Of the various ideological forces that shaped the eighteenth-century Irish political landscape, patriotism has traditionally received the most notice, and has long been the most misrepresented. This is a consequence in large part of its mistaken equation with love of country, which was how the term has been defined since the early nineteenth century, and the assumption deriving therefrom that those who described themselves as patriots in the eighteenth century were prompted by the same aspirations that activated nationalists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This was not the case; when eighteenth-century commentators employed the term patriot, they did so to define a person whose commitment to the service of his patria or homeland was prompted by a wish to contribute to the betterment of the polity by the promotion of economic activity, infra-structural improvement and individual betterment in a context that provided for individual liberty in the name of the common good. In other words, the term was employed after a consciously non-national fashion with respect to or by individuals and interests who did not conceive of the world as composed of discrete national groupings, but of inter-acting communities that would function better when governed according to principles that accommodated the larger aspirations of society with the rights and liberties of the subject.
In the nineteenth century, when the nationalist conception of patriotism emerged to supplant the eighteenth-century version described above, it also contrived to impose its own conception of what it meant to be a patriot on those eighteenth century figures whose patriotism made them conspicuous in their own time. This is most readily apparent in the case of Henry Grattan, whose major political achievement – legislative independence – was personalised as Grattan’s parliament as part of a strategy to advance the cause of repealing the Act of Union, and to secure Home Rule. By the mid-twentieth century this process had proceeded so far that historians had conceived the term ‘colonial nationalism’ to describe patriotism, the explicit implication being that while it was accepted that patriotism and nationalism were not co-terminous, they overlapped. This is no longer the case. The reversion by modern historians to the term ‘patriot’ to describe those such as Grattan and Henry Flood who carried the standard of eighteenth-century political patriotism, and the perception that those who were more strongly motivated by economic concerns to advance a programme of improvement that they too were patriots has not just hastened its rehabilitation as a term it has highlighted the importance of using contemporary terms as contemporaries used and understood them.
Patriotism was arguably the dominant ideological force in Ireland for a period of a little over five decades from the late 1720s. Intellectually, it roots ran deeper. The classic statement of political patriotism in an Irish context was provided in the 1690s by William Molyneux, who argued in a seminal tract, The Case of Ireland’s being bound by acts of parliament in England, stated, that Irish Protestants were entitled to precisely the same rights as their English equivalents. This implied, as the title of his pamphlet indicated, that the Westminster legislature had no authority to make law for the kingdom of Ireland and that the House of Lords at Westminster had to entitlement to act as the court of final appeal in Irish law cases. Indeed, Molyneux maintained that a legislative union that assured Irish Protestants of the right of representation at Westminster was preferable to the current arrangement, vividly symbolised by the prohibition imposed in 1698 on the exportation to England of woollen goods because of objections from English woollen manufacturers. Since neither the Crown nor ministers was interested in appeasing Irish concerns, and Irish Protestants were in no position to demand attention, Molyneux’s Case was not only left unanswered, the prospect that the kingdoms and Britain and Ireland would be made constitutionally equal was set back further when ministers responded to difficulties in respect of the appellate jurisdiction in Irish cases by ratifying the Declaratory Act (1719), which affirmed the primacy of the British House of Lords and empowered the British parliament to make law for Ireland.
This seemed to imply that Irish political patriotism had no future, but it was animated politically in the decade that followed by Jonathan Swift’s affirmation of Molyneux’s argument in The Drapier’s letters. Perhaps, still more significantly Swift’s commentary on the Irish tendency to blame Britain for its economic problems, brilliantly satirised in A Modest Proposal (1729), combined with the impact of famine conditions served to encourage the development of an economic patriotism that extolled improvement. Moreover, in obvious contrast to the divisive impact of political patriotism, economic development was an issue upon which all could unite, and patriotism achieved a degree of legitimacy and respectability hitherto unthinkable.
It also provided a solid foundation when political patriotism re-emerged as an ideological force in the 1760s. Guided by a new generation of MPs, of whom Henry Flood is the best known, its real political impact was modest until the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1776 served to encourage Irish Protestants to conceive that their long held objective of achieving commercial and constitutional equality with Britain could be achieved. They were further emboldened to press their case by the mediocrity of the British political leadership at the time, and by their ability to galvanise the Irish Protestant nation through their participation in the Volunteers. The concession, first in 1780, of free trade, which meant that Irish merchants could trade on the same terms of their British equals, and, secondly in 1782-3, of legislative independence, which repealed the Declaratory Act and emasculated Poynings’Law, granted the Irish parliament unprecedented freedom to make law represented the high point of Irish patriotism. Its failure subsequently to press parliamentary reform successfully in 1783-5 and again in the early 1790s combined with its inability to define a new political agenda meant that it was overtaken by a new generation of reformers for whom the egalitarian concept of citizenship enshrined by the French Revolution was the way forward, and it rapidly lost political currency.
Throughout the eighteenth century, patriotism was motivated by the conviction that Irish Protestants could achieve their object of political and commercial equality with Britain consistent with the preservation intact of the Anglo-Irish connection and the acknowledgement of the crowned head of England as the crowned head of Ireland. Consistent with the elite origins of many of its advocates, it was not committed either to the empowerment of the Protestant masses or to the admission of Catholics to the political process. It was as this suggests, intrinsically an ancien regime ideology, and it was inevitable therefore, having flourished briefly during the eighteenth century, that it should not prosper once the French Revolution paved the way for the pursuit of citizenship as a more liberating aspiration that that of patriot subject.
Dr James Kelly