XOTIC names of places like Kabul, Kandahar and Khartoum were on the lips of many Irish people not only during the past 20 years but also in the 1870s and 1880s. These places and others were locations where the British Empire was spreading “Christianity and civilization” — at the point of a sword.
The author, Paul A Townend, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, takes us for a tour of these far-off lands through the mouths of the more advanced nationalists, both in the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster and in local and national newspapers of the day.
In Ireland the Land War was raging, especially in the west of Ireland, as the British Army was extending the British Empire across Asia and Africa. The Transvaal in South Africa, Afghanistan, the Sudan and Egypt — these were the theatres of war being played out in tandem with the struggle of Ireland’s tenant farmers.
Among the most consistent and loudest critics of this imperialism were members of the Irish Parliamentary Party who were vocal in the House of Commons at Westminster and at public meetings in Ireland.
Initially a relatively small number, their numbers grew as the message began to resonate more and more in Ireland, and especially with the general elections of 1880 and 1886, the latter with a greatly expanded (male) franchise. The election in 1880 for Roscommon of JJ O’Kelly , a former Fenian and boyhood friend of John Devoy, would bring journalistic flair and theatricality.
Some Irish MPs simply wished for Ireland to take its place as a full partner in England’s imperial venture, as had Scotland. Others wanted Ireland to take a full part in a “reformed” British Empire and for this had pinned their hopes on Gladstone’s “Liberal imperialism”.
These hopes were dashed against the rock of Boer and Afghan resistance, ugly brutality committed by British troops in Egypt and elsewhere, continuing evictions of families at home and the arrest of Parnell, Dillon and others.
O’Kelly and others were aided and abetted by ever more strident nationalist newspapers, including the “incendiary” Flag of Ireland, United Ireland and Pa, a satirical weekly. These publications came very close to sedition and give cover for the sometimes more nuanced utterances at Westminster. On the other hand, the Tory Cork Constitution would be outraged that George Colthurst, campaigning in Midleton during a by-election in 1879 was actually “held down [by a] dirty venal crowd” who taunted him with “fiendish ferocity to the hell-born cry of three cheers for the Zulus”!
One of the delights of the book is the inclusion of 20 political or savagely satirical cartoons of the nationalist press in Ireland during that time. This reviewer’s favourite is ‘The Siege at Tim Quinlan’s Castle’, depicting the eviction of a family from their ‘castle’ at Doon, Co Limerick during the Land War. This particular eviction was a cause célèbre during this time as 700 soldiers and police were sent to carry out the eviction of one family, who fought back with eggs.
One complicating problem that Parnell and others faced was that in condemning the British Army’s actions in these wars, they were condemning the actions of Irishmen in redcoat uniforms. They solved it by praising the bravery of the individual Irish soldiers but condemning the Tory, then Liberal political leaders who ordered them to fight. Townend refers to this as the “schizophrenic dimension of Irish anti-imperialism”.
The classic work on the period, Parnell and his Party, by Conor Cruise O’Brien, fails even to mention the anti-imperialism of the Irish Party, all the more striking in the light of his subsequent role for the United Nations in the Congo.
This book by an American historian deepens our understanding of the ideology of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster and will force Irish historians to revise their opinions about that period.