Irish History Overview


18th Century Ireland – Penal Laws, Sectarianism and The Enlightenment

In 1695 harsh Penal Laws known as the ‘Popery Code’ were enacted, although they were never fully enforced. Catholics were theoretically forbidden from buying land or horses, bringing their children up as Catholics, or from entering the armed forces or the law. Catholic priests could be arrested on sight. All Gaelic culture, including music and education, was banned.

By the end of the 17th century, most land in Ireland was in the hands of Protestants, mainly the so-called “Anglo-Irish Ascendancy”, nobles and gentry of English descent who lived in Ireland and for the most part supported the Church of Ireland, the Established church modelled on the state-controlled Church of England. However, they were continually at odds with the government in Dublin Castle, the posts of which were largely filled by whichever political party, Tory or Whig, happened to be in power in London.

Protestant numbers were augmented when the Irish Parliament passed Acts between 1662 and 1709, granting citizenship to French Huguenot refugees (with surnames such as Fontaine, D’Ollier, La Touche and Refausse) and Dutch and German Palatine families (with surnames such as Weir, Switzer and Ruttle). However, although more than a quarter of the population of Ireland in 1710 was Protestant, many of these people were not Anglicans but Dissenters. Most were people whose families had come fled religious persecution in Scotland and Northern England less than a century earlier, and made Ulster a centre of zealous Presbyterianism. Practically the only issue they agreed on with the Church of Ireland was the danger of Catholicism.

Irish prosperity meant competition for English farms and businesses. In 1720, a Westminster Act (“The Sixth of George I”) declared that the British Parliament had the right to pass laws for Ireland. England’s systematic policy of suppressing the Irish economy led to a series of severe restrictions, only partially enforced, on the export of goods. Meanwhile, England maintained an “open door policy” for its mercantile interests in Ireland. The strongest voice of protest was that of Jonathan Swift, whose “fierce indignation” at the deplorable state of the nation led him to condemn both the arrogance and greed of the English and the religious fanaticism, unthinking self-interest and despondency which prevented the Irish from presenting a united front against exploitation.

Cattle disease and harvest failure caused great distress in Ireland during the first half of the 18th century. A scarcity in 1726-7 was followed by a severe famine in 1728-9. Then at the end of 1739 a sharp frost set in and lasted for seven weeks. Shortage of seed and further bad weather led to a terrible famine in 1741, bliadhain an áir, the year of the slaughter, when around 300,000 died.

By the mid-18th century, Catholics owned barely 5% of the land, and most were reduced to penury. Catholic peasants, in particular, were in a parlous state. Their language, culture and religion were kept alive by illegal outdoor schools, known as ‘hedge schools’, and secret open-air masses, held at “mass rocks”.

In contrast, the Ascendancy class came into its own. Their Anglo-Irish Georgian architecture is particularly fine, from Dublin’s beautiful wide streets and squares, to the elegant and sometimes magnificent landscaped Big Houses and manors that replaced the old medieval castles as aristocratic dwellings across the Irish countryside.

Despite having been socially and economically reduced, some descendants of the old Catholic landowning families still occupied an important role as the leaders of political and popular culture in Irish society. A few Catholic big farmers could afford to send their sons to be educated in France and Spain, where some trained for the priesthood at the Irish Colleges of Rome, Paris and Salamanca.

The savage repression of Irish-speaking Catholic culture all over Ireland was partially reflected in Ulster and elsewhere by legislative measures against the English-speaking Dissenters, a term which eventually included not only Presbyterians but Methodists, Unitarians and Quakers, though the effects were mitigated to some extent by their superior economic strength and the tight-knit communities in which they lived. Nonetheless, to a people who had fled Britain originally to escape religious persecution, the impositions of the Penal Laws were intolerable. This was reflected in the increasing radicalisation of Ulster opinion, and also in the emigration of many “Ulster Scots” to America. Up to then, the movement of peoples had been into Ireland. Now began the long exodus. However, the biggest migration was motivated by cod, as fisher folk from the south coast of Ireland moved to Newfoundland to live closer to the breeding banks.

In the second half of the 18th century, a growing population and a steady rise in agricultural demand based on the expanding Atlantic trade provided the basis for relative prosperity. Glass making, flour milling, brewing and the luxury trades all expanded significantly. Wool production remained important, and with the help of protective duties, the cotton industry was established in Ireland. In Belfast, the first mills began in the 1770s, initiating the industrialisation of the city, and making it the centre of the power production of yarn. Most important of all was the growth of the linen industry, which expanded far beyond its original heartland in Ulster and accounted for more than half of all Irish exports by the end of the century.

Throughout the 18th century, local secret societies sprang up in most of the Irish counties, dedicated to defending their members’ sectarian interests. These bodies had names such as the Shanavists, Whiteboys, Ribbonmen or Hearts of Oak, and created terror by burning houses and crippling cattle.  

The Enlightenment had a strong impact in Ireland, particularly on members of the Ascendancy class. Advances in scientific understanding were eagerly followed, notably by the Dublin Society, which introduced major changes in agricultural practices. Trinity College, Dublin, became a centre of academic excellence, producing many of the leading intellectuals of the day, who in turn greatly influenced the sons of the rich sent there for their education. New College buildings, the new Irish Parliament building in College Green and the new Customs House on the quays were the jewels in the crown of Anglo-Irish Georgian architecture.

The American Revolution in 1776 had a major impact on Ireland. In Ulster, Presbyterians cheered the successes of their republican cousins across the ocean. Around the country, Irish garrisons were stripped to create armies for the American war.

The Irish Volunteers, a mainly Protestant citizen’s militia, emerged to maintain law and order and defend the island from foreign invasion. Initial government approbation quickly turned to concern when the Volunteers came under the influence of the ‘patriot’ opposition in the Irish Parliament and began to push for political reform. The Duke of Leinster and other patriots took leading positions in the Volunteers. Under their leadership the movement played a central part in the successful 1779 campaign for free trade, and gave continued support to the more militant patriots’ drive for legislative independence.

In 1782, the Irish Parliament, led by Henry Grattan, removed the most oppressive parts of Poynings’ Law of 1495, which subjected it to the control of the English king and council. However, the Irish Parliament remained an exclusive Anglican landholders’ institution.

There was a general increase in tolerance in the cities, and most of the Penal Laws were repealed. Belfast radical Dissenters supported the right of Catholics to vote, but many rural Protestants did not. The Volunteers began to weaken, as members drifted away.

In the 1780s the long tradition of sectarian faction fighting in Ulster was formalised with the creation of the Catholic Defenders movement and the Protestant Peep-o-Day Boys. In 1794 a major Defender uprising occurred in Ballinagh in Co. Cavan, and the town was burned as troops re-captured it from them. The Government passed the Insurrection Act, which was intended to crack down on the continued civil disorder, and large numbers of suspected Defenders were sent to serve in the navy Habeas Corpus was suspended. After the Battle of the Diamond near Loughgall, Co. Antrim, in which thirty Defenders were shot dead, the Peep-o-Day Boys formed the Orange Order.

The French Revolution of 1789 inspired a group of Belfast Presbyterians and former Irish Volunteers to form the Society of United Irishmen in October 1791. They wanted parliamentary reform, Catholic emancipation and the independence of Ireland under a republican government. A special guest at the meeting was a Dublin barrister, Theobald Wolfe Tone, who argued that Catholics could be the allies of radical Dissenters in a movement for democratic reform. Besides the support of much of the Catholic and Dissenter middle class, the United Irishmen began to develop a base amongst urban workers, especially linen and cotton weavers in the Belfast area, inspired by Tom Paine’s pamphlet The Rights of Man, which Wolfe Tone described as the ‘Koran of Belfast’.

Initially the Society of United Irishmen was open and constitutional. But when war broke out between Britain and France in 1793, support for the French revolution became potentially treasonous, and moderate members resigned. In 1794 Wolfe Tone was caught communicating with a French spy and transported to America. The following year he was in France seeking help for an Irish revolution.

A major French expedition with 20,000 troops sailed from Brest in 1796 but, beset by storms in Bantry Bay, only 400 soldiers got ashore and were quickly defeated by the Irish Yeomanry, a mainly Protestant militia. Nevertheless, the sight of French warships caused great excitement, and yet more people enrolled in the United Irishmen. The government launched a campaign of terror and torture to disarm and destroy the movement. Most of the United Irishmen, including their overall commander, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, were seized in March 1798.

The 1798 Rebellion took place in May and June at the initiative of local leaders in the south and north of Ireland, but crucially, not in Dublin. The insurgents, mainly armed with pikes, won some notable victories in the counties of Wexford, Wicklow, Carlow and Kildare, but also committed sectarian atrocities. In County Down, Presbyterians rose in impressive numbers. British troops routed the rebels at Ballinahinch near Belfast and at Vinegar Hill in the south. Fighting continued in Co. Wicklow for several months.

French troops led by General Humbert landed at Killala in Co. Mayo in August and won a striking victory at Castlebar, only to be defeated at Ballinamuck in county Longford by British troops under Lord Cornwallis. Another French naval force was defeated in Lough Swilly in November.

Rebel leader Father John Murphy was hanged and beheaded: his corpse was burned in a barrel. Wolfe Tone botched a suicide attempt in his prison cell the night before his bloody hanging. Most of the other leaders were either hanged or transport to penal colonies, although some escaped to France.

Alarmed by the continuing level of unrest, the British government  “persuaded” the Irish Protestant Ascendancy establishment to trade their Irish Parliament and what remained of their independence for British security, and the Act of Union 1801 united Ireland politically with the United Kingdom (which had come into existence when Scotland was joined to England & Wales in 1707).

In 1803, a failed assault on Dublin Castle degenerated into rioting, during the course of which the Lord Chief Justice was murdered. The leader of this “national uprising” was another idealistic young Protestant called Robert Emmet. He delivered a terrific speech from the dock as he was sentenced to death, and was duly executed. His remains were then secretly buried.

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