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With the expectation of binding England and Ireland together, the Act of Union in 1801 abolished Irish parliament resulting in Ireland being governed directly from Westminster. Consequently, two forms of nationalism opposing British rule arose; ‘constitutional nationalism’ which aimed to restore a measure of self-government through political influence and legal reforms whereas ‘revolutionary nationalism’ hoped to form an independent Irish republic through violent methods such as the use of force. Although constitutional nationalism achieved a number of reforms as well as gaining popular support during the beginning of the 19th century, Revolutionary nationalism achieved more overall in regards to its initial aim. Both nationalist movements advanced their cause with varying effectiveness, however the extent to which they can be considered successful is determined by strong leadership, the degree of popular support, strong methods and the ability to overcome resistance from Great Britain. Most importantly, the extent of change accomplished must be considered when determining the success criteria, and whether such changes achieved long term effectiveness in regards to the aims of both movements.
Constitutional nationalism thrived in the 1800’s, arguably more so than revolutionary nationalism, particularly as a result of Daniel O’Connell (constitutional leader) who advanced the cause extremely effectively and brought upon a number of highly significant changes. Such change can be seen through the establishment of association groups such as the Catholic Association and national repeal association which helped generate a huge number of mass support, further increasing the popularity of the constitutional cause. The success of the catholic association can be seen by the impact it had on all segments of catholic life; the middle class, clergy and catholic aristocracy were all involved, thus showing the unity of Irish Catholics. Also, the ‘catholic rent’, a subscription fee afforded by the poor strengthened support as a result of thousands being able to join, further showing the popularity of the association. Arguably, Constitutional’s greatest success in this period was O’Connell’s ability to secure Catholic Emancipation in 1829, mainly by winning the county Clare elections in 1928. This was a great achievement for Irish nationalism completed by constitutional methods, as it reduced and removed many restrictions brought upon the Irish by the Act of Union in 1806, hence gaining the support of the masses as well as setting a reminder to many for being one step closer to achieving their goals.
Despite the successes, the attempt for the repeal of the act of union was ineffective, due to O’Connell’ failure to secure the act within the peak of the campaign between 1841 and 1847. The demand for the repeal was popular among the Irish (made so by O’Connell), and its failure can be considered to have impacted the emancipation era, causing O’Connell to appear weak and ineffective. This was emphasized by his seemingly peaceful and moderate attitude which worsened public opinion due to his support from the Whigs who had joined British opinion in denying the repeal campaigns. Robert Kee’s provides a similar argument, claiming that the repeal movement had ‘no means of putting pressure on the government’, except by the ‘threat of armed rebellion which O’Connell made clear he would not countenance’. Kee offers a valid argument, as to a certain extent O’Connell’s ‘no compromise slogans’ and the declaration of 1843 being a ‘repeal year’ emphasizes the view that O’Connell was committed towards a cautious direction, despite such statements not taking effect, specifically evident in O’Connell’s submission to the Clontarf meeting in 1843. However, Kee’s view is limited when taking into consideration O’Connell’s efficacy, especially in regards to O’Connell’s rise in support through actions such as the national subscription fees; the repeal rent and the catholic rent which were both massive successes, most evident in January and March 1825 where the 1p a month catholic rent generated £9236 therefore reinforcing his public support and opinion. Also, Kee undervalues O’Connell’s success, as during the peel campaigns, O’Connell funded catholic priest education which caused Peel to be to be threatened, highlighting O’Connell’s power as well as popularity. Despite such successes, O’Connell’s achievements are somewhat limited as a result of yielding to the British, for example the repression of the catholic association by the British government emphasized O’Connell’s failure as a leader due to his inability to prevent the government’s reaction which reduced his popularity and resulted in considerable backlash. Therefore, O’Connell’s constitutional methods can be considered a failure due to willingly submitting to the British government’s demands thus hindering any real progress from occurring.
Kee being a journalist and newspaper editor makes his argument more convincing due to the critical approaches he must have attained when working in such environment. However, such profession may provoke Kee to become more inclined towards a particular viewpoint, thus causing his argument to seem more bias. Kee’s friendships with prominent figures such as George Orwell or AJP Taylor may have influenced his political opinion, resulting in leniency toward socialist sympathies and therefore his argument about O’Connell’s impotence towards the British government could be a result of surrounding left wing influences. Also, Kee’s involvement in WW2 and being confined in a German POW camp may have provoked empathy as well as understanding towards martyrs and imprisoned nationalists due to experiencing similar brutal treatment. Kee’s support for the release of Guildford Four, Maguire seven and Birmingham six is evidence of mutual compassion, and therefore his views could be deemed one sided due to being more sympathetic towards the revolutionary cause.
In addition to the argument made by Kee, it could be argued that the number of failures experienced had immensely reduced the overall success of constitutional nationalism. For example, the Litchfield house compact of February 1835 led to unpopular reformation bills such as the poor law act, the coercion bill and notably the municipal co operations which resulted in 58 co operations being shut down leaving many unemployed, thus heightening discontent and unpopularity among the Irish masses. Despite the huge success of the monster meetings with an estimated 3 – 4 million in attendance, O’Connell’s submission to the government who banned the monster meetings for being too rebellious, enabled the police to arrest O’Connell for 6 months hence emphasising weakness in his leadership due to his inability to defend the cause. In addition to this, O’Connell’s departure from young Ireland in 1846 was a substantial loss for constitutional nationalism, ensuing the loss of enthusiasm and devotion for his repeal campaigns. Therefore, despite securing catholic emancipation, O’Connell failed to achieve the act of union which can be seen as a huge failure in regards to not accomplishing the real aim.
However constitutional nationalism was predominantly more successful in comparison to revolutionary nationalism when considering the extent of change achieved during this period. This is evident in the humiliating and highly disorganised rebellion led by revolutionary nationalist Robert Emmet in hopes of removing the unpopular act of union in 1801. Nevertheless, the cause can be considered successful when considering the legacy set by Emmet’s rebellion; Emmet’s passionate and powerful speech during his trial regarding the protection of Ireland and the separation from Britain was vital in establishing him as a martyr willing to die for the revolutionary cause, consequently setting the tone for future action groups (e.g. Sinn Fein) and enhancing revolutionary nationalism’s aspiration. Therefore, it could be argued that the legacy set by the Emmet rebellion heightened the success of revolutionary nationalism, as it succeeded in achieving long term effectiveness in the future.
Nonetheless, revolutionary nationalism’s weak leadership and chaotic methods greatly reduced the impact of the revolutionary cause. This is evident in the revolutionary nationalist group ‘young confederation’ led by John Mitchell which largely consisted of disgruntled young Ireland members after the split between young Ireland and Daniel O’Connell in 1846. The arrest of John Mitchell and other leading members such as Gavin Duffy in 1848 left the group without a leader, thus demonstrating poor leadership and disorganisation. Furthermore, the humiliating rebellion in 1848 led by young Ireland dubbed ‘the battle of widow McCormack cabbage pack’ was a huge disaster for revolutionary nationalism; their actions were small in scale (only attracted small support mainly from young and literary people as well as middle class farmers) with the police immediately crushing the rebellion. Most importantly, it did not have a lasting impact on the Irish question, leading to the Irish confederations swift exit from the scene, showing the temporary failure of revolutionary nationalism during this period. Despite such failures, it could be argued that the achievement of their own newspaper ‘the united Irishmen’ was a fundamental success for revolutionary nationalism as it helped spread their aims and popularity, thus securing more followers and greatly increasing the recognition of the cause.

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