The Irish revolution: ‘All changed, changed utterly’?
FELIX M. LARKIN
ACIS @ Boston, 22 March 2019
Conference title: ‘Declarations of independence: treaties, transitions and tearing away’
One of the themes of our conference this year is ‘transitions’ – and in 1963, when Radio Éireann broadcast a series of Thomas Davis lectures on the Irish revolution of 1916 and the succeeding years, it was under the title ‘The years of the great transition’. The idea that the Irish revolution had entailed a ‘great transition’ – substantive change – is a commonplace not only of our public history, but also of our historiography. I want to challenge that idea in this paper – hence the question mark in its title.
One of Yeats’ lesser-known poems is an odd little couplet, entitled ‘Parnell’: ‘Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man: / Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone’. These bleak lines indicate Yeats’ scepticism about the value of independence to the ordinary man in the street. He is saying that it required more than a political revolution to improve the lot of the ordinary people of Ireland – and no one will quarrel with that. His poem, written in 1937, reflects a disappointment, shared by many, that the achievement of Ireland’s independence had not been accompanied by a social revolution. The participation of the Citizen Army in the Easter Rising, and the adoption of the Democratic Programme by the First Dáil in 1919, had seemed to indicate that the political revolution would be accompanied by a social one, but that was not to be. For many (and perhaps for Yeats too) that compromised the value of the independence won with so much blood and sacrifice.
However, focusing on the absence of a social revolution in tandem with the political one is to miss an important point. There had been a social revolution in Ireland – though it occurred before the political revolution. The political revolution was, in fact, the end of a process of change – not the beginning. The changes had begun with the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 – and that was followed by the Ballot Act 1872, which introduced the secret vote and helped strengthen Irish nationalist representation at Westminster. Then came the Land War, leading eventually, with Wyndham’s Land Act 1903, to the wholesale transfer of the land of Ireland to owner-occupation. In addition, 1898 saw the democratisation of local government in Ireland, and in 1908 the National University was created – and it would provide educational opportunities that had previously been denied to the Catholic elite in Ireland.
All these developments were carried by Liberal and Tory administrations under pressure from the Irish Party at Westminster, and they changed the social and economic landscape in Ireland. Today, they are overshadowed by the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence. The decades before the Rising are thus dismissed as, in the words of Conor Cruise O’Brien, ‘a sort of crease in time, a featureless valley ... a time in which nothing happened’. Yet, as the historian Ian d’Alton has argued, the incremental progress made through government initiatives in the years 1869 to 1916 was probably more significant in shaping modern Ireland than ‘all the dreamers, poets, dynamiters, language enthusiasts and [radical] editors put together’. Certainly, one prominent British politician, Arthur Balfour, thought so: a former Prime Minister and more importantly in this context a former Chief Secretary for Ireland, he spoke in 1928 of ‘the Ireland we made’ – and he was proud of the conservative, devout country of land-owners and petit bourgeoisie that Ireland had by then become. The 1916 Rising and the struggle for political independence that followed must be seen as but one element – the tip of the iceberg – in a greater Irish revolution spanning fifty years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Land War was a critical part of that greater revolution, and the one with the most profound consequences. There were two phases in the Land War: the first, under the Land League, from 1879 to 1882; the second, the so-called Plan of Campaign, from 1886 to 1891. Traditionally portrayed in our history books as the inevitable consequence of, and response to, a rapacious landlord system, this is no longer regarded as a tenable interpretation of what happened. Taking a cue from work such as James Donnelly’s magisterial The land and people of nineteenth-century Cork, published in 1975, historians now tend to see the Land War more as a ‘revolution of rising expectations’ resulting from the determination of tenant farmers to preserve their recent material gains in a period of temporary agricultural crisis. There was a mid-Victorian boom in Irish agriculture in the decades after the Famine, and the majority of tenants throughout the country had enjoyed ‘an era of palpable prosperity’ – to quote Professor Vincent Comerford. A collapse in agricultural prices in the late 1870s and again in 1886, brought that boom to an end. The loss, or curtailment, of their expectations of continuing and ever-growing prosperity propelled Irish tenant farmers into the Land League and later into the Plan of Campaign.
The concept of a ‘revolution of rising expectations’ was developed by the French intellectual and diplomatist, Alexis de Tocqueville, in the 1850s in his history of the French revolution. He wrote:
It is not always by going from bad to worse that a society falls into revolution. It happens most often that a people which has supported without complaint, as if they were not felt, the most oppressive laws, violently throws them off as soon as their weight is lifted.
In other words, revolutions ‘seldom, if ever, take the form of mere spontaneous outbursts against tyranny, oppression or utter destitution; both the experience of and the hope of something better are important factors in the story’ – that passage is taken from George Rudé’s elaboration of Tocqueville’s theory.
Like the Land War, the Irish revolution conforms to the classic model of ‘a revolution of rising expectations’. The social and economic advances enjoyed by the vast majority of the Irish people in the period since 1869 created the circumstances that brought about the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence. They prompted expectations of further advances. Home Rule would have been the next step in this process of incremental progress. It embodied the hopes of the Irish people, and it appeared to have been secured in 1912. Once again, however, the aspiration to self-government was frustrated. Expectations were dashed, and revolution ensued.
Nevertheless, the revolution at its outset – the Rising on Easter Monday 1916 – had no popular support. That only came afterwards – because of the executions, the imposition of martial law, and the rounding up and internment of all sorts of people who had had no involvement in the Rising but who were, for various reasons, considered disloyal. The priest-historian, F.X. Martin, writing in 1966, commented ruefully that the leaders of the Rising ‘were not deterred by the fact that they were a small [and unrepresentative] minority’. And the anti-democratic character of the Rising was the predominant theme in editorial commentary in the national press in the immediate aftermath. Take the Freeman’s Journal, for example – the oldest daily newspaper in Dublin in 1916. It described the Rising as ‘an armed assault against the will and decision of the Irish nation itself, constitutionally ascertained through its proper representatives’. Those representatives were the Irish MPs at Westminster committed, under John Redmond, to achieving Home Rule by peaceful means. The Freeman was the semi-official organ of those MPs, and it was only natural that it should defend their interests against the rebels. But the point that the newspaper made was an entirely valid one. The Rising was as much a rebellion against Redmond and the elected representatives of the Irish nation as it was a coup d’état against the British Government.
Despite the broad popular sympathy with the Rising after the event, there was no general repudiation of the parliamentary tradition to which the Irish people had steadfastly adhered throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On the contrary, the post-1916 phase of the revolution was played out as much in the arena of constitutional politics as in the violence of the War of Independence – with critical by-elections in 1917 and 1918, Sinn Féin’s victory in the 1918 General Election, the subsequent establishment of Dáil Éireann and its shadow administration to challenge that of Dublin Castle, and Sinn Féin’s takeover of the vast majority of local authorities in Ireland after the elections to these authorities held in 1920. As Anne Dolan and William Murphy have stated in their recent study of Michael Collins, ‘political activity was a necessary corollary to the shooting’. Indeed, the fact that the War of Independence was prosecuted under the nominal authority of the First and Second Dáil was, and remains, its source of legitimacy. Unlike the Rising in 1916, it could claim an electoral mandate – though even the rebels in 1916 had looked forward in their Proclamation to ‘the establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women’. This was an unambiguous genuflection towards the constitutional heritage that their actions appeared to repudiate.
As the late Brian Farrell observed in 1972, the leaders of the Irish revolution ‘did not seek to destroy the institutional status quo in Ireland; they sought to take it over’. The Westminster model was the form of political activity that they adopted both during and after the revolution. They commandeered the parliamentary tradition inherited from Parnell and his successors in the Irish Party and used it for their own purposes, and the governmental apparatus of the new State that emerged after 1921 drew upon that tradition in almost every detail. While the leaders of the revolution would have been loath to admit it , constitutional politics had served the Irish people well – especially in the four decades before 1916 when the Irish Party under Parnell and later under Redmond skilfully exerted pressure in Westminster to demand a solution to the land question and to address other grievances. Parliamentary agitation in those years had delivered the ameliorative measures that, as outlined earlier, transformed Irish society beyond recognition. Moreover, the Irish Party had come within a whisker of winning Home Rule – and thus satisfying the demand of the Irish people for some form of self-government.
For the great majority of the Irish people, that demand had not been for complete independence from Britain – a republic, as was proclaimed outside the GPO on Easter Monday 1916 – but was instead for a measure of devolution, Home Rule, rather like what the Scots parliament in Edinburgh has today. This goal was pursued by successive generations of constitutional nationalists freely elected by the Irish people to the Westminster parliament – and under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, the validity of the demand was eventually conceded in 1886 by William Gladstone, then British Prime Minister. He, of course, failed to get his legislation accepted by parliament on two separate occasions – in 1886 and in 1893.
Parnell’s moral victory in converting Gladstone and the majority of his Liberal Party to Home Rule was followed by John Redmond’s very real achievement in getting a Home Rule Act onto the statute book. After two inconclusive general elections in 1910, the Irish nationalists at Westminster had held the balance of power. Under Redmond’s skilful leadership, they exploited that situation in order to get Home Rule once again on the agenda. A Home Rule Bill was passed by parliament, but its implementation was blocked because a very substantial and geographically-concentrated number of Irishmen in the province of Ulster opposed it – for a combination of religious, economic and tribal considerations. The British government were not prepared to force these people – the unionist community in Ulster – into a Home Rule Ireland. Nor were Irish nationalists prepared to concede to the unionists what they themselves wanted, namely self-determination. The result was stalemate, and on the outbreak of the First World War, the matter was shelved for the duration of the war – by agreement between all parties. This left the way open for more extreme nationalist elements in Ireland to say that constitutionalism had failed to secure even a modest measure of self-government, and that it was necessary to resort to violence.
However – to quote Brian Farrell again – ‘any objective assessment of the evidence obliges us to believe that a deep-rooted (and, on occasions, violent) opposition to British rule [in Ireland] involved no rejection of its operational machinery and pragmatic norms. The value of stable representative institutions resting on an extended and fair franchise was recognised as early and as widely by the Irish as by the British.’ This is the background to the emergence of the re-invigorated Sinn Féin party in 1917 – claiming descent from the 1916 Rising, but nevertheless willing to contest parliamentary by-elections in 1917 and 1918, the General Elections of 1918 and 1920 – albeit on an abstentionist platform – and the local elections of 1920. That represented a return to constitutional politics after the wanton violence of 1916. Hand-in-hand with the Sinn Féin pledge not to take their seats in the Westminster parliament was their commitment to set up their own assembly in Dublin as a de facto Irish parliament – Dáil Éireann – a parallel administration in opposition to, though imitative of, the British one. As the distinguished historian of the Irish Party, F.S.L. Lyons, reminded us: ‘Dáil Éireann had scarcely started to function before, almost unconsciously, it began to utilise and build upon the constitutional tradition it inherited. If to the survivors of the old Irish Parliamentary Party this seemed the last and most intolerable irony, to us, looking back, it may rather stand as perhaps the last and perhaps the highest tribute [to Parnell and his successors].’
It is, therefore, a gross exaggeration to suggest that ‘All changed, changed utterly’ in the Irish revolution. The strong element of continuity evident in the political sphere parallels the failure to effect a social revolution alongside the political one. The changes in politics and society in the period of the revolution were not nearly as fundamental as is generally represented. The landscape that characterised the new state was in place well before the revolution, the result in large measure of the process of change in Ireland that stretched back to 1869. That landscape was essentially unaffected by the revolution, though the changes that had already occurred may have helped create the circumstances – the ‘rising expectations’ – that led to revolution.