The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

22
Ireland and the Empire

DAVID FITZPATRICK

The formal Union of the kingdoms of Ireland and Great Britain ( 1801-1922) masked a hybrid administration with manifest colonial elements, allowing variant interpretations of the character of Ireland's dependency. Was Ireland an integral part of the United Kingdom, a peripheral, backward sub-region, or a colony in all but name? These were the conflicting assumptions of unionists, devolutionists, and separatists respectively. The manner in which the contending parties specified Ireland's current status reflected, yet also restricted, their visions of its future condition. Underpinning these perceptions of the present and future were incompatible beliefs about the Irish past, reinforced and mobilized by historians and polemicists. Yet the sense of destiny associated with historical mythology, whether unionist or nationalist, was repeatedly challenged by external influences such as legislative reform and changing economic opportunities. Even unionists, pledged to defend the liberties conferred by the Glorious Revolution and incorporated in the Imperial Parliament, might contemplate rebellion against a 'radical' government should it tamper with the Empire. Even those who viewed Ireland as a vassal colony within the Empire might hope to benefit from employment in the Empire's service. Thus changes in the practical operation of the Union were capable of transforming Imperialists into rebels, and separatists into colonists. This chapter explores the involvement in the Empire of both Ireland and the Irish. Is it appropriate to depict Ireland under the Union as a colony? Why have historians found Ireland so difficult to place in their constructions of the Empire and Imperialism? In what ways did political conflict concerning Ireland's future intersect with broader issues of Imperial development? How important were the Irish themselves as colonists? And in what ways did Ireland and the Irish influence the Empire?

The Act of Union terminated Ireland's formal status as a 'Dominion' or dependent kingdom, a condition of colonial subsection inadequately ameliorated by the spurious independence granted to the Irish Parliament in 1782-83. The Union, though eventually accepted by that body, was universally interpreted as

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