Ireland from 1690 until 1798

After the upheavals of the Cromwellian wars and confiscations, the restoration, and then the Williamite wars, Ireland badly needed a breathing space to recover from the large scale changes.

The Old English Catholic landed class (which had included the Grants) with roots going back to Norman times, had been virtually wiped out from the point of view of political power. They had been replaced by a new Protestant class of settler, who became known as "The Protestant Ascendancy".

But the biggest change, unremarked on at the time, was the growth in population from around 2 million in 1700 (it had taken 500 years to grow from 1 million in 1200) to around 5 million in 1800. The most rapid growth was among the poor Catholic, non land owning class. The potato had rapidly established itself as the staple diet of the poor. The famine of the early 1740's was a portent of the Great Famine which occurred a century later in the 1840's. The famine of the 1740's saw perhaps a greater percentage death among the population, but from a lower population base.

The Penal Laws were applied with some vigour against the Catholics, particularly in the first half of the 18th century. These were aimed at Catholic schools, clergy and property. Until late in the century only Protestants had full political rights. The Protestants ruled the country and their hostility was directed mainly at the catholic gentry (like the Grants) whom they had replaced. The Catholic masses were disregarded until weight of numbers forced the issue.

The canal and road system was improved. Estates were reorganised to increase agricultural output. The removal on the ban on the import of Irish cattle into England prompted a move into cattle farming in Ireland. This meant enclosing both common and arable land, which caused resentment among the poor. But parliament in Dublin was in the hands of the landowners, and the number of Enclosure Bills reached a peak in 1780. Of course cattle farming employed fewer labourers. Unemployment rose, and the problem was compounded by the fact that the Tithe was enforced against tillers (usually small farmers) and labourers, but not against grazers (usually the large Protestant landlords)

In much of the country very few Protestant churches existed. There was a spate of new church building with grants from the Board of First Fruits (funded by Tithes) in the late 1700's.

The problems resulting from enclosures gave rise to an agrarian backlash among the masses. This started in Co Tipperary, where men wearing white smocks over their heads levelled fences and attacked cattle by night. They became known as "Whiteboys", and the movement spread into Munster, Leinster and Connaught. As the movement gathered strength they issued threats to landlords over a number of long standing grievances. In particular the payment of Tithes and the levels of rent. The Whiteboys, though mainly cotters, did include some middle class, and had the support of most of the rural population. They were a difficult group for the government to control. Tipperary landlords tried to control them by forming troops of horse from selected tenants, but were not successful. In other parts of Ireland agrarian movements briefly sparked, but the Whiteboys caused problems over a long period.

The British Empire was at this time expanding, but there were two anomalies which did not fit easily into the Empire - Ireland and America. They had the same problems and bonds with England. It was with some opposition that the Irish parliament supported the crown against the American Colonies in their War of Independence. The largest army ever to leave Britain was sent to America, and when France entered the war on the American side, Ireland was open to attack as she had few soldiers left to defend her shores. By 1779 France controlled the English Channel, and privateers, including the American Paul Jones, roamed the Irish Sea.

In response the Ascendancy raised a volunteer army to protect Ireland from the French. They had 100000 men, mainly Protestant, under arms. When the war in America swung against the British, the Irish used this army to gain political concessions from England. Free Trade was conceded in 1779, followed by the amendment of Poynings Law and the repeal of the Declaratory Act. Catholics were now allowed to own land and take long leases. The Irish parliament was now becoming more independent, and their constitutional position with England more confused.

As the population increases, so did rural poverty. Ireland lacked natural resources like coal and iron, nor did it have a proper infrastructure of roads and canals, so it could not develop industrially, as England did with the Industrial Revolution.

The English premier, Pitt the Younger, tried to head off radical movement in Ireland by repealing some of the anti-Catholic laws in 1793. In particular Catholic freeholders worth 40s were given the vote. But political opposition grew, with the United Irishmen, a radical group of both Catholics and Protestants which sought a new democratic nation and the abolition of the corrupt ruling class. In 1798 there were widespread uprising throughout Ireland which were ruthlessly put down. The French landed an army in Mayo, and marched far inland before they were defeated by General Lake in Longford. A larger French force under Wolfe Tone was intercepted. Tone was captured and taken to Dublin gaol, where he committed suicide rather than be hanged. 50000 people died in the uprising of 1798.

Wolfe Tone

Pitt tried to solve the unrest in Ireland by getting the Irish parliament to pass in 1800 the Act of Union. The Ascendancy were against the union, preferring to be big fish in a small pond. But the English government by using bribery and patronage were able to push the bill through. Pitt believed that with union he could better conciliate the Catholics and pacify Ireland. Ireland lost its own parliament, but sent 100 MPs to Westminster. However Pitt could not get Catholic emancipation passed by Westminster. The Bill was blocked in England and Ireland, and George III indicated that he would not sign such an act. Pitt resigned, and Ireland continued to be represented solely by Protestants, now in Westminster and not Dublin.

Ireland changed little, the Whiteboy revolts continued to kill and burn people and animals. Resentment against Tithes and high rents continued to smoulder. And the population continued to grow rapidly.

The main outbreaks of violence with the Whiteboys were in the years 1760 - 1766, 1770 - 1776, 1785 - 1788 and 1799 - 1803

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