A Short History of Ireland
1691 -1891

Treaty of Limerick

Penal Laws


The Age of Daniel O'Connell (1801 - 45)

Potato Famine (1845-1849)

Land Reform: Davitt and Parnell (1850-1891)


Treaty of Limerick

    For more than 100 years after the Treaty of Limerick (1691) -- a period later called the "Age of Penal Laws" or "Protestant Ascendancy" -- Ireland was a powder keg of social unrest due to a repressive and apartheid-like society in which a small Anglican minority (10% of the population) used its ownership of land and its control of government to deny power, influence and civil rights to Catholics (75% of the population) and to a lesser degree to Presbyterians (15%). Nevertheless, despite serious tensions that constantly threatened to erupt into widespread violence -- rich versus poor, landlord versus tenant, Catholic versus Protestant -- Ireland was able to avoid open revolution. Then in 1782 England, while still reeling from the American Revolution, permitted Ireland to evolve into a semi-autonomous (but still repressive) "Protestant Nation", a peaceful transition that contrasted dramatically with the violent Revolutions in America (1775-83) and in France (1789-99). Finally, the Rebellion of 1798, a modest and wildly unsuccessful rising led by Presbyterians, triggered a 180 degree change of direction: The Irish Parliament disavowed its autonomy and entered into a "union" (merger) with England (1800) that nearly destroyed Ireland's separate identity. (back to top)

Penal Laws

    Almost immediately after the Treaty of Limerick (1691), Anglicans took decisive action to further strengthen their dominant position. Notwithstanding the Treaty, the Irish and English Parliaments, both dominated by Anglicans, enacted a series of "Penal Laws" (a.k.a. the "Popery Code") which, apartheid-like, created a three tier, Anglican controlled society in which (1) Catholics (75% of the population) would be totally excluded from property and power, and (2) Presbyterians (15% of the population) would remain subordinate to Anglicans.
    Catholics and Presbyterians alike were required to tithe to the Anglican Church of Ireland, but were officially barred from government employment and military commissions. Catholics alone were barred from elective office, from entering the legal profession, from bearing arms, and from owning a horse worth more than five pounds. Upon the death of a Catholic landlord, his property by law went to his sons in equal shares, unless one of them converted to Anglicanism, in which case the Anglican son received the entire property, along with the right to immediately wrest management from his parents. Catholics were prohibited from purchasing realty, except leases of less than 31 years. (Between 1701 and 1778 Catholic ownership of land further declined from 14% to 5%). Catholics were barred from educating their children (except in schools proselytizing for the Anglican religion). Catholic bishops were banned from Ireland (under penalty of death by hanging, disemboweling and quartering). The last of the Penal Laws, enacted in 1727, denied Catholics the right to vote.
    In enacting the Penal Laws, the Parliament of England was motivated almost entirely by anti-Catholic animus, but the Parliament of Ireland had additional motivation: preserving the privileged position of the New English "haves" vis-a-vis the native "have nots". William and Mary initially opposed the "Penal Laws" as violative of the Treaty, but religious freedom for Catholics was not the highest priority for William, and the Crown soon acquiesced. Except for the Cromwellian era (1649-60), the period 1692-1740 was the most anti-Catholic in Irish history. However, anti-Catholic animus peaked in the mid-1730s, then gradually subsided over the next 130 years, as anti-Catholic laws were gradually repealed, one by one.
    The Penal Laws helped create the misnamed "Protestant Ascendancy", which would have been more accurately called "Anglican Dominance". Under it, all of society, and certainly all of government, was dominated by an elitist aristocracy consisting exclusively of Anglicans. The stereotypical Ascendancy gentleman attended Trinity College, lived a hard-drinking, party-oriented life of luxury in a "big house", pursued a respectable professional career in law, government, education or the military, and above all, collected high rents from his Irish tenants. But he also was insecure. His prosperity and privilege were rooted in land confiscations which, if the old line Irish ever regained control, were likely to be overturned. And he knew full well that British troops were critical in keeping the old line Irish in check.
    The vast majority of Catholics lived and worked on the farm in abject poverty, degradation and despair, with no way out. Their diet consisted almost entirely of the newly introduced potato, plus milk (with a herring once or twice a year). Shelter, if any, was a mud hovel with leaky roof and no windows or chimney. Even Catholics who labored full time lived in worse degradation than the poorest beggars elsewhere in Europe. A handful of Catholics achieved middle class prosperity in business -- and their numbers grew as time went by -- but they were exceptions. In terms of compliance with law, Catholics were made criminals under the Penal Laws because they refused to turn in their "illegal" priests, and the draconian injustice of these laws engendered in them a culture of disrespect for the law generally.
    Presbyterians congregated in Ulster, where typically they adhered to the culture (and religion) brought over from Scotland by their ancestors. Close knit and industrious, they responded to discrimination by distancing themselves from Ascendancy culture, becoming a self reliant community within the larger society. The typical Presbyterian pursued a middle class livelihood in the linen business or in farming.
    Anglicans and Presbyterians soon found themselves in serious conflict. The principal problem was that the "established" Church of Ireland, and its Anglican members, treated the Presbyterian Religion as a second class religion, and its members (who generally were less affluent than Anglicans) as second class citizens. Although Presbyterians were treated far better than Catholics -- there were no restrictions on the right to own realty or to bear arms -- they were required to tithe to the Anglican Church of Ireland, and were prohibited from holding government office or military commissions. Many emigrated to America where their descendants served with distinction in George Washington's Revolutionary army.
    The Ascendancy also resented Mother England's insistence upon treating Ireland as a subservient colony, useful primarily for enhancing the prosperity of England. British trade legislation, which typically discriminated against Ireland, was particularly grating. For example, in order to protect English manufacturers, the English Parliament prohibited the export of Irish woolen goods to any country except England, where prohibitive duties made such trade unprofitable. This legislation literally destroyed the Irish woolen industry, to the dismay of merchants of all religions. The Ascendancy lobbied constantly for a more balanced alliance, something akin to an equal partnership, provided it could be attained without losing England's military protection. But no serious effort was made to address this problem in the first half of the 18th Century, and even within the Ascendancy, discontent was rampant. (
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    In the latter half of the 18th Century, the Western World was permanently changed by two major "revolutions": (1) The Industrial Revolution, in which labor saving machines, both on farms and in factories, permitted the "necessities" to be produced with far less manpower, thereby freeing surplus manpower to be used in the production of non-necessities, and (2) A series of violent populist revolutions -- exemplified by the American Revolution (1775-83) and the French Revolution (1789-99) -- which erupted against colonial empires and undemocratic governments. Ireland was not totally exempt from either revolution.
    The Industrial Revolution, which began in England in the 1760s, bypassed most of Ireland, but it took root and flourished in and around Belfast, which became the linen center of the world, and the industrial center of Ireland. For the northeast, industrialization meant prosperity, along with stronger export and economic ties with Britain, but it also brought the start of urban problems commonly associated with industrialization: overcrowding, pollution, communicable disease, etc. By late century, Ulster Protestants – particularly Presbyterians – had become more convinced than ever that "Ulster is different from the rest of Ireland", based on the indisputable facts that (1) whereas the rest of Ireland was 80% or more Irish-Catholic, Ulster had a British-Protestant majority, or near majority, with Presbyterians outnumbering Anglicans by far, and (2) whereas the rest of Ireland remained largely agrarian, Ulster to a significant degree had become industrialized. This culture of "separateness" persisted into the 20th Century and drove the partition compromise of 1910-22.
    Throughout all of Ireland in the 1760s, the long simmering tensions -- landlord versus tenant, rich versus poor, Catholic versus Presbyterian versus Anglican -- began to surface, primarily in rural areas. Secret societies were formed which became governments unto themselves. They ignored duly enacted law and established their own agendas -- primarily anti-landlord, secondarily anti-government and/or anti-tithe – which were enforced through organized violence, principally against landlords and their allies. (The violence euphemistically was called "land wars" by some, "agrarian outrages" by others.) Membership tended to be from a single religion, but religious warfare did not erupt until later in the century, when Catholics and Protestants began to compete for leases. Public attention fell principally on the Catholic societies, the "Whiteboys" and "Defenders", but Protestant societies, the "Hearts of Oak", "Steelboys", and "Peep o' Day Boys", were equally effective.
    Some policy makers thought there might be a partial legislative solution to the unrest. In the 1760s, the "Patriot" movement led by Henry Gratton (an affluent and pro-business Anglican), professing loyalty to the King but demanding greater autonomy for Ireland plus concessions to Catholics, emerged as an influential minority in the Irish Parliament. As a result of Gratton's advocacy, a few of the Penal Laws were repealed in the 1770s.
    The American Revolution erupted in 1776, triggering obvious comparisons between the situation of the American colonies and that of Ireland. It also forced the reassignment of British troops from Ireland to America. This led to the formation of the "Irish Volunteers", a militia (consisting almost entirely of well armed Anglicans) which ostensibly was formed to defend Ireland but which was used adroitly by Gratton to intimidate the British government.
    In 1782, while still negotiating a surrender in the American Revolutionary War, England handed Gratton his greatest achievement. "Gratton's Parliament" (backed by the armed "Irish Volunteers") persuaded the British government to amend English law (including Poynings's Law) to give the Irish Parliament full legislative independence, including the right to enact its own trade and tariff policies. Conventional wisdom among Ascendancy gentlemen was that Ireland had been transformed peacefully into a nearly autonomous "Protestant Nation", but this was a gross exaggeration, since the Crown had retained all executive power, including power over patronage, plus the right to veto legislation of the Irish Parliament.
    Legislative independence nevertheless was a triumph for the Protestant Ascendancy, which had long sought greater legislative autonomy, particularly in matter of trade. The Ascendancy thus reacted with pride and satisfaction which manifested itself in visible signs of sovereignty such as an independent Bank of Ireland, a separate Irish postal service, and new government buildings including the Custom House and the Four Courts.
    But independence for a Parliament responsive only to the Protestant Ascendancy did little or nothing for the angry lower and middle classes, either Presbyterian or Catholic. Presbyterian tenant-farmers, generally middle class, had grievances over the mandatory tithe, certain penal laws, a wide variety of landlord abuses, and a non-representative Irish Parliament. Poverty stricken Catholics had all these grievances, and many more. Thus Catholics and less affluent Presbyterians, who together made up 90% of the population, found themselves on the same side of the major issues of the day: land reform, Parliamentary reform, elimination of the tithe, and repeal of those penal laws affecting both. Religious differences historically had precluded joint political action, but some radical reformers were beginning to see potential in a Catholic-Presbyterian political alliance.
    In 1789, the French Revolution impacted Ireland like a bomb, igniting existing tensions and pushing Ireland toward similar violent revolution. In France, the peasant and middle classes had risen up to topple the government (and to behead the king and queen), to oust the established Church (and to confiscate its property), to abolish tithes, religious discrimination and privilege, and to institute a democratic republic dedicated to liberty and equality. (The French Revolution's first stage was widely admired; but its later stages, particularly the infamous "Reign of Terror", were almost universally deplored.) Now it was becoming clear that the status quo in Ireland could not be maintained, and that radical change was inevitable.
    Among intellectuals, Parliamentary reform topped the list of demands for change. Not only were Catholics legally barred from serving, but only freeholders (owners and life tenants in land) could vote, and voting districts were not of equal size or population. Some voting districts -- called "pocket boroughs" or "rotten boroughs" -- had only one or two eligible voters. Among 300 seats in Commons, a majority -- more than 150 seats -- were controlled by only 30 landowners. Ironically, this worked to benefit the Crown, which used patronage jobs and pensions to induce the individuals in control -- called "undertakers" -- to undertake to enact the Crown's agenda. At any one time, between one-third and two-thirds of the Irish Parliament was receiving a salary or pension from the Crown.
    Theobald Wolf Tone, an Anglican of modest social standing and the founder of radical republicanism in Ireland, was profoundly influenced by the French Revolution. To Tone, the key to a better Ireland was Parliamentary reform (i.e., a popularly elected one-man-one-vote legislature), and the key to Parliamentary reform was an alliance between Catholics and less affluent Presbyterians. Ultimately, Tone's vision for Ireland was a democratic republic, patterned after the post-revolutionary French Republic; it would be totally independent from England, governed by a popularly elected one-man-one-vote type legislature, and free from religious discrimination and preferences. In 1791, with the assistance of Napper Tandy, Tone founded the Society of United Irishmen, which originally was formed as a "debating society" peacefully advocating Protestant-Catholic cooperation to achieve parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation. United Irishmen quickly gained wide support from Ulster Presbyterians, and modest support from some Catholics.
    The post-revolution French government declared war on England in 1793. Hoping to secure the loyalty of rebellious Catholics, the British government pressured the reluctant Irish Parliament to repeal some penal laws and to grant Catholics the right to vote* (1793).
    But unrest did not subside. Instead it escalated in the form of sectarian violence. The "Battle of the Diamond" (1795) near Armagh, which pitted Presbyterian Peep o' Day Boys against Catholic Defenders, left 20 dead. That same evening, Ulster Protestants formed the "Orange Order", a society of affluent and middle class Protestants who pledged support for the Protestant Ascendancy and confrontation with Catholics. Over the next few months, thousand of Catholics were driven out of Ulster by widespread and systematic violence.
    About 1794, Tone crossed over the line, converting from advocate of peaceful Parliamentary reform to violent revolutionary. About the same time, the United Irishmen became a para-military force. In 1796, Tone convinced France to invade Ireland as part of its war effort against England. A French fleet carrying 14,000 troops set sail for Ireland, but as luck would have it, bad weather prevented a landing, and the fleet returned to France.
    All of the powder kegs now seemed ready to explode at once. An anti-government revolution (ala the French Revolution) seemed imminent. Religious warfare already had erupted at Diamond, and seemed likely to spread. Rural violence against landlords was escalating. And a second French invasion of Ireland was expected at any time.
    The government responded with a campaign to disarm the populace (1797). Initially the campaign was directed principally at Ulster Presbyterians -- Catholics already were legally prohibited from bearing arms -- but later it was expanded to include all but a handful of counties. The campaign was conducted by General Gerard Lake, who used brutal tactics with little or no restraint. Suspects against whom little evidence existed, many of them innocent, were flogged and tortured to force them to reveal information, hundreds were forced into the British navy as slave laborers, and numerous houses were burned. Lake's campaign was spectacularly successful in disarming the populace, particularly in Ulster, but it also inspired rumors -- widely believed by Catholics -- that disarmament was the first step in a joint campaign by the Orange Order and the Irish government to solve the "Catholic problem" by massacring the entire Catholic population of Ireland. Tone's followers shrewdly exploited the rumored massacre to persuade some local Defender units to merge into, and became the Catholic wing of, the Presbyterian dominated United Irishmen.
    In 1798, Tone and the United Irishmen again persuaded France to invade Ireland. The plan included coordination of the French invasion with a series of local rebellions. When an informer disclosed the plot, the rebels were forced to start early. The insurrection in Ulster, led by Henry Joy McCracken, was almost entirely Presbyterian, while the ones in Dublin, Kildare, Carlow, Meath and Queen's were nonsectarian. All of these risings were serious matters, but because disarmament had been successful, all were efficiently quashed.
    The rebellion in Wexford was far more serious, one of the bloodiest confrontations in Irish history. Wexford was an unlikely prospect for insurrection -- no more than 300 United Irishmen and Defenders were operating there -- but violence erupted when Protestant Volunteers, directed to enforce the disarmament order, began flogging Catholics and burning their homes even before the date specified for surrendering arms. Then a Catholic killed a soldier who had burned a barn, and government forces retaliated by burning down another 160 houses. Fully believing that a massacre of Catholics was imminent, Catholics rebelled. Led by Father John Murphy, and armed with little more than pikes against government forces with muskets, the rebels initially took Enniscorthy, then sought to expand into Wicklow. Mass atrocities occurred on both sides. In the end, the rebels were routed at Vinegar Hill (1798). Some historians regard Wexford as an extension of Tone's United Irish rebellion, but elsewhere in Ireland, the perception was that Wexford was a Catholic war against Protestants. This triggered bitter religious animosities, and destroyed (perhaps forever) Tone's dream of a political alliance between Catholics and less affluent Presbyterians.
    The local uprisings all had already been suppressed when French warships arrived (with Wolf Tone aboard) and were forced to surrender. Tone was captured, convicted, and sentenced to death. Tone demanded to be shot while wearing his uniform, like a soldier and prisoner of war; the government insisted on hanging him, like a common criminal. He died in prison apparently from self inflicted wounds, almost certainly a suicide.
    Despite the effective suppression of the local risings, England's Prime Minister, William Pitt, considered Irish unrest one of the greatest threats to England in history. Thus he revived a long discarded idea. He sponsored legislation (entitled "Act of Union") calling for the "union" (or merger) of England and Ireland into a single "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland" with a single Parliament. To garner Catholic support, Pitt promised Catholics the right to sit in Parliament ("emancipation"); but out of 658 seats in the new Parliament, Ireland would have only 100, and Catholics could expect to fill 70 to 75 seats at most.
Pitt's proposal was one of the most far reaching in Irish history. If adopted, it would totally reverse the Gratton Parliament's most popular achievement, legislative independence. Gratton vigorously opposed union, as did Ulster Presbyterians, the business community, parish priests and nationalists; in favor were the British government, Catholic bishops and absentee landlords. The proposal certainly would have failed in a popular vote or in a representative parliament, but the vote fell to the non-representative Irish Parliament.
When the "Act of Union" was voted on the first time (1799), it failed by only five votes; later (1800), after Pitt's deputy in Ireland had bribed some members by offering peerages and lifetime seats in the British House of Lords, the measure passed the all-Protestant Irish Parliament, and was quickly ratified by the English Parliament. In a betrayal of Catholics, Pitt's promise of Catholic emancipation was defeated in a separate follow-up vote, leading Pitt to resign. After only eighteen years as a semi-autonomous country, Ireland, by the vote of its own Parliament, had been subsumed into England. (back to top)

The Age of Daniel O'Connell (1801-45)

    Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847), a Catholic advocate of non-violent and lawful political action, emerged in the early 1800s as the sole leader of the great masses of peasant and middle class Catholics, who comprised the vast majority of the Irish population. O'Connell dominated Irish history and politics in the first half of the 19th Century like no other single person ever had dominated a half century. This indeed was the "Age of Daniel O'Connell".
O'Connell's principal achievement was organizing previously dispirited Catholics into an extraordinary political machine which impacted England (and Ireland) for almost 100 years. Long after his death, the political machine was still able to exert disproportionate influence in the British Parliament, particularly when neither major party had the votes to form a government, or pass controversial legislation, without the Catholic voting block.
The emergence of a Catholic leader provides stark contrast to 18th Century Irish history, which is essentially the story of Protestants giants -- Wolf Tone, Henry Gratton, and Jonathan Swift -- agitating both peacefully and violently for greater independence from England, and for greater civil rights for the oppressed. However, within a few years after the Union, Presbyterians* and Anglicans alike had become pillars of the Union and had virtually disappeared from history books.
O'Connell first attracted attention as leader of an unsuccessful 1804-07 movement for "emancipation". The issue: Even though Catholics had been granted the right to vote in 1793, they still were prohibited by law from serving in Parliament. "Emancipation" was the term given to repeal of this prohibition, which (as the most notorious of the remaining penal laws) held great symbolic significance**.
O'Connell made a genuine impact in 1823 when he founded the "Catholic Association". Earlier Catholic societies had been for the affluent and the elite, but the Catholic Association aimed for, and actually attained, grass roots mass membership. It used parish priests to solicit members, and most important of all, it charged a membership fee of one penny per month, which became known as "catholic rent." The amount was so low that even the poorest could afford it, but for their penny, the masses soon came to believe in the association as an empowering institution in which they had a genuine stake.
By 1826, O'Connell's Catholic Association began to flex previously unused Catholic muscle. The first goal, naturally, was emancipation. The association enacted a policy to actively oppose, and vote en mass against, any candidate who was anti-emancipation, or who joined the cabinet of an anti-emancipation government. In the general elections of 1826, as the result of an impressive get-out-the-vote drive funded by Catholic rents and supported by many priests, four sitting anti-emancipation members of Parliament were turned out and replaced by pro-emancipation Protestants. O'Connell immediately began to fine-tune his strategy for a truly massive campaign in the next general election.
Before the next general election arrived, however, Vesey Fitzgerald, who had represented Clare in Parliament for ten years, was appointed to the cabinet. Under the law at that time, he was required to stand for reelection at a special election in 1928. Fitzgerald personally was pro-emancipation, and certainly no enemy of Catholics, but he had joined a government that was anti-emancipation, thereby requiring the Association, as a matter of policy, to oppose him. Fitzgerald was so strong that O'Connell could not find any Protestant to run against him. O'Connell therefore declared himself a candidate, thus exploiting a loophole in the election law. Specifically, although the law clearly prohibited Catholics from being sworn in as a Member of Parliament, it did not explicitly prohibit Catholics from filing as a candidate and running for election.
The election results shocked Parliament. O'Connell won by more than a two to one margin (2,057 to 982) over the well respected Fitzgerald, largely because of O'Connell's now highly effective political machine.
Parliament reacted quickly. To avoid the disorders that were expected to follow its refusal to seat O'Connell, Parliament in 1829 passed legislation that not only granted Catholic Emancipation, but repealed virtually all of the remaining Penal Laws as well.
As a member of Parliament, O'Connell played a significant role in several modest reforms for Ireland. The tithe was restructured as a less ideologically offensive rental charge, the number of eligible voters was expanded, corruption in municipal government was addressed, and some modest land reforms were enacted. Overall, though, O'Connell was disappointed at how little he could achieve with his bloc of Irish votes in Commons.
Thus in 1837, O'Connell launched his second great agitation: a grass roots campaign to repeal the Act of Union of 1800. Now a proven organizational genius and compelling orator, O'Connell devised his campaign strategy around "monster" grass roots political demonstrations, which were to be both non-violent and in full conformity with law. O'Connell believed these demonstrations would call worldwide attention to the injustice of the bribe infected vote in 1800 on the Act of Union, and pressure Parliament into "Repeal".
The demonstrations were enormous, and indeed caught the attention of the government. During 1843, more than 40 monster meetings were held and many attracted crowds in excess of 100,000. One demonstration, at Tara, drew 250,000. As Repeal fever approached its peak, O'Connell scheduled what was to be the largest demonstration of all, at Clontarf in October 1843. Only a few hours before the Clontarf demonstration, however, the government issued an order banning the protest. O'Connell thus faced a dilemma by virtue of his own long held insistence that all demonstrations be in full conformity with law.
Much to the dismay of his militant young supporters -- who were called "Young Ireland" -- O'Connell called off the demonstration. Unfortunately for O'Connell, then age 68, this triggered acrimonious debates during which the young militants challenged O'Connell on a variety of long suppressed but highly divisive issues, including whether violence ever could be justified. O'Connell's Catholic Association already was on the verge of fracture when the Great Hunger (1845-48), a.k.a. potato famine, diverted attention away from grass roots politics. Four years after Clontarf, in 1847, O'Connell was dead at age 72.
O'Connell was a pioneer in using lawful and non-violent demonstrations to energize and organize his followers. Later advocates of peaceful protest -- Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King -- borrowed his tactics, but they also learned from his experience that a protest movement cannot be so dedicated to conforming with law that it acquiesces in a government declaration that a peaceful protest is illegal. If demonstrations (O'Connell's principal weapon) always had to be lawful, the government could and would always win, simply by banning demonstrations. (back to top)

Potato Famine (1845-1849)

The holocaust formerly called "Potato Famine" was not a genuine "famine" at all, because only the potato crop was affected, while the vast majority of farmland was planted to other crops and foodstuffs which were grown in sufficient quantities -- or at least nearly sufficient quantities* -- to feed the populace. Hence the human tragedy -- one million dead -- is now more accurately called the "Great Hunger" ("An Gorta Mor" in Irish/Gaelic). Whatever it is called, the disaster resulted from (1) the fungus that totally ravaged the potato crop in 1845, 1846 and 1848, and partially ravaged it in 1847, and (2) government indifference. It not only devastated the Irish people of 1845-49, it had profound long term effects on Ireland, effects that remain to this day. Specifically:

--Before the Great Hunger, the population of Ireland was 8.5 million. Afterwards, the population was only 6.5 million, a decline of two million (23.5%) in four years. About half of the decline was due to death by starvation or some associated disease (cholera, typhus) which became fatal in the conditions of malnutrition. The other half of the population decline was due to emigration, principally to the United States, but even among those officially classified as "emigrants", a staggering number actually died at sea on the "coffin ships"**. Even after the famine, emigration continued, as Irish newly arrived in the United States urged family and friends to follow them. By 1881, the Irish population had declined to 5 million; by 1921 (partition), to slightly over 4 million.

--Before the Hunger, Gaelic was the principal language among Catholics. Afterwards, English became the predominant language, largely because death and emigration hit hardest in the poorest areas where Gaelic was most common; the Gaelic speaking Counties of Mayo and Kerry, for example, lost half their populations.

--Before the Hunger, early marriages and large families were integral to Irish culture. Afterwards, late marriages and smaller families became the norm. It became an axiom that man should not marry and have children until he had saved sufficient money to weather a disaster.

--The trend toward late marriage dove-tailed with a "devotional revolution" characterized by greater compliance strict Catholic teaching on sexual morality, increased attendance at Catholic mass, expanded church building, and a dramatic increase in the number of priests and nuns.

–Before the Hunger, a full 45% of farmland was held in inefficient farms of 5 acres or less, while only 7% was in farms of 30 acres or more. Afterwards, sub-5 acre farms dropped to 15%, while the more efficient farms of 30 acres or more increased to 26%. Thus the Hunger forced a much more efficient agricultural economy, but at the terrible price of one million dead and even more emigrated.

--Before the Great Hunger, political sentiment ran towards abstract ideas, such as repeal of the Union. Afterwards, the electorate focused on "bread and butter" issues such as agrarian reform.

The cause of the crop failures, we now know, was a fungus called phytophthora infestans, also known as potato blight. It had struck the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada in 1842, and England in 1845, but had caused no great distress. In Ireland, however, it spelled disaster. In September 1845, the potato blight hit Waterford and Wexford, then spread rapidly until about half the island was affected. It hit hard again in 1846, less hard in 1847, then again destroyed the crop in 1848.

What is shocking about the famine is that throughout this entire four year period of starvation, Ireland was exporting enormous quantities of food. Indeed, up to 75% of the soil was devoted to wheat, oats, barley and other crops which were grown for export, and which were actually exported, all while the populace starved.

The problem was that about half the population -- all wretchedly poor -- worked on farms not for cash wages, but for the right to grow potatoes on tiny plots. They lived on a subsistence diet consisting almost exclusively of potatoes and milk, with a herring once or twice a year. When the potato crop failed, these peasants had neither food for their families, nor cash to buy other food***. Initially, only the poor died, victims of starvation. Then as typically happens in conditions of starvation, epidemics of typhus and cholera broke out, felling the affluent along with the poor. In toto, about one million died.

When the first signs of the crop failure appeared in 1845, Britain's Tory government under Prime Minister Robert Peel took modest initiatives to alleviate the distress. It paid half the cost of jobs for about 140,000 family heads on public works, which (to protect English business) were required by law to be non-productive, and it matched local voluntary contributions to hunger relief. It also imported large quantities of Indian corn and meal from the United States; incredibly, however, the government refused to distribute this food free, instead placing it on the market at low prices to prevent artificial increases in food prices.

Peel firmly opposed more radical measures. The starvation very likely could have been averted entirely by legislation prohibiting the export of food from Ireland; and any hardship on growers could have been avoided by legislation authorizing purchase of their grain using borrowed money, with repayment to be made over a period of years from increased agricultural taxes. But feeding the populace by interfering with exports was never seriously considered by Peel's government, in part because the expense might fall on the growers and/or the public treasury. Instead, Peel used the famine as an opportunity to push through his favored but controversial proposal: Repeal of the protectionist "corn laws", which imposed stiff tariffs on grain (including but not limited to corn) brought in from outside the United Kingdom. Repeal of the "corn laws" reduced food prices (as Peel intended), but did nothing to alleviate the hunger, since the starving poor could not afford food whatever the price.

The controversial repeal of the "corn laws" helped topple Peel's Tory government in June 1846. The Tories were replaced by an even less compassionate Whig government under Lord John Russell, who delegated the potato blight problem to Charles Trevelyan, the career civil service Head of Treasury. At this point, although people were hungry, no one yet had died. But the Whigs (and Trevelyan personally) were committed to the trendy Manchester school of economics, which regarded the suffering of the poor as part of the natural order of things, and prohibited government meddling in the operation of otherwise free markets. The Whig government decided that in the event of another crop failure, there would be no direct relief from the British treasury; instead, relief would be limited to public works jobs funded entirely by Irish self-taxation.

There was indeed a second failure, in autumn 1846, and this time it was complete. Making matters worse, the winter of 1846-47 was the harshest in living memory. Now the dying began. The suffering reached its peak in February 1847, when hundreds of thousands of homeless, freezing and starving peasants left the farms for the towns, hoping for employment in public works, which already had hired 500,000 family heads. Cholera and typhus then broke out, and some died from disease, some of starvation, and some froze to death, hundreds of thousands in all. Finally, the Whig government was forced to relent and extend some direct aid through the "Soup Kitchen Act" providing free soup to the starving. This was augmented by charity from the Quakers and other private groups. The aid was too little and too late, as hundreds of thousands more perished, and Ireland literally ran out of coffins. When sailing weather arrived, panic emigration started in earnest.

Blight hit less hard in the autumn of 1847, but this simply furnished the British government with a convenient excuse for closing down the soup kitchens. Trevelyan wrote: "The only way to prevent people from becoming habitually dependent on the government is to bring operations to a close" [1846] "too much has been done for the people. . . we must now try what independent exertion can do" [1847]. He announced that the government had already done everything it was going to do, even if blight and starvation returned.

Blight indeed did return with the harvest of October 1848, and it destroyed virtually the entire potato crop. And with no government assistance at all, 1848-49 proved to be just as bad, if not worse, 1846-47. Hundreds of thousands more perished, routinely falling dead on the streets; and in the extreme conditions of starvation and illness, their bodies sometimes were left unburied for weeks at a time. One road inspector reported burying 140 corpses scattered along his route. The magnitude of fatalities was so overwhelming that authorities were unable to record the precise number of deaths, but fatalities certainly approached one million.

Finally, with the 1849 harvest, the potato blight and the famine were over. But Irish culture would never be the same. Long standing animosity towards England now became a genuine hatred (called "Anglophobia" by some commentators). Further, a grim "never again" mentality, similar to that of Jewish survivors of Auschwitz a century later, took root among famine survivors who felt embarrassment over a culture that allowed family members to die passively rather than forcibly expropriate food grown on Irish land which (prior to the British) was the common property of society. In the century that followed, otherwise law abiding Irishmen found themselves supporting anti-British terrorist groups, such as the IRA.

In retrospect, no one can be blamed for the potato blight itself, which like earthquake or flood, was a natural disaster; but the British response was wrongheaded, indifferent and utterly devoid of common sense and compassion. The tragedy likely could have been avoided entirely by appropriate legislation which fed the populace with food grown for export. Some commentators have equated the government's non-action with genocide, but a better analysis would be a callous indifference towards an unsupportive ethnic group long perceived as less than 100% human, coupled with an unwillingness to spend taxpayer money on such undeserving and ungrateful people. (back to top)

Land Reform: Davitt and Parnell (1850-1891)

After the devastating famine, lower and middle class Irish-Catholics understandably became obsessed with mere survival. They also became bitterly divided over the merits of peaceful politics. The non-violent ("constitutional") philosophy of O'Connell -- that reform could be achieved through Parliamentary action -- lost credibility*, which is hardly surprising given Parliament's callous indifference during the famine. Disillusioned pacifists tended to seek refuge in the Catholic Church, which attained more influence than it had enjoyed for centuries, while a more violent ("revolutionary" or "physical force") segment of Irish society gained support; they argued that the British government would never respond to "constitutional" measures, and advocated violence to effectuate reform. Then in 1878 a major farm crisis revived demands for genuine land reform, which became a surprising reality through an alliance between"constitutional" politics (under Charles Stewart Parnell) and "revolutionary" intimidation of landlords (under Michael Davitt).

The violent element of society was exemplified by a handful of zealous separatists, adherents of Wolf Tone who called themselves "Republicans". These revolutionaries advocated an Irish Republic totally separate and independent from England, to be achieved by any means required, including physical force. Even during the height of the famine (1848), a group called Young Ireland -- mostly former O'Connell supporters disillusioned over the failure of working within the law -- had mounted an unsuccessful "war of independence". One of the rebels, James Stephens (a Protestant), avoided prison by faking his own funeral and fleeing to France; he returned to reorganize Young Ireland into the "Fenian" movement (1858), with one branch in Ireland (called the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or "IRB") and another in the United States (called the Fenian Brotherhood, later Clan na Gael). The Fenian strategy was to prepare secretly for an armed rebellion to be launched when Britain found itself in a debilitating war or otherwise vulnerable. While some Fenians were willing to exploit issues such as land reform to broaden support for independence, the true believers felt such issues were distractions. In 1867, the Fenians killed 30 Londoners while blowing up the outer wall of the Clerkenwell prison in an unsuccessful prison break attempt; and they sponsored uprisings in 1865 and 1867. Although these Fenian endeavors were uniformly unsuccessful, they kept alive the flame of revolutionary nationalism, not to mention the IRB itself. Indeed, when finally the events of 1916-22 unfolded -- the Easter Rising, the revolutionary government of Sinn Fein, the "troubles", civil war, and near independence but with partition -- it was the Fenian IRB that violently forced the issues. In James Stephens' own lifetime, however, the Fenians were ineffectual except in garnering publicity.

The Fenians' failed risings of 1865 and 1867 had one unintended consequence. In 1869, legislation was enacted abolishing the tithe and repealing the laws that "established" the Anglican Church as the official Church of Ireland (1869). Prime Minister William Gladstone later acknowledged that the Fenians' violent activities precipitated the measure.

The Fenians' emphasis on violence was dramatically at odds with O'Connell's insistence on peaceful political activity within the law, even though both movements sought the same goal: greater independence from England. From this conflict emerged a new two-pronged concept, called the "New Departure", under which the "physical force" (violence-tolerant) and "constitutional" (non-violent) factions would not fight one another, but would cautiously cooperate, each in its own sphere, towards the common goal.

Ironically, agricultural land reform -- the issue which was regarded as a distraction by hard core Fenians, but which had obsessed the populace since the 17th Century confiscations -- became the focus of the "New Departure" strategy. In the winter of 1878-79, an economic crisis -- brought on by crop failures, falling crop prices, and wet weather -- threatened the rural population with a disaster comparable to the famine. It brought to the fore Michael Davitt, a Fenian Catholic, who formed an alliance with Charles Stewart Parnell, a pro-Catholic legislator who was both a landlord and a Protestant, to effectuate comprehensive land reform in Ireland. Davitt and Parnell made strange bedfellows.

Michael Davitt (1846-1906) was the working class son of a tenant farmer who had been evicted from his Mayo farm during the famine because his potato crop failed and he could not pay his rent. The family moved to Lankershire, England, where at the age of 11 Michael lost his right arm in a machine while working in a cotton mill. A Catholic who was taught by a Wesleyan schoolteacher, he accepted religious diversity as a way of life and identified with all workers, English and Irish alike. Upon returning to Ireland, he became a leader in the IRB, where his Fenian activities earned him a 15 year prison sentence, of which he served seven. Unlike the more zealous Fenians, who saw land reform as a distraction from the real issue of independence, Davitt had genuine concern for the tenant farmers, and made agricultural land reform his overriding issue. In 1879, two years after his release from prison (and in the midst of the farm crisis of 1878-79), he founded the National Land League, which became the less respectable prong of the "New Departure" dual approach to agricultural land reform, i.e., the Land League was not above using intimidation and threats of violence.

To achieve what he regarded as justice for tenant farmers, Davitt's Land League used some of O'Connell's perfectly legal methods -- mass meetings and brass bands -- plus societal ostracism. Occasionally, in the tradition of the Whiteboys and the Defenders, it used intimidation and violence or threats of violence. The League would identify landlords who had been guilty of "abuses" -- unfair evictions or rack-renting -- then focus public attention on these landlords, and organize the entire community to refuse them all goods and services, including labor to work the farm. "Grabbers" -- persons who became the new tenant farmer after an unfair eviction -- were ostracized. In one spectacularly successful example, the League used these tactics to bring one absentee landlord from Mayo to his knees. Eventually, the landlord harvested his crop, but only after bringing in 50 laborers at a cost ten times the value of the crop. The landlord's on-site agent was named "Boycott", whose name was added to the dictionary to describe the League's tactics. The Land League had other impressive successes, but absent the emergence of Parnell as their champion in Parliament, it is unlikely that the Land League ever could have effectuated permanent or widespread reform.

Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) was by inheritance an affluent Protestant landlord, but his heritage was hardly pro-British. On his fathers' side, his great grandfather, an incorruptible member of the 1800 Irish Parliament, had voted against the Union. On his mother's side, his ancestors had emigrated from Belfast to America in the 1770s, and his grandfather had fought against England in the War of 1812. An intransigent nationalist, he was elected to the British Parliament in 1875 from a largely Catholic district in Meath. Initially, he made his name by obstructing other legislation to gain consideration of home rule for Ireland. Then Davitt persuaded him to become the parliamentary champion of land reform, i.e., the second prong of the Davitt's New Departure strategy. Paradoxically, then, this affluent Protestant landlord became the leader of the land reform movement, as well as the Home Rule movement. To the great mass of peasant and middle class citizens, Catholic and Presbyterian alike, he shortly became one of the most beloved men in Ireland. Among affluent Protestants, of course, he was considered a traitor to his class. In 1880, with massive grass roots assistance from Davitt's Land League, a slate of Parnell supporters was elected to Parliament, and Parnell supplanted Isaac Butt as chairman of the Irish party.

The Davitt-Parnell alliance paid dividends almost immediately. Prodded by Parnell, Gladstone and his Liberal government successfully pushed through the Land Act of 1881, incorporating the long standing demands of tenant farmers known as the "three Fs" (1) "fair rents" (legal review of rent fairness by an independent tribunal), (2) "fixity of tenure" (protection against arbitrary eviction), and (3) "freedom of sale" (the right of a tenant farmer to transfer or sell his leasehold in the farm). The 1881 Act paved the way for additional reforms in 1891 and 1896; and much later, after Parnell, Davitt and Gladstone were all dead, the Wyndham land act (1906) completed the reforms by permitting tenants to purchase their farms on easy terms over 68 years, while offering a bonus to selling landlords. The vast majority of Irishmen depended on farming for their livelihood, and for them it is virtually impossible to overemphasize the importance of these victories, particularly the 1881 Act. For over 270 years they had been agitating unsuccessfully for land reform. Now the New Departure, with Davitt and Parnell playing key roles, won had for Irish who worked the land, Catholics and Presbyterians alike, their first genuine bread-and-butter victory in 270 years.

Now the political winds began to shift strongly in Parnell's favor. Parliament enacted a "franchise act" expanding the electorate throughout Britain; in Ireland, it added some 500,000 new voters to the rolls, most of whom were less affluent Catholics who supported Parnell. And since land reform had largely been achieved, the Land League permitted itself to be transformed into a highly efficient political machine under Parnell's control.

Parnell returned to his earlier goal: A subordinate ("Home Rule") parliament for Ireland. The idea was not new. It had been raised in the 1840s both by O'Connell and by Young Ireland, and had been pursued unsuccessfully by Isaac Butt (Parnell's predecessor as leader of the Irish Party). In the 1880s was certain to be killed by the House of Lords. Nonetheless, with Parnell behind it, Home Rule became the highly divisive and defining issue of the 1885 election. Conservatives opposed it as the first step towards breaking up the empire, but the most passionate resistance came from Protestants, particularly Ulster Presbyterians, because any Home Rule Parliament was certain to be dominated by Catholics. The election inflamed dormant religious antagonisms, polarizing anti-Home Rule "Unionists" (generally Protestant) from pro-Home Rule "Nationalists" (generally Catholic), a split that eventually (1910) evolved into private armies. But in 1885, Parnell's Irish party won 86 seats, exactly the separation between Liberals (335) and Conservatives (249). A deal was struck: Gladstone announced support for Home Rule, and with Irish support became prime minister for the third time. But Gladstone's Liberal Party split over his 1886 Home Rule Bill, and it was defeated in Commons, a defeat that was widely viewed as a temporary postponement.

Parnell seemed politically invincible until 1890, when a divorce court revealed that he had been "living in sin" with the wife of William Henry O'Shea. Gladstone forced the Irish party to choose between Parnell's leadership and his own support for a second Home Rule bill. A majority in the Irish Party, and the Catholic bishops, turned against Parnell, who took his case to the country, but in doing so he overburdened his precarious health and died soon after. Gladstone's second Home Rule passed the House of Commons but was killed in the House of Lords (1893). Parliament (but not the Irish Party) then placed Home Rule on the back burner.

With the fall of Parnell and the failure of Home Rule, the passion went out of Irish politics, and there ensued a 20 year period of tranquility plus modest progress for Ireland (1890-1910). After considerable infighting, leadership of the Irish party eventually fell to the docile John Redmond, while successive British governments adopted the policy of placating Ireland in an attempt to "kill Home Rule with kindness". The government spent extraordinary sums in Ireland on two new colleges, plus public works projects such as a railroad to western Ireland. Most importantly, the government passed the final piece of comprehensive land reform, the aforementioned Wyndham Land Act (1903), which permitted tenants to purchase their farms on easy terms over 68 years.

In abandoning politics and rebellion, the Irish populace turned to a nostalgic study of "Irish Ireland", an exploration of their ethnic and national identity. The Gaelic League was founded in 1893 by Douglas Hyde, later President of the Irish Free State, to revive the Gaelic language and culture. The Gaelic Athletic Association, formed in 1884, promoted traditional Irish games -- hurling and Irish football -- in place of "foreign" games. William Butler Yeats, acknowledged as the greatest English language poet of his era, spearheaded a literary revival emphasizing Irish roots and national identity. A series of periodicals advocated a return to Gaelic roots. None of this was overtly political, yet it dove-tailed with the trendy new concept among political scientists that a separate cultural identity justified carving new states out of existing larger states. Thus this "Irish Ireland" movement later became a critical factor in turning world opinion in favor of Ireland in its quest for independence.

One of the few overtly political manifestations of the "Irish Ireland" movement was the formation of Sinn Fein ("we ourselves") in 1905 by Arthur Griffith (1872-1922). Sinn Fein was primarily an Irish nationalist movement, but it also functioned as a minor and largely unsuccessful political party. Under Griffith's direction, it advocated a dual monarchy along Austro-Hungarian lines, all to be achieved by passive resistance rather than physical force. Meanwhile, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was infiltrating the nationalist and separatist groups, including Sinn Fein, still waiting for the opportunity to foment rebellion if England should find itself in a debilitating war. (back to top)

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