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Ourselves Alone?

Religion, Society and Politics in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Ireland

Essays presented to S.J. Connolly


Edited by D.W Hayton & Andrew R. Holmes


Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2016

Hardcover. 235 p. ISBN 978-1846825927. €55


Reviewed by Eoin Magennis

Ulster University




There is a danger that hovers around the festschrift, that of the quality of supply. The worry for editors and readers is that invited authors would merely rummage around in bottom drawers to come up with something old or borrowed for the volume. Thankfully, that is (mostly) not the case here. A second danger that is now appearing in view is the quantity of demand, given the number of retiring professors, not all of whom will get their tribute of essays or perhaps even deserve them. There are certainly many more professors now than when Sean Connolly first came to Belfast in the 1990s, prompting a question mark over the future of this format.

For now and in this case this is a well-deserved festschrift for one of the Irish historians of his generation who has left a striking mark not only on those who have read his work but those taught by him. Professor Sean Connolly is certainly a different type of historian of Ireland compared to what came before him in the 1960s and 1970s. What marks him out is that he has never appeared to be in thrall to the empirical method. He has embraced the opportunities thrown up by historiographical shifts and theoretical challenges in a way that remains unusual for most Irish historians, whose innovations are mainly source-led. For example, his 2004 review article on the history of religion displays not only a curiosity but also an enthusiasm for new approaches and how these might assist in the search for more convincing or complete explanations of the past. Here he is critical of master narratives that seek to explain religious history by relating it to other things we find more important: “we simply confirm the extent to which meaning is something we confer on the past rather than finding it there”. That sums up for this reviewer the gifted historian found in print or when met in conversation.

The concise introduction by the editors to this tribute volume to the now-retiring professor identify another key (and related) element to his craft. That is the contestation of a sense of Irish exceptionalism. Connolly’s posing of the question in the 1992 Religion, Law and Power of whether eighteenth-century Ireland was best seen as part of the ancien regime states of Europe is probably the best-known example of that contesting of older narratives. Again, this questioning was informed by the emerging historiography of eighteenth-century England, in the person of J.C.D. Clark. But it also bore the hallmark of comparative work by himself and others trying to explain the penal laws and agrarian protest, as well as exploring the use of literary sources and the multiple meanings of popular culture (where he was strongly influenced by Peter Burke).

Given this wide range and seeming voracious interest in different things, one wonders what Professor Connolly might make of the contribution in this current volume. I suspect he will be pleased by the presence of a number of colleagues from Queen’s University (the editors, Mary O’Dowd and a former student, Jonathan Wright) and his many peers outside that university, many of whom he has soldiered with in the important fields of social and economic history (such as Cormac Ó Gráda, Louis Cullen, David Dickson and James Kelly). Another two contributors, T.C. Barnard and Thomas Bartlett, have engaged with topics very close to Connolly’s own interest, the penal laws, education and Ulster.

Religion is here in the shape of Andrew Holmes’ novel account of how Ulster Presbyterians sent missions to America in the mid-nineteenth century to raise funds for evangelisation of Catholics in Ireland. Successful in terms of sums raised (£14,000 is cited), the missions actually did more to drive wedges between Catholics and Presbyterians at home and abroad than to create opportunities for conversion. Elsewhere David Miller addresses the question of why a confessional state emerges in Ireland half a century after it had begun to fade from view elsewhere in Europe. Whether the answer given here is meaning conferred on the past or found there is something that will continue to be debated as we deal with the legacy of that period.

Monarchy and Swift are also here, two subjects which Sean Connolly published on. David Hayton deals with the first, in an essay on how Queen Anne was represented in Ireland and came to dwell in the shadows of her brother-in-law and predecessor, William III. Swift was much better at his own representation, something which Louis Cullen explores here, going back again to look at A Modest Proposal (1729). Cullen’s bracing critique of literary analysis of what is regarded as a classic Swiftian piece would echo some of Connolly’s own work on the Dean of St Patrick’s, and his call to take the pamphlet seriously as a political intervention is a useful rejoinder to those caught up in more ‘fanciful interpretations’ [44].

Another area of interest has been the history of women and two case studies, by Mary O’Dowd and Jonathan Wright, are among the highlights in this volume. O’Dowd explores the life and work of Mary Leadbeater, the Quaker and successful author, from Ballitore. O’Dowd uses Leadbeater’s diary to tease out the extent of her acceptance of the restrictions as a Quaker, as against her escaping of these through the world of books and the opening afforded her by Quaker meetings in Dublin and elsewhere. Wright’s work on Eliza McCracken is a response to Connolly’s call in the 1990s to look beyond the ideological and legal constructions to the lives of women themselves and he succeeds superbly here. The story of loss among the McCracken family after 1798 and then her difficult courtship with Robert James Tennant is a gift for the reader and takes us into the self-constraints imposed by women of the period themselves as well as those imposed upon them by family and other parts of society.

The other group of essays deal with popular or agrarian protest and show many of the traces of Sean Connolly’s work. James Kelly take a wide-ranging look at riots (mainly in Dublin) and then hones in on campaigns in 1768, 1791 and 1795 where brothels were the target. In so doing he questions the idea of a ‘mob’ [93] but also how we can better understand the application of ‘moral authority’ [103] by the crowds involved. Meanwhile David Dickson returns to the Whiteboys, more to question whether there was such a gap between the Houghers of the 1710s and the events of the 1760s. It is a superb essay and hard not to agree with his call for an audit of such protests across two centuries, in order to explore whether Charles Tilly’s idea that protests had their own particular performance repertoires. Dickson’s conclusion that the events of 1762 is an instance ‘where the scripts were changed’ [82] is, I think, something that both Sean Connolly and those who have debated these issues with him would agree on.

Final mention should be made of what is perhaps the highlight of the book, Cormac Ó Gráda’s look, through the 1911 census, of who the Connollys were then and where they lived. For the current Sean Connolly the combination of econometric methods, digitisation and lots of imagination (as in ‘taking the O’) in this essay will hopefully convince him there is plenty of life in Irish economic and social history yet. That this is so is certainly due to his efforts since the 1970s. One wishes him well in his retirement and hopes he enjoys this book as one of many encomiums that are certain to come his way.



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