Denis Ireland
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Denis Ireland

Denis Liddell Ireland (29 July 1894 - 23 September 1974) was an Irish essayist and political activist. Invoking memory of the Presbyterian United Irish, for a northern Protestant and former British army officer he made the contrarian conversion to Irish nationalism. In Belfast, his efforts to encourage Protestants in the exploration of an Irish identity and interest were set back when in 1942 his Ulster Union Club was found to have been infiltrated by a successful recruiter for the Irish Republican Army. In the Dublin, where he argued economic policy had failed to "see independence through," in 1948 he entered the Seanad Eireann, the Irish Senate. Sitting for the republican and social-democratic Clann na Poblachta, he was the first member of the Oireachtas, the Irish Parliament, to be resident in Northern Ireland.

Early years

Ireland was born in Malone Park, Belfast, the son of a linen manufacturer, Adam Liddell Ireland (recalled as "a mild-mannered man . . . who rarely took time off from the office for anything except funerals")[1] and Isabella McHinch. He was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, the Perse School in Cambridge, and at Queen's University, Belfast. With the outbreak of war in 1914 he joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers, serving on the Western and Macedonian Fronts. Invalided home with the rank of Captain, he decided against resuming his medical studies. These seemed to him of "little use when the dark satanic mills . . . grind the life out of [working people, the 'loom-fodder of the industrial system'] almost as effectively as the creeping barrages blew the lives . . . out of the cannon-fodder at the front."[2]

Instead, he chose to represent the family's linen business from London, marketing its wares to department stores in the West End and overseas. The opportunity this accorded him for travel in Europe and in North America provoked a writing talent that Ireland began to apply in earnest from 1930, working freelance and as a writer for the BBC. (Among the vignettes from his later travels, an evening at the bar on the Queen Mary with Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister, months before his contested suicide, while in the presence of Andrey Vyshinsky, Stalin's ringmaster at the Moscow trials, "a man enjoying himself--having a night out, a holiday from death cellars, corpses, shots in the back of neck . . . ").[3]

Engaging the "Irish dimension"

At the BBC in Belfast Ireland joined John Boyd and Sam Hanna Bell who "struggled, often successfully, to challenge the quietist conservatism of the institution and the resultant refusal to engage with the Irish dimension."[4] While he allowed that it might be "easier for the proverbial camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a son of the Ulster Protestant industrial ascendancy to orient himself in relation to his country's history,"[5] Ireland believed that for his co-religionists the task held the promise of a "renaissance."

He wrote of W. B. Yeats in 1893 visiting Belfast "just long enough to give us industrial dwarfs and gnomes of the wee black North a hint of things that did be happening beyond the end of our horse-tram line, our black regiments of factory chimneys, our smug wee red-brick villas in the red-brick suburbs."[6] Yet, in "a town which, paradoxically enough, regularly reared (and then promptly expelled) writers, artists, and unpractical 'dreamers' of all kinds,"[7] Ireland believed that "it is the Ulster Presbyterian who is the real juggler with metaphysical subtleties, the dreamer, and the potential liberator of Irish art and literature--potentially, that is, when he has abandoned . . . his present attitude of life-wasting negation."[8]

That attitude expressed itself not least in the Ulsterman's determination to centre his patriotic enthusiasm on London, a city where Ireland observed the "the first rule" in the reception of things Irish is the obliteration of historical record. West-End acclaim for Denis Johnston's "sentimental serio-comic" The Moon in the Yellow River (a plot involving an IRA attempt to blow up a Free State government power plant) he found "natural enough": "If I have bullied a man, wrecked his home, stolen his goods, and traduced his culture, it is only natural that I should go about asserting that he is really astray in the head."[9]

To "recapture for Ulster Protestants their true tradition as Irishmen," in 1941 Ireland founded the Ulster Union Club.[10] It advertised a range of activities including weekly discussions and lectures on current affairs, economics, history and the Irish language, as well as dancing and music classes.[11] A number of pamphlets were published and under its auspices Ireland contributed to various magazines, newspapers and radio programmes in Belfast and Dublin.[12]


The Ulster Union Club was mainly frequented by Protestants but, as the authorities soon discovered, it was a source of recruits to the Irish Republican Army. UUC meetings were being attended by John Graham, a Church of Ireland devout who at the time of his arrest in 1942 was leading a "Protestant squad", an intelligence unit, that was preparing the armed organisation for a new "northern campaign."[13]

When in April 1942 an RUC officer was shot in an exchange (the battle of Cawnpore Street), six members of the IRA's Belfast Brigade were sentenced to hang. It was an unprecedented step for the Northern Ireland authorities who even in the violence of the 1920s and 30s had never executed an Irish Republican.[14] With Labour, Communist and trade-union support, Ireland and the UUC mounted a reprieve campaign. In the event the sentences of all but one of the six were commuted. In September Tom Williams (19) was hanged. [15][16]  

Ireland had also been active in an anti-conscription campaign. In April 1941 (two weeks after the first Belfast Blitz), the Irish Press reports a meeting attended by 10,000 men, at which "Captain Ireland" announced that "after 150 years Catholics and Protestant are once more united on the fundamental issue"--reference again to the United Irish.[17]

In 1944, under Northern Ireland Special Powers Act, the Ulster Union Club was suppressed. The club's premises, and the homes of Ireland and other prominent members (among them Presbyterian clergymen, teachers and university lecturers) were raided by RUC Special Branch.[18] Evidently there was not the material to suggest that Ireland was complicit in, or less shocked than other club members by, the activities of Graham and his comrades. (Ireland, however, is identified as the possible source of Laurie Green's familiarity with the Belfast IRA in his novel, and subsequent film, Odd Man Out).[19]

In June 1947 it was still as "President of the Ulster Union Club" that "Captain Ireland" was introduced to an Anti-Partition meeting in New York by the city's Mayo-born Mayor William O'Dwyer.[20] For the Unionist authorities further provocation followed. Ireland organised a 150th-year commemoration of the United Irish Rebellion for Belfast city centre. The rally was banned, but so too, exceptionally. were Loyalist counter-demonstrations triggering outrage from, among others, a young Ian Paisley.[21] 

Economic democrat

Divisions between North and South, Protestant and Catholic, were not the only limitations upon Irish independence that exercised Ireland. In the same wartime year Ireland established the Ulster Union Club, he published Éamon de Valera Doesn't See it Through: A Study of Irish Politics in the Machine Age, a collection of his articles appearing over the previous two years in the New Northman, The Ulsterman, the Standard and, less obscurely, the New English Weekly. He argued:

Irishmen are beginning to wake from the dream wherein green letter boxes, green postage stamps, and income-tax forms copied from the English but containing a few Gaelic words, appeared as symbols of nationality, whereas they are in reality a convenient cover for the operation of Western Finance Capital in its most international and dangerous form.

As he readily owned, Ireland had become a disciple of the distributive philosophy of C. H. Douglas (1879-1952). This called upon national governments to assume precisely that power that, despite his otherwise assertive 1937 constitution, DeValera made no provision or commitment to exercise: "the power to control National Credit and Currency."[22] The Irish pound, and consequently the monetary policy effective within the state, continued to be regulated by the Bank of England ("the witch-doctors of Threadneedle Street") and the "City" of London. As had Keynes in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), Ireland dismissed as "totally fallacious" the conventional analogy between individual and national budgets. A private individual is forced to balance his budget for "the excellent reason" that he cannot, literally, "make money."

A "State" or national sovereignty, on the other hand, had at one time the power of "making" and putting into circulation as much money as was necessary for the health and prosperity of its citizens, and even nowadays, when this power of economic life and death has been handed to a race of (presumably) Supermen know as "bankers," the State is still occasionally allowed to print off any hypothetical number of millions required for the purposes of war and destruction, or any other activity which happens to consolidate the position of the bankers--but never for the purpose of providing its citizens with vulgar matters like food, boots, and clothing: matters in which the bankers, having a superfluity of their own, are not particularly interested[23]

The argument was for a system of "social credit" or "national dividend." Payments to citizens would redress the otherwise chronic lag in "the machine-age" between their capacity to consume and the "productive capacity" of industry. In a "world of artificial scarcity," Ireland believed that it was to this "Economic Democracy" that the "idea of nationalism, the most powerful force in the modern world," must eventually turn--unless to fascism.[24]

Notwithstanding their redistributive logic, Ireland was clear that these ideas did not define him as a socialist, and that they did not bring him into line with what many in 1945 saw as the nearest prospect of political reform and progress in Northern Ireland, the new Labour-majority in Westminster. He cautioned the readers of Belfast's nationalist daily, Irish News, that their Labour "friends" are "friends of Ireland only in order that the Irish can be turned into good little Socialists like themselves." In the July 1945 election the party's Friends of the Ireland had been seen to endorse a candidate of the Northern Ireland Labour Party--to the fury of the Anti-Partition League.[25]

Ireland described his own position as "nationalist, and in the deepest sense, liberal."[26]

Political office

While he disdained his then party leader, David Lloyd George ("this little Welsh opportunist" who "let loose the Black and Tans in Ireland immediately after a war waged on behalf of democracy and the rights of small nations"), in the 1929 Westminster general election Ireland had stood (unsuccessfully) as a Liberal in Belfast East.[27][28] When Ireland did attain political office it was in the south.

In 1948, Ireland was nominated to Seanad Éireann in Dublin by the Taoiseach John A. Costello. The name had been put forward by the Minister of External Affairs, Clann na Poblachta leader Seán MacBride.[29] Ireland, was not the first Six-Counties Protestant to serve in the Oireachtas (Ernest Blythe had been a minister in successive Free State cabinets) but he was the first member to be a Northern-Ireland resident.

While a Senator (1948-1951), Ireland was Irish representative to the Council of Europe. On the Council he would have supported McBride in the leading role he was to play in securing ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights,[30] (as well in his inevitable attempt to raise with Britain's European partners "the Irish question").[31] However, while he participated on the Council, Ireland disclaimed being that "type of 'progressive' calling himself as 'internationalist,'" and still less as a proponent of federal union--"the curious belief that a problem is solved by enlarging it." Such faith as he might have had in international institutions he suggests was lost "in the interval between Acts One and Two of the World War" in that "Grand Palace of Illusion," The League of Nations.[32]

The Linen-Hall circle

From the thirties Ireland was one of a set of Linen Hall Library members who would repair regularly to Campbell's Cafe. Since its foundation in 1792 as the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge, membership of the library was "de rigueur for lay scholars and apprentice artists in the city."[33] The regulars, at various points, included writers John Boyd, Sam Hanna Bell and Richard Rowley, actors Joseph Tomelty, Jack Loudon and J.G. Devlin, poets John Hewitt and Robert Greacen, artists Padraic Woods, Gerald Dillon, and William Conor and (an outspoken opponent of sectarianism) the Rev. Arthur Agnew. The ebullient atmosphere the circle created was a backdrop the appearance of Campbell's Cafe in Brian Moore's wartime Bildungsroman, The Emperor of Ice-Cream.[34]

Listening to rifle fire from the Falls Road

From his home in "tree-embowered" South Belfast ("faubourg Malone"), Ireland lived to witness the onset of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Listening to intermittent rifle-fire from the Falls Road in Republican West Belfast he wrote:

the shots did not begin in Belfast; they reached Belfast from the background of Irish history, all the way back to the battle of Kinsale. . . . Light had been thrown on that subject in a conversation in a Dublin cafe when a friend--a one-time Gaelic speaker from Connemara--told me what his grandmother said to him about Irish politics, presumably in Irish. 'In Ireland the extreme party is always right.' A bitter verdict.[35]


  • 1930--An Ulster Protestant Looks At His World: A Critical Commentary on Contemporary Irish Politics (Belfast: Dorman & Co.), 86pp.
  • 1935--Portraits and Sketches (Belfast: Vortex Press). 103pp.
  • 1936--Theobald Wolfe Tone: Patriot Adventurer (extracts from the memoirs and journals of Wolfe Tone, selected and arranged with a connective narrative) (London: Rich & Cowan) 144pp.
  • 1936--From the Irish Shore: Notes on My Life and Times (London Rich & Cowan), 244pp.
  • 1939--Statutes Round the City Hall (London: Cresset Press), 298pp.
  • 1941--Eamon de Valera Doesn't See it Through: A Study of Irish Politics in the Machine Age (Cork: Forum Press), 62pp.
  • 1944--The Age of Unreason: A Short History of Democracy in Our Times (Dublin: Corrigan & Wilson), 34pp.
  • 1947--Six Counties in Search of a Nation, Essays and Letters on Partition 1942-1946 (Belfast: Irish News), 108pp.
  • 1950--'Red Brick City and Its Dramatist: A Note on St. John Ervine', in Envoy, 1 (March), pp.59-67
  • 1973--From the Jungle of Belfast: Footnotes to History 1904-1972 (Belfast: Blackstaff), 175pp.

Ireland attempted at least one work of fiction: Geda and George C. Marroo was published in Belfast by Vortex in 1935.


  1. ^ Ireland, Denis (1973). From the Jungle of Belfast: Footnotes to History 1904-1972. Blackstaff. p. 28.
  2. ^ Courtney, Robert (2013). Dissenting Voices: Rediscovering the Irish Progressive Presbyterian Tradition. Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation. p. 323. ISBN 978-1-909556-06-5.
  3. ^ Ireland (1973). p. 128
  4. ^ >"John Boyd". Northern Ireland Literary Archive. Retrieved .
  5. ^ Ireland, Denis (193). From the Irish Shore: Notes on My Life and Times. London: Rich&Cowan. pp. 157-158.
  6. ^ Ireland (1936). p. 17
  7. ^ Ireland (1936). p. 112
  8. ^ quoted in Courtney (2013). p.323
  9. ^ Ireland (1936). p. 209
  10. ^ "Ulster Union Club. A new Protestant movement." Irish Times. February 19, 1941
  11. ^ Ulster Union Club. What is the Ulster Union Club? Belfast, Ulster Union Club. 1941).
  12. ^ Guy Woodward (2015), Culture, Northern Ireland and the Second World War. Oxford University Press. p.221
  13. ^ Coogan, Tim Pat (2002). The IRA. London: Macmillan. p. 178..
  14. ^ Farrell, Michael (1976). Northern Ireland: the Orange State. London: Pluto. p. 166..
  15. ^ O'Neil, John (2003). Belfast Battalion: A History of the Belfast IRA 1922-1969. Ballygarran, Wexford: Letter Press. pp. 143-147. ISBN 978-1-9993008-0-7..
  16. ^ Coogan, Tim Pat (2003). Ireland in the Twentieth Century. London: Random House. p. 334. ISBN 9780099415220..
  17. ^ Fisk, Robert (1983). In time of War: Ireland, Ulster and Neutrality. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan. p. 519..
  18. ^ Boyd, Andrew (2001). IRepublicanism and Loyalty in Ireland. Belfast: Donaldson Archives. p. 45.
  19. ^ >"John Graham". The Treason Felony Blog. Retrieved .
  20. ^ >"John Graham". The Treason Felony Blog. Retrieved .
  21. ^ Beiner, Guy (2010). Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 460-470. ISBN 978-0-19-874935-6..
  22. ^ Ireland, Denis (1944). The Age of Unreason: a Short History of Democracy in our Times. Dublin: Abbey Publications. p. 2..
  23. ^ Ireland (1944) p. 13
  24. ^ Ireland (1944)
  25. ^ Norton, Christopher (2016). The politics of constitutional nationalism in Northern Ireland, 1932-70: Between grievance and reconciliation. Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. 57-58. ISBN 978-0-7190-5903-2.
  26. ^ Ireland (1944). p. 3
  27. ^ "Denis Ireland". Retrieved 2013.
  28. ^ Courtney (2013). p.324
  29. ^ "Denis Ireland". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 2013.
  30. ^ William Schabas (2012). "Ireland, The European Convention on Human Rights, and the Personal Contribution of Seán MacBride," in Judges, Transition, and Human Rights, John Morison, Kieran McEvoy, and Gordon Anthony eds., Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2012
  31. ^ Farrell, Michael (1976). Northern Ireland: the Orange State. London: Pluto. p. 183..
  32. ^ Ireland (1944). pp. 4-5
  33. ^ McMahon, Sean (1999). Sam Hanna Bell: a Biography. Belfast: Blackstaff Press. p. 20. ISBN 0-85640-665-1..
  34. ^ Craig, Patricia (2002). Brian Moore, A Biography. London: Bloomsbury. p. 79. ISBN 0-7475-6844-8.
  35. ^ Ireland (1973). pp.7-8

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