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Chapter 21

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


Summary. What happened after and evaluations.


    The year 1850 marked a turning point in Irish history. This came about because death, transportation, and emigration left Archbishop MacHale and Cullen in possession of the field.

            O'Connell had died in 1847 along with Lord Duncannon (Ponsonby, Bessborough). Sir Henry Parnell had gone in 1842, Sir John Newport and Vesey Fitzgerald in 1843. Melbourne died in 1848, Peel died suddenly in 1850, and Wellington died of old age in 1852. (Marshal Soult had died the previous year but some of the younger officers in the Peninsular War were to make a hash of affairs in the Crimea in 1853.) Archbishop Crolly died in 1849 and Archbishop Murray in 1852. Another strong supporter of Murray among the bishops, Dr Kennedy of Killaloe died in 1850. 

            Frederick Conway, the great Whig newspaperman, died in 1853. Lord Cloncurry, prominent in public life since the time of Earl Fitzwilliam in 1795, died in the same year. He was an original United Irishman and close in spirit to Wolfe Tone before the latter embraced revolution. His old schoolfriend, Maurice Fitzgerald, the Knight of Kerry, friend of Wellington and Castlereagh, died in 1849. Maria Edgeworth, the great exponent of Tory estate management and educationalist, died in that year as well. Thomas Moore, the Romantic poet, or 'Ireland's national poet’ survived until 1852. Anthony Blake died in 1849, and Plunket in 1854. Chief Justice Doherty died in 1850. 

            Wyse went to Athens as ambassador in 1849 and Sheil to Florence in 1850 where he died in 1851. Sharman Crawford's political career came to an end at the General Election of 1852. Lord John Russell's connection with Ireland also effectively ended in 1852 when he lost the election. 

            Of course, many figures survived, the Earl of Fingall and Baron Bellew, Thomas Spring Rice (Lord Mounteagle), Richard Whately, the Earl of Roden, Henry Cooke, and Henry Montgomery, to name some, but there was no great popular figure among them.  

            In 1852 the long-awaited in many quarters and hoped for death of Archbishop Murray occurred. He caught a chill at a memorial service for Sheil from which he did not recover. Cullen moved swiftly to get himself transferred to Dublin, the see he always wanted. With Murray gone there was no one around whom opposition to Cullen and MacHale could focus. Joseph Dixon, the new archbishop of Armagh proved malleable. In the stifling atmosphere of clerical domination Gavin Duffy emigrated to Australia, thus removing another source of opposition. 

            MacHale and Cullen soon quarrelled. The dispute centred on personalities not politics. They were united in their hatred and fear of Protestants, and suspicions regarding any 'British' Government. Much of the drama in Irish politics centred on the three-cornered fight between Cullen, MacHale, and the Fenians, MacHale being in principle on the side of Cullen, but in practice insisting on thwarting him.  For the foreseeable future all had to work within the context of the Union. Co-operation with the Government could be warm, generously giving credit for good intentions. Or it could be grudging, suspicious, and adversative. MacHale and Cullen pursued the latter course. They were particularly opposed to all Irish Protestants, and took care to make 'Ireland' and 'Catholic Ireland' synonymous. When the next movement for Repeal, or Home Rule as it came to be called, was begun in the 1880's it was inevitable that it would become a struggle of Catholics against Protestants. In 1895, the Holy See, for all practical purposes reversed its attitude towards the Queen’s Colleges by allowing Catholics to attend Oxford and Cambridge Universities. 

            The verdict on O'Connell must be that in the last analysis he most preferred articulating Catholic grievances. He it was most of all who ensured that any independence movement in Ireland would essentially become a struggle of Catholics against Protestants. The political descendants of Young Ireland eventually won independence, but it was not the independence they sought but that which O’Connell, Cullen, and MacHale sought. The Repeal Movement he built up was then essentially a means of remedying those grievances, real or imaginary. He had no real belief that Repeal was possible. When he passed from the scene a group of Catholic bishops succeeded as his heirs, and ensured that in future every Repeal movement would essentially be a Catholic one. Every generation since has produced a handful of Protestant nationalists, but only a handful. Whether one like or disliked O'Connell, or regarded what he did as beneficial or disastrous, there can be little doubt that he proved to be the most influential man in Ireland in the nineteenth century. 

            People like Sir Henry Parnell, Sir John Newport, and Thomas Spring Rice, not to mention really great men like Castlereagh and Wellington, who did far more actual good in Ireland, are forgotten.

            'some who have no memorial

and have perished as though they had not lived,

            they have become as though they have not been born’           (Ecclesiasticus).

     The first half of the century was a period of great achievement in Ireland. The Irish at the time often felt that they were not doing as good as England, which was true in a way. But in comparison with most of the world Ireland was doing very well indeed. The fact that the population growth in many parts of Ireland was outstripping the provision of new jobs resulted in enormous swarms of beggars in towns. But this should not blind us to the real commercial achievements of those towns. I have mentioned in this book various efforts made by the Government to improve communications, but most of the effort was made by private individuals and by local bodies. Ports were improved, canals dug, roads made, bridges widened, railways constructed, rivers made navigable.  

There was in Europe and North America tremendous technological progress in the first half of the century as the new technologies devised in the previous century were adopted on a large scale. It was observed that the battle of Trafalgar (1805) and the battle of Waterloo (1815) could have been fought at any time in the preceding three centuries. The ships and guns might have been larger, but were constructed in essentially the same way. But in the nineteenth century, steam was successfully applied to sea and land transport. In 1800, machinery had been introduced only into the cotton industry, and it was water-powered. By 1850 steam power was driving the huge new machines in the other branches of the textile industry as well. In the provisions industry, in 1800 salting was the only means of preserving meat. By 1850 smoking and other forms of curing had been developed to give a much superior product. When railways were being built, Irish firms employing Irish workmen dealt with all the heavy engineering and ironwork involved. In the first quarter of the century one great ambition was construct a great coach road to connect Dublin with London through Holyhead. By 1850 London was connected to Holyhead by railway, and steam packets had displaced the sailing packets. Within a few years after 1850 Dublin was in direct contact with London by means of the electric telegraph, and messages could be transmitted in minutes rather than days. 

England was leading the world into a new industrial society with rising standards of living. Ireland was only a few paces behind. The dynamism of Irish society in the first half of the century was its most striking characteristic. 

The period from 1800 to 1850 was one of continuing social improvement as well as economic improvement. The process of modernisation did not commence with the Act of Union, and it would have been strange if it had. For most of the people in positions of importance before 1800 were still in similar positions afterwards. Special legislation for Ireland continued to be the responsibility of Irish MPs for the other MPs were little interested in it. But what had seemed a minor adjustment, when the office of Irish Secretary of State was subsumed in that of Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant. The first appointees were in office for too short a time, or were absent from Ireland too often to make much difference. But beginning with William Wellesley Pole, the office was filled by a succession of competent administrators who ensured that practice in Ireland kept pace with ever improving English standards. Indeed often, the improvement was first adopted in Ireland, and only later in England. Areas where there was marked improvement were in penal reform, the provision of hospitals, and asylums, the system of policing, the introduction of a crown and police prosecution services to remove the onus from private individuals, the reform of parliamentary representation, the gradual extension of the franchise, an civil survey to make local finances more equitable, the amelioration of the system of tithes, the modernisation of the government of towns and cities, the rationalisation of the administration of the counties, the introduction of a comprehensive poor law, the adoption of a national system of support for education, the extension of the provision for university education, the ending of penal laws against religious minorities, the reform of the Established Church, the introduction of a system of protection for agriculture (corn laws) especially to benefit Ireland, and their removal when they ceased to be advantageous, the provision of roads in areas which could not afford their cost, the provision of vast sums of public money for canals and river navigations, the abolition of sinecure posts charged on the taxes, the efficient regulation of banking and savings societies, the ending of attempts to influence the press, the legal recognition of trade unions, the updating of the laws regarding marriage,, the proper ordering of public records, and the promotion of serious empirical study of Ireland’s past history, the reorganisation of the Board of Works which was to become the Government’s vehicle for local improvements, and so on. 

Catholic nationalists have argued that if there had been a Catholic Parliament many of these reforms would have been introduced much sooner and more extensively. This is certainly true of changes to benefit Catholics. But if anyone wants to consider what an Irish Catholic Parliament would have been like in the nineteenth century he just has to look at Tammany Hall. 

            If there was one big blunder made in Ireland it was a concentration on the issue of Emancipation. The issue was a very minor one, a question more of offended dignity than anything else. But it distracted attention to the main question, and that was how to end sub-division of land, and develop a balanced rural economy; how to develop industries which could absorb the excess rural population. O'Connell often gave the impression that he did not want Ireland's problems solved, for that would take away his grievance, and consequently his chosen remedy, Repeal. 

            The Great Famine, or Great Mortality, was a tragedy that should not have happened. If sub-division had ended, had there been no agrarian crime, had, consequently, there been greater capital development in Ireland, with roads and canals pushed into Connaught; had the clergy preached honesty in work; had the gentlemen and clergy in Connaught been able to work with each other; had education spread earlier to that Province; had there been more public spirit and less leaving the task to someone else; had rings of fishermen not operated to prevent the development of the fishing industry; had provident attitudes regarding marriage been inculcated in pre-Famine days as they were afterwards; had dowries been abolished; and so on and so on, there would not have been a famine. Great efforts had indeed been made all over Ireland in the previous fifty years to do all of these things. But the crisis in 1845 was to show that in many parts of the West and South not quite enough had been done. Even so, In many parts of England, like Berkshire for example, there was as great a dependence on the potato by the poorer classes as there was in Ireland, yet local resources proved adequate to cope with the crisis. The same was true in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.  

But the Famine has entered Irish nationalist history not only as a great tragedy, but as a great crime committed by England. The Famine had little effect on Irish commercial agriculture, or on Irish industry, which were largely unaffected, Potatoes, because of their bulk, their weight, and the perishability, were traded only locally. (Not until the 1870s was the flood of agricultural imports from the Americas and Australia large enough to affect Irish commercial agriculture. And not until the 1890s was the rapidly improving Danish agriculture able to drive the Irish out of their traditional markets. Irish industries gradually faded in the second half of the century, as English factories became able to supply better goods at cheaper prices even in Irish markets. But these developments had nothing to do with the Famine. 

            The two great events affecting Ireland were the War and the Famine. Very much has been written about the Famine, usually in a very partial or partisan spirit. But the War involved almost every family in Ireland, directly or indirectly. Almost every family in Ireland had a member at one time or other in the armed or revenue services from 1800 to 1815. The War was of the greatest benefit to Ireland, in as much that the Government spent a great deal of money on works of defence, thereby promoting an inflow of capital. Also, there was a ready market for Irish grain in Britain, so the farmers and agriculture benefited. The provisions industry, too, found a ready market for its products, and salting and packing meat was carried on an industrial scale. Apart from some local insurrections in 1798 in aid of the French, Ireland like England was spared the invasion of foreign armies. The army remained very popular, and Irishmen continued to enlist in its ranks up to 1850. The families of some Irish gentleman sent so many members into the army in the course of the century, that it was observed, that conquering India was the chief family occupation. The Famine was short-lived, and affected a smaller proportion of the population for a much briefer time. Its effects too were almost all beneficial in the long term.

            Agrarian crime was endemic. At its most basic this was simply a willingness to murder opponents. All parties were united in denouncing it. There was nobody at that time that made excuses for it, saying that it was an understandable reaction to landlordism or British rule. It was clearly recognised for the evil it was, and roundly condemned. All parties were unwilling to see the liberty of the individual permanently restricted, or excessive powers given to the Government. So Act after Act was passed for the term of one Parliament, in the hope that it would be the last. No Government had as yet reconciled itself to making anti-terrorist legislation permanent. 

            Great hopes were placed by all sections of the community in education as a means of ending sectarian and agrarian strife. Education did indeed make great strides, but was itself to become one of the most contentious issues. The leaders of the three great churches, Catholic, Protestant, and Presbyterian, were agreed on making the educational system as sectarian as they possibly could.     

            All the Churches shook off the lethargy and indifference of the eighteenth century and developed their institutions. But this did not lead to a greater spirit of Christianity. On the contrary all three major Churches were riven with internal strife, and for the most part hostile to the other two. At the beginning of the century relationships between the Churches in Ireland were better than they had been for centuries, but by 1850 they never had been worse. (Despite much rhetoric about Penal Laws against Catholics, relationships between the Churches in Ireland before 1830 and the 'Tithe War' had not been bad. Many prominent families had a Protestant and a Catholic branch. The nature of the forces unleashed in the Tithe War have never been properly analysed, but the disturbances then were perhaps even more important than agrarian crime for causing bad feeling between the Churches. 

            Protestantism in Ireland grew in strength, in wealth, and in cohesion. For no very obvious reasons (apart from a theory of a Protestant work ethic) the regions around Belfast and Londonderry began to outstrip the corresponding regions around Dublin and Cork. Textiles, shipbuilding, and the manufacture of machinery prospered in the NorthEast. As a result the relative proportions of Protestants in the population slowly increased. They formed an estimated 19% of the population in 1834, 23% in 1881, and 24.5 % (counting both parts of Ireland together) in 1936. Toryism strengthened its hold on the Established church, while, under the leadership of the Rev. Henry Cook (d. 1868) the Presbyterians of the General Assembly moved towards Toryism and Unionism. 

            The attitudes which shape modern Irish politics matured in the generation between 1850 and 1880, which is why the victory of the political faction of the Catholic clergy at Thurles marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. 

            At the end of the first half century, it may be asked if Pitt’s experiment of a parliamentary union had proved a success, and the answer must be no. But its failure must be attributed to a considerable extent to the activities of one extraordinary individual with a very strange personality. For him, repeal of the Act of Union was never a genuine objective, but a means of maintaining his own popularity, and trying to extort various concessions for his own followers by threatening to start yet another Repeal campaign. He succeeded in fomenting a permanent sense of grievance among Irish Catholics who had broadly accepted the Union in 1800. Yet almost all the beneficial legislation that was passed was due to the efforts of well-disposed Englishmen like Peel, or hardworking Irishmen like Sir Henry Parnell. His campaigns also ensured a perpetual hostility between Catholics and Protestants. 

            Yet it can be argued that the ultimate cause of the failure of the Union was the influence of the secret agrarian societies which no amount of legislation was ever able to uproot. They were exclusively Catholic, and their lawless activities were directed most against Protestants. Most Protestants came to see a Catholic-dominated Ireland, as one dominated by the agrarian criminals. The problem was never solved. There was as much agrarian crime in the first decade of the twentieth century as in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Everyone assumed that it was the members of the secret societies who filled up the ranks of ‘armies’ fighting for Irish independence. (The ‘Molly Maguires’ were the most notorious example of the transplanting of the system into the United States.) 

            The Act of Union was brought in to advance the Catholics, but many Catholics came to believe that by turning against the Protestants they could do better for themselves in an independent Ireland that they alone controlled. Whether that was better for Ireland is a different question. 

            Ireland, like the United States, in the first half of the century was largely at peace. Though a great war raged around it, it was not invaded. Like the United States, its efforts were directed towards the arts of peace. Like the United States also its population grew rapidly. Though America had ultimately a safety valve in the great prairies to its west, much of its development in the first half of the century was in the mountainous and forested states of the east. The population expanded up the mountains and into the forests, and as in Ireland gradually refluxed either in the great cities, or into the lands to the west. The difference was that in the United States this migration was within the country, while for the Irish the great cities and better lands were outside her borders. 




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