Bread and circuses -- without the bread

Ruairí Ó Domhnaill reviews Abject Loyalty: nationalism and monarchy in Ireland during the reign of Queen Victoria by James H. Murphy, Cork University Press £45.09 hbk

PROFESSOR MURPHY has written a fascinating, challenging work, heavy with footnoted detail. His conclusions are equally stimulating if less well supported. At a time when Bagehot thought his English compatriots had not evolved for two thousand years -- from when emperors provided the lower orders with “bread and circuses”-- the British government in Ireland was sufficiently precocious to see the flaw in that formula -- the bread.

The author dismisses the United Irishmen’s republicanism and gives little more credit to Irish culture, in which English was, at best (or worst) a poor second language. The Irish masses foolishly clutched at straws, hoping, for example, that the fashion for Catholic royal mistresses would advance the cause of Catholic emancipation.

Some believed that Victoria’s mother was a closet Catholic: some that the sycophantic, ultra-loyal ‘Liberator’, Daniel O’Donnell claimed to be Victoria’s father. Prince Albert’s sophisticated family pragmatism “when it came to religion and its dynastic advantage” was probably beyond their comprehension.

Queen Victoria made several visits to Ireland and the ‘emotional’, ‘child-like’ and ‘maleable’ Gaeil usually fawned enthusiastically before her. The Prince of Wales was Edward the Sedative, long before he became Edward VII.

An Gorta Mór is little more than acknowledged. Victoria’s part in it is absolved, her power being “limited in the extreme” by the constitution. Conversely, in foreign affairs she had “greater influence than her constitutional position warranted”.

The British constitution was (and is) vague and arbitrary, and flouted at Victoria’s whim -- once to Ireland’s benefit!

The work would benefit from explanations of references like the Don Pacifico affair, Wyndhams Land Act and “crowned republic”. The last mentioned has been raked over by experts, as recently as Prochaska (2000); it makes as much sense now as it did in the 19th century. Elements of ethnocentrism may be noted in the references to 19th century Irish “racism” and “homophobia”.

The author draws heavily on two sources: the British Royal Archives and Freeman’s Journal. In a random sample of more than 200 footnotes, almost 20 per cent came from the former: 46 per cent are from Freeman’s Journal, which was subsidized by Dublin Castle from 1786 until 1809, supported Catholic emancipation, repeal, the Land League and home rule. The IRA destroyed its presses in 1922.

It is misleading to blame an Gorta Mór, on the ‘Irish system of land tenure’. It was not Irish. Further, the account of the six-counties ‘troubles’ omits civil rights issues and the statelet’s sectarian government -- “the worst of governments” (Bagehot).

The author repeats a tale that the IRB’s Patrick Pearse and Joseph Plunkett proposed the installation of a German prince as King of Ireland, in the hope of German aid and that, as a non-English speaker, Prince Joachim would encourage the use of Gaelic.

The story might have been amusing -- in isolation.

Professor Murphy also makes his own contribution to the Irish quixotic tradition by stateing that: “The struggle over (Catholic) emancipation helped to lead to the removal of religion from politics in Britain but to its entrenchment in politics in Ireland”.

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