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[Post Famine Ireland- Social Structure Ireland as it Really Was. Copyright © 2006 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]

Chapter Thirteen


Chapter Summary. This chapter deals with the common beliefs ib Irish society, especially those which resulted in political or terrorist activities. The hyperlinks immediately below are to the most important headings.

Irish Beliefs and Movements


Common Beliefs and Movements

            Most movements were common to the whole of the United Kingdom, but there were also some found only in Ireland. Up to 1880 politics in Ireland, on the surface at least, was the same as in the rest of the United Kingdom. There were the two old political parties, the Whigs and the Tories; the difference between the two parties was slight. Repeal of the Act of Union was not a serious issue. Ireland was a naturally Tory country. Most people believed in a paternalistic Government and Government intervention and disliked Liberal or free market ideas.

            In the 1840s there developed principally in Europe two twin movements redolent of evil, nationalism and socialism. These were international movements, argued about by countless pamphleteers, lecturers, street orators, activists in working men’s workshops and clubs across Europe. Nationalism, or as it was sometimes called Romantic Nationalism accepted the French Revolution and the need for a bloody revolution and combined it with the modern theories of races and race struggle (Rassenkampf). Some of the pedlars of Nationalism had universities degrees, and some were scarcely literate, but each copied from the others. This is why one brought up on Sinn Fein propaganda finds much of Mein Kampf so familiar. War was a basic tenet in Social Darwinism. (In time, watered down versions of these ideologies such as Christian socialism or Catholic nationalism which practising Christians could accept were developed.)

In England, Scotland, and Wales, the ideology of socialism was the one most widely adopted, but in Ireland nationalism. Socialism too depended heavily on the French Revolution, Romanticism and millennialism combined with the new theories of class and class struggle (Klassenkampf) and the need for a violent revolution. The chief aim of both ideologies was to transfer the ownership of wealth, and consequently political power and patronage to the ‘masses’. The latter, of course was to be exercised on their behalf by the leaders of the ‘masses’ who in most cases were not of the working classes.

Both socialist and nationalist movements in Ireland as elsewhere spanned the spectrum from rational argument to revolutionary violence. All over Europe there was this jumble of ideas, socialist, nationalist, constitutional and revolutionary, theoretic and pragmatic, from which would-be revolutionary leaders could take the elements they preferred and give them a local colouring.      

The socialist and trade union movement was quite widespread in the towns and cities where it was more in tune with the aspirations of urban workers. The Catholic Church, though officially opposed to extreme socialism, was in favour of moderate social reform, and Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical Rerum novarum on the subject. In London, Cardinal Manning intervened on behalf of striking dock workers, but socialism did not gain the support of the Catholic clergy who adhered to the economic teachings of Adam Smith. [Top]

Irish Beliefs and Movements

Daniel O’Connell (1776-1847) wielded enormous influence among middle and lower class Catholics by playing on the prejudices of these classes. He got support from the Catholic clergy anxious to secure a position of influence in the new Catholic kingdom if it ever came about. Without O’Connell the history of Ireland would have been very different. His political message was purely sectarian and he more than any other entrenched sectarianism in Ireland. His sectarian message was reiterated by the vast majority of the Catholic bishops and clergy. Their political interest was clear, to supplant the Established Church in Ireland, to exercise political power and influence, and to get back lands and buildings handed to the Protestant clergy at the Reformation. (See also Interest Groups in Chapter One. Political programmes and the interests of groups were closely connected.)

By the year 1900, Ireland had become polarised between Catholics who wanted Home Rule and Catholic domination, and Protestants who opposed it. Until 1880 the Catholics voted for either the Whigs or the Tories. After that time the separate strands of O’Connell’s Catholic Repeal Party, revolutionary republicans, and agrarian terrorists had come together. As the franchise was extended to include the majority of the lower and working classes electoral support for nationalist candidates increased, so that it became very difficult for a Whig or a Tory to get elected in a Catholic area. The reason for this is that in an era of corrupt politicians most Catholics would expect more favours, jobs, promotions, houses, places in a hospital, contracts, nods to the police to overlook offences, and so on, from a fellow Catholic. Catholic politicians wanted to establish Tammany Hall politics in Ireland, and most Catholics preferred that. When Catholic-controlled county councils were established discrimination against Protestants was notorious. Who you knew not what you knew. Those with influence to achieve these were said to have ‘pull’.

            The second great bait which nationalist politicians held out to rural Catholics was improved conditions of tenure of land. It was stressed that a native Irish Parliament would bring a speedy redress to rural grievances and that English landowners and commercial people were not interested in Irish problems.

The third bait was protection for Irish manufacturers. All freedom movements hold out Protectionism as a lure or bait. The usual protectionist policies are tariffs and quotas on imports. In Ireland, this meant duties and tariffs on English goods such as existed in the eighteenth century. It is likely that many small Protestant businessmen felt attracted to protectionism if it could be achieved without a total Catholic domination.

The Catholic clergy, almost unanimously, favoured a separate Irish Parliament. They, like Muslim clerics in the following century, envisaged a state in which they would have the deciding say on almost all matters. For the opposite reasons, most of the Protestant clergy opposed Home Rule. Protestant clergy for the most part were as involved in politics as the Catholic clergy, though their influence was less because they were overshadowed by the rich Protestant laymen. Catholic priests were among their own class.

Though in general the Protestants opposed Home Rule they were not completely unanimous. Those Protestants who supported some form of Home Rule did so for various reasons. Besides the Irish Protestant ‘patriot’ tradition many of them disliked British interference in Ireland’s local affairs. Others felt that legislation introduced for the whole of the United Kingdom damaged Ireland economically. For example, they believed that some taxes, though in principle equal, were in practice favourable to British industry and damaging to Ireland’s industry. Others felt that laws regarding education, especially agricultural instruction, while suitable for England proved disastrous for Ireland. These views were to be expressed in the Recess Committee. In general Protestant Home Rulers envisaged a very limited form of Home rule, namely the management of Irish domestic or insular affairs by Irishman.           

However, the vast majority of Protestants opposed Home Rule for they foresaw that patronage would exclusively favour Catholics. The people of Ulster had four main objections to Home Rule. First, they were a rich minority who would be despoiled by the majority. Second, they were Protestants who would be subjected to Popish priests. Third, Ulster was doing extraordinarily well under free trade. Five of the largest industries in the world were in Belfast. Tariffs and protectionism might benefit weak and failing industries, but would cripple strong ones. Fourth, they would be handing victory to terrorists. In 1912 Sir Edward Carson elaborated on the terrorism in the year 1886 after the surrender of the Liberals in 1886 to the forces of lawlessness and disorder in Ireland, the horrible and detestable crimes of murder, boycotting, intimidation, firing into dwelling houses, maiming cattle, and resistance to the forces of the crown (Weekly Irish Times 24 August 1912). Fifthly upper class Protestants, especially those closely connected with politics and the armed forces, but also those interested in the arts and literature, much preferred the opportunities which belonging to a world-wide empire conferred. No soldier wanted to be relegated to a tiny impotent army of an independent Ireland. This view was also held by Catholics of the upper ranks, who saw great opportunities for themselves in the armed forces, the diplomatic and consular services, and in the colonies. Cultured people regarded nationalism as a reedy backwater.

However the foremost objections to Home Rule among the majority of Protestants were religious. Irish working class Protestants had for three centuries been deluged with a vicious anti-Popery propaganda every bit as bad as anti-Semitic propaganda was in the 20th century. Every possible evil and wickedness was attributed to Catholics, the Catholic priests, especially Jesuits, and to the Pope in particular. These were accused of destroying, in league with the devil, pure Christianity for power and financial gain. Protestantism, they were told, stood for ‘religion and freedom and laws’. Consequently, the Catholic Church stood for superstition, oppression, arbitrary rule, and the Inquisition. The activities of the ‘Fenian’ terrorists, and the blatantly unchristian Tammany Hall style Catholics gave colour to these beliefs.

There were two other intertwined groups who were to play a powerful role in politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the descendants of the agrarian terrorists, and the descendants of the republican supporters of the French Revolution. There had been sporadic outbreaks of agrarian crime from the 1760’s onwards. (See section on agrarian and political crime above.) They were absorbed into the political movements like the Fenian movement and the Land League.

The republican movement was started in 1796 when some young Protestant gentlemen plotted a military uprising in conjunction with an invasion by French Revolutionary forces to set up an independent Irish Republic ruled by themselves. Though eclipsed in Ireland for long periods the tradition survived as republicanism, especially in the United States. There it attracted Irish Catholics who were eventually to control the movement. It was re-introduced into Ireland as Fenianism in the second half of the nineteenth century. Some of the revolutionaries inspired by the Irish Protestant United Irishmen calling themselves the Fenian Brotherhood or Irish Republican Brotherhood were trying to organise a revolution as late as 1867. After that date most of the Fenian leaders turned to the political Home Rule movement. When the parliamentary Home Rule party which attracted a sizeable number of Protestants and the Land League started in 1880 the revolutionaries and agrarian terrorists flocked to it.

At every stage it was difficult to say what proportion of Catholic Irishmen supported revolutionary violence. Numbers soared, as was inevitable, after 1918 when the British intention to withdraw and that the revolutionaries would form the next government was manifest. The great problem in estimating support for violence is that it soars when success seems likely. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (Fenians) led by James Stephens, seems to have got considerable support, but conditional on getting an adequate supply of arms. When no arms materialised, support vanished and the constitutional branch gained the upper hand.

However, there proved to be a way of combining the revolutionary and constitutional movements. This was called the New Departure, and it was aimed at breaking the financial and political powers of the Protestant landlords by peaceful means. It was principally organised by a Fenian called Michael Davitt who genuinely abhorred organised crime. But many who joined his Land League paid only lip-service to his theories of non-violence, and the Land League became notorious around the world for its violence. The agrarian terrorists in the ranks of the Fenians could continue with local attacks on their opponents which could not be acknowledged by the constitutional branch, but would be condoned by it. This dichotomy afflicted the Irish National Party down until its eclipse in 1918. Their presence in the Nationalist ranks ensured that the vast majority of Protestants never trusted them. Yet some approval for the actions of ‘the lads’ was probably widespread in the Catholic community. Most Catholics were probably no more distressed by the murder of a Protestant than Germans were by the murder of a Jew.

There was a wide spectrum of opinion among Irish Protestants ranging from revolutionary nationalists like Roger Casement to diehard loyalists of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Protestants were to the fore in developing cultural nationalism, and many too believed that a Government in Dublin with some powers over regulation and taxation was essential for the prosperity of Ireland. There was a handful of Protestants in the Nationalist Party, and their diverse backgrounds have been examined by Professor Bew (Ideology and the Irish Question, 16-17). There were some Protestants who considered that democratic principles should be absolute, and that a Catholic majority in Ireland should be allowed to rule as it wanted. Neither side was willing to concede the obvious solution of partition of Ireland on a democratic basis. The nationalists wanted to control Ireland as a whole, especially the great industrial area around Belfast in the North East. After the Catholic nationalists gained control of a majority of towns and counties in 1898 they commenced the policy of appointing only Catholics to public offices. They would have argued that the Protestants had appointed only Protestants, but it was a clear signal to what Protestants might expect from a Home Rule parliament. It was clear to most Protestants that if a Home Government dominated by Catholics of the Tammany Hall stamp were introduced that the role of the Protestant minority was to be fleeced. The majority of pro-Unionists, or Unionists as they were called, wished the whole of Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom to protect tiny Protestant communities in the most remote parts of southern Ireland. The great majority of Unionists were Protestants, but there were some Catholic Unionists (Bew op. cit. 17).

The Orange Order, for a variety of reasons grew in importance. It was founded in 1795 as a way of keeping Protestants from joining secret societies like the Protestant Peep o’ Day Boys. It was to be under the control of the clergy and magistrates, and was to ensure that Protestants joined only legal bodies like the militia and yeomanry. They were a defensive or reactive body, and the membership waxed and waned in response to threats from the Catholics such as O’Connell’s Repeal campaign. It was a working-class body and the local Orange halls provided a social centre in Protestant areas. The political campaign against Home Rule was however led by the Unionist Party which was dominated by middle and upper class people. Yet Unionist politicians could not defy popular prejudices in the Orange lodges.

The Ulster Unionist Party, significantly not the Irish Unionist Party, was formed in 1905 to combat in Ulster the threat of Home Rule. It supplanted the Irish Unionist Alliance which continued to represent Unionists in the rest of Ireland. The Ulster Unionists in 1912 decided to form a defensive volunteer force, to be called the Ulster Volunteer Force, to defend the province of Ulster if the Liberals and Nationalists tried to foist Home Rule on Ulster. To counter the Orange Order in mixed areas Joseph Devlin the nationalist MP from Belfast formed or re-formed the Ancient Order of Hibernians as a Catholic mirror image. It should be noted that the Ulster Volunteer Force was not an illegal army, but was composed of volunteer units under the command of ex-army officers and the magistrates, solely for defensive purposes. These units were embodied as volunteer units in the British Army in 1914.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood, determined on armed conflict with England, re-surfaced in the 20th century. It was a secret society, responsible only to its own leaders. In a secret society decisions, even to murder someone, are taken by small unelected groups whose members are bound by their oath to carry out. For this reason, members of secret societies are excommunicated by the Catholic Church. The IRB established the Catholic Irish Volunteer Force as their vehicle for a coup d’etat and to crush the Ulster Volunteer Force. Like the Nationalist Party it was heavily dependant on funds collected among the Irish in America. When John Devoy switched his funds from the Nationalists to Sinn Fein it was crucial. At the same time a journalist named Arthur Griffith who had joined the IRB formed a party called Sinn Fein which considered the use of force inevitable, though Griffith himself did not take part in organising the use of force. In 1914 the Irish Volunteers split, the great majority of them agreeing with John Redmond to follow the constitutional path to Home Rule.

The language movement was to a considerable extent led by Protestants. It can be regarded as part of the Romantic Movement. (Romanticism also afflicted England and Scotland in the 19th century.) At first the idea was to make the Irish language more widely known among both Catholics and Protestants and form a common interest to both parties. Interest grew in the Gaelic League which Douglas Hyde, a Protestant, with others, had established to teach and spread the Irish language. Many Irish people were shamed into learning a bit of what was called ‘their own language’, but they were never interested in using it. The movement was hijacked by IRB and Sinn Fein activists and made the badge of their political programme.



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