De Barra on Griffin and Cogliano, 'Ireland and America: Empire, Revolution, and Sovereignty'

Author: 
Patrick Griffin, Francis D. Cogliano, eds.
Reviewer: 
Caoimhin De Barra

Patrick Griffin, Francis D. Cogliano, eds. Ireland and America: Empire, Revolution, and Sovereignty. The Revolutionary Age Series. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2021. 356 pp. $49.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-4601-6; $37.50 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-8139-4602-3. 

Reviewed by Caoimhin De Barra (Gonzaga University) Published on H-War (June, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57243

Based on papers delivered at a 2017 conference, Ireland and America: Empire, Revolution and Sovereignty is a stimulating edited collection that highlights the value of a comparative approach to the study of American and Irish history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In particular, the essays in this volume reveal that adopting an imperial and revolutionary lens in examining the pasts of these two nations exposes some surprising commonalities between two countries that at a superficial level appear to have had quite different historical experiences. Interestingly, almost all of the contributors to this collection are primarily Americanists, and incorporating some analysis of Irish history into their work allows for fresh perspectives on the past on both sides of the Atlantic.

The book is divided into two sections: the first group of essays focuses on direct comparisons between Ireland and the United States, especially in the late eighteenth century, while the second has a broader focus on concepts of empire and revolution in the wider context of British (and American) imperial history. Among the highlights of the first segment, Gordon Woods convincingly demonstrates that many American colonists looked to Ireland’s constitutional position within the British Empire to bolster their own arguments for resisting Westminster, although often “the Irish model clouded matters rather than clarifying them” (p. 56). In comparing the successful American revolution of the eighteenth century with the Irish revolution of the 1920s, T. H. Breen makes the interesting argument that ultimately it was a British overreaction to the catalyst of both events that galvanized popular resistance and ensured the overthrow of London’s rule. Eliga Gould suggests that the constitutional arrangement provided for Ireland with the “constitution” of 1782 provides an insight for what might have been a peaceful resolution to the American crisis had affairs taken a different turn. Expanding the comparative focus of the collection further, Trever Burnard’s essay explores the similarities between the governing elites of Ireland and Jamaica in the late eighteenth century. He contends that the lessons learned by the loss of its North American colonies taught the British government to undermine the political autonomy of the Irish and Jamaican governing classes to secure the future of the empire. Continuing on the theme of American empire, Christa Dierkshide shows how American traders in the nineteenth century “learned empire” from their British counterparts, and that participation in British imperial trading networks facilitated the imperial ambitions of the United States, culminating in the ability of the American government to extract advantageous trade terms from the Chinese government in the wake of its defeat in the First Opium War.

The second set of essays includes a fascinating article by S. Max Edelson on the use of cadasters as a tool of control across the British Atlantic. Rachel Bank’s “The Ideology of Imperial Reform: Enlightened Absolutism and the Imperial Colonies” is an interesting analysis of policymaking in the early years of the reign of George III, in which she draws parallels with the enlightened absolutists of continental Europe. In answering the question of why rebellion did not break out in Ireland or the British West Indies in the 1770s, Andrew O’Shaughnessy posits that while the dominant classes in these societies had similar gripes to the American colonists, ultimately the importance of British government assistance in controlling the populous underclasses (the Catholic Gaels in Ireland and the slave population in the British West Indies) meant that following the North American example was never really an option. Jessica Choppin Roney’s analysis of the debate about the would-be state of Franklin that sought to cede from North Carolina in the 1780s offers valuable insight into the imperial dimension of American westward expansion in the late eighteenth century and the inevitable questions about who decides where sovereignty lies in the wake of a successful rebellion.

Overall, this collection has excellent individual essays, but as a group they do not always fit neatly together. The biggest drawback of the book is that the thematic unity sags in the second half of the work. To be fair, in dividing the volume as they have done, the editors acknowledge that the eight contributions in that section have a different focus from the six that preceded them. Yet it is noticeable that the relatively even balance in comparing the two countries in the earlier part of the book fades significantly at the halfway point. Most of the later essays either ignore Ireland completely or only include passing references that come across as awkward efforts to make the essays fit in a collection in which they perhaps do not belong. The fact that only a minority of essays truly engage with the comparative analysis the book purports to be about suggests that there are limitations to how historically fruitful this particular approach can be in seeking to twin American and Irish histories.

Despite the slightly eclectic mix of scholarship, Ireland and America: Empire, Revolution, and Sovereignty offers some intriguing and fascinating insights. The essays are well written and thoughtfully argued and the collection is a valuable addition to our understanding of the history of the Atlantic world.

Citation: Caoimhin De Barra. Review of Griffin, Patrick; Cogliano, Francis D., eds., Ireland and America: Empire, Revolution, and Sovereignty. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57243

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