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The Colonial Venture of Ireland, Part 1


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Irish history has been likened to the cry of wind through a ruined house because so much of it deals with destruction and the breaking of a whole into parts. Centuries of conflict between Catholic and Protestant, Irish rebel and British authority offer a dramatic narrative of the pitfalls that accompany colonization by conquest. They provide a cautionary tale of how events put into motion can became a defining aspect not only of the conquered but of the conquerors for centuries into the future … whether anyone wants that burden of history or not.

The island of Ireland lies at the extreme western edge of Europe, separated from England by the narrow Irish Sea. Today, it is divided into two parts: 6 northern counties called Northern Ireland are a part of the United Kingdom; 26 other counties form a self-governing republic that has been known by different names but is commonly referred to as Ireland.

Ireland was not always divided. In the early centuries A.D., a race known as the Gaels inhabited the island. Ireland’s basic social unit was the extended family. Her basic political unit was the tribe, with each tribe having its own king who was, in turn, secondary to provincial kings. Although the northern province of Ulster tended to dominate this loose federation, the basic bond between the sometimes-warring tribes was a common conception of society, politics, and culture.

In the fifth century, the Gaels stole a 16-year-old Roman named Patricius and held him as a slave until he escaped years later. Patricius eventually returned to Ireland as the Christian bishop now known as St. Patrick, intent upon converting his former masters. The Gaels were Druids, which might be described as a college of wise men who worshipped nature and were versed in such arts as prophecy. When St. Patrick “drove the snakes out of Ireland” — the snake being a symbol of paganism — a unique form of Christianity was forged, one that drew upon Gaelic traditions.

Invasions of Ireland

In the ninth century, barbarians swept across mainland Europe, destroying civilization and ushering in the Dark Ages. Meanwhile, some monasteries in remote Ireland lay relatively untouched and served as storehouses for manuscripts destroyed elsewhere. In time, Ireland became the teaching center of Europe, earning the nickname “the isle of saints and scholars.”

The first successful conquerors of Ireland — the Normans from France — arrived in the 12th century and stood in sharp contrast to the Gaels. The French scholar Roger Chauvire observes,

There was nothing which could bring together the two races … neither language, since the one spoke French, and the other Gaelic; nor institutions, since on the one side there was the carefully worked out scale of feudalism, on the other the vaguely federal patriarchal tribes; nor judicial conception, with primogeniture on the one hand and limited election on the other. Nor indeed did they have any common interest.

The Norman earl of Pembroke, called Strongbow, had landed in Ireland at the behest of an Irish king defeated in tribal warfare. Irish warriors, without helmet or armor, fell quickly before Strongbow’s horsemen, who were clad in mail and armed with quick-firing bows. As Strongbow advanced, he secured his conquests by building stone castles. But in a cycle that would repeat itself to this day, Ireland became a source of worry to English authorities.

Fearing that a rival state would arise, King Henry II landed with troops and was officially installed as ruler. His rule was a formality. The English controlled only about 20 square miles around the southern coast-city of Dublin. Over time, the English maintained control only by installing ditches and staked fences, or palisades, called collectively “the Pale.” On pain of death, the Irish were to remain “outside the Pale” in territory that had not been properly conquered, as there was no one leader to subdue and no center of government to overwhelm.

Over the next few centuries, Ireland was mildly plundered but largely left alone and a balance or blending emerged. The Gaels began to use armor and build stone castles; the English adopted aspects of Gaelic lifestyle such as the poetry, the small harp, and riding bareback; the two bloodlines mingled through marriage.
Religious tensions and war

In the first half of the 16th century, however, the Tudor king Henry VIII complicated foreign affairs. Failing to get a papal annulment for his first marriage, Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church. The Anglican Church was established as the state church in both England and Ireland but, since the average Irishman could still attend Catholic mass, the change did not stir revolt.

The reign of Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, was different. England was threatened by Catholic France, and the great families of Ireland had a history of forming foreign alliances. To slam shut a back door for invasion, Elizabeth devastated the island, burning crops and slaughtering herds. As the Irish starved, their land was reassigned to prominent Englishmen &# 151; such as Sir Walter Raleigh — who established a form of feudalism by which the Irish lived as tenants on land they had formerly owned. The estates were known as “plantations.&# 148; The “wild Irish” — so named because of their reputed savagery — rebelled and were brutally crushed.

The experience of the English landowners in Ireland greatly influenced their later treatment of Indians in America. Many of the British who became prominent in the American colonies had been connected with the Irish experience. For example, the first Indian reservation agent — Gookin of Massachusetts — had seen military service in Ireland, as had many of the leaders of the original Virginia Company. Thus, the Irish “plantation” experience was transported onto American soil.

In 1603, James I, a Catholic, became king of England but his first concern was not religion; it was to preserve his throne. He declared Ulster, Ireland’s northern province, to be Crown Domain and divided it into six British counties. Land titles were granted to English Protestant nobles; the Catholic Irish were ordered to leave or to lease. For the Irish, the distinction between defending their land and defending their faith was being blurred.

The Catholics of Ulster finally revolted, killing as many as 10,000 colonists. The English response was motivated partly by political unrest at home. A new king, Charles I, had been executed and a Parliament — called the Long Parliament — ruled in his stead. Parliament was eager to send a restless and unpaid army out of the country. Eventually, Ireland was invaded under the leadership of the Puritan commander Oliver Cromwell.

One-fourth of the Catholic population — about one million people — died by the sword or starvation; tens of thousands were deported to fever-ridden colonies or the West Indies as slaves. Before Cromwell, Catholics held two-thirds of Irish land: afterward, only one-fourth. The Protestant conquest was complete by 1660, when the English monarchy was restored under Charles II. In 1685, James II, another Catholic, succeeded him. When a Catholic heir was born, James was deposed and retreated to Ireland, whence he planned a conquest of England with the encouragement of the French king, Louis XIV. James’s plans dissolved on July 12, 1690, when his forces were defeated on the banks of the Boyne River. Thereafter, Irish Protestants would celebrate that date much as Americans celebrate July the Fourth.

The British now passed a series of penal laws that stripped Catholics of civil liberties and barred their access to land, public office, and education. A culture built on deceiving the British emerged. For example, the only legal form of education taught children to be good Protestants. Hedge schools sprang up, so named after the Gaelic practice of teaching under the sunny side of a hedge. A class would meet in a different location each day, with one pupil serving as lookout. A popular rhyme explained,

Crouching ‘neath the sheltering
Or stretch’d on mountain fern,
The teacher and his pupils meet
Feloniously to learn.

Ulster — once the most rebellious area of Ireland — became the most loyal and Protestant. The issue that would spark open revolt between Catholic and Protestant was a familiar one: land. The first general tenants’ rights movement arose in the 1760s; participants were called the Oakboys or Greenboys.
Revolution in America and France

Meanwhile, the American colonies had also become restless under British rule. The Revolution of 1776 had many friends in Ireland who sympathized with Benjamin Franklin’s appeal for their support against a common enemy: England. Connections between America and Ireland ran deep. By 1770, an estimated one in ten ships leaving major American ports sailed for Ireland. At least one American in six living south of New England was of Irish origin.

When French and Spanish fleets — also sympathetic to American rebellion — began to cruise the English Channel, the anxious British asked loyal Irishmen to organize against an invasion. There was an obstacle to cooperation. As commerce flourished, merchants and manufacturers began to resent British mercantilism under which Northern Ireland would produce raw materials and goods, many of which could be shipped only to England. In turn, England enjoyed a monopoly on selling many goods back to them, and industries that threatened English interests were outlawed. The supposedly loyal Ulstermen paraded two cannon with placards that read, “ ;Free Trade or This.” The British Parliament loosened trade restrictions.

In 1789, the French Revolution stunned and threatened all of Europe. In Dublin, it became fashionable for Catholics to address each other as citizen, after the custom of French revolutionaries. The legal obstacles for Catholics were also loosened but revolution could not appeased. A society called the United Irishmen was formed to push for parliamentary reform that would establish the rights of man as advocated by Thomas Paine. During 1791 and 1792, Paine’ ;s Rights of Man went into at least seven Irish editions.

The British reversed their policies and clamped down on both peasant and radical movements. Hundreds were hanged. Wolfe Tone — an Irish Protestant who argued for Catholic rights — convinced French generals that an invasion of Ireland would spark a general uprising. But bad weather made the 43 French ships en route turn around for home. (Eventually, Tone would be captured and sentenced to hang but, instead, he was found in his jail cell with his throat mysteriously slit.) Nevertheless, a peasant rebellion broke out in Wexford and was met with severe violence; in one battle alone, called Vinegar Hill, estimates of the Irish dead range from 25,000 to 50,000. A reign of Protestant terror ensued.

Soon a second French force landed, this time in the company of Napper Tandy — a co-founder of the United Irishmen. To rouse revolution, Tandy posted a proclamation calling upon Irishmen to “strike on their blood cemented thrones the murderers of your friends!” Unfortunately for Tandy, the target audience could not read the proclamation because it was written in English rather than Gaelic. Tandy got drunk and was carried back to the ship, which returned to France.
The Act of Union

The British now determined to guard against another French invasion by bringing Ireland firmly into the United Kingdom. On January 1, 1801, an Act of Union joined Ireland and England under a single Parliament in London. The Union would last 120 years.

The Act affected Ireland in several ways. Some Irish became committed to repealing the Act. With parliamentary reform at home blocked, others became committed to violence. Robert Emmet’s rebellion of 1803 embodied this latter spirit even though the rebellion degenerated into a Dublin street brawl and the rebels were arrested. Just before receiving a death penalty, Emmet delivered an impassioned speech from the docket. By calling on future generations to fight for Irish freedom, Emmet converted his failure into legend. His words were repeated from father to son over generations. A third effect was a flood of emigration from Ireland, especially to North America. These Irish abroad provided much of the money that financed the Irish nationalist cause.

A fourth effect was to divide Protestants more deeply from Catholics. Dublin — in the Catholic south — was no longer the seat of Irish government. An unofficial capital emerged in Belfast — an industrial city with a busy port and booming trade. In the agrarian South, the peasants bowed under heavy rents. Any increase in the land’s output was followed by an immediate hike in rent. Thus, they could not acquire capital upon which to build. Catholics poured north to work. By the mid 1800s, one-third of Belfast, and its poorest part, was Catholic. The Protestants jealously guarded their privileged status from the newcomers.

In 1795, the Orange Society was founded and became the most visible expression of what was called “the Protestant ascendancy”: the Protestant ruling class. Named in honor of King William III of Orange, who triumphed in the Battle of Boyne, the Orangemen declared the Act of Union to be an unbreakable tie between their religion and the constitution of the United Kingdom. In 1805, the Irish Protestant politician John Foster reminded the British House of Commons of the obligation it had acquired through colonizing Ulster:

We claim as our inheritance all the blessings of that glorious Constitution which our ancestors and yours have fought and bled for — a Protestant king, with Protestant councillors, Protestant Lord and Protestant commons. That is what I call Protestant Ascendancy.

Meanwhile, Daniel O’Connell, a Catholic, became the most outspoken opponent of Union. Influenced by William Godwin, Thomas Paine, Adam Smith, and Jeremy Bentham, O’Connell declared, “My political creed is short and simple. It consists in believing that all men are entitled, as of right and justice, to religious and civil liberty.” But O’Connell opposed open rebellion. Instead, in 1823, he co-founded the immensely popular Catholic Association, which became an unofficial native parliament to discuss Irish grievances. O’ ;Connell became known as “the Liberator” when the British Parliament granted Catholic Emancipation in 1829, by which Catholics could assume virtually any political office.

In a balancing act that would be repeated through many decades, the British soothed Protestants’ fears by passing anti-Catholic Acts: the Catholic Association was suppressed; and, the franchise was based on property ownership, reducing the Catholic electorate to about 16 ,000.

Poor Irish Catholics were disfranchised. Agrarian societies sprang up to address the needs of poor tenants, especially to protest the payment of tithes and rent to absentee British landlords. The official crime figures for 1832 included 242 murders and 568 arsons. The British responded with the Coercion Bill of 1833 which temporarily suspended habeas corpus, prohibited meetings, and replaced civil courts with military ones. One result: O’Connell and many others abandoned their attempt to reform Ireland through appeals to Britain. Reform would come from within.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).