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Reflections on Ireland in the 19th Century

Reflections on Ireland in 19th Century           Gerry OShea

Many historians believe that the century beginning in 1800, just after the American and French revolutions, inaugurated the era of modern history worldwide, and it certainly ushered in a momentous epoch in Ireland. It started with the British government closing down Grattan’s parliament(1782-1800) in Dublin and taking full control in Westminster of all legislation for the country.

Daniel O’Connell dominated Irish politics like a colossus for the first half of the century. His signature achievement, Catholic Emancipation in 1829, which allowed Catholics to serve in parliament, can be seen as the final nail in the penal laws which kept the Irish in thrall for the previous hundred years. Only substantial landowners could vote in Westminster elections but the powerful and exuberant O’Connell was elected to parliament, and he became one of the dominant figures in London politics, highlighting not only the grievances of the Irish peasantry but also campaigning at every opportunity against the evils of slavery.

 The English colonizers saw the locals of all classes as part of an inferior culture. The whole idea of empire was based on subjugation of the native population. One commentator pointed out that the British viewed all their subject peoples as “primitive, uncivilized, superstitious, backward and slovenly.” From this English perspective, their language, their games, their poetry and, of course, their religion operated at a much higher level than anything that the locals had to offer.

 In 1831 Westminster decided on a gigantic and important scheme to provide primary education throughout the country. The curriculum focused on reading, writing and arithmetic with no room for Irish history, geography or any language but English. Patrick Pearse famously referred to the system as a “murder machine” because its mandate was to promote the so-called glories of imperialism. However, these schools largely ended illiteracy in Ireland and the basic knowledge and skills learned became a major boon for many Irish emigrants.

The Catholic Church moved from being a banned and outlawed organization to having its own major seminary in Maynooth in 1795 and, after 1870, exercising control over the primary schools for their own members. A burgeoning Catholic middle class provided new hope and promise for the aspiring local bourgeoise who were no longer limited in land ownership or business proprietorship.

Before the awful famine years in the 1840’s Sunday mass attendance in Catholic churches varied from close to 100% in the prosperous towns in the midlands and the south to as low as 30% in the poorer districts in western dioceses where cottiers and farm laborers were far less likely to claim a place in the pews.

This situation changed after the Famine with the loss of millions from starvation and emigration, leaving a beaten and demoralized populace. A common theme that had real influence on the Catholic population suggested a religious explanation for the prevailing devastation: a wrathful God was punishing his people for their sinfulness. They used the word providentialism to cover this travesty of theological reasoning.

 During the bleak decade starting in 1845 a million Irish people - nearly all Catholics – died from malnutrition and more than twice that number emigrated. Understandably, the morale of the people was low and consequently, priests had more vulnerable and compliant congregations who were receptive to the emotional spirituality and pious practices driven by apparitions and visionaries that were popular throughout Europe in the second half of the century.

Paul Cullen was appointed the first Irish cardinal in 1852 and he left a big mark on church developments. He was Pius 1X’s main voice for ultramontanism in Ireland. This spurious belief system gave Rome the final decision in all matters of church beliefs and governance, culminating in the arrogant declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870.

The number of priests in post-Famine Ireland increased from 2150 to 3750; the count of nuns jumped from 1000 to 8000; and the development of teaching orders of brothers added 1100 to their ranks. Many went abroad as missionaries with some devout commentators boasting about an Irish spiritual empire in Africa.

The church triumphant dominated Irish life and even after engaging in hostile rhetoric against Parnell in his divorce imbroglio, which bitterly divided the country, and opposing the 1916 Rebellion and the War of Independence, the bishops still emerged to play a major part in the new state which was formed after the War of Independence 100 years ago.

Public dispensaries were also provided throughout the country. By 1840 over 600 had been established and were a central part of the medical infrastructure.

In 1825 England saw the completion in Ireland of a single, national paramilitary police force covering the whole island. Ten years later, a unified command structure was put in place that was later used as a blueprint for other parts of the British Empire. The density of these barracks throughout the island and the development of garrison towns all over the country clearly indicated that the authorities expected trouble and were prepared to deal with it.

The dream of Theobald Wolfe Tone, who led the rebellion of the United Irishmen in 1798, for a free and non-sectarian government lived on in the 19th century. The Young Irelanders in the 1840’s and the Fenian Brotherhood, founded in the 1860’s, had similar principles and engaged in a few hopeless military skirmishes with the authorities, but, overall, the physical force tradition went underground and the nationalist cause was represented by parliamentarians fighting for progress in Westminster.

There was real anger and considerable violence surrounding the Tithe War where people of all religions - but with over 70% of the population Roman Catholic - were compelled by law to contribute 10% of their wealth every year for the support of the official Anglican church. The blatant unfairness of this tax led to regular bloody confrontations with the police and army, especially in counties Kilkenny, Tipperary, Wexford and Cork. The opposition was so fierce that one government auditor quipped that they were spending a shilling to collect tuppence.

 The Disestablishment Bill, which stripped the Anglican Church of its special status, passed by Gladstone in 1869, ended tithing for good.

Daniel O’Connell, known far and wide as the Liberator, Charles Parnell and John Redmond, all remembered as great nationalist leaders, won the support and adulation of the Irish people outside of the province of Ulster because around half of those living there were Protestants who were determined to maintain the union with Britain because any alternative government structures would involve playing second fiddle to the despised papists.

O’Connell supported but did not lead the agitation against tithing. After achieving Catholic Emancipation, he focused on repealing the Act of Union and restoring a parliament in Dublin. To this end, he engaged the people in a mass political drive for change. The huge numbers at these meetings blended moral force with a whiff of possible violence, which the Liberator himself never endorsed. The famine intervened and O’Connell died from a broken heart because of the devastation he saw all over the country.

Michael Davitt founded the Land League to gain relief for tenant farmers. He joined forces in this effort with Parnell, the astute parliamentary leader, and John Devoy, an avowed Fenian and the New York leader of Clan na Gael. They combined O’Connell-like mass meetings with shrewd parliamentary tactics to achieve their goals. A series of Land Acts in Westminster culminating in the Wyndham Act in 1903 signaled the end of landlordism in Ireland.

Following the success of Davitt’s campaign for land reform the focus changed to the other great nationalist goal of Home Rule, the return of legislative power to a parliament in Dublin. This movement was led by John Redmond who assumed the leadership of the Irish Party in Westminster after Parnell’s death. He succeeded with the 1913 Home Rule Bill and was hailed as a national hero in a massive celebratory gathering in Dublin. After that, things began to fall apart.

Gerry OShea blogs at  


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