As the Irish president is making the first visit to the United Kingdom by an Irish head of state, some people have asked what’s taken him so long. The Spectator’s archive offers some insights into the two countries’ rocky relationship.
The British government has often been criticised for not doing more to mitigate the effects of the Irish potato blight in the 1840s. The Spectator agreed the government could have done more, but also voiced suspicions about one of Ireland’s national champions, Daniel O’Connell. He’s known as The Liberator in Ireland and was one of the early campaigners for the repeal of the Act of Union. In 1846, this magazine accused him of putting political ambition ahead of the welfare of the people:
‘He himself, by countenancing a trumpery obstruction to the reasonable forms of Parliament, actually impedes the passing of the measure which will for ever secure that greater supply of corn, which may work a thorough change in the diet and social condition of the Irish people. But to forward the material interests of the country is not so advantageous to his objects as the rousing of her violent passions is.’
Another Irish national hero, Charles Stewart Parnell, was also given short shrift. As president of the Land League, he represented Ireland’s tenant farmers, and from the mid-19th century, the farmers got more violent, attacking tax collectors and committing vandalism. The Spectator said Parnell had incited the violence of the agrarian outrages.
‘He considered the outrages, to use the phrase of his own paper — the United Ireland — as mere incidents of the campaign, and cared no more to stop them than did Marat when he viewed with sombre acquiescence the massacres of the Terror. This may be a statesmanlike and reasonable way of looking at bloodshed, and incidentally useful in carrying out a political purpose; but, at any rate, it is not the attitude of one who has always detested outrage as English Home-rulers try to fancy that Mr Parnell has done.’
Ireland was briefly allowed to govern itself in 1914, but home rule was suspended when the First World War broke out.