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

Chapter Fifteen

                    Crown and Parliament

Summary of chapter. This and the following chapters deal with the Government of Ireland as a whole. Though having no separate Parliament Ireland remained for many purposes a separate administrative unit. In 1800 all the Irish Government Offices remained in existence, but gradually their functions were transferred to the joint United Kingdom Offices. As the number of Offices declined, paradoxically the functions of the two principal executive officers, the Lord Lieutenant and his Secretary grew as the semi-independent fiefdoms of the Irish Offices were brought under central control. Though in theory Ireland was subject to the same laws as the rest of the United Kingdom, in practice special laws adapted to Irish conditions had to be passed. Normally only Irish MPs attended when Irish legislation was being passed, so Ireland had virtually an independent Parliament.

(i) The Flag

(ii) The Crown

(iii) Parliament

(iv) Elections

(v) The Franchise

(vi) Legislation


(i) The Flag 

††††††††††† One effect of the Act of Union was that Ireland acquired a flag, or a share in one. The original Union flag had been devised for the union between England and Scotland in 1707 by blending the Cross of St George (red cross on white ground) with the Cross of St Andrew (while saltire cross on blue ground). To represent Ireland in the Union, a Cross of St Patrick, described as a red saltire cross on a white ground, was added. The device had no particular connection with Ireland other than its name. The highly distinctive and original 'Union Jack' is still constructed in the same way, the Cross of St Patrick now representing Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In the nineteenth century the official name of the realm was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. 

††††††††††† The national flag is properly the fighting emblem of the armed forces and should not be used by private individual or institutions. By custom it is flown on buildings connected with the crown (like a post office) or on other public buildings like town halls. It is not clear if Ireland had an official flag before the Union though Cromwell devised one at the time of the Commonwealth. What was called the Irish flag showed a golden harp (sometimes crowned) on a blue or green ground. (The present flag of the Irish Republic was the device of a revolutionary movement and has no historic connection with Ireland.) 

††††††††††† A harp was and remained the 'badge' or emblem of Ireland, though a shamrock was also used. 

††††††††††† As England and Ireland had shared a monarch since the twelfth century, the royal arms did not have to change, but an alteration was in fact caused by dropping the claim to the throne of France. With the loss of any claim to the throne of Hanover in 1837 the royal arms attained their present form. The badge or emblem of Ireland was first incorporated into the royal arms by James I, and it was described as 'azure, a harp or, stringed argent (a golden harp with silver strings on a blue ground). It is the flag (and the patron saint) which represent the country or nation, not the royal arms. The monarch's flag is the banner of the Royal Arms or 'Royal Standardí. There was no distinct royal banner for Ireland. [Top] 

(ii) The Crown 

††††††††††† The supreme governing body of the kingdom of Ireland and later of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was the sovereign with the lords and commons assembled in Parliament. The relationship between these three parts of the Government was very complex, nor was the relationship between the crown on the one hand and the lords and commons quite the same in England and Ireland. In England, the Parliament of lords and commons had been able to insist that all the king's ministers must be drawn from one or other of the Houses of Parliament. In Ireland the lords and commons did not insist that all the king's ministers should be drawn from among their members, and in fact it was felt preferable that the monarch should choose suitable persons from his other dominions to assist in governing Ireland.Secondly, it was felt preferable that though the king had his Irish Privy Council he should be free to consult his British Council as well. In Ireland, too, people were prepared to accept a more generous interpretation of the royal prerogative than in England. The king, in fact, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, consulted his Cabinet rather than his Council, and the Cabinet consisted of the various heads of the departments of the royal administration all of whom were drawn from the British Parliament. They were also members of the Privy Council, and it was in this capacity rather than the other that they were consulted prior to 1800. 

††††††††††† Though there was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a certain tendency in the English Parliament to treat Ireland just like an American colony and to pass legislation binding on Ireland, this was always resisted in Ireland, and all vestiges of such claims were abandoned by the British Parliament in 1782.  

††††††††††† Even normally cautious historians like Lyons, occasionally incautiously refer to 'British rule in Ireland'. But in fact it is very doubtful if the British could ever be said to have ruled in Ireland. Between 1170 and 1800 the legal government in Ireland was the monarch, along with his officers and councillors and the lords and commons of Ireland.There were very few non-Irish concerned with the government of Ireland at any time before or after the Act of Union. It requires considerable casuistry to twist this into 'foreign rule'. Nor should rule by a Protestant faction ever be equated with foreign rule 

††††††††††† As was customary in the Middle Ages each monarch ruled several territories under different titles, as also did inferior nobles. Henry II was king of England, king of France, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy, and count of Anjou. As his family came from Anjou, his house or dynasty is called Angevin. Later, Ireland, like England, was ruled by Plantagenets, Tudors (Welsh), Stuart (Scottish), and Hanoverian (German) dynasties. The royal ministers and most of the lords and commons of Ireland in every period were Irishmen. The noble families of both countries intermarried from the very start, and at the Reformation almost all of them embraced Protestantism. 

††††††††††† After the Act of Union that joined the Parliaments of the two kingdoms most of the members of the Irish Government or administration remained Irish, and remained responsible for Irish affairs. The United Parliament passed such legislation as members of the Irish government or Irish Members of Parliament proposed. Irishmen largely attended debates on Irish affairs. The king rarely interfered in the affairs of his Irish kingdom, but left the administration of Ireland to his Lord Lieutenant and the Irish Government. 

††††††††††† The monarchy was popular in Ireland, more so than in England. When George IV visited Ireland he was received with enthusiasm by most classes of the people. Enthusiasm among the general public was still great when Queen Victoria visited Ireland in 1849, but by that date sour notes were beginning to obtrude. Nationalists like Archbishop MacHale had decided that the 'British Government' was responsible for the Famine and he refused to sign the loyal address of the Irish Catholic bishops. OíConnell, whose devotion to the young queen was boundless, was by that time dead. Nationalists at that time were not usually republicans but refused to be seen demonstrating their loyalty to the queen. [Top] 

(iii) Parliament 

††††††††††† The Act of Union (1800) was a union of Parliaments. Even this union was more apparent than real for few British MP's bothered to attend debates on Irish affairs.  

††††††††††† Though in theory the United Kingdom was a monarchy, increasingly in the nineteenth century the real rulers were the members of both Houses of Parliament. The House of Lords was still very influential and many of the chief officers of state and members of the Cabinet were drawn from it 

††††††††††† The House of Lords in the Middle Ages was a committee or jury of peers who sat as judges to consider petitions from the House of Commons. All Bills sent by the Commons to the Lords began with a preamble stating the reasons for the petition, but in course of time this preamble was omitted from Bills introduced in the Commons by the Government itself, though it was retained for private members' Bills. The Lords also heard appeals from the king's courts, and indeed became the final court of appeal. The House of Commons never had judicial powers. Financial matters were considered to be the exclusive business of the Commons, and the Lords, by tradition never interfered with them. 

††††††††††† The Irish lords who had seats in the Irish House of Lords did not automatically get a seat in the British House of Lords. They had to choose four spiritual lords from among the bishops of the Established Church and twenty eight temporal lords. The spiritual lords were selected according to a complicated rota to serve each for a number of parliamentary terms. The temporal lords were chosen by ballot of their own members to serve for life. At the death of each sitting lord a new ballot was held for his replacement. Irish peers like Lord Castlereagh (Marquis of Londonderry) or Lord Palmerston could sit in the House of Commons. Alternatively, Irish peers could be given an additional British title to allow them to sit in the House of Lords. Irish noblemen like the Earl of Bessborough and the Marquis of Landsdowne kept themselves well informed about Irish affairs and usually spoke on Irish affairs in the Lords. A majority of the Irish lords were High Tories. The consequence of this was that each representative peer elected in turn belonged to that party. 

††††††††††† Ireland was allowed to send 100 Members of Parliament to the House of Commons. This figure was arrived at as a compromise between a figure based on the proportions of the populations and on the proportions each island contributed to the joint revenue. In the first case Ireland would have had 200 members and in the second case only 80.  

††††††††††† As 300 MPís had sat in the absurdly bloated Irish House of Commons the Act of Union swept away the more dubious Irish seats, of the kind that survived in England until 1832. Each Irish county now sent two members to Parliament, thus giving 64 county members from Ireland. Thirty one boroughs sent one member each, except Dublin and Cork that sent two each, and Dublin University sent one member.  

††††††††††† Until 1829 all the MPís had to be Protestants but that did not mean that they had to be opposed to Catholic Emancipation. On the contrary Members from Catholic constituencies normally supported Catholic interests. By far the greatest number of the Irish Members of Parliament in the first half of the nineteenth century were either Whigs or Tories indistinguishable from their British counterparts. Various attempts were made from 1832 onwards to establish either a nationalist party or a Catholic party. 

††††††††††† Governments could, and did, lose majorities in Parliament. County Members were very independent and could not be relied on to support their own party on every issue. Organised political parties did not exist, merely groups of gentlemen with similar views. Members could and did change their views. After the Great Reform Act attempts were made to establish formal constituency organisations in the shape of electoral registry societies but without great success. MPís realised that they could as easily lose their independence to a registry society as to a borough owner. It would seem that the buying of votes, at least as far as Irish Members were concerned, was of much less significance than in the Irish Parliament before the Union where rewards for supporting the Government were expected as a matter of course. As noted earlier only 17 out of 100 members were regarded as totally venal. 

††††††††††† (It has long been a nationalist contention that the Act of Union (1800) was secured only by bribery. They omit to point out that both sides were promising rewards to their supporters if they won, and so were equally guilty of bribery. The conclusion we must reach is that those who were willing to be bribed had to decide which side had the majority and so was likely to win. Then they would support the winning side. There is little doubt however that there was at that time a majority in favour of the Union both inside and outside Parliament.) [Top] 

(iv) Elections 

When the king summoned a Parliament to meet him at Westminster the Lord Chancellor through the Hanaper Office in Dublin notified the sheriffs in the counties and the provosts etc. in the parliamentary boroughs, requiring them to choose and send the required number of 'knights of the shire' and 'burgesses of the town' to his Majesty's councils. The sheriff or provost then appointed a time and a place in which the election would be held. 

††††††††††† Elections were fabulously costly, and so were only held in a county if the richest landowners considered they had a chance of displacing one of the incumbents. All Irish counties were regarded as 'independent' or 'open' because of the large number of freeholders in them. So coalitions of gentlemen of the rival parties made a preliminary canvass to determine the strength of their following. If the canvass was unfavourable they did not proceed. This first canvass was held only among the landlords, because until 1828 it was expected that the tenants would vote as their landlord directed, unless he allowed a free choice. 

††††††††††† If the coalition decided to go ahead with the contest an election in a county might cost £10,000(£1,000,000? in modern money), while even a borough could cost £2,000 unless (before 1832) it voted as its owner directed. When OíConnell quarrelled with both Whigs and Tories he relied on the Catholic clergy to a large extent for the canvassing. At this stage of the contest it was expected that the canvassers would approach each voter in turn to request his vote, even if his landlord had already pledged it. Nobody could approach a tenant without the permission of the landlord. If permission were not sought a challenge to fight a duel would be sent. As priests could not be challenged to fight they were especially useful to OíConnell. Priests like the Rev. James Maher canvassed with a following of about a hundred men armed with sticks. This led to allegations of intimidation, even if the large crowd was there chiefly for the free drink. 

††††††††††† Each qualified voter had then to be transported to the town where the election was being held, and lodged there for the duration of the election, with no stinting on drink and food. All expenses at election time were inflated. A boy might be given half a crown to run a message. An election meant a general licence to fleece the candidates. 

††††††††††† Early in the century the election was held only in the county town, the sheriff usually appointing the courthouse as the place for the election. If there was only one candidate he was declared elected. If there was more than one their supporters fought each other to get in.The sheriff then asked the wishes of the crowd. The losers in the subsequent shouting match demanded a ballot, whereupon the sheriff ordered the construction of hustings and appointed the following day for the voting to commence. 

††††††††††† The hustings (always in the plural) was a raised platform out-of-doors on that was placed a table and some chairs. Almost anyone with an interest in the election could claim a chair. 

††††††††††† Only voters who were both qualified and registered could vote. In county elections each had two votes. The sheriff had to attend at or near the hustings, for he had to adjudicate on the spot on the validity of votes. The Clerk of the Peace asked each voter in turn which candidate he was voting for and he replied in a clear voice. The agent of the candidate could challenge the validity of the vote, perhaps by asking to see the certificate of registration, or asking if he had taken a bribe.An interesting description of an Irish election is given in Samuel Lover's novel Handy Andy. In the novel the sheriff declared the candidate with the fewer votes to have won, underlining the crucial role of a sheriff at an election. The other party had then to appeal to a committee of the House of Commons, thus doubling their expenses. All witness had to be transported to London for the enquiry. 

††††††††††† In the early years of the century elections were regulated by an Irish Act of 1795. There was no limit on the number of days an election might last. An election lasted for 57 days in Mayo in 1815. 

††††††††††† Sir Henry Parnell was anxious to have Irish elections better regulated. With the support of Peel and Castlereagh he introduced his Irish Elections Reform Bill(1817). The act prescribed that the sheriff must name the date of the election within two days of receipt of the notification from the Lord Chancellor.He was to provide one or more booths or hustings so that not more than 500 electors should attend a given booth. He was to attend the election to adjudicate on disputed votes on the spot. The Clerk of the Peace was to attend bringing the electoral register and the attestation of oaths. The election oath was to be administered by the deputy sheriff only. The voter was to swear to the following points: that he was over twenty one years old, that he had not voted previously in that election, and that he would truthfully answer the questions put to him by the sheriff. The sheriff was then to ask him to state his name and address, that he was duly registered as a freeholder, where and with what kind of occupancy, and that the value of his freehold exceeded forty shillings in the year. (Catholics could also be asked under a different Act if they had taken the oath of allegiance to the crown.) The sheriff then was to ask him for whom he voted. If necessary the sheriff was to provide an interpreter. An Act was passed in 1820 giving further regulations. 

††††††††††† Voting in a borough was somewhat different. In 18 of the boroughs the electors consisted of the 12 burgesses named in the townís charter, whose members were filled by co-option. These always voted as the borough owner wished. Another 10 boroughs had sufficient electors to be regarded as 'open'. In the remaining six the owner had the right to appoint electors, so nobody ever opposed him. The boroughs naturally were the chief targets for each Government in turn trying to secure its re-election.There were always sufficient Irish boroughs and Scottish constituencies open to influence to secure a majority for the Government actually in office. Deals, as Peel admitted, had to be done. The Government had little or no money to spend on bribery so the deals had to consist in promising favours to borough owners or influential men in a county where a swing was possible. [Top]

(v) The Franchise 

††††††††††† In accordance with the views of the times Members of Parliament were regarded as representing taxable property not individuals. It was because of this representation that control of financial matters was conceded to the House of Commons. Those who were expected to pay for public expenditures had a right to say what the limits of those expenditures should be. For the same reason landless men, or those not subject to taxation, were not allowed to vote for representatives in Parliament. At its origins in the Middle Ages the assembly of the Commons was like the county Grand Jury summoned from among the owners of property to give assent to new taxes and which might also make presentments or petitions regarding possible new legislation. Most of the extraordinary taxation was assessed on the counties. The lords represented the greater landowners in a county. The lesser landowners and freeholders chose two of their number to represent them. 

††††††††††† All voters had to be registered with the Clerk of the Peace beforehand. There seems to have been no particular property qualification for electors in boroughs. In the counties the qualification was the same as for jury service, the forty shilling freehold. That the income amounted to 40/- clear was determined by the voter's oath alone. The traditional interpretation of the oath, as Dr Doyle recalled more than once was called the 'solvent tenant test'.This meant that the voter had to swear that the income from his holding was such that, only income from the land being counted, and after all charges on it for rent, rates, and tithes, had been paid, the voter could still sub-let it at an extra forty shillings a year. The sub-tenant would then be able to support himself and his family, pay all the charges, and still remain solvent. Of the ten pound franchise Doyle warned the Catholics against perjury explaining: 

that in your opinion, or to the best of your belief, if you were to set it next March or Michaelmas, a good and solvent tenant could afford to pay ten pounds for it more than you yourself now pay for it (Carlow Morning Post 9 Aug 1830). 

††††††††††† An alternative opinion was put forward that the freeholder was allowed to calculate the 'beneficial interest' of the farm. To do this he calculated all his farming costs, and then all his returns from the farm including the imputed value of the food consumed on the farm. Because of a variation of the wording in one of the Acts, this view was disputed before Assistant Barristers for several years. The franchise was finally tied to the Poor Law valuation. 

††††††††††† The forty-shilling franchise dated back to the Middle Ages. It was established as a qualification in 1429 and was made the exclusive qualification for counties by 33rd Henry VIII in 1524. The value of the original quadraginta solidi was estimated to be about £16 in 1824. It was therefore felt desirable by some that the qualification should be restored to something like its old value.It was argued that raising the value of the freehold would restore something of the ancient independence of the class, for those tenants who had only a surplus of two pounds a year and who owed a hanging gale at least, could not afford to defy their landlords. OíConnell himself held this opinion, and preferred raising the franchise. He knew that when he persuaded the forty-shilling freeholders to vote against their landlordsí instructions in 1828 he had won a Pyrrhic victory. The landlords it is true immediately issued instructions that there was to be no victimisation, and no doubt he had calculated on that. But it was clear to all that landlords thereafter owed tenants, especially Catholic tenants, no favours. Nor would leases with a 'life' in them be again granted. Nor were they likely again to register them and pay the fees. 

††††††††††† According to The Pilot the number of forty-shilling freeholders was about 217,000 in 1829. By raising the qualification to £10 the number of freeholders in the counties was cut to 40,000.It was estimated that 52,000 voters registered themselves during the general registry in 1832, but the numbers on the register continued to fall thereafter, there being only 34,000 on the register in 1848.The Whigs had always favoured a wider electorate, and by an Act in 1850 the county electorate was raised to 135,000. Whig and Tory interests, Catholic and Protestant interests, and Unionist and Repealer interests were kept balanced with the Whigs stronger in the counties and the Tories in the boroughs until 1884. In that year household franchise was allowed in the counties tipping the balance in favour of the Catholics. A redistribution of seats in 1885 confirmed this advantage. With new single-seat constituencies and a 'first-past-the-post' system of voting the Catholic Repealers had unassailable majorities in every part of Ireland except the North East. It was another Pyrrhic victory for the Catholics for it could only lead inevitably to the partition of the country. 

††††††††††† Petitions to Parliament protesting against the result of an election were fairly frequent. The defeated candidate could allege bribery, false registration, or intimidation, as reasons why some of the votes cast for his opponent should be disallowed. The victorious candidate then disputed the votes cast for the other. Parliament, when the petition was received, set up a committee to examine the claim. All witnesses had to come in person before the committee and be examined under oath. OíConnell, having been elected a Member for Dublin City as a result of the efforts of the Trades Political Union, was unseated on petition. [Top] 

(vi) Legislation 

††††††††††† It had been originally intended that all legislation should apply to the whole of the United Kingdom, but in practice separate legislation continued to be enacted for Ireland, either because of its different legal tradition or because of its different conditions. Pitt and Castlereagh had hoped that with full free trade and free intercourse conditions would equalise themselves within the entire kingdom fairly quickly. Twenty years were allowed for Irish industries to prepare themselves for full free trade. But in the Twenties the Irish Government felt it necessary to advocate large scale public spending to assist Ireland, and this continued up to the Famine. By the second half of the century it was more possible to treat the United Kingdom as one unit. 

††††††††††† Most of the legislation concerning Ireland was introduced by a member of the Irish Government, though on important occasions the Home Secretary or even the Prime Minister might introduce it. Private Members' Bills on many topics were also numerous. More parliamentary time was then available for private Members' Bills, though the Member usually had to negotiate with the Leader of the House for a favourable time. He also had to negotiate with the leading figures in the various parties for their support.  

†††††††††† Legislation concerning Ireland up to 1830, the question of Catholic Emancipation excepted, was rarely contentious and usually had wide support from both Whig and Tory Irish MPís and the passive concurrence of the rest of Parliament. It was always recognised that Ireland with its weak industries and its rapidly growing population needed sympathy. The Corn Laws, for example, were passed largely for the benefit of Irish agriculture, though they were not to the advantage of the English manufacturing towns. 

††††††††††† After 1830 disputes in Parliament became more numerous and more rancorous. This was partly due to a backlash following OíConnell's tactics to gain Emancipation, for he was not a tactful man, and preferred direct confrontation to conciliation. It was also due to stronger feelings in England concerning religion, and the Established Church, and resistance to an alleged spread of popery.In a wider sphere Dr John Henry Newman was involved in the struggle to 'save the Church'. It happened therefore that attempts by the Whigs to reduce the burden of the Irish Established Church on Catholics were strongly resisted as attacks on the Church itself. OíConnell's advocacy of Repeal, in which he was actively supported by Catholic priests, exacerbated the situation, for it was realised by all that an independent Irish Parliament under the influence of the Catholic clergy would totally destroy the influence of the clergy of the Established Church.  

††††††††††† OíConnell himself was a failure as a legislator, though he had sufficient ability both as a lawyer and a speaker to have distinguished himself. With regard to legislation Ireland was much better served by Irish Members like Sir Henry Parnell, Sir John Newport, and Thomas Spring Rice.But most of the legislation beneficial to Ireland was in fact brought in by people like Robert Peel when serving in the Irish Government.



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