“Ascendancy to Oblivion – The Story of the Anglo-Irish” by Michael McConville. Phoenix Press, London. 2001 (1986) pp 288.
This review was written on December 8th 2004.
I read this book at the end of August 2004 having borrowed it from Geoffrey Dean. The contents are based on secondary sources. The author traces the people arriving in Ireland from the earliest recorded history and describes the many invasions since the Celts first arrived on our shores. He finds it difficult to define exactly what we mean by the Anglo-Irish in view of the heterogeneous nature of the current Irish population, made up as it is of Celts, Vikings, Norman’s, Anglo-Saxons, Scots, Welsh and a scattering from other European countries. He proposes that the latter-day definition of the title refers to those who came to Ireland at the time of the Cromwellian settlement and who dispossessed most of the great pre-Cromwellian landowners of Elizabethan, Norman and Gaelic stock.
The Cromwellian landowners became the dominant group in the Protestant Irish Parliament up to the time of the Union. It was they who continued after the Union to hold their possessions up to the time the Land Acts were enacted. The word Ascendancy refers to their occupation and control of much of the land of Ireland while the word Oblivion in the title refers to their loss of property and privilege starting with the Land Acts towards the end of the 19th Century, with further erosion in the early 20th Century leading to their deteriorating economic, political and social circumstances.
The text underlines the great tragedy of the Anglo-Irish landowners after the Union. Their gradual separation from their tenants and from the people of Ireland as they deserted Dublin and the provinces for the wealth, power and influence of London and Westminster had a baleful effect on their power and influence in Ireland. And they deserted Ireland often in response to the bribes of the British authorities at the time of the Union. Later their influence was further depleted by the 1916 Rebellion, the rhetoric of the Republic and the disaster of the Civil War.
A relatively few landlords remained in Ireland, and administered their own properties personally and some showed concern for their tenants. While not realised at the time, the Union of Great Britain and Ireland established in 1801 spelled the beginning of the end of the Anglo-Irish as defined by Michael MeConville.
It is clear that the absentee landlords, removed from their responsibilities in Ireland and their contact with the native population and culture, had a baleful influence on English policy in Ireland. Many English politicians, even on the Tory side, such as Wellington, were more sympathetic to Irish reform than is generally realised but any concern the British might have felt for reform was discouraged by the Irish nobility living in London. Pitt had promised early Catholic emancipation as part of the terms of the Union but legislation was delayed for another 28 years, partly at least because of the influence of the Irish nobility. Blame for the famine and the many other disasters which occurred during the 19th Century is generally levelled at the British but, with few exceptions, the Anglo-Irish nobility must bear a major part of the responsibility. They contributed to their own oblivion by supporting the Union, by leaving their tenants and by deserting to Westminster.
For a reader seeking knowledge of the political, cultural and social history over the two millennia, Ascendancy to Oblivion gives a useful account of the major influences which determined the fate of the landed gentry. Tracing every immigration to Ireland over the two millennia gives a rounded account of the polygenetic Irish people. It provides an informative and amusing account of the governing classes in Ireland during the years they largely governed themselves and dominated the lives of the great majority of the Irish people, at least up to the time of the Union.
I have to say that this short review only touches one aspect of the history of our latter day ascendancy. We still have the remains of their people and families in Ireland, some of whom have usefully continued the occupation and welfare of their estates and who have played their part in the welfare and success of the New Ireland. In particular, some members of the landed classes paid a crucial part in the Celtic Revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.