The Origins and Development of Irish Republicanism
Peter Neville surveys the growth of republicanism in Ireland to the present day.
The history of Ireland has been a history of struggle against a foreign occupier. It has also been a history of struggle for a satisfactory relationship with Britain, verging from attempts to remain within the British Empire and Commonwealth to outright rejection of any links with Britain. It is the story of the latter movement which provides the focus for this article.
Revolts against British rule in Ireland had failed disastrously in 1798 and 1848. The so-called 'Young Ireland' revolt in 1848 was so bungled that it has gone down into history as 'The Battle of Widow McCormack's Cabbage Patch', but it coincided with a crucial event in Irish history. This was the terrible potato famine of 1845-9 which decimated the Irish population. As many as one million Irish men and women may have died of starvation and disease, and another million emigrated to Britain, Australia, and especially the United States. Although both Irish and British historians now accept that the British government was incompetent and overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, Irish republicans believed and continue to believe that the famine was a deliberate act of genocide by the British. This became a central myth of the republican movement in Ireland in the twentieth century; and it undoubtedly gave an impetus to the last use of 'physical force' by Irish nationalists in the nineteenth century.