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Political Ideas in Eighteenth-Century Ireland

S.J. CONNOLLY, editor

This volume on Irish political thought is based on a series of
seminars held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
in 1998, sponsored by the Folger Institute Center for the History of
British Political Thought. As the Center's guiding force, J.G.A.
Pocock asserts in the concluding essay, it thus forms a part of that
admittedly problematic enterprise of constructing a "new British
history," one that acknowledges the interlocking and interacting
histories of all the peoples of the British Isles. Neither Pocock
nor the editor and seminar director, S.J. Connolly, explore how the
contributions to this volume constitute this historiographical new
departure. The essays included here represent less a consistent
methodological approach than a preliminary and rather empiricist
sampling of a range of political ideas which defy any coherent
generalization.

Connolly does identify three somewhat discontinuous themes within
Irish political thought--British constitutionalism (the "ancient
constitution" and its attendant rights and liberties), corporatism
(the defense of traditional group privileges), and civic humanism-a
trio that hardly distinguishes Irish political thinking from English
thought, and which would lead us to think that all Irish political
thought is merely derivative. Significantly, he refuses to
acknowledge Ireland's political and economic subordination to
Britain as a formative part of the mix. What distinguishes Irish
political ideas is that they are in fact pragmatic responses to real
political situations and, as such, Irish political thought adapts
these three ubiquitous political languages in opportunistic ways.
Thus we should not look to Ireland for abstract political
theorizing, but rather for the interplay between ideas and action.
The fact of Ireland's dependency (whether described as colonial or
otherwise) sits like the elephant in the living room in many of
these essays--an elemental fact of Irish political and economic life
that is either ignored or denied.

Connolly does assert an Atlantic significance to Irish political
thinking that might acknowledge the elephant, but neither he nor any
of the other contributors explore it. He and Jacqueline Hill prefer
to situate Ireland as an ancient regime state in Europe, rather
than a colonial dependency. This rejection of a colonial model
certainly shapes the approach to Irish political thought represented
here. The notion of Ireland as a colony has traditionally been
integral to a teleological nationalist meta-narrative that
privileges a continuous oppositional rhetoric and mutes the massive
body of pro-establishment voices. Much of the scholarship on Irish
political thought (and it is still a much neglected field) has
sought to discredit this anti-colonial reading by emphasizing its
discontinuities and its opportunistic appropriation of self-serving,
frustrated place-seekers. But given the obvious fact of Ireland's
dependency (however labeled) it has been a difficult task. Even
here, the two essays on political economy (one by Robert Mahony on
Swift and another by Patrick Kelly) detect a decided anti-colonial
critique that identifies the development of the British economy with
the deliberate underdevelopment of the Irish economy.

The political ideas sampled reflect the political thought of the
Anglo-Irish, Protestant elite. While acknowledged to exist,
Catholic and Presbyterian thinking is dismissed. Indeed, Pocock
seems to imply that Protestant Ireland is very much a part of the
"new British history," while Catholic Ireland is not. The essays
included instead focus on the debate within Protestant Ireland over
the Glorious Revolution (Connolly), the resiliency and ubiquity of
old regime corporatist institutions, practices, and ideology (Hill),
Jonathan Swift and consumption (Mahony), political economy in the
1720s and 1730s (Patrick Kelly), critical reappraisal of the Patriot
tradition (Connolly again), an historiographical review of
republican United Irish thought (Ian McBride), and the emergence of
an Irish neo-conservatism in the 1790s (James Kelly). Each of these
essays can stand alone as excellent models of scholarship that point
to areas of Irish political thinking which should be explored
further. What the volume lacks is a framework or even a rationale
that might link these contributions together. The rather unhelpful
framing essays of Connolly and Pocock barely acknowledge the other
contributors. Is Irish political thought merely the sum of what can
be discerned from reviewing its copious pamphlet productions,
themselves responses to unique political situations?

A review of Irish political thought could deal with major Irish
political thinkers, and here the list is expanding of those who were
very much the product of an interlocking and interactive republic of
letters. To the traditional list of Molyneux, Swift, Berkeley, and
Burke, we can add John Toland, Francis Hutcheson and his association
with Presbyterian Ireland, the Catholic Charles O'Connor, as well as
engaged politicians like Charles Lucas, Henry Grattan, Theobald
Wolfe Tone, and John Fitzgibbon. It could also deal movements and
events that provoked widespread engagement with political ideas.
Both approaches would certainly reveal a range of political ideas,
ambiguities and tensions, and yet beneath it all we would be able to
identify common concerns about questions of power, authority,
dependency, civic competence, the scope and limits of imperial
practices, all of which emerged in the specific situation of a
dependent nation where power was monopolized by a privileged
confessional minority. But while specific to Irish circumstances,
the body of this kind of Irish political thinking (whiggish,
radical, and conservative) resonated significantly elsewhere within
an Atlantic, European, and British Isles framework, just as it
imbibed so heavily from these other traditions. Here we uncover a
truly interlocking and interacting history of Irish, British, and
Atlantic political thought.

Recent efforts to reveal the Irish Burke, for example, make these
connections between Burke's unique Irish experience and his
constructions of Britishness, his anti-colonial sympathies with
America and India, and his critical engagement with his own Whig
past. It seems that here lies a model for an authentic "new British
history," one that transcends the obvious and very cautious and
limited approach to political thought (pragmatic responses to
specific political situations) that Connolly advocates here.

H-NET BOOK REVIEW

Reviewed for H-Albion by Nancy J. Curtin <NancyCurtin@telocity.com>,
Department of History, Fordham University