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Loyalty in an age of conspiracy: The oath-filled civil war in Ireland 1795-1799

Durey, M. (2008) Loyalty in an age of conspiracy: The oath-filled civil war in Ireland 1795-1799. In: Davis, M.T. and Pickering, P.A., (eds.) Unrespectable radicals? Popular politics in the age of reform. Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington, VT, pp. 71-89.

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The struggle between the authorities and the United Irishmen for the hearts and minds of the Irish people in the years leading up to the 1798 rebellion may be pursued at a number of levels: relatively openly in the propaganda of the time; more opaquely in the quest for control of the processes of the law and of the jury rooms of the assize circuits; and very indistinctly in the intense local conflicts which sought, by the administering of oaths, to bend the will of the community towards either the status quo or revolution. A war of oaths - of allegiance to king and constitution on the one side and of secret commitment to political, sometimes social, revolution and a French invasion on the other - began in earnest in 1795 and continued even after the rebellion. This struggle was important at the time, and continues to be significant for an understanding of the period leading up to the rebellion, because its objectives brought into the spotlight the issues of the scale of commitment, and the fluctuations in opinion, of the whole adult population of Ireland, in a period of acute upheaval. For political activists on both sides there may have been a simple, if stark, choice to be made, but for many, if not most, ordinary people this was a very delicate situation, for it was to squeeze them between the Scylla of vertical loyalty to traditional landlord authority and the Charybdis of horizontal loyalty to neighbours already committed to subversion.

The widespread experience among the Irish of reluctantly occupying the space between two implacable forces does not feature strongly in most interpretations of the years leading up to the rebellion in Ireland in 1798. The historical construction of the memory, or, rather, memories, of 1798 over the past two centuries has not found room for the ambiguities, ambivalences, equivocations and uncertainties expressed by the actors - or should it be victims? - cited above, who represent but a tiny sample of suppliers of a much larger body of similar evidence. Their attitudes and feelings could subsequently have been depicted in story and in art, but they were not. lnstead, great moments of commemoration, as in 1898 and 1998, sought to create a nation's history that answered contemporary needs, leaving no room for the personal hesitations, neutrality and somersaults so common during the 1790s. The bold statue of the determined peasant in the city of Wexford, pike firmly grasped, sleeves rolled up for action and his chest swelled out - but, oddly, without a hat, de rigueur in 1798 - or the statue of the young peasant with unsheathed sword being inspired by his priest in Enniscorthy, represent an uncomplicated late nineteenth-century representation of the rebellion that helped to forge a nationalist unity, but at the expense of a more subtle understanding both of the difficulties of living through a period of social dislocation and of the 'varieties of Irishness '. 1 As Nancy Curtin has put it, 'Nationalist myths comfort and affirm, but still exclude'. 2

Similarly with the bicentennial commemoration, the official organising committee of which found included in its 'mission statement' an order to shjfl: attention away from the military aspects of 1798 towards recognising 'the 1798 rebellion as a forward-looking, popular movement aspiring to unity'. Don't mention the war, as Roy Foster succinctly put it: but also, don't mention the means of 'aspiring to unity' .3 For to do so would inevitably illuminate the underlying intimidation and violence that pervaded Irish society from the mid-1790s, exhibited even in the manner in which the population was recruited to a cause. Competitive oath-taking reflected not unity but dissonance, the breaking of social bonds - when 'Even door neighbours who lived in habits of intimacy for years will now scarce exchange words' - and, eventually, civil war.4

Item Type: Book Chapter
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Sciences and Humanities
Publisher: Ashgate Publishing Company
Copyright: 2008 Michael T. Davis and Paul A. Pickering
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