The Origins & Development of Irish Republicanism: Peter Neville Surveys the Growth of Republicanism in Ireland Up to the Present Day. (the Unpredictable Past)

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The history of Ireland has been a history of struggle against a foreign occupier. It has also been a history of struggle for a satisfactory relationship with Britain, verging from attempts to remain within the British Empire and Commonwealth to outright rejection of any links with Britain. It is the story of the latter movement which provides the focus for this article.

Revolts against British rule in Ireland had failed disastrously in 1798 and 1848. The so-called `Young Ireland' revolt in 1848 was so bungled that it has gone down into history as `The Battle of Widow McCormack's Cabbage Patch', but it coincided with a crucial event in Irish history. This was the terrible potato famine of 1845-9 which decimated the Irish population. As many as one million Irish men and women may have died of starvation and disease, and another million emigrated to Britain, Australia, and especially the United States. Although both Irish and-British historians now accept that the British government was incompetent and overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, Irish republicans believed and continue to believe that the famine was a deliberate act of genocide by the British. This became a central myth of the republican movement in Ireland in the twentieth century; and it undoubtedly gave an impetus to the last use of `physical force' by Irish nationalists in the nineteenth century.

In 1858, James Stephens formed the Fenian movement (taking its name from the ancient Irish warriors, the Fianne), which was pledged to sever the links with Britain forever. There was Fenian activity in the United States (some of the fiercest republican support was always to be found amongst Irish abroad) and in Britain itself. But an attempted Fenian invasion of Canada from the USA (many Fenians fought in the US Civil War in the 1860s) failed, and Fenian bomb `outrages' in Britain failed to intimidate successive British governments. Fenianism therefore failed, but it left an important legacy. There were the usual martyrs to the cause (three Fenians were executed when a prison warder was killed in Manchester during an escape bid), and the precedent for bombing campaigns on the British mainland was set.


From the late 1860s onwards, there was a distinct shift in Irish politics away from physical force to an attempt to forge a new constitutional relationship with Britain through the `Home Rule' movement. Even former Fenians like Michael Davitt, who denounced the `landlord garrison established by England in this country centuries ago', were prepared to cooperate with the great leader of this movement, Charles Stuart Parnell. He secured the support of the Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone for Home Rule, which would have given Ireland its own parliament in Dublin but keep the country inside the Empire. Even this concession though (much less than the ultimate independence most of Ireland was to get) was too much for some members of Gladstone's party, for the Tories (who shamelessly exploited the issue), and the Protestant minority in the north-east of Ireland. Gladstone tried and failed to force Home Rule through the British parliament in 1886 and again in 1893. Parnell himself died tragically young in 1891, already ruined by his involvement in a divorce case in an overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland. Thereafter, Home Rule was effectively off the political agenda for nearly 20 years.


Although a united independent Ireland seemed a far off aspiration between 1893 and 1910, there were important developments. One was the foundation of the Gaelic League in 1893, with its brief to encourage every aspect of Irish culture - be it dancing, poetry, music or literature and language. To an extent this turned the attention of the Irish people away from Home Rule, now seemingly a lost cause, to the issue of their `Irishness'. Gaelic games like hurling and football were encouraged to demonstrate Irish separateness from English culture. …