Robert Kee – A Television History of Ireland – Episode 3 `Two Nations 1700-1845`

Nora Connolly 

© Image The Library of Congress photostream

Tis the most distressful country that ever yet was seen (John McCormack)

In a broad sweep Kee examines Irish nationalist development up to the Act of Union (1801) the episode concludes with the famine. The two nations described are identifiable by religious affiliation, the largest Catholic and by virtue of the Penal Laws a discriminated group. While religious observance for Catholics was difficult, it was grudgingly accepted by the authorities (though in reduced circumstances). The quid pro quo at the heart of this tacit arrangement was recognition that Catholic civil rights were completely curtailed. Catholics were not permitted to hold political office, disqualified from voting and as episode three illustrates, severe limitations were imposed on land ownership including the transfer of land through inheritance. The Presbyterian Protestant dissenter`s in the North (not identified as a separate group by Kee), were also penalised, e.g. the requirement of paying tithes to the Anglican Church. These grievances would be a unifying factor, in the formation of an embryonic Irish Republican movement.

In terms of power and control, the other group that made up the two nations, was the Protestant Ascendancy, who dominated the country. They had grievances with Westminster but their position in Ireland was a privileged one. They are depicted living in grand houses commanding huge estates – in marked contrast to the poverty of the majority. This landed aristocracy belonged to a sophisticated culture, many connected to the `Old English` a minority coming from “Gaelic stock”. The Ascendancy as Kee points out “were Irish too”. Older established groups who joined this elite, converted to the Anglican faith. There “soaring aspirations” are the first voices in modern Ireland to demand national recognition.

The Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, are analogous to the social elite in eighteenth century Colonial America. It’s therefore ironic that while the British concentrated on fighting American rebels in the 1770s, the situation altered in Ireland as England`s difficulty always appears to be Ireland`s opportunity. Protestant volunteers organised themselves into regiments to protect the Irish coast from the French but this militia turned into “a veiled threat” to Britain. They demanded Irish Independence under the Crown, with provisions to legislate for themselves. And in 1782 a declaration of Independence was achieved when Henry Grattan announced that “Ireland was now a nation”. But Grattan, as Kee points out, was speaking for a minority of the Irish population representing a Dublin Parliament subservient to Westminster. Grattan`s Parliament, despite its limitations, became for later nationalist leaders a template to follow.

A democratic deficit of glaring proportion thus existed, encouraging those excluded to take up arms, leading to the formation of the `United Irishman` in 1791 by three Protestant Presbyterians, most notable amongst them, Wolfe Tone. This organisation was influenced by the revolutionary events in France and America at the time. It was an attempt to unite both Catholic and Protestant, under one national banner. The organisation formed in Belfast but subsequent meetings held in Dublin. Kee describes the group as a “secret society” with a predominately Protestant and middle class leadership.

Kee is filmed speaking from Bantry Bay, while recounting the attempt in 1796 when thirty-five French Republican ships were invited by the United Irishmen to invade the country and in the words of Wolfe Tone to help “break the connection with England”. The weather conditions made this invasion impossible but conspiracies continued via association with agrarian secret societies (whose form of rough summary justice is described by Kee). By 1798, Lord Edward Fitzgerald claimed to have a quarter of a million rebels on stand-by, before he could activate this army he and his “Directory were betrayed by informers” and he was killed. The movement in apparent disarray but a rebellion went ahead.

Kee outlines the Rebellion of 1798 and contextualises the uprising by first describing the behaviour of the authorities, who adopted an assortment of punishments, which can only be described as barbaric. This was designed to break the “countryside conspiracies”. The detail makes for difficult viewing; Kee does not pull any punches. Information was obtained in this way through the use of torture, while promoting terror and helping to, “set alight the one part of the rebellion that was really to look dangerous.” This was in Wexford, primarily in a location known as Vinegar Hill, “a base camp for thousands of men and women from the countryside” many of whom would today be described as refuges.

The Wexford rebels were led by Father John Murphy (initially against the rebellion – which tells us much), terror, fear and revenge was the motivation that brought them together, the ideals of the French Revolution far from these insurgent’s minds. As episode three outlines, events descend into sectarian violence as the, “horribly familiar cycle of atrocity breeding counter atrocity was already at work”. The rebels turned on the Protestant population, who were “brutally done to death,” in various locations. Wexford has now entered the annals of Irish nationalist mythology, a symbol of nationalist resistance. In reality argues Kee, “the peasantry in the south were fighting in a Catholic cause” not a nationalist one. Further myth making was again at work linked to the rebellion of Bold Robert Emmett in 1803, whose execution was manipulated by later nationalist leaders and whose epitaph has yet to be written.

Robert Kee concludes this episode by introducing us to Daniel O`Connell, who in 1829 successfully campaigned for Catholic Emancipation (Catholics could vote but not hold office), he placed pressure on the Government through his `Monster Meetings` (speaking English to a largely Irish speaking peasantry). He harnessed his organisation to the Church and created a truly formidable political machine. Once Emancipation is achieved he set his sights on repeal of the Act of Union (for a socialist critique see James Connolly). O`Connell effectively made Irish nationalism and Catholicism a binding pact. Constitutional niceties took second place as the famine set in and mass starvation and immigration stimulated another brand of physical force nationalism emanating from the diaspora in America.


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