- The Rise of the Rainbow Chasers:Advanced Irish Political Nationalism in Britain, 1916–22*
Close study of Irish nationalism in Britain during the Irish Revolution has been long anticipated. Enda Delaney and the late Peter Hart have both described Britain as an invaluable laboratory for understanding the scope and character of Irish nationalism during this period.1 Yet no extensive study has followed these calls for deeper historical inquiry. The principal investigative thread to date has been Irish militarism. Hart himself presented the first scholarly analysis of this subject, suggesting that the IRA in Britain constituted a relatively potent threat to British security during the Irish War of Independence, although less of one in the Civil War years.2 Gerard Noonan has concurred with this argument in his recent essay “Republican Terrorism in Britain, 1920–1923.”3 Máirtín Ó Catháin’s study of Michael Collins and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Scotland, John Belchem’s consideration of the IRA campaign in Liverpool, and Keiko Inoue’s comparative research on republican militarism in Glasgow, Liverpool, South Wales, and Tyneside have contributed important local perspectives to the dominant militarist narrative.4 [End Page 112]
This article, however, seeks to investigate the advanced Irish nationalist movement in Britain through an examination of its political organization. This remains an underexplored area of research. Alan O’Day and John Hutchinson have sketched an outline of advanced nationalist political organization in the post-1916 period through the prism of the Gaelic revival in London from the beginning of the twentieth century. Hutchinson’s later essay “Diaspora Dilemmas and Shifting Allegiances” briefly explores the wider contextual influences of Catholicism and British politics on Irish nationalism in Britain between 1916 and 1922. Both studies suggest that advanced Irish political nationalism was limited in its success because it failed to embed the key institutions relevant to the Irish community in Britain—the Catholic church and labor movement—within its organization.5 Keiko Inoue has examined this subject in more depth in her doctoral thesis “Political Activity of the Irish in Britain, 1919–1925,” emphasizing the differences in Irish political activity depending on locality during the period under review. Her brief article on the Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain argues that this body played an undervalued role in the British-Irish propaganda war between 1919 and 1921.6
What is presented here is the first focused examination of advanced Irish political nationalism in Britain between 1916 and 1922. It argues that the influence of this movement among the Irish in Britain was initially stunted by its narrow ideological definition of nationalism but was later strengthened by its relevance within compelling thematic contexts in British society and in revolutionary Ireland. This essay charts the development of advanced nationalist organizations such as the Irish Self-Determination League and Sinn Féin in relation to the [End Page 113] existing Home Rule movement in Britain; it explores their political, cultural, social, and moral beliefs and considers the response of the Irish in Britain to these ideological motifs. It locates advanced Irish nationalism in Britain within the shifting contexts of industrial protest, religious symbolism, political instability, and political violence in the postwar period and discusses international connections with both the Irish diaspora and wider nationalist movements.
The half-century between the failed Irish rebellions of 1867 and 1916 saw the recurrent political mobilization of Irish nationalism in Britain for achieving self-government in Ireland along with the marginalization of political violence. In 1873 the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain was formed, to be succeeded a decade later by the Irish National League of Great Britain (INLGB).7 Changing titles, however, did not mean changing functions. Irish nationalist organizations were expected to add weight to the Home Rule cause by aggregating the support of the Irish in Britain both financially and electorally. Neither objective was satisfactorily realized in the late nineteenth century, as the wider Irish immigrant community prioritized the pressing socioeconomic and cultural demands of life in Britain ahead of the perennial background question of Ireland’s constitutional status. The Irish-American dynamite campaign in British cities in the early 1880s further distanced...