The Anglo-Irish



Along with the more readily identifiable immigrant groups, the eighteenth century also saw the rise of a much more powerful, though less well defined race, the Anglo-Irish. These were a social elite, dominating politics, the law, land, and the professions, who were descended from Norman, Old English, Cromwellian, or even, in some rare cases, Old Gaelic stock. Rather than a common ethnic origin, what defined these people was their sense of belonging, derived from a confused colonial nationalism. This is reflected in their use of the word "Irish". Those who, in 1690, were "the Protestants of Ireland" or "the English of this Kingdom", by the 1720s could call themselves, simply, "Irish gentlemen". Where previously "Irish" had meant "native Irish", it was now extended to cover those who had been outsiders.

There remained, however, a fatal ambiguity in its use. The continuing threat posed to the position of the Anglo-Irish by the overwhelming majority of the population - Gaelic, Catholic, and living in a degree of poverty that astounded foreign observers - meant that they simply could not afford to identify too closely with the country as a whole. As a result, in the writings of the time, "the Irish", or even "the Irish race" most often refers specifically to the people we now call Anglo-Irish.

The best-known representative of the Anglo-Irish was Dr. Jonathan Swift, poet, satirist, and Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, and the dilemma of his race is illustrated vividly in his work. Fighting bitterly against the poverty and injustice which he saw inflicted on Ireland by the self-interest of the English government, his struggle was nonetheless largely on behalf of his fellow Irish Protestants. He was aware that "government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery" could apply just as well to the relationship between Anglo-Irish and Gaelic Irish, as it could to the relationship between the English government and the Anglo-Irish. In attacking injustice done to his own race, he was in the peculiar and uncomfortable position of implicitly attacking injustice done by them. In Swift's case at least, common humanity could outweigh partisan considerations, and some of his most famous work is universal in its implications. "A Modest Proposal", for instance, in response to mass starvation among the most destitute Irish, satirically suggests selling their young children as food for gentlemen, even offering some helpful recipes.

Although real power emanated from London, within Ireland the Anglo-Irish were dominant for over two centuries, and much of the character of the country today derives from their influence. They were responsible for the great neo-classical houses of the gentry, the Georgian buildings and thoroughfares of Dublin, and the literary tradition which lay behind the great revival of writing in Ireland in the early twentieth century.