The Unification Of Italy & The Partition Of Ireland

James Dingley

20 May 2021


There has long been a tendency to view events in Ireland in splendid isolation, except for the intrusion of the malign British. This presentation hopes to alter that perspective by placing the partition of Ireland in a broader, pan-European perspective, in particular: the way that the unification of Italy (completed in the 1860’s) was seen as a direct attack by Italian nationalists (Risorgimento) on the Papacy.

The Risorgimento was openly revolutionary in its idealisation of liberal democracy, the economic and industrial development of an united Italy and advocacy of science and rational values. They specifically wished to remove the Catholic Church from all of its public, social and constitutional roles, seeing the Church as the biggest obstacle to the fulfilment of their aims and objectives. As such these directly contradicted the interests and values of the Papacy, rooted in the fundamentally medieval world of pre-Napoleonic Italy (1789-1815), who bitterly opposed the Risorgimento. And as the Risorgimento went from success to success the Papacy became ever more bitter in its attacks, not just on the Risorgimento but all the forces and values of modernity that supported it, turning the Papacy into a vehemently reactionary force.

Initially, this did not affect Ireland very much, but when a new Primate (Cardinal Cullen) was sent to Armagh from Rome (1849) he brought with him all the antipathy of the Papacy to all forms of modernity, e.g. liberal democracy and industry, and the attitudes that permitted them to foster, e.g. toleration and a free press. Until then there had been comparatively good inter-denominational relations in Ireland, which Cullen now began to reverse, implementing the strict application of the doctrine of ‘ultramontanism’, i.e. strict adherence and obedience to Rome (which culminated in the Papal declaration of infallibility, 1870).

This was a turning point in inter-church relations in Ireland which now began to spiral rapidly downwards, leading to the creation of an increasingly insular and exclusively Irish Catholic cultural world, which explicitly denied Protestants any equality of rights or parity of esteem. As such it was a disaster for any idea of Irish unity, whose legacy is still with us today.

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