While the aspirant Sinn Féin First Administrator of the British-controlled part of Ireland is, in certain quarters, being lambasted for her planned attendance at the Coronation of King Charles III, there was a time when Irish nationalists were inclined to look with favour upon monarchs, and pretended monarchs, bearing that name.
It was a foolish predilection, given that the Stuart kings and their would-be successors were no better than the Tudors or the Hanoverians when it came to Ireland. The reason they enjoyed some popularity here was that they were seen as symbols of the alliance between the old Gaelic families and the Old English Catholics during the resistance to the 17th century Cromwellian and Williamite expropriations and attempted genocide.
That Jacobite sentiment survived into the 18th century even after the defeat of the Scottish Jacobite army of ‘Bonnie Prince’ Charles Edward Stuart at Culloden in 1746. Had he been successful, he would have become the Charles III rather than the current chap whose family would then never have become royalty, or at least not in Blighty. Such are the twists and turns of history.
The Gaelic Irish support for the Stuart claim might appear odd, but it has to be looked at in the light of the realpolitik of those times. For the surviving Gaelic elite, including the exiled Uí Neill, a Catholic king that was recognised both by themselves and their not entirely reliable Old English allies was regarded a means to unite the two factions and basically overthrow the colony, and to take back the lands expropriated during the Tudor and Cromwellian conquests.
Following the final failure of the alliance after the defeat of the forces of King James II here, Jacobitism survived within the Irish tradition as a vehicle for a popular radicalism. The Gaelic exiled leaders were dying off in Rome and Salamanca and Louvain, and the Old English Catholics in Ireland gradually reintegrated themselves within the colony even before the Penal Laws first became less harshly enforced and then abandoned.
Many of the 18th century Irish writers, mostly particularly the Aisling poets, placed their hopes for a revival of the old order on either the return of the Stuarts or, in the case of some of the Ulster and north Leinster poets, the unlikely return as Gaelic monarchs of the descendants of the exiled Uí Neill.
Two centuries later Máirtín Ó Cadhain declared that, for the people of Connemara, it had not been Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen who survived in the folk memory but Áodh Balldhearg Ó Domhnaill who had come from exile in Spain to join the Jacobite forces in Ireland in 1690. He further wrote that it was Jacobitism rather than republicanism that delegitimised the Ascendency in the eyes of the people.
The expectation that a victory of the forces of King James against King William, or any subsequent Jacobite overthrow of the Protestant ascendency would overturn the land settlement was probably illusory. It was rooted in the desperation of a defeated people threatened with extinction, but even during the first part of the 18th century the return of the Stuarts remained not altogether a political or military impossibility.
It could also be argued that when the French revolution and the republicanism of the United Irishmen came to take the place of Jacobitism, that it was embraced by the Gaelic Irish – and the extent to which it was is debatable – not as a political ideology born out of the Enlightenment and a belief in the “Rights of Man,” but as another potential vehicle for the overturning of the English Protestant settlement with the aid of allies from across the seas.
The Cork poet Micheál Ó Longáin who was a member of the United Irishmen, referred to the hope that victory would lead to “an talamh go léir do bheith saor go buan,” – the taking back of the land from the descendants of the settlers – but that was no more part of the plan of the United Irishmen than it had been of the landed gentry who took the Stuart side.
Another of Ó Longáin’s poems, from 1785, refers to “táinig buachaillí bána,” an allusion to An Buachaill Bán, Bonnie Prince Charlie, but also to the Whiteboys of whom Ó Longáin was one and who were engaged in a small scale rural war against the settler landlords and their church. Seán Ó Muláin who wrote a lament for Charles Edward Stuart in 1788 was similarly waiting in hope in 1800 for the republican French “ag teacht ó chuan Brest.”
As Vincent Morley has observed, that seeming incongruity evidenced by the transition from a millenarian hope on behalf of the Gael in the armies of Scottish kings to the armies of the French Republic – from Jacobitism to Jacobinism – only confuses those “who view the political culture of eighteenth-century Ireland through an anglocentric prism.” Those historians and ideologists who are deaf and blind to the world of Gaelic Ireland because they cannot read the language of Gaelic Ireland.
That continuity of the tradition of resistance is illustrated by the song Óro sé do bheatha abhaile. It was originally a Jacobite song that referred to the coming of Bonnie Prince Charlie: “Séarlas Óg ag trial thar sáile,” who through Pearse became “Gáinne Mhaol” the personification of Ireland depleted for republican reasons of any royalist connotations.
Ó Bhean an Tí is a song recorded by Clannad and Téada among others which is associated with 1798. It contains nods to the republican influence, “dlí na Fraince,” but the getting of “talamh gan cíos,” land without rent could equally be the old hope of throwing the settlers off the land as any egalitarian understandings of the French revolution.
That song also contains a reference to the army of the “Duke of York.” Morley solves the apparent confusion over this by pointing out that it could only be Henry Stuart, Cardinal Duke of York and grandson of James II, and not the English Duke of York Frederick, son of George III, as some apparently believed the song to refer to, but only through their ignorance of the tradition.
It was only in 1766, when Pope Clement XIII refused to recognise the legitimacy of Charles Edward Stuart, son of James II who died in Rome in January of that year, that a decisive end came to any connection of the Catholic bishops in Ireland – now largely of the Old English elite rather than the Gaelic exiles in Rome and Louvain – to the Jacobite cause. They had already designated March 12, 1762, as a day of prayers for George III who was at war with France. The Tipperary poet Liam Dall Ó hIfearnáin condemned this as an appeasement of “na nGalla.”
By that stage, both the Stuarts and the descendants of the exiled Gaelic families serving the armies of France and Spain and still providing sons and daughters to the Church of Rome which had now officially abandoned them both, were beaten dockets. There was no more chance of a reverse Imeacht na nIarlaí than there was of a Stuart Catholic King Charles III.
It is surely ironic then, and laden with layers of deep hidden historical meaning that a distant descendent of the displaced Uí Neill ought to be paying court to a King Charles III just as might an émigré O Neill have journeyed similarly to the court of Bonnie King Charlie III had things gone differently in 1746 in the hope that the stolen lands of Tyrone might have been returned to their rightful owners.
And just as likely to have been disappointed.