The Age of George III

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Britain and Ireland 1760-89: overview

See also A Comparison of England and Ireland in 1760: political, social and economic

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English political control of Ireland can be traced back to a series of military campaigns in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries under Elizabeth I and then Cromwell. The subjection of the native and predominantly Catholic Irish subsequently relied to a large extent on the collaboration of Protestant settlers from England and Scotland who were granted land and privileges by the English government in an attempt to wipe out Catholicism. Although many of these settlers were Anglican, a substantial minority were Dissenters such as Presbyterians. Most of them settled in the north-east of Ireland - Ulster. At this time, England ruled the whole island of Ireland. Partition did not occur until 1922.

Although Ireland had its own parliament its powers were limited because of Poynings' Law, passed in 1495. This stated that all legislation proposed by the Irish parliament had to be submitted to the English government for approval prior to being discussed in Dublin. All members of both Houses of Parliament in Dublin had, by law, to be practising Anglicans. This meant that less than one twelfth of the population in Ireland was eligible for election. Since all electors also had to be Anglicans and also 40/- freeholders, the number of voters was very limited. Few people had the land qualification either to vote or to stand as MPs. The Irish parliament was therefore little more than an Anglican oligarchy and most MPs were landowners or the sons of the peerage. The vast majority of the Irish were unrepresented - but then again, this also applied to the vast majority of the English population.

Between 1689 and 1714 a series of laws was passed that specifically penalised Catholics. This continued the efforts of the English to eradicate Catholicism in Ireland. The so-called Williamite Penal Laws were not completely repealed until 1829 although they were removed piecemeal from about 1778.

In 1782 the Anglican minority's campaign for greater political independence resulted in the establishment of what is often referred to as Grattan's parliament after its main proponent, Henry Grattan. The limited political autonomy which this enjoyed was short-lived. Full, direct rule from Westminster was reimposed by the Act of Union of 1800, which took effect in 1801. This allowed Anglican Irish MPs to sit in the British parliament but at the same time, it abolished the Dublin parliament.

The alleged consequences of this Act and various attempts to modify or repeal it have tended to dominate Nineteenth Century Irish history. Only after 1885, however, with Gladstone's commitment to Home Rule, did a significant sector of the British political élite consider conceding any of the demands for greater Irish autonomy. From then on the seemingly increasingly irreconcilable conflict between the interests of the Protestant minority, mainly clustered in Ulster, and those of the rest of the island, has dominated the debate. The settlement pieced together between 1920 and 1922 which led to the formation of the Irish Free State resulted in the partition of Ireland, with six predominantly Protestant counties in north-east Ulster remaining under the government of Westminster.

There are two main schools of thought to account for Irish refusal to accept British rule, which may be simplified thus:

  1. cultural, racial, religious and social factors
  2. British economic exploitation mobilised anti-British opinion

The analysis of the problem that has won much support on both sides of the Irish Sea is that the key to Ireland's problems lay in the land question. Successive governments, especially after 1870, attempted to the answer to the Irish Question in the hope that it would bring prosperity, peace and acceptance of British rule.

The theory proceeded from the premise that Irish farming was backward and its practitioners poverty-stricken. This was supposedly due to the system of land tenure which had been introduced by and was allegedly operated for the benefit of Protestant English landlords. Widespread resentment of the system was seen as contributing to Ireland's social unrest, widely reported violence and strident nationalism. Any lasting solution could therefore only be effected if it was accompanied by a solution to the land question.

It would seem, in the light of current events, that the solution has been based on a false premise: land is not the underlying problem.

Agricultural conditions in Ireland
The University of Minnesota Law Library has put on line transcripts of the Penal Laws. They can be found here.
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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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