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Alexis de Tocqueville in America and Ireland 1831-1835

This is my second blog on aspects of Irish-American history and it may be considered an unusual one, in that its subject is neither Irish nor American. It focuses on the French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), who is renowned as the author of Democracy in America, his reflections on America gleaned during the nine months he spent there in 1831/32 in the company of his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont. They had come to study the American penal system, but Tocqueville was drawn to make a more thoroughgoing analysis of American society and politics. 

In his famous book, Tocqueville, with the recent, tempestuous history of France weighing on his mind, examined the moderate, evolutionary character of American democracy and sought to identify the reasons behind its success. Despite his aristocratic background, he saw the triumph of democracy as inevitable and, although anxious about the potential threat of legislative tyranny, saw the American example as evidence that democracy could be reconciled with liberty. His conclusion was that: "there will be no middle way between the empire of democracy and the yoke of one man". 

My interest in Tocqueville, aside from the fact that he is the author of a book that some regard as the best thing ever written about 19th century America and its politics, derives from the fact that, just months after he published the first volume of Democracy in America in January 1835, Tocqueville set out for Ireland, again accompanied by de Beaumont. They spent the period between the 6th of July and the 13th of August travelling around the country gathering impressions of its economic condition and its political divisions. Thus, this astute Frenchman, who had demonstrated his powers of observation and analysis in America, examined the situation in Ireland just a decade before the catastrophe of the Great Famine. 

Although Tocqueville never published anything on Ireland during his lifetime, he kept a written record of his travels and his discussions with local officials and barristers, and members of the Catholic clergy. Beaumont did produce a major Irish book, Ireland: Social, Political and Religious, which appeared in 1839, but he did not possess his friend’s gifts as a writer and thinker. 

During their stay, the two Frenchmen visited Dublin, Carlow, Waterford, Kilkenny, Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway and Mayo. Tocqueville was struck by the extreme poverty he encountered in Ireland. On his travels, he came across a large number of houses that were "wretched to the last degree". 

He attributed Ireland's plight to the inadequacies of the country's aristocracy whose neglectful actions had produced "frightful poverty".  He found that "the nobility not only distrusts the people, but hates them, that the people not only hate the nobility but damns them." His conclusion was that: "If you wish to know what the spirit of conquest, religious hatred, combined with all the abuses of aristocracy without any of its advantages, can produce, come to Ireland."

Tocqueville also delved into the deep religious and political divisions to be found in Ireland. Conversations with the Catholic clergy provided him with a scathing assessment of the ills of Irish society. He reflected on the "complexity of miseries five centuries of oppression, civil disorders and religious hostility have piled up on this poor people." 

Of particular interest is a conversation Tocqueville had with a parish priest in Newport, Co. Mayo, Rev. James Hughes, who had in desperation written to the national newspapers appealing for help for his starving parishioners. The priest took the view that "this state of society is intolerable and cannot last." He told his visitor that: "this unfortunate population has been so long a butt for so cruel a tyranny, it has been so decimated by the gibbet and transportation, that all energy has finally left them." The priest added that, were he not restrained by his religious convictions, he would find it difficult not to revolt "against this tyranny and unresponsive aristocracy." 

A Dublin lawyer he met in Kilkenny, John Patrick Prendergast (1808-1893) who he describes as "very intelligent and full of fanaticism against Catholics" gave him an understanding of the other side of Ireland's religious/political divide. According the Prendergast, "the time for concessions on the part of the aristocracy is over" (this was said, presumably, in the light of Catholic Emancipation achieved in 1829 and the ‘Tithe War’ that was then raging in Ireland). The young lawyer confessed to having little or no contact with Catholics, even those who were his fellow members of the Bar (one hopes that he may have mellowed in the almost 60 years he lived following his encounter with the French visitors!) 

A number of other points emerge from Tocqueville's findings in Ireland: the firm opposition of the Catholic clergy to any notion of being paid by the State; the fierce resentment that existed against payment of a tithe to the Church of Ireland; the hope invested by the Catholic Church in the ameliorative impact of the then newly-established national schools’ system (indeed, one bishop gave Tocqueville to understand that the Catholic population might be on the verge of further political advancement, reflecting, no doubt a confidence in O’Connell’s ability to continue delivering for his people); and the strong religious devotion of Ireland’s Catholic population.


Although Tocqueville’s Irish diaries contain a number of references to Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), then the most powerful political figure in Ireland, strangely he seems not to have sought to meet ‘the Liberator’. This is a pity because the two Frenchmen made it as far as Killarney at a time of the year when O’Connell would probably have been holidaying at his home in south Kerry. A conversation between those two men would have been one to remember!

It is regrettable that Alexis de Tocqueville did not publish a full-length account of his reflections on Ireland's situation for, judging by the quality of his American book, it would undoubtedly have been a fascinating piece of work. An Irish book by Tocqueville published in the late 1830s, when he enjoyed considerable fame on account of the success of Democracy in America, might have drawn greater international attention to the economic and political plight of Ireland during the decade before the Great Famine. 

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in Washington.