While much has been written about Irish-American involvement in Ireland’s nationalist movements, much less has been said about how the “Irish Question” influenced Anglo-American relations. A Union Forever impressively addresses this lacuna. In so doing, it lays to rest the idea that the US did the bidding of the Irish-American lobby and twisted a thorn in London’s flesh. In truth, as Sim shows us, Ireland was only one of many sources of Anglo-American tension in the years up to and including the American Civil War.
US public opinion, of course, harboured many pro-Irish sympathies and some politicians relished the prospect of embarrassing the British over Ireland – especially in revenge for Britain’s perceived meddling in the run-up to the Civil War. However, it was difficult for Washington to lecture London on Ireland when America had its own Achilles heel. For, as the writer George William Curtis would note some years later: “Ireland is England’s touch-stone, as slavery was ours.”
How, then, did Ireland affect Anglo-American relations? A Union Forever shows that it was clearly an issue for both countries. The tragedy of famine in the 1840s focused minds on either side of the Atlantic, with enormous amounts of philanthropy heading east to embarrass the British with their laissez-faire, providential, political economy. When Young Ireland nationalists such as John Mitchel and T. F. Meagher turned up in America after escaping from Australia, where they had been sent after their failed uprising in 1848, they were feted by the Irish-American lobby, but no one of true influence seriously considered taking up Ireland’s case. Moreover, this remained the same throughout all phases of Irish nationalism until the establishment of the Free State in December 1922.
It was difficult for Washington to lecture London on Ireland when America had its own Achilles heel - slavery
Fenianism undoubtedly posed an Irish threat to Anglo-American relations, as the British complained bitterly about Washington’s toleration of violent anti-British plots often hatched on US soil. But wider tensions were at work. With the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, temperatures were raised by Britain’s declaration of neutrality – an act that gave succour to the Confederacy and infuriated Washington. Meanwhile, The Times could point to the flagrant tolerance of Irish extremism and of Union recruitment campaigns to enlist British subjects in the US and in Ireland. However, Sim is judicious in recognising that during periods of political tension, Irish-Americans and the Irish Question were relatively low on the scale of importance next to British commercial interests both North and South, the Union seizure of the Trent, a British vessel, or the British manufacture of Confederate ships. Specifically, Anglo-American disagreements came closer to initiating war between the two countries than the Irish Question ever did. In fact, only one Irish-related issue caused real tension: Britain’s promulgation of the doctrine of “perpetual allegiance”, by which naturalised Irish-born Americans were not recognised as citizens of the US and thus faced legal proceedings as British subjects.
Ultimately, A Union Forever is not so much a study of the extent of Irish-American influence on Anglo-American relations as of its limitations. Sim shows that Irish crises brought these two fundamentally Protestant countries closer together. During the 1870s and 1880s, the emergent visions of a shared Anglo-Saxon superiority, allied to greater liberalism in Britain’s Irish and Atlantic policies, ensured a unity of purpose that relegated Irish-America further still.
Drawing on rich and varied sources, from consular records and government files on both sides of the Atlantic to extensive newspaper archives and personal writings, this considered study charts an important transnational theme in the pre-history of the “special relationship”.
A Union Forever: The Irish Question and U.S. Foreign Relations in the Victorian Age
By David Sim
Cornell University Press, 280pp, £29.95
Published 3 December 2013