- Editors' Introduction
Ireland and empire is now one of the most vibrant fields of inquiry in Irish Studies, reflecting in part a burgeoning interest in imperial topics across the disciplines in European and American universities in the last twenty years. Inspired by Edward Said and postcolonial studies, much of the late-twentieth-century work on the British, French, and other empires focused on placing empire and imperial themes within national literatures and histories in order to blur distinctions and divides between domestic society and the colonial world. The writing of empire into modern Irish literature and history proved somewhat contentious at first, producing a vibrant and far-ranging debate on whether or not Ireland after the early modern period could usefully be considered a colony and on the colonial and/or postcolonial affiliations of Irish nationalists and the Irish diaspora.1 Although often interesting and provocative, this discussion has perhaps run its course for the moment as a consensus of sorts that Ireland's relationship to Britain shared at least some features in common with those of other British colonies has settled in [End Page 5] across most of the disciplines in Irish Studies.2 The essays in this volume are at the forefront of the next phase in Irish imperial studies: they do not deliberate on whether or not Ireland was a colony and rather than simply examining Irish support for or resistance to colonial rule in Ireland, India, or other corners of the British Empire, they demonstrate that the different strands of Irish nationalism have engaged intellectually and politically with empire in a variety of complex ways. The main focus of this issue, therefore, is on how some key leaders and groups contributed to shaping or re-shaping that response to empire during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The volume suggests that Irish nationalist engagements with empire were more continuous and vigorous than many commentators have allowed, and that they were frequently central to the elaboration of Irish nationalist understandings of Ireland's place within the wider world.
The essays in this volume are presented in chronological order, but readers will find that many of the questions and concerns about Ireland and imperialism, as well as the uses of empire in Irish politics, remained consistent in the one hundred and fifty years spanned by these articles. The contents can be grouped into three categories. The first group explores how major Irish and Victorian figures such as Daniel O'Connell, Thomas Davis, John Mitchel, Justin McCarthy, and James Fitzjames Stephen engaged intellectually and politically with imperialism and the British Empire specifically. The second group of essays examines the ways in which particular groups such as the Home Rule Party, Irish-American Fenians, early-nineteenth-century journalists, interwar Republicans, and the Free State Government understood and used imperialism and empire for their own political and polemical ends. The final three essays in the volume shift the focus to late-twentieth-century Irish academia, exploring Nicholas Mansergh's partition paradigm, Irish reaction to the work of Edward Said, and postcolonial and feminist criticism in contemporary Ireland.
Joe Cleary opens this special issue with an overview of current trends in the study of empire. He identifies three main fields of scholarship in modern Irish imperial studies, exploring their origins, [End Page 6] strengths, and shortcomings. His essay concludes with some suggestions for the future of the field. The history of empires, he argues, must be understood in terms of interlocking systems and inter-imperial rivalries rather than in terms of discrete territorial units. Hence, rather than confining themselves to the study of Irish involvements in the British Empire, scholars should be encouraged to address the place of the Irish within the wider world of the European empires and indeed within the imperial or neo-imperial systems that have emerged in the period since World War II.
Cleary's survey of Irish scholarship on empire is followed by Bruce Nelson's study of Daniel O'Connell and abolitionism. Many of his Irish nationalist contemporaries regarded O'Connell as an essentially conservative figure, but the Liberator could rightfully claim to hold a more radical position than...