The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Judith M. Brown; Wm. Roger Louis et al. | Go to book overview

6

Ireland and the Empire-Commonwealth, 1900-1948

DEIRDRE MCMAHON

Nationalists of the generation born in the 1870s and 1880s played prominent parts in the Irish independence movement immediately before and after 1916. These new nationalists differed from their predecessors in their concern for Irish identity, a reaction to what they considered to be the insidious Anglicization of Ireland. For them the regeneration of the nation would be achieved by political, social, and economic self-reliance, wiping out the dispiriting memories of famine, emigration, and sterile political divisions. Their activity must be seen in the context of the nineteenth century.

In 1914 Ireland awaited its first measure of self-government since 1800. In the six decades since the Great Famine of the 1840s the country had undergone a social and economic revolution. The 1911 census figures, the last before independence, showed that the rate of population decline had dropped to its lowest level since 1851-1.54 per cent. Emigration had also halved since its peak in the 1880s. Nearly 50 per cent of the population was engaged in agriculture. The most industrialized part of the country was in north-east Ulster. Since 1881 a series of land purchase acts had revolutionized land tenure in Ireland, and by 1914 nearly two-thirds of tenant farmers had purchased their holdings. The losers in this revolution were the agricultural labourers whose numbers were a fifth of their 1.3 million in 1841. The decline in the rural population was reflected in the increasing urbanization of the population. In 1911 over one-third lived in towns and cities. Many lower-middle‐ class Catholics, urban and rural, benefited from the social and economic advances of the decades before 1914. The 1878 Intermediate Education Act and the 1908 Irish Universities Act had opened up secondary and third-level education for them, and they gradually achieved greater representation in the professions and the civil service.

The new, more self-assertive generation of nationalists was watched with some apprehension by the Roman Catholic Church. Nearly 75 per cent of the population was Catholic; the Church of Ireland (Anglican) accounted for 13 per cent, the Presbyterians for 10.5 per cent, and the Methodists for 1.42 per cent. The Protestant denominations were most strongly represented in the province of Ulster. The

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