Twice in close succession in Nestor Mr. Deasy refers to "the union," one of the most consequential and contentious events of Irish history, and twice he makes false claims about it, undermining his proudly unionist politics. The term refers to the legislative act of 1800 by which the Irish Parliament in Dublin was dissolved and government of the island transferred to the British Parliament in Westminster, effective 1 January 1801. The Union, which remains in force today in Northern Ireland, was an unmitigated disaster for the city of Dublin.
Deasy's claim that "the orange
lodges agitated for repeal of the union twenty
years before O'Connell did"
is misleading at best. The Lodges, which were dedicated to
British rule and to Protestant domination of Catholics, did
strongly oppose the Union at first, but they quickly became
rabid supporters. The other claim—"I am descended from sir
John Blackwood who voted for the union....He voted
for it and put on his topboots to ride to Dublin from the
Ards of Down to do so"—is simply false. Sir John was hurrying to
Dublin to vote no.
Catholics lacked the vote in the 1790s, and the Irish
Parliament in Dublin was stuffed with Protestant aristocrats
and landholders. Nevertheless, the ideal of an independent and
inclusive Ireland appealed to many Protestants of the
time—even in Ulster, as
is clearly demonstrated by the ecumenical orientation of the United Irishmen and its
eventual commitment to rebellion. Additionally, the Grattan
Constitution of 1782 had given the Irish Parliament a large
measure of independence, and many of its members were
reluctant to vote their body out of existence and cede power
to Westminster. But the British government was determined to
consolidate control of the island after the 1798 rebellion, and it
resorted to bribery on a massive scale, including promises of
peerages to members who would switch their votes. The first
vote in 1799 (the one that Sir John died trying to attend)
failed. The second one, in 1800, succeeded.
The Act of Union repeated the process that had united Scotland with England in a "United Kingdom" in 1707. That union proved more beneficial for Scotland than the Irish one did for the Irish, but it was enacted by similarly disgraceful means. Scottish legislators were bribed so massively that Robert Burns could write,
- The English steel we could disdain,
- Secure in valour's station.
- But English gold has been our bane.
- Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!
The 1800 legislation bequeathed to Ireland a legacy of bitter
contention between unionists and nationalists that was not
completely resolved even by the founding of the Irish Free
State in 1922. As for the magnificent Parliament building in
which the votes were taken, in 1802 it was sold to the Bank of
Ireland after the legislation made it useless. Gifford notes
that it was sold "with the stipulation that the chamber of the
House of Commons be altered so that it could not be used as a
place for public discussion and debate," and it remains a bank
today. The conversion into a banking establishment is apt,
Parliament having been, according to another line of the Burns
song, "bought and sold for English gold." (In Wandering
Rocks Ned Lambert refers to the moving of the bank from
its old headquarters near St.
Mary's Abbey, telling Reverend Love that "the old
bank of Ireland was over the way till the time of the union.")
If the Bank of Ireland stood as a striking symbol of
Ireland's loss of political independence, the rest of Dublin
in 1904 offered equally striking visual evidence of the
material effects of decommissioning the deliberative body. In
Dublin in Bloomtime, Cyril Pearl writes powerfully of
the economic impact: "In 1904 Sir Charles Cameron published a
horrifying report on the housing of the poor. Nowhere in the
world was the contrast between squalor and splendour more
acute or the distribution of slums more widespread. 'In most
cities,' he wrote, 'the purlieus are in a limited number of
districts, but in Dublin they are to be met with everywhere.
The lanes at the rear of such fashionable squares and streets
as Merrion Square, Fitzwilliam Square, Stephen's Green, Upper
Mount Street...are now occupied to a large extent by the
poorest classes.' So were many of the former mansions. More
than two-fifths of Dublin's 60,000 families—about 100,000
people—lived in single rooms, sometimes as many as ten or
twelve people to a room.
"The transition from mansion to tenement was the result of the Act of Union of 1800, which abolished the Irish Parliament and deprived Dublin of its 270 peers, its 300 members of the Commons, and their innumerable hangers-on. (It was estimated that each member of the Lords spent an average of £6,000 a year, and each member of the Commons £2,500.) Until then it had been an elegant, animated European capital—'the seventh city of Christendom,' as Oliver Gogarty was fond of intoning—proud of its culture, its architecture, its hospitality, and its wit. After the Union, paralysis was followed by decay and Dublin declined rapidly to the level of a shabby provincial town, the general depression caused by the Napoleonic war accelerating the process. 'On the last stroke of midnight, December 31,' writes Maurice Craig, Dublin's most eloquent biographer, 'the gaily caparisoned horses turned into mice, the coaches into pumpkins, the silks and brocades into rags, and Ireland was once again the Cinderella among the nations'" (42-44).