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 further 38% of the population emigrated. The Famine ultimately showed the limitations of British rule and their general ineffectiveness, leading to the popular feeling among the Irish that only they could solve their grievances. Therefore we must consider that there are other aspects such as the Famine that were significant and contributed to the changing of the Irish-British relationship.
On the other hand, it was nationalist leader Parnell who ‘brought about the whole issue of Home Rule to the forefront of British politics’ and laid the foundations for a change in British-Irish relations. Parnell’s astute ability to manipulate the Irish public allowed him to unite the various shades of Irish nationalism together and unite them under one movement; the New Departure. This united movement posed a direct threat and ‘allowed him to exert extreme pressure on the British government’. By 1879 Parnell had become president of the Land League and had forged and maintained crucial relations with America.
The American-Irish relations were heavily responsible for funding the Land League, which was crucial to Parnell’s persuading of Gladstone to pass the Land Acts of 1881 which granted the 3Fs, fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure. The formation of Parnell’s ‘disciplined, pledge bound party’ ensured the issues of Ireland would be present in British politics; as no british government was singularly strong enough to govern without the support of the Irish with the IPP increasing their number of MPs from 63 to 85. Tweedie even goes as far to suggest the results of the general election clinched Gladstone’s support for Home Rule.
Parnell changed the vague possibility of Home Rule into a realistic, obtainable possibility and even after his death in 1891 the cause would later be taken on and achieved. Therefore Parnell was undeniably significant in changing the British-Irish relationship as his methods would ultimately force the British government to consider Home Rule, changing the relationship between Ireland and Britain. By bringing the possibility of Home Rule to the forefront of British politics and making it a prominent issue, Parnell effectively ensured that even after his death the Home Rule cause would again be taken up by Gladstone and later Asquith.
However, whilst Parnell had made Home rule a realistic possibility, he failed to deliver Ireland what the majority wanted. Furthermore Parnell’s liaisons with Kitty O’Shea split the IPP into pro and anti-Parnellites, this division damaged the cause considerably whilst the scandal of Parnell’s affair coupled with the ‘cumulative effect of the conservative land legislation had effectively removed a corner stone of Home Rule support, the discontented peasantry’.
Yet the fall of Parnell would lead to the rise of cultural nationalism and with that the rise of violence. This would prove to be the most influential aspect in the granting of Irish independence as the Easter Rebellion of 1916 would prove to be the turning point to a better relationship with Britain and paved the way for the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921. The idea of cultural nationalism would carry on, inspiring future leaders such as Collins and De Valera.
So although Parnell failed to achieve Home Rule, he sparked a branch of Irish nationalism that would ultimately achieve independence for Ireland. Whilst De Valera and Collins role in the Easter rising was minor and it was a failure militarily and in terms of achieving its aims, it was successful in demonstrating the strength of the nationalist movement and their determination for Irish independence. Furthermore it was the events that then took place as a result of the Easter Rising which would eventually lead Ireland to independence.
It also gained a dramatic influx of support for the nationalist movement and after the Irish public learned of the executions of 16 nationalist leaders (including James Connolly, who having been wounded in the fighting and unable to stand was propped up on a chair when he faced the firing squad. ) lead to a dramatic change in public opinion This lead to the nationalist movement and De Valera as well as the other surviving nationalist leaders aligning to Sinn Fein, they then went on to supersede their previous leaders and won a landslide victory in the 1918 election.
This result is a significant example of how the Easter Rising ultimately manipulated Irish opinion towards that of the nationalist movement and was significant in changing the relationship between Britain and Ireland and provided a pivotal point for change, the Irish problem could no longer be ignored by the British government and negotiations were to begin to solve it. It is clear that the event of the Easter Rising was more significant in changing the relationship between the two nations and nearing Ireland to independence than that of De Valera.
Coogan references Collins as the ‘man who made Ireland’ and his significance in changing the British-Irish relationship is clear in his negotiations of the Anglo-Irish treaty that would allow Ireland to govern itself within the empire. It allowed for Ireland to govern under a dominion status and when considering the position of Lloyd George it is clear that Collins was aware a full Republic would not be accepted by the British government yet the treaty would provide a stepping stone.
However in signing the treaty Collins regarded it as ‘signing his death warrant’. Whilst it is clear that Collins was hugely significant, perhaps the most so the nationalist leaders as he ultimately achieved Home Rule, many including De Valera believed Collins had ‘sold out to a British government’ and he had failed in achieving an independent and united Ireland. In conclusion, it is clear that the significance of the Irish nationalist leaders varies, O’Connell achieved catholic emancipation, niting them and bringing about political advancement, yet ultimately he failed to achieve repeal, yet from the evidence that the Great famine hindered O’Connell’s progress significantly. Similarly Parnell brought the possibility of Home Rule to the forefront of British politics whilst simultaneously united all branches of nationalism to one common cause. Yet similarly to O’Connell he ultimately failed to deliver what the majority of Ireland wanted.
There are also other factors that contributed to the changing of the relationship with Britain, such as the Easter rising; although Collins and De Valera were involved their roles were inherently minor. It was the reaction to the Easter Rising that had a profound effect on the advancement of Irish independence and provided a pivotal point for change. We must also consider the roles of the British government, when assessing the significance of each nationalist leader, as they undoubtedly held power throughout clearly seen through O’Connell and his forced compromises with the Whig-Tory alliance. .