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Irish Nationalism

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Irish Nationalism
Source Based
Nationalist opinion fluctuated between three main traditions;
constitutional nationalism, republicanism and cultural nationalism,
reflecting changing opinions at the time.

Source one was written by a founder of the Fenian organisation, which
was formed after the 1848 rising. The source is limited through being
written in America where Irish-Americans would have been the audience
to rally support for Clan na Gael. In the source, Mitchel criticises
O’ Connell for dangerously deviating from the goal of independence by
contenting ‘Respectable Catholics’ and turning them into
‘West-Britons’ through Catholic Emancipation. He also criticises the
Catholic Church for being ‘the enemy of Irish freedom’, referring to
Archbishop Cullen’s denouncing of the Fenian society just two years
before. This reflects the complications of conducting a revolutionary
movement in a Catholic country. The source criticises O’ Connell for
‘eternally half-unsheathing a visionary sword’ by threatening violence
but not realising the threat, showing evidence that constitutional
nationalism was increasingly complicated due to contradictions in its
pacifist theory and O’ Connell’s aggressive practice. Therefore,
source one supports the view that Irish nationalism was an
‘increasingly complicated and many branched tree’.

Sources two and three attempt to define nationalism. Source two
specifically highlights the two traditions of nationalism to be the
‘O’ Connellite’ tradition and that of Young Ireland and Wolf Tone. It
fails to identify Clan na Gael or cultural nationalism as other
branches, perhaps suggesting that these could be seen as pressure
groups rather than branched because of their absence of political
representation. In Source three Norman also identifies two forms of
nationalism, classifying those who ‘sought to redefine the direction
of sovereignty…like O’ Connell (and) Parnell’ as ‘radicals’, and
defines those who sought to replace sovereignty like the Fenians to be
nationalists. Therefore, Norman produces further complications in the
definition of nationalism. In source two, Hoppen claims both
traditions to be ‘full of contradictions’, both referring to the same
audience of ‘the people’, adding to nationalism’s complicated nature.
He argues that ‘As the angle of vision differed so did the perception
of the beholder’, meaning that ‘the people’ were who the nationalists
leaders believed them to be. ‘For Lalor…(they were) the farmers; for
Davis they were the rustics; for O’ Connell they were…Catholics’. This
implies three distinctions, at different times, within constitutional
nationalism. Thus, sources two and three as well as source one,
support the view that Irish nationalism was an ‘increasingly
complicated…tree’. However, sources two and three are two very
individual viewpoints. The study of further historical viewpoints,
like Lyons’ for example, would be very useful to created a more
balanced view.

Source four was written in 1880 with an economic crisis on the
horizon. This saw the formation of the Irish National Land League by
Michael Davitt to protect the rural population. Parnell was its
president but the speech depicts Parnell’s stance in an unclear light.
He talks of ‘Christian’ and ‘charitable’ ways of dealing with those
who bid for a farm from which another tenant was evicted. However,
later he implies violence by telling the crowd that he would like to
see where they would get the men to make those who didn’t pay rent,
pay. This is a contradiction in constitutional nationalism and agrees
with source one’s criticisms of O’ Connell and his ‘eternally
half-unsheathed visionary sword’.

Source five clearly shows how the nature of nationalism changes over,
and is shaped by, time and events. The Irish Parliamentary Party was
founded after the collapse of the Fenian uprising. Parnell, the
leader, appealed to all sections of nationalist opinion. Therefore,
the source shows that with the collapse of Fenianism, constitutional
nationalism was adopted; meaning nationalism’s formation was subject
to events. This is a further complication in the ‘many branched tree’
of nationalism.

Source six, a secondary source, shows the Church’s position towards
nationalism and claims that the Church had ‘inevitable reservations
(about)…the justifiability of violence’ but otherwise supported
nationalists. Only when restraint proved impossible would it follow
for fear of losing the power to lead. Furthermore, parish priests
tended to support revolutionaries, whereas bishops were more
conservative. The source identifies only two types of nationalism and
shows that ambiguity of the church’s attitude complicates nationalism.

Source seven identifies another form or branch of nationalism:
cultural nationalism. This is the revival of the native Irish language
and customs to win the world’s recognition of Ireland being a separate
nation. The source shows that Hyde argued that the Gaelic Athletic
Association had done ‘more good for Ireland in five years that all the
talk for 60’. This shows cultural nationalism to not only be
distinctly separate from constitutional nationalism, but also critical
of it. It shows that the Gaelic League campaigned against all forms of
‘West-Britonism’, like Mitchell in Source one. Therefore, cultural
nationalism would claim that constitutional nationalism to be a
dangerous deviation from the goal of nationalism. However, cultural
nationalism may not be a branch because it is not a political
grouping. Thus, the source agrees that Irish nationalism was an
‘increasingly complicated and many branched tree’.

As a combined unit, the sources generally support the view. Each has a
different slant on Irish nationalism but intentions of some authors
may be questioned and some sources fail to identify more than two
branches. Branches not mentioned include Clan na Gael and greater
complications involve the fact that new branches like the IRB and the
Labour movement were developing. Nevertheless, we still gain a
valuable insight into Irish nationalism in the nineteenth century.
However, one cannot pinpoint what form Irish nationalism took as it
has continually evolved. To do so would simply by a ‘snapshot’ at a
single moment.

How effectively did Irish Nationalist leaders advance their cause in
the years 1801 – 1900?

The Act of Union, a major turning point in Irish politics, came about
on 1st January 1801 and was designed to solve the Irish problem. It
did not work and it gave birth to many different causes being advanced
by different leaders. Nationalist leaders of the Republican persuasion
after Wolf Tone include Emmet, Davis, Mitchell and Duffy. Those of the
Constitutional nationalist denomination include O’Connell, Parnell and
Davitt and Cultural nationalist leaders include Yeats, Hyde and
Cusack. Their causes included Roman Catholic Emancipation, repeal of
the Act Of Union, attaining economic improvements, Home Rule and the
revival of the Irish culture. These Nationalist leaders advanced their
causes to varying degrees of effectiveness in the years 1801 – 1900.
Some things such as emancipation were achieved and others such as
repeal were not.

Irish nationalism at the beginning of the nineteenth century took its
inspiration from the French Revolution of 1789 and more practically
sought French help for their own revolution. Robert Emmet was one such
revolutionary who became involved in the United Irishmen – an
organisation formed in 1791 by Wolfe Tone to achieve Catholic
Emancipation and with Presbyterian co-operation, parliamentary reform.
With the promise of French military aid secured, Emmet organised an
insurrection in July 1802. This ill-timed rising ended in confusion
with various factions failing to heed a call to arms and French
invasion failing to materialise. He was captured and in response to
his death sentence, he said “When my country takes her place among the
nations of the earth, then shall my character be vindicated, then my
epitaph written”. This speech to the court could be regarded as the
last protest of the United Irishmen, and one of the most famous
speeches of the period. ‘Although his life was short and his struggle
in vain, his efforts, vision and idealism left a mythic mark on
Irish…history’1. Thus, although the rising was a fiasco, Emmet had, in
entering martyrdom, advanced his cause of republicanism to a huge
extent. However, republicanism would not come to the fore again until

The failure to implement Catholic Emancipation along with the Act of
Union in 1801 had left Catholics with a serious grievance but it would
not be until the 1920’s that Irish politics became popular with the
formation of the Catholic Association under Daniel O’Connell. The
Association achieved mass membership by imposing a subscription of one
penny per month known as the ‘Catholic rent’ that was collected
outside mass each Sunday, which the poorest could afford. The Prime
Minister, Wellington, and the Home Secretary, Peel, did not like the
notion of Emancipation but realised that they would have to introduce
it as O’ Connell was using violent rhetoric and they feared civil
unrest. The Bill passed in April 1829, a great victory for O’Connell
and the Association, and was a turning point in Irish politics showing
the power of public opinion. However, at the time O’Connell was facing
moderate-minded ministers and a divided House of Commons.
Nevertheless, Catholic Emancipation was achieved under O’Connell’s
leadership, so he was effective.

The strong links with the Catholic Church had aroused Protestant fears
and this led to the polarisation of politics along religious lines2
and the coalition of Catholics and Presbyterians in the United
Irishmen movement disappeared. When O’Connell turned his attention to
the Repeal of the Act of Union in 1840, the Protestant classes were
increasingly defensive. O’Connell formed the Repeal Association, which
produced more funds than the Catholic rent had ever done. He secured
the backing of the Catholic clergy again and used monster meetings
like the one a Tara in 1843, which attracted around 750,000 people.
However, the House of Commons was united against repeal in 1843 and
the government banned a monster meeting due to be held on 8th October
1843 at Clontarf. O’Connell, a lawyer, complied and slowly the
movement lost its momentum. Therefore, O’Connell’s conformist nature
lost him the support of the masses, which could be seen as a failure
on his part as leader, and its ineffectiveness in particular in this

In 1842, a weekly newspaper was formed to assist O’Connell in the
repeal campaign. A group of young men known as the ‘Young Irelanders’
led by Thomas Davis, Charles Duffy and John Mitchel broke away from
O’Connell in 1844. They distanced themselves from the Catholic Church
in order to attract Protestant support. They believed that the uproar
in Irish society caused by the agrarian crisis demanded action, and
not political theorising. However, the ‘Great Hunger’ limited their
influence over the poorer farmers. Disagreement forced the group into
a spontaneous uprising in 1848, which quickly collapsed. However, they
reintroduced the violent legacy, and the cause of, the United Irishmen
Thus, the 19th Century had seen two failed uprisings but ‘taken
together, these rebellions established a revolutionary tradition in
Irish nationalism and provided an inspiration to later generations of
violent nationalists’2. However, the impact upon the Irish people in
1848 was extremely limited and the leadership could thus be seen as
vastly ineffective in advancing their cause.

In 1850, Charles Duffy, one of Davis’ close colleagues had tried to
form an all-Ireland League of Tenant Farmers to achieve fair rents,
fixity of tenure and freedom to sell land – the ‘3 Fs’. It collapsed
because some of its leaders were seen as working for their own gains,
rather than those of the League - another example of ineffective
leadership. The next phase of the national movement saw a fierce
repudiation of constitutionalism (Lyons).

The ‘Great Hunger’ generated mass political bitterness and could
therefore be considered as a turning point in Irish politics, but it
was some time before this influenced the political will of the people.
James Stephens was a key figure in the Fenian (IRB) organisation,
which was founded in 1858. Their cause was independence, claiming that
a deviation from this would be pathological. They believed in the
complete separation from the Church and state, which made it hard to
conduct an uprising effectively. On the night of 15th September 1865,
the offices of the ‘Irish People’ were raided and most of the Fenian
leaders were arrested, leaving it to Thomas Kelly to attempt an
uprising in March 1867 (Lyons). However, the broad lines of what was
going on in secret and the identities of all the important people
involved had been known to the government through their system of
informers. Public opinion had been impassive, as was characteristic of
sporadic violent risings of the time, and along with condemnation from
the Catholic Church the uprising was doomed. However, despite these
drawbacks, Fenianism had a profound affect on one Liberal Prime
Minister Gladstone, whom pledged to bring ‘justice to Ireland’. He was
to disestablish the Church of Ireland and pass a land Act in his first
administration of 1868 – 1874. Gladstone’s support for Home Rule
allowed Parnell, leader of the Home Rule Party, to use his balance of
power in the House of Commons to maximum effect. In addition the use
of obstructionism maintained the pressure on Gladstone to deliver
concessions. Thus, despite the ineffectiveness of the rising,
Fenianism’s legacy indirectly provoked considerable change.
Nevertheless, the lack of leadership as well as other factors meant
that the Fenians advanced the cause of independence to a feeble

Parnell was fortunate that Gladstone ‘recognised that Irish opposition
to English rule in Ireland stemmed from genuine grievances that were
the responsibility of Westminster’3. The objective of the Home Rule
movement was an Irish parliament with control over domestic affairs.
Their main support came from the Catholic middle classes. Isaac Butt,
founder, and Parnell, elected MP in 1875, campaigned for amnesty for
Fenian prisoners. One such prisoner was Michael Davitt. In 1878 Davitt
began a movement to protect the tenant farmers called the Irish
National Land League. Parnell agreed to be its president. Parnell
appealed to all sections of nationalist opinion. Clan na Gael gave
financial help and the Catholic clergy gave their backing. The ‘Land
Wars’ that followed 1879-82 was a popular movement, attracting an
impassioned following. Parnell and Davitt advanced their cause very
effectively because a rebellion like the land war required not only
anger but leadership and organisation as well. Economic considerations
were also significant when assessing the impact of nationalism on the
masses of the Irish people. Parnell realised the need to fuse the Home
Rule cause with the Land reform cause in order to rally the mass of
the population. This is known as the ‘New Departure’, which could be
considered a major turning point in Irish history. O’Connell had been
able to achieve improvements for the middle classes whereas Parnell
realised that support must be gained from the poorer population.
Parnell attracted support from Davitt and Devoy by allying political
and economic aims by stressing the need for independence in order to
achieve land ownership. The achievement of such mass support shows
that the leadership of this movement was highly effective. Home Rulers
were returned for every seat outside Ulster and Trinity College Dublin
and Gladstone recognised the ‘fixed desire of a nation’ introducing a
Home Rule Bill in 1885. It was defeated in the House of Commons, but
Home Rule had enthused nationalist Ireland and changed the course of
Irish politics. However, Parnell had been ruined by the O’Shea
divorce, leaving nationalist Ireland leaderless for ten years. A link
has thus appeared between periods of nationalist inactivity with a
lack of leadership and effective organisation.

After the Parnell split, and during the last decade of the nineteenth
century, cultural nationalism became popular. This took the form of
the Gaelic Athletic Association, founded by Michael Cusack with the
powerful backing of Dr. Croke, Archbishop of Cashel, the Anglo-Irish
literary revival, led by Yeats, and the Gaelic League, founded by Hyde
and Mac Neill. Croke had been a noticeable supporter of the Land
League agitation, but it was the Gaelic Athletic Association that
allowed him to denounce English culture. The clergy believed that
gaelic games distracted the young from the lure of revolutionary
activity. The Gaelic Athletic Association had a powerful political
undercurrent and made a major contribution to the revival of national
feeling in rural Ireland. Yeats believed that without a unique
intellectual life of kind, the Irish could no longer preserve their
nationality. Many of the literary talents of the time joined the
movement and between them, they revived and romanticised the early
legends and history of Ireland. The aim of the Gaelic League was the
revival of the Irish language, believing that an Irish culture could
only be created by de-Anglicisation. Although it was not a political
movement, it influenced the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Labour
Movement and Sinn Féin, both groups formed at the end of the century,
who continued the fight for independence into the twentieth century.

In conclusion, the failure of the British government to repeal the
Penal Laws fully after the passing of the Act of Union had
repercussions, which Becket saw as ‘mounting Catholic demands for
religious equality and the end of Protestant Ascendancy (which)
developed into an attack on the union’. Winstanley argues that the
struggle for Irish freedom and demands for an independent republic
started with Wolfe Tone and that this tradition was maintained by
Emmet, Young Ireland, Fenianism and Sinn Féin, none of which were
effective. However, these were minority groups and political
mobilisation on a wider scale arguably began with the formation of
O’Connell’s Catholic Association. The aim of Catholic Emancipation was
achieved under O’Connell’s leadership, so he was effective, however,
he was not so lucky in his repeal campaign where he lost the support
of the masses, resulting in him failing to achieve his aim. The impact
of the Young Irelander rebellion on the Irish people in 1848 was
extremely limited but they left behind a legacy of the use of physical
force to gain separation from England. Charles Duffy’s all-Ireland
League of Tenant Farmers collapsed because of ineffective leadership.
The Fenians were corrupt with informers, public opinion had been
unresponsive, the Catholic Church condemned them and they lacked
leadership. However, Fenianism had a profound effect on Gladstone,
thus, despite the ineffectiveness of their rising, Fenianism’s legacy
indirectly provoked considerable change. Constitutional forces
organised at first by O’Connell and then fostered by Davitt and
Parnell had through the century motivated the people politically
toward the demand for change and a repeal of the Act of Union 4.
Parnell did not achieve Home Rule but resuscitated the Catholic
grievance. Cultural nationalism raised local interest and pride and it
influenced the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Labour Movement and
Sinn Féin. It was thus effective in using non-political means to
influence political change in Ireland. Therefore, there were many
different causes, methods and leaders in this period. The causes were
advanced with varying degrees of effectiveness, but collectively, the
nationalist leaders of this period paved the way for the 1902 Wydham
Land Act 1902, which brought land issues in Ireland to an end, the
Easter Rising in 1916, the War of Independence and Independence itself
in 1921. The British Government, whether through concessions of
coercion lead to key individuals, particularly O’Connell, Davitt and
Parnell mobilising the people and developing nationalist passions
during this period. Coercion and concessions encouraged the
discontented to seek rewards. O’Connell’s mass protest movement and
Parnell’s obstructionism at Westminster were methods that achieved
limited success. Revolutionary activity, despite its immediate
failure, created a tradition of violent opposition to British rule.


1 = Kelly

2 = Rees

3 = Lyons

4 = Winstanley


Becket, J.C.

The Making of Modern Ireland 1602 – 1923



Boyce, D. George

19th Century Ireland

Gill and Mac Millan


Kee, R.

The Bold Fenian Men

Penguin Books



Lyons, F.S.L.

Ireland Since the Famine

Fontana Press


Rees, R.

Ireland 1905 – 25

Colourpoint Books


Rees, R.

Nationalism and Unionism in 19th Century Ireland

Colourpoint Books


Vaughan, W.E.

Landlords and Tenants, Ireland 1848 – 1904

Studies in Irish Economic and Social History


Winstanley, M.J.

Ireland and the Land Question 1800 - 1922

Methuen & Co. Ltd.

Lancaster Pamphlet


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MLA Citation:
"Irish Nationalism." 18 Apr 2014

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