The Union

In Brief

Twice in close succession in Nestor Mr. Deasy refers to "the union," introducing into the novel one of the most consequential and contentious events of Irish history. And twice he utters rank falsehoods about it, suggesting that the unionist Protestant perspective on Irish history is founded upon false consciousness. The term refers to the twin legislative acts 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 still remains in force today in Northern Ireland.

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Deasy's claim that "the orange lodges agitated for repeal of the union twenty years before O'Connell did" is simply ludicrous. His claim that his ancestor Sir John Blackwood (1721-99), a member of the Irish House of Commons, "voted for the union" is also false, but less conspicuously so. "Per vias rectas," Deasy says, "was his motto. He voted for it and put on his topboots to ride to Dublin from the Ards of Down to do so." According to a letter that Henry Blackwood Price wrote to Joyce in 1912, telling him about his ancestor, Sir John did not cast a vote either way, because he never got to Dublin. But his intention was to vote against the legislation: "Remember that Sir John Blackwood died in the act of putting on his topboots in order to go to Dublin to vote against the Union" (Ellmann 326-27).

The Ards of Down is a peninsula in County Down, jutting into the Irish Sea east of Belfast and wrapping around the Strangford Lough. Bangor, the large town that Sir John represented in the Parliament, lies on Belfast Lough at the base of the peninsula, 10-12 miles (16-20 km) northeast of Belfast. It is nearly 100 miles from Dublin—an extremely long ride for an infirm 78-year-old man. Considering the trouble that Sir John was preparing to take to resist imperial skullduggery, his motto, "Per vias rectas" (Latin for "By straight roads" or "By proper means"), seems well justified, but not for the reasons that Mr. Deasy implies.

Gifford notes that although Sir John "was offered a peerage to bribe him to vote for Union" and refused, there is evidence that his son, Sir James Blackwood, voted for the Union and was made Baron Dufferin in recompense. The Baron may be said to have acted per vias pravas or crooked ways.

Catholics lacked the vote in the 1790s, and the Irish Parliament was stuffed with aristocrats and large landholders from the Protestant Ascendancy. Nevertheless, the ideal of an independent and inclusive Ireland appealed to many Protestants of the time—even in Ulster, as is demonstrated very clearly by the ecumenical orientation of the United Irishmen and its eventual commitment to revolution. Additionally, the Grattan Constitution of 1872 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 many promises of peerages to members who would switch their votes. The first vote in 1799 (the one that Sir John could not participate in) failed. The second one, in 1800, succeeded. A similar disgraceful history attends the earlier Acts of Union that brought the United Kingdom (Great Britain) into being in 1707. 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 the St. Mary's Abbey, telling Reverend Love that "the old bank of Ireland was over the way till the time of the union."

JH 2018
The Irish House of Commons in 1780, painted by Francis Wheatley. The figure addressing the body, in a red coat in the right foreground, is Henry Grattan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Ards peninsula in County Down. Source: freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com.
The old Irish Parliament building, now a branch of the Bank of Ireland. Source: dspace.ndlr.ie.