- Young and Old Ireland: Repeal Politics in Belfast, 1846–1848
From 1846 to 1848 internal acrimony between the more radical section of the nationalist movement to repeal the Act of Union of 1800, known as Young Ireland, and the conservative wing, known as Old Ireland, led to the re-emergence of a local democratic republican tradition in Belfast. Although influenced at different junctures by the course of events at a national level, this Belfast republicanism, which drew on United Irish antecedents, manifested against a backdrop of elite control, antidemocratic practices, and strategic conventionalism practiced by the Repeal leadership clique based around Daniel O’Connell, and his son John O’Connell, in Conciliation Hall, Dublin. Such figures as John McVeigh, Francis McLoughlin, John Griffith, and the Presbyterian Samuel Stewart led this evolution in Belfast from at least early 1846, toward openly adopting a radical position by mid-1846 through splitting with the highly centralized Repeal Association, and later giving their allegiance to the Young Ireland-led Irish Confederation at the outset of 1847.
These Belfast figures were by no means mere hangers-on who blindly followed the national intellectual leadership cadre of Young Ireland centered on the capital. Rather. they appealed to local Protestants on economic grounds and in genuine republican language; expressed international solidarity with independence movements overseas; debated the merits of an abstentionist policy; opposed an electoral pact with local Whig figures on republican grounds of self-sufficiency, spoke out against what they deemed to be careerist behavior, and defended the moral right to utilize physical force in the struggle for national liberation. For all this, they endured physical attack at the hands of their Old Ireland rivals before finally mobilizing and arming themselves with a view to launching an assault on the British state. The progression of Belfast’s Young Ireland adherents toward physical force republicanism in the early summer of 1848, did not derive from a literary romantic nationalism. Rather, it stemmed from a pragmatic rejection of the straitjacket of “moderate” politics during a time of socio-economic and political crisis caused by the twin effects of first, the worst period of the Great Famine from late 1846 through to 1847, and second, [End Page 38] government repression in reaction to the atmosphere of revolutionary fervor emanating from the continent after the spring of 1848.
Major studies of national scope by R. P. Davis in the 1980s, and more recently by Christine Kinealy and James Quinn, exist on the subjects of the Repeal, Young Ireland, and Irish Confederation movements of the late 1840s. These deal variously with Young Ireland ideology and its place and role in shaping the historiography of nationalism, the politics of Repeal, the rising of 1848, and the material development of the clubs of the Irish Confederation.1 Work by David Dwan on the civic republican ethos of Young Ireland as understood primarily through their writings in their organ, The Nation, and, more recently, on the misinterpretation of Young Ireland ideology as irrational “romanticism,” has added to the scholarship that examines the national leadership and intellectual core of the movement.2 Meanwhile, research by Matthew Kelly has re-emphasized the transnational influence exerted on Young Ireland from France—which he terms the “French affinity”—and their awareness of the February 1848 revolution in Paris in their shift towards rebellion at home.3
The local dynamics at play within Repeal politics and its different outgrowths during the late 1840s, however, have received less attention from historians. This stands in stark contrast to the historiography of a more recent phase of nationalist and republican activity.” A plethora of county, town, and parish-focused studies have been afforded to the episode known as the Irish Revolution of 1913–23, and these focused studies have invariably altered our understanding of the factors pivotal in determining its course and legacy.4 Without question, the revolutionary years of the early twentieth century have left an indelible mark on the contemporary Irish psyche. Yet, without the development of mid-nineteenth century Young Ireland philosophies of local democracy, cultural nationalism, civic education, and economic and political self-reliance, the intellectual basis for the Irish Revolution would probably not have existed...