The Protestant Ascendancy
In 1800 the population of Ireland comprised:
Roman Catholic Irish: 3,150,000
Protestant Anglo-Irish 450,000
The 18th century was the period of the Protestant Ascendancy, buttressed by harsh penal laws modelled on those in England.
1695: Acts restricting the rights of Catholics to education, to bear arms or to own a horse worth more than £5; priests were forbidden to exercise their functions and Catholics were preventing from inheriting of buying land or sending their children abroad unless they abjured their religion.The mouthpiece of the Protestant ascendancy was the Irish Parliament in Dublin. The English government was represented by the Lord Lieutenant, who was approved by the government of the day. The parliament was dominated by the Anglo-Irish, an exclusive group that monopolized political power and saw themselves as both English and Irish. Deprived of a political role, the Catholic gentry tended to go into trade. The alternative to trade - land-owning was made very difficult for them - they were confined to 31 year leases. The result was that in 1700 Catholics owned 14% of the land, in 1776 5%. (On the other hand, lease-holding was the norm in Ireland, even for Protestants and the 31 year lease gave a reasonable security of tenure.)
1697: Catholic clergy banished by act of Parliament.
1704: a further penal law restricted land-owning rights for Catholics and imposed `tests' for public office.
1720: the Declaratory Act defined the right of the British Parliament to legislate for Ireland.
1727: Irish Catholics were deprived of the right to vote.
The largest grievance was the poverty of the rural labourers (except in Ulster where there was a flourishing linen industry). It was less easy to resolve the economic problems than to revoke the penal laws. Ulster Presbyterians and other Protestants had fewer grievances but until 1780 they were excluded from corporations, and though not legally barred from Parliament, only a handful of Dissenters was ever returned.
In the later 18th century the harshness of the penal laws was toned down. Freedom of worship was allowed in by the back door. Catholic chapels were built and the land tenure laws were liberalised.
1772: Catholics were allowed to lease bogland.The Volunteer Movement
1778: Catholics gained increased rights of land tenure, and were allowed to hold land on nearly the same terms as Protestants. They were allowed to purchase land on leases of 999 years or 5 lives and had full testamentary rights.
At the same time there were moves for greater political independence for Ireland. In the Irish Parliament, Henry Grattan and Henry Flood challenged the rights of Dublin against London. This was continued with far greater intensity by the Ulster Presbyterians. During the American War many of them enthusiastically took up the cause of the colonists (many of whom were 'Scotch-Irish'). Restrictions on Irish trade were a particular grievance and this enabled many to identify with the colonists. A Dublin newspaper argued:
By the same authority which the British Parliament assumes to tax America, it may also with equal justice presume to tax Ireland without the consent or concurrence of the Irish Parliament.In 1778 with French entry into the war, the Volunteer Movement began in Ulster and spread over the whole country. It was not a militia under government control but a national volunteer army, and exclusively Protestant, affirming its rights of citizenship. In 1779 the Volunteers paraded in Dublin with a decorated brass cannon with the placard: ‘Free trade - or else’. In response the British Parliament passed acts removing the restrictions on Irish trade. In 1780 Presbyterians were freed from the sacramental test for local appointments.
In February 1782, the Dungannon convention of Volunteers addressed by Grattan and Flood called for independence for the Irish Parliament. A new ‘constitution’ was granted by the reluctant Rockingham government.
1. Catholics were allowed to own land outside parliamentary boroughs. The Declaratory Act was repealed so that the British Parliament could no longer veto acts of the Irish Parliament.The period of ‘Grattan's Parliament’ was the greatest period of independence Ireland ever knew under British rule. It was a fitting end to the 18th century and coincided with an upsurge in national pride - the Bank of Ireland, the building of Dublin. But it was still very partial. The Volunteer movement was militantly Protestant. Catholics were still not allowed to vote or to stand for Parliament and the liberalizing measures only served to emphasize their disabilities.
2. Catholics were given education rights - allowed to become schoolmasters. Laws banning Irish Catholic bishops and clergy were repealed.
3. Catholics were allowed to own a horse worth more than £5.
The United Irishmen
The French Revolution had a profound effect in Ireland. In the 1790s the Volunteer movement revived in Ireland. Unlike the gentlemanly movement of the late 1770s support for the movement now concentrated among shopkeepers and skilled urban workers - exactly the same classes as the corresponding societies in England and Scotland. In 1790-1, the Catholic Committee, a movement of members of the Irish Catholic middle class, began to campaign for the abolition of the penal laws.
On 18 October 1791 the Belfast Society of United Irishmen was founded. Among the founders was Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-98), a young Protestant lawyer from Dublin. He had already published An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics (August 1791) even though he did not at that stage know any. For Tone radical political reform and nationalist identity went hand in hand, with no place for sectarian divisions. The first resolutions of the United Irishmen asserted
That the weight of English influence in the Government in this country is so great, as to require a cordial union, among ALL THE PEOPLE OF IRELAND. ... No reform is practicable, efficacious, or just, which does not include Irishmen or every religious persuasion.In his posthumously published autobiography Tone described his aim as
To subvert the tyranny of our execrable Government, to break the connexion with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country - these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions and to substitute the common name of Irishmen in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter - these were my means.(However, recent studies have shown that Tone was not an ‘active separatist’ until 1795.)
The United Irishmen sought to forge a new political alliance between the middle-class politically aware Presbyterians of Belfast and Dublin and the rural Catholic majority. In fact the two groups were largely incompatible. Lawyers and skilled workers looked to an enlightened non-sectarian republic; rural Catholics wanted revenge on the Protestant ascendancy. The future lay with the rural Catholics rather than the Presbyterian radicals.
Pitt and Ireland
The outbreak of war with France caused republicans like Tone, Napper Tandy and Thomas Addis Emmet to pin their hopes on a French invasion to coincide with a home-grown rebellion. This made the United Irishmen a potentially subversive body. One of their leaders, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, first cousin of Charles James Fox, had corresponded with Paine in 1792. But when the French sent an agent to Ireland in May 1793, he was not impressed by the preparedness of the Irish.
Both the French and the British knew that the weakest link in Britain's defences was going to be Ireland. In 1784 the duke of Rutland, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, had told him,
‘Ireland is too great to be unconnected with us, and to near to be dependent on a foreign state, and too little to be independent.’In order to conciliate the Catholic majority he introduced a Catholic Relief Bill in 1793 which gave Catholics the vote on the same terms as Protestants, permitted them to bear arms and allowed them to occupy most civil and military posts. There was now only one major disability facing Catholics: exclusion from membership of Parliament. In practice, the small number of Catholics who became army officers or lawyers did not succeed in tilting the balance of power. However one promising young Catholic lawyer was called to the Irish bar in 1798: Daniel O'Connell.
The extension of the franchise was mocked by Tone as merely buttressing
‘a disgrace to our constitution and our country, the wretched tribe of forty-shilling freeholders, whom we see driven to their octennial market by their landlords’.Pitt's repression of dissent also applied to Ireland. Between 1793 and 1796 a Militia Act was passed, a new Protestant Yeomanry formed and an Insurrection Act, making oath-taking a capital offence and increasing the power of magistrates to search for arms, became law. Finally Habeas Corpus was suspended. Pitt had thus reluctantly acquiesced in strengthening the grip of the Protestant ascendancy.
In 1795 following his coalition with the Portland Whigs in the previous summer, Pitt sent the Portland-ite Earl Fitzwilliam to Ireland as Chief Secretary. Fitzwilliam rapidly went native. Without any authority from Westminster he promised full Catholic emancipation. As a result he was recalled and replaced with the more amenable Lord Camden. Fox declared that this placed the Irish ‘in a state of degradation beyond any former period’. Fitzwilliam's dismissal ended all hopes of legitimate reform in Ireland. Tone left for America and then headed for France to seek French aid, arriving there in February 1796. He took the nom de guerre of citoyen Smith in a vain attempt to elude Pitt's spies, and entered into negotiations with Lazare Carnot, one of the Directors who governed France at this time. In a memorandum produced for French agents he described Ireland as
‘a conquered and oppressed and insulted country’where
‘the name of England and her power is universally odious.'Even while Fitzwilliam was trying to implement his reforms, sectarian passions were rife in parts of Ireland as Catholic ‘Defenders’ clashed frequently with Protestant ‘Peep O’ Day Boys’ who sought to terrorise Catholics and frighten them off their land. Both sides employed secret oaths, maimed cattle, terrorised juries and murdered those who infringed their codes. After some particularly vicious fighting in 1795, which reached its climax in September in the Battle of the Diamond (a piece of ground near Armagh now marked by a memorial monument) the Peep O’ Day Boys formed an Orange Society. The initial oath reflected a highly conditional loyalism: ‘To support the King and his heirs as long as he or they support the Protestant Ascendancy’.
The Bantry Bay expedition
On 16 December 1796 a French expedition of a 43 ship fleet and 15,000 men under General Lazare Hoche sailed from Brest for Ireland, accompanied by Wolfe Tone in the uniform of a chef de brigade. By December 22 they were in sight of Bantry Bay, Co. Cork. There were only 11,000 troops in the area and the effect of a successful landing is incalculable. But storms prevented a landing and the expedition was abandoned. Perhaps it was one of the great near misses of British history. Tone:
‘England has not had such an escape since the Spanish Armada’.However, for the next two years Ireland was a vital part of French strategy. In response the number of British troops in Ireland increased to 65,000, but they had to be scattered over the whole country.
In Ulster General Lake ruled with extreme ruthlessness, carrying out martial law, free quarterings, house burnings and floggings on the flimsiest of suspicions. The fear that the United Irishmen would be completely suppressed forced them into desperate action. They would have to rebel, with or without French aid and in preparation they were forging pikes and concealing guns and ammunition.
Links between Irish exiles in Paris and Britain with subversive forces in Ireland were maintained by a Catholic priest, James Coigly, who was arrested with two members of the London Corresponding Ssociety as he prepared to cross from Margate to France in 1798. Coigly was carrying an Address from the `Secret Committee of England' ensuring support for a French invasion to maintain `the sacred flame of liberty'. He was tried in May and executed on 12 June 1798. Following Coigly’s arrest, virtually all the leading members of the United Irishmen in Britain and the LCS were arrested and, following a new suspension of Habeas Corpus, were kept in prison until 1801.
The rising of 1798 has been described by the historian Roy Foster as
‘probably the most concentrated episode of violence in Irish history’.It had been prepared for over a year, with United Irishmen forging pikes and concealing guns and ammunition. It was fixed for 23 May with Lord Edward Fitzgerald commander in chief. However on 19 May he was betrayed by a government spy, arrested and fatally wounded as he was captured. He died on 4 June. The Catholic Church promptly dissociated itself from the rebellion.
Meanwhile Dublin and the adjacent counties rose on 24-25 May. On 30 May the rebels captured Wexford town. The rebellion spread from Wexford and Wicklow in the east to Sligo and Mayo on the west. Ulster and the south west were barely affected, apart from some action in Antrim and Down (6-13 June) from those who still adhered to the cause of radical Presbyterianism. Local pressures and local antipathies seem to have been more important than ideology. The Dublin outbreak was controlled in a week but Wexford, an area of poor Catholic/Protestant relations, with a higher than average proportion of Protestant settlers saw ferocious fighting.
The insurgents took Enniscorthy and attempted to spread out the rebellion into Wicklow, but failed. The campaign was marked by horrific atrocities on both sides. Protestants only saved their lives by converting to Catholicism. The United Irishmen set up a camp on Vinegar Hill (see picture) outside the town and on an old windmill there set up a green flag. A hundred Protestant prisoners were massacred in a barn at Scullabogue. The main part of the rebellion ended with the rout of the insurgents on Vinegar Hill and the capture of Wexford on 21 June. One of those rounded up and executed was Father John Murphy, who was hanged, his body burned in a tar barrel and his head set on a pike.
By this stage the rebellion was interpreted on all sides as a straightforward Catholic-Protestant conflict. The icons of the rebels were the apparently incompatible rosary and cap of liberty.
On 21 August General Jean Humbert landed at Killala Bay in County Mayo with a force of 900 men. He defeated a numerically superior English force under General Lake at Castlebar (‘the races of Castlebar’) on 23 August and set up a provisional government in Connaught. He recruited and armed many thousands of Irish peasants and reached the centre of Ireland, halfway on the road to Dublin when he was surrounded at Ballinamuck by two numerically superior armies of English and loyal Irish under the newly appointed commander-in-chief, Cornwallis, and forced to surrender on 8 September.
On 6 September another French fleet of one flagship, eight frigates and 3000 men sailed from Brest, with Tone on board. Unaware that the English knew of their movements the fleet headed for Lough Swilly in Co Donegal, where they found eight British frigates waiting for them. In the ensuing chase most of the French ships escaped. Tone was urged to escape with them, but he remained on board the flagship Hoche. At the end of a five hour battle on 12 October his ship was almost a total wreck. The commander surrounded and went to dine with the English at Letterkenny. It met with an impressive local force but it was forced to surrender to the British, and Tone was captured. He claimed that he was a French officer and at his court martial he appeared in French uniform. In spite of this, on 10 November he was sentenced to be hanged – an indignity he had not anticipated. On 12 November he cut his throat with a penknife and died seven days later on the 19th.
In the twentieth century Tone's grave at Bodenstown, Co Kildare became 'a permanent fixture in the republican calendar. Here IRA followers become "re-dedicated" to their republican faith and to the "armed struggle to break the English connection and set up a secular Republic... the dream of our founding father, Wolfe Tone". While constitutional nationalist go to Bodenstown to re-state their commitment to Irish unification, preferring to single out "the common name of Irishman" theme in Tone's wriitng in the hope of some day reconciling the Ulster Protestants to their ultimate aim of a united Ireland.' (Marianne Elliott, Wolfe Tone: Prophet of Irish Independence, Yale, 1989, p. 416.)
In the aftermath of 1798 the revelations of the extent of the French connection in Ireland stunned contemporaries. The deaths of Fitzgerald and Tone established a potent Irish martyrology. Look at W.B. Yeat's poem, September 1913:
What need you, being come to sense,For the first time the idea of an independent Irish republic had been planted.
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save;
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.
Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman's rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.
Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.
Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You'd cry `Some woman's yellow hair
Has maddened every mother's son'
They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they're dead and gone,
They're with O'Leary in the grave.
The legal mopping-up operation continued until 1801. Courts martial tended to punish the leaders harshly but to give amnesties to the followers. Many were transported to Australia, exiled to the United States or made to serve in regiments in the unhealthy West Indies rather than executed. But the statistics of execution will never show the numbers killed. Roy Foster estimates the death-toll on both sides from various causes as 30,000 - a figure comparable to the deaths in the Reign of Terror.