July 2011        

Book review

Dissent into treason

Fergus Whelan, Dissent into Treason: Unitarians, King-Killers and the Society of United Irishmen (Tralee: Brandon Books, 2011); €17.

Most of us know of Wolfe Tone’s noble aim of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter under the common name of Irishman (and woman), but we were never told or encouraged to think of who these “Dissenters” were. What was this third force, and indeed what sort of role did they play in evolving our nationality and our common heritage?
     Fergie Whelan has set out to answer some of these question by tracing the leading lights of these Dissenters, and he has been fortunate in having available the unpublished records of the Dublin Unitarian Church going back over 250 years.
     Throughout history, political, social and cultural ideas have been expressed in religious terms. North and south, the rantings of Ian Paisley before the Belfast Agreement and the conservatism of John Charles McQuaid are indicators of the damage that could hinder the inevitable progress to more liberal and open societies.
     But, as Marx said, the criticism of religion was the beginning of all criticism. In all times religious thoughts were a continuous process of searching for better explanations of where we are and where we are going. Philosophical discourse is what humankind is all about. Discoveries, inventions and scientific knowledge expand the human mind and the need to explore their significance.
     The attempt to corral this inquisitiveness into a catechism, holy books based on a faith handed down from on high, must come into conflict with restless minds. When this faith from on high represents the protection of a privileged class, ideas erupt into social conflict—even when these are dressed in religious terms. Hence we have our Dissenters, and Fergus Whelan’s book puts them and their times and their influence into the environment that helped create the ideology of Irish republicanism.
     William Drennan, on the inspiration of the French Revolution and Paine’s Rights of Man, first proposed the formation of a “brotherhood of affection” among Irishmen, and the Society of United Irishman followed in 1791. Drennan was the son of a Dissenting clergyman and attended the congregation in Strand Street, Dublin, mixing with like-minded revolutionaries such as Hamilton Rowan and the Emmets.
     It is difficult to follow the evolution of the various factions and ruptures as the hegemony of the Rome-based but state-operated religions was challenged by the Reformation. But the Dissenters were to be the most advanced of these, as they defended the right of private judgement against the interference of established church and state alike. They stressed private judgement as the core of religious belief and saw in the French Revolution a quest not just for social equality but for freedom of beliefs. Philosophically they had preserved in Ireland the non-conformism of the Puritans of Cromwell’s New Model Army and were unwavering in the opposition to the established Anglican Church
     These rejections of subservience to the tyranny of bishops and kings brought them slowly to a sympathy for the subjection and suppression of the masses of the Catholic people around them while rejecting the superstition of “Popery.”
     The book is a narrative based on the lives of the illustrious men and women who questioned first the conformity of religious dogma and then the legitimacy of foreign rule. As representing the embryonic manufacturing and science-oriented merchant class, they resented the colonial imposition of the landed aristocracy. Imbued with the concept of democracy, they sought the achievement of civil and religious liberty, then progressed to the concept of national freedom based on the majority of its citizens.
     Apart from Tone, Emmet, Fitzgerald and other well-known Irish heroes the Dissenters included in their intellectual talent people like Joseph Priestley, scientist and philosopher, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and Oliver Bond’s wife, Eleanor. Many were victimised, deported, jailed or put to death and are often not accepted in Ireland for their unique contribution to Irish republicanism.
     While it is not the subject of the book, one wonders what today’s Ireland would be like if that vanguard role had been sustained from the United Irishmen down the generations. What if it had not been crushed by the British-inspired and resourced Orange Order and the Yeomanry and intimidated by the Catholic supremacy of the nationalist movements?
     These defeats have left the loyalist section of the Protestant working class in the grip of everything that the Dissenters fought against. The present generation must find the way and the means to put Dissenter ideas of equality, class interest and nationhood back there. Reading this book will give them some historical ammunition.

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