A conservative revolution

National sovereignty crystalised Gaelicism and late Victorian mores. Marc Mulholland argues, in his second article, that there was no transformation of popular consciousness

If there was an Irish revolution, it probably began with the Irish Land League of 1879-81. This was founded by Michael Davitt, the one-armed son of farmers evicted during the famine (he had lost a limb working as a boy in an English factory), and presided over by Charles Stewart Parnell, a Protestant landlord. The league campaigned against ‘rackrents’ (anything above what tenant farmers thought reasonable) in the short term, and for the peasant proprietorship of the farms they worked in the longer term. The result was a huge social struggle that coined the term ‘boycotting’ and attracted international attention.

For many years after Irish independence Parnell was presented as almost a proto-republican separatist, but revisionist historiography since then has repeatedly emphasised his conservatism. They point out, for example, that Parnell preferred the Tories to the Liberals as the less hypocritical representative of the British ruling class (but then so did Marx). In fact, Parnell was a consummate pragmatist, entirely unimpressed by British constitutionalism, and quite prepared to utilise revolutionary tactics. On the eve of the Land War agitation of 1879-81, he explained to an American reporter the means by which tenant farmers could be protected from scabs in the struggle against landlordism:

We cannot, of course, prevent all tenants from paying their rents, and there are cowards among them who have not shaken off their belief in the divine rights of landlords. But a certain amount of pressure from public opinion, which in such cases is apt occasionally to manifest itself in unpleasant ways, must be brought to bear upon those who are weak and cowardly.1

“Unpleasant ways” here alluded to ‘whiteboyism’ - which would become known as ‘moonlighting’ during the Land War - which used armed, night-time visits to enforce discipline. Parnell fully expected local Fenian activists, who had long experience in illegal separatist organisation, to provide the strong arm:

As far as I have been able to gather, the Fenian organisation and its leaders are opposed, though not hostile, to our movement, the reason being that it is constitutional. A true revolutionary movement in Ireland should, in my opinion, partake of both a constitutional and an illegal character. It should be both an open and a secret organisation, using the constitution for its own purposes, but also taking advantage of its secret combination.

Parnell spoke of the Land League as a “political school in the Irish people”, as indeed it proved to be. It fundamentally broke the psychology of peasant subordination in Ireland. As his lieutenant, John Dillon, observed early in the campaign,

You would hardly believe the change that has come over the tenant within a few months. The utter slavishness of tenants towards the landlords, the agents, and even the very bailiffs, was formerly humiliating to see. It was worse in times of prosperity than at others, because the tenants knew the landlords could then easily let their holdings without trouble, and did not care whether the tenants went or stayed; but now they understood their true relation to the land, and they feel that the landlord wants to keep them.

A bailiff recently came into a hotel in the west of Ireland and ordered some liquor. He remarked to a friend, “When I used to come to this town, there were half a dozen fighting to see who should pay for my whisky, but now I walk through the town and not a soul pays any attention to me,” and so it is throughout that part of the country.

The Land League days saw the end of the cringe as an aspect of mass political psychology in Ireland.


That home rule did not quickly follow is to some degree surprising: it is certainly what the situation of the country called for. Had Irish nationalism really been intrinsically ‘moderate’, wanting nothing more than a constrained domestic self-government, there is not much reason to doubt that the British ruling class would have been amenable. As it was, Gladstone’s Liberal Party did adopt the platform of home rule in 1885-86. However, the unionist and Tory argument that home rule was only a transitional demand on the part of Irish nationalism was compelling. Parnell and others could insist until they were red in the face that simple home rule would effect a Union of Hearts and make Ireland loyal, but this sounded utterly faithless to even moderately sceptical ears; and why, after all, should Ireland keep faith with England?

Downplaying Irish nationalist aspirations also seemed important to prevent the catastrophic possibility - unlikely as it seemed for a long time - of Irish partition. It was acknowledged that Irish unionism, which had a mass democratic base amongst the Protestants of north-east Ulster, could not be persuaded to surrender the status quo of direct British rule and the solid protection of religious and class interests that went along with that. The Irish nationalist hope was that, once home rule was forced upon the unionists, they would accept that a new dispensation was now in force and accommodate with Irish nationalist aspirations. Irish nationalists were convinced that even plebeian Ulster unionism was too much a creature of easy privilege to survive the withdrawal of active British support.

It is impossible to say whether Irish nationalists were mistaken in their estimate; Britain, in the end, did not try to enforce Ulster unionist inclusion within even a limited self-government of the Irish nation. The tenacity of Ulster unionism without British support was never tested (southern unionism did ultimately collapse, but it had no democratic base). However, there was undoubtedly a nationalist tendency to downplay unionist determination to resist ‘Dublin rule’. Various attempts to split the unionist political bloc along class lines - whether by the labour movement or by William O’Brien’s tenant-farmer-orientated ‘All For Ireland League’ - never showed much success or promise, nor have attempts since.

The wager by the home rule movement that Britain could be jollied into coercing Protestant Ulster was probably their best bet, practically speaking, but itself crashed on the rocks of Ulster militancy, led by Lord Carson, and the hatred of much of the British ruling class for Irish nationalism - a venom that did much to solder together the Tory bloc from the 1880s to the 1920s. Absent, sustained British disregard for Ulster’s interests, along the lines of discrimination against Presbyterians, as had characterised policy in the 18th century, or (perhaps) the gormless little Englandism of Brexiteer Toryism in our own time, the Protestant political coalition of landlord, bourgeois, farmer and worker looked impregnable, so long as the key question remained the union with Britain. Anti-Catholic discrimination was certainly rife in north-east Ulster, where Protestant unionism dominated, but it was a means and no doubt a perquisite of unionist security rather than a reason itself to maintain that security.

What the Liberal conversion to home rule did succeed in doing was hook the Irish nationalist party into subservient loyalty to the Liberals. Parnell saw the risk in this, and in the final months of his life (having been dropped as party leader following a scandalous romantic liaison) he raged against the loss of nationalist Ireland’s political independence. Irish nationalists rejected the nuclear option of abandoning the Liberal alliance, and found themselves in the humiliating situation of endlessly having to suck up to British Liberalism and swearing hand-on-heart that they were sufficiently house-trained to run Ireland’s domestic affairs in a manner satisfactory to British interests. They were stuck in this ignoble position for almost 20 years, at the cost of the slow puncture of demoralisation. With the resolution of the land question, peasant proprietorship replacing landlordism from 1903, the social basis of the home rule movement began to fragment.

Nonetheless, the expectation was that home rule would come at some point, and from 1912 it looked imminent. Finding themselves dependent upon Irish nationalist parliamentary votes, the Liberal Party, now led by Herbert Asquith, rather reluctantly introduced a Home Rule Bill for Ireland and, following the recent abolition of its power to veto legislation, the Tory-dominated House of Lords could only delay it for two years.

Those forces of ‘advanced nationalism’, as it was known, to the left of the home rule movement - Fenians, cultural enthusiasts, language revivalists, socialists, proponents of abstention from the imperial parliament at Westminster gathered around Arthur Griffith’s small Sinn Féin party - all made their calculations for the future on the basis of what would happen next, once home rule was conceded. Radicalising its implications would be the work of the next generation. As the liberal Unionist MP, Horace Plunkett, put it, “It is a commonplace of Irish politics that men are sent to Westminster for the sole purpose of getting home rule, and that a wholly different class of men would be sent to an Irish parliament to work home rule.”2 The aim was to push onwards towards ultimate sovereign independence.

We tend to think of national sovereignty giving rise to statehood but it is often the other way round. The aim of Irish nationalism was to acquire a state, even in attenuated form, and from this advance position win sovereignty. This was the necessarily unstated promise of the home rule leaders and the open ambition of the ‘advanced nationalists’. It was World War I that made this nation-building by ruse, pretending that milk-and-water home rule would satisfy Irish nationalist aspirations, finally untenable. With home rule on the statute book at the outbreak of war, if not yet enacted, the Home Rule Party and its leader, John Redmond, had their bluff called. They had their secure promise of a Dublin parliament, so what now of their years of lip-service? Would they rally behind the United Kingdom flag on the battlefields of France and Belgium? It had never been expected that the question would be put so hard and so quickly. There was no opportunity for a decent interval, in which Britain could get used to the idea that home rule had not actually settled the Irish question for good. Failure to support British imperialism at this key moment might lead to home rule never being enacted. Redmond might himself have got high on his own supply, after so many years of promising British politicians Irish loyalty in the event of home rule.


Advanced nationalists were horrified when on behalf on the Irish nation Redmond announced that, of course, home rule was a definitive satisfaction of Irish nationalist aspirations and that Irishmen should therefore loyally join the British army to fight Germany. This could no longer be written off as pabulum for a British audience, qualified by a nod and a wink to the audience at home. The Parnell trick would no longer work. “We know only one definition of freedom,” said Patrick Pearse, a separatist who had formerly supported the home rule agitation. “Let no man blaspheme the cause that the dead generations of Ireland served by giving it any other name and definition than their name and their definition.” This was the unalloyed Fenian definition: republican separatism.

Most horrifying, the Irish National Volunteers organisation - set up in 1913 to be the army of the new Ireland, entirely independent from the impudent authority of the crown - was encouraged to join the British army as comrades in arms, if not (due to war office contempt for Irish nationalism) its own division. The Volunteers split and the growing minority that refused Redmond’s blandishments were en masse in favour of rebellion, if for no other reason than to assert Irish refusal to be assimilated into the British Borg. They were a ready tool for a conspiratorial inner circle determined to strike a blow,

Pearse was a key figure in the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and in his last pamphlet, with the due caution of konspiratsiia, he enumerated the political forces of the nationalist movement the rising was based upon:

… the spiritual and imaginative part of that movement, embodied in our day in the Gaelic League; … the specifically democratic part of that movement, embodied to-day in the more virile labour organisations; … [and] Fenianism, the noblest and most terrible manifestation of this unconquered nation.3

Amongst the leaders of 1916, Pearse was the first representative of the Gaelic League cultural-nationalist ferment (he had edited its newspaper), while James Connolly was prominent within labour nationalism, as that indomitable old veteran, Tom Clarke, was within Fenianism. With 13 others, they would be executed after the suppression of the rebellion.

Within a year, explicit separatism had blossomed into a mass movement, as Home Rule rushed into obsolescence. The 52 varieties of poetic effusion, earnest educationalism, feminism, sexual liberalism, socialism, syndicalism and eccentricity that had characterised the advanced nationalist counter-culture in the years before 1914 were sublated into a mass movement that looked like a radicalised edition of Parnell’s “true revolutionary movement”. Éamon de Valera - the surviving rebel commandant of 1916 who in 1917 was elected president of Sinn Féin - was in many respects a personification of the new generation: somewhat narrowly logical (he was an adept mathematician); hostile to secret-society organisation that came under the ban of the Catholic church; instrumental rather than heroic in his attitude to armed struggle; focused on Irish sovereign statehood rather than social transformation; favouring ascetic self-improvement and cultural pride for the farmer more than the avant-garde explorations of the bohemian intellectual. He “had never read anything of my father’s, and had no idea what my father was like”, according to Nora Connolly, James’s daughter.

What transpired is now regularly described as a ‘revolution’. This was rarely a term used by those who fought in the War of Independence (it barely features in the memoirs industriously gathered by the Irish state’s Bureau of Military History). Talk of the ‘Irish Revolution’, which is now ubiquitous, seems to have first emerged in the 1970s from the Cambridge School of History, which liked to ascribe jejune revolutionism to any excess of political enthusiasm outside august circles of political authority. JGA Pocock’s loftily identified “the Irish Revolution of 1911-22” as “the first terrorist war of modern times”.4 By the late 1980s it was being applied to this episode of Irish history with caution, but growing enthusiasm. The context now was the bicentenary of the French Revolution and a historiographical neo-psychologism of revolution, owing much to Hippolyte Taine and Gustave le Bon, which denigrated the barbaric passions of the mob.5

With the collapse of Soviet ‘communism’, however, revolution came back into fashion as a legitimation of bourgeois constitutionalism. The so-called Colour Revolutions of the early 21st century, wafted along by the CIA, were a pleasing performance for establishment drones. When the time rolled round, the ‘Irish Revolution’ was a convenient cover-all label for Ireland’s ‘Decade of Commemorations’ (from the introduction of the Home Rule Bill in 1912 to the Civil War). But it also reinforced the idea of Irish independence and partition as a process largely endogenous (Britain floats free, as Ireland recomposes), time-limited (pre-revolution was ‘normal’ rather than, as widely seen at the time, the most jarring contradiction in the world’s largest empire), creatively popular (anticipations of second-wave feminism, identity-politics and the modern ethic of ‘decolonising’ - in reality nugatory at the time - could be written into the titles/deeds of the state), and entire unto itself (the Northern Ireland Troubles were a discrete and embarrassing episode).

Markers of revolution

Most markers we identify with revolution do not apply very well to the Irish case. The classic ‘insurrection’ or journées - masses flooding onto the streets to purge or intimidate the political classes - was never a feature, outside the sectarian riots of Ulster at any rate. The iconographic image of the struggle for many years was of the faithful kneeling in prayer outside prisons holding patriots. Such memoria are unfashionable now, but they are not an inaccurate representation of the characteristic Irish popular mobilisations of the time.

Class politics was largely sundered from the political process, the IRA refusing to take sides in the upsurge of wage-militancy, and labour-movement strikes against ‘militarism’ were carefully set at an oblique angle to the struggle over sovereignty. There was, of course, a class aspect to the struggle. Lionel Fleming recalled an illustrative anecdote, told to him by his unionist landowning father, of an “inexcusable indiscretion at a tea party he attended”:

… a British officer revealed casually that a local landowner had done him a good turn by supplying him with certain information. When one of the company signalled him to stop talking, the officer was quite indignant. “Why,” he said. “We’re all loyal here, aren’t we?” So they were, except, of course, for the parlour maid, and within a day or so that landowner was forced out of the country.6

Nonetheless, this was rather typically passive resistance - the cutting edge very definitely left to the IRA.

Political ideology did not fundamentally alter in the period, though the strategic route of march was remapped along straighter lines. The chief secretary of Ireland, Augustine Birrell, excusing himself in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, was largely correct when he wrote:

The spirit of what is today called Sinn Féinism is mainly composed of old hatreds and distrust of the British connection, always noticeable in all classes, and in all places, varying in degree, and finding different ways of expression, but always there as the background of Irish politics and character.7

The ultimate aim of national sovereignty underpinned by Gaelicism was present before 1912, as it was after 1922. To some extent, the period produced a fairly long-lasting stasis rather than revolutionary or indeed counterrevolutionary transformation. Connolly’s prediction of a “carnival of reaction” on both sides of the border is well known, but the outcome was rather more a crystallisation of late Victorian mores until the tectonic plates began shifting again in the 1960s.

Ireland was in fact fairly unusual in having such a solid pan-class support for Irish statehood before that state came into existence. The United States had to fight a civil war to preserve territorial integrity. Caudillismo - intermittent and low-level armed conflict based around military strongmen with irregular or provincial armies - wracked Latin American states in the 19th century. In forming Germany, Prussia had to conquer the hostile independent states of Bavaria, Saxony, Hanover, Württemberg, Hesse, Hesse-Kassel, Baden, Hesse-Darmstadt, Nassau, Saxe-Meiningen, Reuss-Greiz, Schaumburg-Lippe and Frankfurt. The Italian south was not pacified by the north for many years after Italian unification. The later ‘nation-states’ of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia would not survive into the 21st century. Most post-imperial states in the global south for decades amounted to little more than capital cities with their arterial roads and railways, barely making an impress on the hinterland. Nationalist mythology is that the nation makes the state. Much more usual is that state makes (or fails to make) the nation.

Back in the 19th century, the Fenians had spoken of the ‘Irish Republic, Virtually Established’. This was not quite as grandiloquent as it sounds. The popular political consensus in Ireland for generations before statehood was the achievement of the maximally independent state. This, of course, was limited largely to Catholic Ireland. The border of the Irish nation wriggled through the streets of Belfast and the hamlets of Armagh. An Austro-Marxist analysis could have favoured a cultural autonomy for Ireland’s two nationalities within the state, be it the United Kingdom or Ireland. The Leninist strategy did in fact seek to leverage Irish separatism against the power of the United Kingdom state and, at least by the logical extrapolation of the strategy as outlined, if an established all-Ireland state became the target of revolutionary mining, Leninism might have mandated support for Ulster Protestant separatism from Dublin rule. Connolly hoped that the intelligentsia could be inveigled into confusing Gaelic romanticism for socialism.

All, in practice, acknowledged the dour fact - a commonplace of 19th century opinion shared by Marx - that Irish nationhood was deep-rooted, basically ineradicable, and requiring only the grace or discomfiting of Britain to be ultimately realised. “I used to think the separation of Ireland from England impossible. I now think it inevitable,” Marx wrote to Engels in 1867.8 “International socialism can as little begrudge its sympathies for an independent Ireland as for an independent Hungary or Poland,” wrote Kautsky in 1922.9

There is a striking scene in the classic 1946 Powell and Pressbuger film, A matter of life and death. David Niven plays an RAF pilot, shot down and hovering between this world and the next. His spirit finds himself on trial before a celestial court. The prosecutor, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, introduces the ghostly members of the jury, gleefully pointing out why they have ill-will towards the British crown: Jean-Marie Barrault (“centuries of war between Britain and France”), Gregorius Johannes Bund (“the Boer War”), Ivan Burdei (“the Crimean War”), Chang Chi Min (“England’s occupation of Peking in 1857”), Rana Tejpalal (“think of India”). Finally rises “James Monahan, Irish”, wearing a trench coat. The prosecutor simply smiles; there is nothing that needs be said.


If Irish hostility to British rule was indulged as pre-destination, Ulster unionism was never endearing to progressives in the same way. The prominence of its aristocratic and landed leadership, the imperial dependence of its shipbuilding and linen exporting bourgeoisie, and the Orangeism of its working class and farmer base - all near co-equal bulwarks of the unionist political amalgam up until the late eclipse of its gentry leadership at the end of the 1960s - were not sufficiently complicated by the powerful proletarian ethic of industrial Belfast. It takes Spiked levels of perversity to claim the 1912 Ulster Covenant or even the 1974 Ulster Workers Council general strike against mild cross-border bodies as inspirational examples of class mobilisation.

Socialists tended to see Irish nationalist fixation as ultimately self-negating - at least, once satisfied by statehood, it could be expected to simmer down and open up space for class politics. This proved to be a gradual enough development, not least due to the ‘unfinished business’ of partition, but it was hard to see how Ulster unionism, governing without consensus the permanently alienated Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, could ever for long take its eye off the border.

In 1918, Dáil Éireann was elected by piggy-backing on the Westminster election (contrary to fashionable opinion, the nationalist-socialist Constance Markievicz was not the first female MP elected to Westminster; she stood as a candidate for the Dáil and never intended to take a seat in a parliament illegally claiming jurisdiction over Ireland, as she saw it). The Dáil affirmed Irish independence and established a cabinet government. Much of Ireland’s local government, controlled by nationalists since democratisation in 1898, pledged allegiance. Dáil courts circumvented the royal courts of justice. The Irish Volunteers, soon universally known as the IRA, was both army and police for Ireland’s democratic state.

Britain refused to recognise the new dispensation and, after the failure of Irish diplomacy to secure international recognition at the post-war peace negotiations at Paris (though the Soviet Federation did so recognise), the IRA gradually opened armed hostilities against crown forces. “There is in Ireland at this moment only one lawful authority,” De Valera told the Dáil in 1919, “and that authority is the elected government of the Irish Republic.”10 He ratified the IRA as a “regular state force”, a “national army of defence”.11

Ulster unionism had by this time given up its earlier ambition of saving all of Ireland from nationalist self-government and retreated to its redoubt of the six north-east counties - the greatest amount of territory compatible with a secure Protestant majority, of about two-thirds. The most convulsive violence took place here, with mass rioting and inter-gang gun battles absent elsewhere. In the rest of Ireland, guerrilla warfare evolved as a consequence of the balance of military forces. Britain held off negotiating with the representatives of the Dáil until Northern Ireland had been consolidated and it could reasonably say that it existed as a fact of life. It is noticeable that there was no major constituency in the Dáil that saw any way to bring Northern Ireland down in the short term. Debates of the Treaty between Britain and Ireland, therefore, centred on British insistence that their monarch remain head of the Irish state and that Irish independence be limited to the equivalent of ‘dominion status’, such as Canada enjoyed, and by the retention of specified Irish ports for the Royal Navy. Painful at the time, these concessions to Britain were eroded or removed by Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s. Independent Ireland formally became a republic again in 1949.

The ‘Irish Revolution’ is best seen perhaps as the realisation of Irish statehood and a small international war between an Irish nation already fully in existence, if not co-extensive with the population of Ireland, and a British nation sufficiently inchoate that it could, with admittedly ill grace, finally let most of Ireland go. Insistence upon the nominal supremacy of the crown and the potentially material limitations on Irish sovereignty imposed by the treaty (though these limitations fairly soon proved unenforceable) came at the price of an Irish civil war, fairly small-scale, being mostly a collision within the IRA rather that internecine blood-letting beyond the military cadre. It allowed Northern Ireland to consolidate, satisfied British public opinion that they were escaping a morass, and helpfully distracted from what was in reality an embarrassing blow to British prestige.

It would be excessively dogmatic to deny Ireland some kind of revolution in this period. But there are risks attendant to doing so. It is not a matter that revolutions must be glorious. In fact they are often messy, traumatic affairs. But they are profoundly transformative in their impact - not always reconfiguring the mode of production perhaps, but always transforming public opinion. The American Revolution made Englishmen and women in the North American colonies into Americans. The English Civil War and Glorious Revolution instantiated a market-based parliamentary constitution and established the venerable model for capitalist modernity. The French Revolution kicked off an international process of democratisation that has unspooled ever since. The Russian Revolution statified (and ultimately stultified) a mode of Marxist socialism. The Chinese Revolution shattered the carapace of a centuries-old civilisational form.

Mass transformation of consciousness characterised all these processes. Irish independence contributed to the end of empire, though it cannot quite be seen as either a trigger or a fundamental cause. But it was the realisation rather than the forging of an Irish consciousness.

  1. The New York Herald January 2 1880.↩︎

  2. JP Finnan John Redmond and Irish unity New York 2004, p124. See also P Bew Ideology and the Irish question: Ulster unionism and Irish nationalism, 1912-1916 Oxford 1994, pp7-8.↩︎

  3. irishhistoriansinbritain.org/?p=197.↩︎

  4. JGA Pocock, ‘British history: a plea for a new subject’ Journal of Modern History No47 (December 1975), pp601-28, 606.↩︎

  5. Notable interventions on this line were Simon Schama’s Citizens: a chronicle of the French Revolution (1989) and Orlanda Figes’s (very good) A people’s tragedy: the Russian Revolution 1891-1924 (1996).↩︎

  6. L Fleming Head or harp London 1965, p61.↩︎

  7. ‘Report of the Royal Commission on the Rebellion in Ireland, 1916’ in The Irish uprising, 1914-1921 London 2000, p83.↩︎

  8. marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867/letters/ 67_11_02-abs.htm.↩︎

  9. marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1922/ireland/5a-inside.htm.↩︎

  10. ‘The president’s statement to the Dáil, 10 April 1919’, E Curtis and RB McDowell (eds) Irish historical documents, 1172-1922 London 1943, p320.↩︎

  11. C Townshend The republic: the fight for Irish independence, 1918-1923 London 2013, p232.↩︎