This post was first published on Conrad Brunstrom‘s blog on October 11, 2017, and is reproduced here with permission.
William Molyneux was invoked over and over again after his death by people he would not have acknowledged and for reasons he would not have approved. His afterlife is far more important than his biography.
He was a wealthy Irish protestant who founded the Dublin Philosophical Society in 1683. He had wide ranging interests in both natural and speculative philosophy and did his darndest to keep up with the latest developments in European science. His correspondence reveals a desperate need to become a close friend of John Locke. But he’s most famous for a book published in the year of his death.
The Case of Ireland’s being Bound by Acts of Parliament in England. Stated (1698) is a book that asserts a version of national self-determination. The identity of the “nation” that is to be determined is less than generous and inclusive. Much of the book is very dull indeed, consisting of endless nuggets of case law dealing with the meanings of old statutes. What emerges from this scholarship is a conviction that Ireland is not a conquered or a colonised country but a nation that has compacted with England (Britain, we recall, did not yet exist in 1698).
Molyneux argued not as what we’d call an “Irish Nationalist” but as a garrison Protestant – a community felt that they were at the sharp end of all that was most important about being English -they were front line infantry English in Ireland, if you like. Whereas we’re used to the idea of a community claiming political rights based on cultural difference, the “Ireland” that Molyneux defended made its constitutional claims based on its similarity to England. It is Dublin’s very similarity to London that gives it political entitlements – not its variance. Whereas more recent and familiar forms of nationalism regard proof of violent colonization as justification for campaigns of resistance, for the generation of Molyneux it was important to demonstrate that Ireland was not a colony if it was to claim a version of sovereignty on similar terms to any supposed “mother country”. (It should be noted that until the middle of the eighteenth-century Dublin had a protestant majority.)
Molyneux argued something like the following.
“We admire English parliamentary sovereignty so much – we want a sovereign parliament of our own – it is our loyalty not our rebelliousness – that wants sovereignty. Besides which, if you like parliamentary government – you English in London – then you should want more parliaments. Apart from us and Poland – there aren’t many parliaments around.”
Hopelessly partial, narrow and sectarian though Molyneux was – he did argue that there was indeed a nation called Ireland that did indeed have certain constitutional claims independent of those conceded by the Westminster parliament. That argument alone was enough to have The Case of Ireland burned by the common hangman and Molyneux to enjoy his place within the history of Irish nationalism
The fate of Molyneux most famous work is an illustration of the fact that the implications of an empowering rhetoric can be far more significant than retrievable authorial intentions. Molyneux’s arguments would be selectively quoted and revised and strategically echoed by Swift, Grattan, Tone, O’Connell and even Pearse – until a spokesman for what might be called a paranoid garrison protestant community becomes a core contributor to a rhetorical inheritance that empowers a radical separatist republicanism.
Perhaps Molyneux illustrates – in rather post-structuralist terms -that what we think of as our conscious or coherent intentions are not the most important or influential aspects of ourselves. If we are created as subjects through the subversive play of language – then our own most subversive intentions can create better and more exciting “selves” that maybe only future generations can fully appreciate. When Molyneux went with the flow of his own best rhetoric – this rhetoric created a chain of Molyneux (plural of Molyneux anyone?) each more exciting than the last.
Featured Image: Detail of the cover of “The Case of Ireland’s Being Bound by Acts of Parliament in England Stated” by William Molyneux (1749 Dublin edition), from Google Books.