A timely, comprehensive overview of the United Irish revolution

John Wilson reviews 1798; a bicentenary perspective, Thomas Bartlett, David Dickson, Daire Keogh and Kevin Whelan (eds), Four Courts Press, £45 hbk

IF THE international framing is not always sufficiently visible in treatments of Irish history, this magnificent compendium, amply rectifying such negligence, sets the events it deals with firmly within a carefully realised national and geopolitical context (or set of contexts).

First, the intellectual context. The reader is given an urgent sense of the nation being driven to the horizon of the political imaginary as, during the years leading up to 1798, we are made witnesses to “a process of ideological escalation (in which) a community (was) forced to capture ideas in order to function.” And ideas were captured from everywhere for, “if the problems that Ireland found itself located within were larger than Ireland, so were the solutions.”

The United Irishmen drew on everything; not only Montesquieu, Rousseau and Volney, but also — seeing their own cause on a continuum with that of African slaves and Native Americans - on the primitive communism of the Iroquois and Seneca as well as the black revolutionaries of San Domingo. Far from inhabiting a backwater on the margins of the cultural and intellectual ferment of Enlightenment Europe Irish men and women were active and avid participants in that vast decentralised transnational network which characterised European and American intellectual life during the period. A network along whose vectors were disseminated ideas that "challenged power structures in church and state, and appealed to a concept of universal human rights. "

Then, when the appeal to reason is met with force and the rising commences, in essay after essay we are continually moved from the local and regional to the largest international and global perspectives on the shifting balances of power which characterised the period. The extensive use of private correspondence from multiple sources, both pro and contra, brings to an appalling immediacy of felt life such familiar stories as Lake's brutal pacification of Ulster. This intimate and densely textured view of tumultuous, exhilarating and, ultimately, tragic events as they unfold, day by day, almost moment by moment, on the ground is counterpointed to the (only apparently) larger movements and dynamics of global history.

Far beyond the context of the narrow sectarian ground in which this history is usually framed, '1798' performs the inestimable service of recovering a number of hitherto now hidden histories - that of radicalised women; the role of Presbyterianism; preeminently, the history of that precocious anti–colonialism mentioned above — and, in doing so it compels us to recognise "the international horizons of the United Irishmen and their sense of participation in a cosmopolitan political project to transform the entire global order…" It also poses the question as to how we ever let this generousnarrative be buried for so long by the dire anti-politics of Planter and Gael?

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