Ireland: Contested Ideas of Nationalism and History

By Hugh F. Kearney | Go to book overview

Chapter Sixteen

The Great Famine
Legend and Reality
(1957)

The course taken by Irish nationalism during the nineteenth century was largely determined by men and circumstances peculiar to Ireland; its general direction, however, was profoundly affected by wider European influences. Like other nationalisms of the period, Irish nationalism owed to the Romantic Movement its eagerness in seeking out history as an indispensable ally; and during the second half of the century it came to be conceived in historical terms, taking as its intellectual basis an interpretation of Irish history. Most nationalists sought, and found, in Irish history the justification and inspiration of their political opinions, Mitchel and Pearse, Davitt and Connolly being the most prominent and providing the most lasting contribution.

In doing so, they reflected a general shift of emphasis in European thought. History, which for the philosophes was an irrelevant absurdity, became for nineteenth-century thinkers the essence of political philosophy, a change the extent of which can be measured by comparing the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 with the Proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916. Both Americans and Irish rejected the authority of the British Crown and established a republic; but whereas, in 1776, the appeal of the colonists was to the Rights of Man (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), in 1916 it was the “historic rights of the Irish people, which in every generation … have asserted their right to national freedom” that provided much of the intellectual basis for the Rising. Thomas Jefferson assumed the self-evident truth of John Locke's political philosophy when drawing up the Declaration of American Independence; the men of 1916

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