In recent years, the output of historians of Ireland has, in many ways, been overly focused on the years of the Irish revolution, 1916–1923, and the attendant marking of the centenaries of that tumultuous time. Much of this work has analyzed how the Easter Rising of 1916 led to a mass radicalization of Irish nationalism that would culminate in the victory of Sinn Féin and the dissolution of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) after its near complete destruction in the 1918 general election. The IPP had been founded by Isaac Butt in 1874. During its forty-four-year existence, the IPP had worked tirelessly to bring Irish Home Rule into being, and had effectively achieved its goal with the passage of the Government of Ireland Act (1920) prior to the outbreak of World War I. In the context of the commemoration of the Easter Rising in 2016, the IPP and its legislative efforts in moving Ireland toward Home Rule were largely forgotten. The Irish state, in celebrating the centenary of 1916 on such a grand scale, promoted Patrick Pearse and his followers as the founding fathers of the nation. In embracing the ideas of the Easter Rising and later revolution as the building blocks of modern independent Ireland, the Irish state rejected the IPP as having encouraged Irish men to join the bloodbath of World War I and as thus not having been radical enough, and, in the most base terms, the state retrospectively represented the IPP as a party that was pro-British and pro-empire. In the context of the populist promotion of the men and women of 1916 as founders of the nation, Paul A. Townend’s The Road to Home Rule: Anti-imperialism and the Irish National Movement is not only a timely book, but an important corrective to oversimplified history presented centenary style. Townend explores the period from the early years of the IPP through to the presentation of the first Home Rule Bill (the Government of Ireland Bill) in 1886. His argument is that during this period a group of Irish politicians and journalists emerged who framed their calls for Home Rule in the context of a wider hostility to the British imperial enterprise. His argument builds on other studies of the Irish relationship with empire, but its strength is in its forensic unpacking of how forcefully and frequently the anti-imperial message was presented, through to the mid-1880s. Townend demonstrates how both politicians and journalists set out to critique Britain’s policies in countries such as South Africa, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Sudan. In pointing out how damaging Britain’s policies were in seemingly far-flung corners of the globe, both politicians and journalists articulated how such policies also wounded Ireland. The mid-century famine was still fresh in people’s minds, and the images of the British army being used to enforce evictions during the Land War were employed to great effect in painting an image of Ireland as not, and as never likely to be, an equal partner in the imperial mission. In creating sympathy for those countries and armies that were fighting imperial oppression, such as the Boers in South Africa, Irish nationalists hardwired calls for independence to the rejection of empire. In the version of Irish calls for separatism as they were articulated during this period, Britain’s enemies were readily seen as Ireland’s friends. Townend shows clearly how the rhetoric of anti-imperialism led to popular support in Ireland for the cause of anti-imperialists in the Sudan, South Africa, and elsewhere. Townend demonstrates how anti-imperialism became the dominant message in Irish nationalist rhetoric and that even “tacit acceptance of British imperial activity by Irish politicians who should know better constituted an acid test of West Britonism” (237). The book is deeply investigated, and Townend’s research and contextualization of it within the broader literature of imperialism is impressive. The use of cartoons from contemporary publications throughout the book demonstrates the clear ways in which the Irish concept of anti-imperialism was depicted in popular form. Through his work, Townend shows how closely the political force of Irish nationalism was linked to the idea of resisting and opposing the British Empire at home and abroad. The book reminds us that those Irish politicians who began the sustained and decades-long campaign for Home Rule were deeply politically engaged in world affairs, and that they did not see the solution to the Irish question in solely domestic terms. In the context of the relative forgetting of the IPP through the centenary celebrations of 1916, Townend shows that rather than being somehow the grateful stooges of Britain and its empire, IPP and the public at large held and articulated a deep antipathy toward not only the idea of empire, but also the devastating impact that its scramble for Africa and other adventures had on those who came to be colonized. While that is not the subject of Townend’s book, his work shows how deep-seated the Irish suspicion of the imperial mission was. Given the strong way in which that suspicion was articulated through to the mid-1880s, it was perhaps inevitable that the more radicalized and violent men and women of 1916 grew up with a hatred of empire. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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