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Declaring Independence, America 1776; Ireland 1919 a lecture delivered at the University of Virginia

Declaring Independence, America 1776; Ireland 1919 a lecture delivered at the University of Virginia

Ambassador delivering lecture at UVA

Declaring Independence, America 1776; Ireland 1919, a lecture delivered at the Rotunda Room, University of Virginia, 2 April 2019

Introduction: It is a great honour to be in this wonderful room so rich in history and I wish to thank the University of Virginia for the invitation to be part of this Ambassador's Series. When it was first suggested to me that I might deliver a lecture here, I wondered what my topic ought to be. I quickly reached the conclusion that, on this the centenary of the first Irish Dáil (Parliament) and of Ireland's Declaration of Independence, and in a place so closely associated with the author of the American Declaration, I ought to reflect on the process of Declaring Independence, looking at our two countries in parallel. 

The American Declaration of Independence in July 1776 was an epoch-making moment in global history, one that played a vital role in ushering in the modern era in which we still live. The words Jefferson wrote in the Declaration's opening paragraphs - "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.." - are among the best known political statements in world history.

Ireland's Declaration of Independence in January 1919 is inevitably a less well-known affair. In Irish history, it has been overshadowed by the Proclamation of the Irish Republic issued on Easter Monday 1916 on the first day of Ireland's Easter Rising. Our 1919 declaration has attracted scant attention from Irish historians. There is no lore surrounding it and we have little knowledge of how and by whom it was written. 

The hallowed status of the 1916 Proclamation notwithstanding, there are, I think, good reasons for viewing the 1919 document as a transformational event in modern Irish history, one that bears some comparison with its 1776 American predecessor. After all, like the American Declaration, it was adopted by a group of politicians who were representative of the people. In the Irish case, those who declared independence had been elected in December 1918. 

My purpose today is to look at those two moments in history together with their origins and their outcomes. 

America 1776: Although it is possible to find many political, economic, and philosophical roots to what happened in America in the 1770s, my sense is that the American revolution was ultimately a product of the geographical distance between Britain and its American colonies even though the two had comfortably coexisted from the time when the first British outposts were established in America.

American Independence arrived on the back of a gradual drift between the interests of the Imperial centre in London and its colonial possessions on America's eastern seaboard. This eventually bred misunderstandings and resentments between the two. The independence movement was also fuelled by powerful ideas drawn from the European enlightenment.  

The American Revolution succeeded because the colonies had become developed societies endowed with resources that made them capable of standing up to pressures from the metropolitan centre. The distance separating Britain from America made it difficult for London to impose its will on the rebellious colonies. Revolutionary America also benefited from support from France, Britain's most persistent and determined 18th century Great Power rival. 

The Western Hemisphere into which the United States came in the 1770s had relatively few centres of power. Spain, Portugal, France and Britain controlled the Americas while in Europe there were five Great Powers, all Empires and monarchies - Britain, France, Austria, Turkey and Russia. Germany was politically fragmented as was Italy but both possessed a degree of cultural unity centred on their respective languages. The United States was a major disrupter, a state based on principles that had little or no precedent in European history.

The American Revolution's impact on Ireland: Events in America stirred things up in Ireland. As the Irish historian Roy Foster has put it, "The radicalisation of Irish political life" was part of "one great theme from the 1770s: the impact of America." This led to the rise of a form of colonial nationalism out of which emerged an Irish Republican tradition that eventually delivered independence to Ireland during the first quarter of the 20th century. The 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen, inspired by developments in America and France, became a foundational event in modern Irish political history.  20th century Irish nationalism traced its roots to the United Irishmen and those who met in Dublin would at least have been conscious of the legacy of the leader of the United Irishmen, Theobald Wolfe Tone.  One 1916 participant, Seán McEntee, observed that without Wolfe Tone, "there might not have been a Rising and almost certainly not a Republic of Ireland."

The aftermath to 1798 highlights the differences between the American and the Irish experience. Whereas in America's case, distance acted as an ally of the rebellious colonists, in Ireland proximity to Britain meant that the rebellion could be swiftly and savagely suppressed.  Lord Cornwallis, who was vanquished by Washington at Yorktown, went on to become Lord Lieutenant of Ireland where he zealously put down the 1798 rising.

In the wake of 1798, the separate Irish parliament was abolished by the Act of Union of 1800. An American equivalent to this would be if a British victory in the war of independence had led to the abolition of the colonies' legislative assemblies.  19th century Irish history turned into an extended struggle about the repeal or retention of the Act of Union. 

Other Independence movements: In the 143 years between the American and Irish declarations of independence, freedom movements had transformed Latin America as a succession of independent states that divided up Spain's New World empire.

In Europe, there were relatively few 19th century independence struggles of the kind which occurred in America in the 18th century and Ireland in the early 20th. Italy and Germany came into being in their modern form, in 1861 and 1870 respectively, through unification rather than independence processes. 

Belgium broke away from the Netherlands in 1831 driven by linguistic and religious differences. Greece became independent in 1832, Serbia, Montenegro and Romania in 1878 and Bulgaria in 1908, but the backdrop to the emergence of those independent states was the growing weakness of the Ottoman Empire, of which they had previously formed part. Interestingly, all those who broke away from the Ottoman Empire became monarchies of some description. None followed America's example by forming a republic. 

Norway separated peacefully from Sweden in 1905 and Finland broke away from Russian control in 1917, which was perhaps the closest analogy to the Irish case. The independent states that emerged in the immediate aftermath of World War 1 - the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - all owed their existence to the collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. In no case was there a war of independence akin to the American or Irish struggles although each new state was rooted in an historic sense of national identity. Those countries suffered grievously in the decades that followed on account of the rise of fascism, the Second World War and the Cold War, something that Ireland did not have to endure. 

Ireland's freedom struggle: The Irish struggle resembled more fully the American exemplar in that Ireland separated itself from a successful Empire just as the 13 colonies did 130 years earlier. 

The Irish experience also differed from the American one in a number of ways. 

First, as a neighbouring island, it was seen as more intrinsic to Imperial security. This made Britain view Ireland as an indispensable possession. 

Second, 18th and 19th century Ireland was more deeply divided than colonial America on account of pronounced ethnic and religious differences. Essentially, throughout the 19th century, Ireland's Protestants supported the Union between Britain and Ireland while most Catholics were opposed to the political status quo. There was a more regionally-concentrated strand of Imperial loyalty in Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries than in America in the 18th century. 

Third, there was also a more sustained resistance to British rule in 19th and early 20th century Ireland than in 18th century America. 

And, finally, Ireland was economically weaker and more dependent of Britain than were the 13 American colonies.

Throughout Ireland's long 19th century (beginning with the Act of Union and ending with the passage of the Irish Home Rule Bill and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914), Ireland had never come anywhere near to extracting independence from Britain, which was the world's leading power for most of that period. 19th century Irish nationalism was up against it on account of the formidable strength of the British State. There were a handful of insurrections and periodic agitations against tithes in the 1830s, against the power of the Established church in the 1860s and on land issues in the 1880s. Some reforms were extracted from the British Government, but these failed to change the essential realities of British rule in Ireland. The ravages of the Great Famine of the 1840s left a bitter legacy of resentment in nationalist Ireland.

As in the American case, it was an international conflict that paved the way for Irish independence.  In America, it was the Seven Years' War and the pressure it put on the finances of the British Empire that prompted the imposition of taxes which were bitterly resented in America, a resentment that served to unite the 13 colonies. 

In Ireland, the First World War was a catalyst for political change. It caused the deferral of Home Rule, which would have given Ireland something akin to the political system that existed in pre-revolutionary America.  

The war divided Irish nationalists between those who saw Ireland's prospects being best served by participation in the war and those who declined to enlist, viewing Britain's wartime difficulty as Ireland's opportunity. The latter group organised themselves within the paramilitary Irish Volunteers and, under the direction of the oath-bound Irish Republican Brotherhood, engineered the 1916 Rising. The US nearest analogy in this instance is probably the divide between those at the Second Continental Congress who wanted to press on towards independence and those who would have preferred some form of reconciliation with the British monarchy. 

The 1916 Proclamation is an impressive document, asserting as it does Ireland's historic right to independence in language that still reads well today. It begins resoundingly: "In the name of God and the dead generations from which she receives her old traditions of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom." If Ireland had a Thomas Jefferson, it was probably Patrick Pearse, a titular leader of the 1916 Rising and probably the principal author of the Proclamation. Pearse has been criticised for having an excessive enthusiasm for blood sacrifice, just as Jefferson left himself open to charges of hypocrisy on account of his attitude to slavery. Pearse’s embrace of Gaelic revivalism provided a spur to revolution in Ireland in ways not dissimilar to the impact of the enlightenment on Jefferson and his American contemporaries.   

The Republic declared in Dublin in 1916 was crushed within 5 days of its creation. The execution of the seven signatories of the Proclamation roused nationalist sentiment and saw them being exalted as the founding fathers of Irish independence. 

In the summer of 1916, the odds were probably on the old Irish political order, the parliamentarians of the Irish Party at Westminster, reasserting itself at the war's end. An American equivalent would be if the revolution had petered out in 1776 with a reformed polity within the Empire assuaging colonial grievances. But the revolution did not deflate either in 18th century America or in 20th century Ireland.

The experience of both countries was similar - the insensitivity of the metropolitan power and their lack of feel for the territories they ruled.  In Ireland's case, it was an attempt to introduce military conscription in 1918 that made the key difference. It united the various strands within nationalist Ireland and put the Irish Party at a deep disadvantage in the months that followed. For the leaders of the Irish Party who had supported the war effort, the First World War went on for too long. By the time it came to an end, they were confronted with an immediate General Election and came up against a resurgent nationalist movement, Sinn Féin, which presented itself as the heir to the sacrifices made during the Easter Rising. 

The First Dáil: The December 1918 General Election was a transformative event for Ireland. Whereas the Easter Rising of 1916 had lacked a popular mandate, here was an expression of opinion decisively in favour of independence rather than Home Rule.  The Sinn Féin party swept the boards in most parts of Ireland, completely supplanting the Irish Party which had held sway politically since the 1870s. 

The elected politicians who turned up in Dublin in January 1919 (only 27 of the 73 Sinn Féin members were free to attend; most of the rest were in British custody) were in a different position to those who convened in Philadelphia in 1776. In the American case, they were breaking new ground and creating something that had no precedent in the world at that time.  After all, the option of independence would have been viewed as unthinkable as late as the mid-18th century, when American colonists fought alongside the British in what they called the French and Indian War.

In the Irish case, the newly-elected members of parliament viewed themselves as part of a nationalist tradition that stretched back to the late 18th century. And they had United States independence as a precedent. Indeed, in their own minds they were part of a much older tradition of resistance to British rule. They were restoring an ancient nation its proper status. This is reflected in the opening paragraph of the Declaration they adopted.

"Whereas for 700 years the Irish people has never ceased to repudiate and has repeatedly protested in arms against foreign usurpation," English rule in Ireland was described as being "based upon force and fraud and maintained by military occupation against the declared will of the people."

Absent from the Irish Declaration is the lawyerly recitation of American grievances against King George justifying the decision to opt for independence, which makes up the bulk of Jefferson’s Declaration. It was enough for the Irish Declaration to refer to “the long centuries of ruthless tyranny” which provided ample justification for Irish freedom. 

The First Dáil saw the Declaration of Independence as a ratification of the Republic proclaimed in 1916. And they pledged themselves to "make this declaration effective by every means at our command." As it happens, that very day an ambush occurred at Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary during which local activists attacked a convoy transporting explosives and killed two local policemen. Although this action was not authorised by the First Dáil, it is viewed as the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, which lasted until 1921.      

Echoing the American Declaration, its Irish counterpart insisted that only the elected representatives of the Irish people had the right to make laws binding on the Irish people. And there was another echo of Jefferson's Declaration in the demand for the evacuation of "the English garrison" from Ireland. 

Although there is no soaring passage to match Jefferson's evocation of humanity's unalienable rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", the Irish Declaration does contain an aspirational agenda: "to promote the common weal, to re-establish justice...and to constitute a national policy based upon the people's will with equal rights and equal opportunity for every citizen." 

The Irish Declaration of Independence was accompanied by two other documents which in themselves have tended to overshadow the Declaration of Independence, the 'Address to the Free Nations of the World' and the Democratic Programme. The 'Address' is clearly aimed at an American audience with its evocation of Ireland's status as "the gateway to the Atlantic".  It goes on to point out that "Ireland is the last outpost of Europe to the west: Ireland is the point upon which great trade routes between East and West converge."  The Address led to the dispatch of a delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference where, despite strong Irish American support, the delegates were unable to get any official hearing for Ireland's claims. 

The Democratic Programme was a decidedly progressive document containing such sentiments as: “we affirm that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare.” The Democratic Programme has from time to time been cited to argue that independent Ireland had failed to live up the promise of our independence struggle. This document contains the clearest echoes of the American Declaration. “We declare that we desire our country to be ruled in accordance with the principles of Liberty, Equality and Justice for all, which alone can secure the permanence of Government in the willing adhesion of the people.”  

While the composition of the American Declaration of Independence is a storied event, the origins of its Irish equivalent are a bit of a mystery. It was written in a rush between the election of 1918 whose results were only announced on the 28th of December and the inaugural meeting of Dáil Éireann on the 21st of January. According to the nationalist historian, Dorothy McArdle, who lived through this period and later wrote voluminously about it, the documents approved by the first Dáil were composed by a committee consisting of the lawyer, George Gavan Duffy (who had represented Roger Casement at his trial for treason in 1916, was part of the Irish team at the 1921 Treaty negotiations and became, briefly, Ireland’s first Foreign Minister), the writer Piaras Béaslaí and the political activist, Seán T. O'Kelly. Of the three, O'Kelly had the most political experience, having been a prominent member of Sinn Féin since its inception in 1905. It is known that O'Kelly revised the Democratic Programme whose original draft, produced by Irish Labour leader, Thomas Johnson, was deemed to be excessively socialist.

O'Kelly was no Jefferson, but he did go on to occupy some of the most senior posts in 20th century Ireland - President, Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister for Finance during a long political career. Just like Jefferson in 1776, O'Kelly was just 36 years of age in 1919 which illustrates the fact that the American and Irish Declarations ushered a younger group of political figures into power that became the founding generation in both countries. 

As in 1770s America, Ireland's Declaration of Independence did not immediately result in an internationally-recognised new state. In both countries, a war of independence was required to create a new political entity. The two 'wars' were, of course, very different in character. In Ireland, there were no major battles, no Bunker Hill, no Yorktown, no Saratoga. Ireland's war of independence was a smaller-scale guerrilla conflict in which the Irish Republican Army gradually sapped the will of the British Government to impose their continued rule on a rebellious Ireland. 

In Ireland's case, Civil War came immediately after the advent of independence as those who insisted on creating a republic refused to accept the compromises enshrined in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1921. This created a chasm in Irish public life that took generations to heal. Nevertheless, like the United States, an independent Ireland born in strife quickly became a stable democracy and, 10 years after our civil war, the victors handed power over peacefully to those they had been defeated militarily a decade earlier. 

Conclusion:  The world of the 1770s from which the United States emerged was very different from the post-First World War era in which Ireland declared its independence. The American Declaration came at the beginning of a new era in world history which it was instrumental in creating. Irish independence came at the end of that era as war and revolution 20th century style remade the world at Versailles just as the Treaty of Paris did 136 years earlier. 

The long 19th century between the American and Russian revolutions was a period during which Ireland developed a national political identity with demands for self-Government couched in various terms and pursued by different means. 

In the second half of the 19th century, America became a factor in Irish politics as post-Famine Irish immigrants and their descendants were supportive of Irish movements. British concern about the capacity of Irish America to complicate UK-US relations played a part in the UK decision to concede Irish independence.

The American and Irish revolutions, separated by 140 years were similar in a number of respects. They succeeded because in both cases the British Government made important missteps and fatally underestimated their opponents. In the very different circumstances in which they operated, both sets of revolutionaries exhibited tenacity and determination which eventually saw them triumph against the odds of power politics. 

Ireland’s Declaration of Independence is clearly a cousin of its American counterpart. Even the choice of its title seems to me to suggest that a conscious comparison was being sought to be made between the two. While Jefferson’s Declaration pointed towards a new form of political authority, our Declaration was a bid to restore what were seen as Ireland’s ancient liberties. The Irish Declaration of Independence of January 1919 was also the heir to a rich vein of nationalist thought from Wolfe Tone in the 1790s, Robert Emmett in 1803, the Young Irelanders of the 1840s, the Fenian Movement of the 1860s, the many Irish parliamentarians of the 19thcentury and, last but not least, generations of Irish immigrants and‌ their descendants in the US, who kept alive the flame of a separate Irish political identity.                


Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States

Photo of Rotunda at UVA


 UVA Rotunda



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