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Chapter Eight

[The Grail of Catholic EmancipationCopyright © 2002 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]


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The Second Election in Clare ................................

Winding up ..............................................................

Conclusions .............................................................



This chapter describes the various events which followed the passing of the Catholic Relief Act in 1829. The English Catholic lords took their seats in the House of Lords, and  the seat in a family borough controlled by the Duke of Norfolk speedily went to his son, the Earl of Surrey. O’Connell was determined to capitalise on his victory over Lord Killeen for the leadership of the Irish Catholics. He was a changed man, and was now determined to make politics and not the law his main pre-occupation. Most of the other Irish Catholic leaders were now satisfied that they could secure any further reforms without agitation.


As the British Government had given up its claim for a veto on the appointment of Catholic bishops, the Pope issued his own instructions on the matter.


The Second Election in Clare


            The passing of the Catholic Relief Act seemed another marker of the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. The eighteenth century and the whole period called Georgian came to an end. The long period of almost unbroken Tory rule was over, and the alternation of parties so characteristic of the modern political scene commenced. Few of those who had commenced their political careers before the Act of Union survived. The Age of Victoria was about to begin. The Age of railways and steam ships, mass production and great industrial towns and cities had arrived. In October 1829 the Rainhill trials to find a suitable locomotive for the Liverpool to Manchester Railway were held, George Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ being victorious. The electric telegraph was soon to revolutionise communications. The shape of politics in the following decade was totally different from what anyone had foreseen. The old corrupt system of election to Parliament was swept away. Melbourne’s claim to the young Victoria that no party backed by the king ever lost an election was to prove a thing of the past. The anti-Popery sentiment that came strongly to the fore in the final stages of the campaign was to grow as the numbers of the Evangelical or Nonconformist churches grew. They were to be more often associated with the Liberal Party, and were to be particularly strong against alcoholic drink and for Sabbath observance.

The big question remains why did Peel change his mind, or to put it the opposite way, why did he hold out so long? For the previous ten years he was the only major political figure to hold out resolutely against the Catholics.

‘I do not see  how he can be acquitted of insincerity’, Greville wrote long afterwards, ‘save at the expense of his sagacity and foresight’ (Gash I)

But Gash himself came to no conclusion on the question.

            [May 1829] The English Catholic peers, Lords Stourton, Stafford, and Petre, could take their seats immediately and did so on the 1 May 1829. When the Duke of Norfolk took his seat he did so on the Government side, along with Lord Dormer and Lord Clifford. Most of the Catholic peers sat on the Whig Opposition side. The Duke of Norfolk had a pocket borough that he was keeping for his son. This was quickly vacated, an election quickly held on 4 May, and Henry Charles Howard, by courtesy the Earl of Surrey, took his seat, the first Catholic MP since the Penal Laws were enforced. O’Connell went to the House of Commons on 15 May to take his seat. Again this was pure theatre, for he knew and it was clearly expressed in the debates, that the Act and consequently the new form of oath  only applied to those elected after the Act came into effect. Brougham claimed the matter was doubtful and forced a vote on the matter that the Government won easily. The Solicitor General caused a new writ to be made out by the Clerk of the Crown for a new election in Clare. O’Connell mixed in Whig society in London, and pledged himself to support the next big issue, namely Parliamentary Reform.

            During a debate in the House of Lords on 4 May Anglesey gave an account of the time he had spent in Ireland, especially the events in the months preceding his recall. Wellington gave his version of events. Wellington noted that Northumberland removed Steele and O’Gorman Mahon from the magistracy. The next attack on Peel came during the Irish Estimates before the budget when the anti-Popery faction attacked the annual grant for Maynooth first granted by William Pitt. Peel said it was the first time it had been objected to in 36 years, even Spencer Perceval not interfering with it. Predictably, one of the attackers was Sir John Inglis. The objectors got only 14 votes.

            Charles Butler was the great survivor, outlasting Milner. He seems to have been the only major figure to have lasted from the first beginnings in the 1780’s until the passing of the last Relief Act in 1829. Burke, Fox, and Sheridan, his early parliamentary assistants were long since gone. In 1831 the Whig Government crowned his career by making him a King’s Counsel. He died in 1832. Counsellor William Bellew in Ireland had lasted from the early 1790’s but he was never a major player. He too was made a KC.

            Registration under the new Act proceeded in Ireland, and by the middle of May it was claimed that 800 voters had registered in Limerick. Dr Doyle felt it necessary to issue a pastoral letter to his diocese explaining the meaning of perjury, and how the Ten Pound freehold must be computed. (The Irish Government had some years earlier commenced a national civil survey (always called the Ordnance Survey because it was conducted by officers of the Board or Ordnance) and a valuation of lands. Wellington, replying to a question said the survey and valuation were not sufficiently advanced to allow independent valuation. Purcell O’Gorman set out for Clare to supervise the registering. Sheil offered himself to the electors of Louth, despite the declared intention of Sir Patrick Bellew that he would stand. This was the signal for all Catholic gentlemen with ambitions for a career in Parliament to stake their claims to various constituencies. Conway in the Post noted that there were increasing notices of evictions for arrears of rent, which had often in the past been overlooked at election time. But now the Forty Shilling Freeholders have lost their commercial value. He noted too that for the first time since 1688 Catholics were selected in Dublin for a Grand Jury which dealt with presentments, namely projects to be paid for out of the local tax or cess. (Some Catholics had been called earlier for ordinary Grand Duty duties.)

            [June 1829] O’Connell arrived back in Dublin, to be greeted with the formal triumphal entry  that had been postponed. The last Catholic Aggregate Meeting was held  on 3 June 1829 in Clarendon Street chapel with Gerald Dillon in the chair. An apology from Lord Killeen was read. It was called to dispose of the remaining Catholic funds. Sheil said that of the £13,000 there were claims on it for £3,000 leaving a balance of £10,000. He suggested various ways it could be disposed of, to help with education, the endowment of a Catholic university in Maynooth, the building of churches, combating proselytism and so one. It was proposed and seconded that £5,000 should be given to cover election expenses in Clare. When someone objected that this had never been an object of the Catholic Rent he was shouted down. Then O’Connell was called on to speak and he addressed himself to various topics. The Finance Committee continued to meet for a considerable time to deal with outstanding claims, particularly that of Eneas MacDonnell who felt that he had been underpaid.

William Edward Major, the newly appointed assistant barrister for Clare, arrived to commence his register. He later expressed his astonishment at the perjury, the enormous increase in the value of land, and the astonishment of the landlords at this (SNL 14 July 1829). Stephen Woulfe was appointed assistant barrister in Galway. Stephen Woulfe, Nicholas Ball, and Michael O’Loughlen, along with William Bellew, were Catholic barristers who had concentrated largely on their legal careers, and so were the first to benefit when Catholics were being appointed  to the posts now open to them. Vesey Fitzgerald announced that he would not be contesting county Clare. The parliamentary session came to an end on 24 June.

[July 1829] The Orange Order in Ireland had been linked to the Orange Order in Britain of which the Duke of Cumberland who was now given the title of Imperial Grand Master. Serious rioting broke out in Orange districts around the 12 July. Peel regarded Cumberland as responsible, but Wellington said,

I entertain no doubt that the Duke of Cumberland is doing all the mischief in Ireland he can. The difficulty will be to prove a case of which we can take notice (Gray).

The Earl of Northumberland proclaimed meetings, marches, and parades. He made it clear that meetings for the lawful purpose of preparing for an election were not included. The Orange Benevolent Institution was merged with the parent body.

            It was reported that 674 Ten Pound freeholders were registered in Clare. The writ for a new election in Clare was issued and the sheriff fixed the 30 July to be polling day. In the event the election of O’Connell was uncontested. Parliament had risen, and O’Connell retired to Kerry. [Top]

 Winding up

            The return of O’Connell was of no particular significance other than the final finishing of a campaign that had started with the resignation of Vesey Fitzgerald in June 1828. He was not the first member or first commoner to take his seat.

            But there were various loose ends to be tidied up. The first came in October, when the new Pope  Pius VIII, learning that the British Government required no Securities published his own Rescript Cum ad gravissimum to regulate the election of bishops in Ireland. The contention of the parish priests that they were the true successors of the defunct chapters was recognised, and to them was accorded the primary task of submitting three names to the Pope for his choice. The election of bishops was not restored, only the election of three names. The rights of the bishops to comment on the names presented was granted. If the bishops of the province rejected all three names, the Pope himself would provide. A curious feature of this Rescript was the definition of a parish priest in Ireland. ‘Qui in Hibernia nuncupantur parochi, (Those who in Ireland are called parish priests) namely clerics of the order of priests… who are in the actual and peaceful possession of parishes or unions of parishes’. A parish is assumed to be understood, but nothing is said about how they came to be in the actual and peaceful possession of the parish. The exclusive right of bishops to appoint parish priests was not supported against appointments by the Pope or a lay patron (SNL 3 Dec 1829).

            The second loose end to be tidied up was the withdrawal of priests from political campaigning and the prohibition of the use of churches or chapels for political purposes. In most parts of Ireland the church or chapel, often at that time a low thatched building, was the only large building in a district where Catholics could meet. Many priests resented the order to confine themselves to their sacred duties, and for the next century great efforts were made to whittle away its effects. The use of the buildings had been conceded during the struggle for Emancipation even by conservative bishops like Troy because it was regarded as closely connected with the Catholic religion. Purely political campaigns like that for Repeal had no connection with religion. The fact that some orators preferred to stand on the altar when delivering their speeches was obviously a factor that influenced the bishops. Most Catholic churches did not have pulpits, and sermons were preached from the altar steps.

            Urged by Lord Leveson-Gower the Government called several Catholic barristers to be King’s Counsel. The first to be called was William Bellew, who had been the first to be called to the outer bar in 1793. Also called were Richard Sheil, Nicholas Ball, Michael O’Loghlen, and Richard More O’Ferrall. Rather pointedly, O’Connell was not called, doubtless because he was so outspoken about the need to repeal the Act of Union, but also because of his activities in the twice suppressed Catholic Association. More were to be called and promoted to office when the Whigs came to power in 1830. (Why O’Connell was to spend the rest of his life harping on Repeal which he knew had not the slightest chance of success is another mystery about his character.) About the same time commissions of the peace were given to the members of the English Catholic nobility for the first time.

When O’Connell turned his mind towards the Repeal of the Act of Union most of those who had worked with him in the Catholic Association went their own way. These included Lord Killeen, Sheil, Wyse, Woulfe, Lawless, Purcell O’Gorman and the O’Gorman Mahon. Killeen was returned unopposed for Meath on 22 February 1830 being the third Catholic to be elected. In the general election in July 1830 which followed the death of George IV and the crowning of the Duke of Clarence as William IV, Sir John Burke, the O’Conor Don, Thomas Wyse, the Hon. William Browne (brother of the Earl of Kenmare), O’Gorman Mahon, and Richard More O’Farrell were returned. Both Sheil and Montesquieu Bellew, in a four-cornered contest in Louth, were defeated. It was some years before the Bellews could secure the regular return of one of their family for the county. Lawless never succeeded in getting elected to Parliament. The Whigs, who now took office required Sheil, so a pocket borough was found for him. Sheil, when elected, regarded himself as a citizen of the Empire and largely devoted himself to foreign affairs. Wyse had a special interest in promoting education. They all supported the Whigs in Parliament. Sir Patrick Bellew was ennobled as Baron Bellew and was appointed a Lord in Waiting by the young Queen Victoria.

After the Whigs took office under Earl Grey in 1830 William Gregory, the last survivor of the Castle clique was finally dislodged from office. The negotiations of the bishops for a neutral education system resulted in the Education Act (1831). Under this Act local committee were required to build the schools, and the Catholic Rent, if applied to this purpose would have been of enormous help. But it never was.

O’Connell was an enormous figure. It is impossible to write about Irish history between 1810 and 1848 without having repeatedly to mention him. He was a man of enormous powers and energy who could have been an immense success if he had devoted himself to his career in the law, or else to a career in Parliament and in administration. But he lacked the temperament for regular and patient application. Conway said that in Parliament he could not play the first fiddle or even the second or third, so he sighed for aggregates and the shouts of the mob (DEP 21 Oct 1830).He was totally unable to see another’s point of view except in the strictest legal sense. He could not work with even the most moderate and liberal Protestants. Politically, apart from Repeal, his views were close to those of Peel, but he could never see any good in Peel. His jokes are often still funny, though humour rarely passes from one generation to the next. He could work intensely when preparing cases, rising early to prepare his briefs, spending the morning pleading in the courts, devoting the afternoons to the associations he was involved with, and spending the evenings at dinners and other entertainments. He was able to use the structures built up by the Catholic Association, though mostly with different supporters, to assist his various campaigns until the end of his life. There was this big difference: in the various associations he formed later: there was no room for critics. All that was required was blind faith in his abilities. It was also alleged that he was indifferent to the personal probity of those who supported him, so long as the support was unquestioned. His only real achievement was that he made Repeal of the Act of Union a Catholic issue and in doing so established an undying hostility between the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. His legacy to the Catholics was the habit of sneering at and belittling those with whom he disagreed.

        The success of the Catholic Association and of O’Connell strengthened the Orange Order. By 1823 it was virtually defunct, but O’Connell revived it, and would continue to revive it. It became the refuge of Protestants who felt threatened in any way, whether in their religion, their political position, or their control of the local rackets. The moderate Toryism on which the Catholics had so long relied virtually disappeared, and when Peel became Prime Minister he found few Irish Tories to support him. The Irish Government on which Earl Grey relied was largely composed of moderate Tories like Plunket.

Wellington was unsuccessful as prime minister. He gratefully resigned at the end of 1830 following a defeat in Parliament, but lived until 1852 as a respected elder statesman. Peel threw open the Conservative Party to Catholics in his Tamworth Manifesto in 1834, and eventually became prime minister. Primate Curtis died in 1832 and Dr Doyle in 1834. The leadership of the Catholic Church in Ireland was taken up by the moderate and conciliatory Archbishop Murray and Archbishop Crolly of Armagh. These worked closely with Archbishop Richard Whately, who was appointed Protestant Archbishop of Dublin. But all three were to face strong opposition in their own Churches. The Duke of Cumberland became King of Hanover in 1837 when William IV died, and Queen Victoria was excluded because she was a woman. Wellington’s ministry survived the general election in 1830. The Whigs had made some gains, but not enough to overthrow the ministry. But the Tory ultras were unwilling to support Peel ‘the arch betrayer’ and the death of Huskisson at the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester railway released his followers in Parliament. The Government was defeated in November, and Wellington gratefully took the opportunity to resign, hoping that Peel would follow him as prime minister. But a majority of the Commons preferred to unite under the sixty six year old Earl Grey who was of a rather conservative cast of mind. A new parliamentary era began. Top]



            What conclusions can we draw from this struggle? Did the Catholics aim at the wrong target? Should they have at first accepted lesser objectives than seats in Parliament? Did their campaign degenerate into a direct struggle for supremacy with the more conservative and entrenched Protestants who, as is usual when a single party dominates a state or part of a state for a prolonged period of time,  became used to sharing out offices and other perquisites only among its own supporters?

            From the very start the struggle attracted two very different types of Catholics. There were those who believed in a gradual and low-keyed Parliamentary approach, during which their Protestant friends in Parliament would gradually build up support for their cause. There would be as little possible popular clamour to arouse the opposition. They had no objections to modest royal controls, expecting that they in practice would go no further than those already in force. This was the position taken by what was called the aristocratic faction in Ireland and their supporters, usually labelled the vetoists. It was also the approach of the English Catholics where the influence of noblemen and gentlemen was more pronounced in their counsels. It may have been that if this policy was followed Emancipation would have been granted either early in the reign of George IV after 1820 or at least early in the reign of Victoria after 1837. There would have been no legacy of sectarian bitterness.

            The other faction believed in straight-forward confrontation, believing that the British Government would concede nothing unless it was forced from it. They had two examples before their minds, the concessions to the Irish patriots in 1782 and the American colonists in 1783. They also believed that Pitt had caved into their united stand in 1793. They utterly refused to consider any other factors that might have influenced the result such as the fact that their supporters in the House of Commons, the Whigs, were in a position of power. These views were strongly held by the merchant classes both in Dublin and the country. They considered that they had a perfect right to all offices, that anyone who excluded them was wrong, and they had perfect right to demand full and unqualified emancipation. Such ideas were derived from the American and French Revolutions and were not shared by a majority of people in Europe who saw the latter Revolution an awful example of what can happen when you alter the existing order. This was not a claim for a theoretical right, but a claim to thousands of jobs all over the country occupied by Protestants. They also shared the strong folk memory of their people that the Catholics had been out-witted or over-reached a hundred years earlier at the time of William III.  Like their Protestant counterparts they were mostly literate but unlikely to be great readers of anything. Communication was largely by word of mouth. O’Connell’s followers later used to purchase a weekly or tri-weekly paper like the Pilot so that O’Connell’s speeches could be read aloud. What the Protestants thought of them did not concern them. (This view-point was to increase, so that early in the twentieth century, a majority of Catholics had come to believe that the only way to get the jobs and patronage of the Protestants was to take them by force.)

            Many of the more moderate Protestants realised that few jobs would go to Catholics at least in the short term. Protestants were richer, had better contacts, were better educated and qualified than the Catholics so that it would be a long time before Catholics would form a majority on the magistrates benches, or on the Grand Juries, and so they had no objection to token Catholics. But the vast majority of working-class Protestants, even if they could read, could not afford a newspaper. If they did read anything other than the Bible it was likely to be a religious tract. All they could see was that the horrible Church of Rome was making a come-back.

            The part played by the Catholic bishops is crucial, but is also puzzling. At first, most of them were entirely on the conciliating side, and then they changed their position to a point where Archbishop Murray declared the vetoists to be like Judas and strongly resisted the Pope who wished for a settlement with the British Government. It may be that the pressure came from the priests in their dioceses, and that the sentiment of these was close to that of the smaller merchants. The dispute over Domestic Nomination was an irrelevance for it was concerned only with an internal dispute among the Catholic clergy.

            The agrarian terrorists played no part in this struggle, unlike the preceding struggle of the United Irishmen, and the later struggle of Young Ireland, for the various Catholic committees, boards and associations set their face steadfastly against violence. Also there was no gain for them if a particular Catholic got elected to Parliament, or got a place as a sheriff. Their place was in Orange mythology, for Orangemen of every rank assumed that the Catholic leaders were behind every outrage.

            The key figure was that of O’Connell. There seems little doubt that if O’Connell had stood aside the leadership would have continued with Lord Fingall’s party and a settlement with innocuous Securities could possibly have been reached at the beginning of the reign of George IV about 1820. Why did O’Connell back the popular party when so many other lawyers like Sheil, Ball, and Wyse supported compromise? As so often with O’Connell we have no answer. It might have been no more than a trivial slight by one of the aristocratic party that set him on the path to opposition. It may have been that the influences of his rural background were stronger than those of his city background. It may be that he just loved the plaudits of the common crowd. O’Connell’s legacy to Ireland was to accentuate the sectarian divisions that he never saw any reason to try to heal, but he did not originate them.

            Had Emancipation been granted at the time of the Act of Union, so that the Catholics saw some real tangible personal benefit from it, it is likely that they would have accepted the Union as the Scots and Welsh had. Even if admission to Parliament was not conceded, had the Protestants in the towns and counties made some effort to welcome them, and to allow them a small share in the rackets, sectarian divisions could have been lessened.  Later, if  the Irish wanted Home Rule or the Union it would have been as a united people. It would seem however that George III lost not only the American colonies but Ireland as well.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.