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  • A Union Forever: The Irish Question and U.S. Foreign Relations in the Victorian Age by David Sim
  • Kerby A. Miller (bio)
A Union Forever: The Irish Question and U.S. Foreign Relations in the Victorian Age. By David Sim. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2013. Pp.
280. Cloth, $45.00.)

A Union Forever is a revised doctoral thesis (Oxford) and the first book by David Sim, a lecturer in U.S. history in the Institute of the Americas at University College London. It is a transnational history of how Irish and Irish American nationalism shaped (and failed to shape) Anglo-American diplomacy in the mid- to late nineteenth century.

Sim's account begins in the early 1840s, with the crusade by the great Irish politician Daniel O'Connell and his Irish American supporters to [End Page 729] repeal the Act of Union, which in 1800 made Ireland an internal colony of the United Kingdom. In this period, Irish nationalism enjoyed considerable sympathy among non-Irish Americans and among many Whig and Democratic Party politicians partly because of their shared anti-British history and republican principles, but primarily because southern politicians and proslavery Americans, generally, resented the British government's abolition of slavery in the Caribbean, its perceived meddling in America's peculiar institution, and its opposition to U.S. territorial expansion, especially in Texas and Mexico.

Yet O'Connell soon alienated proslavery and Irish Americans by opposing Texas annexation, and soaring Irish immigration, alongside Irish American nationalist agitation, stimulated a backlash of U.S. Protestant nativism. Moreover, despite generous U.S. charity to Ireland during the Great Famine, Sim contends that that catastrophe, plus the abysmal failure of Young Ireland's 1848 revolution, convinced American statesmen that Ireland was too weak to ever be more than a permanent British dependency and, after Parliament's 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws, a profitable minor market for U.S. farm products.

In the American Civil War, however, the British government's pro-Confederate policies angered northern statesmen and seemingly provided a new generation of Irish and Irish American nationalists, the latter organized in the so-called Fenian Brotherhood, with an opportunity to enlist Washington's support for revolution in Ireland or an Irish American invasion and conquest of British North America, or both. Yet, although some U.S. leaders initially encouraged Fenian aspirations to pressure London to settle the so-called Alabama Claims on American terms, Anglo-American statesmen realized that their countries' interests were best served by "marginalizing" and "domesticating" the "Irish question," so that it could not bedevil their diplomatic relationship. Indeed, one of Sim's principal theses is that Irish and Irish American nationalist agitations inadvertently promoted Anglo-American resolution of formerly contentious issues, such as the conflict between U.S. naturalization of Irish immigrants and Britain's claim to their perpetual citizenship.

The result, by the 1880s, was that America's and Britain's political elites were united by interest and ideology (Anglo-Saxonism) in viewing Irish and Irish American nationalist activities as at most irritating annoyances, and at worst (in response to Fenian bombings of England) "terrorist" assaults on "civilized values." In either case, the Irish question would not be allowed to disrupt the growing harmony between the two branches of what U.S. statesman Richard Olney called the "great English-speaking family whose proud destiny is to lead and control the world" (176). Thus, [End Page 730] Sim concludes, given Irish and Irish American nationalists' failure to gain the U.S. government's support, the achievement of even partial Irish independence in 1916–21 was "a pretty surprising outcome" (185).

This is an interesting, concise, and well-written book, based heavily on U.S. and British diplomatic correspondence and the papers of both American statesmen and Irish American nationalist leaders and organizations. However, some aspects of Sim's interpretation seem contradictory. For example, Sim appears uncertain whether to emphasize the agency of Irish American nationalists, who sought a republican alliance against the British Empire, or their victimization by American (and British) leaders, who sought to manipulate Irish agitation to serve state interests. Given the enormous disparity in resources between Irish nationalists and...


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