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The Glory of Being Britons:   Civic Unionism in Nineteenth-Century Belfast
By John Bew
272 pp.
Irish Academic Press. US$59.95 cloth
ISBN-13: 9780716529743

The Glory of Being Britons: Civic Unionism in Nineteenth-Century Belfast is an eye-opening, in-depth examination of a formative period in Irish history that has variously been glorified, misunderstood, misinterpreted, tangled in myth, ignored, or – worst of all -- forgotten. John Bew’s The Glory of Being Britons sets the record straight. His work is a valuable contribution to Irish and British history, all the more valuable now when there are lively, ongoing debates in pubs as well as in the halls of academe and government about what it means to be “British.” Bew’s scholarly examination of civic unionism in nineteenth-century Ireland, and especially in Belfast, will settle many arguments and help place personages, events, ideas, claims, and counterclaims in this fascinating story against a background of indisputable, well researched fact.

John Bew’s thesis is straightforward: he asserts that a deeply held civic British identity grew and flourished among the Irish, despite their long legacy of sporadic rebellion against British rule. On the surface, how such a people with a reputation for fractiousness came to see themselves as “British” may appear to be an anomaly. Yet in Ulster and primarily in Belfast, once the center of rebellion and republicanism in Ireland, political and religious leaders – and eventually the broader public as well – came to create what Bew describes as an “imagined community” of Britishness and civic identity with the British nation after the Act of Union in 1801.

Bew starts by examining the popular Irish reaction to the French Revolution. The Irish initially viewed it as a model of rebellion, a vision that gave many hope that Ireland could break the centuries-old bonds that tied it to England. But while a few dreamers became inebriated on “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” many Irish more soberly recognized that the United Kingdom was well positioned, especially after Waterloo, to become an economic world power. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars swept absolutism away and opened wide the gates to meaningful parliamentary reform (reform with deep roots in English constitutional history) as well as to profound social, scientific, and economic developments that would benefit the Irish as well as the English. In short, huge opportunity was on the horizon, and in many respects the Irish were among the first to recognize it and place themselves in the vanguard to pursue it.

For example, in his examination of the attitudes of the Irish during the 80 or so years he studies, Bew argues convincingly that the industrialization of Britain as an economically driven response to opportunities for the growth of global trade was more attractive to Irish pragmatists than their romanticized recollections of former glories and defeats such as the 10th-century Battle of Tara, the 17th-century Siege of Derry and Battle of the Boyne, and the Fenian and Easter risings (the Irish take pride in their long memory).

Bew acknowledges that some students of the United Kingdom in the nineteenth-century can – and will – point to many anomalies in Irish history and claim that a British identity never fitted the Irish well, that it was merely a garment to be worn for show – and only when expedient. Bew carefully examines such factors as Ulster Protestantism and unionism and the sectarian strains between Protestants and Catholics as cases in point but convincingly demonstrates that, while important, they were not the main show during the arc of the 19th century in terms of creating and solidifying the Irish sense of becoming and being British.

The legacy of Irish civic unionism projects a long shadow forward into the 21st century. Bew argues that the ideas and attitudes that developed more than a century ago still inform and mediate how the Irish see themselves today as uniquely Irish and distinctively British at the same time – with no sense of contradiction.

The Glory of Being Britons: Civic Unionism in Nineteenth-Century Belfast is extremely well written. It is truly refreshing to read Bew’s graceful, lively prose. His descriptions of the main characters and events in this saga are clear, detailed, and vivid. And his exhaustive documentation of the facts supports his study with a solid foundation.

This volume is the second in a series titled New Directions in Irish History, a project initiated by the Royal Irish Academy National Committee for History. The project is intended to showcase the work of a new generation of Irish historians. The first title in the series is Sean MacEntee: A Political Life by Tom Feeney. John Bew’s The Glory of Being Britons is a worthy addition to this series, which one hopes will continue in the years ahead.

Dan Breau, for Notable Book Reviews
Notable Book Reviews received one or more copies of this book in exchange for this review.
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