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

Chapter Two

                               Synopsis of Irish History 1800-1850 

Summary of chapter This chapter gives a brief summary of the principal events and political movements in the first half of the nineteenth  century, and the place of Ireland in the wider history of Europe of the time.

(i)                 Common History


(ii)               Special Irish Issues


(iii)             1800-1820

(iv)       1820-1830

(v)        1830-1841

(vi)             1841-1850      


(i)                 Common History 

[This chapter contains a brief summary of Irish history in the first half of the nineteenth century. For a fuller treatment see the book Ireland 1800-1850]

After the Act of Union (1800) the course of Irish history followed much the same course as that of England. There was the same Government, so that when the Whigs were in power in Britain they were too in Ireland, and likewise with regard to the Tories. The great issue up to 1815 was the war against Napoleon.  

            During the Napoleonic Wars the Royal Navy had fought and defeated every major navy in Europe except that of Russian that did not come out to fight. The British Government opted for a policy of 'open seas’; namely that every ship of every nation had a right to sail in every sea in the world (restrictions in territorial waters excepted.) Trade was progressively liberalised in line with the views of Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations. In Ireland, protective restrictions on trade imposed by the Irish Parliament were phased out, and by 1825 there was virtually total free trade with Britain. Industry and agriculture in both countries were developed and improved in all kinds of ways. Everywhere, factories powered by water or steam replaced the 'cottage industries'. In the 1830's the monopoly of the East India Company was largely abolished. 

            It was the great era of canal building, and half a million pounds sterling was allocated for the development of Irish canals. Both the Grand Canal and the Royal Canal were pushed westward to join the Shannon. When the Royal Canal Company got into financial difficulties the Government itself took over its running for a while. Attention was paid to the development of roads, especially the Post Office stagecoach roads from Dublin to the big towns. The Irish bogs were seen as a great natural resource that could be developed and a Commission was appointed to see how this could best be done. To improve navigation the construction of numerous lighthouses was commenced. 

            After 1815 both countries suffered an economic slump which was severe though short lasting. In Ireland the slump was complicated by a partial failure of the potato crop in 1816 which led to famine in places. Both countries suffered severe social disturbances in the second decade of the century, though the disturbances were not connected. Agrarian troubles predominated in Ireland while industrial troubles known as Luddism occurred in England. There were also agrarian troubles in England that reached their peak at the time of the so-called 'Tolpuddle Martyrs' in 1833. In Ireland they persisted on and off until the 1840's, died down for a while, and broke out again fiercely in the 1880's. In the North of Ireland the agrarian secret organisations continued the sectarian tendencies of their predecessors of the eighteenth century. 

            Both countries were engaged in the struggle for parliamentary and other reforms in the 1830's, and the fierce contest between the Whigs and Tories over the privileges of the Established Churches. In the 1820's the great effort to obtain for Catholics the right of sitting in Parliament was paralleled by similar efforts by English Catholics, and also, more importantly, by British Dissenters. 

             The beginning of Queen Victoria's reign was marked by a truce between the contending parties. In the 1840's the repeal of the Corn Laws, passed originally to protect Irish agriculture, aroused great passions in England. In Ireland the dispute was rather overshadowed by a campaign by O’Connell for the repeal of the Act of Union. [Top]

 (ii) Special Irish Issues           

There were some Irish issues, which had no counterpart in Britain. 

            To begin with it should be noted that the practical effects of the Act of Union (1800) were not great or noticeable. The Union itself was largely conceived as an instrument which would allow the mutual fears of Irish Catholics and Protestants to evaporate, and also to provide a framework in which Irish trade could develop and prosper in accordance with the views of Adam Smith on the freeing of trade. The structure of the Irish Government was not altered. Because of differing legal traditions separate legislation usually had to be passed for Ireland, and the same Irish MP’s who debated and spoke in the Irish Parliament continued to do so in Westminster. Few English or Scottish MP’s intervened in Irish debates. The Lord Lieutenant always belonged to the party in power and he or his subordinates introduced the necessary bills. Nor was there any noticeable imbalance between the strengths of the political parties in Britain and Ireland. (O’Connell, when he had a considerable number of followers in Parliament, had to decide which of the two major parties he would support.) Gradually a large measure of assimilation was brought about between the two countries beginning with the amalgamation of the two Exchequers in 1817. 

            When seeking support in Ireland for the Act of Union William Pitt, without committing himself to any definite proposals, let it be known that he would do his best to procure further relief for the Catholics. For this it was necessary to secure the king's consent. When George III refused to consent Pitt tendered his resignation, as did the Irish Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. 

            Henry Addington (Lord Sidmouth) therefore in 1801 formed a ministry on the principle that although no further measures of relief should be granted every effort should be made to ensure that Catholics had full benefit of existing laws. For the next twenty years noblemen of conciliatory disposition were appointed to the office of Lord Lieutenant with the primary aim of reducing sectarian tensions which had risen to a high pitch during the massacres and counter-massacres of 1798. 

             Fewer Catholics than had been expected were appointed to public offices, but there were various reasons for this. The chief was that from 1805 onwards many Irish Catholic leaders insisted that the Whigs bring in further relief measures. This had the consequence of excluding the Whigs from office and from the patronage that went with it. Catholics like O’Connell bitterly complained that the 'Ascendancy faction' was not rooted out of the Irish administration but were themselves the cause of that. Extreme members of the Catholic Association equally denounced the Government for not appointing Catholics and those Catholics ('Castle Catholics') who requested the exercise of the Lord Lieutenant's patronage. Secondly, it would seem that standards of education among the Catholics was low so that at every level there were better-qualified Protestants. This seems to have been especially true with regard to the army. In theory, Catholic officers could not serve outside Ireland, but as Wellington remarked, no enquiries were ever made about a gentleman's religion. 

            Despite what was often alleged or implied, there was no official policy of retaining Irish Protestants with strong 'Ascendancy' views in office. On the contrary, the Government had every interest in appointing officers of conciliatory disposition. But the prosecution of the War remained the primary objective of Parliament, and its mandate was renewed in successive elections. When, because of the attitude of the Catholic Committee or Catholic Association, moderate Irish Protestants felt unable to join the Government there were other Irish Protestants with more rigid views who were prepared to join. Not in fact until the appointment of the imperious Marquis Wellesley as Lord Lieutenant in 1821 was Addington's policy finally fully implemented. 

            Not all those appointed by the various Lords Lieutenant up until 1821 were virulently anti-Catholic in feeling. Many Irish Protestant gentlemen shared the views of Wellington and Castlereagh that some further relief should be eventually granted, but in the meantime, the War had to be continued. William Saurin, Attorney General from 1807 to 1822, was strongly opposed to the Catholics. Lord Manners, the Lord Chancellor from 1807 to 1827, though charged with responsibility for the administration in the counties, normally did not interfere with the county Grand Juries who were responsible for public appointments in their respective counties. With regard to others like Lord Norbury, Chief Justice of Common Pleas, one should beware of accepting O’Connell's comments at face value. 

            Nor indeed were O’Connell and his followers typical of the Catholics. They formed a noisy minority in numbers just sufficient to frighten many ordinary Protestants who perhaps would not have been frightened of Catholic noblemen like the Earl of Fingall. [Top] 

(iii) 1800-1820             

Addington's ministry favoured ending the war with France. Pitt's Second Coalition, formed in 1798, was breaking up. Austria made peace by the Treaty of Luneville (1801). Addington, with Pitt's approval, negotiated the Peace of Amiens (1802), and measures were gradually put into effect to return the country to a peace footing. The Government still distrusted Napoleon's good faith, and so hastened slowly. In some parts of Ireland armed bands still roamed the country so the reduction of the militia and yeomanry continued even more slowly. The Government renewed the emergency powers it had given itself, but in most parts they were not needed. 

            It became clear that the renewal of war with France was not far distant so the build up of the militia and yeomanry in Ireland was resumed. Catholic gentlemen like the Earl of Fingall and Daniel O’Connell joined their local yeomanry units. 

            In 1803 a young Dublin lawyer named Robert Emmet tried to start a rising. O’Connell considered him a very foolish young man, and this view would seem to be correct. But, however, we know little or nothing of the feelings of the illiterate classes in Leinster. An initial success in Dublin might have sparked off a widespread rising and consequent civil war. The trial judge, Lord Norbury, who had known Emmet's father, made great efforts to persuade the young man to make some plea for mercy, but in vain. An edited (and dubious) version of Emmet’s last speech from the dock was circulated in Ireland in the second half of the century and had a powerful influence on nationalist feelings. 

            In 1804 the issue of the Catholics was raised again, and despite the anti-insurrection legislation in force meetings of the Catholics were organised by a young man named James Ryan and the Earl of Fingall. While George III was still alive William Pitt was unwilling to proceed further, but the Whigs, though foreseeing difficulties, listened more favourably. Unexpectedly, in 1806, shortly after Nelson's victory at Trafalgar, which removed the immediate danger of a French invasion of Ireland, and after Napoleon's overwhelming victory at Austerlitz that smashed the Third Coalition, William Pitt died. It seemed a favourable opportunity for the Whigs to end the war and to do something for the Catholics. Lord Grenville formed the ministry, immortalised by the Irish journalist Eaton Stannard Barrett, as 'The Ministry of all the Talents'. The Whigs knew that the king would never allow Catholics to be admitted to Parliament, but they decided to do something at least by bringing in a Bill to admit Catholic military officers in England on the same basis as they existed in Ireland. The proposed measure was symbolic rather than practical for Catholic officers already existed in England secretly, or indeed legally if they were émigré officers from the Continent. The king proved unexpectedly stubborn, and the ministry resigned over the issue. Nothing much was thought of the resignation at the time for the king's death was expected from year to year, and the Prince of Wales was known to favour the Catholics. (Indeed, Prince George was secretly married to the Catholic Mrs Fitzherbert.) 

            The resignation had however important results in Ireland. Some moderate Irish Tories like Sir Arthur Wellesley and Lord Castlereagh took office under the Duke of Portland, but were employed outside the country. William Conyngham Plunket refused to continue as Attorney General and was replaced by the bitterly anti-Catholic William Saurin. The 'Ascendancy faction' gained great control of patronage in Ireland, and intransigent Catholic leaders like Daniel O’Connell and John Keogh had only themselves to blame for that. At the heart of the resistance to Catholic claims was William Gregory, the Irish Under-Secretary for Civil Affairs from 1812 until Canning, when Prime Minister in 1827 began the process of easing him from office. For many years he was the mentor of the youthful Robert Peel. 

            The Catholic movement itself split into moderate and intransigent factions, the Earl of Fingall leading the former and John Keogh was the nominal leader of the latter. Daniel O’Connell gradually emerged as leader of the intransigents after 1810. In 1808, the Whig leader in the House of Commons, George Ponsonby, an Irishman, introduced another Catholic Relief Bill, giving as new grounds the concession (by the Pope) of a royal veto over the appointment of Catholic bishops. Fingall's group supported this; Keogh’s and O’Connell's opposed; the two groups became known as 'Vetoists' and 'Anti-vetoists'. The dispute between them reached its climax when George Canning introduced a Catholic Relief Bill in 1813. This quarrelling so discredited the Catholics in the eyes of moderate Protestants that no further effective action could be taken until 1823. 

            About 1810 many of the old Patriots began to agitate for Repeal of the Act of Union. A public meeting was called by the Lord Mayor of Dublin to petition Parliament. A young journalist named Frederick Conway acted as Secretary to the meeting and was ordered to draw up a suitable petition. Interest died down rapidly and he was left holding the petition and paying the costs. O’Connell was only slightly involved in this and after 1829 imagined Protestant support for Repeal was much greater than it was. But the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829) changed the views of many Protestants. O’Connell could possibly have won either Emancipation or Repeal, but not both. 

            Most people in Ireland from 1807 until 1815 were more concerned with getting some personal benefit from the War. Almost every family in the country had a member in the armed forces, regular, militia, or yeomanry. Ireland became a major source of supplies for the army and navy. Great fortifications were built against invaders, and the Irish construction industry benefited accordingly. Ireland, since the Corn Interchange Act (1806), had free access to the British grain markets, and this was turned into a virtual monopoly by Napoleon's Continental System and the British Orders in Council. There was great prosperity in Ireland during the war years, and as peace came in sight in 1814, and the military contracts ended, it became clear that some interim prop would have to be afforded to Irish agriculture. To this end the Corn Laws were passed in 1815. By 1845 the Irish farmers were confident that they were no longer necessary. 

            In the second decade of the century and coinciding almost exactly with the arrival of Robert Peel as Irish Secretary began the Irish Government' involvement with specifically non-sectarian education. The question arose indirectly from enquiries set up by the Irish Parliament twenty years earlier into the waste of public money in endowed schools. The masters in various endowed schools were shown to have taken in few pupils and to be pocketing the revenues from the endowments virtually as sinecures. (Ireland was no worse situated than England in this respect.) The interest of Parliament was kept up, and reports of a Committee of Enquiry were published. 

            The gentlemen who wrote the enquiry had two dominant ideas. One was that sectarian strife was caused by the virtual exclusion of Catholic children, for one reason or another, from schools and colleges, so that Catholic and Protestant children grew to manhood in ignorance of each other. The other was that a system of non-sectarian education, similar to that proposed in England by Joseph Lancaster, not under the control of the clergy of the Established Church, or any other clergy, should be initiated. The Government accepted the Report and was considering how best to implement it when a private body commonly called the Kildare Place Society was formed by Protestant gentlemen with considerable Catholic support in 1813. As this body seemed to be carrying out all the aims of the Government, Peel informed the House of Commons that it was decided to channel public assistance to Irish education exclusively through it. 

            Some Catholic priests later denounced this Society as sectarian and proselytising in it aims and methods, but this was largely a question of whether the obligatory reading of the Protestant Bible could be construed as proselytism. The Government felt it best to take control of primary education into its own hands, and established a National Board in 1831 with an open-ended commitment to finance the education of every Irish child seeking it, subject only to the conditions of non-sectarian education drawn up by the Board. To ensure balance the Protestant and Catholic archbishops of Dublin and a representative of the Presbyterian Churches were placed in charge of the Board. There was strong resistance to the Board from many members of the Established Church and also from various Catholic priests and bishops who were later to be identified with nationalism. Perceptions rather than facts influenced views. 

            Another matter that came to the fore about the time Peel arrived in Ireland was the development of a proper police force. There were sporadic outbreaks of agrarian and sectarian crime. Also the costs of the War had resulted in high excises being imposed on spirits which in turn made illicit distillation of spirits very profitable. The principal reform and reorganisation of the police did not come about until the following decade when Peel was Home Secretary. [Top] 

(iv) 1820-1830 

In 1820 old King George III died, and his successor, George IV appointed an Irish nobleman known to favour the Catholics, the Marquis Wellesley, as Lord Lieutenant. This brought about a rift between the 'Ascendancy faction' and the Government that was not healed until after mid-century. The rift was marked by the throwing of a bottle at the Marquis, the so-called 'Bottle Riot', during a visit to the theatre. The Government suspected an Orange plot, though none was proved, nor does it seem any existed. 'Ribbon' agrarian conspiracies existed on the Catholic side and doubtless they were matched at local level by Orange plots in local lodges of the Orange Order. But this had nothing to do with attacking the Government. The existence of these local plots should be remembered when considering the Government's reactions to the great pro- and anti-Emancipation campaigns of the 1820's. William Conyngham Plunket was re-appointed Attorney General, and Wellesley and Plunket introduced much useful legislation. 

            The period from 1823 to 1829 is marked by the revival of the Catholic Association. The Earl of Fingall's son, Lord Killeen, and the best orator in the 'Vetoist' faction, Richard Lalor Sheil, now felt strong enough to harness and control O’Connell's energy and talents. Agitation by the Catholics and by the Ascendancy faction rose to great heights. 

             The anti-Emancipation campaign, though less well documented in Ireland, was better organised, financed, (and armed), and was strongest in Ulster. This campaign was supported by the 'Ascendancy faction' or High Tories with the aim of preserving the 'ascendancy' of Protestantism. The Catholic campaign was still riven with personal rivalries, and to a considerable extent was confined to the south of Ireland. 

            In 1828 O’Connell won a decisive victory over Sheil and Lord Killeen by forcing the pace and putting himself forward as a candidate in County Clare. After some initial hesitation the Catholic Forty-Shilling freeholders supported O’Connell whose place in Irish history was thereafter assured. He gambled that the Protestant landlords would not evict those tenants who voted against them. There were no immediate reprisals, but undoubtedly a stimulus was given to the trend to consolidate small tenancies into larger holdings. 

            The Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, feared the outbreak of civil war in Ireland if Emancipation were not passed and set about obtaining the king's reluctant consent. Prince George, after he became king, became very conservative. The Catholic Relief Act (1829) allowed access to Catholics to Parliament and to all the higher offices of state which did not involve patronage in the Established Churches. A similar Act was passed in favour of the Dissenters, though it was of less practical importance for them as they had benefited by various Indemnity Acts. The Catholic Relief Act only passed because Robert Peel changed his mind ad decided to support Wellington’s Bill. [Top] 

(v) 1830-1841 

In 1830, the Whigs, the traditional supporters of the Catholics, came to office for the first time since 1783 (not counting the brief Talents Ministry). There now was an opportunity for Catholics to be appointed to the higher public offices, and the Whigs made great efforts to find Catholic MP's who could be appointed. But there were few Catholics of sufficient wealth and ability in public life. Sheil had married an heiress and so became qualified to sit in Parliament.  Lord Killeen succeeded to the earldom and was given a position in Queen Victoria's Household. Inevitably, many of those Catholics who joined the Whigs were from among the former Vetoists, so despite their defeat in the Clare election they could be said to have won in the short term.   

            O’Connell over-estimated his personal influence in the Emancipation campaign (and consequently his personal following in Ireland) which was in fact a joint effort of his followers, of the Catholic moderates, of the Irish Whigs, and many of the Irish Tories, not to mention supporting groups in England. He was only prepared to accept a really important office like that of Irish Lord Chancellor. The office was given to Plunket. But like other men of ability who regarded themselves as personally slighted he retained an immense ability to make trouble. 

            O’Connell was a strange unpredictable man with an exaggerated idea of his own power, influence and attainments, very easily slighted, and a man who never forgot or forgave an injury real or imaginary. He had enormous natural ability and inexhaustible energy. He was not a learned man. He was outstanding at influencing Catholic crowds and Catholic juries in Munster when on circuit. He was not particularly outstanding among the barristers in the courts in Dublin. He could have been an able parliamentarian but disliked the measured argument required in the House of Commons. In Westminster he was outshone not only by Peel, but also by Irish MP’s like John Doherty and Thomas Spring Rice. Despite the great Emancipation campaign, haranguing an anti-Government meeting in Cork was more to his liking that patient lobbying in the House of Commons. He was a populist orator who succeeded by appealing to the prejudices of his Catholic followers who expected great rewards if he ever came to office. 

            He quarrelled with the Whigs when they did not rush to offer him high public office. He denounced them as the 'base, bloody, and brutal Whigs', a phrase long gleefully repeated by the High Tories and the Ascendancy faction.  

            His rift with the Whigs was patched over because they were anxious to enlist as much support as possible for the Great Reform Bill, and the struggle for the passage of this Act occupied the centre of the political stage in Ireland for the following two years. For a similar reason O’Connell and his supporters tolerated the candidatures at election time of people like Sheil and Lord Killeen. The passing of the Great Reform Act (1832) ended this truce. 

            The extreme Tories in England and the Ascendancy faction in Ireland regarded Peel as a traitor, and did not support him in the two ministries he was to form. For his part, Peel bowed to the inevitable, and issued his Tamworth Manifesto in 1834 hoping to unite the Tories and also to attract Catholic supporters. In his second ministry Peel introduced various measures of great benefit to Irish Catholics. It is ironic therefore that the first entry of Irish Catholic priests into politics officially countenanced by a bishop was in Carlow in 1834 to 'explain' to the Catholic voters that the Manifesto was a snare and a trap, and that Peel really intended re-enacting the Penal Laws. The priest who led this extraordinary campaign was the Rev. James Maher, an uncle of Cardinal Cullen.  

            The activities of the more extreme Catholic priests were channelled into politics in the Thirties. The activities of the more extreme Protestant clergy were directed into an anti-popery campaign. This Protestant campaign was part of a wider group of movements in Britain and the English-speaking world to defend Protestantism and to combat popery. Its two best known branches in Britain were centred on Oxford, the Oxford Movement, and Exeter Hall. 

            The beginning of the Thirties was marked in parts of the south of Ireland by a confused period of bitter sectarian strife, often referred to as the 'Tithe War'. It originated in a refusal by some middle class Catholics to pay tithes to Protestant clergymen as a matter of principle. Some Protestant gentlemen banded together to enforce payment through the courts. Physical resistance to court orders was organised and developed into a campaign of systematic murder of Protestant clergymen, tithe proctors, and above all the police. These latter used their muskets to defend themselves, and O’Connell for his own political ends denounced these as massacres by the police. But there is no doubt that in every case the police were attacked first and were only defending themselves. There seems little doubt that the secret agrarian societies had involved themselves in the matter as was their wont. 

            Feelings ran very high and it would seem that one of the reasons why the Catholic clergy involved themselves in politics, apart from obtaining influence for themselves, was to outflank the irreligious leaders of the agrarian societies. 

            Modern Ireland was born in the struggles of the Thirties. Out of them emerged a separatist movement strongly influenced by Catholic clergymen, who were strongly opposed to Protestant influence, and to Government influence allegedly dominated by Protestantism, and who wished to replace this influence by their own. It should be noted that almost without exception the Catholic clergy were strongly opposed to the use of physical force, and the condoning of violence did not antedate the supremacy of the IRA in the twentieth century. The more extreme Protestant clergy asserted the contrary, and probably most ordinary Protestants suspected a secret sympathy of the Catholic clergy with their co-religionists in the agrarian societies. It was noted at the time that the 'Tithe War' marked a watershed in the relations between Catholics and Protestants. Even more significantly, the friendly relations between the clergy of the different Churches gave way to open enmity. 

             When O’Connell launched a campaign for Repeal of the Act of Union he got little support from any quarter, except, from some of the Catholic clergy anxious to involve themselves in politics. Archbishop MacHale became the leader of these priests, and he made no secret of the fact that he considered that the Irish Catholic bishops would be the moral guardians of a restored Irish Parliament. O’Connell himself had no strong anti-Protestant feelings and always assumed that many Protestant MP’s would be elected to a native Irish Parliament and would share the political spoils. The view that the Irish Parliament should be independent was originally a Protestant one. But MacHale, and later Cardinal Cullen, were determined that Protestant patronage and influence would be eliminated, and the Home Rule movement in the second half of the century was strongly anti-Protestant, and anti-landlord, as well as anti-British in feeling. 

            Among the further reforms proposed by the Whigs was a reorganisation of the Established Church in Ireland. This alleged 'attack on the Church' again united the High Tory faction in England and the Ascendancy faction in Ireland and they fought all further reforms line by line until compromises were reached and a truce declared in the first Parliament of the young Queen Victoria in 1838. 

            O’Connell, though using Repeal as a threat to the Government, and as a means of consolidating his support in the rural constituencies, was not anxious to bring forward a motion on the subject in the House of Commons. Eventually, Feargus O’Connor forced his hand and his motion on the subject in 1834 was overwhelmingly defeated. 

            Support for the policies of Earl Grey, the Prime Minister, was declining, and the king, William IV, asked Peel to try to form a ministry. A general election was called on 29 December 1834, in which the Catholic clergy made their first officially authorised entry into the political arena. Peel began his campaign with a speech at Tamworth, always known as the 'Tamworth Manifesto'. In the event Peel did not gain sufficient support, and Lord Melbourne replaced him. The efforts of the Whigs to bring in useful reforms in Ireland continued, and were strongly opposed by the Tories until 1838. Though Prime Minister, Melbourne was not personally a reformer, and by 1841 it was clear that that the Whigs, to use a phrase with a contemporary flavour, were running out of steam. [Top] 

(vi) 1841-1850 

When Peel came to office in 1841 he was a mature politician with an immense and indeed unrivalled knowledge of the minutiae of Irish affairs. He tried to appoint to offices in Ireland men of conciliatory disposition. He blundered, however, in the appointment of Earl de Grey as Lord Lieutenant for he was inclined to listen to the Ascendancy faction. The extreme anti-Catholic Tories who regarded Peel as the arch-betrayer refused office. He failed also to attract Catholic support, Catholic Tories being then rare in Ireland.  

            In the 1840's, the Tories, and after them the Whigs, were faced with three problems, and they tried to deal with them in a more-or-less similar fashion. 

            The first was the campaign for Repeal launched by O’Connell in 1843. The new spirit of nationalism fanned this, and also attracted to it those who were prepared to use violence to achieve their aim. The movement split, and split again, and culminated in an abortive rising in 1848 following similar risings on the Continent. Though little actual fighting was done, and the rising was quickly suppressed, it would appear, as in 1803, that there was considerable support for a violent solution, and that Irish Protestants had good reason to be alarmed.

            The second problem rose from the Government's attempts, initiated by Peel, to improve the lot of the Catholics. Catholic priests active in politics were now numerous, and opposed all attempts by the Government to assist the Catholics. Short of Repeal they had only one remedy for Catholic disadvantages, and that was that the Government would hand over money and administrative authority exclusively to the Catholic clergy, for example with regard to the education of Catholic children. The Government always insisted on including Protestant clergymen and laymen of both denominations on Boards it established. 

            The third problem arose from the failure of the potato crop, which resulted in the Great Famine, or more correctly, the Great Pestilence, for vastly more people died of fever than of starvation. Why the systems of famine relief devised by successive Governments failed in Ireland when they succeeded in Scotland has not yet been properly investigated. In any case, nationalists wanted only one explanation, the malice of the 'occupying power'. 

            The Famine itself did little harm to the Irish economy. Though the population fell over a decade through disease and emigration by about a quarter, underemployment had been so widespread that agricultural output was largely unaffected. 

            The Irish economy continued to develop up until the First World War, but the pace of development notably slackened in the second half of the century. Formerly backward regions like Denmark left Ireland behind. Only in Ulster was the development of heavy industry continued. Irish scientists were no longer in forefront of development in Europe. The great promise of Irish education in the first half of the century brought little fruit. It was not that Irish society went backwards; other countries overtook it. Nor can the relative decline be attributed to an increasing influence of Catholics, for Protestants remained dominant in most spheres of Irish life up until independence. Some great achievements in literature and in industry lay in the future, and they too were the achievements of Protestants. 

            The 1840's saw almost all the leading figures in Ireland passing away to be replaced by new faces after 1850. Peel died in 1850, Wellington and Archbishop Murray in 1852. O’Connell died in 1847, and Sheil in 1851. The leaders of Young Ireland were scattered far and wide. Archbishop MacHale remained, and the political priests stepped in to fill the vacuum. In 1850 the most prominent political priest of them all, Paul, later Cardinal Cullen, was appointed by Rome archbishop of Armagh. A new era in Irish politics began.



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