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Constitutional Nationalism Essay

“Constitutional Nationalism succeeded in achieving its aims whereas revolutionary nationalism failed and cultural nationalism proved to be of little relevance.” How far do you agree with this statement in reference to 19th century Ireland?

In this answer I am going to discuss the successes and failures of constitutional nationalism, revolutionary nationalism and cultural nationalism in the 19th century in order to compare the impact that they had on Irish society. In particular, I will consider the constitutional nationalists Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell alongside the revolutionary nationalists Robert Emmet, John Mitchel and the Irish Confederation and John O’Mahony & James Stephens, the leaders of the Fenians. Also, with regards to cultural nationalism, I will consider Thomas Davis, the Gaelic League and the GAA. I will consider each nationalist group, specifically with regards to their aims and subsequent achievements.

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Firstly, I will consider the revolutionary nationalists, who were committed to extreme and violent ,methods to achieve their aims and any failures or indeed successes that these particular nationalists encountered. On of the earliest revolutionary nationalists during this period was Robert Emmet who as a previous member of the United Irishmen wanted specifically to resurrect Wolfe Tone’s work, after the failed rebellion of 1798, in order to rid Ireland of British rule. More specifically, Emmet hoped to lead an armed insurrection, seizing key territory in Dublin such as the castle and to establish Irish independence. What’s more, Emmet hoped to secure French military support for his uprising and hoped that his rebellion would be welcomed by the people who would rise up to help him. Thus, was Emmet successful in achieving his aims? According to R. Rees the rebellion which took place on the 23rd of July 1803, was a “confusing episode, bordering on chaotic farce.”

There were major communication problems on the night, for example, due to a failure of the messenger sent to Dwyer’s men from Wicklow, they never arrived at all. Also, after failing to secure French military support, Emmet was relying on the support of 19 counties around Ireland supporting his insurrection but according to Cronin, “the cautious and individualistic nature of the discontent in the country and due to the fact that there was no clear indication of success, the people failed to rise.” Thus it would appear that Emmet failed in two of his major aims of securing French support or indeed popular support of the people. Also, Emmet’s poor leadership in failing to give the Wexford men the signal and his subsequent abandonment of the rebellion led to Emmet’s arrest, after weeks of hiding in the mountains, on the 25th August, his trial and subsequent execution on the 20th September 1803. Hence, it would appear that Emmet’s failed rebellion and death spelled the end of the United Irishmen and any chance of achieving his aims.

However, although the rebellion itself seemed to be a dismal failure it is important to consider the success that Emmet achieved in the aftermath of his rebellion and even in his death. The legacy of Emmet and his rebellion on Irish history has had arguably greater impact than the rebellion. Kee has said that, “The success of Emmet’s myth lay in the very need to ennoble failure. For tragic failure was to become part of Ireland’s identity.” Indeed, Emmet’s words at his trial were to spur on a generation of revolutionary nationalists; “Let my memory be left in oblivion and my tomb remain uninsribed, until other times and other men can do justice my character. Emmet’s true success was in his role as a romanticised, young hero who provided inspiration to Shelley, Alice Mulligan and Ethna Cabery who described him as “the most beloved of our patriot-martyrs.” For all of his failings, Emmet did succeed in rousing a nation to the idea of revolutionary nationalism.

Another revolutionary nationalist group that I will consider is the Irish Confederation and their leader John Mitchel. After the split between Young Ireland and Daniel O’Connell in 1846, the Irish Confederation was formed from many of the disgruntled Young Ireland members, led by John Mitchel. Mitchel made clear his intentions when he wrote that the Irish people should “strike for a republic…and raise the Irish tricolour, orange, white and green, over a forest of Irish pikes. Thus Mitchel wanted to use violence in order to establish and Irish republic free of British rule brought about by popular demand.

The Irish Confederation did achieve some limited success with their aims, with their most substantial achievement, the creation of their own newspaper, The United Irishmen, as this helped to link the Confederation with their iconic predecessors and also the spread their ideas.

However, there were very few successes for the Confederation as their leader Mitchel and other leading members including Gavan Duffy were arrested and transported to Tasmania in 1848, after arousing suspicion in the year that Mitchel had dubbed, “the year of revolution. ” Thus the major failure of John Mitchel was the fact that he was arrested prior to his being able to implement his rebellion, thus leaving the newly-outlawed Irish Confederation without its leadership.

Despite William Smith O’Brien half-heartedly taking on the post of leader he was abysmal in organising a rebellion which failed when O’Brien surrendered to the RUC when they took Widow MacCormack’s children hostage. The rebellion took place in July 1848, and due to skirmish which took place at the cottage, it became known as the “Cabbage Patch Revolution.” It was a disaster for the Irish Confederation which led to their swift exit form the nationalist scene and thus it is difficult to view their time as anything but a humiliating failure.

The final revolutionary nationalists that I wish to consider are James Stephens & John O’Mahony and the Fenians. The Fenians were formed in 1858, in both Dublin and America, after the failed Irish Confederation rebellion and the Great Famine, and thus were embittered and dedicated to establish an independent Irish republic, rejecting absolutely all forms of constitutionalism and looking only to extreme violent means of achieving their aims.

One of the main successes of the Fenians was the funeral of Terrence Ballew MacManus who died in 1861 when the leadership of the Fenians exhumed his body and shipped it back to Dublin. In Dublin a controversial public funeral took place against the wishes of ArchBishop Cullen which was attended by 12,000 people. Another of the successes of the Fenians was the spreading of their message through their newspaper, the Irish people. Also, according to Russell Rees “in many towns the Fenian movement played a prominent role in the organisation of a variety of social and recreational pastimes, and this aspect alone may have been sufficient to attract interested members.” Thus it would appear that the Fenians played an important role in Irish society and in Irish nationalism.

However, the Fenians also had their fair share of failures such as the hesitation of Stephens in 1865 which aggravated Fenians on both sides of the Atlantic, leading to the removal of James Stephens as ‘Head Centre’ in May 1866 and his replacement by Colonel Thomas Kelly. Also, as a result of American Fenians’ aggravation with Stephens they invaded Canada in May 1866, hoping to provoke a rebellion in Ireland which would lead to the removal of the British which was a disaster. What’s more, the planned rebellion which went ahead in March 1867 was a failure due to the ‘rudderless’ Fenians with failures in Cork, Tipperary, Clare, Limerick and Waterford.

Russell Rees has said of the rebellion, “The failure to coordinate their actions in 1867, the damage caused by informers, severe snow storms and resolute action by the government forces all combined to ensure that the rebellion would end in defeat.” Also, another failure of the Fenians, occurred as a result of Kelly’s arrest in September 1867 when in November 1867, 5 men had tried to free him and Deasy but had shot and killed Sergeant Brent in the process. Three of the men were hung as a result becoming the ‘Manchester Martyrs.’ Another failure of the Fenians was the explosion at Clerkenwell prison, designed to free a Fenian prisoner, which killed 12 Londoners in 1867. Thus, there were successes for the Fenians but in their ultimate aims it appears that they failed miserably.

However, unlike the revolutionary nationalists, the constitutional nationalists were committed to working within the confines of the law mostly and were completely against the use of violence to achieve their goals. The first constitutional nationalist that I will consider is Daniel O’Connell who came to prominence in 1820, once described as “the greatest popular leader whom the world has ever seen” by Gladstone. Like the revolutionary nationalists, O’Connell’s long-term ultimate aim was the Repeal of Act of Union with O’Connell himself saying that, “Repeal is and must be the grand basis of all future operations.” O’Connell also sought an Irish House of Commons asking that the British, “restore to Ireland her parliament” in 1834, deeming it, “the justice we require.” O’Connell however, unlike the revolutionaries wasn’t prepared to use violence and in his earlier career sought Catholic Emancipation and Catholic reform.

O’Connell enjoyed many successes throughout his career such as the establishment of the associations and groups, such as the Catholic Association and the National Repeal Association as a vehicle for gaining authority, support and validity with Oliver MacDonagh referring to such associations as, “a pioneer…of mass constitutional politics and pacific popular democracy.” Also, the idea of national subscription fees such as the Repeal Rent and the Catholic Rent in order to secure the support of the masses was a great success for O’Connell. The 1p a month Catholic Rent, for example, was the “transformer of sentimental support into real commitment” for O’Connell according to Oliver MacDonagh which was a success in itself when you consider the fact that between January and March 1825, � 9263 was collected as a result of the rent. What’s more, the use of mass public meetings and ‘Monster meetings’ in order to campaign for Catholic Emancipation and repeal of the Act of Union was a huge success as O’Connell often addressed the open air meetings himself with Adelman and Pearce remarking that “his conversational style of oratory enabled him to build up a rapport with the Catholic masses.”

The meetings were a vehicle for mass support and it is estimated that 3-4 million attended such Monster Meetings in 1843. The most monumental success of O’Connell was his achievement of the Catholic Emancipation Bill in 1829 due to another of his successful methods, electioneering, particularly with regards to the County-Clare by-election which he won in July 1828. Also, O’Cennell managed to scure limited reforms for Ireland due to Whig-O’Connellite alliance such as the appointement of Thomas Drummond as Under Secretary in 1835 and the Constabulary Bill, the Judiciary Bill and to an extent the Tithe Rent Charge Act.

However, despite O’ Connell’s many successes, there were also a number of failures that can be attributed to Daniel O’Connell such as the O’Connellite’s alliance with the Whig Party after 1832 but specifically the Lichfield House Compact of February 1835.This led to many reformation bills such as the Poor Law Act and the workhouse system which was insufficient to deal with the demands of the famine, the Coercion Bill which was described as “one of the toughest law and order bills of the 19th Century” according to Adelman and Pearce and the Municipal Corporations which led to the closure of 58 Corporations.

Irish Also, another failure due to O’Connell was his backing down against the government when it banned the Monster Meeting at Clontarf, claiming that it was seditious. This allowed the police to arrest O’Connell on the grounds that it was indeed seditious and O’Connell was imprisoned for 6 months. Finally, another of O’Connell’s fundamental failures was his split with Young Ireland on 1846 which meant that he lost the zeal and drive from his Repeal campaign. Thus due to his failures O’Connell was unable to achieve Repeal of the Act of Union and any real, beneficial reform for Ireland, despite having achieved Catholic Emancipation.

The other constitutional nationalist that I wish to consider is Charles Stewart Parnell whose ultimate aim was Home Rule. Also. Parnell sought to unite the constitutional nationalists with agrarian unrest and revolutionary nationalism in the hope of achieving repeal of the Act of Union.

Thus what were the successes of Charles Stewart Parnell? One of the major successes of Parnell came in June 1879 when John Devoy, Michael Davitt and Parnell came together under the New Departure informally agreeing to support each other to achieve the tenants’ demands and Irish self-government. Russell Rees stressed the importance of the New Departure in saying, “it [the New Departure] produced a new mass movement in Irish politics advancing the cause of nationalism under Parnell’s expert leadership.” Another fundamental success of Gladstone was the agreement between him and Gladstone known as the Kilmainham Treaty of April 1882 under which the rules of the Coercion Bill, 1881, were relaxed and Parnell agreed to support the Land Courts. Adelman and Pearce speak of Parnell’s imprisonment in Kilmainham in 1881-1882 as “the best thing that could of happened to him.”

The Land Act of 1881 was a success for Parnell, as president of the Land League, as it meant that rents would be fixed for 15 years, tenants could not be evicted provided they paid rent and also compensation would be paid if improvements were made on the land. Also, Parnell’s success in restructuring the IPP was evident in the general election of 1885 when his IPP won 86 seats, one being in Liverpool. An example of Parnell’s authority in the party is the fact that IPP members who became MPs had to sign a declaration that they would only vote with the IPP. Adelman and Pearce commended Parnell’s efforts pointing to, “[Parnell’s creation of a united, disciplined Irish Parliamentary Party backed up by an efficient electoral machine in Ireland itself.” What’s more, it was Parnell who “turned the question of Home Rule from a vague ideal into practical politics” according to Adelman and Pearce, with Mike Cronin also pointing out his success; “Parnell was important to Ireland because he made the Home Rule movement a reality rather than an aspiration.”

Clearly, Charles Stewart Parnell enjoyed many successes however, it is important to consider his failures also. One of main failures of Parnell was his affair with Kitty O’Shea which led to her divorce from Captain O’Shea in November 1890. This annoyed many of Gladstone’s MPs, IPP MPs and voters who didn’t want to be associated with a ‘public adulterer.’ After Gladstone’s ultimatum, the split with the Liberals led to a split within the IPP itself with 37 MPs backing Parnell and 45 going against him. This was a huge failure for Parnell as it meant his party had deserted him and everything that he had worked for in the Party had failed. However, Parnell’s ultimate failure was his inability to secure Home Rule when Gladstone’s Bill was defeated in 1886.

Finally, I will consider the role of cultural nationalists, who sought to achieve their aims by uniting the country through their shared identity and highlighting the differences between Ireland and other countries, who like revolutionary and constitutional nationalists enjoyed both successes and failures. One of the first cultural nationalists was Thomas Davis and Young Ireland. Young Ireland was a radical Irish nationalist movement founded by a group of Irish intellectuals in 1841. It argued for the study of Irish history and the revival of the Gaelic language as a means of developing Irish nationalism and independence. Young Ireland’s ultimate aim was repeal of the Act of Union and the group were prepared to use violence to a achieve it.

Thus what successes did Young Ireland and Thomas Davis enjoy? Primarily, the nationalists’ newspaper ‘The Nation’ spread the ideas of Young Ireland and helped to cement the idea of ‘cultural nationalism.’ What’s more, the link between O’Connell and the National Repeal Association and Thomas Davis and Young Ireland in the 1840s gave Young Ireland authority within Ireland and a platform to voice their ideas.

There were also failures experienced by Thomas Davis and Young Ireland, such as the fact that they talked quite frankly about the use of violence and yet they never acted and so seemed like they were ‘all talk’ to the public. Also, due to their talking about violence, Young Ireland split with O’Connell in 1846, either being expelled from or leaving the National Repeal Association. After, their expulsion from the Association and Davis’ death, the nationalist group simply dissipated.

Another cultural nationalist group, that I wish to discuss is the Gaelic League set up by Eugene O’Downey, Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNeill. They wanted to promote an identity that was Irish and Catholic although it was not exclusively Catholic. Another of the Gaelic League’s aims was to convince people to embrace their own culture, making them proud to be Irish and through their various branches and clubs, to let people enjoy themselves through songs, words, music and theatre.

There were many successes of the Gaelic league such as the establishment of a newspaper ‘The sword of Light’ in 1899 which was used as a tool to advocate the use of Irish in schools. They published books and plays, encouraged people to wear Irish made clothes and organised speakers to travel the country promoting its work at the 599 established branches in Ireland by 1908. Thus according to Collier, “they now posed a plausible and formidable threat as a pressure group.”

However, in 1891 census only 66000 spoke Irish out of a population of 4.7 million people and it wasn’t until 1915 that the constitution was altered to state explicitly an adherence to a ‘free Gaelic speaking Ireland.’ Cronin said that “although the League argued that Ireland was a distinct nation because of its culture, this did not initially equate to demands for political separation from Britain.” Thus, given its lack of political agenda it could be said that legislatively the Gaelic League had very little impact.

Finally, the other cultural nationalist group whose successes and failures I wish to consider is the Gaelic Athletic Association founded by Michal Cusack. His main concern was the spread of so called ‘foreign games’ such as rugby and hockey at the expense of Irish games. Thus the GAA aimed to promote Irish sports and get English sports banned and maintained strong links with the Catholic Church.

In their aims it would appear the GAA were very successful as there was a ban on all English games and it was decided that the GAA should not host foreign games. It was massively popular with the Irish not even allowed to watch English sports and there was an upsurge in popularity for native games. Michael Cusack himself claimed that the GAA spread across Ireland like a “Prairie Fire.” However, in reference to the question, given the very limited agenda of the GAA, and the lack of political drive it would be a fair assumption to say it ‘lacked relevance.’

Thus, to conclude I would say that whilst there were many successes for such constitutional nationalists such as O’Connell and Parnell, there were also failures and so given that both of their ultimate aims, of ‘Independence for Ireland’ didn’t come to fruition it would be impossible for me to say that constitutional nationalists succeeded in achieving their aims in totality.

Similarly, with regards to revolutionary nationalist groups, such as Emmet, Mitchel & the Confederation, and the Fenians, despite their many failings they also enjoyed successes and so again their experiences were mixed but by no means were the revolutionary nationalists a complete failure. Also, with regards to the cultural nationalists, the GAA, the Gaelic League and Young Ireland, their successes are very apparent however given their limited appeal it might be a fair conclusion to say they lacked relevance in a wider political sense. Hence, to a certain extent I agree with the statement however in many senses there were both successes and failure for cultural, revolutionary and constitutional nationalists alike.

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