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Nineteenth Century Debates in Ireland Concerning Constitutionally Relevant Topics : Transnational Influences, Especially those with References to the ‘German States’

During the 19th century Ireland was part of the United Kingdom and not an independently constituted polity. Nevertheless, topics of significant constitutional relevance relating to Ireland were discussed on the island, in Great Britain and in the wider Anglophone world. References were made to the constitutions of the United Kingdom, parts of the British Empire and of the United States predominantly, and have been addressed in many historical analyses.

This study endeavours to look at those debates in Ireland from a somewhat different perspective and to answer to the following central questions:

To what extent were the Irish debates part of transnational discourses and how relevant were the influences from abroad?
How relevant were concepts and precedents from Continental Europe and from the ‘German States’ in particular for discourses about constitutionally important topics?

Albeit the constitutions of England/Great Britain, the United States and those evolving in the British settler colonies had the most significant influence on Ireland, this study demonstrates that developments on the Continent were referred to in discourses also and impacted developments in Ireland, especially concerning the quite controversial topics of religion, education, control and ownership of land, and autonomy.  

Religious life and lay participation intensified during the nineteenth century. This stoked conflicts in denominationally mixed countries like Ireland and a number of the German States. Unsurprisingly German interdenominational controversies were followed in Ireland and vice versa. The religious conflicts impacted debates concerning educational questions especially as to whether schools and universities should be denominationally mixed or segregated. Therefore, the different approaches taken in a number of Continental countries were discussed in Ireland and influenced decisions made and codified in a number of Acts of Parliament. Another controversial issue was as to whether universities should be institutions focussing on tuition only, or emphasise research also.

The control and ownership of land was a core area of conflict in Ireland. At the beginning of the nineteenth century landownership was highly concentrated, resulting in severe landlord - tenant conflicts at times. Various reform measures brought about changes and resulted in an agricultural economy for which owner- operator farming became typical. During the debates which brought about these changes various Continental agrarian models were discussed. The funding mechanism to enable tenants to buy their farms shows remarkable similarities to the Prussian land bank system, implemented in the wake of the reform-processes initiated at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The Act of Union passed in 1800 had integrated Ireland into the United Kingdom constitutionally. Members of the Irish National Movement challenged said arrangement and referred to a number of constitutions, which granted autonomy to member polities. References were made not only to the federal constitutions of the United States and of some British settler colonies but also to a number of European constitutions like the arrangements between Norway and Sweden, within the Swiss Confederacy and within the German and the Habsburg Empire. Defenders of the Act of Union portrayed same as part of a secular trend towards the formation of larger states, pointed at centralized states like France or Italy, and highlighted conflicts within states with federal constitutions.

Beyond these three core areas Irish references to other countries concerning topics like social security, protective tariffs, the labour and the cooperative movement will be addressed in this study to some extent also.


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