The Tree of Liberty: Radicalism, Catholicism and the construction of Irish identity 1760-1830 Kevin Whelan (Cork University Press in association with Field Day, £14.95

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (Autumn 1996), Reviews, The United Irishmen, Volume 4

The 1790s have emerged, over the past fifteen years or so, as the focus of some of the most vigorous and challenging writing currently forthcoming from Irish historians. In that explosion of debate and reinterpretation, Kevin Whelan is recognised as a central figure. The appearance of The Tree of Liberty will thus attract wide and well deserved interest.

The volume opens strongly with a revised version of the essay ‘Catholic Middlemen in Eighteenth-Century Ireland’ recently published in Eighteenth-  century Ireland, 10 (1995). Rejecting recent attempts to ‘normalise’ post-1690 Ireland as an ancien régime society of lords and peasants, Whelan instead restates the case for a uniquely divided and unstable society. These divisions were due, not just to a history of violent dispossession, but to the existence of an ‘underground gentry’ of middlemen descended from displaced Catholic proprietors. For the Catholic masses this visible survival of the old ruling class provided the basis for a continuing disaffection: an ‘access to alterity…a matrix of memory which encoded an attainable future enabled by the available past’ (p.3). For the elite it encouraged an insecurity easily translated into vicious repression. Yet Whelan’s forceful and closely argued essay is no simple reanimation of Corkery’s ‘Hidden Ireland’. Instead, true to the volume’s subtitle, it emphasises the appropriation and reinterpretation of political tradition, as this historically based self-image of wrongful dispossession was taken over from the remnants of the old elite by a new class of rising strong farmers. In Ulster, neither Catholic middlemen nor Catholic large farmers existed in significant numbers. Here, Whelan argues neatly but perhaps a little schematically, the same tradition was reinterpreted in more egalitarian terms, inspiring the radical nationalism of the Defenders. ‘The Republic in the Village’ is an expanded version of Whelan’s contribution to Lilliput Press’s The United Irishmen (1993). His account of the methods used by the United Irishmen to transmit their radical message to a popular audience does not add greatly to the existing work of James Donnelly and Nancy Curtin. The meat of the chapter lies rather in Whelan’s presentation of the United Irishmen as enlightenment intellectuals, seeking to utilise popular culture yet distanced from it by their commitment to the rational political values of a cosmopolitan radicalism. This perspective, developed with characteristic vigour and flair, is likely to prove highly influential. Somewhat more difficult to accept is the suggestion, later in the volume, that it was Daniel O’Connell, with his ‘ruthlessly efficient’ creation of a narrow Catholic nationalism, who was the ‘principal gravedigger’ of this political tradition (p.130). Such a claim hardly does justice to the complex interplay between idealism and pragmatism that characterised O’Connell’s long career. And it would be a pity if the argument for a fuller appreciation of the United Irish movement should be made to depend on a one-dimensional caricature of its successors.

The other two essays are less original. ‘United and Disunited Irishmen’, published as part of a longer paper in Bullén, II (1995), follows Cullen and Bartlett in discarding what were until recently the dominant socio-economic explanations for the rise of Orangeism. Instead Whelan emphasises the political context: a newly assertive Catholicism and a British state with its own reasons for partially dismantling Protestant privilege. He also restates the importance, played down by Senior and McDowell, of elite and state sponsorship of counter-  revolutionary violence. This depiction of Orangeism as a ‘top-down’ movement is supported by some striking pieces of self-incrimination culled from the correspondence of senior military and political figures. But there is no real analysis of popular Orangeism itself, in terms either of organisation or of mentality. ‘’98 after ‘98’, building once again on themes already developed by Cullen, emphasises the limitations of the various near contemporary accounts of the rebellion that have influenced later historical writing. Anti-Catholic fanatics like Musgrave, liberal Protestants concerned to support Cornwallis’s policy of conciliation, and United Irish survivors anxious to deny responsibility for recent bloodshed—all conspired, for quite different reasons, to understate the depth and sophistication of popular political awareness, depicting instead a peasantry erupting in spontaneous violence.

The Tree of Liberty is not the summative monograph that might have been hoped for by admirers of Whelan’s work. Indeed Cork University Press might like to explain why no less than three of the ‘four new essays’ promised on the back cover have already appeared, wholly or partially, in print. That said, all four pieces are based on formidable research and argued with a challenging directness. Taken together, they offer the outlines of a wide ranging and coherent reinterpretation that is likely to influence debate on the meaning of late eighteenth-century Irish history for some time to come. It is all the more regrettable, therefore, that Whelan should have felt obliged to gild the lily, in a short but strident preface. ‘In an Irish context’, this proclaims, ‘the informing perspective of these essays is post-revisionist, an empathy with oppositional cultural formations, a dialogic understanding of the relationship between past and present, a refusal of stereotyping and essentialism, a non-talmudic irreverence to textual authority…’ If the syntax is dubious (can an empathy, or an understanding, be a perspective?) the content is even more so. The reference to ‘revisionism’ is a formulaic gesture: despite one ritualistic citation of R.F. Foster, the interpretative tradition under attack is one that goes back, as Whelan himself makes clear (p.174), to the 1960s and before. As for ‘non-talmudic irreverence’, is Whelan saying anything more than that he has recognised that primary sources can be partial or misleading, and that it is sometimes necessary to question the conclusions of earlier writers? It is a pity that new and challenging perspectives should be cast in this falsely adversarial mould. And while one may be grateful to Field Day for getting these valuable pieces into print in consolidated form it is difficult not to be irritated at the infection by a vacuous literary-political rhetoric of the work of a historian too accomplished to need such artificial pumping up.


Sean Connolly

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