This is a brief overview of the above period; it is a simplified outline of the period so as to
provide a link between the turning point of the Union and that of the Great War.
As the Act of Union was not accompanied by Catholic Emancipation any chance of
Catholics identifying with the Union came to nothing. This was especially so as Protestants
soon learned to identify with the Union. The critical mass of northern Protestants also
associated their growing economic development with the Union. Furthermore Daniel
O’Connell linked Catholicism with Nationalism in his campaigns for Catholic Emancipation
and Repeal of the Union. His success in achieving the former raised the expectations of
the Catholic/Nationalist population and reinforced the distrust of Protestants. Moreover his
tactics of “brinkmanship” and his mobilisation of the peasantry forged a potent weapon
for the future. As CE had been granted under pressure Catholics drew the (correct)
conclusion that Britain would only grant concessions when Catholic Nationalism was
perceived as a sustained nuisance or as a direct threat to the stability of the British Isles.
The Union had been brought about to create stability and any British amendments to the
Union were made to maintain stability rather than as reform measures in their own right.
Otherwise the Union remained unaltered and as time went by any concessions were
considered by Catholics as grudging signs of weakness by Britain and by Irish Protestants
as betrayals of the promises of 1800. The Union came to be inflexible.
This is not to say that worthwhile reforms were not forthcoming: the Whigs in the 1830s &
the Conservatives in the 1840s brought in a significant amount of constructive (though
controversial) legislation. Peel’s legislation of the early 1840s can however be seen as
measures of appeasement that failed to separate the leaders of the Irish Catholic Church
from Nationalism. However Peel did succeed in killing off the Repeal movement and he
broke the nerve of the now elderly O Connell. Disappointed nationalists turned away from
O Connell’s moderate and quasi-constitutional ways and started to extol violence and the
spirit of ’98. These Young Ireland revolutionaries failed in their rebellion of 1848 but lived
on to found and develop the Fenian (IRB) movement on both sides of the Atlantic ten
years later. Meanwhile the parliamentary/constitutional wing of nationalism became
moribund following the eclipse of O Connell and the start of the Famine.
The Great Famine (1846-50) was a local & social catastrophe but it did lead to a net
economic gain. c1 million may have died and a slightly larger number emigrated; this
continued so that by 1911 the Irish population was half that of 1841. For the survivors
and those who remained in Ireland economic and social conditions (and expectations)
increased. In political terms, however, some of the survivors especially those in USA
developed the genocide myth which remained a potent myth on which Irish
Republicanism (Fenians and their successors) fed.
Fenian revolutionary activity failed in the 1860s; they did however keep alive the tradition
of 1798, 1803 & 1848. This revolutionary activity together with a recognition that the
Anglican Church was resented and a demand for better conditions on the land led
Gladstone to introduce a series of major reforms in his 1st Ministry (1868-74). His prime
motivation was to preserve stability, though a by-product would be “justice for Ireland”.
His measures led to an unforeseen reaction; disgruntled Anglicans felt betrayed by the
Disestablishment of the C of I (1869), whose status had been guaranteed by the Act of
Union. They therefore started to think that Britain could not be trusted to look after Irish
interests; they considered “home government” or Home Rule. This was very close to the
intentions of many Catholic Nationalists and uncharacteristic of Irish Protestants who
normally identified with Britain. This was merely a temporary reaction made on the
rebound following Disestablishment; within a few years the Home Rule movement was a
largely Catholic phenomenon, to which some Fenians belonged as they saw Home Rule as
a stepping stone to full independence. The movement made spectacular progress during
the Land War of 1879-82 when Charles Stewart Parnell combined parliamentary activity
with the semi-illegal activities of the Land League. He brought O Connell’s skills of
“brinkmanship” to perfection; harnessed the masses to bring about a revolution on the
land and created a disciplined parliamentary machine that quite eclipsed the organisation
of the Conservative and Liberal parties. By the end of 1885 his activities and Gladstone’s
egocentric nature had led to Gladstone’s adoption of Home Rule as not only a Liberal
policy but its only policy. Gladstone had convinced himself that political stability could
only be maintained in the British Isles if Home Rule was adopted. In less than ten years
Parnell and his Nationalists had obtained the conversion of a British party leader and PM,
who would devote the rest of his political career to the pursuit of Home Rule and the
virtual ending of the Union. A realignment of British politics took place: Irish Home rulers
and Gladstonian Liberals were opposed by Unionists (that is Conservatives & Liberal
Unionists (Liberals who believed Gladstone was an egocentric and irresponsible traitor.)
This alignment was to last until the end of the 1st World War.
Gladstone’s conversion came as a shock to Ulster Protestants; between 1886 and 1921
they were to combine, organise and oppose Irish Home Rulers and British compromisers
and “appeasers” in an increasingly effective manner. Ulster Protestants were a critical
mass, representing ascendancy, middleclass businessmen, farmers and the workingclass.
Their industrial muscle gave them the funding to oppose Home Rule, which they equated
with “Rome Rule”. Their regional identity gave them the solidarity to oppose both the
Liberals and Irish Home Rulers. They sabotaged the 3rd Home Rule Act(1914); in this
they were aided and abetted by the Conservative (Unionist) opposition even to the extent
of threatening armed insurrection and civil war.
In the meantime Gladstone’s 1st Home rule bill had been defeated by Conservatives and
Liberal deserters(summer 1886) and a series of Conservative (Unionist) governments
ruled for the best part of twenty years opposing Home Rule by: (1) “killing Home Rule by
kindness” and (2) “20 years of resolute government”. [In effect this was the standard
C19 policy pursued by every government of “carrot & stick”. If Gladstone had met
Catholic/Nationalist demands by disestablishing the
C of I in 1869, the Conservative Balfour met Nationalist demands by buying out the
Ascendancy landlords in 1903 (Wyndham’s Land Purchase Act). Neither piece of
legislation killed Nationalism it merely encouraged it by removing the twin pillars of the
Union – the established Protestant C of I and Protestant landownership.
The Parnell divorce scandal of 1889/90 led to the fall of Parnell followed by his death
within the year. There was also a split in his hitherto firmly controlled party. To a new
generation of nationalists parliamentary politics seemed a sordid cul de sac that meant
alliance/cooperation with the “enemy” (the British); these “angry young men” were
attracted towards more radical if not revolutionary action. If Redmond (who had reunited
the Home Rule party in 1900) did not obtain Home Rule (3rd Home rule bill) this new
generation of Sinn Feiners, Republican Socialists and the IRB would create their various
revolutions. All nationalists (whether radicals like the above groups or Redmondite Home
Rulers were frustrated by the armed and organised Ulster Unionists of !914. Nevertheless
the radical IRB (the descendants of the C19 Fenians) had a sneaking admiration for the
Ulster Unionists: here were Irishmen successfully defying the British government with the
threat of armed force. If Unionists could do this why could not Republicans do the same?