Home rule

How disgust at colonial aggression fueled Irish nationalism

Book Title:
The road to autonomy: anti-imperialism and the Irish national movement


Paul A Townend

University of Wisconsin Press

Indicative price:
$ 64.95

A speech in the summer of 1877 heralded the emergence of Charles Stewart Parnell as the driving force behind Irish autonomy. But the subject of the Nationalist leader’s remarks was not his homeland – it was the British government’s attempt to take control of a distant colony in South Africa.

“As an Irishman, coming from a country which had suffered the consequences of British interference in its affairs and the consequences of British cruelty and tyranny,” he said in a heated debate in Parliament, he “felt a particular satisfaction in thwarting and preventing the intentions of the government”.

Parnell and his group of Irish MPs lacked the votes needed to block passage of the legislation annexing the Transvaal. But American historian Paul A. Townend sees this foray into foreign policy as a turning point in Ireland’s turbulent political history. The nationalist movement wielded a new weapon – Irish revulsion in the face of the excesses of British imperialism that were hitting close at hand. In The Road to Home Rule: Anti-Imperialism and the Irish National Movement, Townend explores how the British forays into Asia and Africa during the 1870s and 1880s galvanized public opinion in Ireland and played into the hands of those who advocate Home Rule.

“In these formative years of the Irish national movement,” he writes, “Irish attention, even in times of deep internal crisis, was often centered on events halfway around the world in South Africa, on the Indian subcontinent or Egypt and Sudan. . “

Townend, professor of British and Irish history at the University of North Carolina, delved into political speeches, newspaper commentary and editorial cartoons of the time to show widespread sympathy in Ireland for the victims of the assault British colonial.

He argues that academics have tended to underestimate the importance of anti-imperial sentiment in the rise of Irish nationalism. Given the events that rocked Ireland during the period – from evictions and boycotts to the establishment of the Land League and the Phoenix Park murders – this concentration on the home front is understandable.

But a succession of bloody skirmishes gave Irish critics and nationalist newspapers ammunition to attack the British on a second front – the sometimes disastrous expansionism and chauvinism of the Disraeli and Gladstone administrations. The Afghan and Zulu Wars of the 1870s revealed, in Townend’s words, “British aggression, greed and hypocrisy.”

The Zulus and their leader, King Ceteweyo, have received acclaim at Land League meetings and other Irish protests. A cartoon in a nationalist newspaper showed a Zulu sending a British soldier with the caption “Serve him well”. The British have been accused of a seizure of land like the one underway in Ireland against impoverished sharecroppers. Analogies have been drawn with the killings and destruction unleashed in Ireland during the Elizabethan era.

The Nationalists were bolstered by the defeats, which left Britain vulnerable and vowed to divert troops to the Imperial border and away from Ireland. “Every Zulu victory, every diplomatic failure, every threatened coalition of oppressed peoples presented the British power with a test which could possibly fail,” notes Townend.

The Boers provided further inspiration. “First blood for the Boers! Was the celebratory headline in a radical Irish newspaper when the First Boer War broke out in 1880. Another editor denounced the conflict as a “vicious colonial feud, born out of greed, pursued in violation of all international rights “. The crowds that had supported the Zulus were now cheering the Boers.

As Britain quelled Irish unrest with coercion laws and military build-up, colonial conflicts turned into proxy wars for battles the Irish were powerless to wage at home. An English writer touring remote County Donegal in the 1890s met a resident who was still jealous of the upstart Boers. “When I see what a handful of Dutch farmers have done with your great old army,” he lamented, “I’m ashamed to be an Irishman under foreign rule. “

Irish nationalists had to settle for propaganda victories as the war of words and images intensified. The inflammatory rhetoric often bordered on treason, and outspoken Michael Davitt was arrested for vicious attacks on British military action abroad. The radical Irish world weighed in with an 1879 cartoon titled “The Bubble Empire”, with John Bull blowing a large bubble amid a swarm of bayonet-armed insects and labeled Africa, Zulu and, with considerable optimism, Ireland. “Which of them will blow it up?” Asked the caption.

The Irish continued to gloat over the Empire’s woes in the 1880s, when British incursions into North Africa resulted in a disastrous defeat in Sudan. Crowds at nationalist rallies were now cheering for the Mahdi fighters who wiped out General Charles Gordon and his garrison in Khartoum in early 1885. The British Empire “terrorizes and threatens, plunders and persecutes,” said one nationalist leader, as he had “done” it. in our own country ”.

Townend documents this sustained wave of anti-imperialism in great detail and over twenty editorial cartoons have been reproduced for illustration. The sheer volume of evidence can be overwhelming at times, but the author’s mastery of the material and understanding of the politics of the day make it an interesting read.

Once joined, Irish nationalism and anti-imperialism became inseparable. The Irish bristled to be part of an empire they saw as corrupt and exploitative; the British shrank from open displays of Irish disloyalty. The defeat of the first Autonomy Bill in 1886, following the Irish Imperial reaction, only delayed the inevitable split.

The road to Irish eventual independence, as Parnell felt and Townend convincingly argues, has passed through the quagmire of Victorian-era imperial entanglements from Britain.


Dean Jobb, author of Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books), teaches non-fiction storytelling and journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera