The Case of Ireland and the Case of Britain

16 April 2024

** This is the second in a series of three reviews of James Stafford’s The Case of Ireland: Commerce, Empire and the European Order, 1750-1848Each day this week one review will be published, and Professor Stafford will then respond on Thursday. **


By Susan G. Pedersen

I want to focus on how James’s book is useful for those of us who are not historians of Ireland but who are rather jobbing historians of Britain, or the British Empire, or Europe. Let us start from the fact that, for those of us who teach Modern British history, Ireland is a problem. It is both part of our subject and a troublesome outside agitator. So many of the great set battles of Modern British history – the rooting of Protestant ascendancy, the construction of a United Kingdom, the delineation of aristocratic culture, the establishment of landed capitalism – either took place in or involved Ireland. So many, too, of Britain’s most significant eighteenth and nineteenth century thinkers (Smith, Burke, Lecky, Mill), not to mention so many social novelists (Edgeworth, Trollope), tested their ideas on Ireland.


But we don’t write British history as if Ireland were central. Partly this is because we lack a persuasive analytical framework for writing Ireland into our story. We do have some options. We can treat Ireland within the context of the British Empire, as a colony, and that makes sense, for Ireland was colonized and militarily subjected, its inhabitants’ lands appropriated, religion attacked, voice suppressed. But it doesn’t make complete sense, for Ireland was, unlike other colonies, represented in Parliament, over-represented in imperial service, and developed a nationalist movement that transcended divides of religion and land. Nor does the recent vogue for “four nations” history entirely satisfy, for those nations are so uneven and unequal, even so unequally nationalist. And we are constrained too by a kind of strange compunction, as if – having grasped the nationalist frame – we feel it slightly improper to treat Ireland as part of British history. So, we pause on Ireland only when it intrudes on an English story or disrupts the flow of parliamentary business – as in 1798, or during the famine, or with the Home Rule crises. Otherwise, it is kept off stage. As a new imperial historian might put it, metropole and Ireland are not made part of a single analytical frame.


This is where James’s book helps us. For James gets us beyond either the national-story approach or the British-Irish binary. Instead, productively adapting the devices and insights of global and international history, he expands the canvas, asking how debates around Ireland figure not just in British thought but rather in what was the great standoff of the 1750-1850 period – the European and indeed global rivalry between Britain and France. Now, we’ve had works that show how profoundly the engagement with France shaped Britain, notably Linda Colley’s Britons. That book, though, is about the making of British national identity, and James is after something different – an understanding of how two rival political and economic models and systems were constructed and competed in this period of maximal global conflict. Ireland is a focus and a participant in this struggle of course, but it is – and in James’s book it mostly is – also an optic, through which, for a century, a Europe-wide debate over the benefits and costs of republicanism or aristocracy, landed capitalism or peasant proprietorship, is carried on. What did each model have to offer? What did it promise those who sheltered under its wings? Not just British and Irish thinkers, but Belgians and Swiss and French and Prussians too, might have stakes in this argument.


James digs into the debate over Ireland – or rather, the debate over empire and political economy conducted through consideration of the case of Ireland – across a century. Perhaps the heart of the book, though, are the three chapters that take us from various angles through the period from 1789 to 1815, the period when the United Irishmen looked to republican France not merely for ideological but military support and the stakes of the Anglo-French contest rose massively. France now offered a new model for “a Europe reconstituted, under French leadership, on the basis of national sovereignty and equality”. This was a Europe within which an Ireland purged of aristocratic and Anglican domination and no longer allied to a slavery-dependent commercial empire, might (so the United Irishmen thought) take equal place. Irish independence could thus be a vehicle not just for national renewal but also for a more equal European order.


But against this argument, James shows, is constructed less a blunt defense of British sovereignty than an alternative, commerce-centered, model of progress. In this vision, the union of Britain and Ireland could tame Ireland’s narrowly national and extractive aristocratic elites by subordinating them to Westminster and improve the situation of Ireland’s peasants through economic integration into Britain’s wider commercial web. Unified sovereignty over economically variegated regions would, through unfettered commerce, lift all boats – this sounds, almost, like the rhetoric of European Union in embryo. So it isn’t surprising that, in one of the book’s most illuminating sections, it is a Prussian thinker, Friedrich Gentz, who – no doubt with Prussia’s own hinterlands in mind – mounts a particularly vigorous case for the union of Britain and Ireland on economic grounds.


I hope I’ve said enough to show James’s approach at work and to explain why I find it persuasive and attractive. Europe obviously had, and has, a state-system, or rather an empire-state system, but too often we forget that context and analyze developments as if they are driven by interests and conflicts within one state or empire alone. This book is a corrective, showing what we gain from a wider approach – which isn’t just, as James promises, “an entirely new prospective…on Ireland’s significance to the history of political thought”, but also an understanding of how central commerce and empire have been to British conceptions of “progress” for a very long time.


For all that it delivers, there are a few things that I wish had been more fully discussed. This is a work of intellectual history, but one of a rather unusual sort, moving beyond a fixed repertoire of canonical texts for a much wider range of pamphlet and polemical literature. This is a great approach, for it gives us a strong sense of the resonance of debates over Ireland for people who may never have even seen the land.


Inevitably, though, it does raise questions about the nature of that source base. Who published these works, why, and for whom? How much are commentators talking directly to one another and how much are they simply casting words to the wind? We see Ireland is a vehicle for a wider debate about commerce and empire, but within that wider debate, how important a vehicle exactly? Is the debate over, say, Poland like or unlike that over Ireland?


It is unfair, in a way, to ask this question:  just working through this source base would have been labor enough. But the price of making a compelling argument is that questions of this sort – How much “throw” did Ireland have? Was it theoptic or one optic? – will inevitably come to mind.  This is a good thing.

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