The campaign for Catholic Emancipation, 1823–1829

Contributors: GD, TOR.

‘I would rather give up my throne and beg from door to door throughout Europe than consent to such a measure’

George III

1. Introduction

‘The Catholic question’—political equality for Roman Catholics—was the most divisive issue in British domestic politics in the first thirty years of the nineteenth century. Such concessions aroused profound fears for the constitutional stability of the state and arose from a deep religious prejudice. However, the pressing need to pacify Ireland and a more liberal climate of opinion in England in the late 1820s ensured that any legislation would, in time, be pushed through.

Catholic Emancipation was finally granted by the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 13 April 1829 (10 Geo. IV, c. 7). It provided a new oath of allegiance, enabling Catholics to enter Parliament. Catholics were allowed to belong to any corporation and to hold certain positions that they were previously barred from, namely, many high-ranking Governmental, administrative and judicial offices. The Act applied to the whole of the United Kingdom.

2. Background to the Campaign

After the Reformation and the establishment of the Anglican Church, the British Government enacted laws discriminating seriously against non-Anglicans, that is, Catholics and Dissenters. This was particularly serious in Ireland where over 80 percent of the population were Catholic and about 4 percent were Dissenter. Catholics were viewed as potential traitors, as un-British, and having divided loyalties. The situation worsened in the early eighteenth century when the Irish Parliament passed further and more seriously discriminatory laws against Catholics: they were subject to punitive taxation, not allowed to possess weapons, and discriminated against in terms of access to education, employment, property rights, and freedom of worship.

Educated Catholics began to agitate humbly for concessions in the eighteenth century, and with some success. These concessions came in the form of ‘Relief Acts’ in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The Bogland Act of 1772 (11 & 12 Geo. III, c. 21) allowed Catholics to take 61–year reclamation leases of bogland. The Act of 1774 (13 & 14 Geo. III, c. 35) made it possible for ‘subjects of whatever persuasion’ to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Crown. However, this should be seen in the context of the generous concessions made to Catholics in Canada in the same year through the Quebec Act (14 Geo. III, c. 83 [G.B.]), which allowed Quebec Catholics free exercise of religion and exempted them from the Oath of Supremacy. The Catholic Relief Act of 1778 (17 & 18 Geo. III, c. 49—Luke Gardiner’s Act), enabled Catholics to inherit in the same way as Protestants and to take out leases for up to 999 years. Further relief measures in 1782 allowed Catholics to purchase and inherit freehold land (except in parliamentary boroughs), to ‘teach in school’, and act as guardians. From April 1791, they were allowed to practise law, and Sir Hercules Langrishe’s Act of 1792 (32 Geo. III, c. 21) opened the way for them to become barristers and solicitors. Although much opposed, the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 (33 Geo. III, c. 21—Robert Hobart’s Act), gave Catholics the right to bear arms, enabled them to hold some civil and military offices, to attend Trinity College, and conceded a parliamentary franchise. By the end of the century, only exclusion from Parliament and some of the higher offices remained.

A minority of liberals and radicals in Parliament supported the campaign for Catholic Emancipation. In Ireland, Emancipation was an extremely contentious issue because many Protestant Anglo-Irish believed that Catholics were inferior. More importantly, as a minority they feared that they would lose their power and status if Catholics were given political rights. Roman Catholicism had been seen as a threat to the English constitution for three centuries following the Reformation. A virulent hatred and fear of popery was widespread in Parliament and among the people. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Europe was in revolutionary turmoil, Britain’s stability and safety were seen to depend on defending the Protestant constitution. To many this meant continuing to exclude Catholics from political and public life. Many ordinary Britons who signed anti-Catholic petitions in 1828–9 saw themselves, as part of a native tradition of resistance to Catholicism which stretched back for centuries. In Surrey, an anti-Emancipation pamphlet called Queen Mary’s Days was circulated, containing images of the burnings of Protestants at Smithfield. As many as 3,000 anti-Emancipation petitions poured in from the countiesplaces that had never petitioned Parliament before, or that Londoners had probably never heard of—such as Ysceifiog in Flintshire, Screveton in Nottinghamshire, and Troedyraur in Cardiganshire. In Kent, as many as 60,000 people assembled at a monster anti-Catholic meeting on Penenden Heath. While such actions showed an intense dislike of Catholicism (rather than anti-Irishness), the lack of violent protest in 1829, in contrast to the Gordon Riots which followed the Catholic Relief Act (1778), showed that many Britons no longer feared Catholicism as much as their ancestors.

William Pitt, leader of the Conservatives, and his Irish secretary, Lord Castlereagh, claimed to support Emancipation and promised that Catholics and Protestants would have equal rights in the Houses of Parliament as a condition of the Act of Union in 1800. King George III refused to sanction the promised Bill. Pitt and Castlereagh resigned from Government and the question was shelved. Petitions seeking full civil and political rights for Catholics were presented to Parliament but were rejected by large majorities in 1805 and 1808. Nevertheless, there was a gradual but steady increase in support for Catholic relief. An Emancipation Bill introduced in 1819 by Henry Grattan, the foremost Irish politician, was defeated by only two votes. Another Bill introduced by William Conyngham Plunkett in 1821 passed the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords, which remained staunchly opposed to it.

3. The Catholic Association: Origins & Organisation

The campaign for Emancipation was mainly restricted to elites until Daniel O’Connell took up the cause in the 1820s and made it an issue for the people at large. A Kerry landlord and a lawyer by profession, O’Connell saw the problems of the Irish poor at first hand and genuinely wanted to alleviate their condition. He believed that a limited form of self-government for Ireland was the answer to its social, economic, and political ills. He realised, however, that the Government would never concede this unless there were more Irish, and in particular, Catholic representatives in Parliament. O’Connell planned, then, to win Catholic Emancipation in the first instance.

In 1823, O’Connell and Richard Lalor Shiel, another prominent advocate of Irish interests, founded the Catholic Association to campaign for an end to discrimination against Catholics, and to attain religious equality and political rights. This marked a new and most significant phase in the campaign for Catholic rights. Initially, O’Connell and Shiel intended the Association to comprise the leaders of Catholic Ireland. Seventy members enrolled at the outset and voted on a constitution that committed them ‘to adopt all such legal and constitutional measures as may be most useful to obtain Catholic Emancipation’. Members paid a subscription fee of one guinea per annum [£1-1s.-0d.=€110 at 2007 values], and attended meetings each Saturday, with a quorum of ten members. To allay any fears of revolutionary intent or activity, the Association decided to conduct all its business openly and in public. It allowed reporters or other interested parties (who were not members of the Association) to attend its meetings and consult its minute books and lists of members.

Despite the ability and dedication of its leaders, the Catholic Association made little impression on Government, Parliament, or the public in its first few months. Support was weak, even from members. Meetings were often cancelled because there were less than ten members present. Critics of the new Association ridiculed and dismissed the ‘Roman Catholic Popish Parliament of Ireland’ as insignificant. Its leaders, however, were able and dedicated. O’Connell and Shiel were celebrated orators. Shiel, a prominent lawyer and son of a Waterford merchant, was an efficient organiser and a first-rate propagandist, in print and in speech. He devised the Association’s census project (see §5), and was largely responsible for mobilising and co-ordinating Catholic priests. Shiel also kept the foreign press, especially in sympathetic France, up-to-date about the campaign for Catholic Emancipation. Frederick William Conway, editor of the Dublin Evening Post, was another prominent leader of the campaign. A Protestant committed to the Catholic cause, Conway was one of the earliest and most active members of the Association, and promoted its aims through his well-regarded newspaper. Thomas Wyse, head of a great Catholic landowning families of Waterford, quickly became one of the most important members of the Catholic Association which he joined in 1826. He was almost solely responsible for the successful election of the Association’s candidate in Waterford in 1826. Wyse also wrote a best-selling history of the movement, A historical sketch of the late Catholic Association of Ireland (1829), which is still an invaluable source for its activities.

4. Campaign Tactics: Catholic Rent

O’Connell was interested in American and French campaigns of resistance and movements for reform, cases where a majority of the people united to force Government to accept their demands. Influenced by these examples, O’Connell modelled his tactics on theirs. He planned to transform the Dublin-based elite group into a nationwide popularly-based organisation. In February 1824, ten months after its foundation, he proposed that every Catholic in Ireland should become an associate member by subscribing a penny a month. This was soon called the ‘Catholic Rent’. O’Connell’s appeals to Irish Catholics, rich and poor, to take up the cause of Emancipation had impressive results. Within weeks, Catholic lawyers ‘on the circuit’ (working in provincial courts), businessmen, and clerics brought his plan to the countryside. In all parts of the country, public meetings were held, often in town halls or local churches, and people were appointed to organise the collection of the ‘Catholic Rent’. Prominent members of the Association commonly attended these meetings and their passionate speeches on justice and equality caused great excitement. The public responded with overwhelming enthusiasm and the Association became the first mass populist movement in Ireland. Rank-and-file members, mainly poor or middle class, had little to lose and everything to gain by joining the Association.

As well as establishing a nationwide network of local branches, the Dublin-based Central Committee continued to hold weekly meetings and members of the public were invited. At these the Association debated topical issues and discussed tactics. As numbers increased the Association had to move to larger premises in the Corn Exchange. This building, with office accommodation, a committee room, and a drawing room, met all its needs. Its central room, a large hall filled with benches like the House of Commons, could accommodate several hundred. It had another unexpected advantage. The coal porters who worked beside the Corn Exchange acted as a guard for members of the Association and protected them from agitated Orangemen who tried to disrupt the meetings. In later years, O’Connell often declared that it was Dublin’s coal porters who ‘carried’ Emancipation.

The most important element in uniting Catholics in the campaign was the penny subscription or ‘Catholic Rent.’ When O’Connell first proposed the scheme in February 1824, he declared that it would provide the Association with at least £50,000 [approx. €5.25 million at 2007 values] a year and give every Catholic in Ireland an interest in the campaign. This figure was not reached but the Association had a secure income, and (as O’Connell hoped), it helped to unite Catholics. In each county, a treasurer, secretary, and committee were appointed to organise regular collections and to send the returns to the Central Committee in Dublin. People generally volunteered their services and agreed to work in pairs and collect in given areas. In some rural areas, especially where landlords were hostile to the Association, collectors did not visit homes and instead collected the Rent outside chapels, after Sunday mass, once a month. Although there were some complaints of intimidation or harassment by collectors, contemporaries remarked on the great eagerness amongst Catholics throughout Ireland to contribute to the campaign.

The Catholic Rent was used to finance the Association, pay for meetings, speakers, travel, and publications, and to compensate tenants who were evicted because of their membership. William Gregory, Under-Secretary in Dublin Castle, described the minimal fee as ‘the most efficient mode that could be devised for opening direct communications between the popish Parliament and the whole mass of the Irish population’. James Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, described the Rent in 1824 as ‘the most efficient measure ever adopted by any Catholic body’. At the end of its first year, the Association had an income of £1,000 [approx. €105,000 at 2007 values] per week (that is 960,000 pennies each month, there being 240 pence in the pound), and savings of £10,000 [approx. €1 million].

5. Cenusus Gathering

Another important strategy, proposed by Shiel, encouraged people, with clerical help, to co-operate with the Government’s census. Previously, people were suspicious because they thought the Government used the census to impose more taxes. The result greatly encouraged the Association because it showed the extent to which Catholics outnumbered Protestants and the degree of discrimination against Catholics.

Wyse described the importance of the census in convincing Catholics of the justice of their claims to equal civil and political liberties:

Whole parishes were stated to exist where it was not possible to meet a single Protestant; rich rectorships were discovered without a single parishioner; teachers were mentioned to have been paid out of lavish parliamentary grants who had not a single scholar; churches were allowed to fall to ruin by their opulent incumbents, that they might be rebuilt by a starving people, while within a few miles’ distance, flocks of thousands might be found with no other chapel than a thatched hovel to shelter them from the visitation of the elements. … Till the period of its [the census] introduction, the details of Catholic grievance and Catholic strength were comparatively unknown (Thomas Wyse, Historical sketch of the late Catholic Association of Ireland (2 vols, London 1829).

6. Petitions

Local branches of the Catholic Association, as well as the Central Committee in Dublin, lobbied politicians in Parliament, drew up petitions for Government and the Crown, organised legal assistance for poor farmers victimised by landlords, and encouraged freehold tenants (the wealthier ones) to register properties to qualify them to vote.

The Catholic Association kept up pressure on Government by raising Irish grievances at every opportunity in Parliament. It did this primarily through petitions, drawn up by local branches of the Association, and signed by hundreds of thousands of people throughout Ireland. Before the establishment of the Catholic Association, petitions were mainly polite requests for Emancipation or for even lesser concessions. The Association planned to plague Parliament with constant complaints and with forceful demands for change. O’Connell explained this policy at a large meeting in Dublin in July 1824: ‘No act of oppression should occur from the Giant’s Causeway to Cape Clear, but they should drag it before Parliament’.

During the six years of its campaign, the Association petitioned for reforms in many areas other than its ultimate goal, Emancipation: an end to corrupt administration of law and order; an end to the dominance of the Established Church; abolition of tithes (obligatory payments by all, regardless of religion, to support the Established Church) and other unfair taxes; repeal of the remaining Penal laws, of the Act of Union, and the of Act suppressing the Catholic Association; suppression of Orange lodges; Government assistance for Catholic education; relief and welfare for the most needy (Poor Laws); and a general investigation into bad conditions in Ireland and measures to improve them. In 1829, the last year of the campaign, about 1,700 petitions were sent to each House of Parliament. By this time, the Central Committee in Dublin had worked out a system to help country branches to prepare petitions. It sent examples of petitions, some specifically for Emancipation and some against local grievances, to parish priests and committee members to distribute locally. Volunteers brought petitions from house to house or priests announced them from the altar commonly on Sundays when tables were set up outside chapels where people were presented with pens and ink to sign. This petition campaign had some success. Its direct effect was to provoke heated debates in Parliament, and publicity in the press, which increased sympathies for Irish demands in the House of Commons and prepared the groundwork for Emancipation Bills in 1825 and 1829.

7. The Catholic Clergy

Catholic clergy quickly took a leading role in the Association, a new and fateful departure in Irish politics. Previously, the Catholic Church had been reluctant to play an active role in politics. Now priests throughout Ireland became committed members of the Association and were instrumental in the growth and organisation of its campaign. Clergy were commonly the most energetic and enthusiastic collectors of the Catholic Rent. Some priests, according to contemporary reports, threatened or denounced from the pulpit parishioners who refused to pay. This did not mean, however, that Catholics were unwitting victims of dictatorial priests. In some places, people threatened to boycott priests who refused to assist the campaign. This had serious practical as well as spiritual implications for clerics whose income was solely dependent on voluntary contributions from parishioners.

Catholic bishops, for the most part, helped promote the cause. For example, James Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, one of the most influential, was instrumental in rallying clergy at the outset of the campaign, and continued to be amongst its most vocal supporters. In the autumn of 1823, Doyle published a pamphlet entitled: A vindication of the religious and civil principles of the Irish Catholics. Over 8,000 copies were circulated by priests to promote the campaign. Other bishops helped the cause by providing the Association with lists of clergy in their diocese and appealing publicly to priests and people to support the campaign. Clerical support helped to mobilise parishioners and many people considered the campaign to be as much about religion as civil rights.

According to Thomas Wyse, clerical support gave the campaign a crusade-like quality:

A sort of religious sanction was thus communicated imperceptibly to a cause, which to those not immediately engaged in its promotion appeared purely and altogether political: the very principle upon which the exclusion had originally been founded was religious; and the late crude efforts at proselytism by the opposite church had enhanced not a little this conviction in the mind of a large mass of the population, that the whole struggle was religious (Thomas Wyse, Historical sketch of the late Catholic Association of Ireland (2 vols, London 1829).

8. Popular and Official Responses to the Campaign

Passions ran high in Ireland in the 1820s. O’Connell was a constitutional nationalist and opposed in principle the use of force to achieve political ends. He insisted from the beginning that the campaign could only succeed if it were non-violent. Nevertheless, the threat of violence was still very much present at the beginning. Secret societies waged a bloody campaign against high rents, tithes, and evictions. The Government responded with coercion: trial without juries, curfews, and martial law. William H. Gregory, one of the longest serving Civil Under-Secretaries of Ireland (1812–31) favoured just such a policy of repression over concession. He served under five Lord Lieutenants and six Chief Secretaries and he formed close personal ties with Robert Peel. O’Connell described Gregory as the real ruler of Ireland at this time and the ‘very demon of Orangeism at the Castle’. The son of a Galway landowner, he had been educated at Harrow, Cambridge, and the Inner Temple. He married into one of Ireland’s most powerful Ascendancy families and while he had an interest in promoting the welfare of the Irish population, his views were largely uncompromising and rigidly Protestant. As Under-Secretary, Gregory was continuously resident in Dublin, and he was responsible to the Chief Secretary for the routine workings of the whole Irish Administration. He handled most of the incoming correspondence to the Irish Government at Dublin Castle and corresponded with the Chief Secretary, often absent from Dublin, advising him on events in Ireland. As the centre of communication within the government, Gregory came to exercise great authority during his long tenure in the Castle. Thomas Wyse wrote that Gregory ‘held in his hands the destinies of Ireland’. He strongly opposed Catholic Emancipation, believing that the ‘menacing rebels’ should be subdued before any concessions were offered.

O’Connell denounced intimidation and violence by agrarian secret societies—as well as by Orangemen—and appealed to their members to give up violence. While insisting that political agitation was the only way to achieve civil liberties, O’Connell forcefully expressed the grievances of the discontented masses. From 1824, the rates of agrarian crime decreased. O’Connell claimed, with reason, that the Catholic Association had restored calm to the countryside by giving country people a constitutional means of expressing their demands. Police officials and administrators backed up reports that the Catholic Association had pacified Ireland.

As well as condemning violence, O’Connell argued that most people were peaceable by nature. He denied that Irish Catholics were inherently rebellious or instinctively hostile to Britain, its Government, or the Crown. He emphasised continuously that Irish Catholics were loyal and wanted to strengthen the link with Britain, not destroy it. The Association frequently began petitions for reform with a declaration of loyalty to the throne and its representatives in Ireland. It even placed a portrait of George IV in its meeting rooms. The Association argued that to end agitation in the countryside and ensure the continued loyalty of Irish Catholics the Government must end discrimination against them and treat them justly.

In spite of the Catholic Association’s stress on its loyalty, many were very suspicious of its activities and motives, and worried about its popularity in the countryside. They feared that the country people could turn violent very easily, inflamed by fiery speeches about discrimination and injustice. These fears were sharpened by reports about people drilling as if for war, and by rumours about the possibility of foreign intervention by France or the United States. Both countries followed developments carefully and were obviously sympathetic to Catholic demands. Irish-Americans had founded societies in many towns and cities in the United States to raise money and support for Emancipation and this was a great help to the Catholic Association.

The Government, as well as Protestant and Anglo-Irish observers, were particularly and increasingly concerned about the ability of the Catholic Association to rally hundreds of thousands of people at short notice. This was powerfully demonstrated on Sunday, 13 January 1828, at a series of simultaneous meetings in over 1,600 parishes nationwide. In Ulster, there were numerous clashes between thousands of assembled Catholic Association supporters and angry Protestants. By 1828, many liberal Protestants in Ireland, who had supported the Catholic Association, withdrew. Ultra-Protestants, predominantly in Ulster, reacted more forcefully by founding Brunswick Clubs to oppose Emancipation by all means necessary, and the old cry of ‘No surrender’ was heard again. Tensions were raised by reports that tenants were threatening to withhold rents and tithes. To try to improve the situation, the Catholic Association sent thousands of letters to the most disturbed areas, especially Tipperary, urging people to stay calm. In a public letter, O’Connell urged people in the south-west to call off all meetings in the short-term, and two ‘pacificators’ were sent to the south to reinforce this appeal. These measures helped restore quiet. Indeed, the journey of the two Catholic Association delegates became an occasion of great public celebration in Tipperary, Clare, and Limerick. People drew their carriages themselves through the streets and turned out in huge numbers with torches and lanterns to welcome them.

In this uneasy period of calm, Emancipation remained a source of constant and fierce debate in Britain. Liberal party members and voters generally supported Catholic demands for reform. Conservatives, whose party was in Government, denounced the Association as radical, even revolutionary, and demanded its suppression. Anglo-Irish opponents of Emancipation inflamed passions by warning of immediate catastrophe. The Government responded by declaring the Catholic Association illegal. On 4 February 1825, the Government announced that it would outlaw political organisations that existed for more than fourteen days.

9. The Emancipation Bill of 1825 and the ‘Wings’ Controversy

To soften its suppression of the Catholic Association, the Government agreed to consider a Catholic Relief Bill and O’Connell was invited to negotiate the terms with its architect, Sir Francis Burdett MP. In order to win as much support as possible in Parliament, O’Connell agreed to some Government demands: to accept state payment of Catholic clergy and to raise the property qualification for franchise. These concessions, known as the ‘Wings’ to the Bill, caused uproar in Ireland. Many people were deeply opposed to the ‘Wings’ because they feared it would compromise the Catholic clergy and too many tenants, the ‘forty-shilling freeholders’, as they were called (who formed a large part of the electorate), would lose the vote.

Sir Francis Burdett’s Emancipation Bill of 1825 was passed by the House of Commons but rejected by the Lords, by 178 to 130. The defeat damaged O’Connell’s reputation. For a while there was intense popular opposition to the Bill and mass indignation at O’Connell for having agreed to such objectionable terms. The controversy convinced O’Connell not to make such compromises again.

To repair the damage done by the ‘Wings’ controversy and to regain popular confidence, O’Connell focussed on rebuilding the Catholic Association and reuniting its members. In its Suppression Bill, the Government prohibited societies from discussing political matters for more than fourteen days. It did not, however, prevent organisations from meeting to discuss non-political matters. O’Connell, undaunted, changed its name and declared that he would continue to do so. Although flouting the law, O’Connell argued that the laws themselves were morally wrong and that Catholics were therefore justified in opposing them. Thus, in July 1825, O’Connell established the ‘New Catholic Association’ to work for ‘public peace and harmony’, to promote ‘a liberal and religious system of education, to conduct a census of the Catholic population, to encourage charitable activities and such other purposes as are not prohibited by the said statute’.

In spite of the ‘Wings’ controversy, the movement for Emancipation grew in strength. People continued to hold mass demonstrations throughout the country and the first annual provincial meetings were held in Munster, Leinster and Connacht in 1825. In the Ulster counties there was a significant Protestant population generally opposed to the movement. In the other three provinces, however, these annual meetings became a crucial part of the campaign. Towns competed with each other for the privilege of hosting them and the successful bidder planned the programme for months in advance. O’Connell, Shiel or other prominent leaders of the Association addressed these day-long events that attracted hundreds of thousands from surrounding counties.

10. The Campaign for Votes and Electoral Victories, 1826

Under the Act of Union, Ireland was represented in the House of Lords by four Church of Ireland bishops and twenty-eight members of landed gentry (known as ‘temporal peers’). The latter were elected for life by Irish peers in the House of Commons. These ‘Lords’ voted against Emancipation, two to one, and were often openly hostile to Irish demands. The representatives in the House of Commons, including one hundred Irish MPs were, for the most part, more sympathetic. Over a half of the Irish representatives were pro-reform and the rest voted against Emancipation.

Irish Catholics who had property worth at least forty shillings (£2) per annum had been given the right to vote in 1793. There were over 100,000 of these registered in the 1820s, the most numerically significant group of voters in Ireland and crucially important, therefore, in elections. Landlords were dependent on the votes of forty-shilling freeholders (as they were called) and used influence or intimidation to ensure the tenants voted for them.

The year 1826 was one of mass meetings and increasing excitement about the coming elections. O’Connell realised that a greater show of strength in the country and in Parliament was essential to force the Government to grant Emancipation. Leaders of the Catholic Association appealed to its members to vote for pro-Emancipation candidates only. The campaign was a success. The Catholic Association candidate in Waterford was elected and the landlords’ dominance was broken. Further successes followed in Cavan, Monaghan, Westmeath, and Louth when large numbers of forty-shilling freeholders went against their landlords to vote for pro-Emancipation candidates. The most dramatic victory was in Clare in 1828. O’Connell’s overwhelming success there finally persuaded Government that Emancipation could no longer be denied. These elections were the most important elements in the campaign from 1823 to 1829.

Catholics were an overwhelming majority in the Waterford constituency: forty-one Catholics to every Protestant. Thomas Wyse had organised a committee in Waterford in August 1825 to defeat the Beresfords who had dominated politics in the county for over seventy years and were staunchly opposed to Catholic reforms. Wyse’s central committee, based in Waterford city, co-ordinated the branch committees in every barony. They compiled lists of electors and reported on progress throughout the county. They canvassed the freeholders of Waterford urging them to ignore pressure from landlords to vote for the sitting MP, Lord George Beresford, and to support the Emancipation candidate, Villiers-Stuart. Members of the committee went out to the parishes and addressed the people in chapels for eight Sundays before the elections. The Central Committee of the Association in Dublin was doubtful at the start about success. Reports from Waterford, however, were encouraging and Wyse’s committee believed that they could persuade people to go against their landlords and break the Beresford hold on power. On 13 June 1826, ten days before the election, they made a fervent appeal to the people of Waterford and O’Connell announced plans to visit Waterford on Villiers-Stuart’s behalf. Crowds poured into the city to enjoy pre-election activities, all carefully controlled by the butchers of Ballybricken, one of the oldest areas of the city where markets and public events were commonly held. There were daily rallies in favour of both candidates and speeches by leading members of the Catholic Association, including O’Connell, who attracted hundreds of thousands of people. Commentators described the excitement in the city. People everywhere carried green flags or wore green ribbons, handkerchiefs, or hats to demonstrate colourfully their support for Villiers-Stuart. Even those most bitterly opposed to the Catholic cause remarked how well conducted the assemblies were, in spite of popular expectations (given that election rallies were quite frequently scenes of riotous celebration or conflict).

When voting began the electors of Waterford showed their independence of spirit and voted overwhelmingly for the Catholic Association candidate. Beresford got 528 votes, Villers-Stuart, 1,357. Richard Power, the other pro-Catholic candidate and a standing MP, was returned to parliament with 1,424 votes. As polling drew to a close, Beresford accepted his total defeat and withdrew from the election. At this time, Villiers-Stuart and Power had enough votes to make their victory certain and 700 freeholders were still waiting to give both these candidates their vote.

The election in Waterford took the country by surprise. Ascendancy land owners realised that they could no longer dominate politics or expect to be re-elected to parliamentary seats that their families had controlled for decades. The Government realised that the Catholic Association was a powerful force that could bring about a peaceful revolution if it could get pro-Emancipation candidates elected in other counties. O’Connell was well aware of the vital importance of the forty-shilling freeholders.

11. 1828: Victory in Clare and Crisis in London

In January 1828, a Conservative Government, led by the anti-Emancipation Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, was returned to power. The campaign was stepped up. On 13 January, the Catholic Association held simultaneous meetings all over the country to demonstrate its strength. O’Connell claimed that over 100,000 met in Dublin, and almost five million in the countryside, and defiantly warned the Government against suppressing the movement:

If they pass an Act, preventing any three men from meeting to discuss Catholic affairs, we will take off our gloves, and hold up our hands in the street, declaring that we are not speaking on Catholic affairs (cheers). We will talk of them at dinner; if they prevent us from speaking at our meals, we will proclaim a fast day, and in prayer we shall talk of Catholic politics. We will speak of them whilst we sip our tea and coffee. I defy them to prevent us—if they prevent us from talking politics, why we will whistle or sing them (loud cheers). We shall implicitly submit to the letter of the law—but that shall be the extent of our obedience.

The Government realised that it would be impractical, if not impossible, to suppress the movement and did not attempt to do so. In July, the Association dropped the ‘New’ from its title and resumed all its old activities, stronger than ever: 10,000 full members, over three million associate members, and a weekly income of over £2,000 [approx.  €210,000 at 2007 values]. Much of this money paid Catholic lawyers to defend Catholics in court. The Association also set up arbitration boards in the country to act as local courts in opposition to the official courts. The Association believed, however, that Emancipation and equality at law could only be won through parliament.

In 1828, O’Connell decided to run himself as a candidate for the House of Commons when a surprise election was announced in Co. Clare. The MP for Clare, William Vesey-Fitzgerald, had to stand for re-election because he had been appointed to a Government position (President of the Board of Trade) which carried a salary. O’Connell decided to stand against him to test the Government’s resolve. He was allowed to stand as a candidate for election but would not be allowed to take his seat in parliament if he won because he was Catholic.

Vesey-Fitzgerald, an Anglican, was a moderate in politics and supported the campaign for Emancipation. Nevertheless, O’Connell felt it was the right time to put the question to the people and to increase pressure on the Government. He called on people in Clare to vote for him and for Emancipation and to force the Government to act. Under-Secretary Gregory wrote from Dublin Castle on 7 July that ‘whatever fears may be entertained from the excited feelings of the Catholics, I apprehend greater danger from the sullen indignation of the Protestants’. O’Connell was elected MP for Co. Clare in 1828 with a huge majority, which Peel described as ‘an avalanche’. This was the crisis O’Connell hoped for. On 12 August 1828, George Dawson MP for Londonderry, was heckled by a hostile crowd during his speech at the annual Orange dinner held to commemorate the lifting of the Siege of Derry (1689). Previously an unbending defender of the Protestant Ascendancy, he now believed that the only alternative to crushing the Catholic Association was to ‘look at the question with an intention to settle it’. News of Dawson’s speech soon reached London. Peel was furious and reported to Wellington that ‘The King has a deeper tinge of Protestantism than when you last saw him’. In January 1829, Peel wrote to Under-Secretary Gregory in Dublin Castle arguing that Catholic Emancipation seemed the only practicable course to take:

‘Will I advise the King to take the only remaining course—I myself shrinking from the sacrifices and responsibility that it entails—or will I remain at my post—setting the example of sacrifice to others and abiding for myself the issue be it what it may? I have chosen the last alternative, painful as it is to me. I may be wrong—but at any rate I am prepared to make sacrifices which will prove that I think I am right.’

After much persuasion, dithering, and some tears, King George IV finally consented to the measure. He himself had stated in July 1828 that ‘Ireland could not remain as it is.’ In order to prevent a serious revolt in Ireland the Government was pressed to act. The British Parliament finally enacted the Roman Catholic Relief Bill in April 1829. It granted Catholic Emancipation and enabled O’Connell, after some delay, to take his seat. The Irish Parliamentary Elections Act, 1829 (10 Geo. IV, c. 8), which came into force at the same time, raised the county freehold franchise from 40 shillings to £10. This reduced the electorate from 230,000 to approximately 14,000. The franchise in the towns was left untouched, and the electoral changes applied to Protestants as well as Catholics.

Thus, the Tory administration was able to defuse the threat of civil war in Ireland. However, a country that was garrisoned by five-sixths of the infantry force of the United Kingdom could not be regarded as an equal partner in that Kingdom. While 1829 was the end of an era, O’Connell was correct when he said that Emancipation would never have been conceded except under the compulsion of necessity. As such, the measure was deprived of all grace and effect. Since the Act was not retrospective, O’Connell was presented with the old Oath, which he refused to take. This and the denial of his seat for the time being were viewed as an affront to him and to Ireland.

While Emancipation did not bring peace, prosperity, or an end to sectarian tensions in Ireland, it did open the way for further political, social, and economic reforms. It demonstrated that public pressure could be brought to bear on the Government without resort to violence. Indeed, the English radical reformers looked for, and received, O’Connell’s support and advice. Emancipation also opened the way for the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. Catholics, however, were still excluded from the throne. The ancient universities still remained closed to them, as were the highest legal offices. If appointed to state employment, Catholics still had to swear they would not ‘disturb or weaken the Protestant religion or Protestant Government in this Kingdom’. Electoral prejudice also remained. Practising Jews were not admitted to Parliament until 1858, and Scotland would not return a Catholic MP to Westminster until the 1890s. William Lamb, Lord Melbourne (1779–1848), twice British Prime Minister in the 1830s, observed that, on the question of Emancipation, ‘all the wise men had been proved wrong and all the damned fools right.’

Gillian M. Doherty & Tomás O’Riordan