Tag Archives: Protestant

Republicanism Versus Nationalism(s) 2

By the time the American and French revolutions had taken place at the end of the eighteenth century, Ireland had been dominated by the English for half a millennium.  Substantial parts of the island, especially the north-eastern area, had been planted with Protestant and Presbyterian settlers from Britain. The Treaty of Limerick had turned Protestants into first class citizens, Non-Conformists into second-class, and Catholics into non-citizens and the subject of Penal Laws.

Parliament was reserved for the Protestant landlord class, who controlled, according to Wolfe Tone ‘…five-sixths of the landed property of the nation…the quiet enjoyment of the church, the law, the revenue, the army, the navy, the magistracy, the corporations – in a word, of the whole patronage of Ireland.’

Although there were twice as many Dissenters (mainly Presbyterians) as Protestants, they did not enjoy the same privileges, and were engaged mainly in farming and manufacturing, centred principally in Antrim and Down.  The Dissenters had supported the American Revolution and saw, both in it and in the French Revolution, the model which they could adopt and, by uniting with their Catholic fellow-countrymen, create an independent democratic secular republic.

A growing number of radical intellectuals in Dublin who were also informed by Enlightenment ideas and excited by developments in Europe and in America, including Thomas Russell, William Drennan, Napper Tandy and Wolfe Tone, began to formulate a  political philosophy which was grounded on modern democratic principles.

Wolfe Tone’s pamphlet An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland helped convince the northern Dissenters of the possibility of common cause.  In October 1991 Tone was in Belfast to assist in the formation of the first United Irishmen’s club, and a short while later formed a club in Dublin. The constitution of the Society of United Irishmen stated in its first article its intent as “forwarding a brotherhood of affection, a communion of rights, and an union of power among Irishmen of every religious persuasion”. By 1797 records show that the United Irishmen had 128,000 sworn members spread mainly across nine counties.

The society was legal until 1794 when it was finally suppressed by the government, but it continued to operate underground.  By now, its well organised propaganda campaigns had succeeded in politicising the population at large, and the British were very well aware that the unity of purpose between Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter looked set to threaten its carefully worked out project of colonising, dominating, and eventually assimilating Ireland. A reaction to this was necessary.

In the north, in 1795, the Protestant Orange Order emerged.  Members quickly took up positions in large numbers in the yeomanry, whose function was to supplement the military arm of government at local level. This could not have happened so quickly without the government’s consent, or more likely encouragement.

The second event of significance in 1795 was the founding of the Catholic seminary at Maynooth which cemented relations between the Roman Catholic church and Dublin Castle.  The French Revolution and the closure of seminaries there had cut off the supply of priests, just as the Catholic population in Ireland was expanding.  The fear was that if those seminaries were to reopen in the future, then young seminarians who were sent there for their education might pick up bad revolutionary habits.

That is the basis of the paradox that has beset Irish republicanism, the weaning away of the very people who might most consciously adhere to the ideals of republicanism – the Protestants and Dissenters, and the beginnings of a new brand of Catholicism known as Ultramontanism in Ireland.

Ultramontane Catholicism puts an emphasis on the supremacy of the Pope over local spiritual leaders such as Bishops, but also over rulers and governments. The British had never been able to subdue the rebellious Catholic Irish, the intention now was that the Pope and his bishops and priests in Ireland would take over that task, and that Maynooth College would turn out the new brand of priest with a new authoritarianism and a sectarian message which had not been explicit in the old semi-autonomous Irish Catholic  Church.

So there is the double wedge that the British government used to destroy the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter under the banner of Irish republicanism. We live with the consequences of that to this day.

What was it that Wolfe Tone said? It was“England, the never-failing source of our political evils…”.

It is not that the English, or more properly the British, were done with that double act in Ireland. It became the standard British policy all around the world in every country that the emerging British Empire colonised – ‘Divide and Conquer’. The effects of setting tribe against tribe, religion against religion, do not disappear when the coloniser leaves, or in the case of Ireland, leaves partially. The negative, destructive, destabilising consequences live on and on with lethal outcomes.

Despite all that the British did to destroy Irish republicanism it survived and adopted to new ‘isms’ – nationalism, socialism, feminism – and absorbed them into the movement’s evolving ideals, the best expression of which is to be found in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic of 1916. There is a line in paragraph four of the Proclamation which refers back to the events of 1795 and the British manipulation of Irish society for its own ends – “…oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past“.

There is more, of course to this story. It will be continued.

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Republicanism Versus Nationalism(s) 1

In Ireland, and abroad, Irish  republicanism and Irish nationalism are often taken to be interchangeable terms, and both are frequently assumed to be the preserve of catholic Ireland. These assumptions are incorrect, and are damaging to the prospects of reunifying the island of Ireland through reconciling the people of Ireland with one another across religious and political divides.

Irish nationalism is motivated by by a love of Irish culture, history, language but not necessarily, historically, by a demand for national independence from English/British domination. Those who pushed for Home Rule described themselves as nationalists, and were content to seek autonomy but not a break with rule from Westminster and the British monarch as Head of State. Even Patrick Pearse, who pushed for Home Rule before he came around to republicanism, was in favour of independence from Britain but with the German Kaiser’s son as constitutional monarch of Ireland. Arthur Griffith, a committed nationalist, proposed that Ireland be independent from Britain but that it would share the British monarch.

Irish republicanism, from its first incarnation in Ireland in the 1790s through to today, is based on the demand that all of Ireland should be an independent republic. That republican ideal comes straight from the European Enlightenment and particularly from the French Revolution and its ideals of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’.

What republicans share with nationalists is a love for Irish culture, history and language. Where they differ is in their ideal of a unified Irish republic, and in terms of the right-left political divide. Republicans by the nature of their ideology tend to be left-wing, whereas nationalists tend to be conservative ranging from the political centre to the right – and sometimes to the extremes of the right.

Republicans are, by the nature of their ideology, often avowedly secularist and certainly anti-sectarian. Nationalism, while containing a cohort of Protestants at various stages, tends to be widespread among Catholics, and indeed the Irish Catholic Church has associated itself strongly with nationalism while reviling republicanism at all stages since the 1790s. That outright rejection of republicanism is one that the Church shares with Unionism, which itself is mainly Protestant and is an expression of a different nationalism – a far more extreme British nationalism than most English, Welsh or Scottish nationalists would express, or even understand.

While the Catholic Church’s rejection of republicanism is in a way understandable – the Church is after all monarchical itself, the rejection of republicanism by Northern Protestants, who tend to be non-conformists (Dissenters) – Presbyterians and Methodists, is paradoxical. After all, the American Revolution, fueled in the main by non-conformists, did not set up an alternative monarchy, but a republic. And when republicanism was introduced into Ireland in the 1790s it was by Northern Dissenters and conformist Protestants initially, later joined by Protestants and Dissenters and Catholics from the South. The myth that it was introduced by returning Catholic seminarians from their studies in French colleges who had been influenced by the French Revolution is largely just that, a myth, carefully constructed to place the Catholic Church at the heart of the 1798 rising and to displace the unifying ideal of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter of the United Irishmen. The myth was founded on a lie.

The truth is that Unionists, in the main non-conformists – Presbyterians, Methodists, etc., should be, because of the values of their faith and belief-system, more naturally republican than monarchist. Nationalists on the other hand should be, due to the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church with the Pope as monarch and a strong code of obedience to authority, more naturally monarchist, although since independence they are not, in the political sense.

If it seems confusing, it is not. Many of the myths are lies, the paradoxes can be explained. There’s a clue in the words of Wolfe Tone, a Protestant, one of the principal leaders of the United Irishmen:

“To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connexion (sic) with England, the never-failing source of our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country – these were my objects.  To unite the whole  people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter – these were my means.”

There it is – “England, the never-failing source of our political evils…”. More on this another day.


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