In March, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840 opened at the museum. While the century and a half the exhibition covers is noted as one of relative peace and stability in Ireland, the era was not without its conflicts. About a hundred years after the Battle of the Boyne, an unexpected group of revolutionaries led a major uprising against British rule.
But first, some background. Despite the adage that nothing is black and white, when it comes to historical conflict, we tend to divide those involved into distinct oppositions rather than consider the innumerable subtleties. Such is the case with Ireland, where popular perception of the political and religious division is not black and white, but green and orange.
This cut and dried dichotomy is embodied in Ireland’s national flag (first introduced in 1848), with green representing republicanism, or the tenet that all of Ireland should be an independent republic, and orange representing the supporters of William of Orange and those who felt Ireland should remain subject to Great Britain. Similarly but less militantly, green is also tied to Irish nationalism—the advocacy of a united Ireland and the promotion of Irish culture and language—and orange to unionism, or the belief that Ireland should retain political ties to Great Britain. Each color is also associated with the majority religion on either side—green for Catholics and orange for Protestants. The white at the flag’s center signifies the hope for lasting peace between the two groups.
Green versus orange, republican versus loyalist, nationalist versus unionist, Catholic versus Protestant—these are the dualities that have come to define Ireland’s divisive past, but as the Irish Rebellion of 1798 demonstrates, no conflict is so straightforward.
The 1798 rebellion was a major bid for Ireland’s independence first set in motion not by the Catholic majority but by a group of liberal Protestants who sought to “abolish the differences that had long divided Irishmen.” Founded in Belfast in 1791, they were fittingly called the Society of United Irishmen, and their membership crossed religious and class divides to include Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, and even some members of the Protestant Ascendancy (those Anglican aristocratic families whose authority in Ireland was solidified by William’s victory at the Boyne).
Inspired by the recent revolutions in France and America, the Society’s main ambitions were radical reform of the Irish parliament and Catholic emancipation. The British government—at war with France and increasingly concerned with the prospect of invasion—felt the United Irishmen’s progressive principles and brazen veneration of the French posed a dangerous threat. Society membership was made illegal, and the United Irishmen were forced underground where they began to plan an armed revolt for independence with French support.
Fighting broke out in May of 1798, but due to a series of mishaps and divided leadership, the rebellion was swiftly and ruthlessly defeated. In response, the Act of Union was passed in 1800, which officially united Great Britain and Ireland, closed Irish parliament, and returned all governing decisions to Westminster in London..
The Irish Rebellion of 1798 was very much a “green”—i.e. republican—cause, but its leaders were almost entirely Protestant; a fact that was obscured for many years in Ireland to suit popular versions of history. Several men of this period who defy the color categorization appear in our exhibition:
Charles Cornwallis was a decorated British general who was appointed lord lieutenant—the highest post in Ireland —in the wake of the rebellion. Cornwallis helped pass the Act of Union but pushed King George for Catholic rights. He resigned when his requests went unheeded, but his actions laid the groundwork for future emancipation movements.
Henry Grattan was a Protestant aristocrat, Irish politician, and renowned orator who devoted his career to Irish legislative freedom and Catholic emancipation.
Visit the exhibition to see these men’s likenesses and learn more about the whole spectrum of Ireland’s colorful history.
—Anna Decatur, Assistant Director of Principal Gifts
Dublin, Ireland. Dublin Castle Pattern 1769 Short Land Musket with Bayonet, 1770-75. Walnut, iron/steel, and brass. Private Collection.
Hugh Douglas Hamilton. Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, 1772. Pastel and chalk on paper. Private Collection.
Peter Turnerelli. Henry Grattan, 1820. Marble. Private Collection.