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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
The first decades
War 1744-63
America 1763-83
The economy 1767-92
Ireland 1778-1800
     Anglo-Irish tensions
     United and disunited Irishmen
     Irish rebels
     Act of Union

Napoleon 1800-15
The need for reform
Victorian era 1837-1854
Victorian era 1854-1901
World War II
Northern Ireland
Devolution and reform

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Anglo-Irish tensions: 1778-1785

Considerable concessions have been made to the Irish before the end of the war against the American colonists, and as a direct result of the conflict. By 1778 many of the British troops normally maintained in Ireland are overseas in America. In that year France enters the war against Britain. It is clear that Ireland is dangerously exposed both to internal unrest and to invasion. The Protestants enlist enthusiastically as volunteers. Soon they outnumber the regular British forces in the island.

This accidental circumstance gives unprecedented weight to the political demands coming from Dublin (on topics such as free trade and the power of the Irish parliament), which in normal times receive scant attention in Westminster.


Between 1778 and 1782 much legislation is passed to reduce Irish grievances. Most of the restraints on Irish trade are removed. The ancient and repressive Poynings' law is modified almost out of existence. Irish judges are given the same tenure of office as their English colleagues. And some of the restrictions on Roman Catholics are eased (particularly in relation to the ownership of land).

In 1785 Pitt attempts to carry this process further, but his bill to merge Ireland in a full commercial union with Britain and the colonies does not pass. He fails to find a compromise to satisfy the objections of British traders and the demands of the Irish. And Irish demands are anyway about to escalate, as a result of the French Revolution.


United and disunited Irishmen: 1791-1795

The heady achievements of the early years of the French Revolution prompt similar excitement in Ireland. In 1791 Wolfe Tone and others establish in Belfast (with a subsequent branch in Dublin) the Society of United Irishmen. The society's aim is to demand Catholic emancipation, but also to involve Irish Protestants in a joint campaign for political reform - extending even to universal male suffrage.

By 1793, when Britain is again at war with France, Pitt is eager to have the support of the predominantly Catholic population of Ireland. He passes in 1793 the Catholic Relief Act. It is a cause which happens also to have his strong personal support.


Under the new act Catholics have the franchise on the same terms as Protestants; they are no longer barred from most government offices; they are admitted to Trinity College, Dublin's only university at this time. In 1795 Pitt goes further, founding the seminary of Maynooth to educate Catholic priests (the college at Douai having been closed by the anti-clerical policies of the French Revolution).

But by this time the political situation in Ireland has become much more radical. A section of the United Irishmen has been transformed by Wolfe Tone into a secret society aiming for a free Ireland. In 1795 a secret Protestant group, the Orange Society, is formed to resist Irish nationalism (see the Orange Order). The island's turbulent future is taking shape.


Irish rebels: 1796-1798

In 1796 Wolfe Tone travels to Paris to persuade the Directory that it only needs the spark of a French invasion to ignite an Irish uprising against their English oppressors. His argument convinces. In December of that year Tone sails home in the company of 14,000 French soldiers commanded by Lazare Hoche. But a storm disperses the fleet off southwest Ireland and no troops are landed.

Tone is still abroad, in 1798, when his revolutionary colleagues in Ireland succeed in launching an armed rebellion which gives the British government considerable trouble. British troops are defeated in several engagements in the Wexford region.


It is Wolfe Tone's misfortune that calm has already been restored by the British when he arrives on the coast of Donegal, in September, with a French force of 3000 men. Captured and taken to Dublin, he makes a stirring speech at his trial about the need for an Irish war of liberation. Two days later he cuts his throat to cheat the British gallows. Ireland has the first of her many revolutionary heroes.

The events of 1798 convince Pitt that the Irish problem requires precisely the opposite solution from the one advocated by Wolfe Tone. Instead of a separate and independent Ireland, he sees the answer in full-scale union between Ireland and Britain.


Act of Union: 1800

The Act of Union of 1800, effective from 1 January 1801, brings into existence a political entity called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (though almost invariably referred to by most of its inhabitants as Britain).

Pitt only succeeds in forcing this measure through the parliaments of Westminster and Dublin by a great deal of the political jobbery characteristic of the time. His motive is not just a cynical wish to bring the Irish to heel. He has a genuine concern for the plight of the Catholics in Ireland. And he believes that emancipation will be easier if Catholics are a minority in a United Kingdom rather than the vast majority in the kingdom of Ireland.


The act abolishes the parliament in Dublin, providing instead for Ireland to be represented at Westminster by four bishops and twenty-eight peers in the house of lords and by 100 elected members in the house of commons.

The result pleases no one. Ireland's political classes, members of the Protestant ascendancy, have played leading roles in their own parliament. Now they are small fry in the larger English establishment. Yet the change also means that they spend less time in Ireland. Dublin declines in glamour and prosperity. Estates in Ireland become subject to the neglect and decay associated with absentee landlords.


The Catholics have the most to resent at the way things turn out. The ruling Protestant minority has naturally been opposed to the abolition of the Dublin parliament. Pitt sidetracks their opposition by well-placed bribes and by winning the support of the Catholic majority. This he achieves by a pledge which he fully intends to honour - the promise of Catholic emancipation, giving the community full equality of rights with the Anglo-Irish Protestants.

But Pitt has failed to allow for passionate opposition to his plan on the part of George III, who considers any relief for Catholics a betrayal of his coronation oath to defend the Anglican church. (The extreme of popular opinion on the issue has been demonstrated twenty years earlier in the Gordon Riots.)


The Act of Union is passed without any element of Catholic emancipation, and Pitt resigns in February 1801 when it becomes obvious that the king's opposition makes it impossible for a subsequent bill to redress the omission. (George III concludes his case by lapsing into his second bout of insanity, which he later blames on this crisis; when he recovers, a month later, Pitt promises not to raise the Catholic issue again during the king's reign).

Pitt is out of office for only three years, until the king recalls him in 1804 to continue the war against Napoleon. But the damage done in Ireland is longer lasting.


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