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  • Defining Irish Nationalist Anti-Imperialism:Thomas Davis and John Mitchel1
  • Niamh Lynch (bio)

The English are not more sanguinary and atrocious than any other people would be in like case, and under like exigencies . . . the disarmament, degradation, extermination and periodical destruction of the Irish people are measures of policy dictated, not by pure malignity, but by the imperious requirements of the system of Empire administered in London. They must go on . . . while the British Empire goes on—and . . . there is no remedy for them under Heaven save the dismemberment of that Empire.

John Mitchel (1860)2

Ireland's historical relationship to the British Empire has been the focus of a great deal of scholarly interest, particularly in the last twenty years. Much of the existing scholarship in this field consists of focused studies of Irish attitudes to specific imperial issues (often concerning either India or South Africa). What these studies have confirmed is that Irish nationalists were keenly attuned to events in other parts of the empire, and that, in general, they were critical of British administration and policy in these regions. As valuable as they are, however, these studies leave the impression that Irish [End Page 82] nationalists only objected to specific instances of imperial excess, and that they did not discuss the nature of imperialism or the implications of empire beyond analysis of these specific examples. Irish anti-imperialism emerges as a patchwork rather than a coherent strand of nationalist political ideology.

One of the few scholars to examine Irish nationalism's intellectual engagement with imperialism has come to largely negative conclusions about the extent to which nationalist political ideology can be said to have been anti-imperial. Stephen Howe has argued that "little explicitly 'anti-imperial' thought or writing of a global or general kind is to be found in nineteenth or early twentieth-century Irish nationalism."3 Howe's assessment appears based on the observation that Irish nationalists usually attacked the empire with Irish interests foremost on their mind, and that, as a consequence, they cannot be characterized as genuinely anti-imperialist. Measured by this criterion, however, no nationalist movement (in Ireland or anywhere else) would qualify as anti-imperialist, making it difficult to provide a meaningful historical explanation as to why the British Empire collapsed at all.

This essay argues that anti-imperialism became a consistent and increasingly important motif within Irish nationalist political ideology between 1840 and 1875. In an era when romantic nationalism emphasized cultural specificity and the organic nation, imperialism appeared to demand an unnatural and destructive cosmopolitanism. Ireland, nationalists argued, did not benefit from Britain's global empire, did not share Britain's sanguinary thirst for wider dominion, and could not fulfill its own national destiny while bound to a system in which metropolitan exigencies would always take priority over national considerations. Imperialism, moreover, came to be seen as inextricably tied to political and economic liberalism, an [End Page 83] ideology linked in many Irish minds to the cataclysmic famine of the 1840s.

The period 1840 to 1875 is a good place to begin to explore the development of Irish anti-imperialism. These were years of unprecedented British imperial activity—in Afghanistan, India, China, the Crimea, Southern Africa, and New Zealand. Just as British imperialism became more ideologically and organizationally complex, so too did the Irish nationalist response to that imperialism. The expansion and redefinition of the imperial project made the Irish Question more urgent in the sense that Ireland was constitutionally at the center of now not just a commercial enterprise, but a vast political empire. Both the Irish and the British became increasingly inclined to see the Irish Question as an imperial one.4

In addition to being a time of imperial growth and redefinition, the period was one of increased Irish imperial participation. Whether as migrants, missionaries, soldiers (and officers), or administrators, the Irish took part in the mid-nineteenth century imperial project in much greater numbers than ever before. From a historical point of view, of course, there was "nothing anomalous in members of one colonized people helping to govern their homeland, or to conquer and govern another country elsewhere in the same Empire."5 Nonetheless, the...


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