Enmity and Otherness: The Uses of ‘England’ in Irish nationalist historicism: John Mitchel and Alice Stopford Green

Enmity and Otherness: The Uses of ‘England’ in Irish nationalist historicism: John Mitchel and Alice Stopford Green

Shane Nagle looks at the role that England played in the writing of two nationalist Irish historians, with Anglophobia a key element.

Nations define themselves not only by their own histories, but by how they view the histories of other nations.[1] This is especially so for nations that have experienced disunity, fragmentation, conquest, and colonialism. For historians of Irish nationalism, this means considering how Irish nationalists viewed the history of England, filtered as this generally was through political considerations. ‘England’ fulfilled more than one role in the Irish nationalist historical imagination, not just the enemy and ‘Other’, but as a point of reference for how nationhood itself was understood, and, to some nationalists, in a reversal of traditional historical roles, as a warning of the consequences of what all nationalists feared: the weakening of ethnic ‘purity’. I consider here two unambiguously nationalist Irish historians and the role that ‘England’ played in their history writing and in their nationalist thinking more broadly.

The Young Ireland nationalism of the mid-nineteenth century had been defined by a tension between its desire to sink differences among the Irish, whether confessional or ethnic, and a desire to accentuate as much as possible the differences between Irish and English, or as the writers of The Nation had it, between ‘Celt’ and ‘Saxon’.[2] This was at its most apparent in the history writing of John Mitchel (1815-1875), whose virulent Anglophobia has, with some justice, done much to shape his posthumous reputation. In fact, Anglophobia had a purpose of defining how Irish nationhood was understood. The ‘goal’ of Ireland’s historical development was for him as well the dissolution of ethno-religious distinction, through pan-Irish enmity towards Britain. This enmity had helped to amalgamate the two ‘races’ of eighteenth century Ireland, which had effectively been two nations as well.[3]

Anticipating anti-colonial thinkers such as Frantz Fanon by a hundred years, Mitchel defined nationalism in the total rejection of the culture and presence of the foreign, enemy ‘Other’. The nationalism of Mitchel’s people, the liberal Protestant Irish, had originated in the erstwhile ‘colonists’ choosing to finally identify their interests with those of the mass of the nation.[4] As the Catholics of Ireland had all but disappeared from history as a result of their oppression in the eighteenth century, the rejection by Protestants of English rule towards its end signalled the re-beginning of Irish national(ist) history. In steering away from straightforward identification of nation with blood descent, Mitchel lays emphasis instead on the ‘composite Irish character’ that formed towards the end of the eighteenth century. The ‘patriots’ of the period manifested their Irishness in their ‘hostility’ to ‘England’.[5] This was the corollary of ‘the ancient and irremovable feeling of Englishmen, and the contemptuous falsehood of their estimate of the Irish people’.[6]

The enduring popularity of Mitchel’s writing lay in the simplicity of its message: since the first conflicts of Irish and English, it had been the mission of the latter to oppress, exploit, and destroy the Irish nation. As a nation ‘England’ was wholly lacking in any of the cultural virtues of other peoples, ‘perfidious Albion’ cared for nothing but its own ends, for which it was willing to destroy entire nations. Finally, modern England embodied the kind of modern, industrialised, commercial society which Mitchel despised, one which Ireland had to avoid becoming at all costs.

Alice Stopford Green (1847-1929) had, quite literally, become a historian of renown as a result of an English connection: her husband was the noted social historian J.R. Green, author of A Short History of the English People. An ‘Anglo-Irish’ Protestant, her concern with Irish history was partly triggered by the condescension expressed for it among metropolitan English intellectuals.[7] As a historian, her priorities and methods occupied a middle way between two of her mentors, W.E.H. Lecky (a fellow ‘Anglo-Irish’ Protestant), who had written a landmark History of England in which Irish history featured heavily and the Celticist and ‘Irish-Ireland’ figure Eoin MacNeill, who was concerned with removing English biases and preoccupations from Irish historical research.

In Green’s writing where England or Britain figures, ranging from her unpublished chapters on a history of Britain ranging from antiquity to the middle ages (which can be found among her manuscripts in the National Library of Ireland) to her books The Old Irish World and Irish Nationality, we find that while the Irish may have failed to establish political unity in the early middle ages, something that the English achieved precociously, the Irish had preserved despite repeated disruptions their cultural and ethnic purity, whereas English culture and ethnicity had been remade with every invasion that the larger island had experienced. The individualistic tendencies of the English had meant that even their achievement of unity had been secured only as a result of foreign invasion. The stories of Ireland and England were entwined from the earliest of times, and the lesson seemed to be that while the English had achieved greatness as a state, they had paid a woeful price in the degradation of their original culture. The Irish, however, while failing to develop enduring political unity, had nonetheless preserved the real essence of their nationhood, and in that sense, had ultimately prevailed.[8]

In this way, through history, more importantly through English history, Green is able to delineate the essential difference between the Irish and their neighbours, without resorting to markers of difference that might have excluded her from the Irish nation. Green’s Anglophobia, such as it was, paled in comparison to Mitchel’s, yet her strategy of reversing the common historical judgements made about ‘Ireland’ and ‘England’ was also effective in galvanizing separatist Irish nationalism.

These are but two examples of how the image of ‘England’ served a constitutive role in the Irish national(ist) historical narrative, whether as embodiment of the centuries-old oppression the Irish had suffered and at the same time the mechanism for unity between the two ‘races’ within Ireland, or as a historically ‘deracinated’ nation which showed that what the Irish had lacked in political strength, they held in the enduring unity and wealth of their national culture. In Irish nationalism of all variants, Anglophobia was a key constitutive element for establishing a single national community in which loyalty to Irishness could transcend the affinities imposed by church or ancestry, and Protestant nationalists played a key role in establishing its ‘respectability’.

[1] Monika Baár, Historians and Nationalism: East-Central Europe in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 2010), p. 256.

[2] James Quinn, Young Ireland and the Writing of Irish History (Dublin, 2015), pp. 75-76, 79-80)

[3] John Mitchel, History of Ireland from the Treaty of Limerick to the Present Time (New York, 1864), I, pp. 11-12, 13-14, 62.

[4] Ibid., pp. 238-240.

[5] Ibid., pp. 196, 308-309.

[6] Ibid., p. 210.

[7] Sandra Holton, ‘Gender Difference, National Identity, and Professing History: The Case of Alice Stopford Green’, History Workshop Journal, 53 (2002), p. 121

[8] Alice Stopford Green, Irish Nationality (Dublin, 1911), pp. 7-8, 14-15, 78, 86, 111-113, 119, 132, 141. Alice Stopford Green, The Old Irish World (London, 1912), p. 9.

Shane Nagle is an independent researcher specializing in Irish-European comparative history, with a particular focus on Germany, and the historical study of nationalism. His first book, ‘A History of Nationalism in Ireland and Germany: A Comparative Study from 1800 to 1932’ is slated for publication late next year.

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