The first four and a half decades of the Union were dominated by the religious issue and by
the personalities of two political giants. Other issues of which the most important was
Repeal were also of importance in this period but most of the key elements can be
examined in the context of religion and in the actions and personalities of these two
leaders: O’Connell and Peel.

Daniel O‘Connell (1775-1847) was born in Kerry and inherited land from his uncle, one of
the small number of catholic landowners. His uncle, unlike O’Connell, supported the union.
Not only was O’Connell a Gaelic speaker but he was also brought up in the traditional Gaelic
manner, being fostered by a peasant family. As a child he escaped though probably
witnessed some aspects of the French Revolution whilst he was receiving a catholic
education in Flanders. He completed his education reading for the bar in London and Dublin.
Emotive, volatile and outgoing he stood in marked contrast to the superficially withdrawn
and tight-lipped Robert Peel, with whom he clashed throughout their respective political
careers. Antipathetic to anarchy and violence, conservative to a degree, he associated
himself with the attainment of the maximum of civil rights compatible with peaceful means.
He was thus attracted to the Dublin Society of United Irishmen in its earlier reformist days.
He was to distance himself from the revolutionary United Irishmen, in fact joining a
Yeomanry regiment a year and half before the ’98 rising. Thus he identified himself as a
young lawyer with the forces of law and order. This suited his temperament and also his
ambition. He was undoubtedly horrified by the ’98 rebellion but also by the brutal and
repressive measures used to suppress the United Irishmen. He was called to the bar at the
time of the rebellion, spending most of 1798 on his Kerry estate.

Despite catholic exclusion from the Irish parliament he identified with that body and made
his opposition to the Union manifest. He believed strongly in the Irish kingdom and nation;
he bitterly resented its down-grading to a mere province. He was prepared to make
common cause with anti-Union protestants against conservative catholics – cautious
trimmers or opportunists - who were prepared to support the Union. His debut as an
opponent of the Union was in 1800 and by 1804/5 he had become a vocal advocate of
catholic emancipation. At this time the catholic cause was in the hands of cautious and
conservative catholic aristocrats (despite the Penal Laws they never became extinct) such
as Lord Fingall. Fingall and his fellow petitioners for emancipation were prepared to concede
“the veto”; that is emancipation would be obtained in exchange for a governmental veto on
catholic church appointments, perhaps also making the catholic clergy salaried by the state.
O’Connell was not prepared to compromise on the “veto”; emancipation was an unqualified
right applicable to negroes, to the protestants of Spain and Portugal and to the christians of
Constantinople. He was thus prepared to oppose his aristocratic coreligionists and also
protestants such as Grattan (who a generation before had successfully championed the
liberties of the Irish parliament). Not only had O’Connell opposed the veto but also the Irish
catholic bishops had defied (Pope) Pius VII who had accepted the principal of a British
governmental veto. It is clear therefore that from the early nineteenth century politically
aware catholics (who could accept a veto on religious grounds) chose to distance
themselves from British governmental supervision. O’Connell advocated an all-or-nothing
approach – emancipated catholics working freely with Irishmen of other religions for Repeal
of the Act of Union. His daring approach was buoyed up by his immense and rising ability as
a criminal lawyer; he was aware of the power of the state, of injustice and the ways of the
Irish peasantry.

Emancipation was not concerned with winning catholics the vote, that principal had been
conceded in 1793; other acts of the Irish parliament of the 1770s and 1780s had dismantled
many of the increasingly moribund (but also humiliating) Penal Laws. Pitt’s promise of
catholic emancipation and post-Union attempts were concerned with the right of catholics to
hold senior state office (as judges, KCs, colonelcies and above, sherrifships, governorships
and cabinet posts) and to sit as MPs. Lord Liverpool’s government of 1812 had left the issue
as an open question and gradually Commons opinion was coming round to accepting

The Liverpool government’s open approach to the issue and the transition of Commons
opinion (the Commons were prepared to investigate the matter as early as 1812 and a bill
passed the house less than a decade later) can obscure the degree and depth of division
within the United Kingdom in general and the Tory Party in particular. The nearest analogy
in current terms is the European issue with its entrenched positions and perceived
constitutional principle. In particular Robert Peel was an implacable opponent within the
cabinet of catholic emancipation.

Peel (1788-1850) had become Chief Secretary under Lord Liverpool in 1812 and he
continued until 1818 in that post. His six years in the Secretaryship compares with the nine
incumbents who had held the post between Castlereagh’s departure (May 1801) and Peel’s
arrival. The pattern before the Union had been similar, consisting of short tenures of office,
this therefore prevented the development of adequate continuity. Peel had spent his first
three years in parliament sitting for the Irish rotten borough of Cashel (acquired for him as
a twenty-first birthday present); on his appointment as Chief Secretary he resigned his
Irish seat, his new constituency being Chippenham. That such a young man, with limited
Commons experience should be appointed to office (and keep it for so long) tells us much
about Robert Peel and something about Lord Liverpool’s “stop-gap” Ministry (it lasted fifteen

Unlike so many Chief Secretaries Peel came to know the country and the job. Critical of the
venal nature of so many Dublin Castle placemen he did much to lay the foundations of
efficiency and propriety at the Castle, policies he went on to develop as Prime Minister in
the rest of the United Kingdom. His main concern, however, was law and order and his
Peace Preservation Force of 1814 was the forerunner of what eventually became the Irish
Constabulary. Endemic rural violence, a continuation from the eighteenth century, required
a new solution. As part of law enforcement Peel had been responsible for the banning of the
Catholic Board (the body campaigning for catholic emancipation). The Magee brothers who
ran the Dublin Evening Post were prosecuted for criminal libel for their criticisms of
government policy. Though not formally connected with the Catholic Board the Evening Post
bought the emancipation issue and the state of the Union to a wide audience.

O’Connell and the campaign for Catholic Emancipation
The Magees were successfully prosecuted by the State; furthermore, having been
intimidated, they ceased to support the shortly to be suppressed Board. What the Magee
trial showed however was the extent to which the government in general and Peel in
particular were prepared to go in terms of repression. It must not be forgotten that
Liverpool’s government both at war and in the early years of peace achieved the reputation
of being Britain’s most repressive government of the nineteenth century. O’Connell, who
defended the Magees unsuccessfully, made their trial into a spectacular and telling piece of
political theatre. The Magees and the catholic emancipation cause suffered but so did the
government; O’Connell’s reputation had been enhanced. It was also enhanced by his killing
of a member of the Dublin Corporation in a duel. A second duel was scheduled to take
place with Peel, but O’Connell was arrested en route, thus probably saving Peel’s life. From
then on the astute catholic lawyer, adroit at brinkmanship, and Peel, the implacable
opponent of catholic emancipation, were to be bitter enemies. This was partly over policy
and principle but undoubtedly exacerbated by the clash of their personalities.

Doc 3i
O’Connell could mock the Chief Secretary on a personal level, alluding to his youth and his
family’s maufacturing origins (O’Connell always had a landed propietor’s disdain for “new
money”), whilst also making the nationalistic point that Ireland was ruled by imported
politicians: (May 1813, quoted in Gash’s Peel)

“That ludicrous enemy of ours …. ‘Orange Peel’. A raw youth, squeezed out of the workings
of I know not what factory in England ….sent over here before he got rid of the foppery of
perfumed handkerchiefs and thin shoes… a lad ready to vindicate anything, everything.”

O’Connell had established his primacy in the catholic emancipation movement having
driven the aristocratic vetoists away though the cause had for the moment diminished in
strength and size. If the Irish movement had been weakened by Peel and his
administration, the commons battle had been virtually won (as was instanced by the
Grattan and Plunket bills of 1819 and 1820). O’Connell would reappear with ultimate
success in the mid-1820s whilst Peel would be vilified by his own supporters for his
apostasy over emancipation.

Peel’s realism and humanity
Peel’s change of mind, but not change of heart, is to be dealt with shortly. Suffice it to say
for the time being, that this issue illustrated Peel’s political realism. That together with his
unflinching commitment to law, order and personal propriety was to be the characteristics
of his whole political career. Another characteristic, not easily discernable at first, was his
humanity illustrated by his efficient and energetic relief measures in the near famine of
1816-17. Such actions were repeated as Prime Minister in Scotland (i.e. Paisley) and during
the first winter of the Great Famine in 1845-46. Both in terms of the Peace Preservation Act
of 1814 and the famine relief programme Peel had contributed significantly to the breaking
of the mould (referred to elsewhere) by which the Irish administration developed policies
radically different from (and better suited to) those in Great Britain.

The battle for Catholic Emancipation
In 1819 Grattan, faithful to the emancipation cause, came within two votes of Commons
success. Two years later Plunket, Grattan’s successor, steered a bill (including the veto)
through the lower house. The main formal, but apparently insurmountable problems, were
the hostility of the House of Lords and the hostility of the king, George IV.

In 1823 the Catholic Association was formed in Dublin. It threw its proceedings and its
accounts open to press and public scrutiny. Its high membership fee of a guinea -a year
prevented any significant growth in numbers and minimised its influence. In the following
year O’Connell introduced associate membership of 1d - a month (i.e. 1 shilling per annum)
this enabled widespread peasant participation in the movement. These funds were raised
by church door collections; as well as bringing in by late 1824 £300 per week (as high as
£1,840 in March 1825) the mass movement and will of the peasantry was being harnessed.
The psychology of the involvement of the “little man” enabled the movement to draw on a
widespread oral tradition of political role-reversal and future religious deliverance that was
to be found amongst the Irish peasantry. Moreover the priest as the natural leader of his
congregation could coordinate, instruct and advise accordingly.

By this time many in the Irish administration were reconciled to the eventual passage of
catholic emancipation, their greater fear was that of a catholic mass movement. Political
associations of longer than 14 days duration were to be banned (incidentally this would
affect the Orange Order as much as the Catholic Association). Anticipating the ban, the
Association dissolved itself later reforming as the New Catholic Association. By this time a
leading English radical had put a further emancipation bill through the Commons (being
rejected in the Lords); what was significant about this bill were its two “wings” and
O’Connell’s acceptance of them. The “wings” were effectively dilutions of the emancipation
principal, designed to placate establishment opinion. The Irish forty-shilling (40/-)
freeholder was to be disenfranchised and the Roman Catholic clergy were to be
remunerated by the State. That O’Connell was prepared to countenance these dilutions
perhaps says something about O’Connell’s conservative nature (now that he controlled the
emancipation movement) or else we should accept his own rationale; O’Connell claimed
that the 40/- freeholders were not really independent voters as they were really under the
control of their landlords and also that a state-salaried priesthood would not be seduced or
controlled by the administration.

In the general election of 1826 the New Catholic Association backed candidates specifically
in favour of emancipation and chalked up four significant victories (in Waterford, Louth,
Monaghan and Westmeath): clerical and New Association backing had been more important
than powerful establishment and landlord influence. Within less than a year the long-lived
Liverpool era was at an end and the banning of the Catholic Association had expired. By
January 1828 two short-lived premierships had given way to the Duke of Wellington’s
government. Wellington was an opponent of emancipation and a clash soon developed with
the reconstituted Association, who were determined to oppose the ministry on all issues.

The County Clare by-election and Catholic Emancipation
At that time new ministers were obliged to resubmit themselves for election on appointment
to office. Vasey-Fitzgerald, the new President of the Board of Trade, was in favour of
emancipation but he was to be opposed by the Catholic Association as he was a member of
Wellington’s ministry. The Association could not find a suitable alternative candidate, a
measure of Vasey-Fitzgerald’s popularity. In the circumstances O’Connell stood against
Fitzgerald; there was nothing to prevent a catholic standing as a candidate for election,
what barred catholics from sitting as MPs was the oath abjuring transubstantiation and
accepting royal supremacy which meant denying papal authority. Sustained by the
disciplined 40/- freeholders, who he had hitherto been prepared to sacrifice, O’Connell was
destined for a landslide victory. Accepting the inevitable, Vasey-Fitzgerald withdrew and
O’Connell was elected. Faced with such a popular mandate, with high tension in Ireland and
huge interest in Great Britain, could the government keep O’Connell out? Wellington (never
as adamantly against emancipation as Peel) was prepared to countenance change. Both
Peel and the duke knew Ireland and appreciated the risk of a radical, catholic popular
movement with moral authority and a mandate. Privately Peel had accepted the inevitability
of catholic emancipation as early as 1825, but still opposed it as in principle wrong,
dangerous and mistaken. Hitherto prepared to withdraw from government when
emancipation became inevitable he was now obliged to remain as a minister, and be the
prime mover in bringing the change about. He was an essential ally of Wellington - only he
being able to convince George IV that emancipation could no longer be avoided.

Apart from the immediate threat of widespread disruption and perhaps insurrection, what
galvanised Peel and Wellington was the mass mobilisation of the 40/- freeholders and the
peasantry beneath them. In an age of general social political and economic flux a popular
catholic mass movement in the hands of a potential demagogue was a very serious threat.
An amended oath of simple allegiance and acceptance of the protestant succession with
appropriate safeguards (catholics could not become Lord Chancellor of either country,
become Lord Lieutenant or Regent) would enable catholics to enter office and become MPs.
O’Connell would be deprived of his political powerhouse: the Irish 40/- freeholder would be
disenfranchised. (Immediately an accompanying act deprived the 40/- freeholders of the
vote). Without that disciplined electorate the voteless peasantry would be deprived of much
of their destabilising potential.

Significance of Catholic Emancipation
What was the significance of the passing of the Catholic Relief Act (the official title of
catholic emancipation)? It was symptomatic of a new era heralded by the liberal Tory
policies of 1820s and the pragmatism of Peel. It indicated an acknowledgement of changing
establishment attitudes to non-anglicans, a significant piece of constitutional moderation
and modernisation. (In 1828 the Test and Corporation Acts were repealed, opening office to
protestant dissenters). This new era was also one of Whig government that would involve
the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832. (The Whigs entered office in November 1830
for the first time in a generation.) The emancipation issue had revealed the power of the
modern masses; this was to be repeated in the next decade by Chartists, Repealers and
the Anti Corn Law League. More immediately the Birmingham Political Union, one of the
prime movers for British parliamentary reform, was to emulate many of the agitation
methods of the Catholic Association. Moreover it was perceived that the authorities had
been frightened into bringing about reform and this grudging concession – a generation
after the Act of Union: Britain would give in to threats and the fear of revolution rather than
to reason and natural justice. O’Connell, the radical, had shown what was achievable; he
was at the height of his prestige and during the following years endeavoured to repeal the
Act of Union much in the same way as he had achieved catholic emancipation.

If the above can be seen as positive achievements that were connected with emancipation,
there were some less positive ones as well. The process of achieving emancipation had
helped heighten sectarian tensions between the protestants (Orangemen and Brunswickers
in particular) and catholics. O‘Connell was personally tolerant, liberal and politically
inclusive but the style of his rhetoric was divisive and open to misinterpretation by others.
Jack Lawless, one of his principal lieutenants had signally failed to ignite interest outside
catholic circles in the province of Ulster. O’Connell from Munster had little knowledge of
(and naturally) little understanding of the society and culture of Ulster. In the words of
Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh:

“O’Connell made a national movement out of what was, at base, a sectional grievance. By
so doing, he institutionalised that association of Irish nationalism with catholicism which was
to severely handicap his own Repeal movement, but also the attempts of later generations
of nationalist ideologists seeking to formulate a doctrine of Irish nationalism acceptable to
all elements of Irish society.”

O’Connell’s achievement of emancipation had been to a great degree created by his skills
of brinkmanship. He had brought his supporters with his radical rhetoric and tactics to the
edge of the revolutionary abyss. The British government realising that significant sectors of
British and much of parliamentary opinion had conceded the principle of emancipation was
unprepared to risk civil unrest or insurrection and gave up on emancipation: but they also
partly emasculated O’Connell by disenfranchising the 40/- freeholder. On the Repeal issue,
to be discussed below, British public and parliamentary opinion were immovable and when
it came to the crunch O’Connell, conservative in terms of his fear of anarchy and
bloodshed, was to have his bluff called by Prime Minister Peel.

Doc 3ii
The various and contradictory methods by which O’Connell operated are well illustrated in
the advice he gave to Thomas Attwood the founder of the Birmingham Political Union in
1830 (a), and some of his histrionic speeches, in this instance his “Bolivar speech” of 1824
– as reported in the Catholic Association Papers (b)

(a) On his methods for “attaining constitutional objects”:

“The first is the perpetual determination to avoid anything like physical force or violence
and by keeping in all respects within the letter as well as the spirit of the law, to continue
peaceable, rational, but energetic measures so as to combine the wise and the good of all
classes, stations and persuasions in one determination….The other is to obtain funds by the
extention of a plan of collection which shall accept from no man more than he can with the
utmost facility spare….”

(b) “Nations have…. been driven mad by oppression. He hoped that Ireland would never be
driven to resort to the system pursued by the Greeks and South Americans to obtain their
rights …. If that day should arrive - if she were driven mad by persecution he wished that a
new Bolivar may be found – may arise and that the spirit of the Greeks and South
Americans may animate the people of Ireland….”

O’Connell’s commitment to the repeal of the Union predated his active campaigning for
emancipation. However much Peel and British politicians feared O’Connell’s extreme and
separatist tone, O’Connell’s conservative nature eschewed social change; in his own words
“Salutary restoration without revolution, an Irish Parliament, British connection, one King,
two legislatures”. That was the extent of O’Connell’s concept of Repeal; it could be
Grattan’s Parliament with catholic emancipation. Such a solution would have been
acceptable to Grattan himself and some of the Patriots, it would not however been
acceptable to that pre-1800 parliament which was composed of the protestant nation as a
whole. No one in Great Britain could accept the concept of Repeal; it was an unrealistic
solution that ignored 1798, Irish rural lawlessness and the deepening sectarian divide.
Some believed that despite all O’Connell’s protestations, Repeal, apart from its perceived
impracticalities would lead to further friction and attempted secession and independence.
Undoubtedly some of O’Connell’s younger supporters believed in the creation of a full
separatist nation state, but on the other wing most Repeal supporters failed to appreciate
the subtleties and limitations of the concept. It was sufficient for them to know that “Lawyer
Dan”, the leader who had achieved the miracle of emancipation, was leading them, the
catholic nation, to better times that would restore pride, political identity and also lead to
better material conditions.

Repeal (1)
The Repeal movement was started very shortly after the success of emancipation, when
O’Connell and his supporters were on a euphoric “high”. At the same time (January 1830)
he put forward a comprehensive programme that included parliamentary and municipal
reform, legal reform, abolition of tithes and provision for the destitute. Within months as a
wave of revolutions swept Europe the Whigs were proved to be as repressive as the Tories
had been previously. O’Connell was in a dilemma. The Whigs were in office and their
general attitude was distinctly more promising than the Tories: they were endeavouring to
implement parliamentary Reform which O’Connell saw as correct and beneficial in its own
right, but also advantageous to the Irish catholic majority. Nevertheless Irish agrarian
anarchy (which appalled O’Connell) and the start of the Tithe War ensured that Grey’s
government was not prepared to countenance O’Connellite rhetoric or extra- parliamentary
pressure especially as the concept of Repeal was as unpalatable to Whigs as it was to
Tories. The Grey ministry was prepared to arrest O’Connell and control Irish rural unrest by
coercive legislation (which would also curtail O’Connell’s Repeal activities). Grey’s
government might offer ameliorative reform but they would not work to O’Connell’s
agenda. Nevertheless the Whigs needed O’Connell’s support and skill in guiding
parliamentary reform through the commons. It was no coincidence that charges against
O’Connell were dropped at the height of the Great Reform crisis.

In fact, Ireland gained little from parliamentary reform in 1832, much to O’Connell’s
disappointment. Irish representation only went up by 5 to 105 seats and a £10 borough
franchise was introduced (the same as in England and Wales); there was however no return
to the 40/- freeholder franchise in the counties (lost in 1829) and none of the old Irish
rotten boroughs were disenfranchised. Bitterly disappointed O‘Connell then turned his
energies once more, but with absolutely no success, to Repeal. The reformed House of
Commons (general election December 1832) proved to be more hostile to Irish interests
than the previous one and it has been said that catholic emancipation would never have
been passed by the reformed house. O’Connell did however lead 42 Repeal MPs meaning
that his grouping was larger than the 33 Whig/Liberals and 30 Tories representing the other
Irish constituencies. Some improvement in O’Connell-Whig relations did take place with the
appointment of new Chief Secretary in 1833 and the premiership of Lord Melbourne in
1834. Three months before Grey’s replacement by Melbourne, O’Connell had been
pressurised by his parliamentary supporters into asking the commons to appoint a
committee to enquire into the Union – this motion, which turned into a debate on Repeal,
was rejected by 523 to 38 votes.

Whig Reforms
The Whig ministries were however responsible for some Irish reform measures: Irish
state-sponsored elementary education was started as was the reconstitution of the Board of
Works (both referred to in the previous chapter). Attempts were made to solve the tithe
issue but a solution to this was still some years off and the government’s main efforts were
centered on controlling the Tithe War (which cost over 40 lives). The most significant piece
of legislation was the Church Temporalities Act of 1833, which partially disendowed the
Irish anglican church and streamlined its top-heavy and inequitable structure. This measure
was in line with mainstream Whig thinking but was not welcomed by the anglican
establishment who saw the Act as an attack on the established status of the anglican church
in Ireland. In fact one of the unforeseen consequences of this reform was the start of the
Oxford Movement, which was to change the nature of anglicanism and later Roman
catholicism in England. Disestablishment was still 36 years away, but the measure was
beneficial to the proper functioning of the church and was also a very Benthamite reform.
However it was also a significant undermining of Article V of the Act of Union when taken in
conjunction with the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. That such measures of natural justice were
seen as detrimental to the union tells us much about the flawed nature of the Act of Union
and the polarising issue of sectarianism in Ireland. Overdue church reform and the demand
for civil rights helped develop a catholic feeling of national identity and a protestant feeling
of defensiveness.

At the end of 1834 the Whigs left office and a short-lived Tory/Conservative ministry took
over. During this interlude O’Connell went into alliance with the Whigs. This meeting of
interests, known as the Lichfield House Compact, was aimed at co-ordinating tactics of the
Whigs, Radicals and Repealers to bring down Peel’s ministry. Though all parties denied
there was a formal agreement there was an understanding that the Repealers would
support a minority Whig administration, whilst the Whigs would introduce further reform
measures. The tithe issue was largely settled in 1838 and an Irish Municipal Reform Act was
passed in 1840. Neither piece of legislation was perfect from O’Connell’s point of view,
though the latter enabled him to become Dublin’s first catholic Lord Mayor since James II’s
reign (1685-89). More comprehensive measures may have come about if the Tories had
not dominated the Lords.

Of a less constructive nature was the Irish Poor Law of 1838. It was an inadequate and
unimaginative response to the Commission of Inquiry into Irish poverty and
overpopulation. Though it increased the degree of relief available to the poor it was too
heavily based on the English Law of 1834 and failed to take into account Ireland’s lack of an
open labour market (Ireland lacked a sufficiently capitalised and dynamic agricultural and
industrial infrastructure). Certainly the system proved incapable of dealing with the disaster
and destitution of the Great Famine in the following decade. On the basis that ‘half a loaf
was better than none’ O’Connell was prepared to give the Whigs support though he
received much criticism from the younger Repealers for this.

The most constructive element of Melbourne’s second ministry was the nature of his Dublin
Castle team: Lord Lieutenant, Chief Secretary and Under Secretary appointed in 1835. In
particular the energy and impartiality of Under Secretary Thomas Drummond (the head of
the Dublin Castle civil service) did much to improve administration, law and order. In
addition posts began to be occupied by catholics and the activities of venal placemen were
curtailed and the Orange Order was dissolved.

Repeal (2)
As the Whig ministry declined in the late ’thirties O’Connell took up, once more, the Repeal
issue. This would appear to be an act of desperation, partly in response to a decline of
popular support, rather than a real identification that conditions were ripe for the pursuance
of Repeal. Although O’Connell in a first flush of optimism following emancipation, had
launched Repeal as a political goal in 1830, his attitude during the 1830s had been
politically realistic and he had been prepared to pursue a twin-track policy of cooperation
with the Whig government to bring about reforms. O’Connell was feeling the pressure from
his impatient supporters, he also realised that the Whigs were “running out of steam” and
Tory/Conservative fortunes were on the mend. Thus there was an urgency dictated by
these political pressures, but also by the fact that he was by then in his sixties; time was
running out. Bereft of the personal judgement of his wife (died 1836) he was no longer in
control of events, he reacted to them.

His Precursor Society of 1838 was to be a forerunner to a fully-fledged Repeal campaign if
the Whigs did not produce extensive and immediate justice for Ireland. The Society, despite
a flurry of O’Connell’s rhetoric, had little impact and O’Connell himself soon dissolved it. In
the spring of 1840 the real Repeal Movement started, reconstituting itself in July as the
Loyal National Repeal Association. Initially the movement appeared as unpromising as the
Precursor society, O’Connell and many of his associates being diverted into municipal
politics, only 20 Repealers being returned at the 1841 general election when Peel and the
Conservatives were returned with a 75 seat majority including more Irish seats than

Partly in reaction to a Conservative administration, partly due to the Repealers working
from their new base in municipal politics (initially a diversion), but also due to the efforts of
the Nation (see next chapter) the Repeal movement developed rapidly. This was also
helped by the outspoken support provided by Archbishop John MacHale, the most
nationalistically minded of the catholic bishops. Funds were raised on the same massive
scale as two decades earlier with the Catholic Association. The mechanism by which the
Repeal movement attracted maximum support and educated the masses politically was the
monster meeting. As well as these being political theatre and “hedge school” in one, these
meetings also put pressure on Peel’s government. More than 40 of these meetings were
held throughout the southern three provinces in the spring and summer of 1843. Although
some meetings did take place in south Ulster O’Connell only attended one, just over the
Monaghan border, indicating O’Connell’s ignoring of the northern province.
Historians have tended to accept contemporary nationalist accounts of the numbers at the
meetings (which in themselves differ markedly), but whatever the absolute size with or
without exaggeration they were huge, unprecedented and significant. They raised the
political temperature in Ireland raising expectations and perhaps make O’Connell
over-confident of his own numbers and the power of his own rhetoric. Certainly Peel’s
government reacted with vigour to the situation, attempting to kill Repeal by kindness (next
chapter) but also endeavouring to smash the movement by coercive measures. O’Connell,
the able lawyer and speaker, had always indulged in brinkmanship whilst being at heart a
law-and-order man. In June 1843, in his famous “Mallow defiance”, he had shown the more
inflammatory side of his nature that eventually provoked the government into taking action
against him: “The time is coming when we must be doing. You may have the alternative to
live as slaves or die as freemen.”
His demagogic style at a time of emerging, romantic nationalism and the “historic” location
of some of his meetings (i.e. Tara) led to militaristic expectations and fears. This was
particularly true of the proposed meeting at Clontarf scheduled for October 1843. The
meeting had been billed in quasi-militaristic terms and the site was seen by nationalists as
significant, as that of an “Irish” victory over the Vikings on 1014. The victory of “Gael” over
“Gall” (foreigner) was a contemporary nationalistic simplification as the battle, which was a
power struggle between the Kings of Leinster (and Vikings) and Munster of the day. Such
an attitude was in tune with the romantic nationalism of the time and was a clear
provocation to the “foreign” government. Peel banned the meeting and took precautionary
large-scale military measures. O’Connell bowed to the forces of law and order and
cancelled the meeting. For once O’Connell’s brinkmanship and bluff had been called, his
“weakness” led to a fall in his popularity amongst many of his expectant supporters.

Doc 3iii
Peel in May 1843 had indicated his determination to deal with O’Connell. (Quoted by
Charles Gavan Duffy in Young Ireland ):
“There is no influence, no power, no authority which the prerogatives of the crown and the
existing law give to the government, which shall not be exercised for the purpose of
maintaining the union; the dissolution of which would involve not merely the repeal of an
act of parliament, but the dismemberment of a great empire…. Depreciating as I do all war,
but above all, civil war, yet there is no alternative which I do not think preferable to the
dismemberment of this empire.”
O’Connell’s reputation was to a degree retrieved as he, his son and other leading Repealers
were found guilty at the famous State Trials of January 1844. O’Connell became a martyr,
his subsequent release following appeal led to euphoric rejoicing and demonstrations in
Dublin and elsewhere. Nevertheless O’Connell had lost his nerve and was a pale shadow of
the rumbustuous and self-confident “Liberator” of earlier years. Time and the resolute
action of Peel had broken him. Although Repeal was an impossible dream, O’Connell’s
agitation of 1843 had bounced Peel into giving Ireland sustained attention, not only with
coercive measures but also with reforms. Peel, assailed by Chartists and Anti-Corn Law
Leaguers as well as economic and budgetary problems at home, could not afford to let his
old enemy and rival retain the initiative in Ireland.

O’Connell’s achievement
O’Connell should not just be remembered for his success over catholic emancipation or his
failure to achieve Repeal. He had given Irish catholicism a confidence and political identity
that it did not loose until the end of the twentieth century. Willy nilly his humane and liberal
tendencies had been swamped by the catholic nature of his nationalism. That nationalism
was alien to the protestant nation that had come to identify with the Union during the
O’Connell decades. The establishment of a catholic mass movement and identity was his
greatest achievement. In the long-term, when this was cross-fertilised with fenianism, a
very potent political movement was to come about. The republicanly-minded founders of
Young Ireland and the later Fenian movement were attracted to O’Connell by his leadership
and rhetoric but repelled by the religious divisions that were the price of a burgeoning


Peel, responding to O’Connell’s Repeal movement, made significant changes in Ireland that
contributed to his own political destruction. O’Connell died in 1847, broken and rejected by
the angry young men of Young Ireland well aware of the calamity of the Great Famine,
certainly believing his efforts to have been in vain. Both the reality and myth of the Famine
were to change Ireland socially and economically; political perceptions would also be
changed by the Famine but they had also been changed by O’Connell and by the new
generation of impatient radicals.

Peel and Catholic Reforms
Peel’s ameliorative measures were (like nearly all governmental reforms of the nineteenth
century) an ad hoc response to Irish events. His attempts to “kill Repeal by kindness”
involved efforts to detach the catholic church from the nationalist scene. An act of 1844
made it easier for the catholic church to benefit from donations and legacies. It was on this
that much of the Roman Catholic church’s massive building programme and developing
confidence of the next two generations would be based. (This was paralleled by the Ulster
Evangelical Revival at the end of the’fifties; thus in mid-century both religious polarities
were to develop a militancy and confidence greater than ever before.) Peel also was
responsible for upping the annual Maynooth Grant from £9,000 pa to £26,000 pa as well as
providing £30,000 for rebuilding. Peel had great difficulty in carrying his party with him on
this issue and the bitterness engendered by this “betrayal” of protestant principles goes
some way in accounting for Peel’s destruction following the repeal of the Corn Laws in

Any hopes Peel had of winning the support of the catholic church with the Bequests and
Maynooth issues were dashed due to the widespread (but not universal) opposition to the
provision of secular university education. The Queen’s Colleges Act of 1845 set up
university colleges in the provincial cities of Cork, Galway and Belfast. State endowment
was to be limited to secular education and the non-denominational nature of the university
was emphasised. Theology courses could be provided but by private endowment only; it
was this lack of a catholic theology school that led the catholic church after some initial
enthusiasm to condemn the colleges as “Godless”. The two southern colleges with
predominantly catholic hinterlands failed to prosper without the approval of the church;
though Queen’s College Belfast in a predominantly protestant city thrived and eventually
emerged as a university in its own right. The university issue was to bedevil Church-State
relations for another 60 years and helped the development of a pattern of religious
polarisation that had been in process since the emancipation years. For a brief period it
looked as if the secular university concept might be acceptable but the opposition of
Archbishop MacHale and the bulk of the hierarchy meant that the scheme was
unacceptable. Church opposition to the Queen’s Colleges would never die; the church
however failed to appreciate that anglican and non-conformist Britain would never endow
catholic university education any more than the British political world would ever
countenance Repeal. The continued clash of irreconcilables was inevitable.

Young Ireland
O’Connell might well have accepted the principle of mixed education, perhaps even secular
in form, but in practice he was too “good” a catholic always conceding the right of the
hierarchy to protect, control and direct catholic education. O’Connell was a liberal if not a
democrat, but as the leader first of catholic emancipation and then of a national movement
whose grass roots and much of its leadership defined itself in catholic terms, O’Connell
opposed the provision of the Queen’s Colleges. On this he clashed with the “angry young
men” of the Repeal movement. These romantics had formed a group called “Young Ireland”
by its critics in the early 1840s. They were linked to the Nation newspaper; they were a
“ginger group” that contributed much to the revival of the Repeal cause in 1843, bringing
the nationalistic message to a wide audience. These young radicals were impatient for
political change and refused to compromise with the “saxons” unlike O’Connell who was
always prepared to work with the Whigs. For them the nation was one and indivisible and
included all Irishmen including protestants. They could not agree with O’Connell’s catholicity
and were largely to secede or be expelled from the Repeal movement. Thus two clear
strands in Irish nationalism were now beginning to become apparent.

There was the traditional O’Connellite strand that preached tolerance and rapprochement
with protestants but pursued an exclusively catholic agenda that alienated any potential
protestant or secular support. Their politically liberal outlook fitted in well with the
predominantly Gallican outlook of the Irish catholic church of the first half of the century.

During the ’forties a second strand had developed in part inspired by O’Connell’s movement
and the general rhetoric of nationalism. In particular however they eulogised and
romanticised 1798 and even the concept of violence. They were appalled by O’Connell’s
close identification with the catholic church and catholic issues but at the same time raised
the nation into a god, a substitute religion that was intolerant and impatient of any deviation
from the national cause, be it political compromise or religious exclusiveness.

The Young Irelanders were writers and dreamers. Thomas Davis the founder of the Nation
was influenced by romanticism and endeavoured to spread the concept of a distinct and
de-anglicised Irish nation to a wider public through his popular ballads. Davis was to die in
1845, only three years after the foundation of the Nation; nevertheless his influence on his
own generation and on advanced nationalists of later generations was immense.

The other Young Irelanders were idealists who found themselves involved in revolutionary
activity in 1848 out of a sense of obligation (Charles Gavan Duffy, John Blake Dillon and
William Smith O’Brien) or through militant conviction (John Mitchel, Thomas Meagher). What
distinguished these Young Irelanders was their espousal of a new militancy that brought
them into conflict with the declining O’Connell. They and other rebels of 1848 were to
inspire the Fenian Brotherhood of the next generation. Their practical revolutionary
contribution was limited to a scuffle between some 40 police and 100 rebels (Confederates)
in County Tipperary. Subsequently the importance of their spirit of rebellion was hyped and
romanticised by later generations.

Doc 4i
In a debate on O’Connell’s motion to repudiate physical force (June 1846) Thomas Meagher

“Be it for the defence, or be it for the assertion of a nation’s liberty, I look upon the sword
as a sacred weapon. And if, my lord, it has sometimes reddened the shroud of the
oppressor like the anointed rod of the high priest, it has at other times blossomed into
flowers to deck the freeman’s brow. Abhor the sword and stigmatize the sword? No, no, my
lord, for in the cragged passes of the Tyrol it cut in pieces the banner of the Bavarian, and
won an immortality for the peasant of Innspruck [sic].”

Doc 4ii
John Mitchel the Presbyterian Young Irelander accused England in no uncertain terms of
being responsible for the Famine in The Last Conquest of Ireland.

“a million and a half of men, women, and children were carefully, prudently, and peacefully
slain by the English government. They died of hunger in the midst of abundance, which
their own hands created; and it is quite immaterial to distinguish those who perished in the
agonies of famine itself from those who died of typhus fever, which in Ireland is always
caused by famine …. The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight, but the English created the

Further Peel Reforms
To return to government policy: Peel’s ministry took two positive but in the end ineffective
initiatives. Firstly, though Peel had been instrumental in restricting the county franchise at
the time of Emancipation much had happened since 1829 (for instance the Tamworth
Manifesto signalled Peel’s acceptance of parliamentary reform in Britain and the
government was endeavouring to conciliate if not appease Irish opinion from 1843
onwards). A court ruling of 1837 had restricted the already narrow £10 freehold franchise
further. A new county franchise of £5 freeholders was to be introduced; the bill of 1845 did
not however go beyond its second reading. It did indicate new Conservative thinking and
paved the way for the 1850 franchise. Peel and his Home Secretary Graham also gave
backing to the actions of Eliot the liberally minded Chief Secretary who made catholic
appointments to the Irish administration and sacked two orange officials for their sectarian

Graham was the mover behind the setting up of the Devon commission of 1843 to inquire
into Irish Land holding. Its purpose was to conciliate and to provide the government with
data on the “causes of discontent in Ireland”. Though there was an awareness that rural
discontent came from a number of sources it did illustrate that the more progressive Tories
acknowledged Thomas Drummond’s observation of a few years earlier that property had its
responsibilities as well as its rights. Graham’s outlook was however pessimistic as he wrote
“I fear the remedies are beyond the reach of legislative power”. The reality of opposition
within the Lords and the revolutionary nature of any legislation on property rights at that
time meant that the bill, a mild measure for tenants’ compensation for improvements was
permanently shelved. The mountain had sweated and laboured and brought forth a mouse
(and a stillborn one at that). Nevertheless the spotlight had been placed on Irish land
tenure and a massive problem had been clearly identified. Within six months of publication
the royal commission’s findings had been overtaken by the catastrophe of the Famine.

Doc 4iii
An extract from the Devon Commission Report (1845)

“In averting to the condition of the different classes of occupiers in Ireland, we noticed, with
deep regret, the state of the cottiers and labourers in most parts of the country, from the
want of certain employment.

It would be impossible to describe adequately the privations which they and their families
habitually and patiently endure.

It will be seen in Evidence, that in many districts their only food is the potato, their only
beverage water, that their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather, that a bed
or a blanket is a rare luxury, and that nearly in all, their pig and manure heap constitute
their only property.

When we consider this state of things, and the large proportion of the population which
comes under the designation of agricultural labourers, we have to repeat that the patient
endurance which they exhibit is deserving of high commendation, and entitles them to the
best attention of Government and Parliament.”

The potato and famine
It is clear from contemporary observers (British, Irish and foreign) that Irish land tenure
together with the state of the Irish agricultural scene was considered a problem. Some
commented on its poverty and backwardness and some on the evils of landlordism
including widespread absenteeism. Others pointed to the frequent occurrence of potato
famine (14 failures or partial failures between 1816 and 1842). Moreover various reports
commissioned by the government had looked at different aspects of rural Ireland especially
the widespread degree of lawlessness. It was not however clearly recognised that there
was a disaster of Malthusian proportions waiting to happen. Recent research has shown that
some areas of Irish agriculture were successful and that contemporary comparisons with
Britain looked stark as Britain had the world’s most progressive agricultural system.

The potato was in some ways a sign and symptom of poverty but it was also a cushion that
enabled a large population to be sustained and successful commercial farming to be
maintained (as a rotational crop, as an animal feedstuff and as a nutritious diet for the
large force of farm labourers). No one can deny that Irish rural (and urban) poverty was an
issue exacerbated by land hunger but there is some evidence to suggest that Ireland’s
rapid population growth (successfully sustained before the mid ’40s by the potato) had
started to level off if not decline. Certainly the age of marriage had started to rise and the
emigration of those of fertile age was reducing the potential for future growth.

It is largely in retrospect that contemporaries came to see the Famine as a catastrophe
waiting to happen. There was an appreciation that the degree of land hunger was socially
and economically unhealthy and that there was an over dependence on the potato amongst
the poorest, there was not a recognition that a demographic implosion of monumental size
was about to happen. What was new in 1845 was the arrival of a transatlantic fungus
phytopthora infestans, which transformed traditional potato problems normally due to
weather, virus or lesser fungal diseases into a unique catastrophe.

A century earlier in 1740/1 there had been major famine; since then however the
population had quadrupled and large sectors (possibly a third by the 1840s) had become
dependant on the potato. As a generalisation population density was greater in the west
and south west where farms or land holdings were at their smallest. In east Leinster farms
were at their largest and most commercial. Ulster farms tended to be small but unlike
Munster and Connacht, Ulster (excepting Donegal) benefited from a mixed economy and
was not dependent on the potato. By the time of the Famine perhaps a third of the
population depended on the potato; a high proportion of those lived in the densely
populated west; though the landless labourers and cottiers were more widespread. The
following table extrapolated from the 1841 census illustrates the distribution of land by farm
size. Much of groups V and VI relied largely on the potato.

Table 4i Size of farms and share of land (from NHI v p114)

Size of farm
(acres) Numbers Total land held (millions of acres) % of total land held
I Landlords 10,000 3.5 17.5

IV Farmers:
V poor peasants 5 300,000 1.5 7.5
VI labourers etc 1 1,000,000 1.0 5.0

The Great Famine
The first signs of the fungal blight appeared in Belgium in June 1845, quickly swept through
northern and central Europe, Ireland being affected in September. Ireland was about in the
middle in terms of areas damaged by the disease. What was to be so devastating in Ireland
was the high dependence on the potato by the poorest section of the population. Initial Irish
and governmental reaction was fairly sanguine and it was not till the lifting of the late crop
in mid/late October that a more serious and pessimistic view of the situation came about.
The wet autumn provided ideal conditions for the spread of the fungus but also led the
government’s scientific commission appointed in October to incline to the erroneous view
that the fungus was endemic and long-standing in the potato and that the blight was largely
the product of cold, wet and cloudy conditions. The government and commission can be
praised for their efforts in respect of the prompt appointment of the scientists and in the
distribution of its recommendations. The commission and government’s ‘avalanche of
paper’ was however largely irrelevant and mainly ignored. Undoubtedly Peel and Graham
took the matter seriously and their coordination and provision of relief measures was
relatively successful. Politically however it was not: the purchase of maize (Indian corn)
was arranged in secrecy having been initiated by Peel in early November. It was not till
shortly before the start of its distribution in February 1846 that the general public came to
know of the maize purchase. The maize was not popular amongst its recipients but that and
government-supplied oatmeal prevented deaths in 1845-46. The efficient distribution of the
corn by the official relief commission (also set up in November) and by the hundreds (over
600) of local voluntary relief committees did not receive the recognition or initial publicity it
deserved. Local official responses from Dublin Castle were slow and complacent and
negligent. However by the beginning of 1846 central government had taken over, and the
Dublin administration acted as agents for London. The government coordinated public
works schemes and price controls, utilising strategies from previous famines, Peel had
himself piloted schemes as Chief Secretary in 1816-18. Half of the public works schemes
were financed from local sources, a heavy burden on the Irish ratepayer. Bureaucratic
tendencies and the prevailing dogma of laissez-faire did however blunt both the letter and
spirit of relief measures. Amongst the many voluntary and charitable initiatives were
Dublin’s Mansion House Committee and the Society of Friends (the Quakers), the latter in
particular making a huge contribution and effort in not only the first season of famine but in
subsequent years.

Table 4ii Famine summary 1845-48

1845 One-third of potato crop lost
1846 Three-quarters of potato crop lost
1847 Average yields – but few seed potatoes available for planting. Only one-eighth of the
pre-Famine acreage being planted
1848 Two-thirds of normal yields – bad weather leading to a poor grain harvest

The effects of the Famine were cumulative though nobody died in the winter of 1845/46, the
combined effects of poor weather, inadequate stocks of seed crops, physical weakness and
exhaustion all contributed to a rising death rate. Furthermore somewhere in the region of
one third of the potato crop by the ’40s was being fed to animals, therefore locally
produced grain was diverted from export to feed animals. However pigs, the supplementary
staple of the peasantry declined appreciably in number. With many already weakened by
malnutrition, mortality rates from fever and other diseases were some 10 times that of
starvation. Agreement on excess mortality figures does not exist for the period 1846-51,
the two polarities in death estimates are SH Cousens’s (1960) 860,000 which includes the
tail-end of the famine in the first quarter of 1851 and Joel Mokyr’s (1983 & 84) estimate of
1,082,000. Mokyr also made an additional projection that if averted births are included the
famine accounted for just fewer than 1.5 million people. Mokyr’s 1,082,000 is considered
rather more sound and reliable.

Doc 4iv
Twenty years after the Famine W Steuart Trench a land agent wrote:

“On August 6, 1846 – I shall not readily forget the day - I rode up as usual to my mountain
property, and my feelings may be imagined when before I saw the crop, I smelt the fearful
stench, now so well known and recognized as the death-sign of each field of potatoes. I was
dismayed indeed, but I rode on; and as I wound down the newly engineered road, running
through the heart of the farm, and which forms the regular approach to the steward’s
house, I could scarcely bear the fearful and strange smell, which came up so rank from the
luxuriant crop then growing all around; no perceptible change, except the smell, had as yet
come upon the apparent prosperity of the deceitfully luxuriant stalks, but the experience of
the past few days taught me that all was gone, and the crop was utterly worthless.”

Doc 4v
The Times published a letter from Nicholas Cummings, a Cork magistrate, on 24 December
1846 that was also sent to the Duke of Wellington:

“I accordingly went on the 15th instant to Skibbereen ….. I entered some of the hovels to
ascertain the cause, and the scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or
pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all
appearances dead, were huddled in the corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering
what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the
knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive – they were
in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go
through the detail. Suffice it to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200
such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe, either from famine or
from fever. Their demonaic yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are
fixed upon my brain. My heart sickens at the recital, but I must go on.

In another case, decency would forbid what follows, but it must be told. My clothes were
nearly torn off in my endeavour to escape from the throng of pestilence around, when my
neckcloth was seized from behind by a grip which compelled me to turn, I found myself
grasped by a woman with an infant just born in her arms and the remains of a filthy sack
across her loins – the sole covering of herself and baby. The same morning the police
opened a house on the adjoining lands, which was observed shut for many days, and two
frozen corpses were found, lying upon the mud floor, half devoured by rats.

A mother, herself in a fever, was seen the same day to drag out the corpse of her child, a
girl about twelve, perfectly naked, and leave it half covered with stones….”

No one can dispute the sheer scale of the human tragedy of the Famine whose horror is
portrayed in great detail in Cecil Woodham-Smith’s Great Hunger first published in 1962.
Both in her own words and in contemporary sources she recorded the starkness of events.
She has been criticised by historians for her misunderstanding of the contemporary
context, in particular the complexities of laissez faire and the role of Charles Trevelyan, the
chief government administrator. Louis Cullen the modern pioneer of Irish economic history
claimed that the Famine ‘was less a national disaster than a social and regional one’.
By-and-large this was correct as the Famine was not universal and mortality and emigration
hit the country with great variation. Even within counties major differences were to be
found: In Cork, the most affected county in Munster “large farmers holding more than 30
acres not only escaped almost unscathed but in fact strengthened their position during the
Famine years”. (Donnelly, The Land and People of Nineteenth Century Cork) Michael
Doheny on the run in west Cork and Kerry after the rebellion of 1848 was provided by his
various peasant hosts with milk, trout, eggs, whiskey, bread, bacon and tea. The county
annual excess mortality rates (expressed per thousand) are set out below.
As stated previously large scale emigration predated the Famine but somewhere in the
region of 1½ million left Ireland in the 1845-51 period. Emigration reached a peak of a
quarter of a million in 1851 (by which time the scales had been tipped decisively in favour
of a net outflow and population decline). If one takes into account c130,000 emigrants p.a.
who would have departed without the Famine, one is still left with net extra emigration in
the region of 600,000.

Table 4iii Average annual rates of excess mortality 1846-51 (per thousand)
(from NHI v p352)

County Province Rate County Province Rate
Mayo Connacht 58.4 King’s Leinster 18.0
Sligo Connacht 52.1 Meath Leinster 15.8
Roscommon Connacht 49.5 Armagh Ulster 15.3
Galway Connacht 46.1 Tyrone Ulster 15.2
Leitrim Connacht 42.9 Antrim Ulster 15.0
Cavan Ulster 42.7 Kilkenny Leinster 12.5
Cork Munster 32.0 Wicklow Leinster 10.8
Clare Munster 31.5 Donegal Ulster 10.7
Fermanagh Ulster 29.2 Limerick Munster 10.0
Monaghan Ulster 28.6 Louth Leinster 8.2
Tipperary Munster 23.8 Kildare Leinster 7.3
Kerry Munster 22.4 Down Ulster 6.7
Queen’s Leinster 21.6 Londonderry Ulster 5.7
Waterford Munster 20.8 Carlow Leinster 2.7
Longford Leinster 20.2 Wexford Munster 1.7
Westmeath Leinster 20.0 Dublin Leinster -2.1

Famine relief
The responses of Peel’s government have been outlined and commented upon. Peel fell
from office at the end of June 1846, the Famine having provided the excuse and timing for
the ‘Repeal of the Corn Laws’ of that month. Corn Law repeal came about as the Whigs
gave Peel support against his own backbenchers. Almost immediately afterwards the Whigs
combined with the vengeful Tory backbenchers to vote against the government’s Irish
coercion bill, thus leading to the defeat and resignation of Peel and the destruction of his
Conservative party. Lord John Russell’s minority government (with little Irish experience)
then had to deal with a prolonged and cumulative catastrophe that lasted until 1851 in one
form or another. Therefore the problems faced by Russell’s administration were more
complex and of a greater magnitude than those faced by Peel. No government (any more
than a government today) could avoid either deaths or criticism with such a prolonged and
unprecedented crisis. Third world natural disasters have reaped their harvests of death and
misery despite all the logistical advantages of the twentieth and twenty-first century world.
Such facilities were not available in the mid-nineteenth century.

Nevertheless the Whig government has been justly criticised for its rigid and doctrinaire
approach, its parsimony, lack of imagination and its ignorance. The dogmatic rigidity can
largely be explained in terms of adherence to laissez-faire principles, of a belief in the
divine provision of a Malthusian solution and with an assumption that government should
not support the people but vice versa. Sir Charles Trevelyan (Permanent Head to the
Treasury) and Charles Wood, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, were associated with such
views. They together with governmental contemporaries were not prepared to utilise
taxation that would release landlords from their obligations, undercut the market or else
create a dependency economy of scroungers and spongers. Woefully unaware of Irish
conditions and making English assumptions as to Irish facilities and infrastructure, the
ministers and officials worked conscientiously but remotely and without imagination. Whig
responses to the Famine came in three phases:

The provision of public work’s employment (the destitute had to earn their keep) and the
abolition of the existing Board of Health.

From the spring of 1847 a new Board of Health was instituted together with the provision of
soup kitchens (hitherto provided by the Quakers and other voluntary bodies) organised
through the totally inadequate and overstretched Poor Law Unions, which were very much
subject to bureaucratic conditions.

From the autumn of 1847 the Poor Law soup kitchens (only ever a temporary expedient)
were wound up, though they had been providing 3 million meals each day. A revamped and
expanded Poor Law administration was instituted (Irish Poor Law Amendment Act – June
1847) allowing outdoor relief for those holding less that a quarter of an acre (the “Gregory

These changes in policy indicate the inadequacy and ineptitude of Whig responses.
Initiatives such as the “Gregory Clause” and the provision that landlords were responsible
for all rates below a £4 valuation, heightened tension and led to an increase in evictions.
Many Irish landlords - already indebted - had faced an impossible financial burden due to
the fact that the rates provided for so large a proportion of the famine relief. A significant
number of landlords alleviated their tenants’ conditions: providing food, rent abatements or
suspensions. The insolvency of landlords was lessened by the 1849 Encumbered Estates
Act, which created a sizable revolution in Irish landholding in some ways as significant as
that of the population reversal triggered by death and emigration.

The consequences of the Famine
The myth and reality of the Famine are still difficult to unravel; what cannot be doubted are
its consequences – politically, socially and economically. The most obvious consequence
was the reversal in the population trend:

Table 4 iv

Census year Population Percentage change
1821 6,801,827
1831 7,767,401 +14.9
1841 8,175,124 +5.25
1851 6,552,385 -19.85
1861 5,798,967 -11.50
1871 5,412,377 -6.67
1881 5,174,836 -4.39
1891 4,704,750 -9.08
1901 4,458,775 -5.23
1911 4,390,219 -1.54

It is estimated that the population had reached at least 8.2m on the eve of the Famine. Net
emigration continued to reduce the Irish population until the mid 1960s, thus the Famine
started over a century of demographic decline. It was certainly a period of catastrophic
change, but the levelling off of population growth and the rising emigration rate may
eventually have reversed the population trend even if the Famine had not materialised. In
any event the Great Famine did provide the occasion for change and certainly engendered
beliefs. In political terms the actuality of events is seldom as important as their perception.
The migration diaspora, the myth of genocide, the rising expectations of the post famine
survivors (closely linked to changes in land holding and the boom in European agriculture
that lasted until the mid 1870s), and the decline of the Irish language are complex issues.
Long-term nineteenth century trends and beliefs are as important as the actual catastrophic
events of the Great Famine itself.

The 1850s
The 1850s were significant in ways unconnected with the political, social and economic
consequences of the Famine. In 1850 the Irish Representation of the People Act rationalised
the franchise at £12 for tenants in the counties and £8 in the boroughs. This in fact
disenfranchised some of the poorer voters but ensured that the more prosperous were
enfranchised; the post Famine changes in land-holding ensured that the proportion of £12+
farmers increased thus leading to a steady growth in the county electorate. The 1850 Act
trebled the county electorate but reduced the borough voters by a quarter.

Also in 1850 Paul Cullen was consecrated as catholic Archbishop of Armagh; this confirmed
a growing trend already apparent by mid-century, the decline of Gallicanism and the growth
in ultramontainism. This involved the development of centralised discipline and control
leading to frequent clashes with the outspoken and independent Archbishop MacHale of
Tuam. Prepared to cooperate with the government when to the church’s advantage, Cullen
established his control and finally scotched any possibility of approval of the Queen’s
Colleges. His moderate nationalism endeavoured to keep the priest out of politics (here he
once again clashed with MacHale whose brand of nationalism was advanced and
outspoken). He was particularly condemnatory of revolutionary nationalism and
republicanism, he had a particular objection to the Fenian Brotherhood (founded around
1858). His anti-revolutionary stance was partly based on the impracticality and futility of
violence, but his special antipathy derived from his experiences in Rome in 1848/49 when
he had been at the receiving end of revolution. Moreover the oath-bound nature of
fenianism was contrary to the teachings of the church; the Fenians tended to be secular and
on occasion anticlerical. Cullen would not tolerate adherence by catholics to any group but
the Church, in practice that meant anyone but himself and his exact contemporary Pius IX.
Initially sympathetic to the Independent Irish Party and Tenant Right he then moved to a
position of neutrality and then hostility largely over the issues of clerical discipline and the
fact that the League had foolishly appealed against him to Rome.

An Independent Irish Party?
For a brief period in the early 1850s, an independent Irish opposition party emerged.
Though it was avowedly independent the ‘independence’ did not last long as many of its 40
odd MPs gravitated back towards patronage by and support of the Whigs. Even the word
“party” might better be replaced by the word “group” as it was a temporary amalgam of
two wings: a fairly amorphous “Tenant Right” movement and the “Irish Brigade”, a
response by Irish catholic opinion to the heightened sectarian feelings engendered by the
Stockport Riots of 1852 and the Ecclesiastical Titles Act of the previous year. It was a
phenomenon of the time reflecting two ‘national’ interests but hardly – at this stage –
nationalist ones. Despite the contemporary state of flux on the British political party scene
the Independent Party never benefited from any legislative concessions. Markedly different
from O’Connell’s Whig-oriented Repealers it achieved less than O’Connell’s supporters had
managed in the 1830s.

Neither the time nor the personalities were right for the development of a real nationalist
party. The national preoccupations may be summed up by Comerford’s observation (1995)
that “the dominant feeling left behind by the Famine was not a desire for self-government
but a sense of embarrassment and inadequacy”. The Famine had brought to the fore the
complex and ever present issue and irritant of the land and this had been enthusiastically
but indiscriminately seized upon by the Tenant Right Movement and some political theorists
such as James Fintan Lalor. The land issue was of far more immediate and material concern
than the abstract notion of ‘repeal’ or national independence. A general preoccupation with
land issues was not new – land hunger and rural secret societies had long been endemic as
had landlord-tenant tensions. There was a widely held belief by many who were tenants
and cottiers that the land they occupied was rightfully theirs and not that of their alien
landlords. Land was always a political issue but in the years of the Famine and after it
began to emerge as a more specific concern. The true politicisation of the land issue had to
wait another generation; tensions between landlord and tenant, grazier, ‘strong farmer’,
peasant and labourer, evictor and evictee had yet to be focused and prioritised.

Religious polarisation and sectarianism in Ulster
Religious ideological tensions (with their political dimension of land holding and land
confiscation) date back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Tensions were
compounded by the legacy of the Penal Laws, the sectarian land competition in County
Armagh of orangemen and defenders and the delay in delivering emancipation. Attitudes
had been further fuelled (largely unconsciously) by the catholic rhetoric of O’Connell and
the industrialisation of the Lagan valley.

By-and-large Britain was a protestant country, conscious of its reformation and the Glorious
Revolution, it was thoroughly anti-papal. In these circumstances religious identity in the
’fifties was a major political issue as indicated by the furore over the Ecclesiastical Titles Act
and the Stockport riots. From their different poles the evangelical revival of the 1850s
matched the growing self-confidence of Irish catholicism, which was reaping the benefits of
Peel’s Charitable Donations and Bequests Act of 1844, and the rigour of Cullen’s leadership.
In the circumstances two sets of proud convictions and certainties could not but help drive
each other into different corners. At the end of the decade (1859) O’Neill Daunt, one time
secretary to O’Connell, wrote “Whatever public spirit exists in Ireland just now is rather
religious than political”. With some notable individual exceptions the religious divide was a
political divide, but the political dimension – in a nationalist sense – was cultural, latent and
often unconscious.
Often catholics and protestants moved in different economic, social and cultural spheres. In
these circumstances an isolation and preoccupation with their own coreligionists further
reinforced differences that already existed. Nowhere was this more so than in Ulster. The
high proportion of protestants of Scots or English origin (48%+) far exceeded the
protestants of the other three provinces: Leinster (14%); Munster (6%) and Connacht
(5%). Moreover Ulster had a higher population than any of the other provinces, its
protestant-dominated and industrialised eastern counties being amongst the more highly
populated Irish counties. [All percentages are taken from the 1861 census]. The critical
mass of protestants, being of a more homogeneous class mix than their coreligionists in the
other provinces, developed a more distinct identity. By mid-century differences of identity
between anglican and presbyterian had diminished. In the early nineteenth century largely
anglican orangemen and presbyterian radicals (to name the two protestant polarities) had
become reconciled to the union. Protestants had benefited from the successful
industrialisation of the Belfast area but had also been thrown on to the sectarian defensive
in rapidly growing Belfast. Unskilled rural catholics came into the city. At the time of the
Union catholics amounted to about a sixth of Belfast’s population but by 1861 they
amounted to a third. As largely unskilled they came to clash with poor protestants and also
those above them, the aristocracy of the artisanate. In some ways this mirrored the
situation between competing peasants and weavers in County Armagh at the time of
orange-defender sectarianism in the 1790s. Thus the sectarianisation of Belfast can be
partly linked to the growth of urbanisation and successful industrialisation. It can also be
linked to the religious/political rhetoric of the time; this was connected with emancipation
tensions but also with the virtual death of Belfast presbyterian liberalism. This had died
following the polemical debates of the conservative and fundamentalist Henry Cooke and
the liberal (theologically and politically) Henry Montgomery. The success and impact of
Cooke’s brand of presbyterianism help account for the riots that greeted O’Connell’s Belfast
visit (one of his rare forays into Ulster) of 1841. The first signs of sectarian rioting seem to
go back to this period apart from those at election time (i.e. 1830) and by the last third of
the century had become a fairly endemic feature. Cooke advocated an alliance between
presbyterianism and anglicanism in view of the incursions of Catholicism. Revivalist and
anti-popery preachers such as Hugh Hanna (presbyterian) and Thomas Drew (anglican)
certainly raised the temperature and tension, as did the intermittent activities of the Orange
Order. In particular the Evangelical Revival (1859) in protestant Ulster enabled those like
Hanna to combine opposition to catholicism with a defence of the Union. A gradual
identification of presbyterianism with orangeism started to develop.

Table 4v. Growth of Belfast (from Irish Historical Statistics, p11)

Year Population % Increase
1821 37,277 -
1831 53,287 42.95
1841 70,447 32.2
1851 87,062 23.58
1861 121,602 39.67

Doc 4 vi
In 1841 Henry Cooke had responded to O’Connell’s “invasion” of Ulster (significantly this
was O’Connell’s own expression) with:
“When you invade Ulster, and unfurl the flag of Repeal, you will find yourself in a new
climate…. Look at Belfast, and be a Repealer if you can ….. look at the town of Belfast.
When I was myself a youth I remember it almost a village. But what a glorious site does it
now present – the masted grove within our harbour – our mighty warehouses teeming with
the wealth of every climate…. All this we owe to the Union.”
Without the Belfast nucleus and stimulus it is unlikely that a distinctive politically protestant
Ulster could have maintained itself. By mid-century however certain uniquely Ulster
features had begun to arise; they would not become sufficiently serious until later in the
century. Even then, and for much of the twentieth century, catholic nationalist and
advanced nationalist/republican sentiment tended to underestimate Ulster protestant
strength whilst at the same time deploring its sectarian nature.
Belfast and the linen industry
By the 1820s the trading town of Belfast had developed a cotton spinning industry that
employed 3,500 workers in more than twenty mills, in part protected by the tariffs that had
survived the Union. In 1824 these tariffs were removed and Belfast cotton not only had to
contend with the Lancashire industry but also with the general recession in British cotton
manufacture. Fortuitously one of the largest mills, Mulholland’s, burned down and was
rebuilt as a flax-spinning mill utilising new technologies developed in Britain. By 1850, there
were twenty-nine flax-spinning mills and only four cotton mills. In effect, cotton
manufacture had become concentrated in south Lancashire and linen manufacture in the
Belfast region. At much the same time, the handloom weavers concentrated in the Belfast
area to be nearer to the supplies of linen yarn. There was a slow transition to powerloom
weaving that did not fully develop until the linen boom of the 1860s, a consequence of the
“cotton famine” created by the Federal blockade of the Confederate States during the
American Civil War. Conditions in the two factory-based parts of the linen industry and their
associated housing were grim. Belfast’s textile prosperity was based on low wages and poor
living and working conditions. In such an environment sectarian tensions flourished,
enflamed by rural immigration and evangelical preaching.
Belfast, shipbuilding and engineering
Belfast’s deepwater harbour facilities developed in the between 1785 and 1849, enabling
the port to accommodate its expanding textile and provision trade; it also enabled its
small-scale shipbuilding industry to develop. In the 1850s iron shipbuilding developed being
the origin of the Harland and Wolff yard. In the following decades, rival yards such as
Workman Clark developed and Harland and Wolff’s site expanded: new docks were
commissioned as was engine production and the production of the world’s first twin-screwed
steel-hulled liners. During the same period the world’s largest ropeworks developed as did
the world leaders in the fields of textile machinery (Mackies) and ventilation equipment
(Davidsons). The shipbuilding and engineering workers were well-paid; there wages being
about three times those of the textile workers.
Despite the emerging of a protestant identity, differences between the presbyterian and
anglican communities still existed and were only to die away with anglican disestablishment
in 1869. In the sphere of land politics radical presbyterianism lived on (to a degree)
contributing to Tenant Right and sometimes finding itself in opposition to the predominantly
anglican landed establishment. The Liberal church and land reforms of 1869 and 1870 were
in their different ways to bring the two parts of the Ulster protestant community into one
broad political entity, markedly hostile to Gladstone and Liberalism. The origins of Liberal
exertions in Ireland are – in their early days – closely linked with the Fenian phenomenon
and are the subject of the next chapter. The land, sectarian division, the Famine and the
ultra-nationalism of Young Ireland had all made their mark on an island that was to
redefine itself in the last third of the century.