Previous page Page 6 of 7 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
To the 9th century AD
9th - 11th century
12th - 15th century
16th - 17th century
18th century
19th century
     Act of Union
     O'Connell and Catholic emancipation
     The Nation and monster meetings....
     Famine and emigration
     Butt and Parnell
     Parnell and Kitty O'Shea
     The Irish way

To 1922

Bookmark and Share
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.


The determination to break the union becomes the central theme of Irish politics during the 19th century. It surfaces almost immediately in the uprising led by Robert Emmet in 1803. The event has been conceived at a high level, including even a meeting between Emmet and Napoleon in Paris in 1802, but chaotic planning reduces it to a fiasco in which Emmet marches on Dublin with only about 100 men. Nevertheless he is still revered today as a romantic rebel, largely because his capture and execution results from his trying to stay near his fiancée Sarah Curran.

After this shaky start, the repeal of the union emerges as a movement of lasting significance during the 1820s under the leadership of Daniel O'Connell.


Daniel O'Connell and Catholic emancipation: 1823-29

The issue of Catholic emancipation is brought back on to the agenda by a brilliant use of grassroots politics. Daniel O'Connell, an experienced campaigner who first achieves prominence in 1800 for his speeches in Dublin against the Act of Union, organizes from 1823 a network of Catholic associations throughout Ireland. Their purpose is to demand an end to discrimination. The campaign is unmistakably an expression of popular will, being funded only by the members' subscriptions of a penny a month.

There is considerable sympathy in England for this cause and several bills for Catholic relief are put forward - only to be rejected in the house of lords.


In 1828 O'Connell raises the stakes. Even though his religion prevents his sitting in parliament in Westminster, he contests a by-election for the county of Clare. The election has been arranged so that Vesey Fitzgerald, invited by the duke of Wellington to join his cabinet as president of the board of trade, can be hurried into parliament. Sensationally, O'Connell wins the seat. The result puts Catholic Ireland in an uproar.

Wellington, the prime minister, and Robert Peel, his home secretary, have both been strongly opposed to any concessions to the Catholics. But in the circumstances they persuade George IV (equally disinclined) that something must be done.


The Emancipation Act is passed in 1829, removing nearly all the barriers against Catholics holding public office. The crucial clause, in the immediate context, is the one dropping the requirement for members of parliament to deny on oath the spiritual authority of the pope. O'Connell takes his seat.

He soon becomes the leader of the Irish members and works towards the achievement of his main aim - the repeal of the union of 1800. But for the moment, as he himself recognizes, this cause takes second place to the frenzy now gripping Westminster in the battle for and against parliamentary reform.


The Nation and the monster meetings: 1842-1844

During the 1830s, with a reforming Whig administration in Westminster, O'Connell bides his time on the Irish issue. But by the end of the decade, with no sign of progresss, he loses patience. In 1840 he resumes active agitation in Ireland for repeal of the Act of Union, and soon he receives vigorous support from a couple of Irish patriots in their twenties.

In 1842 Charles Duffy and Thomas Davis found a weekly newspaper, the Nation, as the voice of a movement which becomes known as Young Ireland. Together the Young Ireland leaders and O'Connell pioneer a peaceful form of popular protest. They organize mass demonstrations which become known as 'monster meetings'.


These take place without violence in many places throughout Ireland, but one planned for October 1843 alarms the British government by the sheer scale of its ambition. The stated intention is to persuade a million Irish to convene near Dublin at Clontarf, a place of powerful symbolism as the site of Brian Boru's great victory over the Vikings.

Robert Peel, the prime minister, decides that the meeting should be banned. Troops and cannon are sent to Clontarf to maintain order. O'Connell, to the dismay of his younger colleagues, takes the statesmanlike decision to call off the event. But the government fails to respond in the same spirit. O'Connell and others are tried, convicted and imprisoned for seditious conspiracy.


The conviction is overturned in the house of lords and the men are released in 1844. But the incident has created a rift between O'Connell and his more radical colleagues in the Young Ireland movement.

They propose now to engage in more aggressive forms of agitation. But in 1845 a harsher reality intervenes. The failure of the potato crop focuses the minds of all Irish politicians on just one eminently practical and urgent cause - famine relief.


Famine and emigration: 1845-1851

Since the 17th century Irish peasants have come to rely increasingly for their staple diet on a single crop, reliable, high-yielding and ideally suited to their small patches of land - the potato. But in 1845 a previously unknown blight, phytophthora infestans, destroys the potatoes. The crops are no better in 1846 or 1847. The result is a crisis which becomes known as the Great Famine.

There are two immediate results of this disaster. One is political - the rapid repeal of the protective Corn Laws, keeping grain prices in Britain artificially high, which have been the subject of passionate debate for years. The other is human. Starving families grasp at the chance of a new life in America.


The Irish become the first and the largest group of Europe's dispossessed to cross the Atlantic in a great wave of emigration. Their contribution in their new homeland will be considerable, though the ties with Ireland will always remain strong. But they leave an Ireland sadly depleted by the suffering of 1845-7.

In 1845 the population of the island is about 8.5 million. By 1851 it has fallen to nearer 6.5 million. Of these missing 2 million, it is calculated that about half are direct victims of the famine and half are emigrants to America.


Fenians and the Irish Republican Brotherhood: 1858-67

The hunger of 1845-7 takes the edge off political agitation against British rule, but Europe's year of revolution in 1848 is too stimulating an event to go entirely unobserved in Ireland. There is an insurrection in August, involving members of the Young Ireland movement, but it is easily suppressed by the government. Some of the rebels are transported as convicts to Tasmania. Others escape to America.

Among those who cross the Atlantic is John O'Mahony, who begins the American tradition of support for the Irish republican cause. In 1858 he founds the Fenians, a secret militant organization echoing in its name the Fianna - the warrior band of the legendary Celtic hero Finn McCool.


At the same time a branch is founded in Ireland by James Stephens, whose Irish Fenians call themselves the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Of the two it is the American organization which is the more active, even taking 600 men across the Niagara in 1866 in an ill-fated attack on British Canada. In Ireland a Fenian uprising is widely expected during 1867, and various ineffectual attempts are put down by the authorities. Nevertheless there are explosions, violent deaths and executions as Fenians try to spring their arrested colleagues from police custody.

By the end of the 1860s, partly in response to these disruptive tactics, the mood has swung once more in favour of mainstream political activity in the cause of Home Rule.


Butt and Parnell: 1870-1886

The two leaders in the 1870s of a new legitimate campaign to break the union are members of Ireland's Protestant ruling class. Isaac Butt has been in his youth a passionate Unionist and, as a successful Dublin lawyer, a leading opponent of Daniel O'Connell.

But during the famine of 1845-7 Butt is shocked by the failure of the British government to take effective action, and by the tendency of many Protestant landlords to profit from the appalling situation (by seizing the opportunity to subdivide smallholdings for a greater combined rent). He comes to believe that the situation can only be resolved if Ireland's parliament is restored.


With this change of heart, Butt immediately becomes a powerful and committed advocate in his new cause. In 1848 he defends the Young Ireland rebels charged with treason for their part in the abortive insurrection of that year. In the second half of the 1860s he often undertakes the defence of arrested Fenians. But his own inclination is for legitimate politics.

Since 1852 he has been, with one interval, an Irish member of parliament at Westminster. In 1870, putting the Home Rule issue at the head of his personal political agenda, he founds the Home Rule association.


During the 1870s the Home Rule cause, led in the house of commons by Isaac Butt, can count on the support of more than fifty members of parliament. Its programme is limited to Irish autonomy in internal affairs, with no demand as yet for the rupture of the union itself.

This soon changes after a much more dynamic figure, Charles Stewart Parnell, is elected member for Meath in 1875. He rapidly takes over from Butt the leadership of the Home Rule party and introduces a more vigorously disruptive policy. This includes active obstruction of parliamentary business at Westminster (to the extent that as many as thirty-six Irish members are at various times suspended) and the fomenting of rural unrest in Ireland.


In 1879 the Irish Land league is founded by Michael Davitt, recently released from a gaol sentence for sending firearms to Ireland for the use of the Fenians. The league's purpose is to promote insurrection among Irish smallholders (the predicament of Captain Boycott is an early result). Parnell becomes president of the league, but he disowns terrorism - in particular the murder in Phoenix Park in 1882 of the new Irish chief secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his under-secretary.

By 1885 Gladstone is converted to Home Rule for Ireland, partly from a sense of the justice of the cause and partly because the activities of the Irish lobby are making government impossible.


Gladstone and Parnell stand together on the Home Rule bill which Gladstone brings to parliament in 1886. But the issue is deeply unpopular with the English upper classes. It splits Gladsone's Liberal party just as the Corn Laws divided the Conservatives forty years earlier. Liberals in favour of the Union (calling themselves Liberal Unionists, and the origin of the subsequent Unionist party) join with the Conservatives to defeat the government.

Gladstone resigns and devotes himself in the following years to campaigning for the Home Rule cause. He does so in a continuing partnership with Parnell - until scandal intervenes.


Parnell and Kitty O'Shea: 1889-1891

There have been rumours for some time in political circles about a relationship between Parnell and Kitty O'Shea, the wife of one of his parliamentary colleagues, Captain William O'Shea. But the broader public is astonished when O'Shea, in December 1889, files a petition for divorce and names Parnell as the 'corespondent'. Astonishment turns to moral indignation when the charge is not even contested. Judgement is given in court in 1890 against Parnell and Mrs O'Shea. In the following year they marry.

Nonconformists in England are outraged at the adultery. Catholics in Ireland are offended at the remarriage.


The nonconformist reaction convinces Gladstone that he can no longer afford to be associated with Parnell, while loss of Catholic support erodes much (but by no means all) of Parnell's political base in Ireland. When he dies in 1891, four months after his marriage, his reputation may be tarnished but he is mourned in Dublin as a great Irish hero.

Gladstone soldiers on alone. In 1892, in extreme old age, he forms his fourth administration. The following year his sheer persistence gets a Home Rule bill through the house of commons - only to have it thrown out by a massive majority in the house of lords. The intransigence of the lords eventually proves self-defeating. But Gladstone dies (in 1898) before this final victory.


The Irish way: 1893-1904

In 1893, the year of the rejection by the lords of Gladstone's second Home Rule bill, a new direction is taken in Ireland. At first it is only a small step. The scholar and author Douglas Hyde combines with other like-minded patriots to found the Gaelic League.

Their aim is to preserve, and indeed recover, the use of Gaelic as Ireland's spoken language. The influence of Dublin, and the pressure of English as the only language in which a career can be made, has increasingly confined the indigenous Celtic language to the western areas of Ireland. The league sets about reversing the decline by means of language classes, magazines, summer schools and poetry festivals (see Language and nationalism).


These activities evoke a warm response, particularly among middle-class Irish families in the towns. The number of branches increases from fifty-eight in 1898 to 600 (with a membership of about 100,000) in 1906. The league sees itself essentially as a non-political organisation, but as elsewhere in the 19th century Language and nationalism are intimately linked.

An Irish national consciousness has already been fostered in the previous decade. In 1884 the archbishop of Cashel helps to found the Gaelic Athletic Association, to replace tennis and cricket ('and other foreign and fantastic sports') with home-grown games such as hurling. During the 1890s the same impulse extends to literature and theatre.


In 1892 an Irish Literary Society is founded in Dublin, with W.B. Yeats as its first president. In 1897 Yeats and Lady Gregory join forces to establish an Irish Literary Theatre. This evolves by 1903 into the Irish National Theatre Society, and from 1904 it has its home in the Abbey Theatre.

Meanwhile similar steps are being taken on the political front, though there is no love lost between the two sides. The centenary of the uprising of 1798 focuses minds once more on Irish independence. A nationalist newspaper, the United Irishman, begins publication in 1899. Its editorials pour scorn on the 'no politics' stance of the Gaelic League, with its 'singing and lute-playing, mystic prose and thrice mystic poetry'.


From 1901 the editor of the United Irishman is Arthur Griffith, who launches in the following year a new political organization. Calling itself Cumann na nGaedheal (Society of the Gaels), it promotes two main policies: passive resistance, in the form of non-payment of taxes; and, as a practical gesture of separatism, the proposal that Irish members elected to Westminster should decline to sit there and should instead convene as a council in Ireland.

Griffith calls this policy Sinn Fein (Gaelic for 'we ourselves' or 'ourselves alone', a phrase in idiomatic use to suggest united action). For the moment it has little practical effect. But the slogan wins resonance in 20th-century Ireland.


Previous page Page 6 of 7 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF IRELAND