Rebellion and Remembrance in Modern Ireland, Laurence M. Geary (ed.). (Four Courts Press, £35.44) ISBN 185182586X Revolution, Counter-Revolution and Union: Ireland in the 1790s, Jim Smyth (ed.). (Cambridge University Press, £35) ISBN 052166109

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 2001), Reviews, Volume 9

As the Irish parliament enacts the union a deputation of dissident MPs burst into the study of Robert Emmet, demanding that he go immediately to France in search of armed assistance. Elsewhere Father Murphy organises his parishioners into an insurrectionary band. Later Michael Dwyer marries Anne Devlin, before both flee to Australia. These self-evidently ludicrous highlights from the film Ireland a Nation (1914), summarised in Kevin Rockett’s contribution to Rebellion and Remembrance, vividly illustrate, by counterfactual example, the distinctive character of Irish historical memory. In some societies past conflicts enter the hazy, uncontentious folk memory that made Sellar and Yeatman household names. In Ireland memories of 1798 and similar episodes have been both highly specific in terms of time and place and charged with a continuing political significance.
It is these characteristics that give Lawrence Geary’s collection its justification. The most striking contributions are those that address directly the ways in which events were accommodated to the concerns of later generations: for example, Tadhg O’Sullivan’s analysis of the memories of 1798 awakened by the Rockite insurrection of 1822, and Sean Ryder’s subtle analysis of the ambivalence which Young Ireland writers displayed towards their United Irish predecessors. Three other accounts deal with the political and symbolic aspects of the 1898 centenary commemoration in Ireland and Australia. For light relief there is Neil McCaw’s essay, aptly described by the author as an exercise in ‘reading what is not there’, in which an isolated sentence from Adam Bede (‘the Loamshire militia’s gone to Ireland’) becomes a licence to read the entire novel as a covert ‘textual commemoration’ of Anglo-Irish relations in the period 1798-1801.
Rebellion rather than remembrance forms the theme of Gary Owens’ valuable study of the neglected topic of the 1848 Confederate Clubs, here shown to represent a hitherto unexpected level of popular political mobilisation. The events of 1798 are most directly addressed in James Donnelly’s contribution. This challenges recent attempts by Cullen, Whelan and others to emphasise the secular and politicised character of the Wexford rising, and instead restates the case for a strong sectarian element. Donnelly’s spirited critique makes effective use of the evidence for a widespread anti-Protestant rhetoric on the rebel side, as well as of testimonies of forced conversions among loyalist prisoners. However his analysis draws almost entirely on printed accounts, contemporary and later. As such it inevitably lacks the texture of the work he sets out to criticise, in which events and attitudes are related to a detailed reconstruction of the local background, including variations both between social groups and between different parts of the county.
The main thrust of Donnelly’s polemic is partly supported by two other fine pieces. Tom Dunne, analysing Gaelic poetry in the post-rebellion decades, restates his view that French-inspired republicanism was never more than a thin veneer imposed on an older tradition of hostility to the culture and religion of the New English and their descendants. Maura Cronin, discussing English language ballads, likewise highlights the nakedly sectarian terms in which events were recalled. The ballad reported from south Tipperary in 1843 (‘Were you at Scullabogue barn/And did you see the Orangemen roasting?’) is calculated to give any proponent of the new history of 1798 an uncomfortable moment. But there is a twist. Cronin goes on to contrast these ballads of the 1820s and after, openly hostile to ‘heresy’ and ‘Harry’s breed’, with material from immediately after the rising, which pillories individuals for their acts of cruelty but displays none of the same generalised confessional animosity. This raises the question of how far later celebrations of 1798 as a settling of accounts with the Protestant oppressor reflected real memories of what the event had meant to participants, and how far they were instead shaped by the very different  climate of the O’Connellite era. Once again we are left with the dual nature of commemoration: the real role of the past in shaping the present, as opposed to what Joe Lee once memorably referred to as the tyranny of the living Irish over their dead generations.
Revolution, Counter-Revolution and Union focuses more closely on the events of the 1790s. The volume draws on a wide cross section of current research. Tommy Graham’s essay on the United Irish leadership expertly disentangles confusing contemporary references to ‘directories’ and ‘executives’ to reconstruct the real nature of the national and provincial leadership. Michael Durey (also represented in Rebellion and Remembrance) continues his analysis of the fate of rebel prisoners transported to Australia. Fintan Cullen discusses the creation of an iconography of 1798 in contemporary and later paintings and engravings. Luke Gibbons examines the links between the United Irish refugee Thomas O’Connor, the silver mines at Arigna (controversially refused assistance by the pre-rebellion Irish parliament), and the harpist Carolan. David Miller analyses the impact of 1798 on the Irish churches.
The events of 1798 have been central to recent debates on the character of Irish society in the eighteenth century. Jim Smyth’s introduction reviews the contrasting perspectives on offer: in one the rebellion appears as the collapse of what had up to then been a stable, hierarchical society; in the other it represents the eventual eruption of structural tensions present throughout the preceding century. The problem for the former view is the need to explain why stability gave way to revolt. Smyth narrows the possible answers to one, the French Revolution, which he then dismisses as ‘the indispensable deus ex machina conveniently to hand’. But this is surely rather facile. In the first place there are other reasons why a previously stable social and political system should have come under new pressures at the century’s end. Smyth himself goes on to discuss a process of popular politicisation, linked to literacy, language change, developments in communications and living standards, observable from the 1760s onwards. To this could be added the disruptive effects of rural commercialisation, the strains created by rapid population growth, and the destabilising of denominational relations as the British state began, for its own purposes, to dismantle institutionalised religious discrimination. None of these arguments is incompatible with the view that the social order was for most of the eighteenth century relatively resilient, and that the tensions of the 1790s should not be read backwards to characterise the whole post-Williamite era. Secondly, can the influence of the American and French revolutions be so easily dismissed? Jacobin ideology may, as Tom Dunne suggests, have had only a superficial impact on popular mentalities. But a climate of revolution affects politics in other ways: by suddenly expanding the range of what seems politically possible, by offering the prospect of external assistance for otherwise hopeless causes, by making guardians of the status quo self-defeatingly draconian in their response to protest. It is worth remembering that the three great crises of British-ruled Ireland, 1798, 1916-21, and 1969, all took place against a background of international upheaval.
Taking this volume as a selection of recent work, however, what is most notable is the signs that some leading practitioners are moving away from the rather sterile polarisation between supposed ‘revisionists’ and ‘counter revisionists’ that has been evident in recent years. Thomas Bartlett surveys Cornwallis’s determined efforts, in the aftermath of the rebellion, to restrain loyalist vengeance by vetting court martial proceedings. The picture he presents is little different to that offered more than twenty years ago by R.B. McDowell, down to the use of the same phrase, ‘measured severity’, to characterise the outcome. (Bartlett also, in passing, reduces the conventional estimate of a death toll of 30,000 to perhaps one third of that number: certainly not a licence to minimise the trauma of the rebellion, but arguably a pointer towards a less apocalyptic interpretation of its place in the longer term development of Irish society.) Meanwhile Daniel Gahan, contributing another instalment of his detailed work on County Wexford, meets Donnelly at least half way by explicitly acknowledging the sectarian as well as the political dimensions of the revolt.
The most striking reassessment of all is that offered by L.M. Cullen. The current debate over 1798 can in many ways be dated back to Cullen’s writings of the 1980s, in particular to his 1985 essay on ‘The 1798 Rebellion in its Eighteenth-Century Context’. This reasserted two themes that historians had up to that time tended to minimise: the strength of Catholic disaffection, and the malign influence on events of an ultra-Protestant clique in control of government policy. Cullen’s contribution to Revolution, Counter-Revolution and Union, on the other hand, heavily qualifies the second of these points. Instead he now stresses the limitations imposed on the government’s security policy by a body of liberal Protestant opinion unhappy with draconian measures. The argument proceeds by means of a characteristic blend of bold generalisation and a close concern  with often obscure local detail. But the overall assessment it offers—an establishment divided between the advocates of repression and of reform, between fear-driven ruthlessness and constitutional scruple—is nevertheless remarkably familiar. What we are offered, in fact, is essentially the view of events that was advanced by Hereward Senior in 1966 and by R.B. McDowell in 1979: the view that held the field until Professor Cullen himself came forward, a few years later, to suggest something rather different.

S.J. Connolly

'


Copyright © 2021 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568