The Anglo-Irish were, for the most part, English by descent and loyal to the crown. Traditionally they felt themselves no less Irish on that account. Grattan and his fellow Protestants in eighteenth-century Ireland were confident that they were the important part of the Irish nation. However, the cultural nationalism of the late nineteenth century emphasised national distinctiveness and, in the minds of many, to be truly Irish was to be Gaelic and Catholic. This narrow and more exclusive definition of Irishness brought the term ‘Anglo-Irish’ into common currency. A Protestant might still be an Irishman but the sense of difference was sharpened. The term Anglo-Irish was used to indicate that one section of the people was less truly ‘Irish’ than another. It was not a precise term, and could not be used precisely. Many of the great ‘Irish’ leaders were Anglo-Irish, notably Butt and Parnell. Parnell was in no doubt that he was an Irishman and he famously stated that the only way to treat the English was to ‘stand up to them’. Some historians argue that the hyphenated expression ‘Anglo-Irish’ widely used to distinguish this section of the Irish people reflected racism in the thinking of the time and the unhealed divisions of Ireland.
In historical term Anglo-Irish meant the descendants and successors of the Protestant Ascendancy that had ruled Ireland in the eighteenth century. They were usually members of the Church of Ireland and most traced their descent back to the New English who conquered and colonised Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They owned most of the land of Ireland. Their Protestant faith and politics were an important part of their identity. Over time these families came to see Ireland as their home and developed a sense of being its natural leaders. Their dominant influence is reflected in the language of Ireland, in its art, literature, architecture and in many other aspects of life. W. B. Yeats declared that Anglo-Irish were ‘no petty people’ and that their contribution to Irish life was enormous. They include such important families as the FitzGeralds, the Butlers, the Parnells, the Osbournes, the Wildes, the Manserghs and the Colthursts.
The Penal Laws discriminated against all who were not members of the Church of Ireland including the Catholic majority. The church established by law, the Church of Ireland, had status and funding and its members had access to political office and power. In the nineteenth century their claims were challenged by the rise of Catholic power that resulted from the increasing democratisation of politics. The 1870s brought important political and economic changes which eroded the privileged status of the Anglo-Irish. Landlords who could command the loyalty of their tenants in elections saw this vanish with the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872. The increasing democratisation of the political system and the widening of the franchise in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries continued to reduce the power of the landed classes.
One of Gladstone’s first acts as Prime Minister, during his first ministry from 1868 to 1874, was to disestablish the Church of Ireland—a serious blow to the Ascendancy class, and some argued (with some right) a breach of the Union. Gladstone’s Land Acts of 1870 and 1881 gave the Government the power to intervene in the tenant–landlord relationship in significant ways and limited the property rights of landlords. These Acts, though falling short of nationalist goals at the time, further undermined the position of many Anglo-Irish landlords.
The political power of the Anglo-Irish was further diminished by Gladstone’s conversion to a Home Rule—a policy that aimed to set up a parliament in Dublin and give Irishmen an important degree of political control. The Local Government Act of 1898 replaced Grand Juries with democratically elected County Councils and destroyed the power of the Ascendancy in local politics. In the nineteenth century there was a gradual decline but quickening decline in the political power of the Anglo-Irish community in Ireland as nationalists (often led by men who were themselves Anglo-Irish) organised political parties effectively and made many successful demands on Westminster. By the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 Home Rule was on the statute book and Anglo-Irish power seemed likely to end.
Many writers, poets and painters from the Anglo-Irish community identified strongly with Ireland. Anglo-Irish names are very prominent in the Gaelic revival movement of the late nineteenth century and in the scholarly study of Gaelic literature, history and archaeology—William Reeves, J. H. Todd, Samuel Ferguson, John Gwynn, Whitley Stokes, Hugh Jackson Lawlor, and many others. The Anglo-Irish made a momentous contribution to the cultural life of Ireland.
Douglas Hyde, a Protestant intellectual, had the revolutionary idea of ‘de-anglicising’ Ireland and of reviving the Irish language, an idea that had a profound influence and far-reaching consequences. George Bernard Shaw could state ‘English is the native language of Irishmen’ but the Gaelic League argued that this should change and that the Gaelic language and its literature were sophisticated and important in European terms and that they should be cultivated. Hyde’s contribution was recognised in a formal way when he was selected as the first President of Ireland in 1938.
Anglo-Irish literature is a term (and not a precise one) used to describe writing by Irish authors in the English language. It attempts to distinguish between that literature and English literature on the one hand and Gaelic literature on the other. It is often used to describe the work of a group of writers, including Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory who found inspiration in Irish history, mythology and folklore. William Butler Yeats (who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923) is one of Ireland’s greatest poets. He claimed that the Protestants of Ireland had ‘created most of the modern literature of this country’. His brother, Jack B. Yeats, also achieved great fame as a painter of unique skill and imagination, winning many awards. He was made an officer of the prestigious Legion d’honneur by the French Government in 1950. In cultural and political terms, the Yeats brothers show the dual element in the Anglo-Irish world view: though Protestant in faith, and English by ancestry, both identified passionately with Ireland.
By the beginning of the Great War in 1914 it was clear that independence for Ireland, in some form, was to come and that this was only a matter of time. Many Irish Protestants feared for their future security, position, property, and prospects. In July 1917 an Irish Convention representing a broad spectrum of interests met in the vain hope that Irishmen might work out a political settlement satisfactory to all. Here the Anglo-Irish were represented and participated in an attempt to decide the destiny of their country. Irish nationalists of senior standing both in the Home Rule party and later in the Sinn Féin party were keen to assure the Anglo-Irish community that its political and civil rights would be respected in an independent state.
Though, generally speaking, Irish Protestants fared fairly well in the Free State and Republic, the experience of many Anglo Irish families during the War of Independence and Civil War of the 1920s was dreadful. Many were intimidated and murdered. Demoralised by the War of Independence and the burning of some 200 Big Houses, many fled to England. The very existence of the Anglo-Irish seemed under threat, not only from economic and political forces but also from such factors as the Ne temere papal decree (1908) which required, in practice, that the children of mixed marriages be raised as Catholics. This drastically reduced their numbers and Protestants as a percentage of the population dropped from 10% to 6% in the twenty-five years after Independence.
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