Archive for May 3rd, 2011

When time speeds up? The Irish Volunteers and Political Density

3 May 2011

Contributed by Patrick Walsh

We are often told that we live in historic times. Certainly living in Ireland it is quite possible to believe that we are living through a period that will be written about and analysed every bit as much by future historians as it is currently being written and thought about by
contemporary policy makers. This does seem to be to one of those eras when time speeds up, one of those chaotic and pivotal moments that every reader of history recognises. Examples of such periods in the Irish past might include the 1790s or indeed the period 1913-23; both of these might also be seen as periods when global time sped up, as might the 1520s and 30s when the reformation swept across Western Europe or the late 1960s or even 1989 when revolution was in the air. Understanding the dynamics of such periods, why certain points in the past see rapid and often dramatic changes, has long been a focus of historians. Padhraig Higgins’ fascinating new book A Nation of Politicians: Gender, Patriotism and Political Culture in Late Eighteenth-Century Ireland on the Irish Volunteers of the late eighteenth century offers an interesting insight into this question.

He analyses the period 1778-84 by looking at how the Volunteers were essential to an increasing politicisation of Irish society. Established as an exclusively Protestant (at least to begin with) local militia force to defend Ireland from foreign invasion during the American War of Independence, their impact went far beyond national defence. Instead they helped forge an Irish identity and helped to create a denser political culture that would have long- term implications. This interesting notion of political density lies at the heart of this book. Read more