Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

Australian Irish Catholics and Britishness: The Problem of British "Loyalty" and "Identity" from the Conscription Crisis to the End of the Anglo-Irish War

Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

Australian Irish Catholics and Britishness: The Problem of British "Loyalty" and "Identity" from the Conscription Crisis to the End of the Anglo-Irish War

Article excerpt

I have divided the talk into three parts; the first traces out the rise of Britishness as a definition of cultural community in Australia and the Irish Catholic response to it; the second looks at the divisions which arose around conscription 1916-18; and the question of loyalty, and the third examines the Irish Catholic support for the Sinn Fein in the 1919-1921 Anglo-Irish war and the reaction of the 'loyalists'.

Introduction

With nationalism's emergence at the end of the 19th century as the dominant social idea giving meaning to the peoples of a rapidly modernising Western world, the Australian colonies came to define themselves as an integral part of a 'Greater Britain'. Talk of separation or republicanism which had been central to the political discourse of the mid century was left to a radical fringe. Alfred Deakin, one of the most important figures in the making of the Australian constitution, in his 1905 presidential address to the Victorian Imperial Federation League, declared that 'The same ties of blood, sympathy and tradition which make us one Commonwealth here make the British of today one people everywhere.' In the late colonial period as modernisation created a mass society political leaders took steps to intensify this sense of Britishness, most notably by establishing a free, universal and compulsory state system of education. At the same time they withdrew public funds from private schools, including the Catholic parish schools. It was their intention to encourage all parents to send their children to the state schools and so strengthen in the new generation the common feeling of being British. Though this great initiative placed a very heavy burden on the public purse, it responded to the national imperative which sought to foster one central identity for a people, and in the case of the Australian colonies this was to be founded on an idea of being 'British' and belonging to a national entity called 'Greater Britain' or the British Empire. This nationalising process was not restricted to mass education. Newspapers and novels, public rites and ceremonies also helped to inculcate the romantic myths of a heroic British past.

The Irish Catholic community, however, did not embrace this British race patriotism with the same fervour as the Protestant majority. The folk memories of English Protestant oppression and dispossession still lingered and towards the end of the 19th century these grievances were given a new lease of life. The clergy were suspicious of the public system of education and regarded the cessation of state aid as an injustice to citizens who wished to send their children to Roman Catholic schools. Obtaining no concessions they called on the faithful to build their own schools. Staffed mainly by religious orders from Ireland these schools tended to play down the story of the British Empire and to stress the pupils' Irish heritage. Though the creation of the two systems stirred up acrimony nevertheless the quarrel over education did not seriously work against Catholic co-operation in the social and political life of the country. Irish Catholics represented about a quarter of the population but unlike Northern Ireland, England and Scotland they did not live in ghettoes but were spread fairly evenly throughout the country and this helped to foster trust and a common civic feeling. As a result there were Catholic ministers of the crown in all federal governments from the inception of the Commonwealth and even Catholic premiers in some of the states.

At the same time in the British Isles the movement to grant Home Rule to Ireland had gathered pace, and in mid-1914 the Asquith Liberal government, supported by John Redmond's Irish Political Party, which represented Irish Catholics in the House of Commons, passed an Irish Home Rule bill which was intended to give Ireland something approaching Dominion status. This had not been achieved easily. Indeed it had created deep divisions in the whole of the United Kingdom. …

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