1. The Act of Union
The Act of Union of 1 August 1800 marked the end of the Irish parliament. It also created a new political unit known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The idea of a legislative union was not new: political unions had taken place with Wales in 1536 and with Scotland in 1707. The Union with Ireland completed this process of political unification and meant that England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were now governed by a parliament at Westminster, in London. As a consequence of the Union, Ireland lost its own parliament in Dublin, but instead sent 100 MPs (members of Parliament) to Westminster. A common feature was that both the Irish and the British parliaments were exclusively Anglican: neither Catholics nor members of other dissenting religions could be MPs. Parliament did not represent large sections of society: only wealthy people had the right to vote; and women were unable to vote or to be elected as MPs.
The immediate stimulus for the passing of the Act of Union had been a violent uprising in parts of Ireland in 1798. A political group known as the United Irishmen had led the uprising. Many of its supporters had been inspired by the winning of political independence from Britain by the American colonies in the 1770s, and by the French Revolution of 1789. The leaders, who included Theobald Wolfe Tone, a Dublin Protestant, argued for a non-sectarian, inclusive approach to Irish politics. In order to achieve an independent Irish Republic, the United Irishmen were willing to use physical force, and requested military assistance from the French revolutionary Government. The uprising in 1798 was short-lived but brutal. As many as 30,000 Irish people were killed in the conflict. There had also been sectarian clashes which meant that tensions between Catholics and Protestants rose, fostered by the anti-Catholic sentiments of the newly-founded Orange Order.
The violence of the uprising alarmed Protestants and Catholics, including many Roman Catholic bishops. They therefore saw the Union as a safeguard against revolution and radical politics. Many Protestants felt vulnerable in the wake of the Rising, and the Union meant that they became part of a religious majority within the United Kingdom. This was important because the removal of many of the penal laws in the 1790s meant that Catholics were perceived as a threat to Protestant supremacy. The British Prime Minister, William Pitt, suggested to Irish politicians that the Union would safeguard the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland, not overthrow it. Threats and bribery were used to persuade Irish MPs to agree to the Union. Although Pitt had considered making Catholic Emancipation (the right of Catholics to become MPs) a condition of the Union as a way of appeasing Catholics, this scheme was abandoned. Consequently, the Union was the association of Great Britain with Protestant Ireland rather than with the Irish nation. For the majority of the Irish population, the Union was an irrelevance. For the Catholic middle classes, the refusal to grant them full political rights left a legacy of distrust and resentment against the Union.
2. Daniel O’Connell and emancipation
The question of Catholic Emancipation dominated Irish political life from 1801 to 1829. In the twenty years following the Union, the main supporters of Catholic Emancipation were Protestant members of parliament who tried to bring it about by constitutional means. However, conservative Irish Protestants, British public opinion, and the British monarchy remained opposed to granting full political rights to Roman Catholics within the United Kingdom. They argued that Catholics, whose first allegiance was to the Pope, would never be loyal British subjects.
The achievement of Daniel O’Connell was that he made the demand for Catholic Emancipation into a popular movement that could not be ignored. In 1823 O’Connell founded a new Catholic Association with the dual aim of winning Emancipation and promoting the general interests of Catholics. In the following year, the decision to reduce the fee for associate membership to one penny a month increased membership and popular interest in the Association. The payment, referred to as the ‘Catholic rent’, was helped by the involvement of the Catholic clergy, who were automatically members of the Association. More importantly, the great mass of the Catholic peasantry felt engaged with the political process. But Catholic Emancipation would have little direct impact on their lives. Only a few Catholic landlords would be admitted to parliament. Yet the lack of Catholic Emancipation came to symbolise all that the peasantry believed was unjust in Ireland.
The rapid growth of the Catholic Association and O’Connell’s aggressive language (although he disliked and repudiated violent methods) alarmed the British Government. O’Connell adopted a tactic of convening large public meetings that gave the Catholic demands an unprecedented visibility and unity. Emancipation was helped by disarray within British politics after 1827. O’Connell was able to take advantage of the situation by standing in a by-election in Co. Clare in 1828, even though he would be unable to sit in parliament if elected. O’Connell’s success in the election alarmed the Government and the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, supported by Robert Peel, dropped their previous opposition to Emancipation. When introducing the Bill into parliament, Wellington stated that if Emancipation was not granted, the alternative was civil war.
The granting of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 was viewed as a victory for O’Connell and his tactic of creating a mass organisation. At the same time, it was regarded as a defeat for the British Government which had been forced to concede a measure that it did not support. As a consequence of the new Act, Catholics were eligible for most offices of state, with the exception of the positions of Regent, Lord Lieutenant or Lord Chancellor. The Act, had serious limitations: the Catholic Association was suppressed, and the property qualification for the franchise (the right to vote), was increased from forty shillings (£2) to £10. Consequently, many of O’Connell’s supporters won the battle for Emancipation but lost the right to vote. O’Connell, however, emerged from the campaign for Catholic Emancipation a victor in the conflict with the British Government. Moreover, Emancipation marked the beginning, not the end, of Catholic assaults on the Protestant establishment.
3. Electoral reform
The disenfranchisement of the forty-shilling freeholders that accompanied Catholic Emancipation greatly reduced the number of voters. Electoral reform in 1832 increased their number a little, but property continued to influence electoral results. O’Connell hoped that the 1832 reform of parliament would restore the forty-shilling freeholders, but it did not. The number of Irish MPs, however, was raised from 100 to 105 (the boroughs of Belfast, Galway, Limerick, and Waterford, and the University of Dublin each gained an additional member). This increase did not reflect the large rise in the Irish population since 1800. Irish MPs remained in a minority and Irish demands, notably Repeal of the Union, would continue to lack majority support in Westminster.
Reform of local Government took longer and showed how differently voters were treated in Britain and in Ireland. The British municipal corporations had been reformed in 1834. Reform of the Irish system was not introduced until 1840. Although the 1840 legislation increased the number of voters, it was far more limited than in Britain where the franchise had been granted to all ratepayers. In Ireland it had been limited to £10 householders and thus only a small number of householders had the vote in local elections. The corporations (with the exception of one) were controlled by Protestants. The restricted limited franchise disappointed O’Connell who had hoped that the corporations could be used as a means of pushing forward Repeal. Nonetheless, he was an immediate beneficiary of municipal reform. In the local elections at the end of 1841 he was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin, the first Catholic to hold this position since the 1680s. Municipal reform, however, as with much of the legislation passed in the decades following the Act of Union, demonstrated that Ireland was not an equal partner within the Union.
4. The Orange Order and sectarian politics
The Orange Order was founded in Co. Armagh in 1795 after a sectarian clash between local Catholic and Protestant secret societies. It was an exclusively Protestant organisation (initially Anglicans but later also Presbyterians) dedicated to the memory of King William of Orange, the victor at the Battle of the Boyne (Co. Meath) in 1690. To commemorate the date of the William’s victory it was decided to hold a parade on each 12 July. The first parades were held in parts of Co. Armagh in 1796 and they were following by sectarian attacks on local Catholics. During the 1798 Rising, the number of Orange lodges grew rapidly and, by the end of 1798, there were almost 400 in the country, including 38 in Co. Dublin and 78 in Co. Armagh. The Government armed Orangemen during the uprising to enable them to act as a counter-revolutionary force in defence of Britain. From this time, the Order viewed itself as the defender of British interest in Ireland, especially against the threat of disloyal Catholics.
The granting of Catholic Emancipation alarmed many Irish Protestants, as it coincided with a wave of evangelical Protestantism, led by Henry Cooke, an outspoken Presbyterian minister in Belfast. He appealed for a united Protestant front to oppose Emancipation and, later, Repeal. Consequently, in the 1830s and 1840s, conservative Protestant theology and conservative Protestant politics moved closer together and they saw their common enemy as Catholicism. Significantly, the Orange Order, which organised protests against Catholic Emancipation, increased in size and many of its new recruits were Presbyterians. It attracted support from Protestant ministers, gentry, and members of the Irish constabulary and yeomanry. A parliamentary report into the activities of the Orange Order in 1835 found that the Order existed at all levels of society (the brother of the British monarch was a Grand Master of the Orange lodges). The report was generally critical of the activities of the Orange Order, and especially as the routes chosen for the annual 12 July parades ran through Catholic areas, thereby increasing the likelihood of sectarian fighting.
The policies of some British politicians demonstrated a concern to alleviate religious tensions in Ireland. Robert Peel, despite his opposition to the Repeal movement and his willingness to use force to maintain law and order, also introduced measures to appease Catholic opinion. He was particularly anxious to get middle- and upper-class Catholics to support the Union, especially following his conflict with O’Connell when he banned a Repeal meeting in Clontarf in 1843. In 1844, Peel established a new Board of Charitable Bequests, which included some Roman Catholic commissioners, including Archbishop Murray of Dublin. In 1845, Peel increased the annual grant to Maynooth College from £9,000 to £26,000, and provided a capital grant of £30,000 for building extensions. In the same year, he introduced a Bill for the establishment of Queen’s Colleges (in Belfast, Cork and Galway). Rather than winning Catholic support, each of these caused division and controversy. They also divided Catholic opinion. Archbishop MacHale of Tuam and Daniel O’Connell saw these actions as a way of increasing the state’s control over Catholics. Peel also angered Protestant opinion in Ireland and Britain. The onset of the Great Famine in 1845, which led to the fall of Peel’s Government in the summer of 1846, not only marked an end to this phase of conciliatory policies, but also placed relief measures at the centre of Irish policies. By 1850, both Peel and O’Connell were dead, and the death or emigration of about three million people had changed the social and political profile of Ireland.
In 1845, as a gesture of goodwill to Protestants in Ireland, especially the Orange Order, Peel had made political parades legal. The Government in 1832 had banned parades, since the annual 12 July march in particular had became an occasion of sectarian fighting. Despite the onset of a famine throughout Ireland, Orangemen were determined to march and large 12 July parades took place, especially in the north of Ireland, in 1846, 1847, and 1848. The 1848 parade was regarded by the leaders of the Orange Order as being significant due to the activities of Young Ireland in that year, and the prospect of a nationalist uprising. Some Orange Lodges offered to act as a ‘native garrison’ if there was a revolt.
Although an uprising did take place at the end of July in Co. Tipperary, the Constabulary easily put it down. The Orange Order, however, viewed it as an example of Catholic disloyalty. They disregarded the fact than many of the leading Young Irelanders were Protestant and that they advocated non-sectarian politics. The Orange Order regarded the 12 July marches in 1849 as an occasion to celebrate the defeat of the Rising. The British Government sent additional troops to areas where they anticipated clashes. Troops were sent to a small Catholic village called Dolly’s Brae in Co. Down. A local Orange lodge decided to parade through it. Despite the military presence, five Catholics were killed during fighting that night. Many Catholic homes and the Catholic chapel were also set on fire. The conflict at Dolly’s Brae angered public opinion in Ireland and Britain and the leaders of the local Orange lodges were condemned. The military were also criticised for not intervening earlier to prevent the deaths.
More significantly, in 1850 legislation (the Party Processions Act), was introduced that banned political parades. The Orange Order survived the disgrace of Dolly’s Brae and it revived in the 1860s under a new populist leader, William Johnston. He defied the ban on marches and, although he was imprisoned briefly, he emerged from jail an Orange hero and was shortly elected an MP for Belfast. Johnston was instrumental in having the Party Processions Act removed in 1872. The Orange Order also benefited from opposition to the Home Rule movement in the 1880s. The fear of a Home Rule parliament united Protestant opinion in Ireland and resulted in the formation of the Irish Unionist Party in 1885. In the final decades of the nineteenth century, therefore, a new form of militant Unionism had emerged. A casualty was the aspiration of Protestant nationalists such as Wolfe Tone, William Smith O’Brien and John Mitchel, who had wanted to keep sectarian differences out of Irish politics.
5. Land politics: agrarian conflicts, secret societies, and the tithe war
Secret societies were a feature of agrarian life in the nineteenth century. There were different ones: Whiteboys, Rockites, Molly Maguires, Threshers, Defenders, Orange Boys, although the term Ribbonmen was increasingly used to denote any Catholic secret society. Although the extent of agrarian crime may have been exaggerated, especially in British newspapers, it did make landlords feel threatened and less likely to carry out more evictions. Irish landlords used the actions of secret societies as a means of persuading the Government to take repressive coercive measures. Popular opinion in Britain, however, tended to blame Irish landlords for the perceived economic backwardness of Ireland and the poverty of her population.
Catholic Emancipation gave many Catholics a new sense of political power and some of this was directed into a new campaign known as the Tithe War. Tithes (a tax of 10% paid on crops and animals by all denominations for the upkeep of the Anglican Church of Ireland) were regarded as an unjust burden, especially by impoverished Catholic tenants. Since the middle of the eighteenth century, various secret societies had been protesting against the payment of tithes. In the 1830s the resistance became more organised, and many refused to pay. The government responded by introducing the Tithe Rent Charge Act in 1838 by which tithes became payable by landlords rather than by occupiers of land. The fact that tithes were no longer directly a charge on the tenants reduced the sense of grievance.
Despite professing support for nationalist politics, the Ribbon societies and O’Connell had an uneasy relationship. O’Connell, disliked the violent tactics of the secret societies, and saw them as competitors for the support of the peasantry. By the end of the nineteenth century the secret societies had largely been absorbed by bigger political movements such as the Land League. In parts of Ulster, however, some underground societies carried on intermittent sectarian feuding.
6. The Poor Law
The issue of poverty and how it should be relieved was a major concern of the British Government during the early decades of the nineteenth century. This was evident after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 when unemployment increased. England, Wales, and Scotland had all possessed a state system of poor relief since the sixteenth century. Ireland had no national system of poor relief. The introduction of a ‘new’ revised Poor Law in England and Wales in 1834 reflected a belief that poverty was the fault of the individual and therefore should be treated harshly. Politicians were concerned with introducing a system of poor relief into Ireland. The type of poverty in Ireland was different from that in industrial regions in England as it was seasonal and more dependent on agriculture harvests, whereas in England employment or low wages were more related to industrial cycles.
In 1838 a Poor Law was introduced into Ireland based on the revised English Poor Law of 1834. The conditions of relief provision in Ireland were deliberately made more stringent than in England and relief could only be provided within the the workhouses. In order to manage the new system, the country was divided into 130 new administrative units known as ‘unions’, each of which had its own workhouse, administered by an elected board of guardians. The upkeep of the workhouses came from taxes levied locally on the ratepayers within the union. Workhouses were central to the new system of relief: assistance could be provided only within them. The workhouse buildings were to be a physical embodiment of the harsh regime of the relief system. They were built to a standard basic design, with no additional comforts and the sign of a successful workhouse was that it deterred people from applying for relief. Those who did come into the workhouse were designated paupers, and they were expected to work, usually stone–breaking for men and housework or oakum picking for women. Children had to attend the workhouse school. The British Government feared that the Irish workhouses would be overwhelmed with applicants. In fact, during the first years of the workhouse system, few applied for admission.
The Irish workhouses had been built to accommodate 100,000 paupers, or approximately one per cent of the population. By 1845, 118 of the 130 workhouses were open and admitting paupers. Most were less than half full. The failure of the potato crop in 1845 initially had little impact on the numbers seeking workhouse relief, as Peel’s Government decided to introduce a package of temporary relief measures. Following the second failure of the potato crop in 1846, the impact on the workhouses was immediate and by the end of the year, over 100 of them were full. Because outdoor relief was not permitted in Ireland, the guardians were not able to provide any help to those they could not accommodate.
In 1847 a major change was made in the Irish Poor Law and the system was made responsible for both permanent and temporary relief. To make this possible, outdoor relief was permitted although the provisions governing it were strictly controlled. The responsibility for providing relief for such a large number of people (over one million in 1848) placed a large burden on ratepayers, and the heaviest burden fell on some of the poorest unions in the west of the country. To deal with the increased demands an additional 133 unions were created. Although the number of paupers in the workhouses fell dramatically after 1850, they still remained higher than before the Famine. Increasingly though, in the post-Famine decades, the workhouses became infirmaries for the poor of Ireland.
The granting of Catholic Emancipation marked a significant victory for Daniel O’Connell’s aspirations of obtaining reform for Catholics and Repeal of the Union. Repeal was likely to be more difficult to achieve: it did not have the support of either Irish Protestants or British politicians. Although 30 Repealers had been returned to parliament in the General Election of 1830, they were unlikely to win majority support within parliament.
What Repeal actually meant was also unclear. Although it generally meant a Repeal of the Act of Union, the relationship that an independent Irish parliament was to have with the British parliament and the British Empire was more ambiguous. In so far as Repeal meant a dismemberment of the United Kingdom (and of the British Empire), it was unacceptable to British politicians and the British public. For its Irish supporters, however, Repeal could be offered as a remedy for every grievance. Though Repeal candidates won 37 parliamentary seats in the 1832 General Election, the movement had not won support amongst British MPs. The majority of Irish MPs were actually opposed to it. In 1835, O’Connell changed his tactics when he reached an informal agreement with the Whig government, known as the Lichfield House Compact.
By 1840 O’Connell was disillusioned with the Whigs who, it seemed, would not win the next election in Britain. Moreover, his personal popularity had declined in Ireland; the number of Repeal candidates had fallen; and their income (known as ‘the O’Connell tribute’) had gone down. To revive his campaign he decided to make Repeal a popular crusade like the one that had won Catholic Emancipation. In April he launched the Repeal Association and issued a number of public ‘Addresses’ in which he criticised Government policy in general and the Union in particular. The election of a new Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, helped Repeal as the Conservatives were regarded as being defenders of Protestantism and the Union, and consequently unsympathetic to Irish demands. The support of some Catholic clergy and bishops, including Archbishop MacHale of Tuam, proved to be crucial for O’Connell in building a base of popular support, especially amongst the peasantry. Income, which was referred to as ‘Repeal Rent’, again flowed. O’Connell also began to hold ‘Monster Meetings’ which, despite his fiery rhetoric, were always peacefully conducted. O’Connell’s peaceful tactics won support for him outside Ireland, particularly in France and the United States. In America, however, O’Connell’s condemnation of slavery lost him support, especially in the southern states.
The year 1843 was declared by O’Connell to be ‘Repeal Year’, but Repeal did not have the support of key groups. By allying the new Repeal campaign so closely to the Catholic Church, O’Connell alienated moderate Protestant support in Ireland. He also failed to win much support in the north of the country: he visited Belfast only once. O’Connell also had an uneasy relationship with secret societies and his violent language (which belied his support for moderation) lost him some middle-class support. For example, at a meeting in Mallow in June 1843 he told his audience: ‘The time is coming when we must be doing. You may have the alternative to live as slaves or die as freemen’. But whilst opinion in Ireland was divided on the question of Repeal, public opinion in Britain was firmly united against it and in favour of maintaining the United Kingdom. This sentiment was encapsulated in a speech by Sir Robert Peel who told the House of Commons in 1843: ‘Deprecating as I do all war, but above all, civil war, yet there is no alternative which I do not think preferable to the dismemberment of this Empire’.
Peel got a chance to show his determination when O’Connell convened a Repeal meeting at Clontarf near Dublin in October 1843. The day before, the meeting was declared illegal. O’Connell acquiesced and cancelled it. His readiness in doing so cost him much popular support, although it was in keeping with his assertion that he would not break the law. Public support for O’Connell probably would have declined further but for the follow-up action of the Government: it decided to prosecute O’Connell and some of his associates. In May 1844, they were found guilty and imprisoned until they were released in September on appeal by the House of Lords. However, this was a turning point. It showed that unlike the Catholic Emancipation crisis in 1829, Peel was willing to face violent confrontation in Ireland rather than concede a break-up of the United Kingdom. It also showed that O’Connell, when challenged by the British Government, would draw back. After 1843, his reputation was irreparably damaged, and the Repeal movement lost its vigour and direction.
8. Young Ireland
The Repeal movement was re-invigorated by a group of young writers, men and women, known collectively as Young Ireland. The nationalist movement in Italy, under Mazzini, inspired these romantic nationalists. In October 1842 they began publishing a weekly newspaper called the Nation. It became an important means of promoting their view of Irish history and culture. The leaders of the Young Ireland group included Protestants. They were worried that the Repeal movement under O’Connell’s leadership appeared to ally Irish nationalism with Roman Catholicism. They argued that if Ireland gained independence this should not result in a Protestant Ascendancy being replaced by a Catholic one.
Various differences in approach and outlook between O’Connell and the Young Irelanders were evident from 1842, but these came to a head in 1845 over the University question. O’Connell and Archbishop MacHale opposed Peel’s scheme to establish secular universities in Ireland, what O’Connell called ‘Godless Colleges’. Young Irelanders, on the other hand, stood for non-sectarian education and supported the new universities. The split with O’Connell finally occurred in 1846 ostensibly over the question of using physical force. The Repeal movement was committed to peaceful constitutional methods and, although the Young Irelanders complied with this policy, they believed that at some stage it might be necessary to use physical force in order to achieve their ends. O’Connell used this difference to bring about a formal breach with the Young Irelanders in the summer of 1846. Because they would not adopt a resolution that they would never use force, some were expelled from the Repeal movement and others left shortly afterwards. The timing was significant. Following the fall of Peel’s Government, O’Connell hoped to renew his alliance with the Whigs and he realised that the Young Irelanders would not agree. The expulsion of Young Ireland weakened the nationalist movement just as the potato crop failed for the second time, triggering a period of abject hunger and distress.
Despite the national catastrophe facing Ireland, the Repeal movement remained divided. The split was formalised in January 1847 when the Young Irelanders established the Irish Confederation, under the leadership of William Smith O’Brien, a Protestant landlord. The condition of the country was so bad that for most people survival was more important than political debate. At first, O’Connell had welcomed the incoming Whig Government, under Lord John Russell and, despite his reservations about some of their relief policies, he generally supported the Government until his death in May 1847. The Young Irelanders, however, were critical of the relief policies of the Whigs and William Smith O’Brien, the only member of the Confederation who was also an MP, withdrew from Westminster in frustration at their policies for Ireland.
Events outside Ireland, rather than the Famine, prompted the Confederation to take a more hostile approach to the British Government. In February 1848 there was a revolution in Paris, which overthrew the monarchy. This inspired nationalists and liberals throughout Europe to seek political changes in their own countries. The February revolution had been achieved with little violence and this encouraged some leaders of the Confederation to hope that Irish independence could, likewise, be achieved with no bloodshed. Some radical Young Irelanders, including John Mitchel, believed that the Irish people should organise a violent uprising. As summer came on an uprising appeared to be inevitable, although the Young Ireland leaders argued that it should not take place until the harvest had been gathered in, to avoid any additional hunger. The British Government, nervous at the revolutionary fervour throughout the United Kingdom, particularly in Ireland, took measures to counter an uprising. The Young Ireland leaders were arrested and in May 1848, Mitchel was transported to Bermuda. Over the summer, the Government introduced various repressive measures—suspension of Habeas Corpus, the outlawing of radical newspapers, and increased troop presence, especially in Dublin. The actions of the Government precipitated a nationalist uprising at the end of July in Ballingarry in Co. Tipperary. The revolt was small, uncoordinated, and undertaken reluctantly by its leader, William Smith O’Brien. There was little bloodshed—only two of the insurgents were killed. The leaders were convicted of treason and sentenced to be hanged—a sentence later commuted to transportation for life. The significance of the Young Ireland movement lay not in their failed and inglorious uprising but in their radical republicanism which provided an important link with the 1798 rebellion. It lay not only in their use of physical force but, more significantly, in their non-sectarian approach to Irish politics.
9. Government responses to the Famine
When the potato blight first appeared in Ireland in the autumn of 1845 nobody could foresee that it would come again, at varying levels of destructiveness, over the following six years and cause a crisis that would change the subsequent economic and political development of Ireland. Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, unlike many British politicians, had direct experience of Ireland and of dealing with its food shortages. His response to the first failure of the potato was the usual one: Government grants were made available to local relief committees to provide food or paid employment and the Government imported Indian corn to stabilise food prices. These measures were successful and nobody died in the first year of shortages. However, Peel also linked the potato failure in Ireland with his longer-term aim of repealing the Corn Laws, and as a result of this action, his Government fell in June 1846.
The reappearance of the blight in 1846, on a much wider scale, meant that the most pressing problem facing Peel’s successor, Lord John Russell, was the food shortage in Ireland. The main thrust of Russell’s relief policies, following the second failure of the potato crop, was the use of public works. The relief works were meant to give the poor a minimal wage that would enable them to buy food, and at the same time the Government could make sure that only genuine applicants applied for its relief. The import of food was to be left to private enterprise: the new Government promised merchants that it would interfere as little as possible with the market. However, the Government failed to take proper account of the level of hunger and disease in Ireland in the winter of 1846–7, made much worse by exceptionally cold weather. There was snow as late as April 1847 in parts of the country. Moreover, despite the assurances of the merchants to the Government, they brought little food into the country, while large amounts of foodstuffs continued to flow outwards. As food prices rose over the winter months, the low wages paid on the public works were not enough to keep people alive.
The failure of the public works as a relief measure resulted in a change of policy at the beginning of 1847. The Government set up a network of soup kitchens in Ireland at which the destitute could receive free rations of food. At the height of the scheme, in July 1847, over three million people a day, that is approximately 40% of the population, were in receipt of Government relief. From the outset, however, the measure was to be temporary until the Poor Law could be extended in order to cope with both ordinary and famine distress. Following the harvest of 1847, the British Government announced that the Famine was over and that any future relief would be provided by the Poor Law. For the British Government, one advantages of moving to this system of relief was that it was funded from locally raised taxation in Ireland. Russell hoped that, by shifting responsibility for relief, the Government could transfer the financial responsibility to Irish taxpayers. The demands on the Poor Law were high: in 1848 over one million people were in receipt of poor relief. The Famine was far from over and high levels of excess mortality, disease, eviction, misery, and emigration continued into the 1850s. The relief measures were inadequate: this is proved by the fact that, within a period of six years, over one million people had died of famine or famine-related disease and even more had emigrated. Moreover, the various relief policies that increasingly shifted the burden to Irish taxpayers, demonstrated that even at a period of crisis, Ireland was left to her own resources, though an integral part of the United Kingdom.
The failed uprising of 1848 seemed to mark an end to the radical politics of Young Ireland, but some of its supporters had escaped to France and America. In America, anti-British feeling was kept alive by the influx of Irish immigrants, who saw themselves as involuntary exiles, victims of bad government. Moreover, deep-rooted political discontent had not disappeared. Rather, it had been intensified by the experience of the Famine years. In 1858, James Stephens returned from Paris to Ireland where he established a new revolutionary organisation, known as the Fenian Brotherhood (or IRB). A parallel branch was formed in America by John O’Mahony. From the outset, the Fenians were opposed to constitutional tactics, believing that British rule could only be ended by armed insurrection. The Catholic Church was an implacable opponent of the movement, especially the bishops led by Archbishop Paul Cullen.
The Fenian leaders believed that if an uprising was to succeed it should take place as soon as possible. However, the Civil War in America, the source of much of the financial support of the Fenians, delayed plans for an uprising. Stephens saw an advantage in the Civil War: it would (he thought) eventually provide the Fenians with a force of well-trained soldiers. The delay worked to the advantage of the British Government, which was well prepared for the insurrection when it came in 1867. The insurrection in Ireland collapsed within twenty-four hours, as did some unsuccessful Fenian attacks in Britain. However, despite the failure of the Fenians, they had won a propaganda victory. While British public opinion was opposed to their violent tactics, it was acknowledged increasingly that Ireland’s political problems would not be solved by ignoring them. In the final decades of the nineteenth century, therefore, British politicians made a renewed attempt to solve the Irish problem.
11. Liberal reforms
The Fenian uprising in 1867 was a reminder to British politicians and the British public that Irish national grievances had not disappeared. Moreover, the ability of the Fenians to organise in Britain and America demonstrated that Irish nationalism was no longer confined to Ireland itself. The political relationship between Ireland and Britain in the decades following the Fenian uprisings was to a large degree shaped by the interest and interventions of the Liberal politician and four-times Prime Minister, William Gladstone. Gladstone’s interest in Irish nationalism came late in his political career: by 1870 he had already been almost thirty years in parliament. Gladstone was a deeply religious man, a devout Anglican, and it was appropriate that his first major Irish reform had to do with the church. The Church of Ireland was the Established Church, that is, the state church. The state church was Anglican, but the religion of the majority of the people was Roman Catholic. This had been a long-running grievance in Ireland. The Disestablishment Act of 1869 separated church and state, and made the Church of Ireland a voluntary body. More importantly, most of the very extensive property of the Church of Ireland was confiscated, and a portion of it was to be used for the relief of poverty.
For Gladstone, Disestablishment was only the first of his reforms in Ireland. In his election campaign in 1868 he had promised to introduce land reform. The passing of the Landlord and Tenant Act in 1870 was the first in a series of measures that changed the balance of power between tenant and landlord in Ireland. The terms of Gladstone’s First Act in 1870 were limited but they marked a significant stage in the realisation that land lay at the root of much Irish discontent. The beginning of the Land War in 1879, which coincided with an agricultural depression, demonstrated the ongoing tensions between landlords and tenants. Gladstone’s Second Land Act, passed in 1881 granted the “Three Fs” (that is, fixity of tenure, fair rent, and freedom of sale) and established the Land Commission. By this stage, however, the piecemeal land reforms were insufficient to satisfy some of the more militant members of the Land League. Moreover, Charles Stewart Parnell had tied land reform with the demand for Home Rule. From the 1880s Irish political demands returned to constitutional tactics, under the guidance of Parnell, supported, in turn, by Gladstone.
The demand for Home Rule dominated Irish politics from the 1870s to 1914. Its strength was that the movement had the support of both radicals and moderates in Ireland, while in Britain, it had the support of many Liberals, led by Gladstone. However, Home Rule also proved to be divisive: in Britain it split the Liberal Party; in Ireland it gave birth to a new brand of militant Unionism. The British Conservative Party, in turn, allied with the Unionist cause, most notably in the person of the flamboyant politician, Lord Randolph Churchill. During this period, too, Irish politics became increasingly polarised along denominational lines. This was summed up in Churchill’s slogan ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’. Gladstone’s Home Rule Bills of 1886 and 1893 were both defeated in the British parliament, but they sowed the seeds of a militant Unionism that was increasingly willing to use force to remain part of the United Kingdom. The passing of the Third Home Rule bill in 1912, which was due to be put on the statute books in 1914, precipitated a crisis in Irish politics and the outbreak of a civil war was averted by the beginning of the First World War. The 1912 Home Rule Act was never implemented. Instead, the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, introduced the Government of Ireland Act in 1920 which created two new states in Ireland, largely divided along religious lines. As a result of the Act, the political boundaries of the United Kingdom and of Ireland were redrawn: twenty-six counties were constituted the Irish Free State, while the six northern counties became Northern Ireland and remained within the United Kingdom. The Act of Union, introduced in 1800, had survived intact for only 120 years.