Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Ireland at a time of revolution

Wolfe Tone 1763-98
The first Irish nationalist
Public Domain

The United Irishmen

The French Revolution had a profound effect in Ireland, causing radicals, many of them from the rising Catholic middle class, to campaign for the abolition of the penal laws.

On 18 October 1791 the Belfast Society of United Irishmen was founded. Among the founders was Theobald Wolfe Tone, a young Protestant lawyer from Dublin.  For Tone radical political reform and nationalist identity went hand in hand, with no place for sectarian divisions. The first resolutions of the United Irishmen asserted

That the weight of English influence in the Government in this country is so great, as to require a cordial union, among ALL THE PEOPLE OF IRELAND. ... No reform is practicable, efficacious, or just, which does not include Irishmen or every religious persuasion.
In his posthumously published autobiography Tone described his aim as
To subvert the tyranny of our execrable Government, to break the connexion with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country - these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions and to substitute the common name of Irishmen in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter - these were my means.
In order to conciliate the Catholic majority the British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, introduced a Catholic Relief Bill in 1793 which gave Catholics the vote on the same terms as Protestants, permitted them to bear arms and allowed them to occupy most civil and military posts. There was now only one major disability facing Catholics: exclusion from membership of Parliament. 

1798: 'the year of the French'

These concessions did not prevent a French-inspired Irish uprising in 1798, perhaps the most violent episode in the history of Ireland. Dublin and the adjacent counties rose on 24-25 May. On 30 May the rebels captured Wexford town. The rebellion spread from Wexford and Wicklow in the east to Sligo and Mayo in the west. The campaign was marked by horrific atrocities on both sides. 

On 21 August the French under General Jean Humbert landed at Killala Bay in County Mayo with a force of 900 men, defeating a numerically superior English force under General Lake.  

On 6 September another French fleet of one flagship, eight frigates and 3000 men sailed from Brest, with Wolfe Tone on board, wearing the uniform of a French officer. Eight British frigates were waiting for them and Tone was captured. On 10 November he was sentenced to be hanged – an indignity he had not anticipated. On 12 November he cut his throat with a penknife and died seven days later on the 19th.

In the twentieth century Tone's grave at Bodenstown, Co Kildare became a sacred site for Irish republicans.  

In the aftermath of 1798 the revelations of the extent of the French connection in Ireland stunned contemporaries. A potent Irish martyrology grew up around the leaders of the revolt and for the first time the idea of an independent Irish republic had been planted.

The union of parliaments

The traumatic events of 1798 convinced Pitt that the Dublin parliament could not provide the order necessary for British as well as Irish security.  He believed that a union of the British and Irish parliaments would have prevented the growth of mass support for the United Irishmen.

Robert Stewart,
Viscount Castlereagh

Public Domain
On 31 January 1799 Pitt addressed the Commons on the subject of legislative union.  His new Chief Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh and his Lord Lieutenant, Lord Cornwallis, bribed the Dublin parliament into surrendering its authority. Thirteen new Irish peers were created and four British peerages were bestowed on Irish peers. Since only 100 Irish seats in the lower house were transferred to Westminster, many boroughs had to be disenfranchised and their owners bought out at an average cost to the British taxpayer of £15,000 per seat - a total cost of £1.5m. 

In July 1800 the Act of Union, creating a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (with a new flag), received the royal assent and was to come into operation on 1 January 1801. 

In addition to the 100 MPs added to the existing 558 in the British House of Commons, the Union added 28 peers and 4 bishops to the Lords. The system of government and administration for Ireland was largely retained, with a Chief Secretary appointed by the Crown, acting as chief executive. The Anglican churches of England and Ireland were united in the Church of Ireland, and Ireland was to contribute almost 12% to the UK budget.

The resignation of Pitt

The key unresolved issue was Catholic emancipation – the right of Catholics to sit in parliament. Pitt wanted to give Catholics this right, but he underestimated the major obstacle: George III, who saw emancipation as the violation of his coronation oath. No-one seems to have pointed out to the king that since 1690 the United Kingdom had encompassed two established churches: the Church of England and the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland.

At a levĂ©e on 28 January 1801 George announced that he would look on anyone who voted for Emancipation as ‘personally indisposed’ towards him. In early February Pitt resigned and the king appointed a new prime minister, Henry Addington. 

Pitt's resignation confirmed that a prime minister could not continue in office without the support of the monarch. But George III was wrong in believing that the demand for Catholic emancipation could be crushed. 

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