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. Higgins takes up the idea developed by British Historian Nicholas Rogers that some periods have a denser political culture than others, and therefore see greater societal changes and politicisation. This can be seen in increasing amounts of political information appearing in the press, increased associational culture, ‘patriotic’ or ‘political’ consumption practices, as well as in increased levels of urbanisation and literacy. Higgins sees the era of the Volunteers as one such period, while also pointing to the 1750s and 1820s as other periods of political density that might repay further study. In doing so he sets the Volunteers superbly in context, showing that there is much more to them than the caricature of gentry playing soldiers that some of the surviving evidence, including Francis Wheatley’s famous painting of the Volunteer Review in College Green in 1779 (above) might suggest.
Wheatley’s painting is perhaps the best known image of the Volunteers and a section from it is used as Higgins’s cover image. It shows the Dublin Volunteers being reviewed by their colonel, the Duke of Leinster, in College Green on 4 November 1779; so far so very conventional. However, a closer analysis of this image reveals some of the major themes explored by Higgins. The date of this review was significant; it was the day on which Irish Protestants annually celebrated the birthday of their deliverer William III whose statue occupies the centre of the image. In 1779 the state’s role in the pageantry of the day was usurped by the Volunteers, who used it not just to demonstrate their willingness to protect the country from French invaders, but also to call for free trade. This end was emphasised by a banner draped over a cannon emblazoned with the words ‘free trade or else’, something incidentally not depicted by Wheatley. Loyalty was conditional upon concessions. The Free Trade campaign was backed up by conspicuous consumption of native materials, visible not just in the uniforms worn by the volunteers, but, as Higgins shows, in the shopping habits that they encouraged through a sympathetic press, and other outlets. Consumption could be and was patriotic. Such campaigns could also include those excluded from the more active aspects of volunteering, and one of the great strengths of this book is the attention paid to the increasing politicisation of women. Again this dimension can be seen if one looks closely at Wheatley’s painting; the upper storey windows of the buildings overlooking the parade are filled with women, dressed presumably in native finery.
The Free Trade campaign was largely successful, as the British government were anxious to keep the Irish population and especially the political classes onside during the American war. Buoyed by this success the Volunteers played a central role in the campaign for legislative independence, which led to the establishment of what posterity has termed ‘Grattan’s parliament’ in 1782. Like the free trade campaign, the push for increased legislative autonomy for the Irish parliament enjoyed wide support, and drew on extra-parliamentary influences. However when the more radical elements within the Volunteer movement, drawn from the politically denser regions of Dublin and North-East Ulster began to push for further reform and especially relaxation of the remaining penal laws against Catholics, the broad base of a politicised ‘nation of politicians’ collapsed, and the Volunteer impact on Irish politics lessened, at least in the short term. Their legacy would live on, not least in the revolutionary decade of the 1790s, when many of those who learned their patriot trade in the Volunteer companies of the 1780s re-emerged as United Irishmen.
Padhraig Higgins’s book, winner of the American Conference of Irish Studies Donald Murphy Prize for Distinguished First Book award, expertly illuminates the history of the Volunteers and the political culture they created. It should be read by all those interested not just in late- eighteenth century Ireland, but also by those interested in understanding the broader process of mass politicisation.
Patrick Walsh is currently a Research Fellow working on the IRCHSS funded Insular Christianity Project in the School of histories and Humanities in TCD