Ruán O’Donnell reviews Nationalism and Unionism in 19th century Ireland by Russell Rees, Colourpoint £7.99 pbk
THE LEVEL of detail and analysis presented in this survey suggests that the book is aimed at the secondary school market, although anyone with little or no prior knowledge of Ireland in the 19th century could gain a basic overview from the text.
Most of the book is a readable and fair minded run through the major issues of the 1900s; Ireland under the Union. Problems arise, however, when Rees seemingly plays to another targeted constituency, Irish unionists. Sectarian and supremacist aspects of the anti-Home Rule campaign in the late 1880s, for instance, are notably minimised in his coverage of ‘green versus orange’ politics.
In keeping with modern unionist practices, discussion of the critical role of ‘southern’-based Irish magnates in opposing Gladstone’s efforts to democratise Irish politics, is virtually omitted.
A ludicrous description of Daniel O’Connell’s rhetoric during the repeal of the Union debates as ‘anti-Protestant’ reminds the reader of the endless capacity of unionists for denial with regard to the true nature of their political creed and their desperate quest for respectability.
Not surprisingly, earlier discussions by Rees of the Orange Order and the origins of that Dublin Castle-sponsored organisation in the agrarian-terrorist Peep of Day Boys are totally inadequate.
Disaffected Presbyterian communities of the north-eastern counties did not simply drift away from United Irish radicalism or succumb to the lure of Rev. Henry Cooke’s revivalist conservatism: non-Catholic republicans in Ulster were exiled in their hundreds by their local magistrates in 1798-1803, evicted in their thousands by loyalist landlords during the following decade and generally coerced into silence by a post-Act of Union dispensation which saw political utility in copper-fastening class and sectarian privilege.
This is an unhappy short synthesis of 19th century Irish history but Rees is, nonetheless, to be commended for his frank presentation of the unionist ‘revisionist’ perspective.
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