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

Chapter Twenty Two

             The Protestants II

Summary of chapter. This chapter deals with the political aspects of Protestantism, and how, as the result of the Penal Laws against Catholics, they occupied most of the important offices in Ireland.

(i) The Moderate Protestants

(ii) The Ascendancy Faction

(iii) The Orange Order


This chapter deal with the political aspects of Protestantism. 

(i) The Moderate Protestants

             The social and religious life of the ordinary Protestants, especially of Protestant gentlemen, has already been described at large, and many common calumnies and misconceptions about them were shown to be baseless. They were convinced of the superiority of Protestantism, and the British Constitution, which went with it. They were not bigoted against Catholics, and often tried to assist them, or even 'improve' them, gave them secure leases of land on which they could build churches, and contributed toward their construction. They realised that the Catholic priests (like the Dissenting clergy) were good, sincere, religious men, devoted to the moral welfare of their flocks. The gentlemen especially who associated with Catholic gentlemen, and quite often knew the local Catholic bishop personally, had no fear of a restoration of Popish tyranny. The Catholic bishops and priests they met assured them that the Catholics had no intention of subverting the Constitution. 

            These gentlemen favoured ending the Penal Laws, regarding them as out-dated, survivals from an earlier more intolerant age, and out of place in the modern world. They wished to see the Catholics admitted to all the privileges of the Constitution including the right to be come Members of Parliament. 

            Despite the atrocities committed by the agrarian societies and the massacres of Protestants in 1798 the Whigs wished the Catholics to be admitted to all privileges without condition, except perhaps that the monarch should always be a Protestant, and that Protestantism should be the established religion. Many of the Tories, notably Wellington and Castlereagh, were more cautious, and wished for a settlement, provided the Catholics would give some 'securities' to the Crown for their good conduct. Meanwhile the Catholics of every rank were to be given the full benefit of the reliefs already accorded to them. 

             By 1815 it was estimated that more than half of the Irish MP’s from the county constituencies favoured Emancipation. Three Prime Ministers in the period from 1800 to 1829, William Pitt, Lord Grenville, and George Canning personally supported Emancipation. Two Irish noblemen, the Marquis Wellesley and Lord Moira, attempted and failed to form ministries during the War, and both of these favoured the Catholic claims.  Lord Liverpool was only able to construct cabinets on, as it was called, 'the open principle', namely that any member of the cabinet was free to introduce measures favourable to the Catholics.  That ministers like Castlereagh and Canning were not successful in getting moderate concessions was chiefly attributable to the activities of O’Connell and his faction who wanted all or nothing. In retrospect it seems clear that O’Connell was the best weapon of the ascendancy faction. [Top] 

(ii) The Ascendancy Faction 

            Probably no word in Irish history is more misunderstood and abused than 'ascendancy'. Nowadays it is just a meaningless term of abuse used by Catholics against Protestants. Indeed, one can come across instances of Catholics being included in the so-called Ascendancy with a capital A! 

            Ascendancy was and is an abstract noun used to describe a precise political programme of a particular group of Irish Protestants between 1793 and 1829. The phrase is more correctly 'Protestant ascendancy' or 'ascendancy of Protestantism' in Ireland. It is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as ‘a governing or controlling influence’. Towards the end of the eighteenth century a series of Relief Acts were passed by the Irish Parliament removing more and more civil disabilities from Catholics. Some Irish Protestants (probably a majority of the members of the Established Church) considered that a limit had been reached by the Relief Act of 1793. Any further concessions to Catholics would endanger the Protestant character of the kingdom established by the Peace of Westphalia and the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688. Their policy therefore, in order to retain 'Protestant ascendancy' in Ireland, was to allow Catholics full benefit of existing relief measures but to refuse any further relief measures. In particular, all the chief public offices should continue to be restricted to Protestants. (Nowadays one could envisage a Marxist regime trying to introduce liberal reforms while at the same time ensuring that Marxists held all public offices.) 

            The Tory parties in Britain and Ireland up until 1828 supported this policy. Then Wellington and Peel decided that the time had come to admit Catholics to Parliament and other public offices, and split the Tories on the issue. They argued that it was sufficient to exclude Catholics from the monarchy and a few public offices that had patronage in the Established Churches to maintain the Protestant character of the kingdom. (Peel had opposed this view up to this time, so when he changed his mind he was considered the great betrayer of Protestantism. Only by acting with speed and secrecy did he get himself re-elected to Parliament.) It is doubtful if the Catholics had waited until the return of the Whigs they would have got any better terms. 

             With the passing of the Emancipation Act (1829) the issue ceased to have relevance, and no attempt was ever made by any party to turn back the clock and to exclude Catholics from office. But as already noted, the revolt of the Forty Shilling freeholders during O’Connell's personal gamble in county Clare meant the landlords for the future were reluctant to grant freehold leases except to the most loyal tenants. 

            Through ill-luck, or ill-management on the part of the Irish Whigs, members of the ascendancy faction held most of the posts of Government in Ireland between 1807 and 1822. When the Marquis Wellesley was appointed Lord Lieutenant he commenced appointing more moderate persons as occasion arose. The number of Catholics appointed to public office does not seem to have been greatly increased which reflects the nature of patronage and the lack of qualifications among Catholics. 

            That the ascendancy faction remained so long in office was largely due to the Catholics themselves, or rather to an 'all or nothing' faction among them led by Daniel O’Connell.  In 1807 they forced the Whigs to introduce a Relief Act which the king disagreed with. The king asked the Tories to form a ministry, and they remained in office continuously until 1830. Again in 1813, the activities of the Catholic extremists forced Canning to drop his Relief Bill that would have secured important concessions, though not admission to Parliament. But if the Whigs had been in office from 1807 onwards they would have appointed Catholics to the positions open to them. As it was the ascendancy faction saw that they were not appointed even to these. Also, the Catholic extremists denounced those Catholics like Archbishop Troy who asked the Lord Lieutenant for positions for their relatives, even though this was the usual way to get appointments to public office. So if Catholics were largely excluded from public office in the first thirty years after the Act of Union they have largely themselves to blame. There are some who will maintain that O’Connell was right to act as he did, but the fact remains that it was he who was chiefly responsible for keeping them out of so many public offices for so long. (It should be noted that patronage remained a feature of Irish political life for another century and a half. The old saying ‘It’s not what you know but who you know’ when applying for any public position remained valid at least until the 1970s in both parts of Ireland. In the Irish Free State/ Irish Republic the alternation of political parties meant that most of the people got their share of patronage. This was not the result of any plan, but of a split in the ruling party.) 

            It should be noted that there was little if any rabid anti-popery, such as for example characterised the associates of Exeter Hall in the Thirties, among the ascendancy faction. Most of them were urbane, cultivated men who believed that their policy was essential for safeguarding what they regarded as the true religion. If some of them were personally bitter it was because of what they and their families had suffered at the hands of the Catholics in 1798. (The converse was true also of Catholics.) 

            After 1829 the ascendancy faction joined the High Tories or extreme Tories who revolted against Peel, so Peel was left with few supporters in Ireland. He was therefore forced to appeal to those of moderate opinions in the centre ground of politics. His Tamworth Manifesto was issued with the express desire of gathering support from all parts of the community, including Irish Catholics. It is therefore ironic that the first intervention in politics by a Catholic priest duly authorised by his bishop took the form of an attempt by the Rev. James Maher to prove that the Tamworth Manifesto was a snare and a trap for Catholics and that Peel really wished to re-enact the Penal Laws. Peel got little support from Catholics, and little from Irish Protestants, so this caused great difficulty for him when he was try to select able men to fill the Irish offices in his two ministries. [Top] 

(iii) The Orange Order 

            The Orange Order was something sui generis in Ireland for it had no equivalent on the Catholic side. It was a working-class society, founded to combat the Catholic agrarian societies, but did not itself (officially) countenance violence. It was purely defensive, and preferred working through legal forces like the yeomanry. Almost from the start it was controlled by the county gentlemen who feared it might develop into something like the agrarian societies, or indeed its Protestant predecessor the Peep O' Day Boys, and it was also supported by the middle classes, who however were more likely to join the Freemasons. Thus it enjoyed support from all ranks of society. On the Catholic side agitation was split among various opposing groups. 

            If the Order had been founded to combat the agrarian societies it was kept alive in the nineteenth century by O’Connell. Its membership waxed and waned as O’Connell's popularity waxed and waned. Its strategy consisted in matching his every move. If he collected a 'Rent' they collected a bigger one. If he registered voters they registered more. If he addressed monster meetings in his part of Ireland, they addressed larger meetings in their part. He never made the slightest attempt to meet them or to explain his policies to them (if he actually had any) and it is one of the mysteries in his life why he persisted in his tactics when he was only producing an equal and opposite reaction.  

            The Order was a secret society in the same way that Freemasonry was one. The authorities in the county or in the Government could easily find out who belonged to it if they wished. The only really secret things about it were the signs and passwords. As this was true also of the Freemasons, who in addition had various myths and rituals, Parliament was unwilling to force the disclosure of Orange secrets. But because of this secrecy others always suspected that it was engaged in conspiracies. The structure of the Order too was derived from the Masons. The local clubs were called lodges, and counties grouped these into county Grand Lodges. These were under the direction of the Grand Lodge and Grand Master of Ireland. The members of the Grand Lodges were not delegates in any way of the local lodges, and so were not bound by the Convention Act. (The revolutionaries who broke away from Young Ireland in the 1840's developed a similar system of organisation which they called 'clubs'.) 

            The Order was strongest in Armagh that had 229 lodges in 1835. Antrim, including Belfast had 211, Tyrone 190, and Down 148. Outside Ulster Cork had 21 lodges, Wicklow 19, and Wexford 15, the strength in the latter two probably reflecting the events in 1798 when defence by the yeomanry proved ineffective. Most of the other counties had 2 or 3 lodges each, though Queen's County (Laois) had 8 reflecting the large Protestant population and the amount of agrarian crime (The Pilot 14 Oct 1835). 

            Governments of all shades of opinion heartily disliked both the Order and O’Connell's various associations, regarding them equally as promoters of sectarian strife. The Irish Government under Wellesley suspected an Orange plot behind the 'Bottle Riot'. The Grand Jury of Dublin, reasonably on the evidence put before it, refused to find true bills for charges of conspiracy. The Attorney General (Plunket) pressed on with the trials, acting, he said, on ex officio information. Nothing was ever proved except perhaps that some Orangemen did not like Wellesley. Suspicion on the part of the Government regarding Orange activities continued in the Thirties, and when William IV expressed himself dissatisfied with them the Grand Master dissolved the Grand Lodge. Local lodges continued as social clubs in many places. In the Forties when the revolutionary faction in Young Ireland expressed its willingness to have recourse to the sword it was inevitable then that the Orangemen would reconstitute the Grand Lodge, and this they did in 1846 when the Earl of Enniskillen became Grand Master. 

            The heyday of the Order was to come at the end of the century when it formed the core of resistance to Home Rule. It never formed a political party of its own but always supported the Conservative and Unionist Party. When a separate Government was set up in Northern Ireland it had the same relationship with the governing party, the Unionists, that the Trade Union Congress had with Labour Governments in Britain. It did not dictate policy, but it expected that its interests would always be kept in mind, and no politician could survive long if he offended it. 



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