A recent social media meme made tongue in cheek reference to why, in the context of the contemporary Irish leftist take on our history, that Oliver Cromwell ought to be one of their heroes.
The Irish Left has historically and intellectually dodged that logical bullet by deciding that Irish history mostly began in the 1790s.
The Officials or Stickies under their Sinn Féin/Workers Party manifestation were probably the ones most likely to have openly embraced The Lord Protector. Rather than explicitly go there, they opted instead to place all of the woes of Ireland at the feet of the “Catholic Bourgeoisie.”
One of the intellectuals of the currently dominant strain of “left republicanism,” Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin, comes closer to accepting the Cromwellian timeline in his reference to the “great challenges to feudalism and monarchy” of the 17th century.
Ireland as a nation was on the “wrong” side of that in every way. Both as the enemy of English republicanism epitomised by Cromwell and its people becoming the victim of an attempted genocide that accompanied the Cromwellian expropriation and “settlement.”
For Ó Broin it is simpler to recast Irish history in the mould of a tired old Hobsbawmian Marxist historiography. He celebrates the arrival on the stage of the United Irishmen who attempted to enlighten the “mass of Irish peasants” with the happy outcome, as Ó Broin approvingly quotes Nancy Curtin, that “The Catholics became patriots.”
Such a “reading” of Irish history is only possible on the basis of a profound ignorance of that “mass of Irish peasants”.
Prior to the missionary efforts of the cleverest boys in the Trinners Historical Society, the “peasants” were presumably wandering about in a mist for a millennium awaiting emissaries who could translate into the Erse all the wonderful things that awaited them once they abandoned their obscurantist faith and the illusion that they might one day take their land back from the settlers.
Connolly, whose logic and intellect took him in the opposite direction to his pale imitators on the “republican left,” struggled with the contradictions between the logic of Marxist historiography and his own innate patriotism. Marx and Engels and their main disciples revelled in the destruction of all tradition by capital. Family, religion and community all needed to be destroyed by Mammon before salvation under communism became possible.
Connolly in his earlier years inclined towards that eschatology, the only part of the Marxist vision that was ever accomplished, but his socialism was motivated by a genuine hatred of the very destruction brought about by unbridled capitalism. Such passion was unknown to déclassé bourgeois like Marx, or Engels or Lenin or Trotsky or Mao or Castro. – or from contemporary examples.
Connolly understood that there was nothing progressive for Ireland about Cromwell who Marx claimed had raised the English people, and by extension presumably the Micks, from “degradation.”.
Connolly also understood that when Ireland was subjugated Ireland “lost her language as the vehicle of thought of those who acted as her leaders. As a result of this twofold loss, the nation suffered socially, nationally and intellectually from a prolonged arrested development.”
The only leader of the United Irishmen who appears to have understood this was Thomas Russell who pointed out that not only was ‘Grattan’s Parliament’ deficient in asserting the rights of the vast majority of the population, but that was only possible because the leadership of the Irish nation, the Gaelic ruling class and intelligentsia, had been slaughtered, dispossessed and driven into exile during the 1600s.
Russell did attempt to learn Irish while working in the Linenhall Library in Belfast. His teacher was Pádraig Ó Loingsigh of Loughlinisland, county Down, who was from a family of scholars and preservers of manuscripts. Ó Loingsigh is believed to have been part of the publication of Bolg an tSolair in Belfast in 1795.
There is some evidence that Russell may have written the preface, in English, as it refers to the preface to Ó Briain’s 1760 dictionary, part of which was copied by Russell among his other manuscripts. The preface to Bolg an tSolair – printed in the cló Rómhánach rather than the cló Gaelach, interestingly – makes the point that the Irish language had an ancient literary and scholastic tradition that began to be actively suppressed by the Tudors.
This is worth mentioning as Russell was very much an exception. In his book, Presbyterians and the Irish Language, Roger Blayney made the point that there were very few individuals in the 1790s who were “both republicans and lovers of Irish language and culture.” And furthermore that “there is not much evidence that the United Irishmen as a body were particularly interested in the language.” He doesn’t believe that Russell himself acquired any proficiency although he was clearly sympathetic to the language unlike Tone who commented disparagingly on the Belfast Harp Festival which he attended in 1791.
Interestingly too, the advertisement in the United Irishmen’s Northern Star for Ó Loingsigh’s classes pitches knowledge of the language on the basis that “By our understanding and speaking it we could more easily and effectively communicate our sentiments and instructions to all our countrymen.” This was little different to the motivations of the modernising Protestant evangelists of the Tudor and Cromwellian and later periods who translated texts into Irish in order to evangelise among the Catholic Gaels.
Just how distinct from the “mass of Irish peasants” the United Irishmen were is illustrated by two other bits of evidence. One is of their ethnic and religious background, and the second is the extent to which Presbyterian millenarianism and anti Romanism was a fundamental part of whatever popular republican movement there was in northeast Ulster.
While the earlier settler communities in Ireland had mostly been fully integrated and, by the time of the Tudor and Cromwellian plantations, were both small in absolute numbers and almost entirely Gaelicised and Catholic, the United Irishmen were colonial nationalists mostly descended from the later 17th and 18th century settlers.
They were of those who had never been assimilated and who had no interest in being assimilated. They were more radical and younger versions, often indeed from the same families and certainly largely from the same social classes, as the ‘Patriots’ of 1782. That can be seen in a table recently reproduced by Peter Ryan in the Eriugena Review.
Not alone were the United Irishmen leadership culturally distinct from those “mass of peasants” who they sought to recruit to their modernist project, but they were anxious to assure the descendants of the settlers that there would be no attempt to reverse the land settlements.
Tone stressed that these had taken place so long ago in the past that they had been largely forgotten. By the natives, that is, although not by the settlers it would seem.
Left republican attempts to portray Tone and others among the United Irish leadership as proto socialists on the basis of Tone’s reference to the ‘Men of no property’ are weak to the point of being without any basis. Not only was there no such ideology as socialism as we understand it in the 1790s, but nor did the French Republic stand for anything resembling proprietorial egalitarianism.
The age-old Gaelic hope for the destruction of the colony and the taking back of the stolen lands was far more radical than anything envisaged by the Dublin and Belfast Jacobins. The subterranean Gaelic resistance which provided the men who fought in 1798 outside of northeast Ulster was driven by that vision.
Tone and others among the United Irishmen also bought into the Biblical millenarianism of some of the most prominent of the United leaders in Ulster such as the Reverend William Steel Dickson who in 1792, while accepting like Tone that the Catholic peasants were immersed in Romanist ignorance, sought to counter the claim common among radicals that Catholics were irredeemably incapable of liberty. When push came to shove most Ulster Presbyterians chose not to take their word and rushed, often directly, from the ranks of the United Irishmen into the Orange Order and the Yeomanry.
In his address to the 1793 Ulster Synod, of which Dickson was Moderator, another United Irishman the Reverend Thomas Ledlie Birch preached on the Papacy as Antichrist and as 1848 marking the year in which the Millennium would begin. The Northern Star had republished Robert Fleming’s 1701 book A Discourse on the Rise and Fall of Antichrist which had attracted much interest in the wake of the French revolution which was seen as confirmation of Fleming’s scriptural prognostications.
Tone not only celebrated the fall of Rome and the capture of the Pope by Napoleon on March 1, 1798 but noted that “Revelations have many fine things to say on this subject, touching the ‘Beast of Babylon’ etc.” This would indicate that he was also familiar with Fleming and other such authorities on Revelations.
So, while the notion of Cromwell as an Irish republican hero might appear to be absurd, ought we not also perhaps re-examine the place of Tone and the United Irishmen in the pantheon of Irish nationalism?