Politics & Policy

Number 12, Arran Quay

Edmund Burke and Ireland

“Walk beside the Liffey in Dublin, a little way East of the dome of the Four Courts, and you come to an old doorway … of an eighteenth-century house … Number 12, Arran Quay.”

For advocates of ordered freedom, Number 12, Arran Quay is an important address. Why? This is where Edmund Burke was born in 1729 and lived until he was 20, when, after graduating from Trinity College Dublin, he moved to London to study law, enter politics, and shape the course of history. Burke’s career as a Whig member of the British parliament, however, has tended to overshadow his birthplace in the popular imagination. It did not go unnoticed by Russell Kirk, who opens his classic study, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, with the literary signpost quoted above.

#ad#Kirk understood that Burke’s Irish heritage had an influence on his worldview. So, too, have other scholars, including Sean Patrick Donlan, a lecturer in law at the University of Limerick and the editor of a new, compelling collection of essays entitled Edmund Burke’s Irish Identities. In his introduction, Donlan states that the volume’s purpose is “to invite discussion of Burke’s relationship to Ireland,” which is an appropriate conversation on Saint Patrick’s Day. Exploring Burke’s Irish background, in combination with some of the other more famous episodes in his career, will enhance our understanding of one of the most significant historical figures of the North Atlantic world. We will also see that Burke has much to teach his trans-Atlantic political heirs today, including reform-minded conservatives in the United States, their patriotic counterparts in the United Kingdom, and democratic citizens everywhere dedicated to winning the War on Islamic Terror.

The Great Melody

While Burke is most famous for his sustained opposition to Jacobin tyranny in Paris, which is encapsulated in his landmark treatise of 1790, Reflections on the Revolution in France, we can learn much from his preceding years as a Whig reformer, which began in the late 1750s and, for American readers, are best expressed in his famous speech in 1775, “On Conciliation with America.” Both stages of his public life, as we shall see, are more consistent than is commonly understood. At the outset of the first phase, according to Kirk, “Much in the Whig program could attract the imagination of a young man like Burke: freedom under law, the balancing of orders in the commonwealth, a considerable degree of religious toleration, the intellectual legacy of 1688.”

Where did this reformist impulse originate? Some scholars trace it, in part, to Ireland, where Burke witnessed first-hand the tenuous situation of Catholics, whose prospects were circumscribed by the self-aggrandizing habits of Anglo-Irish landlords and the residual effects of the Penal Laws (watered-down since their passage in the late 17th century, they still prevented many Catholics from joining certain professions, acquiring property, voting, or holding elective office). All of this would have cut close to the bone for Burke. He was a Protestant and a member of the Established Church, like his father, Richard (who, incidentally, may have converted in order to become a lawyer), but his mother, Mary Nagle, was a Catholic from the Blackwater Valley in Cork, where he spent time as a youth and would have encountered a Gaelic culture straining to maintain its customs, its religion and its land. In 1761 he observed these conditions again when he returned to Ireland as private secretary to William Gerard Hamilton, a member of Parliament who had been appointed chief secretary for Ireland, the second-ranking official at Dublin Castle, the seat of the British administration in the country. Spending part of each year in his native land, he grew more agitated by the corrupt Anglo-Irish Ascendancy and the enduring restrictions on Catholics. During this time, he penned one of his early political pamphlets, entitled Tract Relative to the Laws Against Popery in Ireland, which was an attack against the Penal Laws.

#page#Burke’s official stint in Dublin, combined with his family background, may cast light on some of the public campaigns he waged. In his book Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered, Russell Kirk writes: “Detesting the arbitrary exercise of political power, Burke was led into the four great struggles of his life — his effort to obtain conciliation with the American colonies, his participation in the Rockingham Whigs’ contest against the domestic power of George III, his prosecution of Warren Hastings [the governor-general of Bengal], and his impassioned resistance against Jacobinism, the ‘armed doctrine.’ In America, in England, in India, and in France, the denial of justice roused Burke to greatness; for his Dublin Castle years had shown him how order and freedom must be kept in a tolerable balance or tension, that all may be safe together. Irish affairs became the microcosm of his politics.”

#ad#In his poem “The Seven Sages,” William Butler Yeats lends a musical air to Burke’s opposition to “the arbitrary exercise of political power.” Replacing Kirk’s England with Ireland (which Burke worked tirelessly to improve), he intones:

American Colonies, Ireland, France and India

Harried, and Burke’s great melody against it.

The Irish statesman and scholar Conor Cruise O’Brien utilizes this Yeatsian motif for the title and central organizing principle of his magisterial biography of Burke, The Great Melody. In his preface he asks, referring to the last word of Yeats’ couplet, “What was it?” His reply: “the abuse of power.” Furthermore, O’Brien asserts, “Yeats was right about the main point. That is, he correctly identified, and isolated for attention, the main areas on which Burke’s creative energies were concentrated throughout the long and overlapping periods of his career.” There were therefore benefits to Burke’s Irish legacy. It opened a window onto other regions of the British Empire suffering from misrule, like America and India; it hard-wired him with an inner early warning system receptive to rebellious sentiments; it highlighted the need for social, political and religious reforms, both for their own sake and to stave off revolution.

In retrospect, Burke’s resistance to unbridled power and his rejection of political vice are important reminders for contemporary conservatives that reform is wholly compatible with their political philosophy. A Burkean approach expands and improves upon our conception of modern conservatism: it is both a defender and a restorer of liberty. Burke represents a starting point for likeminded American citizens wedded to national renewal in accord with the timeless principles of liberal democracy.

Irish, English, British

The epitome of conservative reform in our own era is Margaret Thatcher. During her pathbreaking tenure as prime minister, she revitalized the sclerotic British economy and reinvigorated personal responsibility at home, while abroad she confronted tyranny and helped Ronald Reagan win the Cold War. Today, the United Kingdom remains a natural wellspring of conservatism, despite the Labor party’s long hold on power; the Tory party, in fact, is gaining traction in opinion polls and may be set for a return to government. Still, if the country is to remain a platform for conservative renewal it must overcome threats to its national integrity from without and within. The European Union, which is the antithesis of the Burkean constitutional model, is centralizing power in a labyrinthine bureaucracy in Brussels. Centrifugal forces in Scotland, the home of Edmund Burke’s friend Adam Smith, and similar, albeit paler, sentiments in Wales, jeopardize the unity of the United Kingdom. Imagine its unraveling. Such an outcome might have long-term consequences for political conservatism, not to mention international security. In Britain it would mark the end of three centuries of stability inaugurated with the Act of Union in 1707, the internal constitutional settlement that accelerated the nation’s rise — a point made often by Andrew Roberts, the author of The History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. It might also undermine the U.K.’s role in the Anglo-American security alliance, the partnership that underpins NATO and the War on Islamic Terrorism.

#page#Edmund Burke may offer a historical counterweight to the processes underway in Brussels and in Edinburgh if we reconsider his national identity. He was born in Ireland, but did that mean he was Irish? In a review of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Great Melody, Paul Johnson calls Burke “the greatest Irishman who ever lived.” This is accurate in terms of his stature, but we are then confronted with another query: what was the nature of his Irishness — was he a Gaelic patriot, a Jacobite enthusiast, a member of the hidden Catholic gentry, or a pillar of the Protestant Ascendancy? There is ample room for discussion. Indeed, the scholars in Edmund Burke’s Irish Identities participate in an engaging, intellectually rigorous debate about this topic.

In one provocative essay, Katherine O’Donnell suggests that Burke may have harbored Jacobite sympathies. Lingering esteem for the legacy of King James II, the Catholic Duke of York who ascended to the English throne after the death of his brother Charles II in 1685 only to be deposed three years later, was still common among Irish Catholics throughout the eighteenth century, decades after he lost to the Protestant King William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, which sealed the Glorious Revolution of 1688. O’Donnell argues that the “result of reading Burke as a ‘crypto-Catholic’ Irishman and reading his Reflections [on the Revolution in France] within the context of the Irish literary tradition is that he no longer is an ‘ungainly,’ strange, confusing or confused British statesman,” but rather “a brilliant and unique eighteenth-century Irish orator, a product of his Gaelic Jacobite upbringing and his patriotic Irish education at Trinity College Dublin.” To support this interpretation, which is compelling but perhaps overstated, O’Donnell draws on Burke’s “social origins” in Ireland, especially his maternal links to the Nagle family of the Blackwater Valley.

#ad#Whatever their exact nature, Burke’s Irish sensibilities did not sidetrack his career in England, for he rose to become a leading member of the Whig Party and a defender of an enlightened British Empire. They may have induced a spell of diplopia, however, which Nathan Wallace diagnoses in his essay, “Edmund Burke’s Anglo-Irish Double Vision in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontent.” In an intriguing case of ophthalmological analysis applied to one of Burke’s earliest political tracts, which bemoans King George III’s encroachment on Parliamentary authority by ruling through quasi-ministers and outlines the functions of a responsible political party, Wallace’s core argument is that

the two most famous features of the Thoughts — the Double Cabinet conspiracy narrative and the defense of party politics — operate on public and private levels. On the public level the pamphlet operates as a Rockingham Whig Party manifesto, and on the private level it operates as a justification of, and guide to, what I call Burke’s own assimilation, as a new Irish man, to the English imperial system.

Wallace wisely reminds his readers that “Recovering Burke’s Irishness does not mean denying the Englishness he so frequently claimed for himself. This self-identification is crucial to understanding Burke’s political identity, and it is therefore no less crucial that we understand the dynamics of this gesture. By identifying his Englishness as an adoption, Burke signals the doubleness of his identity.”

A convincing argument is articulated by Michael Brown in his chapter, “The National Identity of Edmund Burke.” He asks the rhetorical question, “Was Burke Irish?” His answer: “Yes, but only in a limited and highly specific sense.” More to the point, and here Brown is on solid ground, “Burke’s national identity was multiple, polyphonic and integrative.” What does this mean? “In Burke’s case there was clearly a layering of identities onto each other. Burke’s Irish birth and education placed him within that nation … However, his career also supplied him with an English political identity and a British political identity, which both complicated and problematized his Irishness. Burke was, after all, an English landlord, an MP in the parliament at Westminster and a proponent of reform of the British Empire. The first two of these elements … supplied him with a set of commitments to the English nation. The third element, Britishness — which spanned not only the British Isles but evolved into a world-wide identity — both comprehended the other two facets of his political identity and articulated the relationship between them.”

#page#Burke himself would probably agree. Without exaggerating the case, we may thus consider him British, or, more accurately, proto-British. He was proud of his Irish background, but knew where his ultimate loyalties resided. He explained as much in a Parliamentary speech refuting spurious allegations concerning his national allegiance (fueled, no doubt, by caricatures depicting him as a Jesuit and a closet Papist). Burke asserted that “he was a native of Ireland, it was true; and he conceived that much was due by every man to the place of his nativity, but this duty ought not to absorb every other; when another country was generous enough to receive a man into her bosom, and raise him from nothing, as this great country had raised him, to stations of the greatest honor and trust, and conferred on him the power of doing good to millions — such a country had claims upon him not inferior to those of that which had given him birth; it was the duty of such a man to reconcile, if possible, the two duties; however, should they unfortunately point in different ways, it was his bounden duty, either to return the trust reposed to him by the adopting country, or else consider its interests as paramount to every other upon Earth.”

#ad#Irish, English, British — this formula best describes Edmund Burke. His national identity provides an important example today. When multiplied by the countless other men and women from Ireland, Scotland, Ulster, and Wales who, like Burke, have thrived while living and working in Great Britain, it offers an alternative to those centralizing and separatist tendencies on the continent and in the country that imperil the liberty that a unified United Kingdom preserves.

“Never Succumb to the Enemy”

Burke’s commitment to the interests of his adopted land, his dedication to reform throughout the British Empire, and his defense of sound constitutional principles all set the stage for the pinnacle of his career, his implacable opposition to the French Revolution, a policy articulated in several works published from 1790 to 1797, including Reflections on the Revolution in France, An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, Letter to a Noble Lord, and Letters on a Regicide Peace. As Kirk observes, he was a “foe of arbitrary power, in Britain, in America, in India. But with consistency, he set his face against the [French] Revolution in particular and against revolution in general.” How is the latter example consonant with the first three? The year 1789 did not mark the outbreak of a limited rebellion as in 1688 or in 1776, but signaled a radical departure from tradition inflamed by the theories of philosophes like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and resulted in the concentration of authority in the hands of sanguinary fanatics like Maximilien Robespierre and Louis de Saint-Just. Burke was right, in his day, “to stand athwart history yelling Stop!” During his entire life, Kirk reminds us,

Burke’s chief concern had been for justice and liberty, which must stand or fall together — liberty under law, a definite liberty, the limits of which were determined by prescription. He had defended the liberties of Englishmen against their king, and the liberties of Americans against king and parliament, and the liberties of Hindus against Europeans. He had defended those liberties not because they were innovations, discovered in the Age of Reason, but because they were ancient prerogatives, guaranteed by immemorial usage.

What is more, “Burke was liberal,” in the noble, traditional sense of the word, “because he was conservative.”

#page#Conor Cruise O’Brien continues this line of analysis when he writes that Rousseau’s disciples in Britain and the United States “saw the French Revolution as continuous with the English and American ones. Burke’s far more powerful mind registered both the immensity and the terrible originality of the French Revolution.” O’Brien then connects him to the ideological struggles of the twentieth century. “From today’s perspective, we can best see Burke’s writings against the French Revolution as the first great act of intellectual resistance to the first great experiment in totalitarian innovation.” Others since have sought to imitate the Jacobins.

“The first and most durable emulators have been the Marxists. Marx and Engels, and later Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, had all the qualities that Burke abominated in the French Revolutionaries: radical repudiation of all existing institutions and arrangements; absolute confidence in their own competence to build a new and far better society; willingness to kill their contemporaries in great numbers, for the supposed benefit of posterity; contemptuous hostility to all religion, and a program for its enforced elimination from the world.”

#ad#The question arises: how would this defender of ordered freedom respond to one of its greatest enemies today, namely, militant Islam? To be sure, there are fundamental differences, and we must avoid reflexive comparisons. The Jacobins promoted a political religion, while al-Qaeda adheres to a fanatical theocratic politics. The former sought to eradicate religion from society, the latter seeks to impose sharia law. In foreign affairs, Burke often counseled caution. Kirk is clear on this point: “a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.” In this spirit, some of today’s leading conservatives legitimately question the wisdom of foreign entanglements.

Yet when all is said and done, extremist Islam poses the same threat to our established way of life as the French radicals did in Burke’s day. He would espy in al-Qaeda the same evil he discerned in the Committee on Public Safety. In his masterful Letters on a Regicide Peace, he exhorted his countrymen to fight a “long war” against their enemies, and he would most likely advise the same today. In one of his last letters before his death in 1797, he urged his friends in Britain: “Never succumb to the enemy; it is a struggle for your existence as a nation; and if you must die, die with the sword in your hand.” These words could be Edmund Burke’s epitaph. They may also be our motto, on Saint Patrick’s Day, and until the “long war” is won.

– Joseph Morrison Skelly, a college history professor in New York City, is co-editor of Ideas Matter: Essays in Honour of Conor Cruise O’Brien and has served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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