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1850-1920ContentsIntroductionChapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3

Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9

Chapter 10Chapter 11AppendicesBiographyBibliography

 [IIreland 1850-1920 Copyright © 2005 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]


Many years ago I read a review of a recent book on modern Irish history which was very highly recommended, and which according to the reviewer the results of the latest scholarship on the subject was to be found. The book cost£20, and having that sum I went into a bookshop to buy it. I took up a copy and looked first at the Table of Contents. To my astonishment I found that the main chapter headings had not changed in over a hundred years. It was a re-hash of the familiar nationalist version of Irish history. I did not buy the book nor have I opened a copy of it from that day to this.

Propaganda versions of histories of countries are very common; in fact they are the norm. But often the collapse of the regime causes the propaganda of that regime to be discarded. Nobody nowadays accepts the Bolshevik version of Russian history or the Nazi version of German history. But Irish Nationalists tried to describe the history of modern Ireland as a struggle against foreign oppression just as Hitler tried to describe the history of Germany in the twentieth century as Germany’ s struggle for freedom against a conspiracy of Jews and foreign capitalists. Neither was quoting directly from the other, but both drew on ideas common in Europe at that time. It comes as a shock to any Irishman reading Mein Kampf for the first time how familiar Hitler’s arguments were. The words of Adolf Hitler are very pertinent,

‘It is the struggle for the soul of the child, and to the child its first appeal is addressed: “German boy, do not forget that you are a German”, and “Little girl, remember that you are to become a German mother”. Anyone who knows the soul of youth will be able to understand that it is they who lend ear most joyfully to such a battle cry. They carry on this struggle in hundreds of forms, in their own way and with their own weapons. They refuse to sing un-German songs. The more anyone tries to alienate them from German heroic grandeur, the wilder becomes their enthusiasm…their ears are amazingly sensitive to un-German teachers…’ (Hitler, Mein Kampf ,11).

Describing his history teacher who made history Hitler’s favourite subject at school he writes:

‘Even today I think back with gentle emotion on this grey-haired man, who, by the fire of his narratives sometimes made us forget the present; who as if by enchantment, carried us into past times, and out of the millennial veils of mist moulded dry historical memories into living reality. On such occasions we often sat there, often aflame with enthusiasm, and sometimes even moved to tears’…This teacher made history my favourite subject…For who could have studied German history under such a teacher without becoming an enemy of the state which, through its ruling house, exerted so disastrous an influence on the destinies of the nation (op.cit. 13-14).

Many Irish people who were educated in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will recognise the type of teacher, and indeed this type of book.

        Consequently, it is my aim in this book to provide a balanced account of the aims and actions of all the participants in the Irish political scene. In particular I wish to avoid the enormous distortions in standard works who over-emphasize actions by nationalists whether of the constitutional or the violent kind. F.S. L. Lyons’ book Ireland since the Famine is a notorious example of this distortion, even though what he writes, as far as it goes, is factually correct. (See for example pages 315 to 468 devoted to the affairs of Sinn Fein/IRB/IRA from 1913 to 1921 to the virtual exclusion of everything else.) Obviously a better balance must be sought. During the period in question the outstanding event was the First World War. Ten times, or perhaps twenty times, the number of Irishmen fought in the British, American, or colonial armed forces than ever marched with the IRA. The efforts of the whole country were devoted to defeating Germany. The role of Sinn Fein/IRB/IRA was just that of the third dog which seizes the bone over which two other dogs were fighting.

It is also necessary to examine the allegations about conditions in Ireland which were said to have justified a prolonged political campaign and an armed struggle. First there was the allegation of an oppressive ‘British rule’ in Ireland. There was no oppression of Ireland, and it can scarcely be said that there was any kind of British rule, let alone mis-rule in Ireland. Though the United Kingdom had no written constitution in practice it had a federal structure. England (with Wales) formed the largest unit, while Scotland and Ireland largely kept their own laws, had their own administration, their own system of justice and police manned almost entirely by Scotsmen or Irishmen in their respective countries. Though there was only one parliament debates on purely Irish or Scottish affairs were normally attended by Members of Parliament from those countries. The position of Ireland with regard to the United Kingdom was roughly the same as that of Texas or California with regard to the United States. Some people in Ireland, or Texas or California might like to be independent republics with their own army and navy and their own foreign policy, but they could hardly complain that they were so oppressed that blood must be shed to free them. The term mis-rule is one of political rhetoric not a description of fact. So American Democrats could describe Republicans of being guilty of ‘mis-rule’ and vice versa. But no historian would take them seriously.

It was also alleged that there was an oppressive landlord caste grinding down the poor Irish farmers. But economic historians nowadays reject that view. I made a curious discovery one time that ‘landlordism’ existed only in Catholic parts of Ireland but had never been heard off in the Protestant parts, though the landlords were the same. The tenant farmers from northern and southern Ireland who formed the backbone of the Tenant Right Movement were not impoverished peasants but had substantial holdings. Their chief grievances were that either they were not given leases, or were not given a guarantee that their lease  would be renewed. It was considerably later when Michael Davitt enlisted the small-holder and the agrarian terrorists drwn from their ranks into his own political struggle.

It was also maintained that a powerful Protestant state was oppressing an impoverished Catholic peasantry and was also trying to take away their religion. These complaints were made by Catholic priests and bishops who backed the political opponents of the established political families. As much weight should be accorded to them as could be accorded to complaints against a Republican government by a Catholic priest or bishop in America whose brother happened to be a Democrat politician. The chief grievance of the Catholic clergy in fact was that the Government would not hand over to them taxpayers’ money for the support of Catholic schools. The policy of the Government of the United Kingdom with regard to education was the same as that of the United States. No public money was to be paid to religious or denominational schools. The Catholic clergy argued that if Ireland had its own government the Catholic members of that Government would simply hand over the money without question to the Catholic priests. This in fact was never done, even after independence.

It was alleged that Ireland was a very poor country, and made poor by centuries of British mis-rule. In fact, by 1850 Ireland was one of the most advanced countries in the world, not quite as rich as England, but then nobody else was. Ireland shared in the great industrial development of Victorian Britain. By the end of the century, other countries like the United States and Germany were beginning to rival the United Kingdom. More importantly, for large parts of Ireland, Denmark with the Nordic countries and Switzerland were developing at a fast pace. There were millions of poor people in Ireland, but there were also millions in the other countries. Ireland was a relatively rich and developed country. If, by 1970 the Irish Republic was the most backward country in the European Economic Community the causes for that must be looked for elsewhere.

It should be noted that the Catholic hierarchy from 1848 to 1921 denied that the conditions for a just war existed, namely intolerable oppression which could only be removed by the shedding of blood. There were no grievances so great as to warrant the shedding of blood and the wholesale destruction of other people’s property. There were always parliamentary means for removing any real grievances. There never was the likelihood that any armed struggle would succeed.

The question then arises, if there was no real oppression and no real grievances, why were there unceasing political campaigns accompanied by terrorist attacks to secure ‘freedom’? I suggest that the answer may be found in the connection between Catholic politicians in Ireland and the Catholic Democrat politicians of Tammany Hall. These were often close relatives, and indeed blood-brothers. The Catholic politicians in Ireland could and did control the local political rackets, but the opportunities for profiteering would be so much greater if they controlled an Irish parliament as well. It should be noted that for various reasons most of the taxes in Ireland were paid by Protestants, so there was a lot to be said for being able to tax your opponents for your own benefit.

It is obvious that politicians and clergy could not simply state that their chief aims were to control the rackets, and to benefit their relatives and supporters. No, it was necessary that a mythology of nationalism should be constructed. In Ireland, as elsewhere this was composed of two principle elements, the first being the unremitting struggle for centuries against foreign oppression, and the other was the necessary freedom of a separate race. The point about the mythology was not that it was true but that it was believed and that it inspired. The great masterpiece of such mythology is of course Mein Kampf.

The question too arises whether in fact Ireland was better off as part of the United Kingdom. The answer would seem to be yes. Under an independent parliament power and the possibilities of patronage and corruption would be transferred from one set of Irishmen to another. Some would gain while the others lost. But would Ireland as a country on the one hand, and the Irish people in general including those who emigrated, benefit overall. The answer would seem to be no. Ireland was to small a unit in the modern world to benefit from tariff barriers in the way that Bismarck’s Germany and the United States did which had almost all the resources for a modern industrial society within their own borders. In fact, after being tried for fifty years after independence tariff barriers had to be abandoned.

The arguments for Repeal had already been examined and dismissed. Frederick Conway, the editor of the Dublin Evening Post, listed the arguments in favour of the repeal of the Act of Union and refuted them all.

The first argument was to say that if the Union benefited England Ireland must lose. This was not the case for both could gain.

The next was that absentee landlords benefited England rather than Ireland. He pointed out that there was no connection between absent landlords and poor management of the land, nor that the simple transfer of rents to England injured Ireland. The rents had to be used for the purchase of goods for use in Ireland. Ireland exported those goods for whose production she had natural advantages and imported other goods.

The next fallacy was the Protectionist fallacy, namely that Ireland itself should produce all it needed. He pointed out that Ireland could grow grapes under glass, but would be better advised growing more suitable crops for export, and importing the grapes

It was alleged that in famine conditions Irish lives were sacrificed for the profit of British corn merchants. But it was the rise in price caused by local shortages that brought supplies of foreign corn to Ireland.

The argument that Ireland loses from her connection with England depended on the absentee and protectionist arguments and ignored the fact that Britain and all her colonies were open to Irish exports. Nor did she (in 1847) bear her full share of taxes. (A later argument, after taxation was equalised, exercised the nationalists to prove that equal taxation meant over-taxation.)

If there were full employment in Ireland there would be peace and prosperity. (This is a variant of the Protectionist fallacy.) But the practices of trade unions and combinations of operatives trying to keep or raise their income is a fruitful source of strife. (Trade unions and combinations seek to restrict access to their trade; this both increases unemployment and reduces output.)

The next was the labour fallacy. Labour is cheaper in Ireland than in England, but English manufacturers persist in erecting their factories in England. The reason was that English labourers were more skilled and were therefore paid more.

The next fallacy was that the English were only upholding the Union because they feared that the Catholics would oppress the Protestants. The real reason was that they upheld the Union because most Irishmen favoured it.

The next was the ‘Nationalist’ fallacy, which held that Ireland had a different language, literature, culture and religion from that of England, but in reality the differences were not great.    The next was the fallacy of the benefit of a national Parliament. But such a Parliament would be likely to base its legislation on the fallacies just outlined and would only do harm. (Conway was proved right in this.)

The next was the fallacy that Ireland with an independent Parliament would be sufficiently linked in the crown. But it would be impossible to have two equal and independent Parliaments linked only in the crown. When it had been attempted in ‘Grattan’s Parliament’ the crown took great care by means of bribery to control both.

The Industrial Resources fallacy which tried to prove that Ireland had in itself all it needed to be a great manufacturing nation. The reality is that Ireland had not.

The next fallacy was that of ‘Ireland for the Irish’. But in fact there were more Irishmen working in England than there were Englishmen working in Ireland. And this did not include the British colonies.

The next one was the non-exportation fallacy which would prohibit the exportation of Irish produce. This would result in a no-importation policy, which would result in poorer goods at higher prices.

The last fallacy he named was that acts of Parliament were a substitute for hard work, a point the Sir Horace Plunkett later ceaselessly inculcated (Dublin Evening Post Oct 1847). (Sir Horace recounted the story of the peasant who said there was no need to plant the crops, because next year Ireland would have her own Parliament)

It is not my purpose in this Foreword to analyse all the arguments in detail but just to set out the reasons for a new look at the traditional account of the Irish history of the period. So it is assumed that Ireland was reasonably well-governed, and that there were always remedies available from Parliament.. A case could be made, and indeed was made even by Protestants, that a separate Irish Parliament would be beneficial for dealing with specifically Irish problems, but the reasons for this were never strong. It is obvious that the mind must be cleared of ideas derived from nationalist propaganda that Ireland was a poor oppressed colony of Britain in which the impoverished Catholic peasantry were ever on the brink of rebellion against foreign rule and only kept subdued by coercion Acts and a corrupt judiciary. Such a picture is a total fantasy.


The plan of this book is simple and follows that of my earlier book Ireland 1800-1850. The principle events of the day as described in the newspapers are recounted. The chapters are based on the various ministries, but as many of these were very short at times several were grouped together. There were between 1850 and 1922 24 ministries under 13 different Prime Ministers. Gladstone was  Prime Minister 4 times, Derby and Salisbury 3 times, and Russell, Palmerston and Disraeli twice each, with Aberdeen, Rosebery, Balfour, Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith, Lloyd George, and Bonar Law serving single terms. Asquith served for eight years, and Lloyd George for six years. Disraeli’s first ministry, and Gladstone’s third ministry, lasted only a few months each, but nevertheless there was a complete change in the cabinet and in the Irish Government. In the Irish Government, the Lord Lieutenant, the Chief Secretary, the Lord Chancellor, the Attorney General and the Solicitor General changed with every change of ministry.

Immediately following the listing of the principal officers I describe the principal pieces of legislation the particular ministry brought in, or other episodes concerning the Government at large, for example, a visit of the queen, or the effects of a particular war in which the whole kingdom was involved. In the second part of each section I describe the activities of individual or groups which affected the whole of Ireland. Certain topics have to be grouped together for convenience sake, like describing shipbuilding and the linen industry in Belfast, and these have to be placed in one section or another as appropriate. Some activities, like teaching developed continuously over the whole period, and have to be returned to more than once. Political activities are treated likewise, but not given priority over other activities like industrial or cultural ones. This, I hope, will eliminate the great imbalances and distortions of perspective that were formerly to be found in Irish history books.

When the Government is referred to it is always the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Since 1171, the King of England had recognised rights of oversight over the petty chiefs in Ireland. Adherents of some political creeds tried to refer to it as the British Government with the implication that it was not the legitimate Government of Ireland but a foreign government oppressing the people of Ireland. (The term British Government, though technically inaccurate for describing the Government of the United Kingdom, is commonly used. But I have avoided it because of its misuse by political propagandists.) The term Irish Government refers to the separate Irish Executive and judiciary. The central Government in London did exercise some powers directly in Ireland as it was entitled to do. These largely concerned the budget, the armed forces, the Revenue Offices, and the Post Office. In the annual budget money had to be set aside for services like the police and primary education which in Ireland were charges on the Exchequer, but in England on local authorities. There was no logical or consistent division of powers, and it would seem that the Lord Lieutenant retained some residual powers over the militia, for example. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the Chief Secretary had secured some oversight over every department and Board in the Irish Government, though there was no statutory authority for this.

I have tried to describe Irish political movements in the context of similar movements abroad. The militancy of the Irish nationalists and of the Land League is best understood in the context of the struggles of their blood brothers in Tammany Hall to control the political patronage and corruption. Nevertheless, all influences from Continental Europe at the time of Communist International cannot be entirely ruled out. In the twentieth century, the terrorist campaigns for independence were no different from similar contemporary campaigns across Europe. There was little direct influence either way but Ireland and Europe shared the same Zeitgeist. The IRA, the Cheka in Russia, and the Gestapo in Germany must be weighed in the same balance. This form of exposition may not be the most exciting, but it covers the ground in a systematic and factual manner, and is better than the kind of history that was taught to young Hitler.




Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.