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Éire-Ireland 42.3&4 (2007) 173-206

Bonfires, Illuminations, and Joy:
Celebratory Street Politics and Uses of "the Nation" during the Volunteer Movement
Padhraig Higgins

Let every one rejoice and sing, The scaffold's up to hang the K[ing];
To hang the K[ing] and execute
The curs'd Lords North, G[e]rm[ai]ne, and B[u]te

Graffiti written on the back of the scaffold erected for puttingup a statue of George III in the Royal Exchange, Dublin (Freeman's Journal, 20–23 March 1779).

Celebrations and commemorations of people and events were central to the ritual life of eighteenth-century Ireland. The birthdays of dead and living kings, the military deliverances and defeats of the seventeenth century, and British military and naval victories dominated the ritual life of Irish Protestants. In Dublin, the fabric of the city itself was dotted with monuments that served as sites for annual commemorations and as constant reminders of British dynastic and political struggles, particularly the statue of William III, but also new monuments to the Hanoverian regime.1 Commemorative practices have been identified in a wide variety of contexts as occasions designed to "reinforce social power or produce collective sentiments" through distinctly political rituals.2 Official holidays could [End Page 173] serve as opportunities for the state to reinforce its authority and promote deference through hierarchical processions, spectacular display, and the benevolent distribution of food and alcohol. But public rituals of commemoration and celebration could also be created or appropriated by the opposition, or even by "the people," as forms of protest through which ideas of "the nation" were mobilized to express alternative understandings of government authority, history, or the limits of the Irish polity. As the seditious graffiti on the statue of the king suggests, even the very monuments celebrating the Hanoverian regime could serve as sites where subversive sentiments were expressed. Helen Burke has demonstrated how the Dublin theatre offered a space for political opposition in the 1770s and 1780s.3 Likewise, the streets of the capital were sites of intense political conflict in the late 1770s and early 1780s, where the staging of dramatic rituals allowed patriots to oppose the government and to articulate different notions of the political nation and the public interest. Parades, illuminations, bonfires, effigies, toasts, and the elaborate transparencies and other symbols that decorated buildings—all communicated political meanings just as surely as the patriotic press.

This article examines the general features of Protestant public festivities in eighteenth-century Ireland. It does so first by focusing on the act of toasting as a means of expressing political sentiment through the ritualized consumption of alcohol. It then examines in [End Page 174] detail two national celebrations and a protest during the annual commemoration of King William III. The first celebration marked the acquittal of Admiral Augustus Keppel in February 1779 in his court-martial for misconduct and neglect in a famous engagement with the French fleet at Ushant off the French port of Brest in July of the previous year. The month of November 1779 saw the first foray of the Volunteers into national politics, with their hijacking of the annual commemoration of William III in order to demand "free trade" for Ireland. The second major celebration marked the patriot victory on this issue, with the granting of free trade by Lord North.4 The extraordinary outpouring of joy on the acquittal of Keppel illustrates the British and imperial dimensions of Irish Protestant patriot culture. The acquittal also offered an opportunity to denounce the British government. The examination of the Volunteer protest and the free-trade festivities suggests how patriotic ideology was increasingly defined in opposition to British policies and associated with the articulation of an "Irish" identity. These two events also draw attention to the way in which celebratory and commemorative festivities, through symbols and gestures, articulated political arguments. Just as print culture was mobilized by patriots to evoke particular understandings of the nation that drew on a variety of political...


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