Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The question of Ireland

During the 1810s and 1820s Peel was regarded as the champion of the Protestant Constitution and, in many respects the contrast between this and his approach to governing Ireland after 1841 is remarkable. The extraction of Catholic Emancipation from Wellington’s government in 1829 had forced a reappraisal of Peel’s thinking about the nature of the Irish problem. This led him towards a more ‘liberal’ perspective grounded on the principle of allowing free-play between the forces of Protestantism and Catholicism in the province. Events in the early 1830s made it clear that Ireland was still not reconciled to the Union with Britain and Daniel O’Connell put himself at the head of a campaign for the repeal of the Act of Union. The Whigs temporarily contained the problem after 1835 by establishing a working political relationship with O’Connell but in 1841 Conservative electoral victory prompted a renewal of the repeal campaign.

Fiscal and social issues posed numerous difficulties for the government but Peel was reasonably confident that solutions could be found. However, ministerial confidence seemed often to be more uncertain when faced with the issue of Ireland[1]. The administration of Irish policy fell into three distinct phases[2]:

  1. The first phase, extending from 1841 to mid-1843 was characterised by what may be termed benign neglect.
  2. Under the pressure of Irish events, however, the second half of 1843 witnessed a reversal of ministerial inactivity as the passage of an Arms Act and the dismissal of Irish magistrates initiated a policy of coercion.
  3. The third phase, from 1844 to the end of the ministry, was characterised by conciliatory legislation as Peel sought to promote the welfare of Ireland through the passage of important educational and religious measures.

Peel and Graham recognised, as early as 1841 that the policy of exclusion of Catholics from effective participation in the Irish political system provided an important sense of grievance. Graham believed that it was essential for ministers to pursue ‘an impartial and liberal policy…equal justice administered to Roman Catholics’. Peel was anxious to demonstrate the material advantages of Catholic Emancipation by encouraging the recruitment of ‘moderate’ and ‘respectable’ Catholics into the magistracy, the police, the legal profession and other walks of life. He justified this by reference to the alleged existence of a well-disposed mass of people who would be amenable to conciliatory measures. To follow a policy of exclusion risked turning these people into enemies of the Crown.

Initial inactivity 1841-1843

This view did not, however, become evident until 1843 and initially Peel neglected Ireland. In 1841, he mistakenly invited an ultra-protestant, Earl De Grey, to become lord lieutenant. He was unwilling to cooperate with the conciliatory approach and later even dismissed some Catholics from the magistracy. The initial inactivity of the government can be explained in several ways. First, the activities of the secret society of the Irish peasantry, such as the Rockites and Ribbonmen[3] were at a low ebb. Secondly, the influence of Ireland’s only national leader of stature, Daniel O’Connell, appeared to be waning. His Repeal Association, dedicated to the repeal of the 1800 Act of Union with Britain, seemed moribund. At the 1841 general election, O’Connell stood as a repealer for the City of Dublin and was defeated though he was later returned for Cork. There were only seventeen other repealers returned with O’Connell in 1841 and this represented a significant reduction in the thirty-eight repealers returned in 1832. Without the Whigs in office, it was perhaps inevitable that O’Connell’s influence should decline and it seemed to many in Britain (if not in Ireland) that the best days of the ageing O’Connell were over.

This was premature. O’Connell’s influence in Ireland remained high and in 1841 he became the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin since the 1680s. He also had never ceased in his efforts to organise from the grassroots a National Repeal Movement. He worked closely with Richard Barrett, editor of The Pilot, a Dublin newspaper that became the unofficial mouthpiece of repeal. He also maintained close contact with John MacHale, the Catholic Archbishop of Tuan in planning the arrangement for repeal meetings and continually urged his supporters to secure the approval of the Catholic clergy whose influence on political issues was steadily increasing. By early 1843, O’Connell’s efforts bore fruit and in February he sponsored a repeal motion in the Dublin Corporation. The result, a vote of 41 to 15 in favour of repeal was sensational. The Anglican, Conservative and virulently anti-repeal Dublin Evening Mail reported on 6th March 1843 that repeal ‘had made an immense as well as a rapid stride…from the platform of a seditious assembly to the council-table of legitimate municipal government…’ The repeal ‘rent’ contributions to the Repeal Association increased and a national campaign of repeal meetings was organised in every county in Ireland. O’Connell reminded his audiences that Peel and Wellington had responded to public pressure in granting Catholic Emancipation in 1829 so why not again?

Addressing repeal 1843

O’Connell’s campaign acquired added momentum during the course of 1843. The repeal meetings were an unqualified success at attracting large crowds. In August 1843, there was a reported 200,000 to 300,000 present at Castlebar; 350,000 at Roscommon; and, at the largest meeting of all at Tara (the seat of the ancient Irish kings), one million. Even allowing for exaggeration (some estimated the number at Tara at 500,000), these were impressive gatherings, called ‘monster meetings’ by The Times. They seemed to give substance to O’Connell’s claim that Ireland was becoming one nation under the repeal agitation. Some of the most respected leaders in Ireland, both lay and clerical spoke at the meetings. O’Connell maintained that repeal did not mean separation from Britain but it did mean an Irish parliament and self-government. He argued that the Westminster Parliament had too often neglected Irish interests and that an Irish Parliament would abolish tithe rent-charges, revise the poor relief system and ensure security of tenure.

The aspirations of the repealers suggest why the movement should have suddenly caught fire in the summer of 1843. Recurring economic and religious grievances had come to a head and these supplied O’Connell with much of his support.   Economic trends detrimental to industrial development were especially worrying to Irish merchants. Unlike most other countries, Ireland was becoming increasingly rural. Few of its major towns, apart from Belfast and Dublin, grew between 1821 and 1841 and some smaller centres stagnated. The severe economic slump of the early 1840s revealed the inadequacy of Ireland’s resources. Whereas England had the means to overcome the depression, Ireland did not. Irish investment tended to flow outwards because of the better speculative opportunities available on the mainland. This led to under-investment in Irish infrastructure such as railways: by 1845, only 70 miles of line had been opened. Agricultural development faced as many problems as industry. Improvement was hindered by absentee landlords and insecurity of tenure discouraged tenant farmers from investing in even the simplest manuring and drainage practices. Economic cooperation between landlord and tenant in Ireland was made more difficult by divisions of interests and religion that more often made landlord and tenant bitter enemies rather than entrepreneurial partners as was the case in England.

In addition, O’Connell built on the sense of grievance among Catholics. The established Anglican Church of Ireland ministered to the needs of around 20 per cent of the population and acceptance to this state of affairs was beginning to wear thin for Roman Catholics by the 1840s. The first half of the nineteenth century saw a revival of Irish Catholicism. Churches were repaired; cathedrals begun; parish schools were started and the National Seminary of Maynooth grew in importance. For many Catholics, the repeal movement was one way of demonstrating their faith. Though predominantly Catholic, the movement attracted some Protestant support among them Thomas Davis, a leader of the Young Ireland movement and William Smith O’Brien, MP for Limerick who joined the Association in 1843.


[1] Ireland is well covered by both general and specialist studies: F. S. L. Lyons Ireland since the Famine, Fontana, 1973 is a classic study of value for the period before 1850 for its opening section. L. M. Cullen The Emergence of Modern Ireland 1600-1900, Batsford, 1981 offers a radical interpretation of this period. Roy Foster Modern Ireland 1600-1972, Allen Lane, 1988 is an essential study worth reading in full. D. McCartney The Dawning of Democracy: Ireland 1800-1870, Helicon, 1987, K. T. Hoppen Ireland since 1800, Longman, 2nd ed., 2000 and G. O. Tuathaigh Ireland Before the Famine 1798-1848, Gill and Macmillan, 1971 are more focussed. W. E. Vaughan (ed.) A New History of Ireland, volume v, 1801-1870, OUP, 1988 is a very detailed study.

[2] R. C. Shipkey Robert Peel’s Irish Policy 1812-1846, New York 1897 provides a general account of Peel’s approach to governing Ireland. Donal A. Kerr Peel, Priests and Politics: Sir Robert Peel’s Administration and the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland 1841-1846, Oxford University Press, 1982 is invaluable on relations between Peel and the Catholic Church.

[3] S. Clarke and J. S. Donnelly (eds.), Irish Peasants: violence and political unrest 1780-1914, Manchester, 1983 contains important material on this issue.

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