Politicians - Vanity Fair. 'Anti-Rent'. Mr. Charles Stewart Parnell. 11 September 1880, Theobald Chartran, 1849–1907, French, 1880, Chromolithograph. (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Fathers of the republic

A long overdue reassessment of the whiskered High Victorian statesmen whose fervent but nuanced nationalism did so much to forge modern Ireland


This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

To say that the British and the Irish have a love-hate relationship would be an understatement. Neither side can bring themselves to end a feud that has long since lost its raison d’être. Instead, we continue to snipe, to provoke, to begrudge and be begrudged. And we pay little heed to those brave individuals who try to set the record straight while politicians who reignite the old enmities are rewarded. 

Mr Varadkar makes no mention of the principle of consent

Why, for example, does Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, declare that “there will be a united Ireland in my lifetime”? Because he fears Sinn Feín, now leading in the polls. Mr Varadkar makes no mention of the principle of consent. It is, for him, merely a matter of how well the Republic would treat “a minority [of] roughly a million people who are British”. Well, we know what happened after 1922. In the 25 years after independence, the proportion of Protestants in the South almost halved, from 10 per cent to 6 per cent. The Anglo-Irish minority there voted with their feet. A century later, why would Northern Irish unionists expect things to be any different for them? On this, Mr Varadkar is silent.

Paul Bew is one of the few leading historians of Ireland to be a unionist and perhaps the only one who has also played an active part in British-Irish politics, notably in the Good Friday Agreement and the Bloody Sunday inquiry. As a member of the House of Lords, he has brought his knowledge and experience to bear on Brexit’s complexities and the Northern Irish Protocol. He has been a distinguished chairman both of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the House of Lords Appointments Commission. 

The “great and good” are often mocked, but Lord Bew (right) is a great scholar and a transparently good man, whose contribution to many causes has been enormous. So, it is immensely gratifying that at the age of 73 he has just brought out an excellent new book, Ancestral Voices, as a coda to his magnum opus in the Oxford History of Modern Europe, Ireland: The Politics of Enmity, 1789-2006.

Ancestral Voices is a seasoned reflection on two of the giants of the period: John Dillon and Charles Stewart Parnell. Both statesmen played a major role both in Westminster and in Ireland; indeed, they were among the last to do so before the gradual divergence of British and Irish politics culminated in the crisis that began with the Easter Rising and ended with independence, civil war and partition. 

Bew wishes to rehabilitate Parnell, in particular, as a pioneer of the principle of consent — a principle that still dominates the debate in Northern Ireland. Yet the man who, more than any other, put Irish nationalism on the parliamentary map, creating an immovable obstacle to successive British governments and thereby forcing them to negotiate, is now largely ignored, if not forgotten, on both sides of the Irish Sea. Not even the romantic appeal of his clandestine love for the married Kitty O’Shea, and his catastrophic fall from grace when the affair was revealed by her embittered husband, has sufficed to preserve the myth of Parnell.

The same is true in the case of Dillon. The diehard opponent of compromise with the English on land or home rule from the 1870s to the 1900s, the tribune who had flirted with Fenians, heroically endured prison and raised funds from Irish-Americans, ended as an isolated figure, despised by the Sinn Feín ascendancy, “a mere ghost lingering superfluous on the political scene”. Who in today’s Republic now cares about the whiskery Victorian luminaries of the old Irish Parliamentary Party, who made their names in a Westminster that in Dublin’s eyes made itself a laughing stock over Brexit?

Secular, prosperous and progressive, contemporary Ireland may prefer to forget its troubled history that is inextricably bound up with the overbearing British. Post-Brexit “Global Britain” may be burdened with guilt by that history and exasperated by its Northern Irish legacy. Yet Bew is right to make those ancestral voices audible again. He tells us, for instance, just how Anglo-Irish Parnell really was; how much, too, a product of the same High Victorian culture and tradition as his British counterparts. He was no less of a businessman than Joe Chamberlain, as keen an amateur scientist as Lord Salisbury, a more conservative liberal than Gladstone. 

The man who destroyed the hegemony of Ireland’s landlord class was himself a scion of Protestant landlords. He employed 200 men in his mines and quarries at his ancestral estate at Arklow and hoped to become “one of the wealthiest men in Ireland”. As contemporaries noted, this “most unIrish of Irishmen” looked every inch “an English gentleman”, with “a purely English accent”. By class, by manner and by inclination, the “uncrowned King” of Ireland was indistinguishable from the English foe.

Dillon’s nationalism was no less complex. Bew quotes a speech he gave at Dublin’s National Club in 1925, after the dust had settled on the civil war, during which Irish Free State troops had been billeted at his house in Ballaghaderreen: “When we look back on the days when we were oppressed by England it would look like Paradise if we could get the same kind of oppression now.” 

Like Parnell, Dillon had championed science against clerical obscurantism in the 1870s and his greatest triumph, after a long battle, was the Irish Universities Bill of 1908, which gave Catholics full access to higher education at the various campuses of the National University of Ireland, but under the auspices of the state rather than the Church. Yet he lost the battle against the “misuse of the [Irish] language as a means of cultural discipline”, because it reinforced the exclusion of Protestants in the South and hence the permanent division of the island.

Such cognitive dissonances resonate with me, as a descendant of Irish Catholics. Had my paternal grandfather not been adopted by the Johnsons, an English couple, my surname would have been Cassidy. If the Irish nationalist heroes Parnell and Dillon could hold such contradictory convictions, it’s no wonder that my father, the late Paul Johnson, had mixed feelings about his Irish ancestry and felt emphatically English. 

According to family lore, at my brother’s baptism in 1962, our parish priest, Father Crawford, said: “I baptise this child Luke, after the Evangelist, and Oliver, after the Blessed Oliver Plunkett.” My father was heard to protest: “No, after Oliver Cromwell!” 

As an Irishman, Father Crawford was understandably scandalised. But my father meant what he said. In his Ireland: A Concise History from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day (1980), he quotes Cromwell as desirous that “the people of Ireland … may equally participate in all benefits, to use liberty and fortune equally with Englishmen, if they keep out of arms”. Oliver Cromwell was one of the first in a long line of “well-meaning Englishmen since, who believed that English rule could be acceptable to the Irish if only it brought justice”. 

My father’s Concise History refused to “end on a note of despondency”. Instead, he noted “whatever happens in the future, the British and Irish will always have more to unite than to divide them” and looked forward to “a new reformation of that realm”. My mother, Marigold, then the Secretary of the British-Irish Association (BIA), devoted many years to precisely that purpose. She organised conferences at which politicians and other influential figures from both nations and all sides could meet, argue, eat and drink together — especially the latter. 

Her work and that of countless others made possible the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and ultimately the 1998 Belfast Good Friday Agreement. Seldom has the award of an MBE been as well deserved as in her case. I assisted her at most of these gatherings and was able to observe first hand a little of the personal dynamics of Anglo-Irish politics.

Unquestionably the most impressive of all the figures I recall from the BIA during the Troubles was Conor Cruise O’Brien, who had been a Cabinet minister and a Senator in the Republic. Like Parnell and Dillon, the Cruiser took a robustly contrarian view of his countrymen, North and South. 

He loathed Irish politicians who turned a blind eye to terrorists. Of the then Taoiseach, he wrote that “if conditions ever became ripe for a characteristically Irish Catholic form of dictatorship, Charles J. Haughey would make a plausible enough Taoiseach/Duce”. 

Conor Cruise O’Brien paid a heavy price for his principles and his polemics. After his death in 2008, in a valedictory tribute for Standpoint, the magazine I then edited, Roy Foster hailed him as “the pre-eminent Irish intellectual of his generation”. But he also told the story of a 1997 piece for the New Yorker by Colm Tóibín about Seamus Heaney, then touted as a possible Irish President. “Tóibín wrote, inter alia, that Heaney was so popular that he could even survive being endorsed by Conor Cruise O’Brien, which normally meant ‘the kiss of death’ in Ireland. 

The legendary New Yorker fact-checking desk, unable to let a single statement go uncorroborated, rang Cruise O’Brien in Dublin to inquire whether his approval meant the kiss of death in his native country: they then telephoned an astonished Tóibín and reproachfully told him: “Mr O’Brien said: ‘No, it didn’t’.”

The Cruiser has long since joined the celestial company of Anglo-Irish men of letters, among them his hero Edmund Burke. But Lord Bew remains very much with us. Long may he continue to evoke and embody those “ancestral voices” who alone can save us from falling into present traps and falling out over past troubles. 

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