Eighteenth-century Ireland: the isle of slaves

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 3 (May/June 2010), Reviews, Volume 18

Eighteenth-century Ireland: the isle of slaves

Ian McBride
New Gill History of Ireland 4
(Gill and Macmillan, Ä24)
ISBN 9780717116270


78_small_1274267313 There are many paths through the historical forest. Ian McBride’s is different from his predecessors’, and in particular from Edith Johnston’s in the original Gill series published in 1974. His synthesis of advances in research is far from dominated by the politics of the Ascendancy, and more about depicting the tensions underlying the surface stability of Irish society during most of the eighteenth century. There is only summary coverage of cultural, as distinct from intellectual, life, nor does he major on Ireland’s economic development.
His choice of time-frame, 1690 to 1798, is distinctly odd: his eighteenth century ends not with the Act of Union but with the defeat of the 1798 Rebellion, and a priest’s nephew telling Wexford Protestant woman Elizabeth Richards with a smile of indignation: ‘Yes. There will be peace, but we shall all be slaves.’ At the beginning, as an opposite take on the ‘isle of slaves’ theme, McBride quotes a County Tyrone Protestant rector, who claimed in a 1749 pamphlet that English law from the time of Henry II had freed the inhabitants of Ireland from poverty and slavery under petty tyrants. Pamphlets and sermons are an important and neglected source for the period, McBride advises.
As the first sentence of his introduction indicates—‘the eighteenth century has become a new boomtown of Irish historiography’—McBride’s approach is thematic rather than narrative, and quite often an account of some of the debates among present-day historians, which seem to interest him as much, if not more, than the actual debates and conflicting visions of key groups and individuals in eighteenth-century Ireland. He assumes considerable background knowledge, and his book is not a short introduction like Edith Johnston’s. While McBride strives to make the whole period interesting, Part IV, ‘The Age of Revolutions’, dealing with the fast-moving and dramatic 1790s, makes much the easiest reading.
The best feature of the book is the way that the comparative European background is brought to bear. It is less strong on English party and American colonial influences. McBride is clear that none of the explanatory paradigms—sister but dependent kingdom, composite monarchies, colony or ancien régime—easily fit eighteenth-century Ireland, though, he argues rightly, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Does ancien régime really fit Ireland at all? Betty Behrens in her classic volume The Ancien Régime (Thames and Hudson, 1967) argued that ‘the combination of characteristics that distinguishes ancien régime in France, was not only unique, but without close parallels at the time’, and that ‘no nation except the French experienced a major social revolution in the eighteenth century’. Any parallels were to be found in central and eastern Europe in later times (her husband, E.H. Carr, was the author of a monumental multi-volume history of the Soviet Revolution). The political and social power of the Ascendancy was slowly on the wane after 1800, but was still a strong enough influence to block Home Rule for 30 years up to 1916. Economically and socially, a remainder had an attenuated post-colonial half-life for a generation in the Irish Free State, including its Senate. The fateful choice in 1800 to abandon after less than twenty years the bridgehead of legislative independence, because of a heightened defensiveness vis-à-vis the broad Irish nation, is barely discussed at all. McBride does emphasise that parity with other communities of English origin, not with the indigenous population, had been the main motive of the misfiring ‘colonial patriotism’ mercilessly dissected by Burke.
There is also something strained about the concept of the Irish Enlightenment, notwithstanding individual thinkers like Irish-born Francis Hutcheson, normally counted with the Scottish Enlightenment, or Bishop Berkeley, whose presence amongst the trio of empirical philosophers—Locke, Berkeley and Hume—is counteracted to a degree in an Irish context by the mingling of progressive ideas with his Ascendancy social position and attitudes. The political and religious influence of the Enlightenment, which bubbled to the surface in the 1780s and 1790s with the Dungannon Convention, the writings of Tone and Drennan (who had a more advanced view of women’s rights than practically anyone), and the United Irishmen in their initial constitutional phase, was temporary. Drennan’s sister Martha McTier is certainly worth the attention McBride gives her.
Ironically, while the Emperor Joseph II in the 1780s was closing down religious houses in the Austrian Netherlands (a process ending in revolt, better translated as Josephinism than Josephism), one evicted congregation of Irish nuns made its way back across France, visiting Carmelite prioress Mme Louise, daughter of Louis XV, who was deeply concerned for their welfare in an Ireland still stuck at the tail end of the Penal era. The great age of the religious institutions in Ireland, following Nano Nagle, who had returned earlier from Paris, was about to begin, not end. The short-lived influence of the Enlightenment in Ireland, flawed as it was, was quickly snuffed out.
There is a danger in historical writing that, when all legitimate nuances and qualifications have been brought into play, it becomes difficult to distinguish the wood from the trees. McBride’s comparative explanation of the Penal Laws, as they operated in practice, is the least satisfactory part of his book. While a state religion was common, only in Ireland, as he admits, was it the religion of a small minority of the population. The uneasy seventeenth-century Stuart attempts, punctuated by rebellion and suppression, to achieve a degree of denominational coexistence were thrust aside by the Irish parliament, post-1690, in favour of a near-total monopoly of public office, land, religion and arms, even if worse excesses were avoided as a result of quiet Continental allied diplomatic influence in London up to the 1730s.
The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and the dragonnades, which eventually led Louis XIV’s plain-spoken military engineer Vauban (not Vaubon) to fall out with him, had a disastrous influence on Ireland, where the influx of Huguenot refugees did not compensate for the exit of Irish Jacobite leaders. If the Great Elector welcomed the Huguenots to his dominions, his great-grandson Frederick the Great welcomed the Jesuits after their suppression. Ancien régime France in the eighteenth century compares quite well on many counts with smug, self-satisfied and rapacious oligarchic Britain. Louis XV’s most famous commander, the victor of Fontenoy in 1745 (the Celtic cross there is under OPW care), the Maréchal de Saxe, was a Protestant, and indeed a military order was instituted in 1760 for other foreign Protestant officers. McBride compares Fr Sheehy’s trial and execution to that of Jean Calas, both victims of local bigotry, though Fr Sheehy had no Voltaire to vindicate his memory. The French Edict of Toleration in 1787 preceded Catholic Emancipation in Ireland and Britain by over 30 years, and Wolfe Tone was right to point out in 1790 how poorly Ireland compared after the initial decisions of the National Assembly. However, subsequent Jacobin methods of exterminating a religious and royalist peasant revolt in La Vendée far exceeded in atrocities anything in Ireland since Cromwellian times, though some of what happened in Ireland in 1798 on a limited scale was ugly enough.
There are two recurring themes in Irish history: from the twelfth century, the strategic significance of Ireland to its island neighbour and its enemies; and, from 1600 on, the struggle for hegemony within Ireland to maintain, or dismantle, conquest, settlement and dispossession, well brought out in David Butler’s South Tipperary, 1570–1840—religion, land and rivalry (2001), not quoted in the bibliography.
Ireland, like Scotland, was a diversion for Britain’s Continental rivals. General Hoche saw the opportunity of downgrading Britain to a second-rate power, though French lack of control of the seas, as McBride points out, made this a pipe-dream. If Hoche had landed at Bantry Bay in December 1796, the British second line of defence would have been Tipperary. What appears not to have been spotted by (any?) Irish historians is the earlier interest of Lafayette in Ireland during the American War of Independence, recounted in Gilles Perrault’s Le secret du roi. T.3 La revanche américaine (1996). On a visit home to France in 1779, Lafayette wrote about Ireland to George Washington:
‘I will tell you in confidence that the project close to my heart would be to make it free and independent like America. I have formed there some secret relations. With God’s help, may we succeed, and the era of liberty begin for the happiness of the world.’

This went no further than Vergennes, the French foreign minister, sending an agent to northern Presbyterians, while Bourbon Family Pact ally Floridablanca, the Spanish prime minister, sent a priest to the rest of the country (with promise of a bishopric, in case of success!).
Like Roy Foster and Tom Dunne, McBride is critical of the official state-sponsored 1798 commemoration. I must declare an interest as a member of the steering committee, chaired by Seamus Brennan, then minister of state. I spoke about a dozen times around the country, a memory intertwined with negotiation and aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement. I even accepted honorary membership of the Wexford Senate, based on a putative but historically elusive model. Commemoration is not history. It is popular celebration of past ideals and sacrifices, and honours the struggles and suffering of those who lived through dramatic and awful events, often, though not always, in arms. The French government in 1989, the bicentenary of the French Revolution, which intersected with the largely bloodless velvet revolutions of central and eastern Europe, requested friendly governments to concentrate on the peaceful expressions, such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man, rather than violent events. Commemoration reawakens public interest in the past, and provides rich opportunities for historians to rewrite previous assessments as they see fit. While McBride’s book is worth reading, it leaves other paths to be explored.  HI

Martin Mansergh is minister of state at the OPW and TD for Tipperary South.


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