Part 1 Reorientations
I. Changing the Question?
(i)

The tired old witticism that every time the English came within sight of solving the Irish question the Irish changed the question, contains, like most jokes about Ireland, a small grain of truth submerged in a vast sea of misconception.

The Irish did not change the question between the Famine and the war of independence any more than they had changed it between the Union and the Famine.

The 'national demand', as it used to be called, remained in essence what Wolfe Tone had declared it to be as long ago as 1791, 'to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils'.

It is true, of course, that men differed in the nineteenth century, as they have continued to differ in the twentieth, about how complete the break should be, or more precisely perhaps, about how far the full separatist ideal was practicable.

But whether they took their stand on the rock of the republic, or were prepared to settle for repeal of the Union and some form of Home Rule based on a reanimated Irish parliament, they were emphatic that the first step towards real independence was to recover for Irishmen the right to control their own affairs.

Yet, if the Irish question did not change in its essentials it is clear that the context within which it was debated and fought out was very different in, say, 1914 from what it had been in 1800, or even in 1850.

Many agencies, as we shall see, were at work to alter that context, but of them all the Famine itself was the most fundamental.

To contemporaries, stunned by the magnitude and visibility of a disaster which, with its attendant consequences of disease and massive emigration, reduced the population by some two million inside a decade, the Famine signalled the total collapse of their society.

Historians, conscious of a rural crisis in Ireland which went back far beyond the immediate event and continued long after it, have tended to see the tragedy, in the words of the editors of the most authoritative work on the subject, 'as but a period of greater misery in a prolonged age of suffering.' 1

Ref 1

R. Dudley Edwards and T. Desmond Williams (Ed.) The Great Famine (Dublin, 1956), p1

For in purely economic terms it could be argued that what the Famine mainly did was to accentuate the existing tensions in Irish rural society and to hasten the transformation of which the faint beginnings could be discerned even before the catastrophe had struck. *

Note 1

This point is considered in more detail in the next chapter.

This, of course, is not to deny either the exceptional severity of that catastrophe or its symbolic significance.

However much refined and analyzed, it still remains an appalling phenomenon, etching itself ineradicably on the hearts and minds not only of those who experienced it, but of all the generations that have lived in Ireland since those terrible years.

Yet while the immediate effect of 'the great hunger' was to impose an overwhelming burden of suffering upon an impoverished and defenceless people, it may well be that its most profound impact on Irish history lay in its ultimate psychological legacy.

Expressed in its simplest terms, this legacy was that the long-standing and deep-rooted hatred of the English connection was given not only a new intensity but also a new dimension.

It was not just that within the shores of Ireland the old bitterness of a depressed peasantry against an alien and often ruthless landlord class was reinforced by resentment towards a government which (though it had made more effort than a starving people was likely to give it credit for) had shown itself manifestly inadequate, at the levels of both administration and policy, to contain the crisis unrolling before the eyes of its horrified and harassed officials.

It was rather that this hatred, this bitterness, this resentment were carried overseas, and especially to America, by nearly four million Irish men, women and children who left their homeland, decade by decade and year by year in the half-century after the famine. 2

Ref 2

Arnold Schrier, Ireland and the American Emigration, 1850-1900 (Minneapolis, 1958), especially chap. i and appendix table 4.

The political consequences of this unending exodus of a permanently antagonised people were literally incalculable, but the most fundamental effect is plain to be seen.

With the establishment of strong Irish settlements in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as in Britain herself, the Irish question became and remained an international question.

However much successive British governments affected to regard the condition of Ireland as essentially a domestic issue, the great migration ensured that a domestic issue was what it would never be again.

As a complicating factor in foreign relations, and particularly Anglo-American relations, Ireland continued to plague her paymasters until the Union was ended in 1921; indeed even after that, when effective self-government had at length been conceded, she was still to baffle English statesmen for a generation longer by playing, with evident zest and success, the role of 'restless dominion' in Commonwealth affairs. 3

Ref 3

See the admirable study by D. W. Harkness, The Restless Dominion (London, 1968) which deals mainly with the decade after the treaty. For Ireland as a factor in Anglo-American relations, see A. J. Ward, Ireland and Anglo-American Relations, 1899-1921 (London, 1969).

Nor was it only in the international sphere that the Irish overseas made their anti-British sentiment explicit.

On the contrary, their involvement with what happened to their motherland remained deep and continuous, leading them both to give large-scale financial support without which the development of vigorous Irish nationalism would have been impossible in the seventy years after the Famine, and also, at certain crucial moments, to affect directly and decisively the maintenance and development of the revolutionary movements which worked secretly but tireless for the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland and its replacement by a republic.

The famine, however, though clearly of fundamental importance in determining the political and psychological climate of Ireland, and deeply significant also, for its subsequent economic and social configuration, was by no means the only element of change of which we have to take account in the decades after 1850.

The problem of governing the country, and the balance of power within it, were alike influenced by four other factors, each of which loomed large in the second half of the nineteenth century.

These were the growing tendency of long-standing religious differences to act as a divisive force in Irish society; the intensification of political conflict by the infusion into it of economic elements, and especially of a desperate, almost elemental, struggle for possession of the land; the emergence of - and eventually conflict between - newer and more articulate forms of nationalism; and finally, but by no means least, a slow but steady movement towards greater prosperity and better government which raised equally in the minds of anxious patriots and hopeful administrators the question whether not Home Rule, but all forms of Irish separatism, might not in the end be killed by kindness.

The action and interaction of these major themes will form the greater part of the story that follows in these pages.

First, however, it may be helpful to preface them with some general and introductory remarks.