Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat, met the novelist Elizabeth Bowen in London in February 1941. He commented that he had “expected someone more Irish”. Given that Bowen’s family home was in Ireland and most of her novels are set there, Ritchie’s reaction is unsurprising. However, the stylish woman whom he met lived at the time in a rented house near Regent’s Park. She did so notwithstanding it was wartime and she a citizen of neutral Ireland with every right to live there, out of harm’s way. Bowen spoke with an upper class English accent that was crystal sharp and patrician. She was in so many ways neither English nor wholly Irish; she was one of the last of the Anglo-Irish.
In the eighteenth century and for a very long time thereafter, there was a distinctive class of people in Ireland known collectively as the Anglo-Irish. They lived in “Big Houses” and owned land – “plantation land” – they had been given by English Kings and by Lord Protector Cromwell, a century or more earlier. Unlike the vast majority of people in Ireland who were Catholics, they were Protestants. They constituted a political and religious ascendency and relished their privileges. Over time, however, they came to seek devolution from England and, for a short while they secured it.
Coaxed and bribed into Union with Britain in 1801, the Ascendency Irish continued to lord it over their tenants, many of whom were to die in the 1845 famine or seek relief outside of their country of birth. However, the Anglo-Irish were never willingly subservient to England and many of them became leaders of the movement for Home Rule in the late nineteenth century and, eventually, the agitation for an independent Irish State.