After his success in achieving Catholic emancipation in 1829, Daniel O’ Connell’s next objective was the quest to repeal the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. He desired, not an independent republic, but rather the independent Kingdom of Ireland under the British monarch, in which all the people of Ireland would be represented in a parliament in Dublin. This, however, did not suit the interests of the United Kingdom parliament which did not treat Ireland as it did Wales and Scotland. Unlike these countries which were in full union and controlled from London, Ireland was in effect controlled by a separate office in Dublin Castle and a Lord Lieutenant based in Phoenix Park.
If O’Connell’s goal of repeal was not attractive to Britain, then neither did it appeal to the Protestant population of Ireland who regarded it as an attempt to secure Catholic domination over the whole country.
The Whig (Liberal) Party were in power at this time and even though in 1833 they introduced a coercion bill which, amongst other things, removed the right of trial by jury, O’ Connell and his supporters in Parliament were inclined to deal with them rather than the Conservatives, whom he considered to be less inclined to make concessions or grant reforms in Ireland.
Reforms in Ireland
Recognizing that repeal would take a long time to achieve O’Connell set about seeking other reforms. The principal reform needed most was the removal of forced tithes by farmers of all religions to the established church, i.e. the Anglican Church of Ireland. In 1832, resistance to these tithes payments, led to many brutal attacks both on property and people, hence the Coercion bill. Over 200 people were killed and many hundreds hurt. The whole country was in turmoil. Those who refused to, or could not pay, faced seizure of property, livestock or imprisonment. Resistance increased and the yeomanry resorted to violence to maintain peace. Protestant clergymen were murdered, rioters shot and many arrests made. O’Connell was appalled by the violence and attempted to persuade the people that they would get rid of the tithe payments if they could first repeal the Union. Meanwhile, the government, flustered by the mounting tension, not only increased its powers but suppressed 10 Church of Ireland bishoprics. The loss of revenue to Anglican clergymen was offset by government payment of £1m and in 1838, O’ Connell was able to persuade the government to cut the tithe payment by 25%. This had the effect of taking the heat out of the situation.
Another reform given by the Whigs came about in 1831 when the Chief Secretary established a state-run system of interdenominational primary education, The National Schools. However, the Presbyterian’s and the Anglicans demanded denominational schooling and this was followed up in 1834 by the Catholic Church. Yet another reform was that from 1835 onwards Catholics could become judges and magistrates. This was the year in which the Whigs and O’Connell made a formal pact.
The RIC was also established and Catholics were encouraged to join. However, O’Connell’s main goal, the repeal of the act of union, seemed no nearer and so from 1841 he stepped up his campaign, influenced by the fact that the Conservative Party had gained power in Parliament.
The Conservatives were led by Sir Robert Peel always an enemy to reform in Ireland. As with his Emancipation campaign, O’ Connell initiated a series of mass peaceful gatherings, sometimes amounting to hundreds of thousands.
Demonstrations in Ireland
It was O’ Connells hope that such mass demonstrations would, as it did with emancipation, influence the British parliament in granting repeal. However, both the Conservatives and the Whig parties refused to be influenced.
Indeed his last demonstration at Clontarf on 7th October 1843 was banned and O’ Connell, always a man of peace and upholder of the law, encouraged his supporters to respect the ban. None the less in May 1844 the government had O’Connell arrested and jailed for 1 year in Richmond Prison in London. The governor would not put him in a cell but gave him residence in his own home. In September the sentence was overturned in the House of Commons and he was released.
By now the great campaign was winding down and O’ Connell, now in his 70’s, was meeting resistance within the movement. A subgroup, known as Young Ireland was growing more and more discontented by the closeness of O’ Connell’s closeness to the Catholic Church and its interests. They began to lean towards a more revolutionary approach in ending the Union. Unknown to all of them, Ireland with its population of approximately 8,5000,000 was on the brink of a terrible disaster.
- A History of Ireland. Jonathon Bardon. Gill& Macmillan. Dublin.2009 edition
- The Course of Irish History. T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin. Mercier Press. Dublin2001 edition
- Modern Ireland 1600-1972. R.F. Foster. Penguin Books. London 1988
- The Green Flag, A History of Ireland. Robert Kee. Penguin Books. London2000 edition
Last updated March 2, 2020.