Neal Garnham, The Militia in Eighteenth-Century Ireland: In Defence of the Protestant Interest.
As the epitome of the 'citizen soldier', the ideal of which was enthusiastically held by those who embraced the 'Glorious' Revolution, the militia is one of the defining societal phenomena of the Whig world of the eighteenth century. Conscious of symbolic as well as military importance, Neal Garnham advises readers in the opening paragraph of the preface to this impressively researched monograph that, as well as its security rationale, this study will 'highlight... the social importance of the militia'. And, he continues: 'The militia's role in defining men's places in local hierarchies, and reinforcing both the connex-ions and divisions in society are considered. It also examines the militia as an organisation through which the relationships between subjects and the state could be negotiated. Militia service drew men into alliance with the state, and demonstrated to outsiders the nature of the nation's polity' (p. vii). Clearly, this book was not conceived of as a conventional political, military or institutional history, but since it is not possible, in the absence of such detail, to write a proper history of the militia, it is unexpectedly gratifying to observe that this is in many respects a fine example of a traditional narrative of the main phases and features of the quintessentially voluntary militia that was brought into being in the 1660s and that enjoyed an intermittent, and eventful, existence largely autonomous of state control until 1793, when the foundation of a state militia represented another, more contentious, phase. This observation is not meant to imply that those with an interest in society, and in identifying the bonds that shaped and defined the hierarchical world of the eighteenth century, will not profit from engaging with this volume, but it is more than the author's prefatory observations indicate. It is the first comprehensive, documented account of an organisation that, even more than the army, epitomised the predicament and defined the determination of the ruling Protestant interest to maintain its ascendancy in Ireland between the Restoration and the Act of Union.
In keeping with the chronological approach employed, the book commences with an exploration of the origins of the militia, which was sufficiently well rooted by the spring of 1691, 'when as many as fifteen thousand Protestant militiamen may have been in arms' that it merits the perception of the Volunteers as the 'Protestant nation under arms' (pp. 12-13). Having arrived at this enviable position at the very moment that the 'Protestant interest' achieved the political, religious and economic ascendancy that was to define its position, and an era of Irish history, one might be excused from concluding that the future of the militia was assured. The desire of the island's 'Wild geese' to join forces with France in an invasion aimed at restoring a Jacobite to the throne, and the susceptibility of the Protestant elite to invasion scares, certainly provided it with an obvious raison d'etre during the quarter century between the treaty of Limerick (1691) and the death in 1715 of Louis XIV. However, as Garnham's account reveals (Chapter 2), it was impossible to separate the issue of the militia from the issue of religious dissent, with the result that such efforts as were made to place the militia on a permanent statutory footing foundered on the rock of Anglican resistance to entrusting dissenting Protestants (Presbyterians in the main) with arms. As a consequence, though the militia was an integral part of the effective security strategy that was employed to frustrate Jacobite intentions in 1697, 1708 and 1715, it was only in the latter year that the militia was given a legal basis. Even then, suspicions remained, for although the admission of dissenters as ordinary members (but not as officers) contributed in a significant way to the increase in the numbers that grew from 33,000 in 1715 to 49,000 in 1745, the fact that the legislation underpinning the militia was allowed to lapse (albeit briefly) in 1753 and that the array of some 150,000 men in 1756 (when an invasion from France was apprehended) was largely a paper exercise is indicative of enduring official ambivalence.
Garnham relates these aspects of the history of the militia lucidly and efficiently in three well-documented and briskly written chapters that take the story from 1692 to the accession of George III to the throne. It is at this point that the focus of the narration changes, and one is provided, through the lens of the activities of the emerging Patriots nexus in the House of Commons, with a description of the efforts that were made in the 1760s and 1770s to strengthen the statutory foundations upon which the militia rested, and a revealing account of the Patriots' articulation of the Whig tenet that a Protestant citizen militia was far less threatening to the liberties of the subject than a standing army. The late embrace in Ireland of the perception that a militia was a better preserver of liberty might have been dismissed as fanciful if events in the crown's North American colonies, the Wilkite controversy in England, and Lord Townshend's controversial efforts to re-structure the relationship of the executive and parliament in Ireland were not conflated by their critics across the Atlantic into a unitary scheme to subvert the liberties of the Crown's subjects. This was to misinterpret the motives and exaggerate the capacities of a generation of political leaders, but the consequences for Ireland were spectacularly revealed in the late 1770s when a volunteer militia, which was formed independent of the usual controls exercised by government, not only appealed to the ideal of the citizen soldier to assist with the maintenance of public order, but also entered the political domain. Specifically, the Volunteers participated actively, and decisively, in the reform of the commercial and constitutional relationship of the kingdom of Ireland with Great Britain. This was to exceed the role that could reasonably be assumed by an armed militia in a functioning constitutional monarchy, though it was always a possibility because the legal and practical implications of the relationship between the agents of the state and an armed citizenry inherent in the concept and phenomenon of the 'citizen soldier' had never properly been defined. Those in high office recognised this well in advance of a majority of the officers and rank and file of the Volunteers, and their enthusiastic champions within the Patriots nexus inside and outside parliament. It was thus inevitable that they would attempt to regain the ground lost (Chapter 7). Chapters 8 and 9 are devoted to identifying how the state neutralised, and finally liberated itself from, the need either to defer power to or share power with their citizenry in arms. This is related in greater detail than is available elsewhere, and if the absence of an account of the engagement of the Volunteers with parliamentary reform in 1783-84 is curious, it is partly compensated for by the excellence of the description of the failed attempt in 1782-83 to replace the Volunteers with provincial regiments of Fencibles, and by the reconstruction of the trajectory of official attitudes and action between 1784 and 1792.
There is, as this review may suggest, much about the history of the militia in eighteenth-century Ireland that readers may find familiar. However, there is also much in the book that is new and unavailable elsewhere. What Neal Garnham has successfully done is to provide a balanced and integrated political history of the phenomenon from its initiation in the Restoration era to the proscription of the Volunteers in 1793. In the process, Garnham has highlighted the extent to which they, and their predecessors, had the capacity to subvert as well as to affirm the structures of parliamentary government, and by extension brought a measure of realism to the ideal of the armed citizen as it was understood in the eighteenth century; he has produced a valuable corrective to the historiography of this important phenomenon. If, as a consequence, he has less to say than anticipated on their 'social importance', so be it - readers in this aspect of the Volunteers should consult Padhraig Higgins's enlivening A Nation of Politicians: Gender, Patriotism and Political Culture in late Eighteenth-century Ireland (Madison, WI, 2010). However, Garnham's work provides the necessary solid foundations upon which further studies examining the implications and meaning of para-militarism in its various manifestations can build, and that is no minor achievement.
St Patrick's College, Drumcondra
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|Publication:||Irish Economic and Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2014|
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