How Significant Were the Nationalist Leaders in Changing the Relationship Between Great Britain and Ireland in the Period 1815-1922?

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How significant were the nationalist leaders in changing the relationship between Great Britain and Ireland in the period 1815-1922?

Robert Pearce cites the work of ‘outstanding nationalist leaders joining together to oppose the tyranny of England and compelling her to retreat and abandon most of Ireland’. Whilst O’Connell campaigned for the emancipation of Catholics, uniting them and bringing about political advancement, his significance is questionable; after 1840 he had failed to bring about repeal. In comparison Parnell finally made the image of Home Rule a realistic possibility and Collins who ultimately brought about negotiations of the Anglo-Irish treaty; effectively leading Ireland to freedom. In assessing the significance of the Irish nationalist leaders we must first consider who actually achieved what they set out to, as well as the other factors that undoubtedly had an effect on the relationship between the two nations, such as the effects of the 1916 Easter Rising, and how it lead to the strengthening of Sinn Fein.

Often referred to as ‘the liberator’ O’Connell’s significance is clear; the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 enabled Catholic participation in politics and advanced it to no end. Whilst the desire for Catholic emancipation had been prominent since the early 19th century; it wasn’t until O’Connell’s development of the Catholic Association that presented itself as a genuine threat to British rule. The formation of the Catholic Rent in 1824 in response to the quick development of the association raised $20,000 in its first year. This was crucial to the funding of the large public meetings; it was this support that ultimately threatened the British government with approximately 85% of the population being Catholic. O’Connell’s methods also hold considerable significance, as the ‘originator of all basic strategies of Anglo-Irish constitutional relations’ his methods later seen in Collins use of Brinkmanship and in Parnell’s mobilising of support for the land league. The success of Emancipation subsequently lead to the emergence of the Irish party, which due to O’Connell became a successful ‘political pressure group’, and had the ability to ensure that Irish issues were at the forefront of the British government. However, whilst it is important to credit the success of Emancipation to O’Connell; we must consider that the idea of emancipation had already begun to set in motion in Ireland; O’Connell merely organised and educated the Irish public. In addition O’Connell failed to repeal the Act of Union and the Whig-Irish alliance forced him to compromise time and time again leading to a decline of his supporters in Ireland. It was this Whig-Irish alliance that decidedly split his Repeal movement, O’Connell’s acceptance of the Clontarf monster meeting ban ultimately lead the radical nationalist group Young Ireland to doubt O’Connell’s intentions with regards to an independent Irish republic. O’Connell’s actions were now set to ‘divide, rather than bring Ireland together’. Therefore whilst O’Connell had advanced the plight of the Irish by securing emancipation, in repealing the Act of Union and further changing the nature of the relationship with Ireland O’Connell had been an obstruction. As his uncertainty over repeal effectively divided and ultimately weakened the nationalist movement. The Famine also undoubtedly shows the limits to O’Connell’ significance, as his attempts to persuade the British government to implement the adequate measures to aid Ireland during the famine, and John Mitchell suggests ‘God sent the potato blight, but England caused the Famine’ which became a contemporary and common view of the time period and basically sums up the relationship between Ireland and Britain. Pelling suggests that the famine altered the Irish-British relationship as it damaged the idea of British rule entirely, approximately one million died as a result of the Famine and a...
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