period has grown out of its heroic phase into a rude vitality unrivalled perhaps by any other field in Irish history.
It is a big book, comprising the revised proceedings of a large conference held in 1998, and weighing in at over 700 pages. At such length, and with so many voices, the editors opted, sensibly enough, to group the essays into eight more manageable sections. These deal, roughly speaking, with (i) the ideological contexts of eighteenth-century Irish republicanism, (ii) the rebellions in Leinster, Munster and Connaught, (iii) Ulster, (iv) loyalist counter-revolution, (v) Dublin Castle, (vi) memory, (vii) international perspectives and (viii) the United Irish diaspora in Australia and America. It includes maps, an exhaustive bibliography of secondary sources (1900–2002) and a first-rate index. Contributors hail from Ireland, Britain and North America.
The collection certainly gets off to a running start with James Livesey’s essay, ‘From the ancient constitution to democracy: transformations in republicanism in the eighteenth century’. Livesey explores the development of what he calls, after Judith Shklar, ‘the new republicanism’ as represented by Montesquieu, Rousseau and Adam Ferguson. According to this argument, evolving eighteenth-century critiques of commerce and civil society amount to a ‘reinvention’ of republicanism, shaped the constitutions of the American and French republics, and found an Irish exponent in the United Irishman Arthur O’Connor. The argument is important and impressive, but Livesey overplays the newness of the ‘new republicanism’. For all their undoubted originality, many of the ideas for which Montesquieu, Rousseau and Ferguson are granted credit can be found among the English ‘classical republicans’ of the 1650s. Moreover, in the light of recent work by Steven Pincus, the assertion that there existed a ‘traditional republican distrust of commerce’ needs qualification. The next essay, Geraldine Sheridan’s ‘Irish periodicals and the dissemination of French Enlightenment writings…’, deals with the French philosophes, and uncovers an Irish provincial market for advanced French ideas—scientific and religious, as well as sociological. Not surprisingly, that market niche was socially, if not geographically, restricted. Sheridan, unfortunately, does not relate her findings to the ideological ferment of the 1790s.
Whereas Livesey and Sheridan locate Ireland within its European contexts, the other two pieces in this first section look across the Atlantic and to Scottish Gaeldom, before bringing the reader back home. In an elegant, nuanced essay, ‘“The Return of the Native”: the United Irishmen, culture and colonialism’, Luke Gibbons unlocks a paradox at the core of the cosmopolitan Enlightenment, namely ‘that universal declarations of human rights extended with greater ease to individuals than to cultures; while human beings were equal, some cultures were less equal than others, and their destruction was justified in the name of progress’. Mainstream ‘Enlightenments’ were intensely Eurocentric, yet the ‘lesser breeds’ were to be found within as well as without, and at the margins of, the European world. Gibbons examines negative, Anglophone, perceptions of the American savage, the Scottish Highlander and the ‘native’ Irish, and shows how certain United Irishmen rescued their ‘doomed’ cultures from the scrapyard of history to which enlightened discourse had consigned them. This essay testifies to their intellectual achievement.
Gibbons’s contribution opens with a quotation from a United Irish address: ‘We will not buy or borrow liberty from America or France, but manufacture it ourselves…’. Here is a salutary reminder that Irish republicanism is not purely derivative in its ideological roots. The United Irishmen were not alluding to Jacobite tradition when they spoke of domestic manufacture, but for Breandan Ó Buachalla in ‘From Jacobite to Jacobin’ Jacobitism represents a vital antecedent to the ideological new departures of the 1790s. The ‘popular mind’, he insists, was no tabula rasa across which radicals wrote their script. Rather, the ‘new’ doctrines were transmitted via the ‘old’—in this case the oppositional and ‘counter-hegemonic’ rhetoric of Jacobitism. Or, as he otherwise puts it, what we witness during the 1790s is the melding of the ‘residual’ with the ‘emergent’. Ó Buachalla clinches the argument with a close reading of the Irish-language verse of the Cork poet and United Irishman Micheál Óg Ó Longáin. Ó Longáin’s poems utilise Jacobite conventions, symbols and codes, but his politics are unmistakably ‘modern’. So much for the static, conservative, ‘backward look’ of Gaelic poetry!
In the limited space available, any attempt to notice, let alone to do justice to, each individual essay must result in a mere annotated list. Viewed thematically, however, the trajectories of research into the revolutionary decade may be discerned. For example, the next two sections on regional experience of the rebellion once again demonstrate the indispensability of detailed local studies, underline the complexity and diversity of ’98, and raise the question: ‘rebellion’ or ‘rebellions’? Other questions prompted by the juxtaposition of these essays concern the dogs that didn’t bark in ’98: the province of Munster and the north and south-west corners of Ulster. Actually, Munster growled, but in the end it did not see action on the scale of neighbouring Leinster. In his densely packed contribution ‘Smoke without fire? Munster and the 1798 rebellion’ David Dickson tries to find out why. The solution to what he calls that ‘perplexing’ and ‘curious’ problem must, inevitably, remain elusive, but Dickson is right, I think, to stress the smothering effect of a concerted campaign of counter-insurgency.
Breandán MacSuibhne likewise attributes the failure of counties Derry and Donegal to rise to effective military repression. But he is less interested in explaining non-rebellion in May–September 1798 than in tracking politicisation in the area, dating back to the first stirrings of Volunteering in the late 1770s. His thoroughly documented analysis is historiographically significant because it flatly contradicts the near-orthodoxy that levels of provincial politicisation were a function of distance from Belfast. The vitality of regional oppositional politics is illustrated, for instance, by the facts that Derry printers had a cheap edition of Paine’s Rights of Man in circulation before their Belfast counterparts, and that republican oaths were usually administered by locals, not outside emissaries. The assumption that provincial mobilisation depended on Belfast is, on the face of it, condescending, entailing, as it seems to, further assumptions about rural backwardness. The author himself, however, gives short shrift to south-west Ulster’s ‘morbidly atavistic political culture’ (signs of which, he notes in contrast to Ó Buachalla’s more variegated assessments, include stout Jacobite traditions). In short, MacSuibhne’s bleak view of those parts is unlikely to win much applause in Bundoran.
The supposed political simpletons of Bundoran and environs appear to have lived a world away not only from Derry and Strabane but also from the ‘advanced’, complex and unstable politics back east, as depicted by David Miller in ‘Radicalism and ritual in east Ulster’. Miller’s distinctive interventions in Irish history have long been characterised by a willingness to adapt concepts from sociology, anthropology and political science and apply them to apparently familiar subjects. His work on Presbyterians and modernisation is one example, and on the ‘Armagh Troubles’ and ‘social break-down’ theory another. In his contribution here, he examines the Ulster crisis in terms of Clifford Geertz’s idea of the ‘theatre state’. Not every reader will be convinced by an approach which claims that the Volunteers in 1778–82 wrung concessions from government by means of ‘public performance’ (MacSuibhne calls it bullying), but none can fail to be stimulated by a highly original discussion of the outward forms, meanings and techniques of ritual activity. As every student of the French Revolution knows, great historical change is cultural as well as political.
Of course, the Orange Order, Ireland’s most ritualistic organisation (apart from the churches), was founded in 1795. Early Orangeism here gets an essay of its own by James Wilson, and, indeed, in the volume overall loyalism and the state receive ample scrutiny. In a crisply written piece Tom Bartlett revisits that venerable sub-field of rebellion studies, the inevitable informer. He makes a useful distinction between the unfiltered ‘information’ flowing into Dublin Castle and hard ‘intelligence’, concluding that while the former was plentiful, the latter was in short supply. Ultimately Intelligence successes, such as the capture of most of the United Irish Leinster Executive in March 1798, were outweighed by Intelligence failures, most spectacularly the Castle’s total ignorance about French invasion plans in 1796. Bartlett also observes that the United Irishmen eschewed counter-intelligence, speculating that they probably associated spies with government corruption. This new look at an old subject cuts the informer, and his supposed impact on the outcome of the rebellion, down to proper size.
Finally, it is fair to say that the tenor of this volume, as of the bicentennial commemorative events and much recent writing on the period, is generally, though not uniformly, positive. The reasons for this are not difficult to guess. It is hard not to see the 1790s as a moment of thwarted opportunity. Behind that feeling lie a series of counterfactuals—What if the French had landed in force? What if the United Irishmen had won?—and an imagined alternative, inclusive, republican history for Ireland. In a bracing counter-blast against such benign scenarios, ‘Continental analogies with 1798’, Brendan Simms argues that on the evidence of contemporaneous European experience, the more likely outcome of a successful, French-backed, United Irish insurrection would have been ‘a murderous bourgeois secular satellite state, subservient to the needs of French foreign policy’. There would have followed, moreover, ‘a bourgeois terror against threats from below’. While that worst-case scenario is not bereft of plausibility; it is difficult to imagine a post-revolution Thomas Russell, or Henry Joy McCracken, or James Hope terrorising the men of no property.
Simms’s contrarian, sometimes mischievous, essay neatly illustrates the point, noted earlier, that this volume cannot be ‘definitive’. If it were, then the editors could not also claim that the historiography of the period ‘will never stand still’, or express the wish that this volume ‘will stimulate a new cycle of research’. Nonetheless, as hopefully this necessarily condensed sampling indicates, the sweep, scholarship and ambition of 1798, a Bicentenary perspective ensure that it will come to be seen as a landmark book. Heroic Age adieu!
Jim Smyth
University of Notre Dame


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