Burke on Ireland's Holy War

On the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Edmund Burke, Conor Cruise O'Brien assesses the legacy of his thinking on Ireland. Enlisted by both sides in the great Home Rule controversy, Burke would not be at all surprised by Ireland's continuing conflict
August 19, 1997

For much of the 19th century, thoughtful members of the upper and middle classes in Britain regarded the writings of Edmund Burke as a treasure-house of political wisdom. Liberals and conservatives were agreed on that, although not on where Burke's wisdom had revealed itself. Liberals valued most his writings on America and India, with their emphasis on respect for the principle of consent of the governed; conservatives were naturally more impressed by his writings on the revolution in France. Liberals may have felt that he had gone too far in his polemic against the French revolution: conservatives had little enthusiasm, even in retrospect, for his understanding of the American one.

There was, nevertheless, a general feeling among educated people that Burke had been broadly right about both revolutions. Certainly he had shown a kind of prophetic power in realising, earlier and more clearly than his contemporaries, that these events were of world historical importance. His great posthumous reputation rested primarily on his writings about them; these cast a long shadow over British and European political thought in the century up to 1914.

Against this background, and up to the 1880s, Burke's writings on Ireland-abundant, deeply considered and deeply felt though they are-did not seem particularly important to the English. This was because Ireland itself did not seem important. But from 1880, for a period of just over a decade, the "Irish question" came to dominate and convulse British politics. This was the result of an interaction between forces making for different kinds of social and political change in Ireland and in the rest of the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

In Ireland itself, the social changes were largely a consequence of the demographic impact of the great famine of 1845-48. In this period, about 1m people died and about 1m emigrated to North America, mainly to the US. A pattern of emigration was established, and the population of Ireland continued to fall after those years. In the US the Irish community grew accordingly, earning power and influence, and many of the people in that community maintained strong ties with their relatives in Ireland, who were overwhelmingly of catholic tenant-farmer stock.

This situation fuelled feelings of hostility, primarily towards the Irish landlords (mainly protestant) but also towards England, the protestant power which had conquered the catholic Irish and established the alien landlord system. Among the more politicised there was a belief that the Irish famine had been man-made-the result of policies calculated to exterminate a people-something we might now call genocide. Linked to this belief, but more deep-seated, was a feeling of shame over the passivity of the famine victims, who had gone to their deaths "like lambs to the slaughter."

While the attempt of some 20th century political activists to equate the 19th century Irish famine to the Holocaust of the European Jews nearly 100 years later is a spurious piece of rhetoric, there is a genuine and close similarity between post-famine attitudes of catholic Irish people in Ireland and America, and post-Holocaust attitudes among Jews, especially in Israel and America. In both cases there was a new and grim determination which could be expressed in two words: "Never again!"

As far as 19th century Ireland was concerned, the moment of truth for "Never again!" came at the end of the 1870s, when renewed famine seemed to be looming. The response to this threat was brilliantly innovative and unprecedented in its success. This was the movement known as the "new departure," of which the primary political organ was the Irish Land League. In Ireland, the Land League, founded by Michael Davitt, organised the tenant farmers to refuse rent and resist eviction. In America, the Irish emigrants, at the call of John Devoy and others, gave financial and propaganda support to the Land League on a scale never before available to any Irish movement. At Westminster and in Ireland, Charles Stewart Parnell emerged as the political leader of the whole movement. His slogan, "Keep a firm grip on your homesteads," summed up the immediate object-and it worked. Wherever the Land League chose to concentrate its efforts, it succeeded in ostracising and intimidating the landlords and their agents, to the accompaniment of enormous publicity. (The British government's ridiculous showdown over this tactic in 1880, in the case of Captain Boycott, the County Mayo land agent, gave the word boycott to the world.)

By 1881, it had become apparent to William Ewart Gladstone, the prime minister, that the Irish land system had become unworkable. He was determined to introduce a radical piece of legislation, which became the Land Act in the same year. This revolutionised the Irish system of land tenure and conceded most of the tenants' demands. It was a signal victory for "Never again!"

under the impact of the general turmoil caused by these events, Matthew Arnold, poet, essayist and political commentator, decided to collate and present to the public a number of Edmund Burke's letters, tracts and speeches on Irish affairs. Arnold had the idea of compiling such a collection at a time when British policies towards Ireland were being reassessed; he hoped that a study of Burke would have a benign effect on that process. In Burke's words, which Arnold made his own in his preface, he hoped that Burke would "set people on thinking." In retrospect this hope was only partially fulfilled in Arnold's view. The greatest statesman of the Victorian age, Gladstone, did indeed have his mind "set on thinking" by Burke's writings, and the main result of that thinking-the Home Rule Bill of 1886-was to fill Matthew Arnold with the same revulsion and dismay that it inspired in most other Englishmen.

The influence of Burke's mind over Gladstone's at the time when Gladstone was moving towards his great decision on Home Rule may be seen in John Morley's Life of William Ewart Gladstone. In late 1885 and early 1886, Gladstone was reading Burke "nearly every day" and wrote in his diary:

December 19 [1885]-read Burke; what a magazine of wisdom on Ireland and America.

January 9-made many extracts from Burke-sometimes almost divine.

"We may easily imagine," says Morley, "how the heat from that profound and glowing furnace still further inflamed strong purposes and exalted resolution in Mr Gladstone." One of Gladstone's former cabinet colleagues, the Duke of Argyll, a conservative Whig who knew his Burke and his Gladstone, was dismayed to learn that the prime minister was reading Burke and warned him that "your perfervidum ingenium Scoti [enthusiastic Scottish genius] does not need being touched with a live coal from that Irish altar."

It is hard to resist the conclusion that the Duke had a clearer idea of the forces at work in Burke's writing than Matthew Arnold, although both ended up taking a position against Home Rule. Arnold and Gladstone, on the other hand, set out to read Burke from much the same point of view, but came to conflicting conclusions. Both believed that most Englishmen were unaware of how badly the Irish-specifically the Irish catholics-had been treated in the past, and that a more sympathetic approach to their plight was now called for. But how much more sympathetic? It seems that Arnold did not realise the lengths to which Gladstone was ready to go on the Land Settlement-let alone Home Rule.

Burke's "wisdom," like that of the ancient oracles, is ambiguous. There are contradictions between the emotional thrust of his writings on Ireland and certain, specific, programmatic utterances. At first, Gladstone and Arnold went along with the general thrust, and did not diverge over specifics. Both agreed with Burke that the connection between Britain and Ireland needed to be strengthened, not weakened. However, Gladstone came to hold that the connection would be strengthened by making concessions to Home Rule-limited self-government within the empire, as demanded by a large majority of the overwhelmingly catholic Irish electorate. Arnold believed, on the other hand, that Home Rule would bring about the total separation of Britain and Ireland. This was not a dispute that could be resolved by drawing upon anything specific that Burke had said. Circumstances had changed drastically in the years since Burke's death, and no true Burkean could make light of such changes. In Reflections on the Revolution in France Burke had written: "Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind."

Specific solutions, then, were not on offer. Yet it can be argued that Gladstone's bold enterprise was more in tune with the spirit of Burke's writings on Ireland than was Arnold's anxious and cautious sympathy. By the mid-1880s, Gladstone's attitude differed from Arnold's in acknowledging the weight of the demands of a large majority of the Irish people, even though these demands appeared exorbitant to many in Britain and to a compact and determined minority in Ireland itself.

Had he been born 100 years later, Burke would probably have supported Gladstone's position, backed as it was not only by the poor tenant farmers, but by most middle class catholics and most influential members of the catholic hierarchy. This, however, is speculation. In practice, Gladstone accepted the emotional impact of Burke's writings and interpreted it as favourable to Home Rule. This was possible because the bulk of those writings constitutes a memorable tract against the protestant ascendancy over catholics. By the late 19th century, the rigid caste lines which Burke had known in Ireland no longer had legal backing; but protestant ascend-ancy remained a social and economic fact, and the main-almost the sole-opponents of Home Rule in Ireland were the protestants.

An appeal to the high authority of Burke among the British ruling class was a good way of undermining Irish protestant opposition. The Irish protestant record, as expounded by the man who was then regarded as the greatest of British political thinkers-himself a protestant of sorts-was tellingly used against the Irish protestants of the late 19th century. Thus, whatever Burke thought and intended, the influence of his Irish writings, in the late 19th century and after, favoured those who were seeking to adjust, or at least attenuate, the British connection and to undermine the position of the staunchest defenders of the Union in its existing form.

Arnold died on 14th April 1888, almost two years after the introduction of the first Home Rule Bill. Perhaps realising that he had fallen into a trap over Burke and Ireland, Arnold turned, in his last years, to a different body of Burke's writings: those on the revolution in France. This was the Burke of the Tories, who could now lead the fight against Home Rule. Owen Dudley Edwards writes of Arnold:

Increasingly Burke had been his great mentor on Irish questions, and in 1881 he had faithfully edited Burke's "Letters, Speeches and Tracts on Irish Affairs," the great storehouse of his own logic that Ireland must be given a sense of British concern for her welfare and an equal participation in the benefits of empire. Now he would turn to Burke again, to the Burke who broke remorselessly with old friends and party ties against the anarchy of the French revolution and its British supporters and sympathisers. Was it not just such anarchy that he saw in Ireland? And was it not just such treason to mankind to permit it to flourish? Burke had not seen an Ireland in arms, but he had seen the dangers that his Ireland might fall into the hands of designing enemies of civilisation and history, of truth and culture. That time had now arrived.

So Edmund Burke, in two different aspects of his thought and writing, had now been enlisted by both sides in the great Home Rule controversy. "Setting people on thinking" is indeed a hazardous and unpredictable enterprise.

It is an enterprise all the more hazardous given our uncertainty about Burke's own relation to the condition of the Irish catholics. Burke is something of a ventriloquist; we are not always sure from which direction his voice is coming. For example, he speaks of himself as an Englishman more than once in his writings on Ireland. But he was not, in fact, English, either as the term was used in his own time or earlier. He was born in Ireland of Irish parents, and his ancestry, as far as it is known, was entirely Irish and of native settler stock. His English contemporaries did not take him to be English. John Wilkes said that Burke's oratory "stank of whiskey and potatoes." Later, a more subtle critic, the great feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, took exception to his usurpation of the pronoun we to mean the English. Burke sat for English constituents in the mainly English parliament at Westminster, and no doubt he was concerned to stress that in matters of statecraft he was speaking for the English generally, not for his "little platoon," the Irish. (He would have had better title to the description "British" had he chosen to use it, but it does not appear that he ever did.)

The matter cannot be separated from the ambiguities of Burke's religious affiliation. He wrote about the Irish catholics, a people to whom-according to law, professed denomination and social convention-he did not belong. He was baptised into the Church of Ireland (in communion with the Church of England) and remained a member of that denomination all his life, so far as is known. According to law, Burke was a member of that Irish protestant ascendancy which he so detested.

Hostile contemporaries were sceptical about Burke's protestantism, not without reason. His early years in public life in England were dogged by rumours that he was a crypto-catholic, and throughout his life cartoonists depicted him in the garb of a Jesuit. His connections with the catholic Irish people were, in fact, about as close as they could be without him actually being a catholic.

Burke's mother, Mary Nagle, was and remained a catholic. The Nagles were a family of catholic gentry in the Blackwater valley; one of them, Richard Nagle, had been attorney-general to James II, and they all suffered in the ruin of the Jacobite cause. Burke's earliest schooling was at a catholic (and Gaelic speaking) "hedge-school" near his Nagle relatives, and he remained attached to his mother's side of the family all his life.

About Edmund Burke's father, Richard, Thomas Copeland has written that "almost nothing is certain." It seems probable, however, that Richard Burke had been a catholic who conformed to Anglicanism in order to be allowed to practise the law. This was quite a common strategy at the time-and one denounced by some bishops of the Church of Ireland. Certainly, a Richard Burke did conform to the Established Church in 1722, seven years before Edmund Burke was born and about the time Edmund Burke's father must have started his professional career. It is not certain that the Richard Burke who conformed was Edmund's father, but there is a strong family tradition that it was.

Against that probable background, consider the following passage from a letter of Edmund Burke to his own son Richard, concerning the Oath of Conformity which was required of catholics before they could enter the professions:

Let three millions of people but abandon all that they and their ancestors have been taught to believe sacred, and to forswear it publicly in terms the most degrading, scurrilous, and indecent for men of integrity and virtue, and to abuse the whole of their former lives, and to slander the education they have received, and nothing more is required of them.

Later writers were to see Burke as a liberal protestant, moved by a generous compassion for the catholic underclass. WB Yeats, in a fit of idealising protestant Anglo-Irishry, cited Burke among their heroes and stressed the gratuitous and disinterested nature of his exertions on behalf of Ireland: "People of Burke and of Grattan/That gave though free to refuse."

It was not really like that. It was more like a Jew whose father had chosen assimilation through conformity to the Established Church, and who felt torn as a result. The family position of Karl Marx was remarkably similar to that of Burke. Marx's father, the son of a rabbi, conformed to the Lutheran Church, so Marx was supposed to be a Lutheran. Such situations do themselves "set people on thinking," but they do not necessarily set them on thinking in the same ways or in the same directions. Marx and Burke solved their problem in opposing ways; but it was essentially the same problem.

Burke felt an abiding loyalty to the people from whom he came, and from whom he might seem to have defected. It was a loyalty which cost him dear, and it is tinged with horror: a horror which can take on a Swiftian intensity. There is a remarkable passage in the Speech at Bristol, Previous to the Election (1780), in which Burke's horror of the Penal Laws and their consequences can hardly be separated from a horror of the people degraded by those laws:

All the means given by Providence to make life safe and comfortable are perverted into instruments of terror and torment. This species of universal subserviency, that makes the very servant who waits behind your chair the arbiter of your life and fortune, has such a tendency to degrade and abase mankind, and to deprive them of that assured and liberal state of mind, which alone can make us what we ought to be, that I vow to God I would sooner bring myself to put a man to immediate death for opinions I disliked, and so to get rid of the man and his opinions at once, than to fret him with a feverish being, tainted with the jail-distemper of a contagious servitude, to keep him above ground an animated mass of putrefaction, corrupted himself, and corrupting all about him.

We do not know what the good burghers of Bristol, assembled in the Guildhall, can have made of all that. Certainly these words could not have contributed towards getting Burke re-elected as Member for Bristol, even if that had still been a possibility. (In the event he had to find another seat.) But there is no passage in all of Burke's writings on Ireland which conveys so clearly the feeling of what it is like to live under such laws; and more especially the feeling of what it was like to escape living under them, by the skin of your teeth-or rather your father's teeth.

matthew arnold hoped to influence a great contemporary debate about Ireland by invoking Burke; and Burke's writings, operating on the mind of Gladstone, did indeed influence that debate, although in a way that Arnold found disconcerting.

Despite this unpredictability, it may be tempting to try to relate those writings to our own debate about Ireland today-such as that is. On the whole, it is a temptation which ought to be resisted. A hundred years ago it was natural for English gentlemen to appeal to Burke as an authority accepted both by liberals and conservatives. Today, no prime minister with a serious political decision to make would sit for hours, as Gladstone did, reading Burke and taking notes. Conservatives do, occasionally, quote or misquote Burke, to lend a touch of class to an otherwise dreary speech, but that's about it. I doubt whether either Garret FitzGerald or Margaret Thatcher-the architects of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985-had read much Burke and I do not know what effect he might have had on them if they had read him, although I do feel that he would have fortified them in feeling that they were doing the right thing. (I say this with mild dismay. My admiration for Burke borders on idolatry, but I have very deep reservations about the Anglo-Irish Agreement.)

Essentially, the Anglo-Irish Agreement is a deal between Irish catholics and the British at the expense of Irish protestants in their Ulster bastion. Those who hope to move, under cover of that agreement, gradually in the direction of a united Ireland would not find much warrant in Burke, assuming they wanted any. It was Burke's enemies, the United Irelanders, who thought in terms of an Irish nation, without distinction of religion, separate from Bri-tain. Burke thought, and wrote, of Irish catholics as a nation. That much, at least, is profoundly relevant today. Irish catholics are indeed a nation. The Ulster protestants know they do not belong to that nation and do not want to be dominated by it (although of course they enjoyed dominating it as long as they could). In their hearts, the Irish catholics, while continuing to pay lip-service to "United Ireland" ideals, do not regard Ulster protestants as belonging to the same nation either. What the catholics want is to have their land back, and this is what the protestants want to prevent. We are, in fact, witnessing a kind of smouldering holy war over ancestral land, carried on under a cloud of misleading slogans.

There is nothing in any of this to surprise Edmund Burke. The holy war was already hundreds of years old in his own day. Since then, and with some help from him, the balance has shifted in favour of the catholics. He would have welcomed the shift in the balance, but he would also have had a word of advice which Irish catholics might take to heart in the aftermath: "Surely the state of Ireland ought for ever to teach parties moderation in their victories."

But it is not for such speculative, contemporary relevance that Burke's writings on Ireland are worth reading: it is because Burke stretches the mind and imagination of his readers in unexpected and sometimes startling ways. Matthew Arnold's experience with Burke, when applied to practical politics, was almost comically disconcerting, like an exploding cigar. Yet at a deeper level Arnold was absolutely right: "Setting people on thinking" is what it is all about. Burke will always enrich the thinking of careful readers in relation to whatever matter concerns them most. It does not have to be Ireland; it is probably better if it is not, because the problems of Ireland inevitably attract vain quests for definite answers, with their consequent intellectual, moral and political entanglements. So read Burke on Ireland, and then think about something else.