Wales and Ireland in the Late Nineteenth Century

In February, 1886, Thomas Edward Ellis, soon to be a member of parliament for Meirionnydd, wrote to his friend, D.R. Daniel: “We must work for bringing together Celtic reformers and Celtic peoples. The interests of Irishmen, Welshmen and Crofters are almost identical. Their past history is very similar, their present oppressors are the same and their immediate wants are the same.”

Ellis was expressing a viewpoint that was widely supported in the late nineteenth century. The awareness of shared oppressors and shared needs gave rise to the notion of shared representation: John Murdoch, the editor of The Highlander of Inverness, was suggested as candidate for Tipperary in 1880; Michael Davitt was offered a parliamentary seat in the Highlands in 1885, and among the names put forward for nomination in Meirionnydd in 1886 was that of Charles Stewart Parnell. So similar was the sense of grievance and the hope of deliverance among the Gaels of Scotland and the Gaels of Ireland that there were those amongst them who advocated that the Highlands should be hived off from Scotland and linked with Ireland in a reunited Gaeldom based upon Belfast. The Welsh never went as far as that, but on a number of issues the parallels between Wales and Ireland in the later nineteenth century were remarkably close. Those issues were land, religion, culture and politics. This article is concerned with examining to what extent commentators in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were right in believing that the main concerns of the Welsh and the Irish were of the same substance and to what extent they were wrong.

Thomas Edward Ellis was so convinced of the parallels between the Land Question in Ireland and in Wales that he involved himself in the Irish Land League’s Plan of Campaign – so much so that he was wounded in the Massacre of Mitchelstown in County Cork in 1887. There is a tendency to consider nineteenth‑century Ireland as a country uniquely burdened by an inequitable structure of land‑ownership. Yet the structure in Wales was broadly similar. In the 1880s, Wales had about twenty‑five estates of over twenty thousand acres; Ireland had just over a hundred, a similar pattern in view of the fact that Ireland is four times larger than Wales. The most extensive estate in Wales — the 145,000 acres owned by the Williams Wynns of Wynnstay in Denbighshire — was comparable with the most extensive in Ireland — the 170,000 acres owned by the Berridges of Clifden in County Galway. One half of Ireland was owned by eight hundred landed proprietors; one half of Wales was owned by two hundred. Sometimes they were the same people. The Barons Harlech, the only landed family to give birth to a television station, owned 15,000 acres in Gwynedd and 21,000 acres in County Sligo. The Earl of Dunraven, perhaps the most constructive of the Southern Unionists, owned 23,000 acres in Glamorgan and 14,000 acres in County Limerick. The earls of Pembroke, one time owners of Cardiff Castle, drew £35,000 a year from from their properties in County Dublin, and Lord Ormathwaite was as prominent a figure in Radnorshire as he was in County Kerry.

In Wales, as in Ireland, there was a deep awareness that the landlords had no organic link with the culture of the mass of the people. Professor David Williams viewed the landlords of Wales as a ‘parasitic class’; they were, he claimed, “arrogant, extravagant and shiftless, spending their useless lives in the preservation of game and its wholesale slaughter.” “The unrest which led to the Land Question in Wales,” wrote Professor W. J. Gruffydd, “was not at root an economic or a political movement, but a social and a national one, the traditions of an old culture which had been kept down among the common people, breaking from its bond and claiming back its own kingdom” — a comment even more relevant in the context of Ireland. Protests in rural Wales, from the Enclosure Riots to the Rebecca Riots and the Tithe Riots, were motivated by the same grievances as were those of rural Ireland. Population growth, the bane of Ireland, was also the bane of rural Wales; the inhabitants of the impoverished county of Cardigan increased at the rate of 17 per cent per decade in the early nineteenth century, a rate faster than that of most of the counties of Ireland. Population growth drove the poorest peasants to settle on unproductive wastelands, the practice of squatting reaching such proportions that it seemed to one commentator as if “an Irish estate had been transferred and filled in as patchwork amongst the Welsh mountains.” Social conditions, especially in south-west Wales, invited comparison with Ireland.

“The cottages of north Pembrokeshire”, wrote Arthur Young, “are not a whit better than Irish cabins.” “The poor Welsh,” wrote The Times correspondent in 1843, “live as miserably as the poor Irish.” Levels of tuberculosis were as high in Wales as they were in Ireland, and one perceptive critic has suggested that the high incidence of the disease was responsible for the maudlin sentimentality of much of nineteenth‑century Welsh literature. Members of the government were painfully aware of the parallels between Wales and Ireland. “I grieve to say,” wrote Sir James Graham, Peel’s Home Secretary, “that south Wales bids fair to rival Ireland. Poverty and the misconduct of landlords are at the root of crime and of discontent in both countries.” In Wales as in Ireland, the peasantry, having rejected the leadership of the landed elite, accepted the leadership of their home-bred clerics. “The great bulk of the population of the Welsh countryside,” wrote a Poor Law Commissioner in 1843, “are as much in the hands of the preachers as the peasants of Ireland are in the hands of their priests.” The Land Question in Ireland was the subject of a number of Royal Commissions. One of Thomas Edward Ellis’s major achievements was the establishment of a Royal Commission on the Land Question in Wales. His insistence that the investigation should be made by a Royal Commission rather than by a less prestigious body such as a Select Committee was motivated by a desire that Wales should achieve parity with Ireland — and, for that matter, with the Scottish Highlands. His success marked a significant step in the change in the official perception of the United Kingdom — from being an amalgam of three kingdoms to being an amalgam of four nations.

Welsh radicals of the later nineteenth century, impressed by the similarities between the Land Question in Wales and Ireland, were also eager to discover convergences in the vexed field of religion. In the 1860s, between 75 and 80 per cent of the population of Ireland was Roman Catholic. At the same time, between 75 and 80 per cent of the church-going population of Wales was Nonconformist. It was the realisation of this striking similarity that that caused the issue of the disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales to be raised in the immediate wake of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. In August 1869, less than a month after the Irish Disestablishment Bill had become law, Watkin Williams, MP for Denbigh Boroughs, introduced a bill into the House of Commons to disestablish the Anglican Church in Wales. His action placed Welsh disestablishment on the political agenda.. It was to remain there until victory was achieved in 1920; thereafter, Wales and Ireland were the two officially non-religious countries in these islands.

The disestablishment issue had even wider Cambro‑Irish ramifications. Irish disestablishment became law not only because of demands in Ireland but also because these demands were supported by British Nonconformists. It was the Welshman, Carvell Williams, Secretary of the Society for the Liberation of Religion from State Patronage and Control, who made contact with the Irish Catholic hierarchy, and it was Lewis Llewellyn Dillwyn, the MP for Swansea, who introduced in 1865 the motion which opened the way towards Irish disestablishment; it was he too, in 1866, who introduced the second Welsh Disestablishment Bill. The members of the Liberation Society were ardent opponents of any link between Church and State. The Roman Catholic Church was an ardent advocate of such a link; indeed, a “free Church in a free State” was one of the concepts condemned by Pope Pius IX in his Syllabus of Errors in 1864. There were those who argued that the endowments of the Church of Ireland should be shared rather than secularised — that disestablishment should be accompanied, not by disendowment, but by the concurrent endowment of the major denominations of Ireland in accordance with the number of their adherents, a plan which would have vastly favoured the Catholic Church.

To Cardinal Cullen of Dublin, there were merits in continuing to rely upon the voluntary contributions of church members, but it was the fact that the Catholic Church in Ireland had accepted the help of such men as Williams and Dillwyn which debarred it from opting for concurrent endowment. In consequence, Cullen, although he was described as the Pope’s Whip in Ireland, endorsed the secularisation of the property of a state church, a step deeply offensive to the Papal authorities. It is salutary to remind those who consider the Catholic Church in Ireland to be conservative and obscurantist that its leaders were the Roman Church’s first Liberal hierarchy. As he went to vote in 1868, Cullen asked: “Has a Catholic Archbishop ever before voted for a Quaker? Has a Cardinal ever before voted Liberal?” The procedure adopted in 1869 in Ireland was the same as that adopted in Wales in 1920; that is, all churches were to be unendowed and dependent upon the contributions of their members. Therefore, after disestablishment, even more than before, the Irish Catholic Church owed nothing to the British government, a central fact in the history of late nineteenth-century Ireland.

As with the Church of Ireland, it was possible to portray the Church of England in Wales as the church of the English and the Anglicised; indeed, in Wales its very name fed that assumption. Not a single Welshman had been appointed a bishop in Wales since 1714, and the readiness of the Anglican clergy to traduce their fellow‑countrymen during the famous investigation into education in Wales in 1847 gave credence to the claim that they were a treacherous fifth column. As Lord Rosebery stated in a letter to Queen Victoria: “The Church of England in Wales is very much what Gibraltar is to Spain: a foreign fortress placed on the territory of a jealous, proud and susceptible people” — a comment similar to thousands made about the Church of Ireland.

Despite its links with England, Anglicanism in Wales and in Ireland was not unrelievedly an Anglicising force. By the later nineteenth century, the mainstream culture of Ireland was essentially Catholic and the mainstream culture of Wales was essentially Nonconformist; yet concern for what was central to the national tradition of the two was shown, disproportionately, by members of the Anglican Communion. The road that leads to the foundation of the Gaelic League is strewn with sons of Church of Ireland vicarages, and in Wales the debt of Welsh scholarship and culture to yr hen bersoniaid llengar (the old literature-loving parsons) is incalculable. As patriotic Anglicans in Wales and in Ireland became aware that their nationality was being hijacked by other denominations, they felt the need to look further back and find an older tradition which could be the basis for a new sense of national unity. Nineteenth-century Welsh Anglicans insisted that it was they who were the heirs to the to the ancient Celtic Church of St. David, a notion first promulgated by Bishop Richard Davies in 1567. A similar idea was put forward by Irish Anglicans; the ancient Irish Church, they argued, owed nothing to Rome, so St. Patrick was really a Protestant.

In language matters, too, the parallels are striking. In the early 1880s, there were in Ireland some 800,000 people able to speak the Irish language; at the same time there were in Wales about 800,000 people able to speak the Welsh language. There were also other similarities. The tally-stick used to discourage children from speaking Irish is the Welsh Not under another name. Both languages were threatened by what Patrick Pearse called “the murder machine” — a public education system deliberately modelled upon that of England. The Irish language established a foothold within that system in 1879; the Welsh language won a foothold in 1889. Emrys ap Iwan, Wales’s greatest linguistic nationalist, wrote his passionate articles in defence of the Welsh language in the 1880s; Douglas Hyde’s The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland appeared in 1892. The Gaelic League’s fears that obsession with politics was diverting energies from efforts which would strengthen the essential Irishness of Ireland was a notion wholly familiar to Emrys ap Iwan. Depressed by the what he had heard from delegates at conferences demanding Home Rule for Wales, he commented: “Why don’t they stay at home and bring up their children to speak Welsh.”

The conflict between the Anglicised and the native traditions, so admirably analysed in the Irish context by Professor Lyons in his discussion of the “Battle of Two Civilisations”, was also a Welsh phenomenon. A traduced people seeks to assert its respectability — the chasteness of its women, the high moral character of its men, the exalted nature of its religious tradition. Synge’s attacks on such deeply held convictions, phrased in a unique Irish-English idiom, led to a riot in Dublin in 1907; Caradoc Evans’s attacks, phrased in a unique Welsh-English idiom, caused a furore in Wales in 1915.

Among Irish language enthusiasts, there was a readiness to encourage Irish writing in English as a kind of stop-gap, a “saving salt” as Douglas Hyde put it, “which will for the time being secure the heart of the country from complete decay.” In the Welsh context, the same theme appears in Harri Webb’s “Crown for Branwen”:

Lady, your land’s invaded, we have thrown
Hurried defences up, our soil is raw,
New, shallow, the old crops do not grow
Here where we man the trench
…I wreathe for you
A crown of waste land flowers, let them blaze
A moment in the midnight of your hair
And be forgotten when the coulter drives
A fertile furrow over your old wars
For the strong corn, our children’s bread.

And so to politics. Here, it could be argued, is the great difference, with Wales in the late nineteenth century demonstrating its devotion to the British Liberal Party, and with Ireland returning a phalanx of Irish Nationalists. Yet the contrast is more apparent than real. In the general election of 1868, two-thirds of the MPs of Wales were members of the Liberal Party, but in that election two-thirds of the MPs of Ireland were also members of the Liberal Party. Admittedly, with the advance of Parnellite politics, Irish Liberalism, as a distinct entity, was virtually by 1886. Yet the Irish Nationalist MPs found the embrace of the patrician and intellectual circles of London Liberalism almost as attractive as did the radicals of Wales.

As Dr. Hoppen puts it: “Constitutional nationalism became so capacious a portmanteau that it was at once able and obliged to provide a refuge for men who would as readily have declared themselves Whigs or Liberals in earlier days.” Parnell, perhaps the only Irish MP (outside the ranks of the Ulster Unionists) who was virulently anti-English, had to inveigh against the affection of the Irish members for the National Liberal Club, and the partiality of the Irish Parliamentary Party for the delights of London was one of the weapons in the armoury of Sinn Féin. Yet Sinn Féin made virtually no electoral headway, at least before 1916, and it could be argued that up to the outbreak of the First World War the nationalist representatives of Ireland, like the radical representatives of Wales, were part of a broad Liberal coalition which embraced all four countries of the United Kingdom.
The Irish did, of course, have another political tradition — that of republicanism. But that was not absent in Wales. Here are two quotations: this is Arthur Griffith on Queen Victoria’s visit to Ireland in 1900: “She came in her dotage to seek recruits for her battered army,” and this is Dr. Pan Jones, the great Welsh radical, commenting on Victoria’s death in the following year: “She died of a broken heart, caused by the stubborn refusal of the Boers passively to submit to be killed by her butchers.”
There is thus ample evidence that in four key areas in the later nineteenth century Wales and Ireland seemed to be treading the same path. But the argument is not wholly convincing. After all, what happened next? In the early twentieth century Ireland experienced the Easter Rising, the Sinn Féin victory in 1918, the Anglo-Irish War and the establishment of the Free State. Wales saw the apotheosis of Lloyd George and then the rise of an Anglocentric Labour Party. If Wales and Ireland were following the same path, why did it not lead in the same direction? There is a tendency in Wales to explain the difference in terms of the pusillanimity of the Welsh and of the readiness of certain key figures to sacrifice their patriotism to their ambitions. There is substance to these charges, but more relevant is the fact that there is an illusory element in the comparison with Ireland. Thus it is salutary to look again at the four themes of land, religion, culture and politics and to examine, not the similarities, but the differences. But there are three other salient points — shape, size and location.

First, shape. In culinary terms Wales is a pie and Ireland is a flan: that is, Wales goes up in the middle and Ireland goes up at the sides. Furthermore, Ireland is quite substantial. It has already been noted that it is four times larger than Wales; indeed, Wales is exactly the same size as the province of Leinster, and two-and-a-half County Corks would embrace the whole country.

More significant is population. With Wales and the Irish Republic level-pegging between two-and-a-half and three million people apiece over the last few decades, there is a tendency to think that in discussing the two countries together, like is being compared with like. In historical terms, this is a most misleading notion. In view of the unique demographic experience of Ireland over the past 150 years, it is difficult to appreciate that the Irish, in the early nineteenth century, were among the largest of the nationalities of Europe. Only seven European nations were more numerous in population; there were ten times more Irish than there were of Welsh, six times as many as there were of Finns and Norwegians, four times as many as there were of Danes and of Swiss, three times as many as there were of Scots, Dutch, Greeks and Portuguese, and twice as many as there were of Austrians, Hungarians and Belgians. By the early twentieth century Ireland had slipped to the twenty-second position in the league table of European nations, but its demographic crisis had given rise to a vast and embittered Irish diaspora and a far-flung Irish religious empire, two developments which are fundamental to the contrast between the experience of Ireland and that of Wales.

Furthermore, Ireland is an island; Wales is two linked peninsulas. Sacral islandism is, of course, a notion that the Welsh cannot accept, for transferred to the larger of the two West European islands, it offers a justification for English hegemony in Britain. Nevertheless, it has been a central engine of Irish nationalism, for there is substance in Brendan Behan’s song:

The sea, Oh the sea, a ghrádh-gheal mo chroí,*
Long may it roll between England and me!
God help the poor Scotsmen, they’ll never be free,
But we are surrounded by water.

* ‘Bright love of my heart’ (Ed.).

Now to return to the Land Question. Despite the similarities between the agrarian experiences of the Irish and the Welsh, there are several vital differences. Throughout the nineteenth century, work on the land was central to the economy of Ireland; it was increasingly marginal to the economy of Wales. By 1851, only 35 per cent of the employed population of Wales was involved in agriculture, a proportion which was to fall to 10 per cent by 1914. Throughout the nineteenth century Ireland remained an agrarian country; in 1914 only 30 per cent of the population lived in towns exceeding 2000 people, and a high proportion of the inhabitants of the smaller towns were themselves agriculturalists. Thus the land problem in Wales, although real enough, could not be the all-consuming passion that it was in Ireland. Apart from the very specialised economy of north-east Ulster, Ireland did not experience the Industrial Revolution, and the lack of an alternative source of employment meant that, in an era of rapidly growing population, there was the danger of catastrophe. Indeed, Friedrich Engels may well have been right when he argued that the tragedy of Ireland had happened millions of years ago when its coal deposits were washed away. And catastrophe occurred. Although in parts of Wales in the 1830s and 1840s, there were many who hovered on the brink of starvation, they did not fall into the abyss. Ireland, however, experienced the only large-scale famine of nineteenth century Europe, and this made its history in that century sui generis. Furthermore, although the structure of land ownership in Ireland and Wales was broadly similar, the origins of the landowning class in the two countries were not. Despite their Anglicisation, most of the landlords of Wales owned their land by virtue of Welsh descent. The landlords of Ireland were quite literally an alien caste which had been imposed following the uprooting of the native proprietors and the confiscation of their estates. In all parts of Ireland there were descendants of the former landowners, nursing their wrath. Thus, in view of the confiscations, the Famine and the central rôle of agriculture in Ireland, it is impossible, in the last resort, to insist that the Land Question in Wales was of the same nature as the Land Question in Ireland.

With regard to religion, too, the differences were at least as great as the similarities. Although antagonism between church and chapel was a central feature of of the history of late nineteenth-century Wales, it never approached the chasm which divided Catholic from Protestant in Ireland. The Church establishment in Ireland, although in some ways comparable with that in Wales, was in other ways profoundly different. The Church of Ireland was an autonomous institution with its own archbishops and its own clearly defined borders. The Anglican Church in Wales was made up of four of the western dioceses of the archdiocese of Canterbury and its exact boundary was a matter of great complexity. The Church of Ireland had always been a minority church, for the Elizabethan Settlement had received virtually no support among the native Irish. For two centuries and more, the vast majority of the population of Wales had accepted the State Church, and from the mid-sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century most of the cultural heroes of the Welsh people were members of that church. In Wales, disestablishment brought an end to the warring factions, but in Ireland disestablishment consolidated the two sides in the conflict. Up to 1869, the Presbyterians of Ulster had had a grievance against the Anglican Ascendancy and they had, on occasion, shown a readiness to join with the Catholics in seeking to overthrow it. It is not always realised that the United Irishmen began in Belfast and that the movement owed much of its original impetus to Presbyterian resentment of Anglican privileges. The abolition of those privileges in 1869 removed that resentment and made it possible for Irish Protestants — Presbyterian and Anglican — to join in a united opposition to Catholic nationalist aspirations. The Anglican Church in Wales was disestablished in 1920 when secularism, in Britain at least, was beginning to engulf the land. The Church of Ireland was disestablished sixty years earlier, when the Irish Catholic devotional revolution was in full flood. Furthermore, Welsh disestablishment was won by an alliance of at least five denominations, several of which had very little in the way of central organisation; not one of them looked credible as a substitute establishment. In Ireland, the victor was a tightly organised denomination with international ramifications, which under the influence of Cardinal Cullen’s ultramontanism rapidly came to appear as a substitute establishment.
In language and culture, too, the convergence can be overstressed. Although there was a striking similarity between the number of Welsh and of Irish speakers in the 1880s, the dynamics of the two languages were vastly different. Welsh was going up and Irish was going down. The 800,000 Welsh speakers of 1880 represented almost a doubling since 1800; the 800,000 Irish speakers of 1880 represented more than a halving since 1800. By 1911, there were over a million Welsh speakers in Wales; there were fewer than 500,000 Irish speakers in Ireland. The rapidity with which Irish was abandoned makes it unique in the history of European languages. The whole context of cultural life was different too. Ireland in the nineteenth century was a quasi-nation state with a recognisable capital where the nation’s intellectuals naturally gathered. Dublin was a long way from the heartland of the Irish language, which partly explains the gulf which is often perceptible between the attitudes of Irish language revivalists and the attitudes of native speakers of Irish. Wales was a muc0h more decentralist community; its intellectuals were as likely to live in Caernarfon or Denbigh or Aberystwyth or Carmarthen or Merthyr as in Cardiff, and their attitudes were therefore more likely to be in tune with those of the population as a whole.

Furthermore, although the Anglo-Welsh tradition grew to be significant, it was, in the early twentieth century, only beginning to struggle for recognition. The Anglo-Irish tradition was a fundamental factor in Irish national life, as Yeats reminded his fellow senators in a celebrated speech.
And finally to politics. Despite the readiness of the members of the Irish National Party to flirt with the Liberals, it would have been inconceivable for one of their number to become responsible for the discipline of the British Liberal Party, the rôle undertaken by Thomas Edward Ellis as Liberal Whip from 1892 to 1899. Although there were anti-royalist rumbles in Wales, they were as nothing compared with the strong current of Irish republicanism. Irish political demands were more insistent and radical than those of Wales; this fact, coupled with Ulster intransigence and the huge stake that the English aristocracy had in Ireland, meant that the affairs of Ireland were far more significant in British politics than were the affairs of Wales. Above all, because of the diaspora, Irish political demands had international implications. The Welsh, on the whole, stayed at home; in consequence, they had less political clout.

In putting forward these arguments, the intention is not to construct two models, the one wholly contradicting the other. Rather it is to suggest that although the convergences between the Welsh and the Irish experiences are striking, the divergences are even more striking. The Welsh went along with the Irish part of the way, but not all of the way. Looking back at the history of Ireland over the last two hundred years, a Welsh patriot can view that fact with some sadness — but with some gladness too.

©: Dr. John Davies, retired Professor of History and author of the book, 'Hanes Cymru' (The History of Wales), published some years ago by Penguin Books.

This article was first published in Planet, Number 95, October-November, 1992 (Aberystwyth).
We are grateful to the author and to the Editor, John Barrie, for permission to reproduce it.

Published in The Green Dragon No 3, June 1997.

Another article by Dr. Davies:
Wales, Ireland and Lloyd George.