'Foundation text' for Ulster unionism

Gerard Curran reviews The Repealer Repulsed by William McCombe published by University College Dublin Press (Classics of Irish History series), £16.95 pbk

THE REPEALER Repulsed is an account of Daniel O’Connell's visit to Belfast in January 1841 to rally support for the Repeal of the Act of Union.

Henry Cooke, the celebrated Presbyterian leader, publicly challenged O’Connell to debate Repeal during his visit. O’Connell refused to debate with Cooke, partly because he did not want to elevate his rival’s status, but also for fear of violence.

The book is an account of O’Connell's meeting, which developed into a heckling match, and speeches from an enormous meeting of anti-repeal Protestants in the Circus on 21 January 1841.

The unanimous feeling of the anti-repeal meeting was that the Union had greatly benefited Ulster by increasing trade and commerce.

The book shows how the Presbyterians, who in 1798 had produced many revolutionary leaders and made common cause with the mass of the population who were Catholic, were now in an alliance with the Protestant Anglican nobility.

They were united against any measures which might improve the political or economic status of Catholics. They feared a ‘Catholic ascendancy’ but were at great pains to deny that they, themselves were a Protestant ascendancy.

What had been planned by Lord Castlereagh was a situation where both Presbyterian, Anglican and the Catholic clergy would be paid by the British government. This would make them less inclined to side with the ‘lower orders’.

It is hard to believe that the meeting at the Circus really believed that O’Connell was capable of leading his followers to the point of making the British government hand back the ‘Irish parliament’.

They must have known that O’Connell, since his student days in Paris, abhorred violence. Frederick Engels thought him more interested in keeping the Whigs in office than advancing democracy in Ireland. James Connolly called him a renegade.

McComb’s book is successful in providing a foundation text for Ulster unionism, containing one of the earliest polemics to cite the industrial development of Belfast as an argument in favour of the Union. It also provides valuable insight into the construction of contemporary political Protestantism.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-05-23 13:37:23.
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