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The international background



THE END OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY was a period of crisis for the ruling classes of Europe, a time filled with political agitation, revolt, and movements for colonial autonomy and independence. This was so not only in the United States (1776–1783) but in Belgium and Liège (1787–1790), in Holland (1783–87), in Geneva—even, it has been said, in England (1779)—and of course in Ireland.
     A hidden conflict, soon to become quite open, was unfolding between the old society and the new “bourgeois” society. This conflict was fundamental and could not be settled within the framework of the old political regimes. The weakest point and the point where these conflicts were most often played out, the point where old and new met most clearly, was in the autonomy and independence movements of the remote or less firmly controlled colonies. Colonial resentment at the economic policies of the central government, which subordinated colonial interests to the interests of the “mother country,” sparked unrest; and in the Americas and Ireland, national movements for autonomy and independence blossomed.
     In North America the growing American bourgeoisie was forced, in their own economic interests, to break the barriers that held them back—the British “mercantilist” policy that monopolised trade with the colonies and limited American industry by law in an attempt to maintain British supremacy. The result was the American Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776 and the American Revolution.
     Marx was of the opinion that the American Revolution formed “the first turning-point in Irish history.” It is true to say that the victory of the American Revolution, that mighty blow to the whole corrupt oligarchic political system of the eighteenth century, found a ready and welcome response in Ireland, in particular in Ulster. For one thing, there was a direct connection to America through the many Ulster Presbyterians who had emigrated during the eighteenth century, searching for a freer political, economic and religious life in the colonies. In addition, Ulster was where the growing Irish bourgeoisie, in the form of mainly Protestant merchants and manufacturers, were most concentrated and where the chafing economic restraints of British colonial policy were most sharply felt.
     With regular troops already fighting in America and with the entry of France on the side of the Americans in 1778, it was thought necessary to raise a Volunteer force, uniformed, armed and equipped by public subscription, as a defence against the old enemy. The anti-democratic character of the American war was not lost on the Irish, however, and, unfortunately for the British, the Volunteers soon became a focus for Irish middle-class discontent. This mainly Protestant force played a notable part in demands for an end to restraints on Irish trade and manufacturing and for the rights of the Catholic majority. At the Dungannon Convention of 15 February 1782 they demanded legislative independence and the “relaxation of the penal laws against our Roman Catholic fellow-subjects.”
     Independence was established; but bribery and corruption ensured that it remained so in name only. The national Volunteer convention of 1783, despite the fine words and heady emotions, split on the issue of Catholic emancipation, and declined thereafter. As Tone later said,
the revolution of 1782 was a Revolution which enabled Irishmen to sell at a much higher price their honour, their integrity and the interests of their country; it was a revolution which, while at one stroke it doubled the value of every borough-monger in the kingdom, left three-fourths of our countrymen slaves as it found them, and the government of Ireland in the base and wicked and contemptible hands of those who had spent their lives in degrading and plundering her . . . The power remained in the hands of our enemies, again to be exerted for our ruin, with this difference, that formerly we had our distress, our injuries, and our insults gratis at the hands of England, but now we pay very dearly to receive the same with aggravation, through the hands of Irishmen.
     But the forces that led to the Volunteer movement, the growth of an Irish bourgeoisie and their social, political and economic constraint, did not go away. As C. Desmond Greaves wrote, “history came forward with a rare favour, a second opportunity within one decade. That was the French Revolution of 1789.”
     The revolution in France divided every nation in Europe (apart from England, which had undergone a bourgeois revolution of sorts in the seventeenth century) into two parties: the party of reaction and the party of democracy. The explosive slogan of “Liberty, equality, fraternity” soon found its supporters in Ireland as well. In Belfast in October 1791 Tone and a few others, middle-class radicals from Dublin and Belfast, primarily Protestant, formed the Society of United Irishmen. In many ways the United Irishmen were a continuation of a movement that had continued since the Dungannon Volunteer convention, supported in the main by Ulster Presbyterians in sympathy with the American colonists but with a sprinkling of Catholics and members of the established church. Their initial goals were an extension of the gains made in 1782, and equality for Catholics.
     The United Irishmen hoped to establish the “rights of man” through parliamentary reform and religious equality. The rights of man, first formulated by Tom Paine (the English supporter of the American colonists who was eventually forced to flee England for revolutionary France), were an expression of the novel idea that politics were the business of the people—the common people, not just a governing oligarchy. Government was only tolerable if it secured the now-famous “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Any government that failed to do so, said Paine, should be overthrown, if necessary by revolution.
     The Society of United Irishmen, though not all its members were initially revolutionaries, was soon spreading throughout Ireland, a revolutionary force perhaps despite itself, preaching the rights of man and an end to religious difference in “the common name of Irishman.”
     In all of western Europe, apart from Spain and Portugal, only Ireland had a large and widespread movement of agrarian revolution, organised in secret societies. As the excesses of terror and repression brought about by the French Revolution and the attempt to stop it spreading to Ireland drove the United Irishmen underground, the two movements met and merged, the agrarian revolutionaries, like the Defenders, joining the ranks of the United Irishmen. The stage was set for an explosive mix of Jacobin ideas and an aroused and revolutionary mass of country people.
     Tone was later to describe the impact of the French Revolution in his memoirs:
The French Revolution had now been above a twelve-month in its progress; at its commencement, as the first emotions are generally honest, everyone was in its favour; but after some time the probable consequences to monarchy and aristocracy began to be foreseen and the partisans of both to retrench considerably in their admiration; at length Mr. Burke’s famous invective appeared, and this in due season produced Paine’s reply, which he called the Rights of Man.
     This controversy and the gigantic event which gave rise to it changed in an instant the politics of Ireland. Two years before the nation was in a lethargy . . . But the rapid succession of events, and above all the explosion which had taken place in France, and blown into the elements a despotism rooted in fourteen centuries, had thoroughly aroused all Europe, and the eyes of every man in every quarter were turned anxiously on the French National Assembly. In England, Burke had the triumph completely to decide the public . . . But matters were very different in Ireland, an oppressed, insulted and plundered nation . . . In a little time the French Revolution became the test of every man’s political creed, and the nation was fairly divided into two great parties, the Aristocrats and the Democrats (epithets borrowed from France), who have ever since been measuring each other’s strength, and carrying on a kind of smothered war, which the course of events, it is highly probable, may soon call into energy and action.

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