BOOK REVIEW / Howling for Wolf Tone: 'A Deeper Silence: The Hidden Origins of the United Irishmen' - A T Q Stewart: Faber, 25 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE AUTHOR is a veteran Belfast academic who fastidiously deploys Unionist arguments in a wholly Irish spirit to squabble with his political foes. The Irish nationalists, who are his target, hold that the people of their island, never mind where they went to church, were once united in wishing it free of British rule.

The hope was chiefly expressed by the Society of United Irishmen, which strove 'to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils'. Those were the words of Wolf Tone, whose support for the United Irishmen led him in 1798 to the scaffold for his part in a failed uprising against the colonial government.

Stewart's fun is to demolish the United Irishmen myth. He has picked over a heap of 16th-century pamphlets and memoirs and manuscript letters that would send most other intelligent beings off into a deep sleep. These he turns in the light until Orange comes up on the spectrum, and the United Irishmen change their colour before his scholarly eye. The group members, he finds, were mostly well-off Ulster Presbyterians with Scottish names such as Stewart, who loved parading in the uniforms of what we would now call Protestant paramilitary organisations.

Nonconformists had, to be sure, real grievances against their British rulers, since they suffered (theoretically, anyway) much of the civil discrimination directed against their Catholic fellow- subjects. And their discontent was grounded in more than material concerns. They lived just when the doors of the little room opened and the 18th- century Enlightenment flooded in, followed fast by revolutions in North America and France.

An intelligent government in London would have accepted the argument that many Catholic and nonconformist farmers, traders and manufacturers could be turned from revolutionary sympathies if the disabilities imposed on non-Anglicans in Ireland were lifted. But other revolutions scared the British. Lord Harcourt, a senior official of the Crown, reported that 'Presbyterians in the North in their hearts are Americans'.

By 1783 General 'Gentleman Johnny' Burgoyne, five years after surrendering to General Washington's forces at Saratoga, turned up in command of 20,000 British troops in Ireland. A little later it was the landlords' turn to be petrified by what happened to their French counterparts after that country's revolution.

Stewart detects a new bond between Ireland's would-be revolutionaries and the French and Americans they admired. He finds that the United Irishmen were mostly Freemasons. Tactically, to win allies, they supported Catholic emancipation. But they belonged to an international fraternity banned by the Catholic Church, whose doctrines they detested. More, their masonry was imitated by another secret and conspiratorial body: the Orange Order, with its lodges, Grand Masters and sectarian mumbo-jumbo.

One of the few shadows of the United Irishmen these days is a rock band called the Wolf Tones. Many of its followers like to pretend the band is named after something vaguely American, like Howling Wolf. There is hope for the Ireland that is rejecting the past. One day, perhaps, the young will lead their nation out of the trap of history, indifferent to past bloodshed.