Home Page

1800-1850ContentsIntroductionChapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3

Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9

Chapter 10Chapter 11Chapter 12Chapter 13Chapter 14Chapter 15

Chapter 16Chapter 17Chapter 18Chapter 19Chapter 20Chapter 21


Chapter One

[Ireland 1800-1850 Copyright © 2001 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]

Immediate Consequences of the Union 

(January 1801)

Summary. This chapter describes the terms of the Act of Union (1800), the reasons for the Act and political sentiments at the time. It then describes the problems facing the Government, the need to restore order, the persistence of organised crime, the near famine conditions that prevailed in places, and the need to defend the island against the French. Finally, there was the problem of persuading the reluctant king, George III, to grant further relief to the Catholics and the resulting collapse to William Pitt's administration


The Act of Union

Reasons for the Act of Union

Political Sentiment in Ireland

Objectives of Cornwallis

Immediate Problems

The Catholic Question and the Fall of Pitt.        


The Act of Union             

The Act of Union 1800 (Fortieth of George III) came into force on the 1 January 1801. By it the separate kingdom and separate parliament of Ireland was merged with the United Kingdom of England and Scotland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The union between England and Scotland had taken place in 1707. The kings of England were also kings of Ireland from 1541 and kings of Scotland since 1603. The enumeration of the kings of Ireland was always identical with those of England, but those of Scotland were different. Thus James I of Scotland was James VI of Scotland and Elizabeth II of England Elizabeth I of Scotland. The two unions were essentially unions of parliaments, though various consequences flowed from these unions. The chief consequence was that the three peoples were no longer considered as foreigners, but members of the same country and kingdom. Previously, despite being under the same king, each separate parliament was free to pass laws such as the imposition of tariffs against the other two kingdoms. 

            The chief provisions and consequences of the Act of Union (1800) were:

1)         The two kingdoms of Great Britain and of Ireland became a single 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland', with the rights of succession to the throne remaining unchanged. 

2)         The Irish were to be represented in the House of Lords at Westminster by four (Protestant) bishops or spiritual peers and twenty eight temporal peers or noblemen elected for life by the whole body of Irish peers from among themselves. They were to be represented in the House of Commons by one hundred Members of Parliament for the Irish constituencies. The number one hundred was chosen as a fair balance between the relative populations and the relative incomes of the two parts of the new kingdom. There were to be two county Members for each of the thirty two counties of Ireland, two Members each for the cities of Dublin and Cork, one Member each for thirty one other cities and towns, and one for the university of Dublin. (An effect of these changes was to abolish the Irish 'rotten' and 'pocket' boroughs when the number of MP’s was reduced from three hundred to one hundred.) Parliamentary boroughs up to the year l809 were regarded as a kind of personal property and so borough owners had to be paid compensation out of public funds for suppressed boroughs. 

3)         The same regulations concerning commerce were to apply in all parts of the United Kingdom, but time, not to exceed twenty years, was allowed for harmonisation. (In the event some Irish protective tariffs were kept longer.) Until duties and excises were harmonised there was to be a system of compensatory rebates or drawbacks when commodities like whiskey or tobacco were shipped between Britain and Ireland. 

4)         The Irish Protestant Church was to remain the State Church, or Church by law established; was to be united with the Established Church of England; and was to be called The Established Church of England and Ireland. (As a consequence some minor changes had to be made to the Irish Book of Common Prayer but that was all.) 

5)         Ireland was to contribute two seventeenths of the revenue of the new United Kingdom, a figure based on the relative figures for customs duties and excises for the previous three years.  A proviso was inserted that if ever the two national debts stood in similar relationship to each other, the two debts and the two exchequers could be amalgamated. This was done in 1817. 

6)         Each country was to retain its own Lord Chancellor, judicial system, and existing laws, but final appeal was to be made to the joint House of Lords at Westminster. The consequence of this was that few new laws for a long time to come could be made for the whole of the United Kingdom.  Separate legislation had normally to be passed, on a given issue, for Ireland as for Scotland. Irish law on most points was not very different from that in England. The Common Law was the same, and most Irish statutes were modelled on those in force in England. Irish statutes were also fewer. But there were differences in detail. Catholic worship, for example, was never forbidden in Ireland. Catholic priests were allowed, though not Catholic bishops, monks, or friars. (In practice, both before and after the Union the Government freely communicated with the Catholic bishops as indeed it did with the Pope despite the statutes expressly forbidding such communication.) 

7)         The constitution of the Irish Government or Executive, under a Lord Lieutenant, remained unchanged. Occasionally it was proposed to abolish the office of Lord Lieutenant and to amalgamate all the Irish Government Offices with those in Westminster. Some offices, like those connected with the Revenue, were eventually amalgamated. But usually it was found more effective to retain Ireland as a separate administrative unit. The Poor Law Commission was originally given the direction of the Irish Poor Law as well as the English one, but, because conditions in Ireland during and after the Famine proved quite different, a separate Poor Law Commission for Ireland was formed. 

8)         The Irish Army, the Irish Artillery, and the Irish Sappers or Engineers, which hitherto had had a nominally separate existence from their British counterparts, were amalgamated with them. The chief difference was that officers serving in Ireland could no longer ignore direct orders from the Commander-in-Chief in England. Minor differences in the establishment of regiments were removed, making the administrative task of moving regiments in and out of Ireland easier. The Irish laws which permitted the recruitment and promotion of Catholic officers within the kingdom of Ireland were retained but were not extended to the rest of the United Kingdom. This made no practical difference for, as Wellington attested, no officer was ever asked to state his religion. (There had always been only one Royal Navy). 

9)         The Union, or national, flag of the United Kingdom of England and Scotland, the 'Union Jack', was altered by the addition of a red saltire cross on a white ground (the so-called Flag of St Patrick) to the existing Union flag. The harp and the shamrock remained the 'emblems ' of Ireland, the harp remaining on the Irish coinage as long as it existed. In the adjusted Royal Arms, those of France were omitted, and Ireland shared a quarter with Hanover. The present form was adopted in l837 when Hanover got a different monarch under Salic Law. The arms of Ireland (azure, a harp or, stringed argent; a golden harp with silver strings on a blue ground) were, along with those of Scotland and France, first marshalled on the royal arms by James I and VI.  

Few other than Irish MP’s attended debates or votes concerning Ireland, so legislation for Ireland continued as heretofore in the hands of Irishmen. It was no longer possible however for, say, a Whig administration, to find itself faced with a Tory majority in an Irish House of Commons. As the Federalists were later to point out, Irishmen now had a direct say, through their peers and MP’s in the appointment of the chief executive officer in Ireland, the Lord Lieutenant. Also, they similarly had a direct influence over foreign treaties, the waging of war, and commercial laws concerning the colonies. In criticising the arrangements under the so-called Independent Irish Parliament, beloved of the Repealers, they said that Ireland, as the smaller economy, would always be the junior partner. It was therefore better to acquire direct influence over laws affecting themselves. (This argument had less validity in the twentieth century when there was a strong nationalist and republican party in Ireland. But up to 1850 most Irishmen voted either for the Whigs or the Tories.)  Irish legislation was rarely controversial and normally had the general support of Irish MPs. 

             Each Government in turn, Tory or Whig, continued to use whatever influence it could at election time, especially in the boroughs, to secure the return of candidates favourable to itself. However, as the Lord Lieutenant no longer had to try to secure majorities in the Irish House of Commons influencing elections in Ireland was less critical. This influence in Ireland (and in Scotland) was usually sufficient to secure for the incumbent Government at least a temporary majority. Until the l840's Governments did not lose elections: they lost their majorities in the House of Commons. Government influence or electoral corruption, still surviving from the previous century, should not be exaggerated.[Top] 

Reasons for the Act of Union 

There were various reasons for the Act of Union advanced by William Pitt. Probably the principal of these had been a desire to secure further reliefs from political disabilities for the Catholics of the two kingdoms. For it seemed very unlikely that the Irish Protestants who formed a minority of the population of Ireland would allow Catholics to enter Parliament. This would be tantamount to handing over political power permanently to their opponents. Such a problem would not arise in a united kingdom.

Secondly, there was the question of the king's illness. A separate Irish Parliament could declare the king unfit to rule in Ireland and appoint a regent. Earlier in history the Irish Parliament had supported a different pretender to the throne. And, a few years previously, the Irish Parliament voted for an unrestricted regency while the Westminster Parliament preferred a restricted regency.

Thirdly, it would be much easier to co-ordinate defence, especially in the event of a French invasion of Ireland as a step towards the invasion of Britain. In the eighteenth century regiments of the army were rotated very slowly. Hence any regiment stationed for some years in Ireland recruited locally and became Irish in composition. If there were any signs of disaffection in the ranks such regiments could more easily be rotated out of Ireland. The militia regiments, raised for local defence, could be required to serve anywhere with the United Kingdom, and not merely asked to volunteer for service where a French landing threatened.

Fourthly, and very importantly, the free trade, which would become possible between the two kingdoms would stimulate Irish trade and promote an inflow of essential British capital, which Ireland needed to realise its capacities. This could only benefit Ireland in the long run. About twenty years earlier Britain had unilaterally repealed the Navigation Acts so far as they applied to Ireland, giving Ireland a considerable access to British markets at home and abroad. This generosity proved unfortunate in a way, for access to British markets could not be presented as a quid pro quo for the loss of a Parliament.

The further dismantling of trade restrictions, by the removal, for example, of Irish protective tariffs, did not seem equally to benefit Irish industry. Manufacturers in Dublin whose business declined frequently blamed the Act of Union. (Mercantilism and Protection were much favoured by Irishmen, then and since, despite much evidence that they rarely work.)

The chief argument against the Union was loss of status, and loss of political control, but most of those who had strongly opposed the Union quickly realised its benefits, not least to themselves. In earlier times loss of independence usually brought a great loss of revenue to the upper classes, who were forced to pay taxes or tribute to the new ruler. But in modern times, the amount of tribute remitted from the American colonies or the Indian sub-continent was negligible. The chief objective of those who sought the repeal of the Act of Union was very different. They saw it as a means of getting rid of the so-called Ascendancy class and transferring political power to themselves. Not least this meant control of the political rackets. But the historian of a given period cannot without anachronism transfer later sentiments to an earlier time. [Top] 

Political Sentiment in Ireland 

Sentiment in Ireland was divided with regard to the Union, but there is little reason to doubt that the majority of Irish MP’s who had voted for the Union had correctly gauged public opinion, at least among the voters in their constituencies. Catholics, on the whole, seemed in favour because of the perceived connection with Emancipation. Opposition, predictably, was strongest among those Protestants of the 'ascendancy faction' who were totally opposed to any further concessions to Catholics. But most of the latter soon changed their opinions. It is important to remember that immediately after the Union, indeed all through the War up to 1815, almost all Irishmen of the upper and middle classes, and a great many of the working classes, united behind the Government to resist the French. The Church of Ireland was not consulted about its change of status. Indeed, no convocation had been called since 1711, nor was one to be called until after disestablishment in 1869. But most bishops approved of the Union (Church of Ireland Gazette 11 Jan 1901).  

            We must not attribute twentieth century ideas or propaganda to the beginning of the nineteenth century. There were no ideas of an ancient Celtic nation struggling under the yoke of foreign Anglo-Saxon oppressors. Rather it was like an American colony such as Massachusetts about the middle of the eighteenth century looking for control over its over its own taxation, and over the colonial governor appointed by the Crown. They did not want independence of the British Crown for that inevitably would have involved being subjected to the French Crown. The Irish nation grew up around the institutions established by Henry II of England in the twelfth century, and the Irish Parliament, modelled on the English one, which developed in the Middle Ages. By the seventeenth century nearly all the Irish chiefs had accepted seats in this Parliament. 

 As in England, the members in both Houses were divided into Whigs and Tories. The Whigs in general supported the rights of Parliament and the Tories the rights of the Crown. The Whigs were the more aristocratic party whose leaders were the great noble families who largely controlled Parliament. The Tories were lesser landowners who traditionally looked to the Crown both for advancement and for protection against their great neighbours. The Whig magnates often had several estates and residences and so were often absentee landlords. The lesser landowners had only one property and so were resident. The Whigs, having more money, were often in the forefront of developments in agriculture, manufacture, mining, and trade. They tended to favour free markets and to abandon protectionism. The Tories were often more conservative and favoured the protection of native agriculture and manufacture. These were however just tendencies and an individual could be Tory in some respects and Whiggish or liberal in others. Daniel O’Connell though liberal in politics was in most respects a typical Tory squire. Archbishop MacHale’s criticism of the economic policies of the Whig Earl Grey reflects typical eighteenth century Tory views. But liberalism in trade, in the sense proposed by Cobden and Bright and the Manchester School was half a century away in the future. The difference between the two parties was not great. In both countries, for much of the eighteenth century the Whigs were predominant, and they gradually extended the influence of Parliament. But during the reign of George III (1760-1820) more country gentlemen supported the powers of the Crown. The Irish Whigs regarded the Act of Union, and the loss of a separate Irish Parliament, as a victory for the Crown. But the Whigs were in disarray. During the war with Revolutionary France most of the country supported the Crown and many prominent Whigs joined the Tories. Not until the eighteen twenties did popular opinion swing back to the Whigs. 

            During the French Revolutionary War, some young and enthusiastic Protestant Whigs, calling themselves the United Irishmen advocated establishing an independent Parliament in an independent republic with the aid of a French army. But most Irishmen regarded them in the same light as those in twentieth century Norway who wanted an independent Norway under the protection of a German army. Nor was the conduct of the French army at the time any different from that of German armies during the Second World War.

The United Irishmen, like George Washington, wanted a republic, not a democracy. It was always intended that the Irish Parliament would be filled almost exclusively with landed Protestant gentlemen, with some token Catholics as in the United States. They had no more intention of giving the vote to landless Catholic peasants than Virginia intended giving the votes to Negroes. They were men of their own time, and their model was the Senate of the Roman Republic, not a modern democracy.

The British and Irish Parliaments originated in the Middle Ages. These Parliaments they four great ‘estates’ into which the noble and free classes were divided. These were the hereditary nobility, the Church, the smaller freemen of the counties, and the wealth-producing burgesses of the towns, and the chief aim was to secure a proper representation of each estate. The balance had become upset in two ways. The first was that wealthy noblemen got control over tiny towns or boroughs. The other was that the crown could get undue influence over Parliament by bribing borough-owners. These were the points to be rectified in order to restore an imagined Golden Age. There was no question of ‘One man One vote’.

Secondly, and this was a fatal and permanent flaw in their philosophy, down to the present day, when they spoke of themselves as United Irishmen, uniting Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter into a common cause, they excluded the Tories. Those who supported the Crown and who opposed parliamentary reform and the emancipation of Catholics could be shot at sight, with or without French assistance. They, following the ideas of their time, only intended beheading such aristocrats and their supporters as opposed them. But unfortunately, over the course of the next century, those who opposed them came to include most Protestants. (When the present IRA murders a man suspected of giving information to the police, they are doing exactly what Wolfe Tone intended. But the United Irishmen, and their successors in Young Ireland, always had visions of a nation rising up in arms to fight the British Army and its supporters face to face, not systematic murders from behind hedges like the agrarian terrorists.) 

            About this time there commenced the literary, artistic, and philosophical movement known as Romanticism. It tended towards a poetic and uncritical glorification of the past and ancient chiefs and battles. Its chief exponent in Scotland was Sir Walter Scott, and in Ireland Thomas Moore, ‘Ireland’s National Poet’. Moore lived in London, and was a close friend of the Prince of Wales and the Earl of Moira. His Irish Melodies were intended to be sung in drawing rooms, and had no immediate political effect. But in due course they affected the development of Irish nationalism.  

No general election was held. The existing county Members just transferred themselves to Westminster. As most of the boroughs lost one seat, in these the members had to ballot between themselves who should retain the seat and who should retire. [Top] 

Objectives of Cornwallis         

The Marquis Cornwallis remained as Lord Lieutenant and Lord Castlereagh as Irish Secretary. The objectives of Cornwallis, the Irish Government, and of the Government in Westminster, and also the problems facing them remained unchanged. The primary objective was to continue the war with France, and to develop the resources of Ireland to this end. The second was to restore law and order, for twelve counties were regarded as still very disturbed after the upheavals of 1798. While doing this they wished also to calm down men's minds after the atrocities committed by both sides.

The Government therefore favoured a general amnesty, the compensation from public funds for damages sustained, as few judicial trials as possible, and the removal of leading United Irish leaders from the country, preferably to the United States. (As many of these leaders were young Protestants of good family there was a general reluctance on account of these families and relatives to bring them to trial. Extremists on both sides predictably objected to such clemency.) In any case, the measures taken some years earlier to reform and expand the militia, and to establish a yeomanry, had by now borne fruit so numerous men in the armed forces were available and trained for local defence. Catholics and Protestants were to be found equally in these forces, and leading Catholic officers like the Earl of Fingall patrolled with their local units. Among those who joined their local volunteer units were young Catholic barristers like Daniel O’Connell and Purcell O’Gorman who joined the Lawyers’ Corps.

            Cornwallis and Castlereagh were right to pursue a policy of oblivion and indemnity in order to calm men’s minds. It was recognised that grave breaches of the law had occurred on both sides, but any attempt to pursue the guilty through the courts would further inflame passions. The preceding eleven years from the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 had been very disturbed. With the triumph of republicanism in Ireland in the twentieth century most Irish writers have tended to concentrate on the first attempt to establish a republic between 1796 and 1798 by various groups under the name United Irishmen. The accounts they gave of events tended to be uncritical. Sectarian feuding in the north of Ireland marked the early part of the decade. Agrarian crime and disturbances had commenced among Ulster Protestants in the 1760s but soon was exclusively confined to Catholics and to Catholic parts of Ireland. Those taking part in these illegal activities were commonly called Whiteboys. Their activities were conducted at night, and they wore white sheets, and may be compared to the Ku Klux Klan.

Agrarian crime had the following characteristics. There was no central organisation behind it. A group of men in a parish would band together and refuse to pay rent or tithes. Notices would be posted warning the other farmers not to pay them either. Houses of gentlemen, which were known to contain firearms, would be broken into. Those who did not co-operate with the criminals could have their houses or crops burned, their cattle maimed, or could themselves be beaten up, tortured, or even killed. Almost anything could spark a conspiracy, particularly the eviction of a popular tenant for non-payment of rent, or the refusal to renew his lease. When it started in one parish it tended to be copied widely over entire baronies or counties. Parliament from time to time passed special legislation to enable the magistrates or justices to deal with it. Reformers usually maintained that if this grievance or that were remedied, the crime would cease. But it always broke out again on a different issue.

Local attitudes towards this form of crime seem to have been ambivalent. On the one hand the ordinary people wanted peace, with law and order, but on the other hand they were likely to sympathise with the objectives. Despite the frequent outbreaks of agrarian terrorism over the next fifty years, and the frequency with which temporary legislation was enacted to deal with it, these outbreaks were highly localised. About 1835 replies to a survey showed that up to eighty five per cent of parishes had had little or no terrorist activity in the previous twenty years and only two per cent had been seriously disturbed (O'Grada). The public perception however was that agrarian atrocities were frequent and widespread. 

            A rival Protestant organisation grew up in the north of Ireland which became known as the Peep o’ Day Boys whose chief aim was to search Catholic working-class cabins for firearms. This led to a counter organisation among the Catholics workers calling themselves Defenders to resist them. (This local sectarian conflict in parts of Ulster survives to the present day.) Ordinary agrarian crime spread widely in Catholic districts. The Protestant gentlemen in Armagh formed a legal body called the Orange Order from among the working men, but with the gentlemen as officers, to pursue resistance to Catholic violence by legal means, such as by enlistment in the militia or yeomanry. The Orange Order was noted for its anti-Catholic spirit, but was itself always a legal and peaceful body. As elsewhere in the English-speaking world, not least in the United States working-class Protestants were to become infected with a virulent anti-Popery feeling in the course of the nineteenth century. 

            There were two other movements among the middle and upper classes, which though separate, worked together. One was among the Catholics that aimed to achieve further relief for Catholics, and their aim was to a considerable extent achieved with the passing to the Catholic Relief Act (1793). Further negotiations still continued until 1798.

 The other was among the Whigs, who were largely Protestant, of the middle and upper classes, and their chief aim was to achieve the reform of the admittedly very corrupt Parliament. There were two major issues: one that a large number of very small seats were owned by rich landowners, who then had a disproportionate influence; the second that the king by bribery or the promise of official places could influence votes. When Parliament failed to reform itself a group of young and idealistic Whigs began to plot for an armed uprising with the support of the French.

It is now widely accepted that the bulk of their support (except in the north of Ireland) came from the local racketeers in the agrarian secret societies, though they themselves seem to have been unaware of this. Disturbances of all kinds increased; made worse by brutal and clumsy methods used by some army officers to disarm those thought to be planning a rising. The Government had quite good information on what was happening for the ranks of the various secret societies were riddled with informers.

The violence reached a climax in 1798 with a series of uncoordinated risings in various parts of Ireland. The best organised was among the Protestant linen workers in Ulster. The most notorious was the looting and rioting of vast drunken mobs in Wexford which culminated in the massacre of Protestant prisoners. Potentially the most dangerous was the landing of a single French infantry battalion in the west of Ireland. Some of the local agrarian conspirators joined them, but not in vast numbers. The French commander, seeing that the promised uprising in support of the French did not materialise, and finding himself cut off surrendered, was given his parole and honourably received in Dublin. The most difficult to suppress was in north Leinster where the Whiteboys/United Irishmen operated in smaller local units which had to be tracked down and defeated in detail. Only in Leinster had the various risings a markedly sectarian character. Only in Leinster were outrages committed on the civilian population.  The first person to be murdered was the rector of Dunshaughlin. The worst atrocity was the murder of the Protestant prisoners on the bridge of Wexford. In Leinster, some of the Catholic clergy openly joined the rioting mobs. (The most notorious was the priest of the parish Boolavogue or Boleyvogue in county Wexford who established himself as a leader of an armed gang, and was later celebrated in a famous ballad. This conveyed the impression that the Catholic clergy were again fomenting a plot to bring in the French as they often did a century earlier. The impression was incorrect as the vast majority of the Catholic bishops and priests supported the Government.)

            What was most remarkable about 1798 was the number of counties which were not disturbed, and the numbers of Catholic and Protestant workers who flocked into the militia and yeomanry to fight for law and order. (The was no ballot for the militia, but a bounty was offered instead.) After some initial reverses, despite their lack of training and experience, they acquitted themselves well even against a regular French battalion. Among almost all classes in Ireland sympathy for the French Revolution evaporated during the Reign of Terror. 

            Lord Cornwallis (well known to students of American history) and Lord Castlereagh acted with the utmost mildness to all parties, and an Act of Amnesty was passed which included almost everyone but the leaders of the rebel army. Even these were offered free passage out of the country to any neutral state that would accept them in return for a complete disclosure of information. But they had little to tell that Government spies did not already know. The leaders were detained in custody until 1802 because no neutral country, in particular the United States, would accept them. The following year Pitt decided to proceed with an Act of Union. [Top] 

Immediate Problems 

            In view of the still extensive disturbances the Government continued its emergency powers for another session of Parliament. These disturbances were not of a military nature but of the pattern of the agrarian societies such as murders and raids on houses by night. The Insurrection Act (1796), the Suspension of Habeas Corpus Act (1796), and the Martial Law Act (1796) were renewed, this time by the United Parliament. The powers conferred on the Lord Lieutenant and the magistrates by these Acts normally only came into force if the Lord Lieutenant ‘proclaimed’ a specified district under one or other of the Acts. 

The recruitment and training of the defence forces against the French had now been completed and the success of the measures was been shown by the victories of the combined army in Egypt following Nelson's naval victory at the Nile two years earlier. Within Ireland the limit on the military establishment, which had been 12,000 during most of the preceding century, had been raised to a war footing of 160,000 in 1797. In 1801 the total strength stood at 126,000, of whom 46,000 were regulars (horse, foot, and guns), 27,000 in the militia, and 53,000 yeomanry. Ireland was divided into four military districts, each with its own general staff. A central reserve was stationed at Athlone. The Channel Fleet of the Royal Navy was maintaining its blockade of the French ports, while smaller naval vessels patrolled the western coasts of Ireland. The Government had under consideration the construction of semaphore telegraphs to provide warning of a French invasion. Cornwallis had retained the mild but able Sir John Moore to improve training and discipline. (Moore disapproved of flogging.) These military preparations against the French had been continuing for some years, and the Act of Union brought no change. 

A particular problem facing the Government was the near famine conditions prevailing especially in the towns. There were various reasons for this. Crops had been poor in the three preceding years, and the price of a quarter of wheat in Dublin had risen from 42 shillings in 1792 to nearly 116 shillings in l801. Potatoes were available in the country areas but transport costs by land were prohibitively high. There were weeks of unfavourable winds at sea. The canals ran inland for only about twenty miles from Dublin. Farmers were hoarding stocks, and around Dublin rings were operating to buy up food and store it. 

Distilling was prohibited, and the Government authorised the import of rice. Half a million pounds was voted in the last session of the Irish Parliament to extend the canals. Yet another survey was made, this time by Captain William Bligh RN (formerly commander of HMS Bounty) of the port of Dublin, and the possibility of constructing an all-weather outport for Dublin at Dalkey was being considered. To cope with outbreaks of fever, which always accompanied scarcities, local authorities were empowered to construct fever hospitals. The harvest in l801 was good and these difficulties disappeared.

            The Irish economy during the eighteenth century had gradually been changing to a commercial one involving the production of crops or livestock either for direct sale on a market, or for sale as a raw material for processing as in brewing or weaving. The geographical extent of the commercial economy was limited by the costs of transporting goods where good roads or canals were lacking. Hence it was found all round the coast even to county Mayo on the west coast. Though some goods like linen yarn, salted butter in kegs, or whiskey in flagons, could be carried considerable distances on ponyback it remained true that maritime counties in general formed the commercial economy, and inland counties the subsistence economy. Nineteen of the thirty-two Irish counties touched the coast, and all the major towns were seaports. Unlike England, which had navigable streams reaching far inland, Ireland was a low plateau from which the rivers tumbled quite close to the coast. The river Boyne, in county Meath, on the east coast, was the principal exception. 

             It was the aim of all governments, Whig or Tory, during the first half of the century to develop the economy by improving communications inland, and overseas, by improving the ports, by building roads, and encouraging the digging of canals and construction of railroads. It was in the interest of Irish agriculturalists to get easy access to the large British market, and they had been trying since the seventeenth century to gain such access. A few years after the Act of Union an Act was passed allowing the free importation of Irish grain and flour into the otherwise protected British market. This proved of immense value to Ireland even if, in the long run, it did distort the natural development of Irish agriculture. Though perhaps somewhat behind that in parts of England and Scotland, agricultural development in the commercial sector was among the most advanced in the world for the time. It was one of the great mysteries how a famine could occur at all in such an advanced economy. About 1800 both Ireland and Scotland had very similar economies. Each had a well-developed agriculture on fertile land near the coast, and each had large undeveloped areas of mountain and bog. The two approaches to development were almost identical. [Top] 

The Catholic Question and the Fall of Pitt. 

            Though a majority of the people of Ireland was Catholics Protestantism was the established religion of the state. This curious fact came about for various historical reasons. In accordance with the principle of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) the monarch of each realm was allowed to choose which religion he wished to be the state religion. The kings of Ireland, who were also kings of England, embraced Protestantism. Social factors usually brought a majority of the people in each country of Europe to conform to the form of religion chosen by its king. This did not happen in Ireland, for any obvious reasons, though it did happen in Scotland, Wales, and England. The great majority of the land-owning classes and former chieftains did conform to the Established Church, but their tenantry by-and-large did not. During the nineteenth century the Catholic religion was to become a major component in nationalism, but it was not so at an earlier date. 

            Various laws were passed in each country in Europe to try to force people to adopt the form of religion chosen by the king. In Great Britain and Ireland these laws were known as 'the Penal Laws'. Because of the identification of religion with nationalism in Ireland these laws are remembered long after their counterparts in other European and American countries have been forgotten. Towards the end of the eighteenth century it was felt in various countries such as Hungary, France, and Britain, that these laws were out-moded, and many relaxations were introduced. (In the United States, though Catholics were nominally free, yet such was the strength of anti-popery feeling that the condition of Catholics with regard to public office was not very different from that in Britain or Ireland, and no Catholic was elected president until the 1960s. The Catholic candidate Al Smith was soundly defeated by Herbert Hoover in 1928, and another Catholic candidate was not put forward until 1960.) In Ireland, by the Catholic Relief Act (1793), Catholics were allowed to vote, to bear arms in the army, militia, or yeomanry, to be promoted up to the rank of colonel, to hold long leases of land, to practice as barristers in the lawcourts, and be appointed magistrates. The Catholic religion or any acts of Catholic worship had never been prohibited, and indeed, the Irish Penal Laws had been notably mild. 

            There were various restrictions still remaining. Catholics could not be judges, nor hold senior positions in the executive or the armed forces, nor become Members of Parliament. In theory they could become members of the trade guilds and so become members of city or town corporations, even if they could not hold the office of mayor or sheriff. But it was easy to prevent them becoming members of the trade guilds. Some people thought that the time had come to abolish most of the remaining restrictions. But there were others who felt that it was necessary to retain the existing restrictions in order to maintain the 'Protestant character' of the state, or as one man called it  'the Protestant ascendancy' in the state. They held, therefore, that Catholics should be allowed to enjoy all existing concessions, but no further concessions could or ought to be made to them. 'Protestant ascendancy' is thus the name of a political policy, not, as is often thought, the name of a particular group. Probably, about half of all Irish Protestants supported the policy of ascendancy. 

            Protestants at the beginning of the nineteenth century perhaps numbered over one fifth of the entire population. Protestants were divided about equally into adherents of the Established Church and Nonconformists or Dissenters. The latter were concentrated in Ulster, but the Protestants belonging to the Established Church were well distributed all along the eastern half of the island, and in the towns. In the western parts of the island the upper classes and shopkeepers and professional people in the towns were often Protestants. Protestants usually spoke English but there were quite a number of Gaelic-speaking Protestants especially in Ulster. (The percentage of Protestants in the population tended to rise over the century reaching almost 26% by 1900. This was explained by the massive emigration of Catholics from rural areas after the Famine, and the growing industrialisation of the Protestant North East.) 

            Tithes on agricultural produce had to be paid by all tillers of the soil, Protestant or Catholic, to the clergy of the Established Church. The payment of this tithe was a famous factious grievance dating back to the Middle Ages. To gain local popularity those engaged in agrarian crime usually advocated the abolition of tithes. In the 1830's Catholic priests with political ambitions made it a specifically Catholic grievance. 

            The Irish 'Non-conformist' Protestants were nearly all Presbyterians. The Presbyterians in Ireland in the eighteenth century had a reputation of being the most democratic and radical body in Ireland. Several presidents of the United States traced their ancestry to them. Some of their ministers became involved in the rising in 1798. The Presbyterian clergy received from the crown an annual stipend or bounty, known as the Regium Donum (royal gift). The Government was not at all pleased with the activities of certain ministers in 1798 but, despite this, the agent for the distribution of the Donum, the Rev. Robert Black, persuaded the Government in 1804 to increase it. This was in accord with the even-handed approach of the Government, and its desire to get or maintain some control over clergy not belonging to the Established Church. This led to proposals that the Donum should be extended to Catholic clergy as well.

            With regard to the Catholics, Pitt wished to bring in another Catholic Relief Act (provided that he could manipulate the king), and Cornwallis had canvassed for support for the Act of Union among the leading Catholics with this expectation in mind. The Government in Dublin and Westminster had in mind to attach two conditions to this further relief. The first was a royal veto on the appointment of Catholic bishops by the Pope, and the other was state provision for the clergy, i.e. paying the Catholic priests from state funds. The reason for these provisions was a belief, strengthened indeed by the actions of some priests in 1798, that many Irish Catholic priests preached rebellion. The great majority of the clergy and all the bishops stoutly denied these allegations against them. Nevertheless, when Cornwallis and Castlereagh consulted the Catholic bishops in 1799 they agreed that the Government's requirements were reasonable. Castlereagh proceeded with a census of the Catholic clergy to estimate what funds would be required. As Catholics were required by law to support the Protestant clergy so too the Protestants would be obliged to support the Catholic clergy. 

             No opposition was expected from the Pope, Pius VII (Pope from 1800 to 1823). His predecessor, Pope Pius VI, had appealed to the British Government for assistance in 1793. When the French withdrew from the Papal States following the battle of the Nile in 1798 they took the Pope with them but the admiral commanding the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean sent forces ashore to restore the papal Government in Rome. The Pope died in captivity at Valence in France on 29 August 1799, but the cardinals assembled in Venice on Austrian territory and elected a new Pope, Pius VII, on 4th March l800.

Pitt had secured the concurrence of his cabinet in these proposals but some of them were not happy about them. The king got word of what was being proposed behind his back, and also with regard to sentiments in the cabinet, and felt he could get rid of the bossy Mr. Pitt. At a royal levee he told Pitt's close friend, Robert Dundas, that young Lord Castlereagh's proposals were 'the most Jacobinical thing I have ever heard of'. He then sent for Henry Addington and asked him to form a ministry. Pitt, unable to rely on the united support of his cabinet, resigned. Cornwallis and Castlereagh then resigned as well. Cornwallis had to explain the situation to the leading Irish Catholics, but they were neither surprised nor alarmed. It was considered that the sixty-two year old king must either shortly die or go permanently mad. The king, in fact, immediately had a recurrence of his malady and Addington was unable to take office for several weeks.

 Nationalists subsequently attempted to blacken Castlereagh's name for his crime, in their eyes, of betraying his country. As an Irishman, Castlereagh was entitled to take a different view. He was an able and humane administrator.



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