The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Irish History and Imperialism

  • Maurice CoakleyEmail author
Living reference work entry

John Stuart Mill wrote in 1868: “Englishmen who know India are the men who can best understand the social ideas and economic relations of Ireland.” A few years earlier, Karl Marx also made a comparison between the two: India was “from a social point of view…the Ireland of the East.” The reversed order here is significant because it was at least partially through their study of Ireland and its history that Marx and Engels came to question their earlier optimistic assumptions about the global spread of capitalist production. English involvement in Ireland preceded capitalist industrialization by over half a millennium. The fact that prolonged English rule in Ireland seemed to have created not an advanced economy but a social catastrophe did not bode well for later colonies of the British Empire (Marx and Engels 1978; Mill 1868).

The first “imperial” invasion of Ireland in the twelfth century was part of a wider process of feudal expansion across Europe. By the mid-thirteenth century, the feudal knights – owing allegiance to the English monarchy – had taken control of most of the country and established a network of towns especially along the south and east coasts. The English rulers introduced a feudal system of government and social organization similar to that being established across most of Europe. At the core of this social order was a manorial economy worked, in the main, by servile labor. The sale of the agricultural surplus encouraged the growth of towns (Anderson 1974; Down 1987).

The Anglo-Norman conquest involved not merely a replacement of rulers, but the imposition of a very different social order. Cattle-rearing was at the heart of the Gaelic economy. Land was owned by the kin group and was allocated by one’s position within the clan, but cattle were individually owned. Cattle were also the main form of exchange and tribute. This form of social organization imposed significant obstacles to surplus extraction. There was very little opportunity for labor intensification, and herders could flee from the territory with their cattle if they faced excessive exactions from chiefs. Aside from this, cattle tended to be dispersed to minimize disease, which helped promote strong kinship bonds. This social context limited the authority of the Gaelic chiefs and discouraged the concentration of social power, contrasting sharply with the structures of feudal society.

One significant difference between the Norman feudal conquest of England and Ireland was that while the former was a mainly aristocratic affair – knights and clerics – the conquest of Ireland included a significant plebeian element. This difference was in part a consequence of the demographic expansion that occurred in England in the preceding century and in part a consequence of the difficulties the conquerors encountered in bringing to heel the indigenous population. At the margins of feudal Ireland, in upland areas and in the west and north, a distinctive clannic-pastoralist social order endured. Its persistence had long-term consequences for Ireland’s historical development.

In the conquered areas, the new rulers established a manorial economy based upon an extensive arable agriculture, involving a significant shift from pastoral husbandry. The divide between settler and native became an important aspect of the structure of power in medieval Ireland. The rural population was divided into two layers: a small stratum of free English-speaking peasants and the unfree betagh – serfs – the original Irish population. The manorial economy produced a sufficient surplus to maintain a vibrant commercial order and to help finance England’s wars against France and Scotland. The towns were exclusively English.

Toward the end of the thirteenth century, the European feudal order experienced a generalized crisis which strongly impacted on Ireland. Demographic expansion had reached its environmental limits; climate change – a mini ice age – tipped the feudal order over the brink. Over the course of the fourteenth century, there was a significant decline in production and trade which was magnified by the arrival of the Black Death from the 1340s. Population fell by up to two fifths. The feudal aristocracy responded to the crisis by increased warfare and pillage and by attempting to increase the level of exactions on the peasantry.

In Ireland, the outcome of the feudal crisis was shaped by the distinctive features of an ethnically divided peasantry and by the survival of a clannic-pastoralist social order at the margins. The formerly free English-speaking peasants found themselves increasingly squeezed by lordly exactions, while the Gaelic-speaking peasants were in a better position to flee to marginal zones. Attempts were made in England and across Europe to reimpose conditions of servility. In Ireland, this was combined with efforts to maintain English law, customs, and language.

The feudal crisis in Ireland led to the breakdown of most of the manorial economy. The English-speaking stratum largely disappeared, serfdom collapsed, and the urban centers experienced significant decline. Gaelic clans regained control over large areas of the country, reestablishing their distinctive social order in which pastoral production predominated. Even in the lowland areas of the south and east where the colony was strongest, the feudal lords had to make significant concessions to the indigenous population and a hybrid social order emerged that combined Gaelic and feudal elements. By 1500, English rule in Ireland had shrunk to a small area around Dublin, known as the Pale (Coakley 2012; Down 1987; Nicholls 1972).

Across Europe, the systemic crisis of feudalism led to the emergence of centralized states which sought to establish uniform systems of law. Feudal lords struggled to maintain their control over their own regions and were amenable to accepting the power of a strong monarchy. In England, the centralization of monarchical power, especially in the legal sphere, was closely linked to the development of vernacular literacy. This process coincided with the religious reformation, which led to prolonged conflict ending with Europe divided – roughly speaking – between a Protestant north and a Catholic south (Anderson 1974).

The Tudor program for the (re-)incorporation of Ireland was different from the original Anglo-Norman conquest in a number of ways. It sought to incorporate the Gaelic chiefs into the English state system and to anglicize the Gaelic regions. It also involved reformation of the Irish church.

A combination of coercion and conciliation secured the formal acquiescence of the leading Gaelic chiefs and Anglo-Norman lords alike. This formal compliance enabled the English government to introduce a program of structural reorganization, focused around a scheme of “surrender and re-grant.” The chiefs and lords formally surrendered their lands to the monarch who regranted them under conditions of English law. This was intended as a precursor for a more general imposition of English law on Ireland. In effect, collective ownership of land, structured through kinship, was to be replaced by individual ownership. In practice, the English state for most of the sixteenth century lacked the power to carry through a thorough reorganization of Irish society. The attempts by the chiefs and by the Anglo-Norman lords to increase their local power and their level of surplus extraction resulted in widespread resistance and deepening social conflict. This social unrest was compounded by the Tudor monarchy’s attempt to impose the Protestant reformation on Ireland.

A feature of the reformation across Europe was the widespread use of vernacular languages for religious services and scripture as part of a general project of making religion more accessible to the lay population. In Wales it seems that the translation of the Bible and other sacred texts into Welsh played a crucial role in promoting a Welsh reformation and incorporating Wales into the English political system. In Ireland, the reformation was disseminated through English, a language spoken by very few people. Over the course of the sixteenth century, opposition to the English state’s secular policies of social engineering fused with hostility to their project of religious transformation.

Ireland had been Christianized a half millennium before the Anglo-Norman conquest when following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire the Christian church was at its weakest. The early Christian missionaries adapted to the Gaelic social order developing a decentralized church organization and establishing a Gaelic literate tradition.

England’s battle to incorporate Ireland coincided with intensified interstate competition, sharpened by the rise of European naval powers. With the beginnings of the colonization of the Americas and the rise of an Atlantic economy, Ireland came to acquire a new geopolitical importance, especially in the context of English rivalry with Spain and France. For the English rulers, pacifying Ireland had come to involve much more than land acquisition; it had come to impact on the security of their kingdom.

The Gaelic chiefs who had initially accepted the English reformation found themselves in a precarious situation. They had never possessed a monopoly of power in their own territories, and while their new alliances with the English authorities may have strengthened them at a material level, it also reduced their level of popular consent. Trapped between a disgruntled population and an overbearing government, they threw their lot in with Counter-Reformation Spain. Religious conflict, contrasting modes of social organization, and geopolitical rivalries combined to ensure that the incorporation of Ireland took the form of a full-scale deeply destructive conquest, involving a huge loss of life (Canny 2001; Coakley 2012; Lennon 1994).

The Elizabethan rulers had hoped to encourage a mass English settlement in Ireland, but while significant numbers did migrate, they were much too few to overwhelm the native population demographically. Only in Ulster, where Gaelic resistance had been strongest, did a sufficiently dense settlement occur, and even there most of the settlers were Scottish, though there was a significant minority of settlers of English descent.

The defeat of the Gaelic revolt had coincided with the end of the Tudor dynasty in England and the merger of the English and Scottish polities under the Stuart monarchy. While the new king was of Scottish origins, the center of gravity of the unified kingdom was very much in the South of England. The political unification of England and Scotland did create some religious tensions, which had ramifications in Ireland. The Scottish Protestants were Calvinist (Presbyterians), while the Church of England (Anglican) was first and foremost a national church, with its own hierarchy.

A popular revolt in Ireland in 1641 sparked a civil war throughout the islands as parliament and monarchy in England vied for control of the newly established standing army that was being raised to crush it. The Cromwellian conquest of Ireland that followed was devastating. William Petty, a Cromwellian official, conservatively estimated that over a third of the Irish population died in the course of the conquest. The officers of the Cromwellian army were compensated for their services with large grants of Irish land (Smyth 2006).

In Ireland, religious adherence rather than skin color or place of birth came to guard the borders of power. In 1600, 80% of land in Ireland was owned by Catholics; a century later that figure had fallen to 14%. Catholics were excluded from the legal system, from the parliament, from the military, and from the state employment. Landownership, education, and most of commerce were dominated by Protestants. Despite all this, there were significant limitations to the power of the Irish Protestant landed elite. They still had to make a profit from the land, and outside of the northeast region, settler numbers were too few to work the land themselves. More than that, the high death tolls from the conquests meant that labor was a scarce commodity in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The peasants possessed a demographic advantage in this period, and the landowners had little choice but to rent out the land to a layer of middlemen who came to accommodate the customary practices of the peasantry. Social peace was established by permitting the peasantry to maintain, to a considerable degree, a traditional way of life (Beames 1983; Coakley 2012).

The Far Side of Industrialization

The industrial revolution in England had a huge knock-on effect on Ireland, as it did on Scotland, but with very different outcomes. Urbanization within England created a huge market for food, and the Irish landowners began a serious effort to reorganize agrarian society in order to profit from the new opportunities. From the 1780s, the Irish population began to rise rapidly to about eight million in 1840, not least as a consequence of the ubiquity of potato farming. The demographic balance turned in favor of the landlords. However, the attempts to restructure landholdings came up against fierce resistance from clandestine peasant movements who had a deep commitment to maintaining the right of access to land. The effective exclusion of Catholics from the legal system worked against the formation of a stable alliance between a more prosperous stratum of peasantry and the landlords. More than that: the Irish parliament had passed legislation that ensured that any improvements made by tenants which increased the value of the landholdings could be confiscated by the landlords, while tenants enjoyed minimal legal protection. The combination of factors ensured that the Irish peasantry had no material interest in any form of agricultural improvement (Ó Tuathaigh 1990).

The contrast with (lowland) Scotland is striking. There, a layer of capitalist “yeoman” farmers emerged who, in alliance with the landowners, exercised considerable power over the increasingly landless laborers. From the second half of the eighteenth century, lowland Scotland came to develop a three class agrarian social order of landlords, capitalist farmers, and landless laborers, similar to England. This layer of capitalist farmers helped to create a mass market for consumer goods in the countryside, which in turn fostered industrial production in the Scottish cities (Coakley 2012).

There were significant social changes and economic advances in Ireland in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Agriculture became more commercialized and markets more widespread especially in the eastern regions. Literacy spread and the confessional-based social order in Ireland came under increasing strain. The success of the American drive for independence encouraged the (mainly Protestant) Irish middle classes to challenge English mercantilism and to seek parliamentary reform and greater autonomy from Westminster. In the 1780s many of the discriminatory laws against Catholics were abolished, though they were still prevented from becoming members of Parliament.

The success of the French Revolution radicalized the reform movement. The fact that the revolution occurred in a Catholic country undermined the confessional stereotypes and raised the prospects of an Irish political and social revolution that transcended religious boundaries. Support for the United Irish movement – as the local Jacobin supporters were called – was particularly strong among the Presbyterians of east Ulster, many of whom had links with the American rebellion. By the late 1790s, the United Irish movement had acquired mass support across the east coast (Whelan 1996; Smyth 1992).

Almost as many people died in 1 year in the course of the suppression of the United Irish revolt – 30–40,000 – as were sent to the guillotine throughout the whole of the French Revolution. One political consequence of the defeat of the United Irish rebellion was a change of government structure. The Westminster government concluded that the settler ruling class in Ireland could not be trusted to govern the country. With the passing of the Act of Union in 1801, Ireland became, formally, an integral part of British state, the United Kingdom. What would become known as the “Anglo-Irish” ruling class was integrated into the British political order, where they were elected as members of parliament and appointed to the House of Lords. While the British government in Westminster governed Ireland directly, they also maintained a distinct governmental apparatus within Ireland. Westminster appointed a Lord Lieutenant – effectively a colonial governor – who controlled an increasingly centralized executive apparatus to rule Ireland. This enabled them to introduce measures like the creation of the national policing force or a primary educational system distinct from the rest of the United Kingdom and which could act as test cases for administrative changes closer to home. The Lord Lieutenant’s office also commanded a substantial military force and later an armed constabulary (Kenny 2004).

The exclusion of Catholics from Parliament was challenged by the election of Daniel O’Connell, a Catholic lawyer, to the House of Commons in 1829. Westminster responded by removing the prohibition against Catholics while simultaneously reducing the size of the Irish electorate from 100,000 to 10,000 (Ó Tuathaigh 1990).

In the first decades following the industrial revolution in England, there was a significant expansion of domestic textile manufacturing across Ireland, primarily spinning and weaving, but this largely collapsed with the rise of factory production in England, accentuating Ireland’s socioeconomic problems. As England industrialized, Ireland became a major exporter of agricultural products to English markets. By the 1840s Ireland had become England’s granary. These changes in agricultural production were not accompanied by a transformation in agrarian social relations. On the contrary, the “middleman” structure of land tenancy intensified. Each layer of middlemen extracted substantial rent, crushing those at the bottom. The commercialization of Irish agriculture came up against customary practice. Despite the popular resistance to landlord-directed agrarian transformation, the process of parcellization of the land in Ireland continued with more and more peasants driven to the most marginal lands. The process was facilitated by the widespread adoption of the potato as the premier subsistence crop. Increasingly a huge section of the population became dependent upon a single crop for their survival. The potato crop was grown on only one twentieth of Irish farmland, but it fed most of the population. By the 1840s, this disproportion had reached a perilous state. A potato blight in 1845 pushed Ireland over the edge into a full-scale famine (Ó Tuathaigh 1990).

Throughout the famine years (1845–1849), large quantities of grain and other food products continued to be exported to England. Famine relief was grossly inadequate, and many landowners took advantage of the famine to clear their property of uneconomic tenancies.

In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis described the internment camps established by the British in India to manage famine conditions in the 1870s. The workhouses performed a similar function in Ireland in the 1840s, separating parents from children and husbands from wives. Many were ill, but all were forced to work because of the widely held belief among the English and Anglo-Irish elite that the primary cause of Ireland’s social problems was the indolence and backwardness of the native population. Over a million people died of starvation or related diseases. In the years following 1845, another two million people emigrated.

In 1848, the London Times which had opposed expenditure on famine relief expressed the view that the Irish people “have always been listless, improvident and wretched, under whatever rulers…They have not participated in the great progress of mankind…We do pity them, because they have yet to be civilised.” Political economists like Malthus had argued that Ireland was overpopulated and needed radical reconstruction if a modern capitalist form of agriculture was to be established. Much of the English and Anglo-Irish ruling class welcomed the famine as an opportunity for clearing the land. A further factor facilitating the high death toll in the famine was the belief in ruling circles that assisting the starving peasantry with government relief would interfere with the workings of free trade. The Great Famine coincided closely with the rise of free trade as the global gospel of the British Empire. Nassau Senior, a leading economist and adviser to Queen Victoria, remarked that the famine “would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good” (Davis 2001; Eagleton 1995; Kinealy 2002; McDonough 2005).

In the wake of the famine, there was a sharp reduction in the practice of the subdivision of landholdings. Without access to land, the peasantry increasingly opted for emigration as a survival mechanism. Alongside spiralling emigration was a process of the centralization of landholdings and the emergence of a more prosperous peasant stratum. Despite this, the Irish countryside never became dominated by large labor-employing farms. Small farms remained the norm; the great majority had less than 30 acres. Only 5% of tenants held plots of over a hundred acres; another 10% rented plots of over 50 acres. The landlord class showed little inclination to develop a long-term alliance with them. Westminster passed an act in 1860 giving landlords complete power over their estates and blocking any customary rights to tenants. The more prosperous peasants could not afford to put too great a distance between themselves and the mass of the peasantry.

One legacy of the famine was the radicalization of a younger generation who concluded that it was necessary to destroy landlordism and achieve complete independence from Britain. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) founded by exiles in Paris built up a clandestine organization determined to politicize the population and plan for insurrection. The insurrection of 1867 was easily enough suppressed, but the Fenians (as the IRB became known) helped politicize the popular social classes. In particular, Fenians played a crucial role in instigating the Land War in the 1870s and 1880s (Coakley 2012)

Competition from the new settler economies in North America, Argentina, and Australia led to a collapse in agricultural prices. The spectre of famine returned. Attempts by landowners to use the crisis to push through land clearances provoked a wave of popular resistance led by Fenians (or ex-Fenians) and the formation of the Land League in 1879.

The “Land War” began in the poorest western regions of Ireland but quickly spread throughout the country. Fears of another famine combined with a new level of political awareness (and the arrival of mass literacy) encouraged the formation of a mass movement that paralyzed the state and exposed the structural weakness of the Anglo-Irish landlord class. Within a year of its formation, the Land League had over a thousand branches and 200,000 members. William Forster a leading government official wrote: “the Land League is supreme...I am forced to acknowledge that to a great extent the ordinary law is powerless.” To broaden its base, the Land League developed an alliance with the constitutional nationalists and their leader, Charles Stuart Parnell. The “New Departure” as it became known called for peasant proprietorship, full self-government, and complete independence from Westminster. It also opposed imperial expansion (Bew 1978).

The scale of the popular resistance in Ireland and the political threat posed by the alliance between republican radicals and the constitutional nationalists created a major challenge to the British state. Coercion was attempted but with limited effect. Gladstone, Prime Minister and Liberal leader, was forced not only to adopt a conciliatory approach to the agrarian protest movement but also to accept the need for radical political change in Ireland: the ending of landlord power and the institution of limited self-government.

Gladstone’s support for Home Rule divided British Liberalism. Landed interests remained dominant within the British ruling class at least until the World War I. The granting of Home Rule for Ireland was perceived as a major erosion of landed power. More than that: it undermined the empire. While Gladstone sought to draw analogies with Canada during the parliamentary debates, the question of India kept arising.

The Home Rule debates brought out the stark contrast between Ireland’s formal integration into the British state and its colonial heritage. Tory leader Lord Salisbury described the Irish Home Rule members of parliament as “eighty foreigners.” Sir George Campbell, former governor of Bengal, wrote that Ireland “is a colony which we have only partially colonised, and in which the natives have neither been exterminated nor thoroughly assimilated and we have the race difficulties in the way of self-governing institutions with which we are familiar with in other colonies, but in a more aggravated form” (Coakley 2012).

The divisions created within the British ruling class by the Home Rule crisis signalled an erosion of liberal imperialist culture. In the mid-Victorian era, liberal theorists like John Stuart Mill had argued that Britain’s role toward its colonies was essentially that of a benefactor, analogous to that of parents toward their children. The native populations of the colonies were at an early stage of social and cultural development, akin to children, who needed careful supervision. Once they advanced to a higher level, at some point in the future, they would be permitted independence. The revolt in India and the mutinous behavior of the Irish had demonstrated not only the ingratitude of the natives but also their incorrigible character. By the late Victorian era, it became widely accepted in British ruling circles that there existed a fathomless chasm between the civilized peoples and those they ruled over. This expressed not just divergent levels of development but a deeper divide between higher and lower races. This shift in elite opinion seems to have been sharpened by the reemergence of social unrest within England, giving greater weight to the need for domestic social cohesion. The innate superiority of British civilization, and of the English race within that civilization, became a cardinal belief of the era, shared high and low (Mantena 2010).

Conservatives and Liberal Unionists responded to Gladstone’s initiative by focusing on Ulster, the only part of Ireland where there was any significant popular opposition to Home Rule. The northern province of Ulster was the only region of Ireland where a colonial mass settlement had been successful. However, in Ulster, there were two fairly distinct settler communities, Presbyterians from Scotland and Anglicans from England. Though not as severely maltreated as the Catholics, the Presbyterians did experience significant levels of exclusion, and over the course of the eighteenth century, they became increasingly alienated from the governing order. Heavily influenced by the American settler revolution, with which many had close connections, they played a leading role in the United Irish rebellion.

In the wake of the 1798 rebellion, the predominantly Anglican landlord class made an effort to reunify the Protestant communities in the province, upholding the informal traditions of the “Ulster Custom,” which gave tenant farmers far greater levels of security than existed elsewhere in Ireland. As a consequence, there existed in Ulster, especially in the eastern regions where Protestants were concentrated, a more prosperous layer of tenant farmers than was found elsewhere in the country. The Presbyterian tenant farmers of the north largely supported the demands of the Land League but were more cautious about the rebellious spirit it seemed to encourage.

The northeast was the only region in Ireland to experience any significant level of industrialization in the nineteenth century. The linen industry was slower to mechanize than the other textile industries, and by the mid-century, the Belfast region had become the main geographical center for linen production. Later in the century, the industrialization of the Belfast region was consolidated by the development of a passenger shipbuilding industry. This industrial growth enabled the northeast to escape the worst of the underdevelopment that marked the rest of Ireland, but it remained much too limited to overcome the wider Irish socioeconomic context. Specifically, it was insufficient to provide employment for the “surplus” population of Ulster, much less the rest of Ireland. Many more handicraft textile workers were made redundant by the process of mechanization than were employed in the new factories. Between 1841 and 1911, Ireland lost half its population, while Ulster lost a third. The limited character of industrialization in the Belfast region encouraged the reemergence of a confessional politics in the region. Anglican laborers imported the anti-Catholic Orange Order into Belfast in the early nineteenth century. Later, as a nationalist mass movement developed, Orangism broadened its social appeal. From the period of the Home Rule bill in the 1880s, Ulster Unionism and Orangism effectively merged. The alliance between Conservatives and Liberal Unionists (they would later merge to form the Conservative and Unionist Party: the Tory Party) proved sufficiently powerful to block Gladstone’s Home Rule bills in the 1880s, but they were unable to suppress the nationalist political movement in Ireland or to curtail a resurgent nationalist popular culture.

What a Conservative government did do was to initiate a policy of peasant proprietorship in Ireland: the state lent money to tenants to buy out the landlords. This policy, “killing Home Rule by kindness,” had a major long-term effect, though by the time of the World War I it had only been partially implemented. It helped to strengthen a stratum of large farmers and, alongside them, an emergent Catholic middle class (Coakley 2012).

Ireland and the Imperialist War

Throughout the long period of its global ascendancy in the nineteenth century, Britain avoided becoming involved in fixed alliances with other European states, preferring a more flexible “balance of power” approach. This changed in the early twentieth century. Growing rivalry with Germany and increased dependence on India to maintain sterling’s role as the world’s hegemonic currency compelled Britain into an alliance with Tsarist Russia (which was seen as a potential threat to British rule in India). This geopolitical logic for war was reenforced by the need to unify their domestic population against deepening political antagonisms and social unrest. The Irish drive for independence played a key role here (De Cecco 1984; Newton 2015).

After the 1910 election, the Liberal Party was dependent upon support from the Irish Home Rule Party to govern and was compelled to introduce a new Home Rule bill. Despite the fact that the Home Rule bill granted Ireland very limited powers of self-government, it was strongly opposed by the Tories. The Tories encouraged militant opposition in Ulster, and the British state apparatus acquiesced in the arming of Ulster loyalist volunteers, who were determined to use force if necessary to block Home Rule. Irish nationalists responded by developing their own force of armed volunteers.

The European war was welcomed by many in the ruling class because it seemed to offer the prospect of overcoming these domestic conflicts and unifying the kingdom against an external enemy. Both the leadership of the Ulster Unionists and of the Home Rule Party supported the war effort and encouraged the volunteers to enlist in the British Army.

If Europe’s leaders imagined that a large-scale war would instill widespread social discipline, they miscalculated badly. The sheer scale of the slaughter undermined the legitimacy of their rule, not only in Europe but throughout the colonial world. The 1916 insurrection in Dublin by the radical separatists of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the labor leftists in the Irish Citizen Army captured the popular imagination in Ireland, as well as inspiring opponents of empire across the world.

The extent of the transformation of Irish political life became evident in 1917, when the British government attempted to impose conscription on Ireland. The anti-conscription movement was the broadest and deepest mass campaign in Ireland since the Land War. Not only was the conscription plan defeated, but it laid the groundwork for Sinn Fein’s victory in the 1918 elections. Both socially and politically, Sinn Fein was a coalition of forces, ranging from left-leaning radical republicans to more moderate nationalists who were alienated by the Home Rule leaders’ support for the war.

The elected Sinn Féin members refused to go to Westminster, meeting instead in Dublin to declare a separate Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann, and an independent republic. This triggered a battle of independence with the republicans developing a guerrilla war strategy. Though poorly armed, they succeeded in paralyzing the workings of the British state in Ireland.

The war of independence was also accompanied by a wave of social unrest. In rural areas there was a new upsurge in land agitation. Half of the land was still owned by landlords, and small holders struggled for access, especially where land had been allocated to graziers. There was also a wave of labor struggles provoked by a wartime wage freeze. Both struggles were encouraged by a paralysis of the state, which enabled a huge growth of trade union membership (Campbell 2005; Kostick 2009).

The war of independence revealed the weakness of the British state in Ireland: its conspicuous failure to establish any significant degree of hegemony. But it also revealed the social conflicts within nationalist Ireland. Rising social tensions within Ireland encouraged both the British government and the Sinn Fein leadership to seek a compromise solution.

The 1921 Treaty accepted partition and the British insistence that Ireland remain part of the British Empire. The six counties in the northeast, Northern Ireland, remained part of the United Kingdom but acquired a separate parliament and a regional government. The “Irish Free State” would have dominion status within the empire, similar to Canada or Australia. The British monarch would remain head of state, and all members of the Irish parliament would have to swear allegiance to the crown. The Royal Navy would also retain control of a number of ports.

The Treaty was passed narrowly by the Dáil but opposed by most of the republican activists. The civil war that followed was won by the Free State forces with the assistance of the British state. The defeat of the republicans was also accompanied by a suppression of agrarian radicalism and a rolling back of labor rights and organization (Lee 1989; Regan 1999).

The two new states in Ireland bore the marks of their origins. The Cumman na nGaedheal government of the Irish Free State sought to maintain institutional continuity with the British order. The civil service and the legal system were retained more or less intact, and there was little change in social or economic policy. The effect was to continue Ireland’s subordination to Britain. The vast bulk of Irish exports – overwhelmingly agricultural – went to Britain. The Irish currency was tied to sterling. Interest rates were determined by the Bank of England and the Treasury in London. The government was dominated by ministers from large farming and upper middle-class backgrounds who were reluctant to adopt any policies of state-led development or import substitution.

Only with the coming of the depression did matters change. Fianna Fáil, formed from elements of the losing side in the civil war, came to power in 1932 and began a program of encouraging industrialization through import substitution and protective tariffs. Semi-state bodies were formed to promote development, and some effort was made to reduce the worst of the poverty. They introduced a major program of publically owned house building. The Fianna Fáil government ended the Oath of Allegiance to the monarchy and began the process of distancing themselves from the British Empire. These policies did lead to some growth in industrial employment and did something to improve social conditions, but it was never enough to compensate for the “flight from the land” or eliminate the legacies of uneven development.

Northern Ireland was the only part of the United Kingdom permitted a devolved government. It was ironically the only part where a mass movement opposing devolution existed. The Northern Irish state was dominated from its formation by the Ulster Unionist Party, the local branch of the Tory Party. Almost all the Unionist members of parliament were also members of the Orange Order, which helped it secure majority support from all classes of Protestants in Northern Ireland. The Unionist leaders had envisaged that Northern Ireland was economically the most advanced part of Ireland, but in the interwar years, economic stagnation was even more extreme than in England. Both shipbuilding and linen industries were in decline, and unemployment and emigration rates were much higher than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, though at all times, these rates were far higher among Catholics than among Protestants. The practices of systematic exclusion of Catholics from most areas of public and private employment left a legacy of discontent which would later explode and engulf the state in decades of civil warfare (Farrell 1976; Lee 1989).



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Griffith CollegeDublinIreland