Before the Revolution: Nationalism, Social Change and Ireland’s Catholic Elite, 1879-1922, Senia Paseta. (Cork University Press, hb £35, pb £15.95) ISBN 1859182267, 1859182275

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2000), Reviews, Volume 8

For a long time Irish nationalism was seen primarily in terms of political movements, and there has been a tendency to identify with mass movements rather than elites. Recent theories which emphasise how educational and social obstacles to upward mobility for minorities in a professional society encourage nationalist movements has revived interest in the Catholic middle-class which grew up under the Union. Dr Paseta now provides a pioneering study of how the generation of Catholic professionals which grew up after 1900 were shaped by their schools and universities and how they in turn formed influence networks to prepare themselves to become the new Irish ruling class under Home Rule. She draws on a marvellous range of underexploited sources, including magazines, memoirs, and archives. The University Question is restored to the political importance which it occupied in the later nineteenth century. A particularly valuable chapter traces the growth of Catholic social networks, from the appearance of old boys’ associations for the major Catholic schools in the 1890s to the emergence of more aggressive groups like the Catholic Association, the Catholic Defence Society, and the Knights of Columbanus. Paseta concludes that the displacement of this confident and vigorous group was only due to the historical accidents of the First World War and Easter Rising.
Dr Paseta also makes a valuable comparison between the role of blocked professional mobility in nationalist politics and the new feminism linked to the appearance of significant numbers of Catholic lay professional women. She argues that where Protestant and Catholic male professionals were divided by rivalry for the same jobs, women activists were able to cross sectarian boundaries and engage in joint campaigns.
It is possible to question the theoretical framework within which this research is deployed. While her title speaks of 1879-1922, Paseta’s primary concern is with 1900-16; hence she underplays the enduring tension within nationalist politics between establishing a Catholic presence within the existing system and boycotting the system in order to overthrow it. The Irish Parliamentary Party was more ambivalent on the issue than Paseta realises, it had a long record of attacking Catholic middle-class ‘Whigs’ and ‘job hunters’ in a rhetoric which was easily turned against the party’s own protégés by separatists, while some Party supporters saw nationalism as secondary to the advancement of Catholic elite interests. Paseta cites W.F. Dennehy, founding editor of the Irish Catholic, as exemplifying Party readiness to accept empire loyalty, but Dennehy was denounced by Party leaders for his forthright advocacy of Catholic job seeking and acceptance of empire. D.P. Moran developed Dennehy’s agenda with less emphasis on deference and more on Gaelic revivalism, while Griffith (whom Paseta treats as interchangeable with Moran) was hostile to much of that agenda; he opposed a Catholic University as divisive and attacked campaigns against anti-Catholic discrimination as damaging Protestant-run Irish businesses to the benefit of British competitors and Catholic job hunters.
Paseta also overestimates the strength and confidence of the new class by understating the vigour of Unionist/Protestant rearguard action (vital in delaying the establishment of a Catholic university). The populist ultra-Unionist critique of Catholic clericalism and professional advancement (which overlaps interestingly with advanced nationalist complaints) is largely ignored, though some space is given to one proponent, the ex-Catholic polemicist Michael McCarthy (a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and not Queen’s, Belfast as stated on p.9). The thematic organisation of her book confuses this further by juxtaposing statements made in 1900 (when Home Rule seemed unattainable) and 1916 (when hopes and fears were raised by Redmond’s revival of Home Rule and explicit acceptance of empire). Fears that regrouping Irish conservative forces might be able to push the clock back before 1910 or even 1906 produced the secession of many younger Catholic professionals to Sinn Féin after 1916 (largely unexplored by Paseta) and the refusal of some to accept the Treaty. Paseta also underestimates the political impact of economic nationalism; its claim that a comprador elite of Protestant Tories and Catholic Whigs hindered the development of Irish resources by favouring low-intensity cultivation for immediate returns while extorting carriage charges on exports and middleman’s profits on imports and that West British banks and railways stifled the productive potential of genuinely Irish entrepreneurs while diverting capital to Belfast and Britain may have been dubious economics, but produced an explosive mixture of nationalist, sectarian and economic grievances which allowed Moran and Griffith to present themselves as transcending class interests and reached its political zenith with De Valera’s Fianna Fáil. This suggests Paseta underestimates the long-term potential of radical nationalism to disrupt a Home Rule settlement. It is a tribute to Dr Paseta’s work that it raises such far-reaching issues. Her book is essential for students of Edwardian Ireland.

Patrick Maume

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