From Irish State to British Empire

Reflections on State-Building in Ireland, 1690-1830

Thomas Bartlett
(University College Galway)


Did an Irish state exist before the twentieth-century? Given the familiar argument that the central theme of nineteenth-century Irish history has been the ceaseless quest by an Irish nation to find (or found) an Irish state in which to realise its ambitions, it is perhaps inevitable that almost all historical accounts of the Irish state assume that Independence was a necessary precondition for statehood. This assumption may in fact be well founded. Admittedly, a handful of studies have stressed the ‘greening of Dublin Castle’ or the ‘decline of the union’ in the process of state formation, but these developments merely antedate the emergence of an Irish state (or states) by a mere thirty years or so (1). Moreover, in so far as they tend to confuse administration and the machinery of government with governance and statehood, they may not be strictly relevant to our purposes. For while there are many definitions of ‘state’ — and we will look at several below — some criteria occur over and over again: states must possess a power to declare war and a capacity to wage war; they must have a sovereign legislature — to make laws, enact fiscal measures, conduct diplomacy — and they should possess and exercise a monopoly of violence (2). On these bases, the Irish state of the nineteenth century appears to be a chimera: with no role in diplomacy, no sovereignty in law-making and, given the amount of rural disturbances, not even possessing a predominance, let alone a monopoly, in ‘legitimate’ force, the ‘Irish’ state throughout the nineteenth century seems to be little more than a colonial intrusion, an outreach of the British superstate that came into existence with the Act of Union in 1801. Dublin Castle may have been the centre of the Irish administration — an occidental version of the East India Company (3) — but questions of war, finance, diplomacy and legislation belonged to the state and therefore reposed firmly in the metropolis (4).

It is a similar story if we turn our gaze to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Notoriously, these were periods of conquest and colonisation, when all Ireland was brought under English rule and when plantations were installed in Munster and Ulster and elsewhere. On both counts, Ireland fails two tests of statehood: she could not defend herself — to J.A. Froude, this was the key determinant as to whether she was a state; and colonial theory had it that plantations could only be set up where no state evidently existed. Arguably, it was only for brief periods in the 1640s, during the so- called Confederation of Kilkenny, and possibly during the years 1689-90, that a distinctive Irish state with legislative, fiscal, diplomatic and martial functions came into being (5). However, the Confederation period, as a fleeting example of Irish statehood, left no discernible traces, while the shipwreck of the Jacobite forces at Aughrim (1691) merely confirmed Froude’ s dictum. Save perhaps for a small group of Young Irelanders of whom Thomas Davis was the leader, neither served as an inspiration to those seeking a nation-state in the nineteenth century. In short, the assumption that the Irish state was a twentieth-century invention, a product of the collapse of empire, seems warranted. Tom Garvin may find in the modern Irish state ‘traditional nationalist symbolism’, but he stresses above all its ‘underlying newness … typical of many post-colonial states’ (6).

However, before we close the book on this debate, it may be useful to consider the experience of the eighteenth century in the evolution of the Irish state. At one time such an exercise would have seemed redundant. Ireland in the eighteenth century seemed to lack a government, never mind constitute a state. ‘Prior to 1800’, continues Garvin, ‘the country was scarcely governed at all’, and he went on to cite the absence of a police force, a Poor Law, and an educational system (7). Moreover, while the Irish parliament had an impressive ceremonial, it was a subordinate assembly to that at Westminster for most of the century, and in some respects its powers compared unfavourably with those of similar assemblies in other colonies, that in Jamaica, for example (8). Again, fatally for claims to statehood, Ireland had no foreign policy, made no conquests, and settled no territories overseas. For most of the century there was not even an Irish army: there was an army stationed in Ireland and paid for by Ireland but controlled from the Horse Guards in London. Similarly, the top officials in the ‘Irish’ government — Lord Lieutenant, Chief Secretary, Lord Chancellor — were always appointed by the British government, and were usually English. Above all, the Irish state — in so far as it existed at all — was exclusively Protestant. In this it mirrored the British state but with this crucial difference: in Britain, most people were, so to speak, subjects of the crown and members of the state, while in Ireland perhaps seventy per cent of the population were non- subjects, excluded from the state on religious grounds. The Irish state was thus denied that legitimacy which some political scientists see as necessary. On these grounds then, the weakness of the Irish state in the eighteenth century has been assumed, its very existence questioned: and, of course, the incorporating Union of 1801 has seemed to offer a ringing endorsement of these dismissive views. And yet, a consideration of recent scholarship on the workings of the Irish parliament and government, on the vexed questions of loyalty and authority, and on the role of the army, even on the country’s capacity for self-defence may force a reappraisal of this negative assessment. Indeed, it now seems clear that the Irish state, weak enough (like its sister kingdom, England) at the beginning of the eighteenth century, grew stronger as the decades passed and showed an encouraging ability to extend its operations and attract loyalty. Ultimately, it may not have been the weakness of the Irish state at the end of the century that left it open to a take-over bid from England: in the final analysis it may have been its increasing strength, and the threat that this appeared to pose to imperial unity, that prompted British ministers to urge its absorption into the greater British state. This conclusion, if established, might help to explain the imperfect way in which the Irish ‘state’ fitted into the British scheme of things for most of the nineteenth century. Ironically, it appears that the Irish state, uncomfortable with its absorption into the British polity, found no difficulty in adjusting to an imperial role.


In his recent study of the growth of the British state in the eighteenth century, John Brewer offers the following definition of ‘state’:

A territorially and jurisdictionally defined political entity in which public authority is distinguished from (though not unconnected to) private power and which is manned by officials whose primary (though not sole) allegiance is to a set of political institutions under a single, i.e. sovereign and final, authority (9).

It will be seen at once that the Irish example appears to fulfill most of these criteria. Ireland was a sizeable island, constitutionally a kingdom whose king resided in England, and the jurisdiction of its courts was well enough defined. Admittedly, since the decision on the Sherlock vs Annesley case of 1719, the Irish House of Lords was no longer the final court of appeal for cases originating in Ireland: but this may not have mattered much in practice; and in any case the appellate jurisdiction was restored as part of the adjustment of 1782. So far as the separation of the public from the private sphere is concerned the picture is, however, rather blurred. Like many of the ancien regime states of continental Europe, in Ireland, as in Britain, there was no firm line drawn between public authority and private power: but venality of office, the rule in France and a key feature of that country’s ancien regime, officially did not exist in Ireland or in Britain. Apart from this single redeeming feature, defalcation, malversation, reversions and outright looting were quite common in the central administration of Ireland. The Barrack office was a byword for corruption, swallowing up funds throughout the century but still managing to leave the soldiers bereft of suitable accommodation. One barrack-master, Arthur Jones Nevill, managed to get himself expelled from the Irish House of Commons because of his gross mismanagement, inefficiency and corruption. Moreover, a series of Vice-Treasurers and Tellers of the Exchequer maintained no clear distinction between public duty, private fortune and party advantage. Nathaniel Clements, a Teller in the 1750s, used the monies lodged to his keeping as a sort of war chest for the Boyle group in the Irish Commons. And in the late 1750s and 1760s the distribution of government subsidies and grants for local ‘improvements’, frequently dubbed ‘private jobbs’, became an open scandal. This is not to say that the Irish administration, a growing element within the Irish state, was uniquely corrupt (10). A brief examination of the one government department that mattered, the Revenue Board, indicates that the collection of the excise proceeded in a relatively efficient way during the century.

With the exception of the army, the Revenue service had the largest staff — over 1000 — of all the government departments. Needless to say, shady practices and outright theft were not unknown. During the middle decades of the century, the Revenue Board was controlled by John Ponsonby and there can be no question but that he used its patronage to promote his own political fortunes (11). Again, there were so many reversions among the Patentee officers, usually father to son or to another close relative, that abuses, both minor peccadilloes and grand larceny, were inevitable. The Cust dynasty of Armagh, three generations of revenue collectors, finally came to an end when the plundering of the third representative proved too much even for an indulgent head office in Dublin (12). Again, the Irish Revenue Board lagged behind that of England in that recruitment for the Irish service depended largely on political connection while in England candidates were supposed to pass written and oral examinations. And yet, despite these abuses, the most recent historian to pore over the appointments made by the Revenue board and to scrutinise the Boards’ performance has reached this conclusion :

At the levels of the service also, the allocation of posts to political or personal friends would not in itself have caused difficulties. However, the disposal of collectors’ and surveyors’ posts to incompetent, unqualified and dishonest men was a serious impediment to the efficiency of the service (13). The revenue service was neither a model of efficiency or totally corrupt. The system employed to dispose of revenue posts did not cause serious harm to the service at the very highest level…

This balanced judgment based on an examination of the revenue board in the early part of the century would equally apply to the general management of the service in the 1760s, and possibly later. John Beresford, Chief Commissioner of the Revenue Board from the 1780s to the Union, despite being accused of malversation by Fitzwilliam in 1795, was generally acknowledged to be both highly efficient and reasonably honest (14).

So far as ‘a single, i.e. sovereign and final authority’ is concerned, it would appear that the Irish Parliament fell some way short of meeting Brewer’s final criterion. Notoriously, the Irish Parliament was a doubly subordinate legislature. First by the formal legislative enactments known as Poynings’ Law (1494) and the Declaratory Act (1720), the general thrust of both being to make the English Privy Council and the British Parliament in theory superior to the Irish legislature. And second, and more significant, the Irish Parliament was informally subordinate by the fact that the Irish government did not emanate from the Irish Parliament, but was imposed from London. Since the British Parliament could make laws to bind Ireland — and on occasion did so — and since no vote of the Irish Parliament could make or unmake the Irish government, the Irish Parliament clearly lacked that key attribute of statehood, sovereignty. None the less, despite being formally and informally a subordinate legislature, both the range of operations and the scope of its concerns were impressive. Contrary to what has been frequently claimed, there was in fact an Irish Poor Law or rather several of them, though voluntaryism was the preferred Irish solution to this universal problem (15). Again, the Irish Parliament showed itself to be very active in the promotion of Irish industry — linen benefited particularly from its attention, and in certain areas of social reform, notably prisons and state provision for soldiers’ families, but also in public health, the Irish state was somewhat in advance of the British. Even where education was concerned, the system of Charter schools has been shown to deserve a rather more favourable verdict than that usually accorded it (16). Finally, a case can be made for arguing that as the century wore on, the attainment of the goal of sovereignty — what a later era would describe as dominion status within the empire — appeared increasingly within sight.

The potential of the arrangement of 1782, ‘the constitution of 1782’ has sometimes been lost sight of. The British government, especially after the débâcle of the Commercial Propositions and the embarrassment of the Regency crisis, viewed the whole adjustment with ill-concealed suspicion. Irish radicals, especially after the failure to achieve parliamentary reform, regarded it with contempt: in Tone’s words, ‘a most bungling imperfect business’. Conservatives, after the enforced concessions to Catholics in 1792-3, saw the whole arrangement as fraught with danger for the Ascendancy. And later historians have argued that the changes involved in legislative procedure were either not very important or had been in the pipeline anyway. Yet the salient fact remains that the ‘Constitution of 1782’ flawed as it was, did work reasonably well throughout the 1 780s; it showed itself capable of enlisting the loyalty of experienced politicians and administrators; and it was in fact capable of development (17). A number of schemes and plans were mooted to make ministers responsible to parliament, and a so-called Responsibility Act was passed in the early 1790s which brought the issue and expenditure of public money under the control of a Treasury Board responsible to Parliament (18). Again, the legislative achievements of the 1 780s especially in the fields of social reform (Jeremiah Fitzpatrick was a commanding force here), prison provision, and the maintenance of law and order at the local level, have not been sufficiently stressed. Admittedly, the record is much more unfavourable in that tumultuous decade of revolution, the 1790s, when repressive legislation — an Arms Act, a Convention Act, and an Insurrection Act — filled the statute book: none the less, a case can be made for arguing that, against received opinion, the Act of Union did not strike down a diseased institution, floundering functionlessly in a power vacuum, and beyond redemption. On the contrary, it could be argued that British ministers and their Irish supporters took advantage of a momentary weakness to overturn a vibrant polity, one that had after all weathered the grave crisis of the late 1790s; and one that might, perhaps, given time have arrived at a settlement of the Catholic claims.

Notoriously, the Irish State of the eighteenth century was a Protestant state for a Protestant people: a state whose institutions, from the highest Crown post to the lowest revenue job, were restricted not just to Protestants, but to members of the Church of Ireland (or England). Presbyterians from an early date were awarded an annual Indemnity Act but Catholics, the mass of the people, were excluded by law from all public offices, and from political life, until the 1770s and hence they could not legally participate in the state. Deprived of their assistance, the Protestant state of the eighteenth century, predicated as it was on Catholic exclusion, lacked legitimacy (19). It is precisely in this area, however, that the state showed some capacity for change and absorption.

In the last three decades of the century, through the various legislative instruments repealing key items of the Penal Code, what might be called a strategy for accommodation can be seen developing and emerging, one that was abruptly terminated by the recall of Fitzwilliam in 1795 (20). It can of course be argued that concessions to Catholics were pushed through the Irish Parliament in the teeth of furious opposition from within that institution. At each stage in the process, the members of the Irish House of Commons required a good deal of persuasion (or bullying) before conceding that repeal of the Penal Laws was in their interest, and usually their consent was given in a grudging manner. But why did Irish M. Ps give their consent at all to the provision of an oath which Catholics could take with an easy conscience? Why did they agree to undo the major restrictions on Catholic landowning and on the exercise of the Catholic religion? Most dramatically, why did they allow Irish Catholics to vote in county elections on the same terms as Irish Protestants? We have a fairly good idea as to why British ministers wanted these concessions, but why did Irish politicians go along with them? Bullying, after all, can explain only so much; the bewilderment of Irish M. P. s at the speed of events has less to offer; a desire to keep in with British ministers perhaps rather more. At bottom, it may be suggested that there was a dim perception abroad in Ireland that such concessions were in fact the way forward. Of course, it was also generally recognised that such measures ran a high risk of alienating Protestant opinion as well as fueling further Catholic demands. None the less, despite the risks, it was widely accepted that there was greater danger in allowing the British government to take the credit for every Penal Law repealed, with the blame for every one retained being laid at the door of the Irish Parliament. In retrospect, it is the acquiescence of Irish Protestant opinion in the repeal of the Penal Laws, and the ending of Catholic exclusion, that is striking in the final decades of the century. Almost certainly if Fitzwilliam had been given his head, ‘Catholic Emancipation’ — the right of Catholics, if elected, to take their seat in the legislature — would have passed through the Irish Parliament in 1795. Even John Foster, a firm opponent of the measure — though not a diehard in his resistance — conceded as much. However, the recall of Fitzwilliam, the failure to enact emancipation, and the arrival of a new Lord Lieutenant with orders to ‘rally the Protestants’ marked the end of the policy of enlarging, and thus strengthening, the eighteenth-century Irish state.

This is not to say that the Irish state at the end of the eighteenth century totally lacked legitimacy. Catholics may not have been able to take their seat in Parliament if elected, but the Catholic forty-shilling freeholder had the vote and was thus, in theory, within the constitution. It was noticeable too that large numbers of Catholics continued to take the oath of loyalty drawn up in 1774 in order to qualify for the benefits accruing from the repeal of the Penal Laws. Moreover, Catholic lay-people were unremitting in their professions of loyalty and Catholic ecclesiastics in their sermons were tireless in enjoining obedience on their flocks, and offering prayers and fasts for the success of British arms (21). Catholic loyalty in the late eighteenth century has generally been ignored by historians, while Protestant or Orange loyalism has been highlighted (22). Catholic loyalty did exist, however; and the strength of that loyalty and its widespread nature was instrumental in enabling the Irish state to survive the crisis posed by the rebellion of 1798. But Catholic loyalty, like Protestant loyalty, was conditional, and as the Catholic population reeled under the impact of post-rebellion repression, and as the banner of Protestant Ascendancy fluttered over Dublin Castle, catholic loyalty to the Protestant state and its Parliament proved brittle.


‘War made the state and the state made war’: At first glance this adage of Charles Tilly would appear to have no relevance to Ireland (23). Ireland may have been frequently a war-zone or theatre of operations, at least in the seventeenth century, but she could not be a belligerent in her own right. As Wolfe Tone put it in his pamphlet, Spanish War!, a howl of protest against Ireland’s inability to raise a navy, dispatch an Irish army and fight whom she pleased: ‘We are not to be trusted! … We are compelled to skulk under the protection of England’. He concluded that while Irishmen fought everywhere, ‘the name of Ireland is never heard; for England not our country we fight and we die’ (24). However, if Ireland was excluded from independent war-making that did not mean, contrary to what Tone maintained, that ‘we’ lacked a capacity to ‘take care of ourselves’; and in fact questions of war and defence, and the maintenance of armies played a major role in the development of the Irish state.

In discussing the development of the British state in the eighteenth century, Brewer has argued that the urgent need to mobilise the necessary money and manpower to fight the numerous wars of the period forced the state to expand its role, size, powers and its bureaucratic efficiency. Britain became perforce a ‘military-fiscal’ state, a society organised to wage war abroad and able to do so because of its fiscal ‘bottom’. As Brewer puts it: as a direct result of Britain’s involvement in the ‘Second Hundred Years’ War’ she experienced

A sharp increase in the commitment of resources to military activities, a radical increase in taxation, the growth of the national debt and the development of a sizeable civilian administration devoted to organising the fiscal and administrative activities of the state (25).

In Ireland a similar process can be observed. Indeed, already in the mid- sixteenth century, the demands of the Irish standing army had put pressure on the Tudor administration in Ireland to devise appropriate new fiscal and administrative procedures to keep a comparatively small force in existence (26). And in the seventeenth century, recent work has pointed to the role of armies in state-building (27). Similarly in the eighteenth century, servicing a relatively large Irish military establishment (12,000 troops up to the late 1760s, around 15,000 thereafter in peacetime) meant inevitably the creation of an appropriate administrative machinery. A Barrack Office, a Muster Office and an Ordnance Office, all staffed by civilians, looked after the needs of the army. It must be stated at once that the inefficiency of these departments (noted above) — and we may add, the rumoured near-chaos that prevailed in Irish military affairs generally — must surely have prevented the emergence of an Irish ‘military-fiscal’ state. None the less, the fact remains that despite their inefficiency, and occasional charges of corruption, these offices did manage to feed, clothe and equip some thirty regiments in peacetime, move them around the country and ship them abroad in accordance with accepted rotation procedure (28). In addition, the money needed to pay for these soldiers was raised without recourse to a Land Tax, and it was not until the very end of the century that the Irish fiscal system proved unable to fund the huge addition to troop levels attendant on the war with revolutionary France.

In so far is self-defence as concerned — for Froude, a key attribute of statehood — the Irish state in the eighteenth century proved adept at mobilising the resources available to it. There was provision for an extensive militia for home defence and though this had fallen into disuse by mid- century, a structure of sorts had been established that could be built on (29). At the time of the American War, a Volunteer Army had emerged, determined to protect Ireland against French invaders and American privateers. This body, initially wholly Protestant but soon numbering individual Catholics, and even a Catholic corps, within its ranks constituted a genuine Irish army and in so far as it was independent of Dublin Castle demonstrated that the state did not wholly depend for protection on ‘foreign’ troops, that it could command loyalty from both Catholics and Protestants. Service in the Volunteers no doubt also helped inculcate that loyalty to the state which was to be very evident in the 1790s (30).

The 1790s saw the crisis of the Irish state. Invasion from France was threatened; rural insurgency was endemic; and a political conspiracy to subvert the Irish state culminated in rebellion in 1798. And yet, the Irish state survived, at least until 1800; and in this respect, in weathering what one pamphleteer called ‘those rough republican storms’ blowing from France, Ireland showed herself to be quite different to those ‘lesser states’ of Europe — Switzerland, the United Provinces, Sardinia, Modena and Venice — whose fate it was to be ‘torn … from their foundations and laid … prostrate to wither and rot’ (31). The reason for the survival of the Irish state in the 1790s cannot be attributed to the weakness of the threats posed to it. At one time the United Irishmen were portrayed as naive idealists, self-deluders and incompetents (32). However, the burden of recent scholarship into the movement has been to stress their commitment to revolution and the seriousness of the threat that they posed (33). They made a firm attempt to infiltrate the Royal Navy and sow disaffection amongst the sailors. Similarly, they made strenuous efforts to suborn key elements in the armed forces in Ireland. They were unremitting in their endeavour to propagate their cause, winning tens of thousands of oath-bound individuals to their ranks. They made some progress in establishing contact with disaffected English and Scottish republicans. Most seriously, they successfully directed French attention to Ireland, thereby prompting several attempts at invasion. Finally, despite widespread disruption caused by government repression and a series of key arrests, they managed to stage a rebellion in the summer of 1798. As Castlereagh, the Chief Secretary, tersely stated the matter in a letter to his predecessor, Thomas Pelham: ‘I understand … you are rather inclined to hold the insurrection cheap. Rely upon it, there never was in any country so formidable an effort on the part of the people’ (34).

The resilience of the Irish state was revealed by the vigour with which it pursued its counter-insurgency policy. New laws were enacted, reinforcements were brought in from England and Scotland, a spy network was established, new forces were mobilised, a thoroughgoing purge was carried out among the Irish armed forces and civilian subversives were harried mercilessly. Again, officials were willing to countenance, and indeed encourage, military action that went well beyond what the law would permit. In addition, a blind eye was turned to Orange depredations; and a Yeomanry was recruited that, as was freely admitted, could be seen as little more than ‘arming the Protestants who can be depended on’. But it should not be inferred from this catalogue of counter-insurgency measures that Dublin Castle’s only resources were English troops, armed Orange Men, and an unflinching determination not to succumb to the forces of the Irish Jacobins (or the Irish Jacobites). Catholic loyalty, downplayed at the time and ignored since, was a major factor in preserving the Irish state during the crisis posed by the United Irishmens’ rebellion of 1798. Already in 1793 the Irish Militia had been reconstituted on a new basis and this armament was, at least in its rank and file, predominantly Catholic (35). For all the rumours and alarms about the loyalty of these men, when the test came they acquitted themselves well. Indeed, the more discerning military observers (Wolfe Tone among them) attributed the failure of the rebellion to the steadfastness of the Irish Militia. Outside the Militia, the Catholic hierarchy was a bastion of loyalism, pronouncing anathemas on the rebels and their French allies, and delivering encomia on the government troops. Admittedly, some 70 priests became involved in the rebellion: but over 1,700 did not, and it was the massive constituency which they ministered to that remained loyal, that thus ensured the security of the state (36). How much of this Catholic silence and inaction in 1798 was true loyalty, how much prudent acquiescence, and how much sullen disaffection can never be known. In later years, it suited various interests for various purposes to stress one against the others: and, not surprisingly, the memoirs of the participants made no effort to treat the issue dispassionately. Yet large areas of Ireland had remained quiet and peaceful during the pre-rebellion, and during the rebellion itself: contrary to predictions, neither the appearance of a French Fleet in Bantry Bay at Christmas 1796, nor the actual landing (and victory at Castlebar) of General Humbert and his men in September 1798 had sparked off a general rising. In other words, there is some evidence to suggest that the real strength of the Irish state at the close of the eighteenth century lay not in its furious Orange partizans or in its unruly and barely disciplined soldiery, much less in its being a client of the British state; in the end, the survival of the state could only be assured by the grudging acceptance, even active loyalty, of the majority of the people on the island. However, this tentative conclusion poses a further problem: if the Irish state was strong enough to see itself through the crisis of 1798, why was it so quick to succumb to the British demand for Union within a matter of months?

Elsewhere I have argued that the Catholics of Ireland were instrumental in carrying the Union (37). When all the brouhaha about peerages, pensions, bribes, promises and threats is examined and then put to one side, the central fact remains that without the tacit support of the Catholic people of Ireland Union could never have been put through the Irish Parliament. Catholics supported Union because they were confident that ’emancipation’ would be an immediate result of the new arrangement: that without Union, its accomplishment would be long delayed. But especially, as the Irish state in the late 1790s had taken on an Orange hue, and Catholics, in the aftermath of the rebellion, generally denounced as disloyal, Catholics had become alienated from that state. Catholic loyalty in the face of a determined and prolonged assault by the Dublin Castle «Junto» of John Foster, and his associates, John Beresford, Charles Agar, Archbishop of Cashel, and Lord Clare proved short-lived. John Foster’s stirring appeal to ‘the Catholics, the Protestants and all religions’ to ‘join all hearts and hands together, bring the vessel into port, forget all family differences, all local or partial jealousies and save Ireland, save your country’, came much too late, and sounded rather lame, from one who was commonly regarded as the most articulate exponent of Protestant Ascendancy, and its most determined defender (38). His call was not attended to. The feelings of bewilderment and alienation felt by Catholics in the aftermath of the rebellion have been insufficiently stressed. Throughout 1799-1800, an epidemic of chapel-burning raged throughout the southeast, the «Orange» Yeomanry were feted as the saviours of the state, while the rebellion, despite Cornwallis’s efforts, continued to be depicted as a mere Catholic uprising, a re-run of 1641. In the face of this relentless hostility, Catholics came to see in Union a defeat for their enemies in Dublin Castle, and ultimately a blow against the Protestant Ascendancy. Moreover, the Catholic hierarchy was almost unanimous in its support for Union – partly out of a desire to keep in with the British government but also to remove whatever stain for disloyalty had attached to them because of the conduct of the ‘rebel’ priests of Wexford and Mayo. Finally, Catholics on all sides, and a substantial number of Protestants, were very much taken with the challenge which the proposed new imperial structure offered. And this point too has hitherto been insufficiently stressed.

It should be remembered that Union with Ireland was never claimed to mean the end of the Irish state: rather the Irish parliament and the British parliament would unite to form a new imperial legislature; and the members of the Irish state would now have full access to the opportunities of empire. Irish Catholics, wrote one pro-Union pamphleteer, were very anxious to share in and contribute to ‘the glory of the British empire’, seeing in it an outlet for careers that would otherwise languish at home (39). Of course, Irishmen had already played an important role in the empire — whether as common soldiers in the East India Company or as, in effect, imperial pro-consuls (40) – but in 1800 the empire and imperial administration seemed destined to expand, and only Union could guarantee unrestricted access to both. It may also be suggested that the Catholic hierarchy looked favourably on Union because it offered a new area for missionary endeavour: certainly the speed with which the Irish missionary movement within the empire took off in the years after 1800 is remarkable (41). Union in short was not held to mean the end of the Irish state, but rather to bestow on it that ‘imperial’ dimension, the lack of which, many (including Wolfe Tone) had lamented: Union would distinguish the Irish state, not extinguish it.

In the event, most of the predictions voiced at the time of Union, failed to come to pass — most noticeably, Catholic emancipation was not carried until a generation later. Moreover, the British state, despite assurances to the contrary, did move to take over the Irish state, and the vigorously partizan (and Protestant) United Parliament in Westminster bore little resemblance to that impartial imperial assembly that William Pitt had held forth in the debates on Union in 1799 (42). However, the Irish state was too sturdy a growth to be comfortably absorbed into the British state; and the memory of a separate Irish state proved enduring, and ultimately inspirational. The long delay in granting emancipation proved fatal for the success of the Union, and the perceived failure of the British state during the Famine completed the process of alienation. On the other hand, disenchantment on the part of Irish Catholics with the British state, brought with it no loss of affection for, or pride in, the British empire, a prime source of jobs for both the Irish lay and clerical middle classes (43). The eighteenth-century Irish state fused easily and profitably with the British Empire, even if the nineteenth century Irish nation found itself uncomfortable with the British state.

1 See Lawrence MacBride, The Greening of Dublin Castle: the Transformation of Bureaucratic and Judicial Personnel in Ireland, 1892-1 922 (Washington, D.C., 1991); Eunan O’Halpin, The Decline of the Union: British Government in Ireland, 1892-1920 (Dublin, 1987). See also the remarks of W.E. Vaughan, ‘the British state was replaced by an Irish state between 1879 and 1886’ in Landlords and Tenants in Mid-Victorian Ireland (Oxford, 1994), p. 225.
2 The literature on state formation is vast, and there are many definitions of state: for a useful overview of the current state of play see Thomas Ertman, ‘The Sinews of Power and European state-building theory’ in Lawrence Stone (ed), An Imperial State at War: Britain from 1689 to 1815 (London, 1994), pp. 33-51; see also the Introduction by Lawrence Stone to this volume, pp. 1-32.
3 The analogy with the East India Company was made at the time: See Peel’s cri de cœur in [1814 ?] ‘There is a disposition in Ireland, which I will do all in my power to check, to refer everything to «Government». There is not a private grievance, a failure in trade, a nuisance in the streets that does not beget an application. I assure you that I can scarcely make people believe that the government has not the power of clearing the whole country from the snow. … As for the repeal of laws and other trifling matters of that nature, I believe there are nine persons in ten who are convinced that the government is in no way bound by an act of the legislature and has a general power over the lives and property and liberty of the people. Nay, I think the majority have the same idea of the government which the natives of India are said to have of the East India Company’. Peel to Sir Chas. Flint, [n.d. 1814 ?] in C.S. Parker (ed), Sir Robert Peel from his Private Papers (London, 1891), i, pp. 119-20.
4 A recent study by Gretchen Macmillan has argued that since the consent of the governed was always withheld from the British state and government in Ireland there could be no legitimate state until that set up by nationalist Ireland in 1922. For criticism of this argument see the review of G.M. Macmillan, State, Society and Authority in Ireland: the Foundations of the Modern Irish State (Dublin, 1993) by Paul Bew in Bullan: An Irish Studies Journal, pp. 124-6.
5 See J. H . Ohlmeyer, Civil War and Restoration in the Three Stuart Kingdoms: the Career of Randal MacDonnell, Marquis of Antrim, 1609-1683 (Cambridge, 1983), chpts, 5-8; J.G. Simms, Jacobite Ireland 1685-91 (London, 1969), chpts, 4-5.
6 Tom Garvin, The Evolution of Irish Nationalist Politics (Dubin, 1981), p. 3.
7 Ibid., p. 8.
8 For the comparison between the Irish Parliament and other legislatures in the Atlantic world, see F.G.James, Ireland in the Empire, 1688-1770 (Cambridge, Mass., 1973); and J. P. Greene, Peripheries and Centres: Constitutional Development in the extended Polities of the British Empire and the United States, 1607-1788 (Athens, Ga., 1986).
9 John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783 (London, 1989), p. 252.
10 For the Irish administration in the eighteenth century, see R.B. McDowell, Ireland in the Age of Imperialism and Revolution, 1760-1801 (Oxford, 1979), pp 101-6; S.J. Connolly, Religion, Law and Power: The Making of Protestant Ireland, 1660-1 760 (Oxford, 1992), pp. 87-93.
11 Thomas Bartlett, ‘Viscount Townshend and the Irish Revenue Board, 1767-73’ in Proc. R.I.A., vol. 79, C, no. 6, pp. 153-75.
12 L. A. Clarkson and Margaret Crawford, Ways to Wealth: The Cust Family of Eighteenth Century Armagh (Belfast, 1985).
13 Patrick MacNally, ‘Patronage and Politics in Ireland, 1714-27’ (Unpub. Ph. D. thesis, Queen’s Univ. Belfast, 1993), pp. 110-111.
14 A.P.W. Malcomson, John Foster: the Politics of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy (Oxford, 1978), pp. 403-4.
15 For the claim that there was no Irish Poor Law, see Joanna Innes, ‘The domestic face of the Military-Fiscal State: Government and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, in Stone (ed), Imperial State at War, pp. 96-127; for the reply, which predates the claim, David Dickson, ‘In Search of the Old Irish Poor Law’, in Rosalind Mitchison and Peter Roebuck, Economy and Society in Scotland and Ireland, 1500-1939 (Edinburgh, 1988), pp. 149-159.
16 McDowell, Ireland in the Age of Imperialism and Revolution, pp. 70-77; Oliver MacDonagh, The Inspector-General: Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick and Social Reform, 1783-1802 (London, 1981), passim; Connolly, Religion, Law and Power, pp. 303-5.
17 See James Kelly, Prelude to Union: Anglo-Irish politics in the 1780s (Cork, 1993).
18 Malcomson, Foster, pp. 90-1.
19 For a recent and detailed survey of the structure of Protestant Ireland in the first half of the eighteenth century, see Connolly, Religion, Law and Power, op. cit.
20 Thomas Bartlett, The Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation: The Catholic Question, 1690-1830 (Dublin, 1992).
21 On the Catholic Church in the late eighteenth century, see Daire Keogh, «The French Disease»: The Catholic Church and Radicalism in Ireland, 1790-1800 (Dublin, 1993).
22 For some preliminary remarks on Catholic loyalty to the state, see Maureen Wall, ‘Catholic loyalty to King and Pope in eighteenth century Ireland’ in G. O’Brien (ed) Catholic Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (Dublin, 1989), pp. 107-114.
23 Cited in Stone (ed), Imperial State at War, p. 7.
24 W.T.W. Tone, Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone (Washington, D.C. 1826), i, pp. 336, 339.
25 Brewer, ‘The Eighteenth Century British State: Contexts and Issues’ in Stone (ed), Imperial State at War, p. 57.
26 S.G. Ellis, ‘The Tudors and the Origins of the Modern Irish States: A Standing Army’, in T. Bartlett and K. Jeffery (ed) A Military History of Ireland (Cambridge, forthcoming).
27 Ohlemyer, Civil War and Restoration, op. cit.
28 T. Bartlett, ‘Army and Society in Eighteenth Century Ireland’ in W.A. Maguire, Kings in Conflict: The Revolutionary War in Ireland and its Aftermath (Belfast, 1990), pp. 173-84; McNally, ‘Patronage and Polities’, pp. 112-33.
29 The history of the Irish militia in the early eighteenth century has yet to be written, but see for a local case study, Jim O’Donovan, ‘The Militia in Munster, 1715-78’ in Gerard O’Brien (ed), Parliament, Politics and People: Essays in Eighteenth Century Irish History (Dublin, 1989), pp. 31-48.
30 For the role of the Volunteers as a state-building body see David Miller, ‘Nonprofessional soldiery, 1600-1800’ in Bartlett and Jeffery, Military History of Ireland.
31 [Anonymous], Necessity of an Incorporate Union between Great Britain and Ireland proved from the Situation of both Kingdoms (Dublin, 1799), p. 29.
32 J.L. McCracken, ‘The United Irishmen’ in T. Desmond Williams (ed), Secret Societies in Ireland (Dublin, 1973), pp. 58-67.
33 Marianne Elliott, Partners in Revolution: the United Irishmen and France (New Haven, Conn., 1982); Jim Smyth, The Men of No Property: Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the late Eighteenth Century (London, 1992); David Dickson, Daire Keogh and Kevin Whelan (ed), The United Irishmen (Dublin, 1993); Nancy Curtin, The United Irishmen: Popular Politics in Ulster and Dublin, 1791-98 (Oxford, 1994).
34 Quoted in Curtin, United Irishmen, p. 259.
35 for the militia in the 1790s see T. Bartlett, ‘An End to Moral Economy’: the Irish Militia Disturbances of 1793′, Past and Present, no. 99 (May 1983), pp. 41-64; Ibid., ‘Indiscipline and Disaffection in the Armed Forces in Ireland’ in P. Corish (ed), Radicals, Rebels and Establishments (Belfast, 1985), pp. 115-34.
36 Keogh, ‘The French Disease’, has the most authoritative discussion of the numbers and motives of the ‘rebel’ priests, as well as offering a perspective on the activities of the Catholic hierarchy.
37 Bartlett, Fall and Rise, pp. 258-9.
38 Speech of the Rt. Hon. John Foster. . . 11 April 1799 (Dublin, 1 799), p. 46; see also A.P.W. Malcomson, John Foster: the Politics of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy (Oxford, 1978) especially chapter 8 ‘Rearguard of the Ascendancy’.
39 ‘Molyneux’, A reply to the Mémoire of Theobald McKenna Esq. on some questions touching the projected Union of Great Britain and Ireland (Dublin, 1799), p. 23.
40 R.B. McDowell, ‘Ireland in the Eighteenth Century British Empire’, in Historical Studies, ix (1974), pp. 49-63: Peter Roebuck (ed), Macartney of Lissanoure, 1737-1806: Essays in Biography (Belfast, 1983).
41 E.M. Hogan, The Irish Missionary Movement: A Historical Survey, 1830-1980 (Washington D.C., 1991).
42 Speech of the Rt. Hon. William Pitt. . . Thursday, January 31, 1 799 (London, 1799), p. 34.
43 See S.B. Cook, ‘The Irish Raj: Social Origins and Careers of Irishmen in the Indian Civil Service, 1855-1914’, Jnl. of Social History , 20, no. 3 (1987).

Source: Persée