Bree T. Hocking
Independent Scholar

Creative Commons 4.0 by Bree T. Hocking. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Pauline Collombier

Palgrave Macmillan, 2023. 362 pages.

ISBN: 9783031188244

 

In 1893, the same year the second home rule bill for Ireland was defeated, journalist Frank F. Moore published his satirical Diary of an Irish Cabinet Minister. The novel’s cover, depicting a group of fictitious future Irish cabinet members engaged in a raucous brawl of trampled bodies and broken furniture – a Catholic cleric gawking from an inset – serves as a visual shorthand for the unionist fearmongering of the era. As Pauline Collombier writes in Imagining Ireland’s Future, 1870-1914: Home Rule, Utopia, Dystopia, a self-governing Ireland as conceived by the anti-home rule contingent was “a lawless zone” (168), intolerant and querulous, patently unfit for the democratic experiment (173).

During a thirty-year span, beginning in the late 1880s, three attempts (1886, 1893, 1912) were made by Liberal British prime ministers to enact home rule for Ireland within the United Kingdom. The movement for home rule inspired an outpouring of speculative reaction from writers, politicians, journalists, editorial cartoonists, and others across the pro- and anti-home rule spectrum. Imagining Ireland’s Future draws on their body of work to consider the range of possible futures envisioned by both home rule’s opponents and champions. The predicted outcomes, fleshed out most fully in Collombier’s trenchant survey of home rule fiction, fell into three distinct types of utopias: positive, negative (dystopian), or anti-utopias, that is, where home rule represents a “transient phase […] to be overcome so that Ireland may become fully and truly independent” (6).

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The modern home rule movement emerged in 1870, when Isaac Butt, a Protestant MP who began his political life as a Tory Orangeman, founded the Home Government Association to secure limited self-rule for Ireland, long subordinate to the British Crown. Reconstituted three years later as the Home Rule League, the party would first find success in the 1874 parliamentary elections. Born of moderate, conservative inclinations to ensure the “preservation and transformation of the [1801] Union” (24) of Ireland and Great Britain, the league’s aims would soon be forwarded more aggressively by Charles Stewart Parnell. As head of the home rule movement, Parnell transformed the league into the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), the dominant force in Irish politics from the 1880s until the regional and global upheavals precipitated by the 1916 Easter Rising and World War I.

If a nation, as Benedict Anderson famously asserted, is fundamentally an “imagined community”, then the act of its creation ipso facto involves certain flights of fancy, even delusion. After all, true believers of all stripes are united by a shared proclivity for millenarism, demonstrating an almost congenital inability to imagine that the change or future they so desire will bring about anything other than the predicted utopia, and home rulers, as Collombier aptly demonstrates, were no exception.

Rising literacy rates coupled with the growth of the press, and specifically the illustrated press from the 1870s, created the conditions and platform to amplify the message of home rule as paradise found or at the very least reclaimed. As home ruler and Irish MP John Francis Maguire predicted in his novel The Next Generation (1871), Ireland under the federal union envisioned by Butt would be a veritable “Arcadia”, where “the potato had not exhibited the slightest appearance of blight” (cited in Collombier 107). Pro-home rule political cartoons portrayed Ireland as oppressed by both the British and the northern monster of Orangeism. The obvious liberator was home rule, communicated by parliamentary buildings limned in sunbursts, veritable Reaganesque “shining cities on the hill”. Intended to dispel “unionist fears” (49) and rally support for the cause, cartoons and images produced by publications such as the Weekly News, the Freeman’s Journal, and the satirical Pat cast home rule Ireland as civilized and deliberative, indicative of a future in which Catholic-Protestant sectarianism would be transcended and economic justice and prosperity reign.

Such hopes would prove wildly naïve. The first and second home rule bills introduced by Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone suffered resounding defeats at the hands of the Conservatives (the first would split his party) and precipitated widespread rioting in Belfast, the island’s industrial center and a hotbed of unionist sentiment. Resistance to the third home rule bill (which passed Parliament and received royal ascent but was never implemented due to the outbreak of WWI) would prove so strong among unionists it led to the 1912 Ulster Covenant, in which hundreds of thousands of people pledged “to defeat the present conspiracy” by all means necessary, including the creation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, an armed militia, the following year (cited in Collombier 203).

In contrast, the dystopias imagined by anti-home rulers predicted societal breakdown and economic implosion. Most speculative fiction was written by home rule’s opponents, and Collombier is to be applauded for shining a light on a lesser-known aspect of this faction’s PR campaign. Here, the coming darkness of Irish self-rule manifests in poverty, chaos, and Catholic-directed oppression, commonly dog whistled as “Rome Rule”. Tellingly, in another satire by Moore, The Viceroy Muldoon (1893), every Irish legislator is allowed a personal well-paid chaplain (no doubt to ensure papal control over policy) with the post of lord lieutenant occupied by a louche “spirit grocer in Ballynamuck” (cited in Collombier 168) whose combative and ribald traits, Collombier notes, embodied “all the cliches associated with the figure of Paddy” (168). Echoes of Donald Trump’s MAGA rallying cries are evident in the bleak vision such authors conjured of home rule Ireland as a place of high taxes (for the industrious Protestant Ulster) and mob rule (168), where Protestant guns are outlawed and arson common (198).

Nevertheless, for many Irish revolutionaries, the debate over home rule was a red herring, “only a first step” (149) at best on the road to full independence, and a “simulacrum” at worse (cited in Collombier 140). As early as 1876, the more radical Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) parted ways with Butt over his inability to deliver some form of self-governance, and the IRB newspaper Irish Freedom would later attack the IPP, accusing it of being an “Imperialist Party” whose alliance with the ruling Liberal Party, particularly under the leadership of moderate nationalist John Redmond, left it vulnerable to accusations of “helping England to govern this country” (cited in Collombier 145). Along these lines, Fenian novels such as The Battle of Moy (1883) bemoaned the dangers of anglicization, depicting a European conflict between England and its rivals Germany and Austria as an opening by which to declare an Irish Republic (135).

Throughout the book, Collombier explores some interesting rabbit holes, particularly the way in which New Zealand served as a model and exemplar for home rulers’ aspirations as well as its reputation as a utopian laboratory for visiting progressives (280). The modern reader may also be struck by New Zealand’s remarkably resilient appeal for factions across the political spectrum as Silicon Valley “techno-libertarians” such as Peter Thiel have more recently identified the tiny island nation as the ideal utopia from which to retreat in the event of looming world apocalypse (O’Connell 2018).

Less successful are Collombier’s concluding trio of chapters, which focuses on the home rule movement in relationship to British positivists, the Irish nationalist and land reformer Michael Davitt, and the English artist, designer, and socialist William Morris. Coming at the end of a body of work primarily concerned with considering literary and editorial representations of home rule Ireland, these chapters feel oddly inconsonant, littered with curious digressions and details that distract to the detriment of an overarching cohesive argument. To wit, the chapter on Morris includes Irish journalist and IPP propagandist Stephen Gwynn’s characterization of Morris on a visit to Dublin as “a puzzle-headed old gentleman” reduced to rambling about obscure artistic subjects “in a corner” (cited in Collombier 317). Collombier proceeds to describe Morris as “a marginal figure for the Irish home rulers” (319). If so, why include the chapter at all? One wishes the author had heeded the trenchant writerly advice to “kill all your darlings”. And then some.

Though Collombier’s exhaustive survey of her material is to be commended for its ambition and obvious scope, its very thoroughness lends itself to repetition and what can at times feel like an endless succession of quoted material see-sawing between the tropes of feverish demagogic unionism and rose-tinted glasses-wearing nationalism. As a result, the flow of the narrative suffers, and the book’s analysis remains undeveloped.

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The fourth home rule bill, the Government of Ireland Act 1920, while not the focus of Collombier’s work, remains the elephant in the room, an unfished project that divided the island in two with proposed devolved parliaments for the Protestant north and Catholic south. By then the radicals were in ascendance, and the Irish War of Independence in full swing. Southern Ireland would become the Irish Free State under the terms of the treaty that ended the conflict with only Northern Ireland ever realizing the much-imagined home rule parliament. A fundamentally sectarian institution, that parliament’s foundational flaws would set the stage for the Troubles to come and continue to reverberate in the deadlock that has plagued (and repeatedly collapsed) the current power-sharing assembly in the years since the Good Friday Agreement.

Nevertheless, for better or worse, the pro- and anti-home rule visions of a self-governing Ireland continue to animate the post-Brexit landscape, as politicians on both sides of the debate consider the combined impact of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union and shifting demographics on Northern Ireland’s future constitutional position. With predictions of a reunification vote on the horizon, unionists like former Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson have once again adopted a dystopian outlook, bemoaning a potential united Ireland as a place where their interests would be “trampled on” (Robinson 2023). In contrast, the current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has forwarded a far more inclusive picture of Ireland where British unionist identities must be accommodated and made to feel welcome (Crisp 2023). Meanwhile, the historic appointment of Irish republican Michelle O’Neill, a Catholic, as first minister of the erstwhile “Protestant state” of Northern Ireland in February 2024 suggests that in the end perhaps the anti-utopians will have the last laugh after all.

Works Cited

Crisp, James (2023). “Ireland will unite in my lifetime – and must protect its British minority, says Leo Varadkar.” The Telegraph (September 8). https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/09/08/leo-varadkar-ireland-unite-in-my-lifetime-british-minority/.

O’Connell, Mark (2018). “Why Silicon Valley billionaires are prepping for the apocalypse in New Zealand.” The Guardian (February 15). https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/feb/15/why-silicon-valley-billionaires-are-prepping-for-the-apocalypse-in-new-zealand.

Robinson, Peter (2023). “A ‘united Ireland’? Not in my lifetime – or yours.” DUP (September 5). https://mydup.com/news/a-united-ireland-not-in-my-lifetime-or-yours.