Although nation states had existed since medieval times (eg England & France)
Nationalism as a political concept only dates to the time of the French Revolution. Until
that stage countries (or states) were the personal possession of a particular ruler or
dynasty. The ruler might rule over one homogenous people or a number of peoples. With
the exception of Switzerland and some of the city states of Italy & Germany the only
republic was a new one – USA. The French Revolution brought about a consciousness of
Frenchness; the sovereignty of the people and the idea that national identity was based
on a common homeland and culture. This concept was then exported to other parts of
Europe, sometimes spontaneously and sometimes by the force of French arms. Conquest
by France led to a reaction by many races who did not want to be dominated by France
but who wanted to exist as Germans, Spaniards etc. After the defeat of France many of
the old rulers were restored (either ruling over many nationalities or else over a part of a
cultural nation (for instance the king of Hanover ruled over one of the 39 German states).
Many of the peoples of Europe became restive and wanted a new beginning as the people
of a nation state. The most enthusiastic supporters of nationalism were frequently not the
old ruling class who had a vested interest in the restored or old system. The most
enthusiastic supporters were the professional and commercial middleclass. At first the
peasantry were slow to identify with nationalism as it was too abstract a concept; they
were concerned with surviving and gaining control of the land they occupied. Mazzini, one
of the fathers of C19 nationalism found it virtually impossible to mobilise the Italian
peasantry. O’Connell in Ireland did mobilise the peasantry with his campaign for Catholic
Emancipation and his attacks on the Act of Union. A great and glorious Irish past was
rediscovered (or invented) by the romantic Young Irelanders of the 1840s. This was
manifested in the glorification of rebellion and the United Irishmen of 1798 were taken as
a model. From the 1840s Irish nationalism was characterised by two polarities: moderate
or constitutional nationalism that was not primarily concerned with full independence but
with devolution (Home Rule) and revolutionary republicanism which remained numerically
smaller than the constitutional form of nationalism. These two approaches were not
mutually exclusive and often cross-fertilised each other. Both O’Connell and Parnell led
constitutional movements but they sounded more extreme than they were.
“Brinkmanship” was their deliberate tactic. Just as O’Connell mobilised the peasantry
between 1823 & the mid-1840s so Parnell mobilised the peasantry on a more permanent
basis in the late 1870s & ‘80s.

Generally the constitutional form of nationalism was catholic-oriented and the republican
variety claimed to unite Irishmen of whatever religion (the United Irish ideal). In practice,
however, nationalism only appealed to catholics, though some of the most prominent
nationalist leaders were protestants (the exception to the rule).

Before 1798: Members of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy were proud of their distinctive
identity – they were protestant and not English. They looked to Britain for support but
they often resented English dominance and the English assumption of superiority.

1798/1803: United Irish radical & revolutionary ideals failed; an abortive second attempt
was tried by Robert Emmet. These two rebellions were held up by later revolutionaries as
glorious attempts to overthrow British tyranny. In particular the “united” aspect was
stressed as was the concept of suffering/dying for Ireland.
1823/43: O’Connell successfully led a mass peasant movement to achieve Catholic
Emancipation (1829) and an unsuccessful mass movement to have the Union repealed.
He rejected violence but often allowed himself to sound extreme (brinkmanship). In the
1840s his younger followers were inspired by the possibility of what he might achieve
(Repeal) but alienated by his Catholicism. More and more they were inspired by a
romantic view of Ireland’s past and the glory of rebellion.

1848/1868: These “angry young men” staged the abortive Young Ireland rebellion of
1848; in exile in the late 1850s they founded the Fenian (IRB) movement that advocated
republicanism, armed revolution and complete independence from Britain. They failed but
the movement was particularly strong in USA which had received many Irish migrants
after the Great Famine. Fenianism was to survive till C20; in the early C20 it was revived.

1870/79: The Fenian rising (1867) meant that Gladstone had to consider reforms in
Ireland; he disestablished the C of I and brought in a land reform; these measures did
not kill off Irish nationalism which re-emerged in a more constitutional form led by Isaac
Butt. He was able to gain support (temporarily) from Anglicans who felt betrayed by
Britain because of Disestablishment and Fenians and their sympathisers who realised
rebellion had not succeeded. He founded the Home Rule movement (devolution) and in
1874 had achieved the superficially spectacular support of a parliamentary group of 59

1879/1885: Butt’s style of leadership was too gentlemanly and ineffectual; Parnell and a
handful of other MPs wanted a more vigorous approach – they used obstructionism in the
House of Commons to gain attention. Parnell achieved domination over the Home Rule
party during the Land War (1879-81); he used the Land League & then the National
League to achieve this. By an adroit use of confrontational brinkmanship he also forced
Gladstone to take him and his goals seriously.

1886/91: After the 1885 election Gladstone announced his conversion to Home Rule.
Parnell & circumstances had won over a British political leader to a policy of moderate
Irish devolution. The 1886 1st H Rule bill was unsuccessful but it caused a realignment of
parliamentary politics: Gladstonian Liberals and Parnell’s nationalists became an alliance
as did the opposing combination of Conservatives & Liberal Unionists. For the first time
Irish MPs were not in a permanent minority but could obtain a working majority with their
British allies at election time. The nationalist hope of a successful combination with the
Liberals was blown by Parnell’s disgrace and death. This was accompanied by serious
splits in the nationalist party.

1891/1914: Until 1900 the Home Rule party remained split; however much nationalist
effort went into cultural nationalism (the Gaelic League; the GAA and the Irish literary
revival – in particular the influence of Yeate’s play Cathleen ni Houlihon); moreover the
IRB revived and was inspired paradoxically by the armed defiance of the Ulster Unionists
who brought the gun back into Irish politics. In 1913 the IRB infiltrated the Irish
Volunteers a nationalist paramilitary body that had been founded in imitation of the Ulster
Volunteer Force, a Unionist body designed to wreck the possibility of Home Rule coming
about. A new nationalist strand was introduced in the early C20 by Griffith who founded
Sinn Fein. This was not a violent movement; SF policy was one of civil disobedience and a
programme of withdrawal of Irish MPs from Westminster who would set up their own
parliament in Dublin. By the beginning of WW1 Redmond’s home rule party and the
Liberal government had got a Home Rule Act on to the statute book; its implementation
would have been thwarted by the Ulster Unionists and the Conservative opposition. As it
was, its implementation was suspended for the duration of hostilities.

1914/21: If WW1 had been short and Home Rule had been implemented quickly and
successfully Redmond would have carried off the greatest achievement in nationalist
history, even the IRB would have accepted the situation and Sinn Fein certainly would
have. However WW1 was long and bloody; furthermore Redmond had pledged the Irish
Volunteers (who were renamed the National Volunteers) to the British war effort. He had
done this to demonstrate that home rule nationalists were not disloyal and would be
satisfied with a limited and devolved parliament and administration (Home Rule); he also
believed that the defence of Belgium was a just cause. This was a tremendous political
gamble as no Irish nationalist had ever supported a British war effort; if the war was not
short & successful he and delayed Home Rule would be discredited and the nationalist
cause would fall into the hands of the waiting men of violence.

Patrick Pearse of the IRB intended to use the rump of the Irish Volunteers who had not
supported the British war effort to start their own revolution with German help. This
happened at Easter 1916 though Pearse and some of the other leaders realised they
were doomed to fail. The poet Pearse believed in the necessity of the blood sacrifice and
that the martyring of the rebels would inspire other Irishmen to a more successful
revolution. The Easter rebellion was a failure and its leaders (including Pearse) were
executed; they did become martyrs and support for thwart effort declined and Redmond
became increasingly isolated and irrelevant (he died in 1918). The British govt wrongly
blamed Sinn Fein for the rebellion, they therefore became martyrs. Using its usual carrot
& stick combination the British then released the prisoners and internees, these men
formed a joint Sinn Fein/Irish Volunteer front in 1917. The British extended conscription
law to Ireland in 1918 and this turned more moderates to Sinn Fein/Irish Volunteers. In
the 1918 coupon election the Home Rule nationalists were virtually annihilated and Sinn
Fein won 73 seats (more than the Squiffite Liberals or the Labour party). Sinn Fein MPs
refused to take their seats in Westminster and met in Dublin declaring a republic;
officially they did not intend to start a guerrilla war but to use the Irish Volunteers (IRA) if
attacked or arrested by the British. However a number of volunteer commanders took
independent action and a war (1919-21) developed with Crown Forces. IRA intelligence
was superior to that of the British and by a combination of efficiency, ruthlessness and
intimidation (largely the work of Michael Collins) Sinn Fein consolidated support and
Britain became increasingly unwilling to continue the fight providing Sinn Fein settled for
less than a republic, accepting Dominion status instead. Though it split the Sinn Fein/IRA
Front Dominion status within the Empire was accepted. On the face of it violent methods
had succeeded and constitutional moderation had failed; however Sinn Fein settled for
less than a republic and the dominion of the Irish Free State became one of the few
working parliamentary democracies in the 1920s & 30s. The Irish parliamentary tradition
that had been nurtured by O’Connell, Butt, Parnell & Redmond at Westminster survived.
O’Connell & Parnell had been parliamentarians but they had had an ambiguous
relationship with extremism; revolutionary activity and constitutionalism may have been
polarities but they were not mutually exclusive but more the particular movement of the
time to further nationalist goals.

With the acceptance of dominion status in The Treaty of December 1921, nationalism
seemed to have achieved its goal – the Union was ended. However 6 of the 9 counties of
Ulster remained in Union with Great Britain; as the British resolve to preserve the Union
wavered and weakened so the determination of Ulster Unionists to preserve the Union for
Ulster (or most of it) grew. Not only did nationalism evolve, so Ulster Unionism developed
and British policy evolved. Britain had established the Union in 1800 to enhance stability;
the ending of the Union for 26 counties (and its preservation for 6) was a C20 response
to enhance stability: providing the Irish Free State remained within the Empire and British
strategic interests were preserved the Union could be ended; its furtherance would
merely destabilise the British Isles and the Empire.