“Tory”: How the conquest of Ireland named the UK Conservative Party

With Michael Gove throwing in his hat and Boris Johnson throwing in his towel, the post-Brexit scramble for Tory – or Conservative – leadership was thrown into confusion this week in the UK. This chaos is fitting, if we look to history of Tory, a word embroiled in many conflicts of its own.

Tory story 

In its conquest of Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, England massively dispossessed the Irish of their land – among other depravations. Out of need, pride, and retaliation, some Irish turned to outlawry, plundering and killing English settlers and soldiers. By 1646, in the wake of a bloody rebellion, the English mocked these ‘Catholic, marauding bog-trotters, these savage, moss-trooper highwaymen,’ with a nickname: “tories.”

Documented in the Irish State Papers nearly a century prior, the term tory meant “outlaw” or “robber.” It derives from the Irish tóraí, from tóir “to pursue.” (Older forms, depending on your transliteration, include tóruighe, a “pursuer” or “searcher,” via tóirighim, “I pursue.”) Etymologists connect these forms to older Celtic and Indo-European bases meaning “running up to” and “to turn” or “roll.”

By 1679-80, this Tory, now with a capital T, was slung at the so-called Exclusioners, who were opposed to the succession of James, Duke of York, to the Crown. James was Catholic. What better way to attack his supporters – and stop, God forbid, any restoration of Irish land – than link them with those wild Irish tories? And what better way for the Tories to hit back than with Whig, those Protestant yokels and bumpkins? The origin of whig is uncertain, but some think it originally mean “horse driver” in Scottish Gaelic.

Many of these Yorkist Tories formed a new political party in 1689: the Tories. It was born of a longer tradition of royalism – of championing the power of the Church of England – going back to the English Civil War. Tory officially named the English Conservative Party until 1830, though, despite many changes in their political platform since, the term is still used informally today (as it is in Canada). During the American Revolution, Tories were colonists loyal to the British crown. During the American Civil, Confederates called Union sympathizers in their midsts Tories.

For many in Britain today, the etymology of Tory, that “bandit,” is mot juste, from conservatives who feel Gove stole leadership from Johnson to Remainers who feel Brexiters stole the UK from the EU. And while the meaning of our words change, our politics are as messy as ever. Perhaps we should look to that older root of Tory, “to pursue,” and apply it less to fighting and more to solutions.

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