Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

National identity in Britain and Ireland, 1780–1840
National identity in Britain and Ireland, 1780–1840

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1 Uniting the kingdoms

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was the result of the merging of separate states over a long period of time. By the late eighteenth century, the political and legal systems of England and Wales were completely integrated and elected representatives for both countries sat in the House of Commons at Westminster (Dickinson, 2007). Although Scotland and England shared the same monarch from 1603, the Kingdom of Scotland remained a distinct political entity with its own representative institution, the Parliament of Scotland, until 1707. That year, Scotland entered into a political union with England and Wales, creating a new state, the Kingdom of Great Britain. Thereafter, 45 Scottish representatives joined the ranks of English and Welsh MPs at the House of Commons. Scotland retained significant autonomy, however, with its own legal and educational systems and a distinct Presbyterian established church. This Kingdom of Great Britain existed until 1801, when Ireland entered into political union with England, Scotland and Wales.

Figure 1 provides some insight into the nature of this development. It shows a political cartoon published in 1799, when negotiations for a union between the Kingdom of Ireland and the Kingdom of Great Britain were underway. It depicts a group of men gathered together in what seems to be a marriage ceremony. In the centre right of the image you can see the ‘couple’, ‘Paddy’ (an Irishman) and ‘Mr Bull’ (an Englishman dressed in the clothing of an agricultural worker), both holding hats in their hands. To the left, a Scottish man, wearing a tartan sash, officiates the ceremony holding a book in which the words ‘A History of Scotland’ are visible. Meanwhile, an Englishman joins Paddy’s and Mr Bull’s hands, saying, ‘whom I put together – let no man put asunder’. Another character is visible to the far left of the image, holding ‘wet blankets’ on which, just about visible, the words ‘Tax on income’ are written.

Described image
Figure 1 Isaac Cruikshank, An Irish Union!, 1799, colour etching. The caption at the bottom of the cartoon reads: ‘If there be no great love in the beginning – yet heaven may decrease it upon better acquaintance vide Shakespeare’. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division PC 1 – 9344 (A size)

Activity 1

Timing: This should take around 15 minutes.

Take a few minutes to look carefully at Figure 1, focusing particularly on the facial expressions of Paddy and Mr Bull. Don’t forget also to read the image caption. Then answer the following question:

  • What does this image seek to imply about the nature of the political union between Ireland and Britain?

Specimen answer

This image depicts the political union as an arranged marriage between reluctant parties. Paddy looks angry or upset, whereas Mr Bull looks confused, as though he isn’t quite sure what is happening. The figure to the far left holding ‘wet blankets’ is an indication that there may have been a financial motivation on the part of those arranging the marriage. The image caption reinforces the idea of an arranged marriage and raises concerns for the future of the union.

Figure 1 thus hints that the political union between Great Britain and Ireland did not result from a great ‘love’ between the two kingdoms, and the following subsection will consider why this was the case.