Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2002), Reviews, The United Irishmen, Volume 10

Dáire Keogh and Kevin Whelan (eds.)
(Four Courts Press, E50)
ISBN 1851825304

This book contains the proceedings of two conferences held in Newman House, St  Stephen’s Green, and at the Byrne-Perry Summer School in Gorey to mark the bicentenary of the Act of Union. This was the latest in a series of voluntarily organised but also officially assisted commemorations, which in the eyes of some, like the Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford, are slightly suspect, but which nonetheless serve and stimulate the public’s interest in history.
The Act of Union is clearly one of the central events in Irish history. But the Irish State is founded on its repudiation, whereas Northern Ireland is the part that remains of the Union, which is the issue that most divides the two communities. Natural empathy, certainly in the Republic, for those who passed the Union would obviously be in much shorter supply than for, say, those who took part in the 1798 Rebellion or the victims of the Famine. The Act of Union, while marketed as a promotion, downgraded both the capital and the country. The North-East geographically and the Anglo-Irish élite, who passed it in the first place after overcoming much internal division, were in net terms the main people to benefit, though no-one can deny that between 1801 and 1922 a lot of important and beneficial reforms, including substantial democratisation, a revolution in land ownership, separation of Church and State, and the beginnings of a more active regional and social policy, eventually took place, many of them over an extended period, but only after sustained pressure from below.
The tone of the book as a whole is ‘post-revisionist’. The metaphor contained on the cover and in the cartoons reproduced by Nick Robinson and elaborated by Claire Connolly, Willa Murphy and Jane Dougherty is one of ill-assorted marriage with inbuilt gender inequality. As the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern added at the launch, ‘the bridegroom’s present of Catholic Emancipation was delayed in the Royal Mail, and did not arrive till twenty-nine years later, when impatience had boiled over into agitation, and grateful appreciation was in short supply’. Maria Edgeworth feared the loss of freedom in marriage: ‘I feel I should lose infinitely more than I should gain’. Ireland lost ground hugely vis-à-vis Great Britain in the course of the nineteenth century in terms of its population and industry. Great Britain powered ahead, while most of Ireland, but for the vigour of its politics and its ‘Captain Moonlights’, would have been destined to remain a largely ignored poor and provincial backwater.
The volume highlights one of the more spectacular débâcles of the revisionist school, who tried to pass off the suggestion that bribery and corruption on an unusual scale were not a serious factor in the reversal between the Irish parliament’s two votes on the Union. Indeed, in 1801, the mental illness of George III threatened to expose the scandal of a diversion of funds from the civil list, causing Lord Castlereagh his own mental breakdown. Contemporary instincts were right. Loyalty was negotiable.
Acts of Union brings together many of the historians who have distinguished themselves in writing about the 1790s, including Kevin Whelan, Patrick Geoghegan, James Kelly, Dáire Keogh, Ruan O’Donnell and Tom Bartlett. I am not sure that the subject excites the same passionate interest as the United Irishmen and the 1798 Rebellion, or even the patriots of 1782, and the sort of enthusiasm one might find in, say David Trimble’s Lord Castlereagh lecture in the House of Lords this autumn, is not conspicuous here. Gillian O’Brien’s essay on Viceroy Lord Camden does not try to warm up sympathy very much. It is difficult to screen the sequel to the Act of Union out of one’s mind entirely.
There are interesting comparative essays by Allan Macinnes and James Livesey on the Scottish and Irish Acts of Union, although the comparison of Ireland, which had been treated as a colony more than a kingdom, was not flattering to Scotland. Livesey sees the abolition of the Irish parliament in the European context of the elimination of intermediary bodies by both monarchs and revolution. Daniel Mansergh shows that a watchful eye was kept on a quiescent public opinion, emotionally drained on all sides following the huge upheaval of the 1798 Rebellion. Some on the anti-Union side in parliament showed what with the benefit of hindsight appeared to be extraordinary prescience on the long-term destabilising consequences of the Union for the British connection, an aspect no longer dwelt on by historians.
Tom Bartlett’s concluding essay ‘Britishness, Irishness and the Act of Union’ is one of the best in the book. As Pitt perceived it, the proudly proclaimed legislative independence of 1782 went out at the end of the day scarcely with a whimper. Castlereagh was proud of himself for being ‘less Irish and more English’. George III imagined that by reading Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent: ‘What, what—I know something now of my Irish subjects’, which is on a par with the Duke of Gloucester’s ‘scribble, scribble, scribble’ remark to Edward Gibbon. Britain did not enter the Union with Ireland, showing much respect or feeling much affection, and not surprisingly it ended in tears.

Martin Mansergh


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