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  • The Comic Press, Ireland, and Empire, 1882–85*
  • Michael de Nie (bio)

In the years since Éire-Ireland's 2007 special issue on Ireland and empire, scholarship on this topic has grown at a steady pace and continues to be one of the most dynamic fields of Irish Studies. Although Irish nationalist anti-imperialism still commands the lion's share of attention in Irish imperial studies, in recent years scholars have increasingly explored how Irish men and women operated within the British empire as well as created their own parallel or shadow imperial networks.1 These and other recent studies have helped us to appreciate the rich variety and depth of Irish imperial experiences. Our understanding of the place of Ireland within British imperial sensibilities, however, remains somewhat limited. Scholars have usefully explored how Irish commentators placed Britain within their understanding or philosophy of imperialism and how they used imperial events to further Irish political goals, but relatively little attention has [End Page 216] been paid to the other half of the story. Ireland was, after all, an integral, if sometimes fractious, part of the United Kingdom throughout the nineteenth century. It occupied an important position in British thinking about empire and particularly about imperial crises. A wide swath of British journalists and politicians assumed that Ireland offered useful lessons, both negative and positive, for imperial policy. British understandings of Irish society and politics provided an interpretive structure and vocabulary that were used to define and respond to events in Egypt, India, and elsewhere. If we seek to better understand Ireland's relationship with the British empire, it is essential to explore not just how Irish men and women viewed, opposed, and served in the empire, but also how Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations informed imperial policy at the metropole.

The ideal approach, I believe, is one that explores opinion across the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Empire—and particularly imperial crises—engendered rich, multivalent conversations that did not stop at the Irish Sea. Studies of regional opinion can be quite illuminating, of course, but they can also lead us to forget that these political and journalistic voices were in dialogue not only with supporters and opponents in different parts of the United Kingdom, but also in a sense with other pressing domestic and foreign issues and events. In my opinion there is simply no better source for discovering and tracing these dialogues than the popular press, the primary source of information for contemporaries on all events foreign and domestic. By studying a wide political and geographic cross-section of newspapers and periodicals, we can understand contemporary interpretations and responses to imperial and Irish events, as well as the larger, UK-wide context in which government policy was crafted. This exchange or dialogue has been largely if not entirely overlooked in the relevant historiographies. Numerous historians have examined British intervention in Egypt, from Robinson and Gallagher onward, but one finds nary a mention of the contemporaneous Land War in their writings.2 Until Paul Townend's recent masterful study one would have been likewise hard-pressed to find any acknowledgment of the Egyptian crisis in the voluminous scholarship on the Land [End Page 217] War and the rise of Charles Stewart Parnell and his party.3 Yet for contemporaries these were very much related events—events that demonstrated for some observers the mendacity of popular anti-imperial leaders and the untrustworthiness of Gladstone and his party. For others, and particularly for advanced nationalists in Ireland, they demonstrated the hypocrisy and violence at the heart of the imperial system. In both cases the events were understood as a piece, and the sooner historians begin to appreciate the comprehensive nature of imperial ideology, the sooner we can begin to craft a richer, and to my mind more satisfying, account of Ireland and empire. This essay will take a small step toward this goal by examining the ways in which comic papers and editorial cartoons published on both sides of St. George's Channel used Ireland and the Irish question as a lens through which to view and understand events in Egypt and the Sudan between 1882 and 1885 and the...


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pp. 216-251
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