Ireland in 1800 had approximately 4,550,000 souls, of whom 3,150,000 were Roman Catholics, 500,000 were Episcopal Protestants, and 900,000 (chiefly in Ulster) belonged to Dissenting Protestant sects. Catholics were granted the vote in 1793, and then became eligible to most civil-service posts; but they were still debarred from the highest offices, from the judicial bench, and from the Irish Parliament; in effect Catholics were allowed to choose among Protestant candidates to rule Catholic Ireland. The king or his ministers appointed a Protestant lord lieutenant, or viceroy, as chief executive over Ireland, and allowed him to rule the bureaucracy—and in considerable measure the Irish Parliament—through bribery and the distribution or sale of patronage.10
Till 1793 all the soil of Ireland was owned by British or Irish Protestants. After 1793 a small number of Catholics were allowed to purchase land; the rest were tenant farmers tilling small tracts, or were laborers on farms or in factories. Rents and tithes were collected with stern regularity, with the result that most Irish farmers lived in hopeless poverty. They were too poor, and too shorn of incentive, to buy the new machinery that was multiplying rural products in Britain; Irish agriculture remained static. “The greatest landlords were absentees living in England, who drew what they could from Ireland without nursing its capacity.”11 In the factory districts of Dublin poverty was even worse than on the land. Irish industry was choked by high duties that prevented the import of raw cotton, and by commercial regulations that to a large extent prevented Irish products, except linen, from competing with British products within the Empire.12 Shelley, seeing the condition of the Dublin factory workers in 1812, wrote: “I had no conception of the depths of human misery until now.”13
The Irish Catholics, like all the population, paid tithes to support the Established Protestant Church in Ireland; but in addition they maintained, by voluntary contributions, their Catholic clergy, who had been stripped of their former wealth. The Roman Church naturally supported the movement for Irish independence, and consequently won the loving loyalty of the Catholic population. Here the social rebel was usually a religious conservative; and liberals like Thomas Moore, though they might be friends with skeptics like Byron, never openly wandered from Catholic orthodoxy.
It was a Protestant who, in the second half of the eighteenth century, led the revolt against the exploitation of Ireland. Henry Grattan (1746–1820) belonged to the school of two other Irishmen—Burke and Sheridan; he believed in the power of reason expressed with eloquence. With this weapon he achieved some limited but significant victories: repeal of the Test Act, which had required submission to the Church of England as a prerequisite to membership in Parliament; the removal of the more stifling restrictions on Irish trade; and the recognition that (as he delicately put it) only the king of England, with the consent of the Parliament of Ireland, could legislate for Ireland—i.e., the acts of the Irish Parliament need no longer secure the approval of the Parliament of Great Britain. However, when Grattan tried to win for Ireland’s Catholics full eligibility to the Irish Parliament, he failed; Ireland remained a Catholic country ruled by a Protestant government.
Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763–98) took up the battle. A graduate, like Grattan, of Trinity College, Dublin, he went to London to study law. Returning, he helped to organize the Society of United Irishmen (1791), whose aim was the cooperation of Protestants and Catholics in pursuit of social and political reform. Pushing ahead with passion and energy, Tone arranged a Catholic convention, whose program of action frightened the Irish Parliament into passing the Relief Act of 1793, extending the franchise to Catholics.
Tone was not satisfied. In 1794 he entered into negotiations with William Jackson, who secretly represented the Committee of Public Safety, then ruling a France at war with Britain. Jackson was detected and arrested; Tone fled to the United States, and thence to France. There he persuaded Lazare Carnot, of the Committee, to sanction a French invasion of Ireland. General Lazare Hoche received command, made Tone an adjutant general, and sailed for Ireland on December 15, 1796, with forty-six ships and fourteen thousand men. The expedition encountered a storm off the English coast, and was almost totally wrecked. Tone survived, and accompanied a smaller expeditionary force aimed to help Ireland. This was captured by the British. Tone was sentenced to be hanged, but escaped the noose by cutting his throat in jail (November, 1798).
Meanwhile Irish resentment of English rule had grown into widespread revolt. Pitt, Britain’s prime minister, thought to quiet the movement by conciliation. He allowed the Duke of Portland, home secretary (including Irish affairs), to appoint as lord lieutenant William Wentworth, second Earl Fitzwilliam, who frankly confessed his sympathy with the Irish. After three months of service (January-March, 1795), in which he made more concessions to the Catholics than Pitt thought wise, he was recalled, and the Irish resistance became open war. For a time Irish Protestants joined Catholics in attacking foreign rule; but in Ulster, where Protestants were in the majority, they soon changed from cooperation to opposition, fearing that the success of the rebellion would bring Ulster under Catholic domination. In September, 1795, Ulster Protestants formed the Orange Society, and joined the “Peep-of-Day Boys” in burning or wrecking Catholic houses and chapels; hundreds of Catholics fled from Ulster, fearing massacre. More and more Protestants seceded from the United Irishmen. The Catholic remainder took to arms, captured control of several counties, and advanced upon government citadels in Dublin. Grattan, in the Irish Parliament, thought to bring peace by proposing the eligibility of Catholics to Parliament; this was overwhelmingly rejected as involving (the Catholics now having the vote) the early transformation of the Irish Parliament into a Catholic power. The British general asked for and received reinforcements, and declared martial law; for weeks the once gay capital became a hell of hatred and killing. The count of corpses gave victory to the government; by the fall of 1798 the rebellion had been suppressed.
Pitt knew that suppression was not solution, and that the smoldering discontent in Ireland had become a vital danger to Britain. By 1800 England had had seven years of war with France, during which she had profited from the chaos produced in France by the Revolution. Now, however, Napoleon was bringing order to France and power to her armies; he was building a fleet that would soon challenge British control of the seas. A disaffected Ireland always on the verge of revolt was a daily invitation to Napoleon to lead his troops across the Channel, and—Catholics with Catholics—organize most of Ireland into a hostile force on Britain’s flank. Some way, Pitt felt, must be found to bring the Irish people into a safe union with Britain under one Parliament and king. If this could be done Pitt proposed to give the full franchise—the vote and eligibility to office—to all adult male Catholics not only in Ireland but throughout England, Scotland, and Wales; to admit Catholics to one united Parliament in London; and to provide governmental salaries to dissenting ministers and Catholic priests as well as to the clergy of the Established Church.14 In such an arrangement religion could become not a revolutionary ferment but a force for national unity and public content.
This statesmanlike plan, preceding by a year Napoleon’s Concordat with the Catholic Church, met with a varied opposition. Irish Catholics suspected it as a disguise for the continued domination of Ireland by England; Irish Protestants protested that it would subject them to rule—perhaps vengeance and expropriation—by victorious Irish Catholics; and the Irish Parliament was unwilling to die. Pitt hoped that in the long run union with England-involving free trade with all parts of the Empire—would ultimately benefit the Irish economy and reunite the Irish as the Scots were reconciled. The Catholic majority in Ireland might be tempered and controlled by the immense Protestant majority in Britain. By a lavish use of money, sinecures, and peerages,15 and the support of Irish merchants, the Irish Parliament was persuaded to vote its own death (August 1, 1800). Henceforth, till 1921, Ireland was to be ruled by the British Parliament, in which it would be represented by four spiritual and twenty-eight temporal peers in the House of Lords, and one hundred members in the Commons.
Pitt’s apparent success was darkened by his inability to win the King to his design. When he proposed to carry out his implied promise of complete political emancipation to Catholics in the new “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,” George III refused consent, on the ground that his coronation oath bound him to protect the Established Church of England. When Pitt pressed him, the King gave signs of relapsing into insanity. Pitt yielded, and, feeling compromised, he resigned from the King’s ministry (February 3, 1801). Catholic emancipation was shelved, and had to wait till 1829.
Most of the Irish leaders concluded that they had been deceived, and that Pitt had never intended to implement his promise. Resistance to the Union as actually annexation rose to violence. In 1803 Robert Emmet led a forlorn revolt that made him one of the best-loved figures in Irish history and song. He was born in Dublin (1778) as the youngest son of a physician to the Lord Lieutenant. As a student in Trinity College he was nearing graduation with honors when he removed his name from the roll of undergraduates in protest against official inquisition into their political views. He joined the United Irishmen, where his older brother Thomas was secretary of the supreme council. Thomas advised against revolutionary violence, but Robert went to France, found access to Napoleon, and pleaded for another French attempt in Ireland. Unable to persuade Napoleon, Emmet returned to Dublin, gathered weapons and allies, and planned an attack upon Dublin Castle. When he learned that the government had discovered his plot and had ordered his arrest, he formed an impromptu force of 160 men, and marched toward the castle. On their way they encountered Lord Kilwarden, chief justice of Ireland; the excited and unmanageable crowd killed him and his nephew on the spot. Realizing that his effort must now fail, Emmet fled, and hid for a while among the Wicklow Mountains. He risked discovery by moving nearer to the home of his fiancée, Sarah Curran, daughter of John Philpot Curran, Protestant defender of Catholic causes. Robert was discovered, captured, tried for treason, and sentenced to death. His speech to the jury is one of the classics of Irish eloquence:
I have but one request to make at my departure from the world: it is the charity of its silence. Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dares now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, and my memory in oblivion, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.16