Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite: The American Revolution & the European Response

By Charles W. Toth | Go to book overview

In an early classic (The American Revolution the British Empire), Sir Reginald Coupland concluded that in no part of the empire were the effects of the Revolution "more immediate, more direct, or more far-reaching" than in Ireland. Some reservation must be made, of course, with "far-reaching." Although the acquisition of legislative autonomy in 1782 was generally ascribed by Irish leadership to the influence of events in America, this autonomy was eclipsed by the end of the 18th century as the tentacles of a hard-dying mercantilism wrapped themselves strongly around the Irish Parliament, finally ending in enforced union.

Yet for a couple of decades the Irish response to the American Revolution, although essentially a minority response, was as vociferous as anywhere within or without the empire. As Horace Walpole would comment: "It is too publicly known to be disguised any longer, that Ireland has much the air of Americanizing." Indeed, the rhetoric in Dublin produced a warm response to the American effort to define the constitutional relationship of His Majesty's "loyal colonies" to England. As Henry Flood expressed it in the Irish Parliament" A voice from America shouted to liberty . . . and [you] renewed the voice till it reverberated here." And William Drennan would shout to his colleagues in an almost tearful outburst that "America was the promised land I would wish to see before I die."

In reality, the rhetoric both on the eve of the Declaration of Independence, as well as during the long war which followed, was essentially a minority response of the so-called "Protestant Ascendancy." The Catholic majority felt that any future gains were tied to a show of loyalty to His Majesty. As Lord Middleton expressed it, "We are all Americans, here, except such as are attached securely to the Castle." Even Irish-born Lord Shelburne, who would remark on the one hand that "I find all classes in this Kingdom much more animated about America than in England," would also paint the true picture of the Irish response in writing to a friend that "in every Protestant home the established toast is success to the Americans."

As the author of the following selection perceptively underscores the essential character of the Irish response: Ireland had to be

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