Irish History Overview

Ireland from the Act of Union to the Great Famine

The war against Napoleon in Europe led to the growth in tillage farming to supply the armies. Fear of a major French invasion led to the construction of “Martello Towers” along English and Irish coasts, even as Admiral Lord Nelson‘s victory over the conjoined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) rendered such a prospect remote.

The Duke of Wellington‘s defeat of Napoleon’s at the Battle of Waterloo (1815) was soon followed by a change from tillage to pasture. This caused much unemployment. Only 1/3 of all Irish labourers had regular work. Tenant farmers depended entirely on small patches land sub-divided between the children of each generation, and more and more occupants were sharing these shrinking plots. A major population increase worsened matters. Poverty and hunger became widespread, particularly in the rural south and west of the country.

Daniel O’Connell, a Catholic barrister and landowner from County Kerry, founded the Catholic Association in 1823 and staged peaceful “monster rallies” in favour of full Catholic Emancipation. His election as MP for county Clare in 1828 put him in a position to persuade the Tory Prime Minister, the Irish-born but hostile Duke of Wellington, to support emancipation, which was finally introduced by the Westminster Parliament in 1829. Daniel O’Connell was hailed as “the Liberator”. He went on to found the Repeal Association, aimed at repealing the 1800 Act of Union, but his non-violent policy that ‘Liberty is not worth the shedding of a single drop of blood‘ had limited appeal to romantic nationalists. He was also a leading anti-slavery campaigner.

The full effects of Catholic Emancipation were not immediately felt in Ireland, as there remained several other restrictions on voting rights and access to positions of power and influence. British Imperial expansion in the 1830s was well served by Irish Catholic troops, who made up almost 50% of the British army in India. Joining the army was called “taking the king’s shilling“.

Catholics working the land remained under a legal obligation to pay the Church of Ireland an annual tithe of 10% of the value of certain types of agricultural produce. A campaign of largely peaceful resistance to collection began in 1829. Anglican clergy identified almost 30,000 defaulters in counties Kilkenny, Tipperary and Wexford. Armed members of the Irish Constabulary, which had been established in 1822 to take over functions of the militia,  forcibly took possession of cattle belonging to a Catholic priest in Graiguenamanagh, Co. Kilkenny, and there were violent confrontations in  Carrickshock in the same county and in Bunclody, Co. Wexford. Over the next few months, the British Government compiled a list of 242 homicides, 1,179 robberies, 401 burglaries, 568 burnings, 280 cases of cattle-maiming, 161 assaults, 203 riots and 723 attacks on property directly attributed to tithe-enforcement, but continued its policy of enforcing payment.

Resistance was organised by the shadowy Ribbonmen, who were also active against the Orange Order and landlords. In Rathcormack, County Cork,  military and police killed 17 and wounded some 30 more in an attempt to collect a tithe of 40 shillings from a widow in 1835. Public opinion was shocked by several aspects of this massacre – the pittance involved, the fact that the order to fire was given by a Clergyman, and the fact that the people had withstood several volleys and at least one charge by the troops without breaking. The Tithes Commutation Act 1839 reduced the amount payable by about a quarter and made the remainder payable to landlords who would in turn, pass payment onto the Clergy. This partial relief and elimination of the offensive manner of collection ended the uprising, but Catholics were still required to pay towards the upkeep of the Church of Ireland.


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