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Chapter One



[The Grail of Catholic EmancipationCopyright © 2002 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and] 

Click on links below to go the various sections; click on top to return to top of page


The End of the Peace of Augsburg .............................

The Writing of Irish History ........................................

The Political Outlook of the Period .............................

Peace, Retrenchment, Reform and Emancipation .....

The Catholic Church in England and Ireland .............

Exclusion from Parliament .........................................

Parties in Parliament ..................................................

The Catholic Ultras ....................................................

Prince George, Prince of Wales ................................

England and the Holy See ..........................................

The Civil Constitution of Ireland ..............................

The Principal Officials ...............................................

Irish Influence in England ........................................

Agrarian Crime ..........................................................

The Relaxation of the Penal Laws

from 1757 until 1793 ..................................................



This chapter describes the situation of Catholics in Britain and Ireland in 1793 and the various parties involved, and their differing views. It indicates the extent of the remaining Penal Laws, the state of the Catholic Church in English-speaking lands, and the friendly relationship between Protestant England and the Holy See in the Papal States. It also deals with the structure of the Irish state and with the principle persons at the time. Finally it deals with that never-ending curse of Irish society, agrarian terrorism.

The End of the Peace of Augsburg


            Lord Castlereagh, during a debate on the Catholic Question, once pointed out that the stability of Europe had been preserved for a century and a half by a general acceptance of the basic principle underlying the Peace of Augsburg in 1648, the principle cuius regio eius religio (he who rules a particular region may decide the religion for that region). Not that there had not been major wars between particular states during that period, but it was a period of relative calm compared with the horrors of the Thirty Years War in Germany and struggles over religion in other European countries, and compared also with the disturbances over the whole of Europe which followed the French Revolution in 1789.

            Rulers in Europe (and America) passed laws to exclude from public life those who did not follow the religion of the state. In some countries penalties such as execution, imprisonment, or exile were imposed on those who objected to the form of religion prescribed by the state. In England, severe laws were passed against Catholics (Recusants) and Protestants (Dissenters or Nonconformists). In Ireland, where there was a separate Irish Parliament, and divisions and collusions among the leading families regarding conformity, the Penal Laws were notably mild and for the most part rarely enforced, except with regard to property. The principal Penal Laws were directed towards ensuring that all rights in property came into the hands of Protestants. These laws were intended to ensure that no Catholic landowner could ever again raise regiments, especially regiments of cavalry to assist the kings of France or Spain should they ever attempt an invasion. Many of these were passed after the attempt of the Catholic James II  (1685 to 1689) to establish a Catholic kingdom in Ireland with the aid of the Catholic gentry and of Louis XIV of France, and, and after the refusal of many Catholic lords to submit to William III. A penal law strictly speaking was one which imposed a penalty, but the penalty was often no more than the exclusion from a particular office for which a particular oath or religious test was required. In this way Catholics and Dissenters were excluded from Parliament and from the universities. The result of the property laws and the religious tests was that there were few rich Catholic landowners. There were quite a few Catholics who had become rich through trade, and there were quite a few Catholics who had leases on large properties. There were also a large number of poor Protestants. However, there were proportionately fewer Catholics the further up the social scale one went. Almost all doctors, lawyers, army officers, Government officials and so on were Protestants.

In the course of the eighteenth century the religious issue faded into the background. The Aufklaerung or Enlightenment of that century had no great regard for religious matters. Secular rulers did not feel the need for a religious support for the throne. At the same time, most monarchs were able to strengthen the powers of the crown, and ‘benevolent despotism’ became for them the ideal form of government. Gradually, too among the more learned classes ideas began to flourish regarding the rights of man, especially the right to liberty. These ideas wewre by no means fully developed or consistent. American colonists might object to being taxed without representation in parliament (hardly a new idea) but kept black slaves, and excluded Catholics from full equality. In 1787 William Wilberforce was among those who founded a society for the abolition of slavery, or as it was called, for the emancipation of slaves. Jews were allowed to become French citizens during the Revolution. During the Revolution in France too all men who possessed a certain amount of taxable property were allowed to vote. In practice this meant about two thirds of adult men. [Top]

The Writing of Irish History


            In the past, accounts of Irish history tended to be very tendentious, and reflecting only the viewpoints and concerns of one party or the other. Events were chosen or omitted depending on whether they supported the aims of the authors. Furthermore, actions and events were interpreted in the light of partisan concerns far in the future which men at the time could not have known about. It would be anachronistic to attribute twentieth century views to eighteenth century men. For example, to establish an Irish secular republic might be a common aspiration in the twentieth century, but there is no evidence that such an aspiration was equally common in the eighteenth century. To establish a theocratic republic might be a common aspiration in the seventeenth century but it was not in the nineteenth.

The vast majority of people nowadays who have read something of Irish history are inclined to accept uncritically the racist and republican view of Irish history for no other view is presented to them. The alternative Protestant loyalist view is not taught anywhere except in Protestant schools in Northern Ireland. Both these are modern views developed in the nineteenth century, and owe their present form chiefly to religious differences. The racist element common to both of them does not antedate the 1840’s when racial theories as now understood were first elaborated.

            The accepted Catholic view of Irish history in the recent past was as follows. There was a Celtic race, represented by the Catholics, who colonised the land of Ireland and owned it. Ireland was then invaded by another race, the Anglo-Saxons represented by the Protestants, who conquered the Catholics, took their property and land, and reduced them to servitude. The Catholics without ceasing struggled against their foreign oppressors, and finally won back their independence in the twentieth century and established a republic with no connection with the crown. Everything good in Ireland is to be attributed to the work and genius of the Catholics; everything evil and bad, such as the poverty of the people was attributable to the misrule of the Protestants.

The Protestant loyalist view also recognises the two races, but claims that the Celts were sunken in savagery and barbarity, and unending fighting among themselves and against others, and followed a debased form of the Christian religion. By the grace of God, the Anglo-Saxons were led to the true religion by Martin Luther, they conquered the barbarians, introduced the civilisation, peace, industry, the cultivation of the land, the true religion, the rule of law, and the liberty of individual.

This is not the place to speculate how these and other secular mythologies were derived from the Christian or Jewish millennial mythology. According to this the whole world was in an original state of justice and peace. Then evil men arose, often followers, but there always remained a just people. The wicked class or people oppressed the just, and the oppressions increased until the end of time approached, the millennium. Then a great saviour arose, and there was a great battle between the good people and their wicked oppressors, usually under a great saviour. The just people triumphed, and justice and peace was re-established in the world. The end of time became as the beginning of time. If one wishes to speculate how nationalist and Marxist mythologies arose, this is a good starting point.

            None of these myths have much contact with reality, but the point to remember here is that to attribute such views to the late eighteenth century is anachronistic. So one writing about the period must not only try to find and describe all relevant facts, but also to interpret them as a disinterested observer of that period would. This book is concerned with identifying the principal groups and their objectives and the parts they played in the events of the period. [Top]

The Political Outlook of the Period

Seeking Catholic Emancipation was not an expression of nineteenth century nationalism but an extension of eighteenth century Whig aspirations to see a greater degree of democratic control over the political process. Those who at the time sought the reform of parliamentary representation naturally wanted to see the Catholics have their share in the participation. Those who were satisfied with the existing state of the Constitution did not see any need to make more concessions to Catholics. Also, the more strongly one held Protestant religious views, and a strictly Protestant view of the Constitution, the more likely one was to support the Tories. On the other side, the various groups seeking change assisted each other, and an organisation like the original United Irishmen seeking a reform of parliament was likely to attract many of those whose primary interest was to see Catholics in Parliament.

            Protestants were not concerned with racial stereotypes. They did believe that Protestantism brought not only the true religion, but many secular benefits such as peace and prosperity and liberty as guaranteed by the Constitution, and they contrasted these with the supposed idolatry, the poverty and the subjection to despotism in Catholic countries. But anyone could get these benefits simply by becoming a Protestant. There was no obstacle to becoming a Protestant, and many Irishmen did so. Most Catholics accepted the secular benefits like peace, prosperity, and individual liberty which the triumph of William of Orange had brought, and wished to retain these benefits, and to gain better access to them by taking a simple oath of loyalty to the crown, while keeping their religion. Indeed, considering the universal loyalty shown by the Irish Catholics during the last invasion by a Stuart pretender in 1745 there was no logical reason why Catholics should not have been admitted to all offices of state after taking an oath of loyalty. The oath of loyalty to the crown was to be a major preoccupation in 1921 but it was not before that. It was universally accepted (until some United Irishmen challenged the view) that the reigning British monarch was also the legitimate king of Ireland.

            Whether Ireland should have an independent Parliament, or should form part of the United Kingdom were not questions that loomed large among Catholics. Those Protestants who sought an independent Parliament, unlike the Americans, wanted it to be under the crown. A wave of republicanism swept through certain sections of the Protestants after the outbreak of the French Revolution. Among these were some of the Whig Protestant gentlemen in Ulster and Leinster, and Presbyterian weavers in Antrim and Down. It is impossible to say how much a spirit of republicanism rather than a spirit of self-interest pervaded those working class Catholics in Leinster who joined the United Irishmen. But the desire of the vast majority of Catholics was to be accepted fully as members of the state not to overthrow it. A large minority of Protestants agreed with them. But a majority of Protestants felt that even after a hundred years of peaceful submission to the crown Catholics could still not be trusted. The struggle for Emancipation was not a struggle against the Protestants but a struggle to be accepted fully by the Protestants.

The over-riding political views, especially among the educated classes, were those of the Whigs and the Tories, but not in their original virulent forms, but as they were toned down in the Age of Enlightenment. The ideas of the break-away United States of America influenced many, specially as the Americans adopted very conservative views regarding politics, doing little more that substituting the people as the source of authority in place of the crown, and adapting the existing political structures to reflect this new concept. Some people, chiefly Protestants, were influenced by the French Revolution, or rather by the ideas that originally inspired it, and not the Reign of Terror that actually took place. These were encouraged by the promise of the French Republic to assist those who wished to throw off the shackles of monarchy and aristocracy. But more people were inspired by a revulsion to the Reign of Terror.

Not everyone fell neatly into one or other of the groups just mentioned. There was another group which was very influential, drawn from the classes immediately above the preceding, and which took a very important part in the struggle for Emancipation. It was composed of small shopkeepers, merchants, tradesmen, and small farmers, who were not only literate but also very outspoken. (See below regarding the Catholic Ultras.) In general they supported the Whig settlement of 1688 and sought to participate in the existing state. But some of their political views and aspirations had survived from an earlier age. They saw the Catholics as the oppressed and the Protestants as the oppressors. There was a strong feeling that they had been double-crossed by the Protestants after the Treaty of Limerick in 1691. They would not be satisfied until they were restored to what they imagined were the ancient rights of their people. They were not however looking back to a Gaelic past, but accepted the king, and Parliament, and the law, and the mayors and sheriffs in the towns and counties. They merely wanted a fair share of the political spoils. The actual connection of this group, apart from their religion, with the Catholic landowners the Treaty of Limerick was concerned with was extremely tenuous. Very often the only connection might have been a common surname indicating some connection with a great family in the past. But by adding a fictitious Mac or O to a plebeian surname an aristocratic origin could be conjured up. This some Protestants claimed that Daniel O’Connell was not descended as he claimed from the chiefs of Iveragh, but from a peasant called Dan Connell. But that was beside the point: many ordinary working-class Irish believed they were descended from the dispossessed Irish chiefs.

In a later section I deal with the Catholic Ultras. These were drawn largely but not exclusively from among the ranks of the small merchants and farmers.

 The agrarian terrorists do not seem to have had any particular political or religious philosophy beyond a belief that when it came to remedying local grievances a bullet fired from behind a hedge was the strongest argument.The agrarian terrorists were exclusively Catholics. Their counterparts on the Protestant side were the Peep O’ Day Boys who existed chiefly to search Catholic houses for arms. [Top]


Peace, Retrenchment, Reform and Emancipation.

            Emancipation was not the only or the most important issue being debated in this period. The great issue between 1793 and 1815 was that of peace and war. Should the country embroil itself in the wars on the Continent, or should it not? The over-riding principle in British foreign policy for centuries had been ‘the balance of power’. This meant preventing any one state in Europe getting so strong that it could conquer all the others even if they combined against it. This successively brought England into conflict with Spain, France, and Germany. The idea was therefore, at an initial stage to intervene to assist the weaker side. For if Britain did not help the weaker side when attacked there would be nobody left to help her when she was attacked. Many Whigs on the other hand felt that Britain had no business interfering in other people’s disputes, that wars only meant an increase in the royal power, and above all an increase in taxation. The feeling for intervention against the principles of the French Revolution was the dominant one between 1793 and 1815.

            There was also the question of the reform of Parliament. There were two sides to this. The first was to prevent the king having too much influence over the proceedings in Parliament. The king could always induce members to vote in a particular way by promising them honours in the peerage, granting them sinecure offices, promoting them in the army, appointing them to high commands or positions of importance. The king did not do this directly but through the ministers he appointed, and one of their principal duties was to ‘manage’ Parliament. The second was to reduce the number of ‘corrupt’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs belonging to the great landowners. These were small towns or even former towns, with few voters who all had to vote as instructed by the owner of the borough. Sir Robert Walpole was said to have remarked about a certain group of patriots ‘All those men have their price’. In a borough the Government, or the king, had only to purchase the borough-owner.

            Most people in Britain welcomed the French Revolution, seeing it as a long-overdue extension of British democracy to the French people who had long suffered under autocracy. But the way the Revolution developed made them have second thoughts. There arose a suspicion of any system of national conventions, composed of locally elected delegates who might claim a legitimacy on grounds of election by the people, and which might challenge Parliament. The Reign of Terror, the rule of the mob, and the execution of the king had a powerful influence on public opinion. The Reign of Terror put back the question of even a modest reform of the British Parliament. Many too in England considered the British Constitutions the most perfect of all and impossible to improve, and regarded their opinion vindicated by the way French, in attempting to improve the system, only made it worse. (Though this seems an odd view nowadays, the balance of conflicting interests achieved after 1688 had brought a century of peace and ever-growing prosperity to England.) Even things like pocket boroughs were defended as a way of bringing suitable persons into government, people too young, too poor, or without local interest, who could never have won a very costly county election. William Pitt and Robert Peel were very young men who entered Parliament in this way. In Ireland there was a group of enthusiastic young men calling themselves the United Irishmen who advocated Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary Reform. Some of them went on to plot revolution with the aid of the French and unloosed widespread horrors over many parts of Ireland. This of course strengthened the views of those who held that an extension of democracy was bound to end in bloodshed and ruin, and who noted that many of those who were seeking parliamentary reform were also seeking Catholic Emancipation. When they were founded originally the United Irishmen did no more than reflect in Ireland the views of societies like the Corresponding Society or the Friends of the People under Charles Grey (later Earl Grey) in England.

            Sentiment in England settled firmly against the French Revolution and against the reform of Parliament, and by the time Napoleon was overthrown in 1815 the Whigs were discredited. The Whig Party had shrunk to a small number, and their off-shoot, the  United Irishmen had ensured that neither Emancipation nor Reform would be considered in Ireland. Though the United Irishmen were largely Protestants, their name was associated with Emancipation, Popery, a French invasion, and atrocities. Nor did the fact that the Catholic ultras did not always dissociate themselves from the United Irishmen make Emancipation more palatable. The United Irishmen had been well-meaning young men from respectable, law-abiding Protestant families, who certainly never intended what actually occurred, mobs of drunken Catholic peasants roaming the countryside, looting and murdering wherever they went. Protestants noted what actually happened, and it was not sufficient for Sheil to point out that Wolfe Tone was totally opposed to any form of peasants’ revolt or Jacquerie, as this only led to unavailing atrocities. Nor was it of any use to point out that those Catholic leaders, who were in a position to do so, like Daniel O’Connell, Purcell O’Gorman, and the Earl of Fingall, had joined the yeomanry to fight against the French and those who colluded with them. The ranks of Irish militia regiments, and many of the line regiments, all through the war, were filled with Catholics, while the most effective bodies raised by the United Irishmen were among the Presbyterians in Ulster.

            The persistence in Catholic areas over the whole period of agrarian crime and terrorism did not assist the Catholic cause either, though the use of violence to achieve social aims was not confined to Ireland. In England there was a spate of machinery-breaking called Luddism. There was also rioting, rick-burning, and smashing of agricultural machinery in the south and east of England. But agrarian crime among Catholics was always to the forefront of the minds of those in Government, and ordinary Protestant voters.

            Peace, retrenchment, i.e. lower taxation, and reform became the official and state policy of the Whigs only in 1830, but it was implicit in all their actions from 1793 onwards. Those who supported William Pitt wished to prosecute the war, raise taxes, and put reform on hold. [Top]

The Catholic Church in England and Ireland

            All the three countries which formed the United Kingdom were placed under the Congregation of Propaganda, the section of the Roman Curia dealing with foreign missions. This Congregation was restricted to dealing with mission territories, but on the other hand it was granted the powers of most of the other Roman Congregations. This meant that people in those territories had only to deal with one body in Rome. As all these territories were in non-Catholic countries, the Holy See had no dealing with the foreign rulers who normally were dealt with by the Cardinal Secretary of State. Heresy was reserved to the Holy Office, but otherwise Propaganda dealt with most things.

In Ireland, most of the bishops had accepted the Reformation in Ireland when Henry VIII imposed it. Gradually Protestant parish priests were appointed in the whole of Ireland, and all the buildings and legal rights continued to belong to them. But in the various dioceses there were always a sufficient number of bishops and priests who resisted the king, and insisted on sending names to Rome for appointment or confirmation by the Pope. At one point in the late seventeenth century there was only about three Catholic bishops in Ireland, but in the eighteenth century all the sees were filled, each with a Protestant and a Catholic bishop. The number of Catholic parishes was halved and combined so that parish priests could survive on the offerings of their flocks. Diocesan chapters mostly fell into disuse, and the structure of the diocese was simplified. (It was this simplified structure which was adopted in the United States from the beginning of its hierarchy.) In Ireland, almost all the great lords, and native chiefs accepted Protestantism to keep their lands, the Penal Laws being devised chiefly to transfer land to Protestants. Nevertheless Catholic landowners still owned about a tenth of the land in fee. Most Catholics consequently were leaseholders, with various lengths of lease. So too were most Protestants. In some parts of north east Ireland Catholics had virtually disappeared, and in parts of the west and south there were few Protestants. The vast majority of those in the learned professions, in the armed services, the merchants and manufacturers, and wealthy landowners and farmers were Protestants. (If we estimate roughly that one quarter of the population was Protestant, and one half of Protestants belonged to the Established Church, it will be seen that one eighth of the entire population occupied all the places of wealth and influence. This however conveys an erroneous impression, for in Protestant England there was an identical concentration of wealth and influence in a limited number of families.)

            In England, for various reasons, it proved impossible to provide a bishop for every diocese, so Rome in 1753 divided the whole country into four vicariates apostolic or districts. Apostolic means referring to the Apostolic See of Saint Peter, the see of Rome, while vicar meant just agent or substitute. The vicars apostolic were in bishop’s orders, and their administrative powers and duties technically were not those of bishops, but powers delegated by the Pope. There was little difference in practice. The whole of British North America except Quebec was included in the London District. In 1784, after the independence of the Thirteen Colonies, the whole of North America except Quebec and the West Indies, was formed into a district of its own under a prefect apostolic. It was called the prefecture apostolic of Baltimore, for Maryland was founded as the only Catholic colony, and the majority of American Catholic colonists lived there. A prefect apostolic was not a bishop but was given powers to carry out most of a bishop’s duties. A prefecture apostolic is normally erected by Propaganda as the first stage in making a new bishopric. Baltimore was made into a diocese in 1789, and Fr John Carroll of Maryland was made its first bishop, the diocese covering the entire United States as it then was. In 1808 four new dioceses were carved out of Baltimore, and Carroll was made archbishop and metropolitan of the province in 1811, just before the captivity of the Pope. While the Pope was in captivity the American bishops kept in close contact with the Irish bishops, and followed their lead. The Catholic population of the United States was then about 200,000. Archbishop Carroll died in 1815.

            The English Catholics survived in pockets, in some places like Lancashire being quite numerous and in other places non-existent. The places where they were strongest were London, Lancashire, the Midlands around Staffordshire, and in the northern counties of York, Durham, and Northumberland, so these formed the four Districts. In the rural areas the Catholics survived round a nucleus of old Catholic families of gentlemen. They were also numerous in some of the manufacturing towns. The connection with the old Catholic families meant that the English Catholics had a fairly close connection with the great ruling families in England. There were eight Catholic peers, nineteen baronets, and 150 gentlemen. Some English gentlemen could trace their lineage back to Anglo-Saxon times even if they were never en-nobled. It also meant that they were wealthier. Despite its small size the Catholic Church in England was very active. Aided by immigration from Ireland it was growing and expanding rapidly. In the second half of the eighteenth century, their number grew from an estimated 60,000 to 200,000 with about 400 priests (Ward I). Mrs Fitzherbert, the Prince of Wales’s Catholic wife was the daughter of a Catholic gentleman and practised her religion all her life. So around 1815 the Catholic Church in England and in the United States was roughly the same size, though the American Church had a regular hierarchy while the English Church had not.

            There were only two convents of nuns in England, one the Bar Convent in York, and the other in Hammersmith outside London. When Archbishop Murray was looking for a convent in which the novices for his newly formed Sisters of Charity could be trained he chose the Bar Convent.

            About 1790, the clergy of the various Districts began to meet to choose the name of a priest to send to Rome when the bishop died. Rome approved provided it was clear that no right of election was concerned (Ward I).

            The most prominent of the vicars apostolic in the first half of the nineteenth century were Dr John Milner of the Midland District and Dr William Poynter of the London District. Though Milner constantly appears as a wearisome and determined meddler in other people’s affairs, he was considered an excellent bishop in his own District. He was one of the first priests in England to abandon the cold form of eighteenth century Catholicism for a warmer version based on Italian devotions. Poynter was altogether a more urbane and sympathetic character, who with great dignity and patience withstood Milner’s personal attacks on himself. Pointer’s version of events was always upheld by Rome.

            With regard to the internal structure of dioceses, the full medieval structure of bishop, chapter and dean, such as survived in the Catholic Church in Catholic countries, and in the Anglican Church, no longer survived. Historically, the bishop lived in the chief town of a diocese, and had his chair (cathedra)  from which he presided at ceremonies placed in the largest church in the town. He lived with a number of assistant priests, deacons, etc and chanted the mass and other ceremonies with them. The priests came to be called canons, and the chief canon was called the dean. The body of canons was called the chapter. Much of this terminology was originally used in monasteries. When the bishop died, the chapter had the right of choosing (electio) a successor, which meant at the time they chose and presented a name to the superior above them in the hierarchical order for confirmation. There was also a much wider structure of rural parish priests and rural deans to supervise them, and enormous endowments in land to support them.

            At the Reformation, in the British Isles, the king simply transferred, the cathedrals, churches, and parishes with all their lands to his own Church, the Established Church. The Catholics did their best to maintain a rival structure, and on the whole in Ireland managed to maintain a skeleton structure. This skeleton structure was simpler, cheaper, and often more effective. It consisted of a bishop who governed his clergy by means of vicars general and vicars forane whom he himself appointed and allocated powers to them. The vicars general exercised certain routine duties for the whole diocese, while the vicars forane had charge of groups of priests in particular areas. (Forane simply means outside the walled city.) This simple structure was adopted in the United States and retained until this day. The largest church is still called the cathedral, but there are no canons. In the course of the nineteenth century, the chapters were restored in a simplified form in many dioceses in the British Isles largely for ceremonial and honorific purposes. They are mostly parish priests but meet once a year to sing a token office with the bishop. The choice of a new bishop, following the rescript of 1829 lies with the parish priests at large. (For honorific purposes in the United States the bishop recommends to the Pope particular priests to be given the personal title of monsignor. Junior priests in the papal curiae are addressed as monsignor)

            The problem with this structure was that it made no provision in canon law for the election of bishops. It took the Catholic Church a long time to accept the idea that the Protestant Reformation in the British Isles might be permanent. The churches were placed under the Congregation of Propaganda, that concerned with foreign missions, and in places like India and China, the Pope simply appointed bishops. It had always been possible in every diocese to appeal directly to the Pope, and even in the twelfth century St Bernard was deploring the tendency to skip over inferior ranks in the hierarchy and appeal directly to the Pope. After the Reformation the Pope reserved the confirmation of all episcopal appointments to himself. So an Irish priest like Dr Oliver Plunket teaching in Rome could ask the Pope to be appointed archbishop of Armagh in 1669. The ramshackle system of choosing bishops in the British Isles continued for more than a century, but by the end of the eighteenth century the British, Irish, and American bishops were increasingly sending the names of those to be made bishops to Rome themselves. Often, a bishop would apply to Rome for a successor to be appointed before he died to avoid various inconveniences. (These could include the relatives of the deceased bishop seizing all his property, including the property of the diocese if there were such. The system in America of having Church property vested in Trustees caused other problems.) The bishop so appointed was called Co-adjutor with right of succession. The objection to this that a bishop could name a close friend, or even a close relative, as his successor. Rome did not finally decide on the matter until 1829, the same year that Catholic Emancipation was granted. This was no co-incidence, for the Holy See was waiting to see what the British Government required before making a final decision. As, in the event, the Government required nothing, all references to the civil power were excluded. [Top]


Exclusion from Parliament

            Emancipation for Catholics after 1793 came to mean being allowed to sit in Parliament. The exclusion was more symbolic than anything else, for few Catholics were financially qualified to sit, and in any case there were sufficient sympathetic Protestant MPs who were willing to raise any matters the Catholics required. For many Protestants too, the exclusion of Catholics had a symbolic value, for it meant that the Protestant character of the state could never be challenged. Such Protestants regarded their reformed religion as reflecting the pure character of the gospels, while Popery they regarded as a fatally corrupted and debased religion. Such Protestants too saw Protestantism as a bulwark for personal freedom, while Catholicism was connected with foreign tyrannical regimes.  For these reasons they wished to maintain ‘a certain Protestant ascendancy’ in Ireland. This phrase meant that sufficient senior jobs in Government, the Law, the armed forces, the university, the Revenue, and so on, should be open only to Protestants, so that the Protestant religion would always be dominant. The phrase is frequently abusively used to refer to all Protestants, to a class of Protestants, or even to Catholics who supported the Government. But the phrase had the precise meaning given here. They were not opposed to the Catholic religion though they are often confused with certain anti-popery movements which grew up in the nineteenth century.

            Moderate and sympathetic Protestants like William Pitt were irritated by the determination of some Irish Catholics to attain this largely symbolic goal at a time when the increasingly mad king would not hear of it. The more hot-headed of the Irish Catholics saw the refusal to make further concessions as just another example of British oppression, and the determination of certain Irish Protestants in Dublin Castle to keep them in chains for ever. It is one of the mysteries why exclusion from Parliament came to dominate the entire debate, when admission to lesser offices like mayors and sheriffs would have been of more immediate benefit and more financially rewarding. The 30,000 jobs from which Catholics, according to O’Connell, were largely in the gift of lesser officials. (It is not my intention in this book to investigate rackets run by local officials, beyond mentioning Tammany Hall, but it is obvious that getting a toe-hold in the local rackets would have benefited Catholics far more than getting elected to Parliament.)

            Some Irish Protestants had indeed a practical reason for opposing further concessions to Catholics. These were the beneficiaries of the system of patronage, whereby a Protestant official allocated jobs in the public service to his own supporters, and expected that Catholic officials if ever appointed, would do the same. (In the United States, elected Republican and Democrat representatives have similar powers) It is however difficult to determine what proportion of Irish Protestants supported ascendancy, or as they were often also called, Orange views regarding Catholics. The influence of the Government was always important in Ireland in securing the return of members favourable to the Government. This was especially true in borough elections, for the electorate in Irish counties was regarded as too large to be effectively bribed or otherwise induced. On the other hand, in most counties, most of the voters were controlled by a handful of large landowners that expected the tenants on their estates to vote as they directed. Had the Irish Whigs held office for any considerable period of time between 1793 and 1829 we would expect many more pro-Catholic MPs to be returned. Or if the Irish Government were actively pro-Catholic many members of parliament would probably support it. Also too, if the franchise in the boroughs had been extended we would expect more pro-Catholic MPs to be returned. As it was, by 1815, more than half of Irish MPs were supporting the Catholic claims, and by 1828 almost all county MPs. of the Catholics.

            The issue of entering Parliament became so dominant, that Canning in 1813 abandoned an entire bill because of a defeat on one clause, namely the right to sit in Parliament. He regretted this later for he said that many useful gains were thrown away because of an unreasonable insistence on that particular point. If he had pressed on with the Bill without that clause it would probably have been passed, with several practical advantages to Catholics. But none of his supporters pressed him to do so. [Top]

Parties in Parliament

            From the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, until the accession of George III in 1760, the great Whig lords controlled Parliament for most of the period. The Whigs in general stood for the rights of Parliament and people. Their opponents, in general stood for king and Church, and tended to support the royal prerogative rather than the rights of parliament. The royal prerogative was the right of the king to control matters not assigned to other bodies, and derived from the idea that the king, under God, was the ultimate source of authority. (The United States assigned this ultimate source of authority to the people.) In practice, however there was little difference between the two parties. Americans however would have noticed the difference between the Tory Lord North who supported the royal prerogative regarding taxation and his successors the Whig Lords Rockingham and Shelburne who believed in the rights of the people. As foreign policy came under the powers of the king Tories tended to support the king and intervene in foreign wars. Whigs favoured peace and non-intervention because Parliament and the people had to pay for foreign adventures.

In Ireland, up until 1760 when George III came to the throne the crown relied on certain leading Irish Whig families to secure a majority for the crown in the Irish Parliament. As the Whigs were dominant in both Britain and Ireland, occasions of disagreement between the Parliaments were rare. But they did happen from time to time. The crown, whether dealing with Whigs or Tories, relied heavily on royal patronage to gain support in Parliament. This use of royal patronage was the point about royal rule to which those politicians called the ‘Patriots’ most objected. One must be careful about the use of this term in the eighteenth century for Dr. Johnson in his dictionary said the term was ‘used ironically for a factious disturber of government’, and according to Boswell said ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’ (OED). The reason for relying on the local Whig magnates was that English officials could rarely command majorities in the Irish Parliament. These Whig families were called the ‘Undertakers’ because they undertook to ensure Whig majorities for the crown. (The term did not originate in Ireland, but was commonly used in England under the Stuarts.) The great Whig families were rather put out when George III decided to dispense with their services, and use royal patronage personally to build up his own personal influence. Many ambitious and able Irishmen joined the Tories. The traditional Whigs too were weakened by the efforts of the Patriots to weaken the powers of the crown, even though most of their efforts went no further than introducing the practices current in England into Ireland. They lost the royal favour, and the Whigs, having been almost continuously in power for fifty years were excluded from power for the next fifty years. After the death of Fox in 1806 they did not find a capable leader they could rally around until 1830. From 1812 until 1830 when they received an infusion of new blood from the followers of George Canning they were virtually irrelevant in Parliament. So for almost the entire period covered by this book Parliament was controlled by the Tories.

            In 1760, the newly-crowned George III decided to break the power of the great Whig families and give a personal direction to government. There followed a re-alignment of power between the great and noble families of England, and many Whigs became Tories. William Pitt the Elder was a Whig, but his son William Pitt the Younger was a Tory. At the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars, many Whigs under the Duke of Portland felt that pursuing the war under the king’s direction was more important than maintaining peace. Though the Tories became discredited after their failure in the American War, the Whigs were disunited, so the king was soon able to form a Tory ministry under Pitt the Younger, who became Prime Minister in 1783, and remained in that office until 1801. The Tory Party under Pitt had the following characteristics. It had a conservative attitude towards questions of reform, an esteem for the Established Church and the monarchy, a bias towards the land-owning interest, and a more militant approach towards foreign policy. Many of them opposed the admission of Catholics to Parliament, but many of them also favoured their eventual admission. These latter believed that the conduct of the war against France should take precedence over the admission of Catholics, but would have no objection to it if the king changed his mind on the subject. The Tory Party also attracted the strongly anti-Catholic people who were opposed to concessions to Rome in any circumstances. In Ireland, these extreme Protestant Tories became known as the Orange faction or the Ascendancy faction. The Tory Party under various prime minister remained in power until 1830 except for a brief interlude in 1806-7.

A majority of the leading Irish politicians and great families supported the Tories. Among these were Edmund Burke, Lord Castlereagh, the Marquis Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, the Earl of Donoughmore, George Canning, Vesey Fitzgerald, and John Foster. Only the latter opposed Catholic claims. The Tories got the reputation for being totally opposed to Catholic claims because of various appointments they made in the Government in Dublin. Those appointed were capable men, and not appointed for their anti-Catholic views, but for a long time, from about 1807 to 1827 they exercised a powerful influence in Dublin. These were John Foster, appointed Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer for his financial ability, William Gregory, appointed Irish Under-secretary for his administrative skills, and Lord Norbury, Lord Manners, and William Saurin, appointed to legal posts. (Lord Castlereagh sat in the House of Commons because his title until his father’s death was merely a courtesy one. On his father’s death in 1821 he became 2nd Marquis of Londonderry, but because this was in the Irish peerage he still was eligible to sit in the House of Commons.)

Most Irish nationalist writers followed the unfavourable judgements of the Whig historian and apologist William Lecky on the Irish Tories in a rather uncritical manner, overlooking the fact that they were intended as a justification of Liberal policies in Ireland in the 1870s. The Irish Tories were not monsters, or more unscrupulous or venal, than their Whig contemporaries. They were conservative in their views, but not more than the king himself. King George had strong conservative and religious views, but as his American policy showed, he could bow with grace to the inevitable. The Irish Tories strongly felt that Protestantism was true primitive Christianity, as reformed at the Reformation, and that it was their God-given duty to preserve Ireland safe for God. The differences in their policies even with United Irishmen were not great. By allowing Catholics into Parliament, neither the Whigs nor the United Irishmen had any intention of handing the country over to the Catholics. For in their view, the property qualifications required of voters and candidates would ensure that for the foreseeable future most Members of Parliament would be Protestant. (It was only in the 1880’s, following an extension of the franchise that Catholics formed a majority of the electorate, and predictably demands for Home Rule rose to a peak.) So given the consensus of both Whigs and Tories that Ireland should remain Protestant, and the concurrence of the Catholic Church that the status quo should remain, there was much to be argued on both side. In the event, the Catholic Relief Act (1829) proved that the Whigs were right.


            The Whigs who did not join Pitt coalesced around Charles James Fox. Though a man of out-standing ability he never became Prime Minister because George III detested him. Their basic stance was that Members of Parliament had a right and a duty to oppose royal wishes if they considered that to be for the benefit of the country, and could rightly organise and combine to oppose the royal will. George believed in a one-party state in which he would deal with ministers or possible ministers individually. Pitt and his followers did from time to time oppose the royal wishes but did not make a principle of it. The Foxites tended to stand for the rights of Parliament, the freedom of the individual and of the press, the independence of nations like Ireland and America, peace through negotiation, non-interference in India or other places. They generally had rose-tinted views about what the rulers of France or India, or indeed America were doing, while the Pittites had more realistic views about them. Some of them had ideas about the reform of parliament. Most of them favoured religious toleration and the admission of Catholics to Parliament. Up until about 1810 almost all young men of ability and ambition joined the Tories; thereafter they were inclined to join the Whigs. It was observed that Robert Peel who was elected to Parliament in 1809 was the last young man of first class ability to be attracted to the Tories for a generation. Still the Whigs did not return to office until 1830.

            The leading Whig family in Ireland was that of the Ponsonbys, Earls of Bessborough. George Ponsonby was the leader of the Whig opposition in the Irish Parliament, and later in the United Parliament. He was not a man of great capability. Henry Grattan was their best speaker, but as he never accepted office in either parliament it is impossible to say what his capabilities were. He was a sharp critic, but it was once remarked that the only real drive in his life came from a hatred of the English. The most able of the Irish Whigs were Lord Duncannon, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Sir Henry Parnell, and Sir John Newport, but they necessarily spent most of that period out of office. When questions concerning Catholic Emancipation were introduced to Parliament the co-operation of Whigs and moderate Tories was required. Lord Castlereagh, while Foreign Secretary, was also Leader of the House of Commons. In this capacity he always ensured that sufficient time was secured for the Catholic debates. Whig proposals in 1795 were the reform of the Convention Act, abolition of sinecure places, disqualification of placemen, i.e. royal appointees, from being MPs, reform of parliament, and the equalisation of commercial benefits between the kingdoms.The principal Irish Whig families at this time were the Fitzgeralds, Dukes of Leinster, the Earls of Charlemont, the Hely-Hutchinsons (Earls of Donoughmore), the Earl of Moira, the Earl of Granard, and the Ponsonbys which included the Earl of Bessborough, as well as the Catholic Earls of Fingall and Kenmare. The were Irish gentleman like Thomas Conolly, Sir John Newport, John Philpot Curran, Sir Lawrence Parsons, Lord Cloncurry, and Henry Grattan.


            There was also a small party in Parliament composed of both Whigs and Tories the members of which were called the ‘Prince’s Friends’ after a similar following called the ‘King’s Friends’ built up by George III at the beginning of his reign. Many of these were Irish. They included Lord Moira, Lord Hutchinson, Lord Donoughmore, and Sheridan. They had an influence out of proportion to the numbers because of their closeness to the heir apparent to the throne.  

When reading the speeches in both Houses of Parliament between 1750 and 1830 it is notable how measured and rational the language used was. This was not an age of passion, fury, or bigotry. Opinions might be strongly held but they were rationally proposed and defended. The passion and the scurrility of the age of Swift in the early part of the eighteenth century had gone. The passions aroused by socialism and nationalism had not arrived. [Top]

The Catholic Ultras

            The English Catholic leaders always worked along with the Whigs and moderate Tories, and followed their advice with regard to the timing of petitions, the language of the supplication to Parliament, the necessity of concessions to gain the support of moderate Protestants, and co-operation with the Pope. Many Irish Catholics, especially the Catholic aristocracy, and those who came to be known as the Vetoists, followed the same course. There was also on the Catholic side a more extreme group corresponding to the Orange or ascendancy faction on the Protestant side. It believed in direct confrontation with the Government on every occasion, in pressing their claims in season and out of season, regarding their claims as obvious rights to de demanded not sought, in rejecting every restriction or qualification even if expressly approved by the Pope, in forcing the downfall of ministries who opposed them, and the electoral defeat of those who voted against them, and in violently denouncing all who disagreed with them. This was no way to gain friends and influence people. Had there been a separate parliament and sufficient extension of the franchise to allow themselves and their supporters complete mastery, this could have been a viable option. Concession and conciliation would have been unnecessary. This fact was not lost on their opponents. So it was not wise to demand Emancipation for the Catholics, reform of Parliament, extension of the suffrage, repeal of the Union, and express admiration for the United Irishmen, and even for Napoleon, as some of the more hot-headed speakers did form time to time. Such language and sentiments was calculated to increase opposition to Catholic claims.

As mentioned earlier, this group mostly came from immediately above the class of the largely illiterate manual workers, and which was composed of small shopkeepers, small farmers, small tradesmen, etc. They formed no separate organisation of their own, but followed more or less what was done by the nobles, rich merchants, and barristers in Dublin. It was the constituency which above all Daniel O’Connell cultivated. This group was literate and English-speaking, but they identified with the defeated Catholic chieftains, idealised chieftains at that, of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (In fact the ancient rulers of Ireland had long since made peace with the crown and now favoured the established order, but a common surname, or even a common religion, was sufficient to give a claim on ancient rights.) When the ascendancy party refused to make any concessions to Catholics on the ground that Catholics would not be satisfied until they controlled the whole of Ireland they were not opposing an imaginary danger.

Though it took this group until 1921 to achieve their aim, to get into all positions of control, and to appoint their relatives and friends to all offices paid from the public purse, this was their objective from the start. This was the group that was so disillusioned when the Emancipation Act was finally passed. Very few Catholics were initially appointed to offices with patronage, so very few hangers-on got the desired minor positions. On this disillusion O’Connell was then able to build his campaign for Repeal, and this campaign was aimed only at them. It is not surprising that it was from this group that the leaders of the anti-tithe campaign which immediately followed the concession of Emancipation came. Dr James Magaurin of Ardagh, testified to the House of Commons that many of them perhaps could not define Emancipation, but they had a feeling of belonging to an excluded class who were not treated like other subjects (Evidence). Dr Doyle in his Ninth Letter on the State of Ireland records,

‘How often have I perceived in a congregation of some thousand persons how the very mention from my own tongue caused every eye to glisten and every ear to stand erect; the trumpet of the last judgment, if sounded, would not produce a more perfect stillness in any assembly of the Irish peasantry, than a strong allusion to the wrongs we suffer’.

It is difficult to tell how much of this reaction was a result of the campaigning of the Anti-Vetoists, or how much was traditional anti-Protestant feelings. Not only O’Connell, but the political clergy like MacHale and Cullen, later played on this strong anti-Protestant feeling for their own purposes. Others like Young Ireland, the Fenians, the Nationalists, and the Republicans drew their support almost exclusively from this class, though they often intended to embrace all Irishmen..

The original Catholic Ultra was John Keogh. Keogh was a successful Dublin merchant the son of a small tradesman. He joined the Irish Catholic Committee and was irritated by their cautious ways. He was a strong advocate of petitioning, and he defeated the peers on the subject. A Catholic Convention was summoned in 1792 and sent a deputation with a petition to London petitioning for a further Relief Act. The Act was passed the following year, and Keogh always claimed the credit for its passing and regarded it as a vindication of his methods. In fact the deputation had little effect, and it was passed because Pitt considered it necessary when war had broken out with France.  In the circumstances of the time, and in view of Pitt's concern about the spread of French democracy he was lucky to be listened to at all. This was a point he never understood. Whether Keogh had much connection with the people in country areas is not clear, but they wrote in great numbers to Edward Hay.

            Daniel O’Connell gradually pushed himself to the forefront of the Ultras, but he was too intelligent not to see the difficulties of pressing matters too far or too fast. Sir Thomas Wyse commented, ‘Mr O’Connell and Mr Sheil, with all their intemperance had…views infinitely more sober and discreet than many of those gentlemen who were in the same profession (the law) who were rising behind them’. The policies of the ultras failed in the short term. The parliamentarians in England refused to have anything to do with them. Their long-serving sponsors, Henry Grattan and the Earl of Donoughmore refused point blank to present their petitions, and when Sir Henry Parnell tried to assist them the Whigs refused to co-operate. The Pope had their agent bundled physically over the borders of the Papal States. It was a chastened O’Connell who having abandoned the struggle for Emancipation agreed in 1823 to co-operate with Sheil, the Catholic nobility, and the parliamentarians, in order to renew the campaign. It would have been far better if Keogh had learned that lesson thirty years earlier. [Top]


Prince George, Prince of Wales

            From 1793 to 1829 the hopes of Catholics were centred on the king’s eldest son, Prince George, afterwards Prince Regent, and later George IV. Unlike his father George III who supported the Tories, and only reluctantly made concessions to the Catholics, Prince George favoured the Whigs and the Catholics. King George III was a very moral man, and so was William Pitt. Charles James Fox on the other hand was a rake, who lived openly with his mistress and was chiefly interested in gambling. Prince George joined Fox’s circle and imitated his politics and his morals. He defied his father and married a Catholic widow called Mrs Fitzherbert because she refused to be his mistress.

Fox’s followers always expected to be called to office when the old king died. George III was born in 1738 and so was 55 in 1793 and 65 in 1803. In 1803 it was expected that he would not live long, but he did not die until 1820 at the age of 82. He was however mentally incapacitated in 1811, and Prince George, as Prince Regent, became acting monarch. Between 1803 and 1812 nobody knew how long the king had to live, and Tory Prime Ministers took office knowing that they could at any moment be put out of office by the king’s death. The Whigs, during the same period, confidently expected to be called to take over the government at any time. The king had first lost the use of his senses in 1788, and there was a question of the Prince of Wales being made Regent during what might proved an illness of limited duration. The Tories, unwilling to see the Whigs returned to office from which it might be difficult to dislodge them, preferred a limited regency, one of the terms of which was that the Regent could not dismiss his father’s ministers for a period during which his father might be expected to recover. The Whigs for the opposite reasons favoured an unlimited Regency. The Irish Parliament, then independent, decided for some reason to defy Pitt and offer an unlimited regency. The Regent therefore in theory could dismiss the Irish Government and insist on installing Whig ministers. But the Lord Lieutenant was in practice appointed by the British Parliament which expected him to appoint a Tory. The king however recovered, but the constitutional issue remained unresolved. The point however was one to be considered when an Act of Union was mooted. When the king’s malady briefly returned in 1804 the hopes of the Whigs and the Catholics soared but were quickly dashed. When it returned permanently in 1811 it was expected that the Prince, after the restrictions on his regency expired, would send for the Whigs. But by then he was under the influence of a different mistress and decided to retain the Tories.

The Prince always preferred the company of Irishmen perhaps to escape from the dull company at home. His favourite companions in his mis-spent youth were Francis Rawdon, Earl of Moira, Richard Hely-Hutchinson, 1st Earl of Donoughmore, his brother John Hely-Hutchinson, Baron Hutchinson, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who could introduce him to the world of the theatre. Lord Moira and Lord Hutchinson were soldiers, and Moira later became governor general of Bengal and commander-in-chief of British forces in India. Hutchinson commanded the British forces in Egypt who dealt with the French forces left in Egypt after the battle of the Nile. None of them held high public office at the time and so are not remembered in the history books. But they were very important politically at the time.

            When George IV became king he decided to visit his Irish dominions, and was the first king to visit Ireland other than at the head of an army. He received an enthusiastic welcome from the Irish, and he reversed official policy by appointing an Irishman as Lord Lieutenant. This was the Marquis Wellesley. Daniel O’Connell hoped that a royal palace could be built in Ireland but the subscription to the king’s visit fell far short of expectations. The reason for this clearly was that the Protestants were distrustful of him and they owned much of the wealth of Ireland. Enough money was raised for a ‘useful’ memorial, and an iron bridge over the river Liffey in the city of Dublin, the King’s Bridge, was erected. When he first assumed the regency, George intended making Sheridan the Irish Secretary, but even the Whig leaders considered that like putting a candle in a powder magazine. [Top]

 England and the Holy See

            The problem of relations between England and the Holy See dated from the Middle Ages and antedated the Reformation. There was a Statute of Praemunire of Richard II (1377-99) and others in the reign of Edward III in 1353 and 1365 forbidding any dealing with Rome without royal consent, and it is to this last statute the word praemunire usually refers. (The term referred to a writ sent to a sheriff to summon a person who brought a case in any foreign court, and later more specifically the papal court, and containing the words praemunire facias, to warn, praemunire being confused with praemonere (OED). There was another statute of Edward III called the Statute of Provisors 1351 forbidding the Pope to make appointments in England. These statutes were apparently made effective in Ireland by Poyning’s Law (1494). As the lands belonging to bishoprics and other offices in the Church were held by feudal tenure from the king, it became the rule for the king to issue to the chapter of the diocese a writ called conge d’elire, giving them permission to proceed to an election, and at the same time signifying whom they should elect. If the canons ignored the king’s choice they were liable to be charged with praemunire. Canning described the actual situation to an amused House of Commons in 1827. Following a query by the king, Canning as Foreign Secretary, enquired what was the state of English law on the question. The Law Officers informed him that if he attempted to communicate with the Pope he was liable to the penalties of praemunire. Such a person might be slain by anybody (laughter). He was considered to be out of the king’s protection and beyond the law for any beneficial purposes (a laugh). He was unable to bring his action at law, and no one would succour one so guilty (SNL 13 March 1827). Canning, though, like his predecessor Castlereagh, was frequently in communication with the Pope over commercial and other non-religious matters (Buschkuehl). Charles Butler noted in 1813 that anyone receiving a papal bull, a bishop on his appointment for example, was punishable by the forfeiture of all his real and personal estate, and by being put out of the king’s protection, and that in England it is high treason (Ward II).

In Ireland, the Lord Lieutenant traditionally carried out the duty on the king’s behalf in the Established Church. Popes however allowed Catholic monarchs from time to time to appoint to various vacant offices, and the Catholic Stuart monarchs and pretenders seem to have enjoyed this right up until the death of the Old Pretender or claimant (James III and VIII) in 1766. The Stuarts had the right by either usage or law to issue a conge d’elire to chapters, with the usual notification of the royal choice, who would then elect that person and notify the Pope. The Irish chapters ceased to exist and the Stuarts fled to France, but they still recommended to the Pope. Though the Pope had exclusive right after that he invariably appointed a person previously recommended to him (Evidence of Dr Doyle, Evidence). But at the same time the Catholic chapters, or in their absence, groups of parish priests from the diocese met and selected three names, (the terna) and sent them to Rome with a request that the Pope should select one of them (Keenan I). The Pope, after hearing requests and recommendations from various quarters made the appointment. As no claims to Church lands were involved, and the bishops were supported entirely by the contributions from their own flocks, the Government ignored the correspondence with Rome and the papal appointments. The Government could and did make its own views known to Rome informally. The appointment of John MacHale to the archdiocese of Tuam in 1834 seems to have been one of the few cases where the Pope ignored the recommendation of the British Government that he should not be appointed. A veto was a formal right, conceded either by a papal bull or by a concordat, to object to an appointment. Though the matter was considered for a time the British Government never sought a direct veto, though the Pope was willing to concede it.  The exequatur was the right to allow the certain officials like consuls to take up their functions. It also meant allowing a person appointed by the Pope to take up the office to which they were appointed, or for the execution of papal jurisdiction conferred by a bull, a document sealed with the Pope’s great seal. The British Government did not ask for the exequatur. But it did consider the appointment of a commission to inspect bulls, briefs, and rescripts from Rome, with power to prevent their promulgation or execution. This was known technically as the placet. The motive for this seems to have been to remove the objections of extreme Protestants to communication with Rome rather than any wish to impose an exequatur. No doubt communications between British and Irish Catholics and Rome had been covertly inspected for centuries, and it was known that since 1690 there were no political plots, and all communications were concerned solely with spiritual matters.

French-speaking Canada came under the British crown by the Treaty of Paris 1763. In 1774 the first recognition of a post-Reformation British parliament of the Catholic Church occurred in the Quebec Act 1774. The government allowed a Catholic diocese of Quebec to be established, and a bishop, referred to as the ‘Superintendent of the Romish Church to be appointed’ with the exclusive right to select parish priests (Buschkuehl). The Act also set aside the Test Act and allowed Catholics to hold public office on taking a simple oath of allegiance.  It allowed a power to enforce the collection of tithes, and the bishop was allowed complete autonomy in his own sphere. There was a particular reason for this Act. Some Catholic monarchs had or claimed to have the right of nominating bishops, and the British Government did not want to allow the French or Spanish Governments to make appointments to Catholic dioceses which were in places captured by the British. A right once given was never given up, and could pass from ruler to ruler as any state or colony was captured by another. A curious example are the dioceses in Alsace and Lorraine in France where the president of the French Republic has the right of nomination. The right was originally conceded to Napoleon but was revoked during the Third Republic in 1905. But Alsace and Lorraine were then part of the German Empire and so were not covered by the revocation. The French monarch had in fact no right of nomination to Quebec, or had not claimed it, so the bishop of Quebec was able to come to a private agreement with the British Colonial Office and the Holy See. Elections for bishops could be freely held so long as the British governor was informed of the person chosen and gave his approval. This approval would be given unless the bishop-elect were an open supporter of the French monarchy. The agreement over the appointment of bishops was informal. The name of the bishop-elect was submitted to the Governor for his consent. But twice, the Governor made proposals and these were accepted. By 1848 Canada was largely self-governing, and the British Governor was not consulted in the election of a bishop in 1851 or thereafter (Ward II).

Relations between the United Kingdom and the Holy See were surprisingly cordial (Buschkuehl pp 17ff).  The Holy See could not approve of the Peace of Augsburg, but saw many reasons for accepting it as the lesser of two evils. Later in the seventeenth century the then Pope saw the Protestant king William of Orange as a lesser evil than the troublesome Louis XIV of France. Apart from the temporary episode of the anti-Catholic frenzy inspired by Titus Oates in 1678 Catholics in England, unlike Protestants in France, were allowed to live in peace. In the eighteenth century most English Protestants visiting Rome made a point of seeing the Pope, who always welcomed them, and attending High Mass in one of the basilicas to satisfy their curiosity.

There were informal contacts between the British Government and the Papal States from at least 1770. Pope Benedict XIV had refused to recognise the Young Pretender, Prince Charles Edward, as King Charles III of England in 1766. In 1772 the Pope invited the Duke of Gloucester, King George’s younger brother to Rome. Around 1790 one of George III’s sons, Frederick Augustus, Duke of Sussex, was living in Rome and was on terms of cordiality with the cardinals and the Pope. Sir John Coxe Hippisley who also lived in Rome provided another informal means of communication. At the time of the Terror in France (1793-4) the British Government supported the French émigré Catholic clergy who reached safety in England. On the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Grenville, promised help to defend the Papal States if the French invaded them. When in 1793 a British fleet under Admiral Hood was sent to the Mediterranean, the Pope allowed it to purchase supplies in the Papal States. On more than one occasion British representatives offered asylum to the Pope in Britain or in any other country he desired. On one occasion, in 1814, the Pope fled from Rome to the safety of the British Army at Genoa. On another occasion the British representative gave financial assistance to the penniless Pope as he was making his way back to Italy from detention in France. Various attempts were made by the Royal Navy to rescue the Pope. The King, George III, at the request of the papal Secretary of State, allowed a British pension to be paid to the Cardinal Duke of York who was the Stuart pretender to the throne of Britain. The cardinal’s estates had been seized by the French. The Pope, Pius VII, refused to join Napoleon’s Continental System, and break with his British ally, and so was placed in captivity by Napoleon. After the defeat of Napoleon it was the British who strove to have the Papal States restored in their entirety, and who protected them from the Catholic powers. The French had seized treasures from the Vatican, and forced the Pope to pay for their conveyance to France. After the restoration of the Bourbons, the Pope could not pay for their transport back to Rome, so he offered them to the British Government. The Government promptly transported them back to Rome for him. The Pope had refused all offers of financial assistance from Napoleon, but accepted it from the British Government, until his own Treasury was in operation. Nor was the British Government seeking anything in return, though the Pope made it clear, in his famous letter from Genoa, that he would go to great lengths to accommodate it. Napoleon regarded the altruism of the British after Waterloo as both astonishing and stupid (Longford). (Even more astonishingly, though it does not directly concern us, the British Government, having defeated all the major fleets in the world except the Russian which stayed in port, declared all the oceans of the world open to all other nations!) One effect of these close contacts between the British and Irish upper classes and Rome was that several members of Parliament and the Government were on closer speaking terms with the Pope and the cardinals than the Irish Catholic bishops. Though every Catholic bishop had a duty to visit Rome at least once, his contacts would largely be confined to the Congregation of Propaganda, the branch of the Curia that looked after foreign missions.

It is worth noting that at the end of the eighteenth century the Holy See insisted on the duty of British Catholics to recognise the authority of the House of Hanover, and to submit to it. It was alleged that the archbishop of Armagh, Richard O’Reilly, and the archbishop of Dublin, Thomas Troy had absorbed continental thinking of absolute obedience to the civil authorities  (Buschkuel citing Brenan). This conclusion is rather anachronistic. The admonitions from Rome should be seen as the tacit abandonment of any supposed papal right to depose an English king, the abandoning of any support for the Stuarts, and the recognition that the House of Hanover had an incontrovertible right to the throne of England. [Top]

The Civil Constitution of Ireland.

            It is necessary to explain the actual civil constitution of Ireland not only because it changed twice between 1780 and 1800, but also because Irish nationalists have systematically misrepresented it. They invariably call the Irish Government the ‘British Government’, claim that Ireland was a British colony, that Ireland was ruled or misruled by foreigners, and that the ‘Irish’ were downtrodden, and always seeking their freedom from England. Exaggerations that are allowable in political speeches have no place in a history. For the purposes of this book, three phases of parliamentary representation in Ireland can be distinguished (a) up to 1782, (b) 1782 to 1800, and (c) post 1800.

            (a) The tangled relationships between England and Ireland commenced in the twelfth century when the Irish chiefs and bishops submitted to Henry of Anjou (Henry II of England, and ruler of a large part of France). The Irish Government originated in the twelfth century, when Henry established it. The kind of government he established was on the most up to date lines, such as was to be found in contemporary England or France. As the centuries passed the Government, as in England, became more elaborate, and came to include two Houses of Parliament (Lords and Commons), and was divided into executive, legislative, and judicial parts. The great lords and the bishops sat in the upper house, while representatives of the counties and towns sat in the lower house. Unlike in the United States, these were not rigorously separated. The executive was called the Government, and the legislature called Parliament. The executive, or king’s Government, was drawn almost exclusively from the members of the House of Lords and House of Commons. The Government, down the centuries, and until the present day (for the government of the Irish Republic is its continuation) was composed almost exclusively of Irishmen, though Englishmen were not prevented from seeking election to the Irish Parliament or vice versa. To become a part of the Government after the Reformation one had to become a Protestant, so by the end of the eighteenth century it was composed exclusively of Protestants. These Irish Protestants did not regard themselves as English any more than the residents in the thirteen American colonies did. The abolition of the Irish Parliament did not mean the abolition of the Irish Executive or Government, or the Irish judiciary.

            The relationship between the Irish Parliament and the British Parliament was never exactly determined, but was modified by statute from time to time. But Irish judges could, and normally did, ignore English statutes. Both Parliaments were subject to the same king, or perhaps more accurately the same king in council. The king, having consulted those who came to be called privy councillors, could determine the limits of the jurisdiction of each of his parliaments. Even in the Middle Ages, the English Parliament was allowed jurisdiction over the seas around Ireland, but by-and large, each was restricted to making statutes for its own realm. In the course of the centuries, the English Parliament was able to establish control over the monarchy in a way that neither the Irish or Scottish Parliaments could emulate. The logical consequence was that the English Parliament came to claim rights over the Irish Parliament, though strictly speaking only the king in council had rights over the Irish Parliament. By the eighteenth century most of the English privy councillors were drawn from the British Parliament, so in this way the British Parliament had an indirect influence over the Irish Parliament.

            The American Constitution was rationally designed from the British Constitution on the basis that authority flowed from the people, and appropriate powers were assigned to the individual states and to the President and Congress of the United States. The British and Irish Constitutions just grew up, through particular enactments over the centuries, but both were constructed on the hierarchical principle which was universal in the Middle Ages. In this power comes from the top down, from the legitimate monarch. He assigns, with the consent of various persons and bodies, the powers appropriate to each of his realms, and also to inferior bodies within them, like counties and cities. The king could and did reserve to himself the right to appoint a chief governor to the individual states under him, in a way the president of the United States never could. In Ireland, the king normally appointed to only one office, that of the Chief Governor or Lord Lieutenant. The Lord Lieutenant had considerable powers of appointment himself but he normally appointed Irishmen after taking local advice.

            Two pieces of legislation in particular affected the status of the Irish Parliament. The first was known as Poyning’s Law, passed by the Irish Parliament as a temporary measure under the Lord Deputy Sir Edward Poynings in 1494. This required that the chief points in all bills to be presented to the Irish Parliament had first to be cleared by the king and his privy council in England. This was not an issue of great importance at the time, but it came to have great importance in the eighteenth century when the role of parliament had vastly increased. The second was an Act, known as The Sixth of George I, passed by the British Parliament in 1719, the sixth year of the reign of George I. (When the English and Scottish parliaments were united in 1707 the single parliament was called the British Parliament.) This stated that the British Parliament had a right to pass laws for Ireland. This was largely a theoretical assertion, but it bothered Irish parliamentarians later in the century. The Irish Parliament was regularly summoned by the Lord Lieutenant, bills were drawn up by the members of the Irish Parliament, their chief points sent to London for clearance, and then passed through the two houses of the Irish Parliament.

            (b) Around the time of the American War of Independence a group of Irish parliamentarians called the Patriots sought to have these two Acts repealed. The king, George III, was in difficulties because of the war against France, Spain, Holland, and the Thirteen American Colonies, agreed to the repeal of the offending Acts in 1782 and to the independence of the American colonies in 1783. Though it occasioned great national rejoicing, the practical difference was slight. Parliament could however debate bills without having to get clearance from the crown, which was also forbidden to vary or alter Irish bills. As the only bills unlikely to get clearance were those affecting the crown itself, this meant in practice that the Irish Parliament could bring the office of the Lord Lieutenant under its direct scrutiny, and it proceeded to do so. Otherwise the Irish Government managed the business of the Irish Parliament as usual. As mentioned above, the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, succeeded in getting the Catholic Relief Act passed in 1793 through the Irish Parliament despite strong opposition from many of the Irish Protestants. This Parliament was composed exclusively of Protestants, and until 1793, elected solely by Protestants. In its years of independence it is commonly called ‘Grattan’s Parliament’ after the Patriot who was chiefly responsible for securing the repeal of the obnoxious Acts. Grattan however never accepted office in the Parliament named after him, preferring to remain an independent critic. In general, the status of the Irish Parliament made little or no difference to the repealing of the Penal Laws.

            (c) In the year 1800, the separate British and Irish Parliaments were ended, and a joint Parliament called the Parliament of the United Kingdom was established and came into existence in 1801.The representation of the Irish counties was unchanged so county members simply transferred to the new Parliament without new elections. As the representation of the boroughs and the lords was reduced ballots were held among the existing members to see who would retain the seat. The structure of the Irish Government and the Irish judiciary was unchanged. The principal seat of the Irish Government was in ‘His Majesty's castle in Dublin’, always called Dublin Castle. Like many modern day castles it was a group of offices and state rooms. [Top]

The Principal Officials.


            The following persons were in office at the beginning of the period covered in this book.  The king, George III, commenced his reign in 1760 and died in 1820. The prime minister was William Pitt the Younger who was in office from 1784 to 1801. In 1793 the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was John Fane, tenth Earl of Westmoreland, a personal friend of Pitt, and his Secretary was Robert Hobart, afterwards (1804) fourth Earl of Buckinghamshire. Westmoreland had been appointed in October 1789, and remained in office until 1794.  Hobart was appointed in April 1789 as Secretary to the then Lord Lieutenant, George Nugent-Temple-Grenville, Marquis of Buckingham, and was kept on by Westmoreland. He had been a major in a cavalry regiment in the American War, and came to Ireland in 1784 as aide-de-camp to the then Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Rutland, and to his successor the Marquis of Buckingham. The office of Irish Secretary in the eighteenth century was largely a sinecure, the duties being discharged by Under-secretaries, one for civil affairs and one (until 1819) for military affairs. Despite their titles, they were the actual heads of their departments or offices, and these powers were not diminished when, in 1801, the offices of Irish Secretary, and Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant were combined. The Irish Secretary was John Hely-Hutchinson who was appointed in 1766 and held the office until his death in 1794. He was also the Provost of Trinity College Dublin and was often referred to as the Provost. Hely-Hutchinson was one of the leaders of the Tories or King’s men in the Irish Commons, was a skilful debater, and so was extremely useful to William Pitt. (In practice, the two offices were combined after the death of John Hely-Hutchinson in 1794, the Secretaries to the Lord Lieutenant, Thomas Pelham, Robert Stewart, and Charles Abbot being appointed to both offices.) When the Irish Parliament was actually sitting, the Irish Secretary had some part to play in parliamentary proceedings, and was referred to by his title. After the Act of Union the Irish Secretary represented the Government regarding Irish affairs in the House of Commons in Westminster. Though in the course of the nineteenth century the post of Irish Secretary (usually referred to as that of Chief Secretary for Ireland) became the most important executive post in Ireland, at the end of the eighteenth century the Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant was just that, the Lord Lieutenant’s secretary. But not until the enforced retirement of William Gregory in 1830 was the Irish Secretary able to reduce the Under-secretary to a position of subordination. After the Union the Irish Secretary could still be and was a member of Parliament. Though in theory Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant he no longer retired when the Lord Lieutenant did. For this reason the term Irish Secretary is preferred. The other point was that as far as the Parliament in Westminster was concerned, the office of Irish Secretary was not one of profit under the crown, so the MP accepting the office did not resign and seek re-election. The Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer did have to seek re-election. The precise origin of these exceptions are not clear.

            The Lord Chancellor was John Fitzgibbon (created Baron Fitzgibbon and Earl of Clare) from 1789 until 1802. He too was a long-term Tory supporter of Pitt, having been appointed attorney general in 1783 and Lord Chancellor in 1789. Ireland had no Prime Minister as such, but Fitzgibbon as the senior officer was effectively the Leader of the Irish Tory Party until 1800. He was consistently opposed to any reforms or concessions. He was responsible for the Whiteboy Act (1787) which made repression rather than reform the policy of the Government. But like many Irish Tory gentlemen he considered the proper remedy for agrarian crime was a personal interest of landlords in their estates. (This view was immortalised by Maria Edgeworth in her novel The Absentee.) He was an able, judicious, and hard-working lawyer. By his office he was Leader of the Tory, or Government party in the Irish House of Lords. In the Irish Parliament, as in the United States Congress, the chairmen of the principal parliamentary committee, especially that of Ways and Means, had great power. This particular Committee was charged with raising the sums needed for running the country.

            The law officers, the attorney general and solicitor general, acted for the Government in the courts. They were barristers, not judges. The attorney general was Arthur Wolfe (created Viscount Kilwarden), a man respected for his humanity and moderation. The solicitor general was John Toler (created Earl of Norbury), another long-time supporter of the Government, and in particular of the Earl of Westmoreland. He was strongly opposed to the United Irishmen from when they were first started, and so was the first candidate for removal from office when Earl Fitzwilliam was appointed. He retained his anti-Catholic prejudices to the end. In 1798, as attorney general he prosecuted all the leaders of the attempted rebellion. But as they were mostly the sons of respected Protestant gentlemen, the Government preferred banishment to execution. The Chief Justice of the King’s Bench the supreme criminal court, was John Scott (created Earl of Clonmell) another long-term supporter of the Government, with a tendency to make his office subservient to Government policy, but not invariably. The Speaker of the House of Commons was John Foster (created Baron Oriel in 1821), and known to Irish history as Speaker Foster. He was probably the ablest member of the Irish House of Commons. He was particularly interested in Ireland’s economic interests, and was formerly Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer. He was to be re-appointed to that post after the Union by Pitt. All his life he opposed Catholic claims. The Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer was Sir John Parnell, another long-term supporter of the Government and opponent of Catholic claims. The office of Lord Treasurer of Ireland was also a sinecure, the office being discharged by vice-treasurers. When the Irish Treasury was restored in 1793, it was placed, as in England, under a Commission. Though in England the First Lord of the Treasury became Prime Minister, and the Treasury became dominant department of Government, this did not happen in Ireland. The Irish Treasury struggled to exert any influence over the other departments, especially the Irish Exchequer, which was responsible for the budget and the overall level of taxation and expenditure. To understand the workings of the Irish Government one has to look to the Government of the United States, where the office of president roughly equates with that of the Lord Lieutenant, and that of Congress to the Irish Houses of Parliament. There was however this major difference. The American Executive is appointed by the President from outside Congress; the Irish Executive was appointed by the Lord Lieutenant from among the members of the Irish Parliament, and almost exclusively from the party which had political control.

            Despite the impression given by Irish nationalists, the Act of Union (1800) made little practical difference. The Irish administration and the Irish legal systems were kept separate, and separate laws were made for Ireland. British Members of Parliament (MPs) had little interest in Irish affairs, so matters concerning Ireland were left to Irish MPs. These were the same MPs who had sat in the Irish Parliament. Irish officials still formed the vast bulk of the Irish administration. Though deplored by many Irishmen for reasons of national pride, the Act of Union made little practical difference to Ireland. Where a difference was made, it was usually for the best, as when extremely competent British officials like Sir Robert Peel were appointed. There were two political parties in Ireland as in England, the Tories and the Whigs, and these followed the policies of the British parties. In Ireland as in England Tory majorities were returned at every election until 1830. The Whigs were pro-Catholic and anti-war; the Tories largely anti-Catholic and pro-war. Until 1815, and the final defeat of Napoleon, the war was the principal issue in the country. [Top]

Irish Influence in England

            Irish influence was very strong in England all though the period of this book, and it was exercised mostly in favour of the Catholics. The popular mythology, which depicts Daniel O’Connell, aided only by the Catholic priests and the Forty-Shilling Freeholders, conquering a reluctant Parliament is very false. In the 1790’s Richard Burke and Richard Brinsley Sheridan were the chief orators, along with Fox, urging the Catholic claims. Lord Moira was a close friend of the Prince of Wales, so much so that it was expected that he would become Prime Minister. (When offered the post he failed to gather sufficient support). Sheridan was also a close friend of the Prince of Wales, though when the latter became Prince Regent (acting king) Sheridan was too old to be offered a post. George Tierney and George Ponsonby became successively the Whig leaders in the House of Commons. Ponsonby’s niece married Charles Grey, later Earl Grey, the Whig Prime Minister. Lord Lansdowne and Lord Palmerston had Irish titles and Irish estates. (Tierney’s father was from Limerick.)

            The Irish Tories had greater influence because the held offices. These included Sir Arthur Wellesley, afterwards Duke of Wellington, his brother the Marquis Wellesley, and Lord Castlereagh. Three out the four Catholic Relief Bills were introduced by Irishmen, that of Canning and Castlereagh in 1813, that of William Conyngham Plunket in 1821, and that of the Duke of Wellington in 1829. Sir Francis Burdett introduced the fourth in 1826.

            There was another Irish influence that was exercised by an Irish family at a crucial moment. The Marquis and Marchioness of Conyngham were intimate friends of George IV and urged him to accept Catholic Emancipation in 1829. By that time George was having the same scruples as his father George III, and they helped him to overcome them.

            The Irish Catholic nobility had no direct influence over English politics, but they could deal with the English politicians as equals, and not as mere petitioners. Irish petitions were therefore confided to the Irish Catholic peers for transmission to the United Parliament. Their influence was however lessened by a lack of trust or certain Irish Catholics of lower ranks in them. Delegations were sent to accompany them. In the conditions of the time it would have been better if the peers had gone alone, for there would have been less suspicion of delegates and conventions of a French Revolutionary nature.

            Not all the Irish influence in Britain was exercised in favour of the Catholics. Several of the Irish peers with seats in the House of Lords were opposed to the Catholic claims, and almost all the Irish bishops. But these rarely had positions of importance in the Government. Some of these had direct access to the king and did not hesitate to exploit this. [Top]


Agrarian Crime

            Modern Irish history cannot be understood properly without some knowledge of agrarian crime and terrorism. Since about 1880 terrorism in Ireland is largely linked to organised political movements usually financed from the United States. Before that it was largely formless and focussed on local issues. It sprang from a belief widespread among the labourers and small holders that the best remedy for any grievance was a bullet from behind a hedge. Despite a cherished mythology that the agrarian crime was chiefly directed against landlords and tithe proctors, their violence and intimidation was chiefly directed at those of their own class. Though the societies were secret and operated by night it soon became obvious when a local conspiracy was being hatched. Notices were posted at chapel gates stating the objectives of the organisers, and warning people not to oppose them. These invariably included such popular grievances as tithes, rents, and evictions. Houses were broken into to acquire arms. Possible witnesses or jurymen were warned, and if they refused to co-operate they were beaten up, tortured, or even murdered. They have more the appearance of protection rackets than attempts to remedy grievances, which in most cases were never as bad as they were made out to be. The organisers got a plentiful supply of food and alcohol, excitement, and indeed considerable respect in the neighbourhood (Keenan II, O Grada)

            There was no large-scale organisation, and the movement spread on the copycat system. As soon as a secret society was formed in one parish it quickly spread to other, often covering the entire county. They were given names like Whiteboys, Ribbonmen, Terry Alts, Rockites, and Molly Maguires. (This latter was revived among Irish coalminers in the United States.) Attempts were made to depict the Whiteboys, etc. as patriots struggling against foreign oppression. But they were more like the Ku Klux Klan, local assemblies who felt that justice in the courts was too slow, to expensive, and too uncertain, and the best way to get speedy and sure justice was to take the law into their own hands. (One wonders whether Irishmen were among the first organisers of the Klan. Illegal gatherings at night, the wearing of white garments, and the tacit support of the local population were common to both.)

            There never was any general plot against Protestants, the landlords, the Established Church, or the Government, though many Protestants believed that there was. The Irish Government usually believed that the local magistrates if they exerted themselves could root them out, but these magistrates normally demanded special legislation to draw in the Government. Throughout the second half of the eighteenth century and in the nineteenth century a series of short-term Acts, called Whiteboy Acts or Coercion of Crime Acts were passed. Not until the twentieth century was permanent anti-terrorist legislation deemed essential. Though there was no plot against the Government, members of the agrarian secret societies were not reluctant to join other organisations which were plotting against the Government, and probably furnished the bulk of the rank and file in organisations like the United Irishmen

            Besides these typical agrarian secret societies there were others. The first of these was the Peep o’ Day Boys. This was formed as vigilante groups among Protestants in Ulster, and their aim and practice was to enter the homes of Catholics at night to search for arms. The Catholics immediately formed counter-vigilantes called the Defenders to prevent them. Magistrates in the North of Ireland then formed a legal society of Protestants called the Orange Order to keep the vigilante activities of Protestants within legal bounds. The word Orangeman has two meanings, a restricted one as meaning a member of the Orange Order, and a more general one meaning one who supported Orange principles, i.e. those associated with William III (William of Orange). Orangemen were urged to join legal forces like the yeomanry and the militia, and did so in great numbers. Many yeomanry units refused to accept Catholics, though the militia regiments received many Catholics both as officers (after 1793) and as enlisted men. Finally, there was the United Irishmen. This was formed among the Protestant middle and upper classes by Theobald Wolfe Tone and James Napper Tandy to seek relief for the Catholics and the reform of Parliament. Both had strong republican leanings, and Tone soon changed the society into a secret one to collect arms and train for a Rising with the help of the French Republic. Support in Ulster came mainly from Presbyterians, but it would seem in the South largely from members of agrarian secret societies.         

            Though reports of agrarian crimes were frequent and filled newspapers, statistically over a long period they were not strikingly numerous, many parishes reporting few or no incidents over the previous twenty years (O Grada). But they were always there to fuel suspicions on either side. Irish society, like British or American societies in the eighteenth century, was quite a violent one. Organised cattle-rustling, a relic of the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had died out. The last gang of cattle-rustlers was reported about 1730. Smuggling, a very violent activity, was rife. Highwaymen were numerous. In Ireland as in Britain the postboy on a horse had to be replaced by the stagecoach which could carry armed guards. In the early nineteenth century taxation to pay for the War increased and excises on spirits were increased enormously. This led to the widespread development of illicit distillation. As during the Prohibition period in the United States this led to an enormous increase in organised crime.

            It does not seem that those who were involved in either agrarian crime, or who were enrolled among the rank-and-file of the United Irishmen had anything to do with the struggle for Catholic Emancipation. They were drawn from the working class, and had their own objectives. But getting a handful of Catholic gentlemen elected to Parliament was not likely to be one of their objectives. But they cannot be ignored for most Protestants considered their activities typical of what one expected of Catholics. [Top]

The Relaxation of the Penal Laws from 1757 until 1793

 Many of the laws were not enforced, especially those concerning the practice of religion. In Ireland, the practice of the Catholic religion had not been forbidden, nor was there any law against the saying of mass or conducting religious services by the ordinary parish priests in private. This however excluded conducting religious services in churchyards, holding processions, or pilgrimages, displaying worship or ringing bells. The residence of the parochial clergy was alllowed but schools or seminaries for their education was forbidden. All Catholic priests had to be educated abroad. Legally, no Catholic bishop or member of a religious order could reside in Ireland, but the laws against them were never enforced,bishops just registering as parish priests. After 1750 they lived and worked openly as bishops. It must be noted that though they had titles of bishops and archbishops, their means and their households were very moderate indeed. Their households probably consisted only of a curate who acted as chaplain and secretary. If they had a cathedral at all it was no more than a large chapel. Only in the nineteenth century were large Catholic cathedrals built to rival the ancient ones that were in the hands of the Protestants.  By the end of the eighteenth century all the dioceses in Ireland had a resident bishop. There were about 400 members of religious orders and 53 known monasteries for men, and 122 nuns in six convents (Vane-Stewart). Endowments for religious or educational purposes could not be made in Ireland, but they could be made on the Continent. Priests had to be supported by those they ministered to, so Catholic parishes were rationalised and enlarged to allow a fairly poor people to support them. Churches were called mass-houses, and where they existed were low thatched structures. If none existed mass was said in the open. The Protestant Dissenters were in roughly the same position.

            Three sets of Penal Laws had been passed by the three parliaments in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and partial repeals of the legislation had been passed by the United Kingdom (England and Scotland) Parliament, and the still independent Irish Parliament, so that the existing laws against Catholics differed in the three countries. Of the three countries the Catholics in Ireland were in the best position for more of the laws against them had been repealed. Catholics in England were not allowed to vote until 1829. (For a convenient summary see ‘Penal Laws’ in the Catholic Encyclopaedia.) In Ireland, for example, in 1771 an Act was passed allowing Catholics to reclaim 50 acres of bogland and hold it on lease for 61 years instead of the 31 years previously allowed. In 1774 Catholic bishops were allowed to take an oath of allegiance, which recognised their legal existence. The words of the oath had to be chosen most carefully to satisfy both the king and the Pope. The Pope in fact had no abjection to an oath of loyalty as such provided that Catholic dogmas were not denied. In 1778 Catholics were allowed to hold leases of land for a number of lives (not exceeding five) or of indefinite length not exceeding 999 years, but not become freeholders. This still excluded them from politics. But it in effect repealed the greater part of the Popery Act (1704) or Test Act that related to land. They were also allowed to bequeath land on the same terms as Protestants. The object now was to induce rich Catholic merchants to invest in land and so acquire a stake in the country. In 1780, the clauses in the Test Act (1704) regarding the sacramental test in so far as it applied to Dissenters was virtually repealed, but because of a reluctance to implement it remained virtually a dead letter. The sacramental test was to take communion from a minister of the Established Church. This Catholics were forbidden by the laws of their Church to do.

            [1757] In 1757 or 1758 a group of Irish Catholics, both lords and gentlemen, formed a Catholic Committee. Their names were given as Mr Wyse of Waterford, Charles O’Connor of Ballinagare, co. Roscommon, Dr Corry, and Lords Fingall, Taffe, and Delvin (Amherst). Other Catholic lords, Trimleston, Gormanston, and Kenmare later joined it. It was the custom of the time to offer the chairmanship of a committee to the senior lord. The Earls of Fingall took their position up until 1828. These were committees of laymen who were concerned only with removing the obstacles that prevented Catholics from getting public offices. Freedom of worship was a secondary object, for in practice Catholics had a large measure of freedom. Lord Mansfield in England, where saying mass was forbidden, had famously refused to convict a priest of saying mass on the grounds that the Protestant witness against him did not know what the mass looked like.

[1782] In 1782 leading English Catholics and a Catholic lawyer (dealing largely in conveyancing property) named Charles Butler established a committee for promoting the abolition of the Penal Laws in that country. (Indeed, earlier, in 1778, a small temporary committee had assembled to help with the passing of an English Relief Act in that year. Butler’s family was from Northamptonshire in England, and had no connection with the Irish Butlers, earls and dukes of Ormonde.) They had the support of a bishop called Charles Berington, and considered themselves orthodox. The club they formed was called the Cisalpine Club. The doctrines of papal primacy and infallibility were not then defined, and French bishops in particular held restricted views about them. These views were known as Gallicanism. (The chief propositions of Gallicanism were that the Pope is inferior to a general council of the Church; that the Pope has no secular jurisdiction; and that the Pope must accept the customs and traditions of the French Church. These views were formally condemned in a general council in 1870 when the infallibility of the Pope was also defined.) This was the theological description current at the time. But there was confusion regarding papal power in civil matters. There was a destinction between the views of the Cisalpines and the those of the Ultra Montaignes (later usually Ultramontanes). The Cisalpines, most of the bishops north of the Alps from the Middle Ages onwards, maintained that the Pope had no civil powers over the secular realms. The Ultra Montaignes maintained that he had. This view generally lost ground after the pontificate of Boniface VIII (1294-1303). The growth of Cisalpine principles is reflected in the Statute of Provisors (1351) and Statute of Praemunire (1353) of Edward III (Richard Blake, Evidence). The Cisalpine view was now universally held by all Catholics in Britain. The English Catholic Committee expressly backed the Statutes of Provisors and Praemunire (Ward I). So too did Dr James Doyle before the House of Commons (Evidence). (Cisalpine usually means the southern side of the Alps, but in this dispute, for some reason, was used for the northern side (OED).

 Butler’s private views were quite Gallican, and was happy that the king of England should have the same powers as the king of France.  Unfortunately, one English Catholic priest in particular named Dr John Milner, took exception to some of their proposals, and regarded Charles Butler as being unorthodox in his religious opinions, and continued to attack him until his own death in 1826. Milner became closely involved in the Irish campaign for Catholic Emancipation (Ward I; Charles Berington, John Douglass and John Milner DNB) Their aim actually was to seek to have the hierarchy in England re-established to obviate unnecessary communication with Rome which raised suspicions in the minds of many Protestants. The anti-Catholic ‘Gordon Riots’ in London took place in 1779 as a consequence of the Relief Act of the preceding year. But Milner regarded their activities as an attack on the rights of the Pope and the rights of the bishops. Milner was a man of extreme views and was usually isolated among the English vicars apostolic who followed the more moderate policies of Bishops Douglass and Poynter. The bishops were concerned not only with the rights of the Pope, but with their own rights, and did not wish to see these usurped by priests or laymen. (There was also in the United States at this time a movement by some of the Catholic lay trustees who held all Catholic church property to exercise control after the manner of their Presbyterian counterparts. This was strongly resisted by the bishops.)

            [1791] In 1791, The British Parliament, anxious to retain the loyalty of the British Catholics following the outbreak of the French Revolution, passed a Catholic Relief Act (1791) which removed most of the minor disabilities, though Catholics were still excluded from higher posts. They were allowed to practise as barristers, and Charles Butler became the first Catholic barrister. English Catholics, at the suggestion of Bishop Douglass vicar apostolic of the London District, were allowed to take the Irish oath of allegiance of 1778. Nevertheless the English Act was not as sweeping as the Irish Act the following year. Catholics could not become magistrates, could not become a member of a corporation of a town or city, could not degrees in the universities, could not get a commission in the army, and private soldiers could not get exemption from church services.

            [1793] In 1793, the Irish Parliament followed the British Parliament by passing a comprehensive Act, the Catholic Relief Act (1793). The Whig Lord Grenville was largely instrumental in getting the measure passed. It was supported in the Irish House of Commons by two young members then starting their political careers, Mr Robert Stewart and Mr Arthur Wesley or Wellesley of Trim, county Meath. These were to become famous as Lord Castlereagh and the Duke of Wellington. By this Act Catholics were allowed to vote in parliamentary and municipal elections, bear arms and become soldiers. The restrictions on the ownership of land were removed. They could be admitted to certain civic offices and to the ranks of the army below that of general on the staff. They could become generals, but not on the staff, and post captains in the navy (SNL 18 April 1807. Presumably this meant they could be brigadier generals). In corporate towns and counties they could become freemen of the towns and the guilds but not become mayors, sheriffs, aldermen, or common councilmen. In the courts they could become barristers, but not King’s Counsel. This latter exclusion meant that quite junior Protestant barristers could obtain precedence in courts over senior Catholic barristers. The number of Catholics who could support themselves as barristers was small, for to get an income they had to rely on being asked by Protestants. Nor could they become judges. In local government they could become magistrates, but in practice few were appointed. The first Irish Catholic to be called to the bar was William Bellew, brother of Sir Edward Bellew, and he was later to be the first Irish Catholic since the Reformation to be made a King’s Counsel. Catholics could now take degrees in Dublin University, but could not become fellows or provosts in the university. They were specifically excluded from the highest administrative posts such as Lord Lieutenant, Lord Chancellor, and similar senior posts. The great exclusion was from becoming members of parliament. But for the most part, the Penal Laws can be said to have ended. With regard to exclusion from parliament, it was assumed that this would shortly be remedied.

            The Penal Laws had however succeeded in their object which was to ensure the adherence of almost all men of property and status to the crown and the Protestant or Established Church. With scarcely more than a score of exceptions, every person of importance in public life, in commercial life, in the professions, in literature, art, and science between 1800 and 1850 was a Protestant. Few Catholics had a sufficient income from land to become members of parliament. In law and medicine the best qualified were Protestants. Not that Catholics were poor or downtrodden. They were not land-owning gentlemen, but they could be rich merchants, farmers, or manufacturers. There were sufficient numbers to provide for the large-scale rebuilding of churches, the founding of convents and monasteries, the establishment of schools and seminaries, the support of orphanages and other charities, and so on. But the vast bulk of the wealth of the country was in the hands of Protestants. Ireland in 1800 was a Protestant country. Though they formed only a quarter of the population they controlled almost all the wealth and power. More importantly, they exercised patronage over a large number of minor public officers, gaolers, turnkeys, police, tidewaiters in the Customs, bailiffs, clerks and so on.

Daniel O’Connell estimated that the total number of offices in Ireland from which Catholics were excluded either by positive enactment or by patronage exceeded 30,000 (SNL 17 Jan., 8 Feb. 1811). He listed the remaining grievances of Catholics under ten heads, the principal ones having been noted above. He noted indirect ones like the inability for Catholics to make bequests for religious purposes with security, for there was always a fear that these could be challenged in court and directed towards a similar Protestant charity. Nor could Catholic churches, schools, and convents etc be endowed. Nor could Catholics vote in parish vestries even when the vestry tax or cess was being voted which they were liable to pay. Charles Butler produced a similar list for England. In fact, in England, a Catholic could not become an officer in the army or navy at any rank, though Catholics enlisted as ordinary soldiers in great numbers. No provision was made for Catholic worship in the army. (In practice, as the grievance was made known, Catholics and Jews were excused church parade and allowed to attend their own place of worship. This remained the practice even during World War II.) Wellington noted also that in practice the sacramental test was not applied to officers, and no officer was asked to state his religion. Nor was the franchise extended to Catholics under the English Act.

Bishop Douglass listed the religious grievances of the English Catholics as the legal invalidity of marriages celebrated by Catholic priests, the possibility that Catholic bequests could be declared invalid, and the enforced attendance of Catholics in the armed forces at Protestant worship. As far as Ireland was concerned, a circular letter was sent out from the Adjutant General’s Office in Dublin made it clear that no officer was to force Catholics to attend Protestant worship, and this was probably the common policy at the time. One of Grenville’s aims as Foreign Secretary in 1793 was to raise Catholic regiments for service in the Mediterranean lands and Latin America, and so to lessen Latin distrust of a Protestant power. Wellington noted that Catholic soldiers were perfectly free to attend mass, but most did not. The only sign they gave of religious practice in Spain and Portugal was to make the sign of the cross when haggling over the price of wine! The idea apparently was that the local wine sellers would charge Catholic soldiers less. But legally, any soldier could be ordered to attend the military church parade and be flogged if he refused.

Many of these grievances were more possible than actual. The real reason why so many Catholics were excluded from public appointments was that Pitt had forced through the Relief Act against the wishes of a majority of Protestants who saw no reason to go out of their way to appoint Catholics when there were numerous Protestant applicants. But on the other hand, many of the actions of the Catholics themselves ensured that these opponents of Catholic claims remained in office until 1830. There never was a complete purge of anti-Catholic legislation, and Ward noted that obscure remnants of the Penal Laws were still being used against Catholics in England at the beginning of the twentieth century. (Apparently, it is still against the law in the Republic of Ireland for members of male religious orders not only to wear their habits in the streets but also to be present in the country at all. Nowadays nobody would even think of repealing long-dead statutes.)

Catholics continued to develop their religion and practise it more openly. Gradually, splendid churches and cathedrals with spires were built, the religious habit was worn openly in the streets, and bells were rung. Catholic schools and colleges, which no longer needed the permission of a Protestant bishop of the diocese, sprang up everywhere. Even the youthful Princess Victoria was induced to support Catholic charities in Dublin, her mother having the title of Countess of Dublin. Catholic bishops were formally invited to attend the levees of the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin Castle, but with a rank after the lowest clergyman of the Established Church. Their rank was the same as that of Dissenting clergymen, or colonial clergymen (i.e. American clergymen). Catholic priests could apply to be chaplains in county gaols, and the county Grand Jury was forced to pay a salary to them. As far as religious observance went, the Penal Laws virtually ended in 1793. The Catholic Church in Ireland, like its sister Church in the United States, continued to support itself and to be totally independent of the state. In this way they came to have very different attitudes from the Catholics in the Catholic states in Europe who regarded the close co-operation of Church and State as the ideal.

At the time of the Catholic Officers Bill (1807) it was pointed out that Irish Dissenters since 1780 had the right to any office, while English Dissenters had no right to any military or civil offices. Irish Catholics had a right to any office up to and including general, while English Catholics could not hold any military rank (SNL 8 May 1807). [Top]


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