Éirinn go Brách!

By Joe Craig

If an historian (no matter how serious an historian) tells you that he is immune to the siren call of “What If?” aspect of history, don’t you believe him.  “What if?” is something that seems ingrained into the human mind, whether it’s about missed opportunities, relationships gone sour, or why didn’t he choose the other door which had the Lady, not the Tiger.

Any historian who has closely studied events and people with the knowledge of what actually occurred, cannot but be intrigued by tantalizing alternatives to the historical record.  To ignore completely the alternatives assumes that everything happens according to A Plan, and in doing so leaves the corridors of history for those of theology.  Naturally, to indulge in too much speculation takes us into the realm of “alternate history”, the ten-penny word for “fiction”.

One perennial bit of speculation for the Revolutionary War involves the options that Britain had when dealing with its uncooperative North American Colonies.  Could the British Parliament and ministries have figured something out other than a ham-fisted bludgeoning approach to the whole business?  It is something of a tenet of faith for Americans that the British Parliament was incapable of thinking beyond its own prerogatives, something hard to gainsay considering the historical record.  Interestingly the same pack of (apparent) blockheads could think outside the box when it was necessary.

While taxation most famously is considered the cause célèbre of the American War for Independence, it was less the money than something of a power struggle that brought on the war.  Britain claimed the right to decide policies for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever”, to which the Colonists objected most strenuously.  As the record shows, the affair devolved into a shooting war, a stinging defeat at Saratoga and by 1778 a war that was metastasizing rapidly.

The entry of France into the war made for some radical changes in British policies and strategy.  Considering that their greatest rival had declared war on them, and was a mere 21 miles distant, Britain became quite concerned about the security of their “homeland”.  A French invasion was a real and frightening possibility.  Indeed, at Louis XVI’s coronation, the Archbishop of Rheims exhorted the new King of France “not to abandon his dominion over the kingdoms of the Saxons, Mercians, Northumbrians and Cimbrians” meaning, of course, the inhabitants of Britain.  (In case anyone is keeping score, the British Crown claimed sovereignty over France, and would do so until 1802 with the Treaty of Amiens.)

A big concern for the British was the Kingdom of Ireland.  The sad history of Ireland is too lengthy to be part of this essay, but the quick assessment of the situation was that Eire and its inhabitants had been subjected to what can only be considered “ethnic cleansing” by British invaders.  Catholicism, the religion of most of the inhabitants was suppressed through vicious “Penal Laws”.

While there was a Parliament in Dublin, it was subordinate to the English Parliament in Westminster.  Trade and a whole lot else was regulated by the English Parliament.  The Irish Declaratory Act of 1720 spelled things out without much wiggle room for dissent:

The king’s majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the lords spiritual and temporal, and commons of Great Britain in Parliament assembled, had, hath, and of right ought to have full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the kingdom and people of Ireland”. [1]

The economy of Ireland suffered a severe blow from the outbreak of the war in America in 1775.  Irish products had been excluded from the various American non-importation agreements, but the war caused markets to dry up and which resulted in enormous distress through the country.  Some relief was attempted in 1778 in Parliament to allow free trade by the Irish to markets previously denied, but British business interests had more sway and the bills foundered.

To say the least, British rule was resented even by the Protestant elites.   However, there was a bit of a sticking point for them.  While they wanted the British off their backs, there was the problem of the Catholic population.  Should the French decide to strike at Britain by way of Ireland, they could take on the role of a Catholic Champion.  This would be bad for the Protestant elites, as they were sorely outnumbered and didn’t wish to lose their grip on power.

Added to the situation were the effects of the American war:

In consequence of our breach with America the Irish coasts had been insulted and our trading ships, unprotected, taken by their privateers.  The communication, even with England, was in a great measure obstructed.  France had now determined to join her arms to those of America which rendered our situation and that of all of the other parts of the empire more critical.  That Ireland would be invaded, was more than probable.”[2]

Things looked grim:

Thus exposed to danger we were destitute of the means of defense.  The minister told us that the present state of Britain was such as rendered her incapable to protect us.  The Mayor of Belfast having transmitted a memorial to the lord lieutenant describing the unprotected state of the coast and requesting a body of the military for it’s [sic] defence, received for answer, that he could not afford him no other assistance than half a troop of dismounted horse and half a company of invalids.”[3]

There was only one solution available:

“In this most disagreeable situation, a number of inhabitants of this town….associated for the purpose of self defence.  The same idea had been conceived in other parts of the kingdom.  Upon this principle, a few Volunteer companies were formed, who chose their own officers, purchased their own uniform and their own arms, and, with the assistance of persons properly qualified, assembled regularly on parade to acquire a knowledge of the military art.”[4]

This certainly looks like a beneficial arrangement for the British.  Ireland would defend herself meaning fewer troops needed to be found.  Ah, but the associations had a deeper motive in mind:

To defend the kingdom from foreign invasion was to preserve it from only a temporary evil, to be the means of opening to it a source of prosperity, from which it had been long excluded…”[5]

Oh, there was some good news for the British:

“[The associations] professed their loyalty to the King, and their resolution to protect their country from foreign enemies…”[6]

But then they dropped the other shoe:

“…they called for the restitution of our commercial rights.”[7]

It was no idle threat as “that at the conclusion of the year seventeen hundred and seventy eight our military associations were supposed to amount to nearly thirty thousand men….” [8] These guys quickly went from marching and chowder societies, to filling the void caused by the lessened British military presence:

“Though subject to no control but inclination, they were perfectly obedient to discipline.  For sobriety and decent demeanour, their behavior was not only unexceptional but exemplary.  They restrained the irregular, suppressed disorders, and maintained the execution of laws with unanimity and with force.

A Body of armed men, acquiring in such a short space, such strength and consequence, commanding the confidence and the support of their fellow citizens, both able and disposed to counteract the unfriendly views of the state, with respect to this country, were to the state an object of astonishment and vexation.”[9]

It may be argued that the British had practiced for years a form of blackmail on the Protestant Irish elites: “without our protection those Catholics will murder you in your sleep”.  As P. G. Wodehouse observed, “…if you want to derive real satisfaction from blackmail, you have to be at the right end of it” and the British were now on the wrong end of some serious political blackmail.

So far, the events have a similar ring to those that lead to the American War for Independence, and the lesson was not lost on the Irish.  “[T]he cause and effect of the American war were pregnant with instruction.  It had originated in a detrmined resolution of the English to tax the Colonies without their consent.  In the course of it, the Colonies having demonstrated that they were not to be dragooned into slavery, were offered by the mother country full security with respect to the exclusive exercise, in future, of their legislative rights.” [10]The writer seems to have missed out about those colonies morphing into independent states, but it was obvious to all that what happened in America could also happen in Ireland.

Faced with the situation, the North Ministry (the same guys who screwed up things in North America) recognized that they have to deal.  Free trade was promised to Ireland at the next British Parliament beginning in December 1779.  The markets in (British-controlled) America, the Caribbean, Africa and even the Levant were now open to Irish trade “subject to such regulations and restrictions as should be imposed by the Irish parliament” [emphasis added]. [11]

This legislation released some pressure, it was noted that “Satisfaction appeared on very countenance”. [12] Trade and industry started to revive.

Upon more serious reflection the realization grew that the situation could easily change and the law rescinded.  “The repeal of the laws by which England had confined our commerce was not a voluntary act, but the effect of necessity; when that necessity no longer existed, the British parliament might recall the benefit we had received, and fetter our trade by new, perhaps more oppressive restrictions.” [13]

To counter this, the various military associations began to unite and expand in their numbers.  The associations met and declared that “…the crown of Ireland was an imperial crown, and that the claims of any body of men [i.e. Britain’s Parliament], other than the King, Lords and Commons of Ireland, to make laws to bind that kingdom, was unconstitutional, and a grievance….”  [14]  The implications were all too clear to the British as the American War had started out with much the same rhetoric.

Word about the mounting tensions even reached the United States, and it was supposed that Ireland was in full rebellion.  Believing this George Washington gave his troops at Jockey Hollow their only holiday, 17 March 1780, in honor of the perceived Irish revolt. [15]

The North ministry, in hopes of defusing the situation even floated the idea of Catholic Emancipation.  That won them no friends in the British or Irish Parliaments, and annoyed the King.

Finally, in the wake of the American victory at Yorktown, the North ministry collapsed and the opposition held sway beginning in 1782.  “The Administration which had by its wretched system of palliatives and expedients [which had] distracted the empire, was totally overthrown, and a government was formed on a broad and solid basis, which from its wisdom, abilities, and principles, acquired strength; and from its embracing all the virtue and talents of the kingdom, promised permanency.” [16]

In the Irish Parliament, Henry Gratton, was prepared to make a declaratory statement about the rights of Ireland, which would probably escalate the crisis.  The very day he was prepared to make his declaration, the British Parliament opened its first session under the new ministry.  William Eden, 1st Baron Auckland and Secretary for Ireland moved for the repeal of the Irish Declaratory Act.  Even more importantly, the following day a message from the King was read:

“That his Majesty being concerned to find that discontents and jealousies are prevailing among his loyal subjects of the kingdom of Ireland upon matters of great weight and importance, recommends it to his Parliament to take the same into their most serious consideration, in order to give a final adjustment as may give mutual satisfaction to his kingdoms of Great-Britain and Ireland.” [Yes, even the King was taking notice.]  [17]

Fairly rapidly, the Irish Declaratory Act was repealed, other restrictive legislation was modified or done away with and Ireland’s Parliament was granted home rule.  This would last through to the Act of Union in 1801, which dissolved the Irish Parliament and brought its members into the British Parliament.

That Ireland was able to gain what the United Colonies could not is probably due to several factors.  Primarily, Ireland’s Parliament was a recognized de jure legislative body.  The American Congresses, by contrast were de facto, but had no recognition from the British.  Perhaps more importantly, the very real threat of an external enemy was exploited quite successfully by the Irish Parliament and the volunteer associations.  The American colonies were protesting in a time of peace after a very active threat had been eliminated.

If we look at Britain’s compromise with Ireland in the 1780’s it becomes obvious that they might (but only might) have shown some creativity in the 1760’s and 70’s with their American colonies and saved themselves an expensive and humiliating war.  They obviously did not and as Mikhail Gorbechyov noted:

“For better or worse, there is no subjunctive mood in politics. History is made without rehearsals. It cannot be replayed. That makes it all the more important to perceive its course and its lessons.”

Thanks to Park Ranger Tom Nordby for his edits and comments.


[1] 6 George I, c. 5  The Act was passed in 1719 and went into effect the following year

[2] The History of Ireland from the earliest Period to the Present Times in a Series of Letters Addressed to William Hamilton, Esq. William Crawford A.M., 1783.  Crawford was “One of the Chaplains of the First Tyrone Regiment”, one of the volunteer military associations [which see].

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. Compare this with the arguments contained in Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament by James Wilson, 1774.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] The general Orders for Washington’s Army for 16 March 1780 read:

“THE GENERAL congratulates the army on the very interesting proceedings of the Parliament of Ireland, and of the inhabitants of that country, which have been lately communicated, not only as they appear calculated to remove those heavy and tyrannical oppressions on their trade, but to restore to a Brave and Generous People, their antient Rights and Freedom, and by their operation, promote the cause of America:  Desirous of impressing on the minds of the army transactions so important in their nature, the General directs that all fatigue and working parties cease for to-morrow the SEVENTEENTH instant, a day held in particular regard by the people of that nation.  At the same time that he orders this as a mark of the pleasure he feels on the occasion, he persuades himself that the celebration of the day will not be attended with the least rioting or disorder.”

[16] The European Magazine, July 1782

[17] Ibid.


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