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The Protestant Ascendancy: 18th century

The Protestants of Ireland, triumphant in the aftermath of the battle of the Boyne, soon take steps to procure lasting advantages over their Catholic enemies. Confiscation reduces Catholic property from the already low figure of 22% of Ireland to a mere 14%. Moreover an act of 1704 prevents Catholics from buying land. And existing estates have to be divided between all the sons of a Catholic family, thus gradually reducing them to smallholdings.

Meanwhile penal laws severely restrict Catholic liberties in other fields. It becomes illegal for a Catholic to sit in the Dublin parliament, to hold public office, to keep a school, even to own a decent horse (one worth more than 5).

In spite of the advantages thus secured for Ireland's Protestants, they too find cause for resentment during the 18th century. Increasingly the Protestant Ascendancy means the ascendancy of English Protestants. The best posts, in church or government, are given to newcomers from the other side of the Irish Sea. Irish commerce suffers harmful tariffs and restrictions. Scotland, now in political union with England, enjoys free trade; by contrast the Irish market is controlled from Westminster (which forbids, for example, the export of Irish wool).

The Irish find much to sympathize with in the complaints of the American colonies. Irish demands become vociferous in the years after the American Revolution.

Anglo-Irish tensions: 1778-1785

Considerable concessions have been made to the Irish before the end of the war against the American colonists, and as a direct result of the conflict. By 1778 many of the British troops normally maintained in Ireland are overseas in America. In that year France enters the war against Britain. It is clear that Ireland is dangerously exposed both to internal unrest and to invasion. The Protestants enlist enthusiastically as volunteers. Soon they outnumber the regular British forces in the island.

This accidental circumstance gives unprecedented weight to the political demands coming from Dublin (on topics such as free trade and the power of the Irish parliament), which in normal times receive scant attention in Westminster.

Between 1778 and 1782 much legislation is passed to reduce Irish grievances. Most of the restraints on Irish trade are removed. The ancient and repressive Poynings' law is modified almost out of existence. Irish judges are given the same tenure of office as their English colleagues. And some of the restrictions on Roman Catholics are eased (particularly in relation to the ownership of land).

In 1785 Pitt attempts to carry this process further, but his bill to merge Ireland in a full commercial union with Britain and the colonies does not pass. He fails to find a compromise to satisfy the objections of British traders and the demands of the Irish. And Irish demands are anyway about to escalate, as a result of the French Revolution.

United and disunited Irishmen: 1791-1795

The heady achievements of the early years of the French Revolution prompt similar excitement in Ireland. In 1791 Wolfe Tone and others establish in Belfast (with a subsequent branch in Dublin) the Society of United Irishmen. The society's aim is to demand Catholic emancipation, but also to involve Irish Protestants in a joint campaign for political reform - extending even to universal male suffrage.

By 1793, when Britain is again at war with France, Pitt is eager to have the support of the predominantly Catholic population of Ireland. He passes in 1793 the Catholic Relief Act. It is a cause which happens also to have his strong personal support.

Under the new act Catholics have the franchise on the same terms as Protestants; they are no longer barred from most government offices; they are admitted to Trinity College, Dublin's only university at this time. In 1795 Pitt goes further, founding the seminary of Maynooth to educate Catholic priests (the college at Douai having been closed by the anti-clerical policies of the French Revolution).

But by this time the political situation in Ireland has become much more radical. A section of the United Irishmen has been transformed by Wolfe Tone into a secret society aiming for a free Ireland. In 1795 a secret Protestant group, the Orange Society, is formed to resist Irish nationalism (see the Orange Order). The island's turbulent future is taking shape.

Irish rebels: 1796-1798

In 1796 Wolfe Tone travels to Paris to persuade the Directory that it only needs the spark of a French invasion to ignite an Irish uprising against their English oppressors. His argument convinces. In December of that year Tone sails home in the company of 14,000 French soldiers commanded by Lazare Hoche. But a storm disperses the fleet off southwest Ireland and no troops are landed.

Tone is still abroad, in 1798, when his revolutionary colleagues in Ireland succeed in launching an armed rebellion which gives the British government considerable trouble. British troops are defeated in several engagements in the Wexford region.

It is Wolfe Tone's misfortune that calm has already been restored by the British when he arrives on the coast of Donegal, in September, with a French force of 3000 men. Captured and taken to Dublin, he makes a stirring speech at his trial about the need for an Irish war of liberation. Two days later he cuts his throat to cheat the British gallows. Ireland has the first of her many revolutionary heroes.

The events of 1798 convince Pitt that the Irish problem requires precisely the opposite solution from the one advocated by Wolfe Tone. Instead of a separate and independent Ireland, he sees the answer in full-scale union between Ireland and Britain.

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