Patriotism: Early Irish Nationalism

Originally published at the Crawley Irish Festival August 2005

The term ‘patriot’ is best known in relation to the American War of Independence but the origins of Patriotism began in Ireland with the writings of Jonathan Swift and William Molyneux who wrote: “liberty seems the independent right of all mankind”.

Throughout the 18th Century a Protestant Ascendancy existed in Ireland. During the 1700s, Protestant Ireland explored their relationship with the London Government and began to increasingly resent it. At this time, Catholics were harshly discriminated against following the Williamite Rebellion (1689-91) when much of the Catholic nobility opposed the legitimate King of England. The Penal Laws were introduced to ensure that this nobility would no longer be in a position to oppose the king. However, as time passed both Protestant ideas began to question the legitamacy of the Penal Laws and the Irish relationship with Westminster.

Despite Ireland having it’s own parliament, it seemed always to be in servitude to English aims. Trade was only allowed with Britain, yet severe tariffs were imposed and then exports barred entirely. Jonathan Swift, best known for Gulliver’s Travels, extensively condemned the relationship. The sentiment was shared by a large number of the elite who resented that ‘Englishmen’ attained important roles in Ireland over them. The ‘protestant elite’ increasingly found cause with all Irishmen, irrespective of religion.

Patriot writings demonstrate a desire for accountability in governance and legislative independence. It was a notion that demonstrated that Ireland was a nation of her own, accountable to herself with her sovereign right to self-determination. The 1700s began with penal laws but continued dismantling of them toward the end of the century signified an evolving political state. In both politics and in literature, Patriotism transformed Anglo-Irish protestants into the Irish.

In 1782, the Patriots successfully achieved freedom from imposed legislation: modernisation and much equality followed. It is interesting to speculate on how Patriotism and Ireland might have evolved had the Act of Union (1800) with Britain not taken place. The Catholic relief acts, economic initiatives and social reforms indicated that Patriotism might have evolved Ireland into a modern national state – indeed it was Daniel O’Connell’s belief that an Irish parliament could have prevented much of the distress of mid-19th century Ireland.

Patriotism was a protestant independence movement and one that few modern Irish Republicans would describe as un-Irish. It laid the political foundations for the first modern republican uprising, in 1798: The United Irishmen Rebellion.

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