Ireland from 1798 to 1922

From Union in 1801 to Independence in 1922

via a tempestuous century of Famine and failed Home Rule Bills

The Act of Union in 1801 was thought at the time by the British Government to be the “final solution to the Irish problem”. Until then the Kingdom of Ireland was a separate kingdom (under the same king as Britain) but with its own Parliament. From the perspective of Great Britain, the union was required because of the uncertainty that followed the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the French Revolution of 1789, which had inspired the rebels; if Ireland adopted Catholic Emancipation, a Roman Catholic parliament in Ireland could break away from Britain and ally with the French, while the same measure within a United Kingdom would exclude that possibility. Politics in Ireland over the next century became dominated by attempts to modify or repeal the Act of Union. But in England it was only after 1885, with Gladstone's commitment to Home Rule, that Britain began seriously to consider ceding more autonomy to Ireland.

For most of the century British politicians believed that the Irish would in the end accept the Act of Union. Law and order were helped with the creation of the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1836. A more educated population was considered to counteract lawlessness, so a programme of building National Schools started in 1831. Catholic emancipation came in 1829, as a result of O’Connell’s mass movement, the Catholic Association. But the privileges of the Church of Ireland were not abolished until 1869

Above all both Liberal and Conservative governments believed that the solution to the Irish Problem lay in solving the land question, that is the conditions of the Catholic Irish tenants. Widespread agrarian resentment was seen as being the cause of Ireland's social unrest, so if the land question was solved then the unrest would die away.

Ireland was predominantly a rural society, 80% of the population of Ireland lived on the land. A combination of industrial stagnation, land shortages and an inadequate diet were already starting to slow down population growth when famine struck in the 1840's. The population of about 5 million in 1800 reached a peak of over 8 million when the famine came.

The Whiteboys continued to be active in Co. Tipp in the 1830's and 1840's. Tipperary was considered to be the most violent county, but most areas of Ireland were affected by such violence. The reason would seem to have been that the emergence of large scale pastoral farming reduced the need for labour in a land that was grossly overpopulated.

The first potato failure of 1845, and the continuing failures of 1846 and 1847 meant that little could be done to prevent disaster on a grand scale. Over a million people died, and the famine more than anything exposed the weakness of the union with Britain. Britain with its advanced economy was unable to avert disaster in Ireland, a part of the kingdom.

By 1851 the population had fallen to 6.5 million, Tipperary is estimated to have lost 25% of its population. Then emigration further cut the population for the next 100 years. From a pre famine emigration figure of 50000 per year, the number jumped to 250000 by 1851. Many of the emigrants carried a bitterness of the British to America that can be found in their descendants today.

The face of the countryside was changed as the small sub-tenant was virtually wiped out. Land holdings were consolidated into larger units. Ironically Irish farming boomed after the famine, as the cattle and sheep fetched good prices on the English market. The drop in the population by starvation and emigration meant that farm jobs were available and reasonably well paid.

The majority of land was owned by landlords who did not farm it themselves, but rented it to tenants. In 1870 97% of land fell into this class, and in fact 50% of the land was owned by 750 families). About half the landlords lived on their estates, and some 40% of the landlords were Catholic by this time (though their estates were the smaller ones). It is now accepted that evictions were high only during the famine years (when there was no prospect of landlords collecting rent arrears and their poor rate contributions were in rising) and during the Land War of 1879 - 1882 when tenants collectively withheld rent.

Nationalist movements briefly flourished after the famine, with unsuccessful revolts by the Young Irelanders in 1848 and the Fenians in 1867. After this Gladstone embarked on his mission to "pacify Ireland". He introduced a number of Parliamentary acts for Ireland, which meant that in effect Ireland was treated as a separate country and that the Union was starting to crumble. This was not enough though, and the emergence of Charles Stewart Parnell as the leader of both the parliamentary party pushing for home rule, and also as leader of the Land League to protect tenants, caused further unrest.

Nationalism continued to grow in many forms. From the Gaelic Athletic Association founded in Tipperary in 1884, to the works of Synge and Yeats. And from the revival in interest in the Irish language to the founding of Sinn Fein by Griffith. But the next major move did not take place until 1910. A general election called by Lloyd George because the Lords rejected his budget, resulted in a hung parliament. Redmond's Irish party supported Lloyd George, and the Lords power of veto was changed to a delaying power for two years.

A new Home Rule Bill was then introduced and in April 1912 passed the Commons. It was delayed by the Lords, but only for two years under the new rules. Meanwhile both the Unionists and the Nationalists raised, armed and drilled volunteers prepared to fight for their respective causes. The Bill finally received the royal assent on 18th September 1914 as the Government of Ireland Act, but by then Britain had been at war with Germany for 7 weeks

Both sides of the nationalist divide joined the British army and went off to fight in France. The authorities were caught unawares when, on Easter Monday 1916, 2000 volunteers marched into the centre of Dublin and seized key points, which they held for a week before surrendering. Initially the uprising had little popular support, but a combination of heavy handed handling of the captured rebels and the appalling loss of Irish lives on the western front, brought about a change of opinions.

So when the war ended the Sinn Fein party swept the nationalist vote in the ensuing general election. But Unionist views in the north of Ireland had hardened too, and the British government reacted by changing the Government of Ireland Act to allow for the petition of Ireland. The British army got bogged down in a bloody guerrilla war with the nationalists in the south.

The north was anxious to get the partition of Ireland, and have their own parliament. The Dail in the south eventually voted for the peace treaty with Britain in January 1922. It was not an easy decision for the nationalists, and the split between the pro and the anti treaty factions resulted in more years of bloody war between these groups. Meanwhile once both parliaments had ratified the treaty, the British army pulled out of Ireland.

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