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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright © 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter One

                     Structure and Values of Irish Society

Summary of chapter. This chapter describes the general social structure of Irish society early in the nineteenth century and the prevailing beliefs and values. In later chapters, the economy, the political structures, and aspects of society like religion or education are dealt with.

(i) Social Structure

(ii) Beliefs and Values


 (i) Social Structure 

            Irish society at the beginning of the nineteenth century was in many ways homogeneous with a common acceptance of values. It was also largely homogeneous with regard to population. As in other parts of Europe later arrivals of all ranks of society intermarried with those already there. The landed gentry were not (before the rise of nationalism) regarded as aliens. Most Irish landowners were resident and both they and their tenants disliked 'absentee landlords' whom they considered failing in their duties towards country and tenants. (The mythology of a native Celtic race ruled by an alien class, often absentee, will be dealt with under beliefs.) 

            The people, for the most part, were not backward. Ireland was not quite as rich and developed as England then was, but no other country was either. By-and-large, the beliefs and practices of the English were rapidly diffused in Ireland. 

            It was largely a rural, but not a peasant society, a hierarchical aristocratic society with various grades from noblemen to landless cottiers. The traditional picture of a wealthy aristocracy ruling an undifferentiated mass of impoverished peasants was far from accurate. There was a certain division with regard to religion, but there was no rigid exclusion of people born Catholics because there was no bar on joining the Protestant Church.  

            A person's position in the society was determined partly by his family origins and titles, partly by the amount of land he owned, and partly by his income. In general, noblemen had the most land and consequently the largest incomes, but many landed families were deeply in debt a situation was not peculiar to Ireland. At the other end of the scale the holding of a lease of a small piece of land established the tenant as a 'farmer' and so higher in the social scale than the landless labourer. 

            There were two main points of division on the social scale. The first was between those who were counted as 'gentlemen' and those who were not. (The aristocracy for these purposes were gentlemen with a patent of nobility).  The other was between those who had a holding or tenancy of land and those who had not.  

            Noblemen had exactly the same origins, ranks, and rules of precedence as English lords and on official occasions in England took their precedence in their appropriate rank. All ranks of nobility, which were all hereditary, were conferred exclusively by the crown. Irish peers had equal access to the king as English peers. A knighthood was a personal rank of honour conferred by the crown. There were however three hereditary knighthoods in Ireland. There were a few titles of honour derived from Gaelic chiefdoms, like O’Connor Don, the recognised head of a branch of the O’Connors, but they counted only as gentlemen. To the nobility and their families were given the greater offices of state. Catholic noblemen supported the Whigs, and after Emancipation, took office with them. The Catholic bishops up to Emancipation for the most part followed the Catholic nobles. After that they tended increasingly to support Daniel O’Connell. 

            There was no exact definition of a gentleman. A gentleman originally belonged to a family with the hereditary right to bear arms, and which held land from the king under the obligation of supporting the king in battle. A gentleman did no manual work, nor did he engage in trade. He should have an independent income from land to the value of at least £200 a year. The younger sons of noblemen might be virtually penniless but were undoubtedly gentlemen.  

            Professional people like barristers, doctors, and ships' surgeons were definitely gentlemen, but then those with a university education mostly came from gentle families. Clergymen of the Established Church were gentlemen, but there was some doubt about the clergy of other denominations. But by the middle of the nineteenth century the Catholic clergy were accepted as gentlemen because they could read Latin, i.e. they were in a gentle profession. One was a gentleman if one was accepted as such by other gentlemen. A crucial test was whether a challenge to fight a duel would be accepted. Those engaged in trade, even if they were rich and had extensive holdings of land, were not gentlemen. Apothecaries could read Latin, but were in trade. 

             (The gentlemen in Ireland were often referred to as 'landlords' but this term has acquired misleading overtones from long political controversies. In place of landlord I use the term landowner or proprietor.) 

            The gentlemen were the rulers of the country. They were elected to Parliament and formed the committees of canvassers who decided who might be a candidate. They formed the Grand Juries of counties and from their ranks came the county officers, the sheriffs, magistrates, military and revenue officers, civil servants, indeed anyone in a position of authority. They formed the 'gentle' or ruling class. They filled the middle offices of state. Their children formed the bulk of the pupils in the grammar schools and undergraduates in the university. They filled the gentle professions, medicine, the law, the Established Church, and the press. Catholic gentlemen up to 1829 supported the Whigs, and for the most part after Emancipation supported the Whigs in Parliament and accepted public offices. 

            In most of Ireland there was a considerable middle class of farmers, to whom were added professional men like attorneys, proctors, land agents, doctors, military officers, clergymen, and such like. Some of these obviously counted as gentlemen (especially if they were younger sons of gentlemen) and some not. The sharp distinction which existed in England between the larger tenant farmers, the yeoman class, and the gentry was blurred in Ireland.  Merchants in towns, as was usual since the Middle Ages in Europe, normally had an estate in the country as well. The Catholics in this class up to 1829 supported the Whigs, but after that largely supported Daniel O’Connell. The same is true of the bulk of the Catholic priests. It was the great aim of O’Connell's life to wrench power not only from the Protestants but from the Catholic upper classes as well. 

            To this group belonged those referred to as shoneens, buckeens, or half-sirs. There is little point in trying to establish precise distinctions between these. The income from their holdings might be between £100 and £500 a year. They did no work, always kept a horse for riding, and spent most of their time hunting and shooting. Their farms were either sublet or were cultivated by hired workmen. They were famous for taking over the organisation of elections and making themselves useful to the Government and the local gentlemen. These were expected to reward them with appointments to minor public offices of remuneration, and in general they filled the lowest public offices of the supervisory grade. O’Connell estimated that there were about 10,000 such jobs that were filled through the patronage of those in the higher offices. 

            The real struggle between O’Connell's supporters on the one side and the Whigs and Tories on the other concerned these public positions. The aim was to displace the shoneens from these minor positions for the Catholic lower middle classes were prevented by social position, lack of education, and lack of wealth, and lack of patrons, from aspiring to the higher offices. Repeal meant jobs for O’Connell's supporters, and it was precisely these jobs they aspired to. The Protestant shoneens, who themselves could not aspire any higher, had no intention of given up this source of income. 

            It should be noted that there were complaints made from time to time that persons who were not strictly gentlemen were made magistrates, and that into the ranks of the yeomanry were admitted such as would be counted lesser tenants in England. 

            In some places, especially in the far west and south, subdivision of holdings among the tenants had proceeded so far that there was a mass of sub-tenants on tiny holdings and few others except the head-tenant, the so-called 'middleman'.

            The vast bulk of the people did not belong to any of these groups, and formed what might be described as the working classes. The top rank in this group was held by the small tenant farmers who held land on lease. Among these the first rank was held by those farmers who had a free holding for a number of lives to a value of at least 40/- a year clear of all charges. These were the Forty-Shilling freeholders, who, if registered, could vote for members of Parliament. They were expected to vote as their landlord directed, and following the revolt of the freeholders at O’Connell's instigation, landowners tended not to give leases for lives. An equal rank could be assigned to master tradesmen, such as master weavers, master tailors, master carpenters, etc. These might work if they had to, but in general left to most laborious work to labourers or journeymen. Their incomes might not exceed £20 a year, but they were their own masters. If they wished to take a day off to go to the fair or the hunt, they asked permission of no one. For this reason the rank of tenant farmer was excessively esteemed. From this flowed the intense competition for land. Having a lease on a small farm had another advantage, namely, that it conferred a security that hired labour did not have. The ratio of independent tenant farmers, many with tiny holdings, to hired servants was much higher than in England. Hired servants, farm labourers, and journeymen, nevertheless, were very numerous. A gentleman with even a small estate could have farm labourers, gardeners, bailiffs, ploughmen, a coachman, grooms for the horses, stable lads, and so on, besides indoor servants. A gentleman or lady was always expected to give employment. So too were farmers, master tradesmen, professional men, teachers, and so on. Anyone with any source of income was expected to spend it. The livelihood of all these depended on the paying of the rents. 

            Those without a holding of land sufficient for their support, farm labourers, servants, and journeymen had not the liberty of the independent farmers. They could be employed permanently, or for a period of six months, by the day, or until the completion of a particular task. They were also likely to have a lease on a small patch of potato ground for additional income and as a safety net. Spinning and weaving were widely practised in the 'cottage industries' and probably many of those so engaged outside the towns had never served a formal apprenticeship. It would seem that most of those who used violence to promote their aims, members of the agrarian secret societies, the sectarian societies, the trade combinations, and the United Irishmen (especially in Ulster) belonged to this class. Societies of this class were strongly opposed not only by the Government but by the middle classes, the clergy of all denominations, and the O'Connellites. 

In many parts of the West and South were crofters, or as they were known in Ireland cottiers. These had smallholdings, held either individually or by groups. They did not produce a surplus for the market, and were virtually self-sufficient. They may not have had cash to spend, but could have a sufficiency of food, shelter, clothing, and fuel for their simple needs. They mostly paid the rent for their small patches of potato ground by means of days of labour. It was estimated that the rent paid by the cottier to the farmer was three or four times what the farmer was himself paying, but all the same the cottier was more secure than the landless day labourer. They could also purchase milk and other items by means of days of labour, and perhaps keep a pig and some poultry. Sometimes the cottier was paid by the farmer for his labour but at half the wage of the day labourer (IFJ 24 Feb 1821). Conditions of holding varied widely over Ireland. They could also get occasional employment in repairing the roads. 

             It is clear that the condition of cottiers renting small patches directly from a farmer in return for so many days labour was very different from that of the cottier-sized holdings which resulted from excessive sub-letting and sub-division. In the latter case the entire population of a parish might be cottiers who would have to roam far and wide in search of casual work. 

            At the very bottom of the social structure was the large class of the destitute for which Ireland was famous all over Europe. Many of these had no capital, and rented a small patch of potato ground perhaps in return for so many days labour or a share of the crop. This class does not seem to have been evenly distributed over Ireland, and in many parts it may have scarcely existed. In those parts where there were many large and intermediate-sized farms, or where there was a cottage industry there were many opportunities for hired labour. But in other areas where the farms were uniformly small, there was little opportunity for casual labour. The women and children seem to have begged, while the men planted the potatoes, and took such casual jobs as they could find. They were miserably housed, clothed and fed. The difference between them and the numerous tribe of full-time beggars was slight. Skull near Skibbereen in county Cork and the Partry Mountains in Mayo became famous during the Great Famine precisely because there were no rich people who could provide some food or organise some form of famine relief. Their difficulties were compounded by the fact that few of them spoke English. [Top] 

(ii) Beliefs and Values 

            The beliefs and values in Irish society, so far as we can ascertain, were very homogeneous.  Even Catholic leaders like Archbishop MacHale and Daniel O’Connell who frequently attacked the Government did so from a shared framework of beliefs and values. 

            Religious beliefs were the most important. The eighteenth century was not noted for the fervour of its religious practice, but belief in one or other of the versions of Christianity was deep and sincere. By the beginning of the nineteenth century most educated people had some knowledge of the scepticism of the French philosophers, but religious infidelity was virtually unheard of. 

             The lack of religious fervour was matched by religious tolerance. It was not religious bigotry that kept Catholics out of public office but a belief in the need for an Established Church, an official clergy, the recognition that the bishops were proper constitutional advisers of the king, and that all the king's counsellors should be of the same religion as the king. These beliefs were held as strongly by the Catholics as by the Protestants, and central to MacHale's policy on Repeal was the belief that the Catholic bishops should advise the crown in a Catholic country. (The idea of a non-denominational society originated in the United States and was brought from thence to Ireland in the second half of the nineteenth century. The French revolutionaries believed in an atheistic state.) As the century progressed religious fervour increased, and religious bigotry and intolerance (on both sides) increased pari passu. 

            Politically, all accepted the 'Whig Settlement' of 1688 which established the constitutional relationship between king and people, and confirmed the right of the people to the 'free institutions' of which they were so proud. These included a free Parliament whose members could not be punished for opposing the king's wishes. The freedom of the courts meant that judges could not be dismissed for giving verdicts against the king's officers. There was freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, and freedom of the press. The people in Ireland, as in England, valued these freedoms which they knew most other countries lacked. Jacobitism had long since died out even among the Catholic swordsmen who were its strongest adherents. When Catholics were allowed to bear arms after the outbreak of the French Revolution the Irish Catholic soldiers in France transferred to George III's army. Not surprisingly, between 1791 and 1815 there was little support anywhere in the British Isles for the French Revolution and the freedom it was supposed to bring. 

            Within this general consensus there were divergences of opinion in Ireland similar to those in Britain. Politically the principal distinction was between Whigs and Tories.

             The Whigs were the more aristocratic of the two parties or factions, and were controlled by a closely-knit group of aristocratic families. In Ireland, the Ponsonby's, the Earls of Bessborough, were the leaders of the Irish Whigs up to 1850. The Whigs were, in general, supposed to favour more individual liberty, freedom of conscience, the democratic process expressing the voice of the people, a reduced role for the monarch, no standing army, no interference by the king and his army in the affairs of foreign states, and consequently, no foreign wars. Retrenchment in public expenditure was viewed primarily as a means of curtailing the influence of the crown (particularly on Parliament) by limiting the number of places in its gift. 

            The Tories supported the 'royal prerogative', i, e. the undetermined residual powers of the king. To put it another way they considered the king had power to do anything not prohibited by the Constitution. The kings normally paid close attention to what other kings were doing, and were inclined to involve themselves in wars to protect Britain's interests. The Tories looked to the monarch also as the fount of honours, the source of knighthoods, titles of nobility, and so on. They were more likely to support the king's activities abroad and to spend money on the army and navy. They were regarded as favouring law and order rather than the liberty of the individual, and the Established Church rather than the dissenting Churches.  

            However, it must be stressed that these were only general tendencies and the practical differences between the parties were slight, and very many gentlemen would support a Prime Minister of either party if they agreed with his particular views. Each Prime Minister had to seek support from the gentlemen in the middle, and though he might not lose elections he could lose support in Parliament (Roberts, Halevy, Gash). In Ireland the Whig aristocrats tended to be absentee landlords while the Tory gentlemen were resident. 

The so-called 'Patriots' were Whigs who were most strongly opposed to the influence of the crown. It is not clear if the usage of the word is pejorative or ironic as often in the eighteenth century. Johnson quotes the meaning 'a factious disturber of the Government' (see OED for examples.) 'Patriots' or members of the 'Country Party' (as opposed to the 'Court Party') were not a formal group but the name was applied to those politicians who were at any given time opposing the policies of the king's Government either in Britain or Ireland. In general, 'patriots' seized on popular grievances as an excuse to attack the Government and usually avoided taking responsible office themselves. 'Patriots' in Ireland were as much opposed to activities of the Englishmen as to the Government, and sought to restrict English influence in Ireland, and to oppose any shadow of an attempt by the British Parliament to exercise authority in Ireland. It can be said that opposition to British influence, real or imaginary, in Ireland was the only policy of the 'Patriots'. Of Henry Grattan it was said that he had no policies at all, only an abiding detestation of Englishmen. Before the Union the 'Patriots' formed a small minority in the Irish Commons, numbering about thirty or forty out of three hundred. In the nineteenth century the Patriots became Radicals, or Tories, or (a very few) Repealers. But Repealers were less interested in curtailing the power of the crown than in forming the royal executive themselves. For 'Patriots' an independent Parliament was regarded as a strong instrument for resisting royal influence; for Repealers it was to be an instrument for limiting Protestant influence.  

            Many Tories also strongly believed in the need for an independent Irish Parliament, and deprecated the appointment of Englishmen to posts in Ireland. They were more tolerant of a royal influence, and the king's reliance on the views of the English Privy Council. Opinion among Irish MPs from the time of the Act of Union with Scotland (1707) always seems to have been fairly evenly divided with regard to a similar Act for Ireland.  

            Many Irish Tories belonged to the 'Ascendancy faction'.  Historically, the word 'Ascendancy' was applied to the political programme of the Irish Tories between 1793 and 1829 opposing further concessions to Catholics. They wished to see a 'Protestant ascendancy' preserved by restricting the higher offices of state to Protestants.  But many Irish Tories supported the Catholic claims. (The word is commonly used nowadays as a meaningless term of political abuse.) The 'Patriots' strongly supported Catholic claims and the 'Ascendancy faction' strongly opposed them, but both were minority groups. The majority of Protestant MPs were prepared to consider the matter. 

            Around the year 1800 some officials in Dublin made a rather cynical assessment of the hundred Irish Members of Parliament (all Protestants). Of these 55 were considered to be Tories, or pro-Government, 16 were considered convinced Whigs, 17 were regarded as being for sale, 5 totally inactive, and there were 6 whose opinions were not known. After 1830 the Tories lost some ground, and would probably have lost more if a bias in their favour had not been incorporated into the Irish Reform Act (1833). The 16% were still probably for sale, and Young Ireland deemed O’Connell's followers excessively venal. 

            When Catholics were admitted to Parliament in 1829 O’Connell began a campaign for a repeal of the Act of Union, and his supporters became know as Repealers. The Protestant 'Patriots' now largely became ardent defenders of the Union, for it was apparent to all that a separate Parliament in Dublin would be dominated by the Irish Catholic clergy now taking an active part in politics. The Repealers, despite their claim of continuity with the 'Patriots' who had established the independent Irish Parliament in 1782 were moved by a quite different spirit. They were less opposed to influence and corruption as such than to the influence and corruption of the British ministers. Influence and corruption controlled by themselves was what they aimed at. (Ironically, they were to find their best opportunities for this in the United States.) In this O’Connell was less idealistic than Grattan who always refused office and so never had to try governing Ireland without resort to 'corrupt influence'. As the nineteenth century advanced the great majority of Catholic voters ceased to support the Whigs and began to advocate ‘Home Rule’ which was the later name for Repeal. Religion, in practice, by the beginning of the twentieth century, formed the basis of political division in Ireland. 

            Two attempts were made in the first half of the century to bridge the gap between Repealers and Unionists. The first was made by an Ulster Protestant landlord named William Sharman Crawford. He proposed a federal constitution for the United Kingdom in which Ireland would be given a Parliament of her own to deal with local issues while there would still be an Imperial Parliament at Westminster to deal with common issues and external affairs. In this way neither Catholics nor Protestants would feel threatened by the other side. 

            The second proposal came from a group of young idealistic writers connected with The Nation newspaper, and commonly known by the name 'Young Ireland' by analogy with Mazzini's 'Young Italy'. They pinned their hopes on persuading everyone in Ireland to give second place to religion and to adopt the new ideology of nationalism then being developed on the Continent as their common belief and value system. (A dispute arose among them as to whether it was legitimate to use physical force to achieve their ends. They generally answered in the affirmative but this was secondary to their main policy of education.) 

            Nationalism was developed by political theorists from the Romantic Movement, the literary and artistic movement that exalted freedom of expression, freedom of the individual, and the primacy of the emotions. They found the political theories of Georg Hegel most consonant with their viewpoint. According to him human society is divided naturally into different kinds of 'people' (Volk) like Germans, French and British. Each Volk has its own peculiar Geist or Spirit. Each Geist must express itself in its own peculiar laws and customs, and this requires a separate state (Reich) for each. A Volk that is subjected to a different Volk is by definition unfree. The different peoples were distinguished by their different languages. An alternative word for Volk was Rasse (race). The influence of German Romanticism came to Ireland through the works of French poets like Lamartine. Though Lamartine could not understand what Young Ireland wanted for he believed that Ireland already had the free constitution that Frenchmen were seeking. The great development of the concept of ‘race’ occurred in the second half of the century, with the ideas of a supposed Celtic race, Celtic peoples, Celtic art, Celtic weapons, Celtic religion, and even a Celtic version of Christianity. 

            From nationalism came the use of the term 'Anglo-Irish' to describe their opponents. Originally the term meant English-speakers resident in Ireland or descendants of English-speaking immigrants who inter-married with Catholics. By the nineteenth century these were indistinguishable from 'native Irish', whatever that term might mean. Many nationalists were Anglo-Irish in the old meaning, but the nationalists reserved the name 'Irish' to themselves and called the unionists 'Anglo-Irish' to indicate they were from a different 'Volk'. 'Anglo-Irish' and 'ascendancy' are used interchangeably nowadays mostly to denote a Protestant Irishman. They play the same role in nationalist ideology as bourgeoisie in Marxism.  

            The writers for The Nation did not particularly wish to unite Ireland by force but believed instead in the efficacy of education through the schools and the press. They were disadvantaged by the fact that they had to invent the nationalist culture as they went along. They believed that the corruption of Irish society was due to foreign influence, and that in an independent Ireland the 'native Irish’ would behave in a noble and disinterested fashion A writer in the London Morning Chronicle at the time remarked not inaccurately, 'Young Ireland writes very sonorous verse and invents history with entertaining facility'. As Tammany Hall was to show O’Connell was the more shrewd politician. Much later in the century a package evolved which included reviving the Irish language, playing only 'Gaelic' games, banning foreign dances, and so on. The same ideas were developed by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf. He was not drawing directly from Irish writings, but both drew from common sources and arrived at similar conclusions.) 

            The Irish Catholic clergy led by Archbishop MacHale from 1830 onwards were determined that no such a secular view of Ireland, or secondary role for the clergy, could be tolerated, and entered politics in increasing numbers to promote a 'Catholic Ireland'. The result was that later in the century most Protestants rejected nationalism while most Catholics adopted it. This largely brought about the fusion of Catholic political mythology and nationalist mythology. 

            Other political trends like Radicalism, Socialism (Owenism), and Chartism made little headway in Ireland though they were known and attracted some supporters. Combinations and trade unions seem not to have been motivated by a common mythology (such as later developed) but simply by a need for common action against employers. The mythology grew out of the struggle and incorporated elements from Socialism etc. 

            With regard to the concept of 'Irishness' the theorising of Charles Vallencey and his fellow antiquarians seems to have been widely followed. These theories connected the origins of the Irish people with various famous peoples of antiquity such as the Phoenicians and Egyptians. The general idea behind them seems to have been to rebut English prejudices that the Irish were an uncultured people from the woods by giving them a respectable origin. The Young Ireland writers took these opinions seriously. 

            The views and aspirations described above were those of the literate classes, who also exercised political influence. It is more difficult to establish what were the views of the illiterate people especially in Gaelic-speaking areas. Conclusions must be tentative. 

            It seems likely that among both Protestant and Catholic working classes the beliefs and attitudes of the earlier period of religious wars and controversies persisted more strongly. Catholics for example remembered Cromwell, while Protestants remembered the massacre of 1641. Tales of Jesuits, and the Inquisition would have been widely spread among the Protestants. This should be remembered when we consider the intense opposition O’Connell always inspired among them. The prejudices could also be appealed to by the anti-popery preachers of the Exeter Hall stamp. 

            Among the Catholics there developed a parallel belief or mythology concerning the Penal Laws. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Catholics had no particular feelings of grievance with regard to them. Their leaders had staked everything on a Jacobite victory and everybody knew that if the Catholics had won a penal code would have been passed against the Protestants. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the Catholic leaders (chiefly from the nobility) were negotiating for mitigations of the Code and these were being gradually conceded. But there arose a faction in the Catholic middle classes led by John Keogh which was inspired by democratic principles and demanded votes for Catholics and seats in Parliament as rights. Their views were closely akin to the original views of the United Irishmen. The debacle of 1798, though it had nothing to do with the Catholic leaders, set back the cause of emancipation for a generation. The Ascendancy faction could always point to the undoubted connection between Keogh and the rebels though Keogh was not a United Irishman and took no part in the rebellion. O’Connell succeeded Keogh as the leader of the intransigent faction, and he rejected all conciliation and was determined to force the Government to concede what he regarded as a natural right. 

            The rhetoric of the eighteenth century orators against the Penal Code now began to be taken literally. Catholic writers could speak of the 'long dark night of persecution' during which the Catholics, with chains clanking at their heels hardly dared to raise their heads (W.J. Fitzpatrick, Life of Dr. Doyle). Fr. Tom Burke was to refer to a massacre of a thousand Dominicans, assuming the Henry VIII killed them all. O’Connell could appeal to the Penal Code just as the anti-popery preachers appealed to the Inquisition. 

            Parallel to the mythology of the Penal Code arose the mythology of 'six hundred years of British misrule'. 'Misrule' was what politicians of the opposite party did, but once again the rhetorical device came to be believed literally. Though no historian, O’Connell wrote a 'history' of Ireland, drawn chiefly from his imagination to prove that there had been centuries of misrule. Connected with this was a belief in a malevolent conspiracy by the Protestant Government against O’Connell, a belief that he always carefully fostered. In fact most people in the Government regarded him merely as a demagogue who was liable to start a conflagration he would be unable to control. But his followers saw everything a part of a plot.  

             The members of the secret agrarian societies were concerned with the memories of tenancies from which they or their relatives had been evicted, and this was joined by association with the seizure of lands of Catholic gentlemen during the wars of the seventeenth century. Among the working classes too persisted the belief that violence offered the best solution to all problems, a view strongly combated by the Catholic clergy and middle class politicians. It seems too that beliefs and expectations among the scarcely literate classes were more direct and less nuanced than among the middle classes. For many of them, for example, Emancipation seems to have meant overthrowing the Protestant establishment, giving the land and the jobs to Catholics, and ending the payment of tithes. There is some evidence that in 1798 and again in the 1820's millennial expectations were rife among the Catholic peasantry. Yet it should always be remembered that in 1798 far more Catholic workers supported the Government than joined the rebels. It may that around 1800 most of the ordinary workers had no particular views and just followed their parish priest and their landlord as instructed. The idea that they should concern themselves with affairs of state was a novel one. 

            Among the weavers in the North of Ireland principles of democracy inspired by the United States and France seem to have been widespread. Among the Protestant industrial workers in Ulster in 1798 there seems to have been a genuine attempt to establish democracy. In the other provinces the ideals of the United Irish leaders seem to have been subordinated to those of the agrarian secret societies. The United Irish leaders themselves compromised their ideals by adopting the terrorist methods of the agrarian and sectarian societies. During the first half of the century Whiggery and liberalism remained strongly entrenched among the Protestants of Ulster. But O’Connell and his supporters, though nominally Whigs, were totally unable to comprehend them. 

            Some further points about Irish society must be stressed. Despite the generous measure of individual freedom allowed it remained true that anything not expressly allowed was forbidden. Bodies like corporations of towns had to write to the Government for permission for anything for which there was no clear precedent. They could not, for example, from their own funds and resources, build a hospital. Conversely, most legislation was permissive. The Government would pass an Act allowing counties to construct hospitals should they ever wish. 

            The second point is that most gentlemen of the period understood and appreciated the works of Adam Smith who believed that the prosperity of a country was best attained by removing Government restrictions. A few in Ireland, like the influential John Foster, remained Mercantilists and continued to advocate direct promotion of industry and trade by the Government. Smith was really a conservative and his views were far removed from the later Manchester Liberalism of Cobden and Bright. By the 1830's, with such people as Lord Shaftesbury and Charles Dickens, a reaction against deregulation set in and this trend too had its adherents in Ireland. 

            With regard to democracy some Radicals advocated a vote for each adult man, or at least each householder. But most of the middle classes followed the views of Aristotle more recently expounded by Edward Gibbon that in a pure democracy those without property would simply vote to transfer the property to themselves and all civil prosperity and stability would be destroyed. They felt that those who actually paid the taxes should do the voting. Bearing this in mind the extent of the franchise in Irish counties to include the 'Forty Shilling freeholders' was quite extensive. The number of tradesmen who had a superfluity of income of forty devalued shillings a year was probably not great in Ireland, so the case for their enfranchisement was not urgent. It should always be remembered that upper class advocates of democracy from the United Irishmen to Charles Stuart Parnell always assumed that the people would vote for their betters and return Protestant gentlemen to Parliament. This was far from the view of Catholic nationalists like MacHale. 

            In many ways Edmund Gibbon expressed the views of British and Irish gentlemen of the early nineteenth century before the great revival of religion. He believed in Christianity, and by that he meant Protestantism, in a general way, but was sceptical about the value of religion for improving society. He admired the large and tolerant views with regard to beliefs that he saw in many of the Roman emperors. He recognised that though hereditary monarchy might not be logical yet practical experience showed it was the best option available. Nevertheless it behoved citizens to watch over their civil liberties and to be especially wary of a standing army. A large empire inevitably leads to tyranny while the division of Europe into several equal and competing states is most beneficial for mankind. The voice of Gibbon was that of the rational Enlightenment but increasingly it was to be displaced by strong emotional views based on religion and nationalism. Lord Melbourne was one of the last great political figures in the mould of Gibbon. Irishmen like Grattan, O’Connell, Castlereagh, and Wellington were in this mould. Among leading Irish politicians William Saurin, of French Huguenot origins, did not share these views. As suggested earlier, the further down the social scale one went the less likelihood there was of finding the characteristic views and attitudes of the Enlightenment. But as religion revived in the course of the century so too did bigotry and intolerance.



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