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Response to Review no. 279

Professor Jupp’s review of Revolution, Counter-Revolution and Union: Ireland in the 1790s is both generous and perceptive. Like him, I do not concur with everything in all the essays, but it was not my job as editor to impose a party line, nor it is my task (or intention) to respond on behalf of other contributors (they might not agree with my defence). My remarks will thus be confined to some of the more general points that Professor Jupp raises. The three main caveats entered in the review concern: i) neglected contexts, ii) the changing nature of the impact of the French Revolution on Irish politics, and iii) the character of contemporaneous British society.

Jupp is of course right to suggest that a number of essays would have benefited from richer contextualization. Discussion of 1790s portraiture would be further illuminated by examining the genre as it evolved earlier in the century; analysis of public opinion and the passing of the act of union would be sharpened by comparing the debates with other ones going on at the time. But to quote Dr Johnson, by way of J. C. Beckett in the preface to his Short History of Ireland, ‘all claret would be port if it could’. All essays would be multi-layered monographs if editors and publishers would let them.

It is also true that historians of Ireland in the ‘age of revolution’ sometimes invoke the ‘impact’ of ‘the’ French Revolution too readily and without due attention to chronology. The ‘revolution’ in 1791 differs dramatically from the revolution in 1793 or 1797. Foreign perceptions of the revolution likewise have a chronology. Did the Irish ‘Jacobins’ of 1793 later on endorse the Directory? More pertinently, how did they react to that regime’s annexationist foreign policy? We do know that some presbyterian-republicans baulked. On the other hand, and meanwhile, Wolfe Tone over in Paris expressed no qualms about Directorial strong government. The idea of Napoleon, subsequently, entered popular culture and gaelic tradition as a quasi-messianic, Jacobite-style deliverer. Historians would do well to calibrate the trajectory of the reception of the revolution abroad more precisely, and no doubt a waning of population enthusiasm could be charted as Wordsworth’s blissful dawn steadily darkened. However, in Ireland at least, the evidence suggests that positive perceptions of the revolution continued to the end of the decade to predominate. ‘French Principles’ (among other things) inspired United Irishmen in 1798 as in 1791.

Britain was different. There, Wordsworthian disillusionment gained wider purchase. Jupp raises the interesting possibility that perhaps eighteenth-century Britain did not contrast as radically with Ireland as is often supposed. Yet it is one of the paradoxes of the ‘New British history’ that a closer – and welcome -historiographical integration of Irish history into the histories of ‘these islands’ has tended to underline Irish exceptionalism. Finally, one reason which I propose for Britain’s comparative stability during the 1790s is ‘ruling class hegemony’, which Professor Jupp takes to mean something like the rule of an old-fashioned squirearchy. This strikes him, moreover, as a rather old-fashioned view in the light of the work of Paul Langford, among others, which stresses the ‘plutocratic’ and more open nature of English society. This is not the place to engage the vast conceptual debate about the extent to which Hanoverian Britain (or England) conforms to the model of an ancien regime. According to historians such as Langford, eighteenth-century England is defined by commerce, modernity and, by contemporary European standards, a porous social hierarchy. According to the equally up-to-date work of J. C. D. Clark, eighteenth-century England was ‘Christian, monarchical, aristocratic, rural, traditional and poor’. Take your pick.