The Road to Home Rule review: How disgust at colonial aggression fuelled Irish nationalism

Paul A Townend looks at how analogies were made with Ireland’s centuries of suffering

Sat, Dec 3, 2016, 06:00


Book Title:
The Road to Home Rule: Anti-Imperialism and the Irish National Movement


Paul A Townend

University of Wisconsin Press

Guideline Price:

A speech in the summer of 1877 heralded the emergence of Charles Stewart Parnell as the driving force behind Home Rule for Ireland. But the subject of the nationalist leader’s remarks was not his homeland – it was the British government’s attempt to take control of a faraway colony in South Africa.

“As an Irishman, coming from a country which had experienced the results of British interference in its affairs and the consequences of British cruelty and tyranny,” he declared during a raucous debate in Parliament, he “felt a special satisfaction in thwarting and preventing the intentions of the government”.

Parnell and his cadre of Irish MPs did not have the votes needed to block passage of the legislation annexing the Transvaal. But American historian Paul A. Townend sees this foray into foreign policy as a turning point in Ireland’s turbulent political history. The nationalist movement was wielding a new weapon – Irish revulsion at excesses of British imperialism that hit close to home. In The Road to Home Rule: Anti-imperialism and the Irish National Movement, Townend explores how British incursions into Asia and Africa during the 1870s and 1880s galvanised public opinion in Ireland and played into the hands of those pushing for Home Rule.

“In these formative years for the Irish national movement,” he writes, “Irish attention, even at moments of profound domestic crisis, often centred on events half a globe away in South Africa, on the Indian subcontinent, or in Egypt and the Sudan.”

Townend, a professor of British and Irish history at the University of North Carolina, has dug deep into the political speeches, newspaper commentary and editorial cartoons of the period to show the widespread sympathy within Ireland for the victims of British colonial aggression.

He argues that scholars have tended to underestimate the importance of anti-imperial sentiment in the rise of Irish nationalism. Given the events roiling Ireland during the period – from evictions and boycotts to the creation of the Land League and the Phoenix Park murders – this focus on the home front is understandable.

But a succession of bloody skirmishes gave Irish critics and nationalist newspapers ammunition to attack the British on a second front – the sometimes disastrous expansionism and jingoism of the Disraeli and Gladstone administrations. The Afghan and Zulu wars of the 1870s exposed, in Townend’s words, “British aggression, greed and hypocrisy”.

The Zulus and their leader King Ceteweyo were cheered at Land League meetings and other Irish protests. A cartoon in one nationalist newspaper depicted a Zulu dispatching a British soldier with the caption, “Serve Him Right”. The British were accused of a land grab like that under way in Ireland against impoverished tenant farmers. Analogies were made to the killings and destruction unleashed on Ireland in Elizabethan times.

Nationalists were buoyed by the defeats, which made Britain look vulnerable and promised to divert troops to the imperial frontier and away from Ireland. “Each Zulu victory, each diplomatic check, each threatened coalition of oppressed subject peoples, presented British power with a test that might possibly be failed,” Townend notes.

The Boers provided further inspiration. “First blood for the Boers!” was the celebratory headline in one radical Irish newspaper when the First Boer War broke out in 1880. Another editor denounced the conflict as a “wicked colonial quarrel, got up from the sake of greed, pursued in violation of all international rights”. Crowds that had backed the Zulus now cheered on the Boers.

As Britain cracked down on Irish unrest with coercion laws and a military buildup, colonial conflicts became proxy wars for the battles the Irish were powerless to fight at home. An English writer touring remote Co Donegal in the 1890s encountered a resident who was still envious of the upstart Boers. “When I see what a handful of Dutch farmers did with your grand old army,” he lamented, “I am ashamed to be an Irishman submitting to foreign rule.”

Irish nationalists had to be content with propaganda victories as the war of words and images escalated. The incendiary rhetoric often bordered on treason, and the outspoken Michael Davitt was arrested for vicious attacks on British military action abroad. The radical Irish World weighed in with an 1879 cartoon titled “The Bubble Empire,” with John Bull blowing a large bubble amid a swarm of insects armed with bayonets and labelled Africa, Zulu and, with considerable optimism, Ireland. “Which of them will burst it?” the caption asked.

The Irish continued to revel in the Empire’s misfortunes in the 1880s, when British incursions into North Africa culminated in a disastrous defeat in the Sudan. Crowds at nationalist rallies now cheered the Mahdi fighters who wiped out General Charles Gordon and his garrison at Khartoum in early 1885. The British Empire “terrorises and it threatens, it plunders and it persecutes,” claimed one nationalist leader, as it had “done in our own land”.

Townend documents this sustained outpouring of anti-imperialism in meticulous detail and more than twenty editorial cartoons have been reproduced as illustrations. The sheer volume of evidence can be overwhelming at times, but the author’s command of the material and insights into the politics of the period make this a worthwhile read.

Once joined, Irish nationalism and anti-imperialism became inseparable. The Irish bristled at being part of an empire they considered corrupt and exploitive; the British recoiled at the open displays of Irish disloyalty. The defeat of the first Home Rule bill in 1886, in the wake of Ireland’s imperial backlash, only delayed the inevitable split.

The road to Ireland’s eventual independence, as Parnell sensed and Townend convincingly argues, ran through the morass of Britain’s Victorian-era imperial entanglements.


Dean Jobb, author of Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books), teaches nonfiction storytelling and journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.