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By David R. C. Hudson
The University of Akron PressISBN: 1-884836-97-6
Chapter OneIntroduction to the Irish Enigma
Englishmen and scotsmen, adventurers and soldiers, settlers and speculators, zealots and reformers swarmed into the fertile island of Ireland in great numbers during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They appropriated the best land for themselves, and assumed the right to govern the conquered natives. Such was the plantation of Ireland, a conquest undertaken during the latter half of the Tudor century. England had just experienced the cataclysm of the Protestant Reformation and many Englishmen were convinced of their national destiny as a Protestant and Imperial people. Ireland's new English and Scottish proprietors imposed themselves, their religion, their culture, their language, and their conceptions of law, government, and land ownership upon the native Irish. That the native Irish might have reason for discontent was scarcely allowed to trouble the consciences or impinge upon the political calculations of their new masters, who moved rapidly to crush all manifestations of discontent. For the ensuing three centuries Ireland was governed as a colony.
During the last decade of the nineteenth century, a remarkable experiment in realpolitik restored land and power to the descendants of the victims of the expropriations of the Elizabethan and Jacobean plantations of Ireland. Successive Conservative and Unionist administrations accomplishedthis extraordinary restitution, and its active agents were members of the most elite political, social, literary and intellectual circles. The name given to this program of beneficent legislation for Ireland is "Constructive Unionism," though sometimes it was referred to (unkindly) as "Killing Ireland with Kindness." The idea behind this latter name was that as necessary and long-overdue reforms were passed, the agitation for Home Rule for Ireland would wither and die. Throughout this study, the phrases "Killing Ireland with Kindness" and "Constructive Unionism" will be used synonymously. Both terms refer to the period between and 1887 and 1905 when, chiefly under the Irish Chief Secretaryships of Arthur Balfour (1887-91), Gerald Balfour (1895-1900) and George Wyndham (1900-1905), there was a sustained effort on the part of successive Conservative administrations to diminish (if not eliminate) Irish disaffection toward the Union with Great Britain through the passage of substantial internal reforms. Redistribution of land was always at the heart of the policy-a striking instance of the rootedness of the policy in an understanding of Irish history and the enduring grounds of conflict with Great Britain. Although the policy has frequently been dismissed at either incoherent or inconsequential, it very nearly succeeded in its objectives and certainly brought about a profound transformation in the political, social, and economic landscape of Ireland.
The brothers Arthur and Gerald Balfour had not a drop of true Irish blood in their veins. George Wyndham, the third member of the trio of reforming Irish chief secretaries, was a great-grandson of the Irish revolutionary hero Lord Edward FitzGerald. The irony of the fact that the Balfour brothers were descendants of William Cecil, one of the very men who had authorized the original expropriations of land from the Gaelic inhabitants of Ireland, was certainly not lost on Arthur Balfour himself.
During his period at the Irish Office, Arthur Balfour asserted the authority of the British government vigorously, and also passed three Land Acts which went far towards creating a peasant proprietorship in rural Ireland. Balfour grew immeasurably in stature while he was Irish chief secretary, a change evident in contemporary political cartoons as he was transformed from the young man who had been known during his Eton school days as "Pretty Fanny" and was once the butt of the cartoonists' ridicule, into "Bloody Balfour," the most feared Englishman in Ireland since Cromwell. What was less appreciated at the time was a growth in Arthur Balfour's understanding of Ireland. He came to believe that Irish poverty and backwardness (for which England was so frequently blamed) constituted fertile soil for the growth of disaffection and agitation. And the grand issue underlying all of Ireland's ills was the Land Question. Arthur Balfour saw Land Reform as a means to deprive Irish nationalism of its political and economic oxygen. Furthermore, he recognized that the state should operate in Ireland as a fairy godmother, in order to compensate for the decades during which the land system in Ireland had militated against the economic and political emancipation of the peasants. To accomplish such land reform and economic regeneration, the Congested Districts Board was formed. In the words of the earl of Midleton, Arthur Balfour's friend who became the first historian of Constructive Unionism, the board "purchased and amalgamated the smallest holdings; imported stock; made roads and railways; drained the soil; built decent dwellings; established fisheries and Home industries, and initiated co-operative credit." Nor were the Irish themselves ungrateful. "In 1892 the Swinford Board of Guardians, one of the poorest in the West of Ireland ... not only passed a resolution that Balfour 'had earned the thanks of all sorts and conditions of men in this portion of the country,' but were compelled to 'express their disapprobation of that manner of Parliamentary representation which consists of standing aloof while our people are in the grip of famine, and only coming forward to interfere when it is supposed that political capital can be made out of untrue and carping criticism of the man who put bread into the mouths of the hungry.'" In 1894 the Irish Evicted Tenants' Association declared: "While the Tories were in power, 1886-1892, more practical legislation for the Irish farmers had been secured than they had ever got before."
Excerpted from We Made by David R. C. Hudson Excerpted by permission.
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