September 9, 2005

Seminar: Irish Studies, 535

Meeting Date: September 9, 2005

Chair: Mary McGlynn

Speaker: Prof. Sunil Agnani
    Assistant Professor of English, University of Michigan.

Title of Talk: “Edmund Burke on Ireland and India: ‘The Protestant Ascendancy’ and ‘Indianism’ as Global Phenomena.”

Rapporteur: Prof. Terry Byrne

Attendees: Terry Byrne (The College of New Jersey); Robert St-Cyr; Thomas Ihde (Lehman College, CUNY); Martin J. Burke (Lehman College and CUNY Grad Center); Abby Bender (Princeton Univeristy); Rita Loughlin (American Irish Teachers Association), Peter M. Leahy, Joseph Lennon (Manhattan College); Anna Brady; Michael O. Shannon (Lehman College, CUNY); Seamus Blake (WFUV Radio, Fordham University); Joseph V. Hamilton, Esq.; Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College of Fordham University); Clare Carroll (Queens College, CUNY).

“Edmund Burke on Ireland and India: ‘The Protestant Ascendancy’ and ‘Indianism’ as Global Phenomena.”
The following is a synopsis of Prof. Agnani’s paper.

    Prof. Agnani opened his talk with observations on the many links between India and Ireland from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.  He then moved on to explain his interest in Burke, as a figure whose resistance to the French Revolution was a puzzle and a disappointment to Prof. Agnani at first.  In part, Burke’s issue with the French Revolution was that its Jacobinism assumed an abstract man, one who was free from a network of cultural practices, which he calls “prejudices.”  The second great evil of his time, he thought, was what he called “Indianism,” while the third evil that that he took up was “the malignity of the principles of Protestant ascendancy” in Ireland.
    Indianism is a term that not only describes the worst excesses of British rule in India, but their consequences in Britain: the creation of a dynamic class of men who gained vast fortunes, detached from traditional impediments and filiations.  This is also what Burke sees Jacobinism in France leading to.  Both Jacobinism and Indianism are for Burke generalisable terms—they emerge in one specific context but are used to name and describe events in another.  According to circumstance and the audience, one is a worse evil than the other.  Writing to Sir Hercules Langrisshe, Jacobinism is concern, because it is more pertinent to the Irish context; writing to Loughborough, Indianism and the Hastings impeachment trial are to the fore.
    The delegitimisation of force is a concern that ties his discussions of France, India, and Ireland together.  The use by the state of excessive force lays bare the institutions of force underlying the state, and reveals the constitution to be little more than a militarised entity.  Indianism means for Burke the expedient, but not moral, use of law and force.  Both France and India are ruled by “men of talent,” free from impediments and responsibilities, who represent the worst excesses of government free from “prejudice.”

Joseph Hamilton: As Burke was against Jacobinism, he is incorrectly identified as a conservative.  (He was for the American Revolution but against the French Revolution.)  He  had revolutionary ideas but his approach was realistic rather than idealistic.
Sunil Agnani: Modern day conservative appropriation of Burke is dubious.  In my opinion, Burke would be a liberal in the present-day context.  His late writings are the most strident—he opposed complete revolution in favor of reform.  Burke’s notion of “custom” is the anthropologist’s notion of “culture.”
Martin Burke:  Is Gibbons’ use of Burke vis-à-vis property in Ireland correct?
Mary McGlynn:  Would the Protestant Ascendancy qualify as an “end run” around the proper order of accession to power in Burke’s thinking (re: Burke’s use of “Indianism”).
Agnani:  Burke would probably oppose changes in property laws (in Irish context).  He was influenced by Jesuit writings, notably Suarez.
Clare Carroll:  Suarez had an influence on Irish thinking, particulary vis-à-vis the idea of “natural law”.  He was translated into Irish and also influenced English republican thinking.  He even advocated regicide in certain circumstances.
Seamus Blake:  Cruise O’Brien wrote about Catholics converting to Protestantism to retain property rights.
Agnani:  Burke wrote extensively about the legitimacy of forced conversion.
J. Hamilton:  Burke was cartooned in the English press as a Jesuit.  There may be a connection between the Irish and the French philosophes through the idea of “natural law”