Wellington won Battle of Waterloo 200 years ago – but Irish rejected his legacy
Ronan McGreevy: ‘Wellington won the Battle of Waterloo, but, in the long term, the Irish came to reject the world that he represented’
The Battle of Waterloo was fought 200 years ago, on June 18th, 1815. Above, Napoleon’s retreat from the Battle of Waterloo. Image: After a painting by Steuben. Photograph by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Duke of Wellington never did say about his Irish birth “just because you are born in a stable does not make you a horse”.
It was said by Daniel O’Connell about him and has hung about the reputation of the Iron Duke ever since like a bad smell because it is true.
Wellington was Irish in so far as he was born in Ireland and spent his youth in Ireland, but he was really a British aristocrat and imperialist. His allegiances were to his own class and to the British monarchy.
He never self-identified as Irish though his family had been in Ireland for centuries. It would not have occurred to him. He saw Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom and a querulous one at that. He dismissed Ireland as a “nation of scoundrels”.
His biographer Lawrence James wrote of him: “Neither he nor his kin ever considered themselves as Irish. . .The Anglo-Irish aristocracy had nothing in common with the indigenous, Gaelic-speaking and Catholic Irish whom they despised and distrusted.”
In 1807 Wellington betrayed his true feelings towards the country of his birth in a letter to the then Home Secretary Lord Hawkesbury: “I am positively convinced that no political measure which you could adopt would alter the temper of the people of this country. They are disaffected to the British Government; they don’t feel the benefits of their situation; attempts to render it better either do not reach their minds, or they are represented to them as additional injuries; and in fact we have no strength here but our army. Surely it is incumbent upon us to adopt every means which can secure the position and add to the strength of our army.”
Wellington did not see himself as Irish because being Irish meant by definition being disloyal to the Crown. “Show me an Irishman and I’ll show you a man whose anxious wish it is to see his country independent of Great Britain”.
Wellington was from Ireland, but he was not of Ireland. He was part of an Anglo-Irish caste that lived parallel lives to the Catholic majority.
He described Protestants such as himself as the “English garrison” and Ireland “in a view to military operations must be considered enemy country”.
The Irish were good for one thing though. They were suitable cannon fodder for his continental campaigns.
Catholics were allowed to join the British army only in the late 1700s. No high-minded principal was involved in granting this right. At that time Ireland constituted a third of the population of the United Kingdom. It made no sense to neglect such a reservoir of manpower.
The Irish made up 40 per cent of Wellington’s army during the Peninsular war and 30 per cent of his troops at Waterloo. They were the ones who won the critical battle of the 19th century two centuries ago.
In his defence Wellington was the British prime minister who introduced Catholic emancipation in 1829. It is true that he did so against fierce opposition within his own Tory party and the anti-Catholic King George IV.
It is also to his credit that in 1828 he told the House of Lords that it was to Irish Catholic soldiers that “we all owe our proud pre-eminence in our military careers”.
But one must his examine his real motivations for granting Catholic emancipation. He had opposed the idea of Catholics being allowed to sit in parliament in the 1790s. They were good enough to die for him, but not good enough to sit in parliament with him. The British establishment had been spooked by Daniel O’Connell’s victory in the Clare byelection of 1828 and the success of the Catholic Association. Wellington feared civil war more than anything else.
Even in granting Catholic emancipation, Wellington was ungracious. The property threshold for voting in Ireland was raised to £10. In England it remained at 40 shillings. Wellington did his best to ensure the native Irish stayed disenfranchised.
It is fashionable nowadays to claim Wellington as one of our own and dismiss Napoleon as a war-mongering megalomaniac, but as the historian Andrew Roberts recently pointed out, Napoleon’s wars were essentially defensive. In his time seven successive coalitions were ranged against him, all out to destroy France and the values of the French revolution. Napoleon was no proto-Hitler. He was committed to republican values of equality and freedom under the law. Wellington dismissed the lower orders as “scum of the Earth”; Napoleon’s Grande Armée was a meritocracy.
The values of the French revolution were the ones that inspired the 1798 Rebellion and the Proclamation of 1916.
Wellington won the Battle of Waterloo, but, in the long term, the Irish came to reject the world that he represented. Ireland is a republic, inspired by the ideas of the French revolution and by Napoleon who sought to defend it against the anciens régimes of Europe. It is a greater legacy than that of the monstrous Wellington Monument in the Phoenix Park which, like the man himself, is overbearing and out-of-place.
Ronan McGreevy is an Irish Times journalist