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Old 03-17-2022, 03:44 PM   #141 (permalink)
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Chapter XI: Under the English Heel II:
Rising and Falling: Emancipation, Starvation and Emigration

Just a quick note, in case anyone wonders why the subtitle for this, and subsequent chapters? Well, up to now it’s certainly been a case of Ireland having been under the English heel for over seven hundred years, but for all that, nominally we remained a free country, or at least a separate country. The first king to proclaim himself King of Ireland as well as England was Henry VIII, this claim ratified by the Crown of Ireland Act passed by the Irish Parliament in 1541, but prior to that the monarch had always been in control of the Lordship of Ireland. Even when incorporated as the Kingdom of Ireland, we had our own laws, our own Parliament, our own identity. From the start of the nineteenth century till well into the twentieth, we were part of the United Kingdom, subservient to the King or Queen of England, and so it must have felt like that boot was pressing down even harder on our necks. This, therefore, would be seen as the second, and closer phase of that oppression, thus the title.

Anyway, on we go. One of the things known now around the world which only came into being after the 1801 Act of Union was the recognised symbol of the British empire, the Union Jack (or to be more precise, Union Flag: it’s technically only known as the Union Jack when flown at sea, though this seems to have been ignored or forgotten, or done away with altogether) as the crosses of England (St. George), Scotland (St. Andrew) and now Ireland (St. Patrick) were intermingled in the flag of the new United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland, usually known as just the United Kingdom. I would personally question why a red X was chosen as being representative of the Irish, as we have always been associated with the colour green, but then, the English were hardly going to have what would be seen as a Catholic nationalist symbol on their precious flag, now were they?

Under the provisions of the Act of Union, several major changes were instigated, the most far-reaching of course being the dissolution of the Irish Parliament. Whereas members previously reported to Dublin Castle, now they were summoned to Westminster to sit in the joint UK Parliament. As well as this, the Irish Army was absorbed into the British Army and the Church of Ireland was merged with the Church of England (though perhaps oddly, the Church of Scotland was allowed to remain as it was, perhaps because it was already a strongly Protestant nation).

The Prime Minister at the time, William Pitt the Younger, had managed to get the Act passed on the basis of, among other inducements, the promise of Catholic emancipation, where Catholics would be again allowed to sit in Parliament, but the king, George III, was against this, believing such a concession would violate the oath he had taken at his coronation, and so in protest at being blocked by the Crown Pitt had to resign. Therefore only months after he had pushed the Act through, Pitt was gone and a new Prime Minister led the government. The chances of Catholics being looked on fairly was lost.

And yet, even with this loss, Catholics in Ireland were broadly in favour of union. Seems odd today, but I guess when you remember that they had no say in the politics of their own country, that it was their “own” (Protestant) Parliament in Dublin which had levelled the cruel Penal Laws at them, that the whole institution of Dublin Castle was seen as corrupt and self-serving, and that joining with England might afford them some measure of royal protection, maybe not so odd. In the end, it mattered little, as it often does, to the ordinary man, who got oppressed just as much by the new government as he had by the old, and still had to struggle to make his living. There was no improvement in his working or living conditions, he still had basically no rights, and to quote Roger Daltrey, it really was a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

I personally find it odd to discover that many Protestants were against Union. I would have thought the idea of being joined to the land of their forefathers would have appealed, but no. It seems Protestants believed that London would go easier on Catholics than had Dublin, and they were right. Of course, their real fears were rooted in the need to give up their power; decisions that had been up to now made by the Protestant Parliament in Dublin would henceforth be made in London, leaving them with little actual say in the running of the country. One Protestant who was very much in favour of, and doggedly determined to realise the passing of the Act of Union was the Earl of Clare.

John Fitzgibbon, 1st Earl of Clare (1748 - 1802)

His father had been born a Catholic but like some Irishmen had taken the oath to the king and converted to Anglicanism, principally to be able to pursue a career as a lawyer (and presumably to assure his son of a decent life in society) and like many lawyers he scraped a living and barely got by. Like hell. He made a pile, as would his son, who was appointed Attorney General in 1783 and then Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1789, moving through the ranks of the peerage until he attained the earldom of Clare in 1795. A fierce rival of Henry Grattan, he utterly opposed any rights for Catholics and only supported the 1793 Irish Catholic Relief Act because as a member of the government he was expected to, and did not fancy going against the party line. However he strongly supported the Act of Union, essentially breaking with the hardline Protestants with whom he had been in line up to then, and made an impassioned speech almost a year before the Act was passed into law:

"I hope and feel as becomes a true Irishman, for the dignity and independence of my country, and therefore I would elevate her to her proper station, in the rank of civilised nations. I wish to advance her from the degraded post of mercenary province, to the proud station of an integral and governing member of the greatest empire in the world."

Fitzgibbons’s contention was that without the Act of Union, Irish Catholics would rise up and overthrow their masters. Why this was believed I don’t know, as he was speaking only a few short years after it had been quite clearly proven the Irish, while they might mostly have the stomach and heart for such a rebellion, had no real means of achieving it. Perhaps the Protestants, remembering the victories the United Irishmen had won, and the atrocities committed by them, or even thinking back to the time of Cromwell, looked at each other in fear and doubt and asked, what if? So a combination really of scaremongering (not hard to achieve with the dread spectre of 1798 hovering over them) and bullying, along with the old standard, enlightened self-interest, convinced the Protestants that union was the way to go.

It seems to have been Fitzgibbon who put the idea in the king’s head that granting any sort of relief or concessions to Catholics would violate his oath. King George III was not known to be an astute or clever man - he did, after all, suffer mental illness later in his life - but once an idea was planted in his head he stuck to it, without questioning its merit. So it was with the purported breaking of his oath. He would not be convinced otherwise by Pitt, which led to the resignation of the Prime Minister and the passing of the Act without any concessions to Catholics.

In this respect it could probably argued that, were his name better known and recognised in history, the Earl of Clare might indeed have gone down in Irish history as a man deserving of almost as much hatred as Oliver Cromwell, being the one who almost single-handedly prevented the relaxation of laws against Catholics and allowed them to be pulled into union with Britain under circumstances they had not expected. In other words, he was the broker of the reneging on the promise of Catholic emancipation, even if it was the word of His Majesty that stopped it in its tracks. As we would say here, a real fucking cunt.

The Rising Redux - Ireland Tries Again

A mere two years after Ireland had been forcibly joined to England to form the United Kingdom, Irish nationalists were again trying to secure its freedom. No doubt seeing the failure of the 1798 rising as something to build on and improve rather than something to discourage them from further attempts, the Irish would again seek the aid of the French in their bid to overthrow their oppressors, and again this aid would fail to come through. Realising the fears of Protestants, and allowing eerie truth to ring in the stentorian warnings of John Fitzgibbon prior to unification, Catholic Irish freedom fighters would show the Ascendancy that they were not in any way giving up the struggle, and this would continue to be the case through the next two centuries. Ironically, freedom for Ireland would eventually be won not through force of arms but by negotiation and a sense of inevitability, with the backdrop of the horror of the war to end all wars giving new perspective, but it would still take over another hundred years.

Robert Emmet (1778 - 1803)

The architect of the first rising of the nineteenth century would be Robert Emmet, brother to Thomas, who had fought in the 1798 rebellion, and a contemporary of Theobald Wolfe Tone, one of the martyrs of the rising. Robert and Thomas’s family were Protestants, members of the Ascendancy, and very financially comfortable, their father the physician to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He though became interested in the cause of American independence, and from there that of Irish freedom, and his sons carried his beliefs into - eventually tragic but historical - action, both fighting for their country and against their religion and king. The founder of the United Irishmen, William Drennan, also visited the Emmet house, so it must have been seen as a hotbed of Catholic revolt.

With the defeat of the 1798 rising, and the exile of his elder brother, Robert and William Putnam McCabe set about re-establishing the United Irishmen, this time under a strictly military footing, whereas before it had been a secret political society. Mere months after the end of the rising McCabe set out for France, to try to convince Napoleon to come to the aid of the Irish against the English, and Emmet joined him there in 1802. However they chose their time badly. France had already given aid to Ireland in the abortive 1798 rising, to its cost, and Napoleon was busy with other matters, like the wars which came to bear his name. So he said “Non, merci” and sent the Irish on their way.

One thing Emmet and McCabe did here, which I haven’t seen any reference to being attempted in the previous rising, was to reach out to English Jacobins, left-wing radicals who followed and espoused the principles of the French Revolution, and in particular the United Britons. It seems odd to me that the United Irishmen did not, as surely gaining support in the lair of the enemy would have helped their cause. And we know they travelled, to France anyway, in the hopes of securing allies there, so why not call in to see if they could rally the support of the United Britons? Were they around at that time?

Hmm. Quite strange. Seems they were formed around 1796 so should have been in some sort of shape for the rising, but maybe the rebels didn’t want to appeal to Englishmen for help? Or maybe they didn’t know of them. Whatever the reason, Robert Emmet and William McCabe did, and they tried to enlist their help. Unfortunately, as I’ve said before and will be chagrined but right to say again and again and again, Irish risings were always doomed. Robert Emmet’s is a particular case of poor planning, cowardice, misunderstandings, bad timing and bad luck, and really, in another world it would have been quite funny. Almost.

The first problem Emmet and McCabe ran into was with their intended allies in the United Britons (sometimes also called United Englishmen). As usual, there was a traitor in the camp, this time a man called Thomas Wright, but what his role, if indeed any, in the thwarting of the rebellion was I have no idea, nor whether he communicated information to London about the United Britons. Either way though, the Englishmen were arrested and Edward Despard, who had travelled to make the alliance, executed. This afforded Emmet a much frostier reception when he arrived in 1803 to lay plans and talk strategy. It seemed his enemies were either dispersed or no longer interested in fighting for Ireland.

Before we go any further, let’s look into this Despard character.

Edward Despard (1751 - 1803)

As I research the history of Irish opposition to the English occupation of our shores, it’s been surprising to me how many of the most rebellious and hardline fighters have come from the Protestant class. Far from being just disgruntled Catholics trying to gain their rights and those of their countrymen, important figures in the first rising came from, as we saw, the aristocracy and the Ascendancy, Lord Edward Fitzgerald being the most prominent, but here too we find Robert and Thomas Emmet’s father, as well as both his sons, coming from a Protestant (and wealthy) background, yet taking up the cause for Irish independence. Another such was Edward Despard, born into wealth and privilege in County Laois and who in fact served in the American War of Independence, fighting alongside the legendary Admiral Nelson (not yet an admiral of course at that time), and was a member of the British Army for over twenty years. Not only was he a Protestant but also descended from Huguenots, and so you would think would have had reason to hate Catholics, at least historically, given their persecution and exile by Louis XIV.

The very opposite of a racist, he ensured land he oversaw in the Bay of Honduras in 1789 was equally available to black or white, rich or poor, man or woman. His even-handedness upset the local Baymen - loggers who kept slaves - whose protests were instrumental in having Despard recalled to London in 1790, dire warnings of a revolt among the slaves and recently-freed men convincing the British government that Despard was better back home than making waves abroad. Despard brought with him his black wife, to the scandal of London, though his position ensured it was not discussed openly or condemned. Perhaps strangely, perhaps not, it was in fact his own family who later denied the marriage, refusing to accept that Catherine had been married to their son. This may have had something to do with his fall from grace, in allying himself to the Irish cause, or it might have been an attempt to clean up, as they saw it, and as far as could be done, the family name.

Despard’s troubles followed him home, not only in the shape of the general - if restrained - disapproval of his marriage, but in lawsuits lodged by the Baymen against him for “unfair practices”. These landed him in a debtor’s prison for two years, where he passed the time reading. For those who have never read Dickens, a debtors’ prison, though certainly a prison, was not as harsh in terms of punishment as the likes of Newgate; though nothing was provided, unlike regular prisons, all could be purchased and if you had enough money you could be quite comfortable there. There was no treadmill, no rule prohibiting conversation among prisoners, no chains etc. What caught Despard’s interest most was Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, and it set him thinking about the injustices across the water, in Ireland.

On his release he had to take refuge in revolutionary France, where his ideas about freedom hardened, and when he got back to Britain he joined the London Corresponding Society, a debating club, of all things, which was dedicated to reforming the British Parliament. The Seditious Meetings Act and the Treasons Act (1795) both made gatherings discussing or contemplating “seditious behaviour” a crime, one of treason, and Despard was arrested after a riot in Charing Cross, though later released. His luck ran out when he met Fr. James Coigly, arrived from Manchester. Coigly was a prominent figure in the United Irishmen, and had come to try to rally support for the uprising the next year. With Coigly he was arrested on the way back from France; Coigly was hanged and Despard was imprisoned for three years.

On his release, Despard again teamed up with agitators and United Irishmen in preparation for another rising, and an alleged plot to kill the king. He was arrested and tried for high treason in 1802. It was little more than a show trial, with hardly any evidence produced but the inevitable guilty verdict reached. Despite pleas for mercy from his wife and even from such a heroic figure as Nelson, and due to the fear that Britain was on the verge of its own rebellion, Despard and his compatriots were executed on February 21 1803.
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Old 03-17-2022, 07:49 PM   #142 (permalink)
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Back we go to Robert Emmet then. Unlike some of his contemporaries a few years earlier, he is said not to have relied upon French assistance for the rising, but it all went to hell in a handbasket anyway. Honestly, if it wasn’t so serious it would be hilarious, and one thing it certainly was, was typically Irish.

The rising - which hardly deserves the name, lasting less than a day - was beset by problems from the very start. To be fair to Emmet, he and his people do seem to have learned from 1798, and in addition to the standard pikes (some of which could fold up to be concealed under cloaks) he had grenades, rockets and exploding wooden beams. He had no artillery, of course, but at least, weapons-wise, he was a little better prepared than his brother’s crew five years previous. Unfortunately, everything that could go wrong, did.

An accidental explosion at one of his concealed arms depots led to the date of the rising being brought forward before the caches could be discovered, and so on July 23 1803 the rising was to begin. Quite cleverly, or at least astutely, Emmet had proclaimed that the coming rising was not a sectarian one: "We are not against property – we war against no religious sect – we war not against past opinions or prejudices – we war against English dominion."

In this he hoped to show this was not a case of Catholics rising against and fighting Protestants, but Irishmen resisting the occupying English overlords. He gave assurances that there would be no revenge reprisals against loyalists, no outrages or attacks. It was a canny thing to say, and should have helped secure if not support at least no resistance from sides which up to now had always been opposed and which lived in mutual distrust and fear of each other. In effect, what he was saying was "look lads, all that burning down houses, killing Protestants, atrocities - it's all so eighteenth century. This is a new age, and we don't hold with that kind of stuff. If you're not with us, that's cool, that's cool. Just don't be against us, and there'll be no trouble. You want to join us, magic, very welcome. Just don't get in our way. Leave us alone and we'll leave you alone, deal?"

Fine words, and fine sentiments. Probably might have even worked. But again, the twin spectres of bad planning and the demon drink scuppered any chance Emmet’s rising had of being successful.

A large contingent of men, led by a former leader of the 1798 rising, Michael Quigly, arrived at Emmet’s weapons depots with what has variously been reported as hundreds or even thousands of men, eager to take up arms and fight for their country. The problem was that Emmet had not counted on such a large number turning up, and he hadn’t nearly enough weapons to supply them all. Shrugging, disgruntled and probably disparaging his lack of quartermaster skills, the Kildare men turned and headed home. Later that evening they would put into effect a half-hearted attempt at supporting the rising on their own, but this would flounder on the news that Dublin had failed to come through, and they quickly surrendered.

The plan, reasonably clever, had been to take Dublin Castle, the seat of power of the British government in Ireland. Being in the heart of the capital, this was only lightly defended, and Emmet planned to take it by stealth, using fine carriages to present the illusion of gentlemen on their way to a meeting to gain entry. The carriages though never arrived, due to a dispute between the commander and the local garrison, in which a soldier was shot. With no way into the Castle now, and a mere eighty men when he should have had about two thousand, Emmet now learned that his rockets and grenades were useless - some mix-up with the fuses, technical bods, you know how it is - and thought it best to try to call things off.

Unfortunately by now the thing had a life of its own, given impetus by the sight of his men completely pissed and reeling through the streets, firing at anything that moved, or indeed didn’t. Lamp posts were shot at, and we all know what a threat to Irish independence they were! Trying to make the best of what was rapidly becoming the least impressive rising in the less than impressive history of Ireland’s attempts to break her chains, Emmet drew his sword, turned to his - by now almost completely drunk - men and shouted “Now is your time for liberty!” He might as well have shouted “Time, gentlemen, please!” for all the notice they took of him.

To darken the comedy a little, and bring things back to reality, let’s not forget that people did die in this truly ineffectual attempt at rebellion, which you have to imagine might only have succeeded due to the British being too helpless with laughter at the incompetence of the drunken Catholics to do anything. The Lord Chief Justice, Arthur Wolfe, Viscount Kilwarden, had the bad luck to ride down the street as the intoxicated Irishmen rampaged through Dublin, looking for a target. He was dragged from his carriage and hacked to death, while a single soldier was also pulled off his horse and met a similar end. Drunken soldiers then tried to force passers-by at Ballsbridge to fight for their country, but everyone ignored them.

By midnight, the military had finally got their shit together and hauled themselves out onto the street, where the rebels were easily dispersed, probably heading for any late-night drinking establishment that would let them in. Dejected, Emmet returned home to a brow-beating from his housekeeper for his failure and for abandoning his men (not that you could blame him really. It had all gone spectacularly tits-up).

In Antrim, hotbed of resistance in 1797/1798 and scene of the “Dragooning of Ulster”, nobody gave a shit. It was, in the end, way way too soon. The lessons of 1798 had been learned and were still raw wounds; nobody expected a rising to succeed, and nobody cared. One of the organisers of the attempted northern resistance, Thomas Russel, saw the grand total of three people turn out to hear him speak, and one opined that being subservient to the French would be as bad as being under the English boot. Nowhere in the country, with the small exception of some lacklustre action, as already mentioned, in Kildare, did the nationalist fervour catch. People were, in general, probably tired or risings that went nowhere, and also fearful of the dreadful reprisals for which the British had become infamous. You’re all right, they said: we’re grand thanks. In that fatalistic attitude typical of the Irish, they probably said "English occupation? Ah, sure, it will do."

Perhaps strangely (certainly strange to me), given that the rising had failed so utterly and so comically, Emmet still seemed to think that the French would be interested, and sent one of his commanders off to see if Napoleon fancied popping over and saving them from the English? It’s recorded that the emperor’s laughter could be heard as far as… well, no, it isn’t, but suffice to say Napoleon had enough trouble on his hands without taking on Ireland too. Had the Irish managed to take Ireland for him, defeat the English and give him a base he could use, well, there could be merit in that. But send an invasion force into a country still completely controlled by his enemies? Step into the lion’s den naked and weaponless? Sacre bleu! Formidable! Or something.

Emmet was, of course, quickly captured, though he did himself no favours by switching his hiding place in order to get his leg over, visiting his girlfriend, Sarah Curran. Our old friend Leonard McNally, (remember him? Renowned traitor who helped do for the 1798 rising?) got involved in the trial and sealed the young leader’s fate. Sentenced to hang, Emmet made his last speech from the dock, one that, despite the almost bumbling ineptitude of his attempted rising, has gone down in Irish republican history.

"Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance, asperse them. Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain un-inscribed, and my memory in oblivion, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done."

And so ended the second major attempt at an uprising in Ireland. Well, not quite. I mean, you couldn’t call this a rising could you? It achieved nothing - other than the, no doubt unintended and certainly impossible to capitalise upon, death of the Lord Chief Justice (who had, paradoxically, been instrumental in saving the life of Wolfe Tone after the 1798 rebellion) - and was if anything further evidence, if any were needed, of the lack of organisation, commitment and discipline of the Irish Catholics, and even later champion of Catholic emancipation, Daniel O’Connell, denounced Emmet as “an instigator of bloodshed, undeserving of any compassion.” Padraig Pearse, calling Ireland to arms over a hundred years later in the final Rising, would have a different take. He would describe Emmet’s paltry rising as being “not a failure, but a triumph for that deathless thing we call Irish nationality.” Right.

Really oddly, the news of the rising penetrated as far away as New South Wales, where the exiled Irish heard about it a year after it had failed (though were probably unaware of the result) and tried to sail home to join up and fight for the country of their birth. Needless to say, they never made it out of Australia.

Dublin Castle was quick to hush the whole incident up. After all, they had had no idea at all of the plot being hatched in their back garden, so to speak, and had the carriages actually turned up as planned, the centre of British power in Ireland could, theoretically, have been taken. Eighty men (some possible sober) could easily hold such a fortified building (it is a castle, after all) so maybe they realised, red-faced, not only how close they had come to being actually overrun but also how easy it had been for the scheme to unfold without their knowledge or any intelligence of it whatever making it back to them. You kind of have to wonder, though, what happened to the network of traitors and spies spoken of in the chapter on the 1798 rebellion? This was only five years later, and as we’ve seen, McNally at least was still alive and squealing. How is it that this so-called network was unable to infiltrate Emmet’s United Irishmen and get word back to the Brits? Maybe Emmet, aware of or at least suspicious of the spies, made sure none of them got near him. I suppose we have to remember that many of these spies’ identities were only uncovered after the rising.

Even so, it was a catastrophic failure of intelligence on behalf of the English. I mean, imagine for instance a bunch of ISIS terrorists discussing taking the White House or the Capitol Building while based in an apartment block just off Pennsylvania Avenue. Not likely, right? And it should not have been likely here either, which led impetus to the British government to cover up the whole thing and hope it went away. It also gave them licence, however, to turn the spotlight back on the “unruly Catholics”, ignoring the fact of course that Emmet was a Protestant, as was Russell, and Jemmy Hope, another organiser in the north, was a Presbyterian.

I suppose you can at least say that Emmet’s heart was in the right place, and luckily for him, remained so. Although said to have been sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering, any account I can turn up speaks of his being hanged and then beheaded, which means then that he avoided that most humiliating, terrifying and agonising of deaths traditionally reserved by the Crown for traitors, the ultimate deterrent, and also the ultimate ugly spectator draw. Who wants to watch a man hang when you can see him go through so much more? Perhaps by now the meaning of hanging, drawing and quartering had taken on a different meaning, perhaps the accounts I read were wrong, or perhaps the method of his death was commuted at the last, maybe in fear of unnecessarily stoking new hatreds among the Catholics. Anyway, it seems Robert Emmet was buried in an unmarked grave, until some years later when his remains were spirited to the family plot.

Personal Thoughts on Robert Emmet

Look, I’m not going to denigrate a patriot and an Irish hero - I even spoke to one of his descendants on another forum - but let’s be brutally honest: we’re dealing with a well-intentioned gobshite here, aren’t we? Someone whose heart may have been in the fight but whose brain certainly could not have been. Firstly, why did he have to organise the so-called rising for when he did? I get he was pushed by the explosion at the armoury but even so, why did it have to be 1803, a mere five years after the Irish had been thrashed into submission with very little effort on behalf of the British? How could he have believed the country was again spoiling for a fight (without copious amounts of alcohol)? How could be not have understood that those who died in 1798 did so more or less in vain; that they achieved nothing at the time and failed utterly to rouse the country into rebellion, the only real bastion of the rising being Wexford? Why did he think the time was now? Why did he go looking for help from the French, and then, finding his requests turned down, go ahead anyway?

Even allowing for the fact that, against all the signs, he decided to proceed, how did he so badly miscalculate the ratio of guns to men? Could he really have interested that many more people than he had expected, and so had no weapons for them? And if he did, how could he not see that going ahead with the plan, left with less than a hundred of the two thousand men he had expected, was suicide and pointless? Even allowing all that, why couldn’t he keep his men - the few he had - out of the fucking pub? Everyone knows the worst place you can bring an Irishman is the local, and don’t expect to get any work out of him if he finds his way in there. Even given all of that, finding his men virtually drunk off their asses, why did he not call the whole damn thing off? But no. He had to go ahead didn’t he, making his crazy, all but suicidal and certainly symbolic gesture, and he paid for it with his life.

What has remained of Robert Emmet is a legend, built upon by successive attempts by Irish leaders to throw off the chains of oppression, and pointed to as a perfect example of the ultimate sacrifice, when in my opinion what it should be pointed to as a perfect example of is ho0w not to start an uprising! But Ireland loves her tragic heroes, and our history, and even our legend, is hardly replete with victories against our enemies, so we take refuge in the “nobility of sacrifice” and the “struggle for independence”, and so Emmet has become a folk hero, perhaps undeservedly. It’s sort of odd that he sounds like someone who was being used as a pawn, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Napoleon could not have given le merde single, the other leaders of the United Irishmen desperately advised him to call off the rising that morning but he would have none of it. So nobody seems to have been pulling his strings, leading him into a hopeless act of pointless rebellion. He walked into the fire himself, and burned in it.

His ineptitude and naivete has not stopped him becoming a hero though of course. Shelley was one of his biggest supporters, and one of the ones who helped create the myth that today surrounds him, and there are statues of him in Dublin, Washington and San Francisco. He has been depicted in story, song, on stage and screen, and has towns, counties, schools and parks named after him. He’s of course gone down in Irish history as one of the men whose sacrifice and refusal to bow down (or lay proper plans) led eventually to the freedom of Ireland, and I wouldn’t dream of trying to take that from him. At least he gave it a go, which in his place I can’t say I would have done.

There’s an Irish saying: God loves a trier, and Emmet certainly was one of those. Unfortunately, trying by itself isn’t enough. You also need to have a strategy, and in fairness he had, but he didn’t seem then to have any sort of contingency plan for what to do if one part of his - at the time - relatively well-thought-out plan fell apart. Essentially, it was like an engine which, no matter how well-made it may be, fails as soon as one part stops working. Section by section and module by module his plan began to fall apart, but rather than take note of that and try to readjust and adapt his strategy, he continued on with a bastardised version of the original plan, and so he was doomed to fail.

Ironically, though it would take another century and more before Ireland finally was free, the long-awaited and prayed for emancipation of Catholics was less than a quarter of a century down the road, and would be achieved, in the main, without the need to resort to risings, rebellions or violent struggle of any kind.
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Old 04-12-2022, 07:23 PM   #143 (permalink)
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The Rights of (Catholic Irish) Man: Moves Towards Acceptance and Recognition

We’ve heard how much of an underclass Irish Catholics had become from the time Henry VIII established the Church of England and became an implacable enemy of the Pope, and more specifically from James II’s plantation of Ulster with Protestants, and the rise of the Ascendancy. For almost three hundred years now, Catholics had struggled to gain recognition and representation, rights and standing in their own country, and had been more or less laughed at and reviled. Taking up arms had not forced the British government to capitulate, and in fact they had little to no intention of doing so, as their own population looked to them to keep the “papist menace” at bay, none more so than the ruling classes of Ulster, who, though in power, felt like a man on a rickety raft in the ocean as the sharks swarm around him, closing in. Ulster Protestants were more than aware that they still made up the minority in Ireland, and beyond the border to the south was teeming with Catholics, all just itching to do them in while they slept. They must be kept down, brutalised, deprived of their rights, and given no chance to assert any sort of authority or raise their voices in government circles. It was their paramount mission.

To the northeast, though, too, another arch-enemy of the papacy watched developments with disbelieving and angry eyes, as the first Catholic Relief Act, called the Papists Act, was passed in 1778. Scotland had occasionally been an ally with Ireland against England, and, too, had sided with France against the auld enemy, but Scotland was very much a Protestant country. It was here that John Calvin had begun preaching his version of Protestantism, very much opposed to the idea of Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic, deposing Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant monarch. Presbyterianism was big here too, and there were few Catholics. But for all that, even more than Northern Ireland today, Scotland rang with the cry of “No Popery!”

So when the Papists Act allowed, under certain conditions, Catholics to join the army and own land, Scottish jaws slavered with rage, Scottish eyes bulged with hatred, and Scottish people rose in unison against this betrayal of their religious tenets. The fear was that although the Act applied at the time only to England, it was expected to be visited on Scotland too, and they weren’t having that! In response, a minor riot broke out on October 18 1778 in Glasgow, where the house of a family of Catholics who were celebrating mass was attacked, the windows smashed, the occupants chased out and the house taken over. Hey, sounds like those “Old Firm” matches between Celtic and Rangers to me! It wasn’t exactly a Scottish kristallnacht, but it was telling that no law enforcement intervened, and the riot was only broken up when the rioters got bored and staggered off home. It was the first such riot, and really more a small display of the prevailing public feeling than an actual riot.

But a real one was on the horizon.

The Protestant Association

Created to combat the spread of the Catholic menace, the Protestant Association was basically a group of religious figures and politicians who fanned the flames of resentment against the papists, and scare-mongered for all they were worth. The Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SPCK) lobbied for the repeal of the Act, and tried to pressure the influential synod of Lothian and Tweedale, but Principal Robertson of Edinburgh University, where the synod was held, refused to be pushed, declaring that the SPOCK, sorry, SPCK was not going to force them to “deprive any person of his inheritance or subject them to civil penalties for conscience’s sake”. Frustrated, and afraid they would miss their chance to lobby parliament, which was soon to reconvene, the SPCK pulled in the support of the Committee for the Protestant Interest, also known as the Society of Friends of the Protestant Interest, to increase pressure on the synods, and later these two organisations merged to become the new Protestant Association.

With much distribution of inflammatory (and mostly inaccurate where not plain untrue) pamphlets, meetings and plenty of screaming and warnings, the Protestant Association quickly succeeded in its aim of turning the people of Scotland against the native Catholics, painting them as heretics and traitors who did not deserve any sort of tolerance, much less that shown in the Papist Acts. It was all but a call to holy war, and it spread like wildfire across Scotland. Town and borough councils quickly fell into line, petitions were organised and garnered thousands of signatures, and very soon a deep, entrenched resistance to any relief for Catholics rose right across the country. Some of the newspaper columns and pamphlets read disturbingly like something you might expect to see in a German newspaper around 1936.

“Have no dealings with them [Catholics]; neither buy from them nor sell them anything; neither borrow nor lend with them; give them no visits, nor receive any from them.”

“Let them [those against Popery] make lists of those within their bounds, containing their names, callings and places of abode, and publish it, that all men may know them.”

“Let each parish make a solemn resolution to drop all intercourse with papists, particularly bearing in mind that they will not in the future employ papists in any business whatsoever.”

“And that whosoever within their bounds acts contrary to this resolution shall be reputed a papist, and dealt with accordingly.”

Well, that’s nice and clear isn’t it? Sieg Heil, Jimmy, pass the jackboots! If you think senators and congressmen being intimidated by Qanon and Trump supporters is new, then listen to this extract from the account by Principal Robertson, denouncing the Protestant Association in the General Church of Scotland: “I have been held out to an enraged mob, as the victim who next deserves to be sacrificed. My family has been disquieted; my house has been attacked; I have been threatened with pistols and daggers. I have been warned that I was watched in my going out and my coming home; the time has been set beyond which I was not to live, and for several weeks not a day passed on which I did not receive incendiary letters.”

One assumes that’s a metaphor, not that he was receiving actual bombs, but hey, put nothing past these guys. They were pissed, pissed as only those who hate and despise any dissenting voice can be pissed. They believed Robertson a Catholic-lover, and were more than likely ready to surround his house chanting “Hang Robertson! Hang Robertson!”

Yet for all the unrest and hateful rhetoric coming out of Glasgow, it was Scotland’s capital city that provided the first real spark for a full scale riot. Accusations of a house newly built being used as a Catholic chapel in defiance of the law in 1777 led to a fever of anti-papist sentiment which started as vague and random intimidation of Catholics on the streets of Edinburgh and which exploded into a full out attack on the home at the heart of their (imaginary) grievance, that of Father Hay, on January 30. Windows were broken and assistance refused from the Lord Provost, who even turned back offers of help from other quarters, giving tacit approval to the attacks.

And that was all the crowd, who swiftly became a mob of rioters, wanted to see.

February 2 saw the wholesale destruction of Catholic properties, their owners forced to flee, the authorities nowhere to be seen. The rioters returned the next day, declaring their intention to “compleat (sic) the destruction of every Catholic in the place, and of all others who had in any respect appeared favourable to their Bill.” Finally realising they could delay no longer, the city magistrates called in the army, and the enraged mob, trying to burn the home of their hated enemy Robertson, were turned back by an armed presence. With soldiers on the streets, the rioters drifted away, but they had achieved their objective. On February 6 it was announced that “the fears that had prompted such devastation had been justified” and the Relief Act was now “totally laid aside.” There would be no tolerance for Catholics, and the Protestants had won the day.

That was it for Edinburgh, as it was fun to terrorise unarmed Catholics (remember, the original Penal Laws forbade them owning or carrying weapons), scaring women and children, but the rioters were not about to go up against their own military, and while some, or many, of these men’s sympathies may have lain with the agitators, unlike today, they had sworn an oath to the King and would do their duty, regardless of personal opinion or affiliation. If not, they would likely have been court-martialled. But down the road in Glasgow…

Robert Bagnall was the most prosperous Catholic in the city, so naturally became the target for the anger of the mob that stormed through Glasgow on February 9. His crime, apparently, had been that he had “not been very moderate in his language or behaviour”, and his shop and house were burned while he and his family fled, sheltered by sympathetic Protestant friends. Once again, the authorities turned a very blind eye and nobody was prosecuted or arrested for the attacks. The government was humiliated to have been forced by the pressure of rowdy mobs and special interest groups to have to repeal the Papists Act, and voices within Parliament warned that what had happened in Scotland, and with no retribution whatever, in fact total success, could and most probably would be replicated over the border in England.

They were right.
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Old 05-14-2022, 12:18 PM   #144 (permalink)
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Lord George Gordon (1751 - 1793)

Even now, over two hundred years later, the jury remains out as to whether he was actually insane, though many believe he was. What is not in doubt, however, is that he was the face of Scottish anti-Papism that met the equally ugly face of English bigotry, and, carrying the riots of Edinburgh and Glasgow to their natural conclusion, was almost single-handedly responsible for the worst anti-Catholic protests and violence in England since the Great Fire of London.

A vehement and vocal opponent of the American War of Independence, he resigned his commission in the navy before he had to serve in that conflict, his views not helping his parliamentary career when he took his seat as MP for Ludgershall in Wiltshire. In 1779 he became president of the Protestant Association and began lobbying hard against the Catholic Relief Act, and in addition to the by now usual threats and predictions as to how the Catholics would drag all of England into a state of “popery”, invite the French to invade and presumably roast and eat Protestant children, he warned that England was in danger of returning from a constitutional monarchy back to the days of absolute rulers, one of whom, Louis XVII, would a decade later be deposed and executed as the French Revolution roared into almost unstoppable life.

Gordon had had great success stirring up people’s fears and prejudices in Scotland, as described above, and now believed he could replicate that success here in England. The king, though, was not interested. He entertained him till he got bored, then refused to grant him any further audiences. On May 27 1780, Gordon decided to forget trying to gain royal assent for his policies, even taking the rather dangerous step of denouncing the King as an agent of popery, and on June 2 instead convened a large contingent of his followers, who descended on the House of Commons, in an effort to force them to reject and repeal the Papist Act.

Unlike in Scotland, where pure hatred and distrust of Catholics was the driving force for the riots, here multiple other issues contributed, including the increasingly unsuccessful efforts by the empire to subdue the American colonies, the cost of living, lack of faith or trust in the government and unemployment and low wages. In essence, not only Catholics were attacked when the riots broke out, but anyone seen as profiting from the current situation, anyone rich (or deemed to be), anyone prosperous, anyone who disagreed with the rioters or, frequently, anyone who got in their way or looked funny at them.

With a crowd - quickly becoming a mob - of an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 behind him, and more joining as they marched, Gordon tried to force entry into the House but was stopped, only he himself allowed in as a member of Parliament. Outside, as the impatient mob waited for a result, violence erupted. Ministers leaving were attacked, their coaches overturned, the small contingent of guards present at the House unequal to the task of controlling such a huge gathering. Eventually the army was sent in and restored order, driving the protesters away, while inside the House Gordon’s petition was all but unanimously voted down.

Things got worse that night.

Huge crowds organised and gathered to attack Catholic churches and dwellings, and the large Irish settlement of Moorfields came in for particular attention. Again, no appreciable police or military presence was seen on the streets, and Newgate and other prisons were attacked, burned and prisoners freed. The house of the Lord Chief Justice also became a target. Violence continued into the night and the next morning the Bank of England was assaulted, but the army were able to throw the rioters back, although sustaining heavy casualties. Nevertheless, it still took four more days before the army would begin to respond in any real numbers to the violence, making it hard to believe that the rioting was not at best supported, at worst tolerated by the government.

June 7 saw reprisals, finally, as the army took back the streets, killing over 280 rioters and arresting over 400, including their ringleader, Lord George Gordon. An excellent depiction of the events can be read in Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, which centres around the Gordon Riots. Of the 450 or so arrested, only twenty to thirty of the rioters faced execution, and Gordon, though tried for high treason, was acquitted. For some reason he converted to Judaism, and, as vehement and radical as he had been as a Protestant, he became one of the most hardline Jews, sticking rigidly to scripture and abhorring and avoiding those who did not.

He later found himself in the very prison his supporters had destroyed - rebuilt now - as libel suits gained him five years behind Newgate’s bars. Nine months after completing his sentence he died of typhoid fever, an epidemic of which had been raging through the completely unsanitary prison.

Light at the End of the Tunnel: Catholic Emancipation

But despite the best efforts of militant Protestants, rights for Catholics could not be denied or held back forever, and the day was fast approaching when the “papists” would enjoy the same privileges, mostly, as their Anglican and Calvinist brothers and sisters. It had been pretty conclusively proven that this could not be achieved by force of arms (while the opposition had proven beyond doubt that this was the very means by which it could be denied) and, like many great and important questions, this would finally take thinkers, philosophers, men willing to compromise and sit down and talk the whole thing out, for the good of both countries.

The man who would bring this about would be known in Ireland as the Great Liberator.

Daniel O’Connell (1775 - 1847)

A native of County Kerry, Daniel O’Connell was born into a Catholic family which had somehow managed to retain their land, mostly through Protestant trustees and their connections. When he was just sixteen Daniel and his brother were sent to France to continue their education. This was a bad move, as the year 1791 saw some of the worst excesses of the French Revolution, and the brothers had to flee the country’s anti-religion sentiment. The experience soured Daniel on using violence as a means to an end, and he swore later that “liberty is not worth the shedding of a single drop of blood.” He and his brother escaped to London, and returned to Ireland in 1795.

Four days before the 1798 rising, Daniel was called to the bar, and having no faith in, and giving no support to the rebellion, remained at home in Kerry while the British forces of Viscount Lake crushed the rebels. As we’ve seen above, he was equally critical of the pseudo-rising attempted by young Robert Emmet, deploring the Irishman’s use of violence. In contrast to his time in France, he found many like-minded people in London, such as Thomas Paine, Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin, and helped pass the Slavery Abolition Act as well as the Act of Reform. He believed passionately that Church and State should be kept separate. He also fought hard against the idea that Catholic bishops should allow their appointment to be subject to the favour of the Crown, arguing that if this were to happen, the bishops would be nothing more than mouthpieces for the Anglican church.

Not only that, but the Crown and Westminster recognised worriedly the part the Catholic priests had played in 1798, and knew that if there was one institution that the papists would and could rally around, it was that of their clergy. Draw them in under the control of the Crown, and that threat could be effectively nullified. If bishops could be appointed they could be dismissed too, if His Majesty felt or was advised they were overstepping their bounds. O’Connell knew this too, and made sure there was no English veto on the appointment of bishops.

The Catholic Association

Perhaps as a response to, perhaps despite Lord Gordon’s Protestant Association, Daniel O’Connell set up the Catholic Association, in, um, association with the Irish Catholic church, to lobby for the cause of emancipation for Catholics. Unlike its Protestant equivalent though, this one was not open only to academics, politicians, industrialists and the like. For a tiny fee (the “Catholic rent”) of one penny a month anyone could join, which meant the Catholic Association became the first mass-member organisation in the entire world. Not only did this allow its membership to swell to unheard-of numbers, it also effectively removed the class barriers that had characterised such organisations in the past, both Protestant and Catholic. The whole idea, of course, apart from a certain type of “silent terrorism by numbers”, was to involve as many ordinary Catholics in the struggle as possible, and show them they had a voice, a way to make their opinions heard, a way to fight back (though being O’Connell’s creation violence was not used as a coercive method).

The Catholic rent was clever, as it served three purposes. One, as outlined above, the most obvious, was to get people to join, the more the better. Another was to swell the coffers of the Association: a penny a month is not much, but a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand or more pennies a month adds up to a sizeable sum to go into a war chest. Thirdly, the incredibly low and affordable price all but forced every single Catholic to join: after all, if they did not, others would ask why not? Don’t you want repeal? You can’t say you can’t afford a penny every month. Not that I imagine any Catholic would not want to join, but this would remove an excuse, were any looking for one, and lend suspicion to their reticence to join.

The money could be used to lobby parliament, help Catholic tenants evicted by Protestant landlords or any other good, Catholic causes the Association wished to show support to. Almost at one stroke, it pulled all the disparate elements of Catholic dissatisfaction and grievance together, and allowed them to shout their protest with one, very loud and powerful voice, a voice nobody could ignore.

The Home Secretary (later Prime Minister) Robert Peel was so worried about its power that he equated it with his own government, and the Duke of Wellington foresaw Irish civil war if the Catholic Association was allowed to continue unchecked. The fact that the Association remained loyal to the Crown, though, was a mitigating factor, and made them seem that little bit less radical and less of a threat, giving them more bargaining power. Of course, it already had the considerable backing of the Catholic Church, and priests would regularly collect the contributions for the Catholic Association after Sunday mass, perhaps again another reason why no God-fearing and loyal Catholic would want to be singled out as not being a member.

With a General Election and a new Prime Minister in 1826, the Association began to support those MPs in the House who looked favourably upon the idea of Catholic emancipation, while in 1828 the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which had previously banned “dissenters” from holding public office left Catholics as the only ones now being penalised (literally, thanks to the remaining Penal Laws) and they believed surely the way was opening up towards their political and religious freedoms being recognised and enshrined in law too.

Catholic power, as it were, was shown to great effect at the contentious Waterford elections, when the sitting candidate, Lord Thomas Beresford, smugly confident that his poor tenants would not dare vote against him, had a nasty shock and perhaps too late realised the true impact of O’Connell’s Catholic Association when he was defeated as his tenants defied him, and tradition, and voted for a liberal landlord.

This was only the first in a series of upsets for the comfortable and complacent Tory landlords. The tide was beginning to turn. In May, O’Connell himself sat for the seat for County Clare vacated by the retirement of William Huskinson and his replacement as the President of the Board of Trade by William Vesey-Fitzgerald. O’Connell knew the Penal Laws prevented him from taking a seat in Westminster as a Catholic, but somewhat in the same way as a hundred years later, Gerry Adams of the republican Sinn Fein party would stand for and win a seat, but be unable to take it, O’Connell knew that if he won the seat the clamour over his being barred from sitting at Westminster would rile up the Irish Catholics.

The Catholic clergy mobilised as only they could do, whipping up the people into a fervour of support for the Liberator, one of them declaring “Let every renegade to his God and his country follow Vesey-Fitzgerald, and every true Catholic Irishman follow me!” O’Connell garnered twice as many votes as his opponent, winning the seat easily. Now the British government had a problem. The cause of Catholic repression had never been so publicly front and centre in favour of the position of the oppressed. Fearing a total revolution in Ireland, and unprepared for such an event, Peel and Wellington pushed through the long-fought-for Catholic Relief Act of 1829. Daniel O’Connell had done what Robert Emmet and the men of 1798 had spectacularly failed to do, and had finally won emancipation for his people.

His people. Yes. Let’s look at that. Daniel O’Connell surely deserves the title of the Great Liberator that he has earned, however it’s also important not to be blinkered about his success. As Richard Killeen points out in A Brief History of Ireland, O’Connell marshalled and mobilised the poor, the ordinary people via the penny-a-month membership fee to the Catholic Association, but he was not above throwing them to the wolves if and when it suited his purposes. This is borne out in his surprise support for a bill authored by Sir Francis Burdett, which had within its text two important provisos, one being the state payment of Catholic clergy, and the other, more important one being the intention to restrict reforms to the rich classes. In other words, the bill provided for the disenfranchisement of those Catholic landowners who paid less than forty shillings for their land, i.e. all the poorer ones.

In the end, it made no difference as once again the House of Lords, final arbiters in any law or Act being passed, voted the Burdett bill down. But here it does seem that O’Connell had played his hand and shown that if he could achieve his aims by throwing the “little people” under the carriage, he was more than ready to do so. And to be fair, the “little people”, as Killeen so archly notes, did “much of the heavy lifting for him.”

Although Ireland had been traditionally and originally a Catholic nation, Ulster still simmered and seethed with Protestant fervour, fury at the granting of equal rights (except to the poor) to their ancient enemies, and surely trembled a little now too, that they suddenly faced being a complete minority and no longer in control. A minority when taken as a percentage of the whole of the island, certainly, but still very much a majority power in Ulster, where O’Connell rather overconfidently directed his next efforts.
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Old 05-21-2022, 07:44 PM   #145 (permalink)
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Ulster Says No (again): The Repealer Repulsed

Surely O’Connell should have expected nothing less than a hostile reception once he crossed the border, but maybe he was too flushed with success to think about that, or maybe he just wanted to “free his Catholic brethren from the bondage of the Ascendancy”? Either way, he decided to tour there, to try to gain support from and speak to the Catholics of Ulster. Unsurprisingly, the Orangemen were having none of that, and turned out in great numbers in the town of Ballybray, Co, Monaghan, where they turned him back. The event was celebrated by Protestants across the province as the day the repealer was repulsed. It was quite clear that, despite or even in defiance of their new legal status, Catholics would never get an easy ride in Ulster, and the battle lines - for now, only political but later to spill out into over thirty years of bloodshed, violence and terror - were being drawn, with Ulster unionists determined to hold and defend that line, as Ian Paisley would later growl, and give “not one inch.”

The poor tenants would as always get a raw deal, as one of the provisions in the Catholic Relief Act was for landlords to raise the minimal rent payable on land from forty shillings to ten pounds, an increase of I think five hundred percent. Who could afford that? Not the poor farmers, who, despite now being part of the Catholic Relief Act, surely did not feel either relieved or indeed liberated by the Great Liberator. As for him, he was a celebrity all over Europe, having seemed to have accomplished the impossible, and he had many ardent admirers. He took his seat, finally, with the restrictions removed for Catholics to sit in Parliament, in February 1830, but for a while it was more a symbolic victory, as he had few allies and in the early days of repeal there was a dearth of Catholics in Westminster. Later, when the government changed, he was able to make some alliances, the most significant of which was the eventual removal of the hated tithes in 1830.

But first, there would be a war.

The Tithe War (1830 - 1836)

Technically speaking, this wasn’t a war, not in the way 1798 or even Emmet’s abortive rebellion could be - generously - described as such, and certainly nothing like the later 1916 Rising. Mostly, it was a time of protests, the majority of them non-violent, but like any protests there were those which went beyond harsh words and heated language. But what were the tithes, and why did Ireland feel so strongly about them? Well, first of all let’s get the pronunciation right: tithe is pronounced with a soft “th”, the same way scythe and blythe are. Tithe literally means ten percent, and was a levy pushed on Catholic Irish ostensibly for not attending “proper” mass, i.e. Anglican, but in reality as a stealth tax enabling the Church of Ireland to finance itself. People were expected to contribute a tenth of their earnings, land, cattle, produce, to the Anglican Church in Ireland, and this tax fell heaviest, as they always do, on the poor.

Pasture land was exempted from the tithes, and as this was generally only owned by the richer Protestants, land ownership being, until the final passage of the Catholic Relief Act, restricted to them alone, it was the poor Catholics, desperately trying to scratch a living on poor land who had to pay the most. The reality of this was that the Church of Ireland, which no Catholic wanted anything to do with, received about two-thirds of its annual income from people who were not allowed through its doors unless they converted, and which stood as a permanent symbol of their continuing oppression; whose priests would loudly declaim on Sundays the heresies of the “papists”, and swear they were all bound for Hell, while still taking their money. Rather ironically, the percentage of Protestants to Catholics in Ireland was about ten percent too.

Tithes were a slap in the face for Catholic Ireland. They were a way of the Protestants saying “we know you hate us but you’re going to pay for us to continue to be here”. Although sporadic protests and some violence had broken about against the practice, from about 1760 onwards, there was really nothing anyone could do until 1829, when the rights they had been robbed of for hundreds of years were finally restored to Catholics, and they could muster as an effective force, both political and spiritual, to face the injustice forced upon them.

The first to really grasp the nettle was a farmer called Patrick “Patt” Lalor, who, though he refused to resist any attempt to take his goods in payment for tithes, declared that he knew his friends and neighbours would support him and the Catholic cause by refusing to buy any of the cattle taken from him, which were put up for auction. He was right; though he stood peacefully by when the Irish Police took his cattle for non-payment, the auction to sell them was tumbleweed city. And this was only the beginning.

As ever, the Catholic clergy were deeply enmeshed and involved in what would become known as “the tithe war”, which began March 3 1831 when the cattle of Fr. Martin Doyle were taken in lieu of money for the tithes at Graiguenamanagh in Co. Kilkenny. A few months later more serious clashes took place at Bunclody in Co. Wexford, where this time the resistance was met with gunfire, and twelve people were killed by the Irish Police, while in retaliation near the end of the year twelve constables were killed at the aptly-named town of Carrickshock, Co. Kilkenny, when a crowd ambushed forty of them as they arrived to destrain (take in place of) cattle, and when the men responsible for this were put on trial, an estimated 200,000 Irishmen turned out in protest. Speaking on behalf of the accused was one Daniel O’Connell, and his presence there ensured the demise of the tithe system.

But there were further confrontations, the largest and indeed last being at Rathcormac, Co. Cork (long known, and still known as “the rebel county”) where in a small village called Bartlemy in the parish of Gortroe, about 100 armed British fired upon stone-throwing Irish who supported the widow Johanna Ryan who refused - or could not afford - to pay her tithes. As the party had approached with the Archdeacon to collect the - wait for it - forty shillings due, they were pelted by rocks and stones, then the defenders withdrew behind barricades set up on Widow Ryan’s property and continued the assault on the unwelcome soldiers. Their commander ordered them to fire, and up to twenty Irish were killed, estimates ranging from twelve upwards.

At the outbreak of gunfire the defenders scattered, and the widow was left with no choice but to pay her tithe. Nevertheless, condemnation of the “massacre” from O’Connell as well as Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor and Henry Grattan led to charges against the army, which were later dropped. The incident did however serve as the final battle in the tithe war. In 1838 the tithes were camouflaged; cut by a quarter, they were now charged to the landlords and passed on as rent, under the Tithe Rentcharge (Ireland) Act, and finally abolished entirely thirty years later with the Irish Church Act, which completely disestablished the Church of Ireland.

Teach Your Children: The Establishment of the Irish Educational System

One thing that dooms any people is ignorance. Charles Dickens noted this when he had his Ghost of Christmas Present warn Ebenezer Scrooge, in A Christmas Carol, to beware two emaciated waifs he showed him. “The boy is ignorance,” he told the terrified miser, “the girl is want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware the boy, for on his brow I see written that which is doom unless the writing be erased.”

The legendary writer was using Scrooge’s indifference to, almost ignorance of the poor and the needy to illustrate a very valid point. The British government took this warning and twisted its intent, using it to attempt to erase the Irish Catholic by forbidding his education. As Hitler or Stalin would no doubt have told us, the most dangerous enemy is an educated man or woman. For people to be kept down and enslaved to your will they need to be kept ignorant, and if Catholics could not be educated they would grow up unaware that there was anything beyond the lives they lived of drudgery and compliance.

With Catholics banned from sending their children abroad to be educated, schools began to spring up all over Ireland, usually under the aegis of the Catholic Church and run by nuns or priests, starting a nightmare scenario that would terrify and cause resentment among Irish schoolchildren for centuries. You would think the male-dominated and run Christian Brothers would have been the most feared, but that only shows that you never had to endure the teachings of a nun! The Christian Brothers was set up by a former missionary, Edmund Ignatius Rice (1762 - 1844), who had been about to go abroad to preach when he was convinced to stay in Ireland and devote himself to the well-being and education of Irish youth. Not all that many of us would thank him for changing his mind!

Rice set up a school in a converted stable (echoes of Bethlehem, eh?) in Waterford, and though a trying time, he managed to recruit other priests who took on teaching duties, his school soon expanding to a second one, whereafter he formed the order of Presentation Brothers and later the Christian Brothers, tasked with the education of young male children, particularly those from poor families. Eventually his schools spread even further, crossing over the channel where he set establishments up in England.

For girls, there was the horror of the nuns. What a great idea: to put women who were avowedly celibate (and mostly older and more bitter) in a position of power and authority over younger, pretty and impressionable girls! I mean, boys mostly laughed at the “Brothers”, and took little to no notice of them, at least in my time, but even when I were a lad a nun could freeze you with a single disapproving look, and somehow you just never fought back. Beneath it all was probably the twin realisations that this was, technically anyway, a woman, and more to the point was a Bride of Christ, who, at ages eight to ten maybe, you did not want to be pissing off! And nuns knew it too, and used their power to its utmost. I remember my sister being sent home in tears because a horrible nun had told her my parents were going to Hell because they had separated. Fucking religion. My mother soon set her straight.

But though nuns could teach boys, they were usually assigned to girls’ schools, and there were three orders set up in the nineteenth century that concerned themselves with educating young female minds. The first was the Presentation Sisters (which Rice copied obviously), founded as far back as 1776, then the Sisters of Charity in 1815 and finally the Sisters of Mercy (NOT the goth band!) who were formed in 1831. It always amuses me that they chose these names, when mostly they had neither any concept of charity nor certainly mercy, if my sisters’ and my own experiences are anything to go by.

Of course, having the Catholic school system, as it was then, controlled and run by the Church made it able to tighten its grip on the emerging new generation of Irish children, and one subject that was compulsory even when I went to school was religious education, sometimes called catechism or religious knowledge. It amounted to the same thing though: spiritual brainwashing as you were told all about God, Jesus and the Church and given no option but to profess your belief in it all. R.E. teachers prepared their young charges for such momentous events in their spiritual development as First Holy Communion and First Confirmation, with dreary dress rehearsals for both the norm, at least in my time.

In 1831 the government (British of course) created a national school act which provided millions of schoolchildren with an education, and though these schools, unlike those of the Christian Brothers or the nuns, were of mixed denomination and did not place so much emphasis on religious instruction, this would change towards the end of the century, as churches segregated their children along lines of faith and creed, with Catholic, Presbyterian and Protestant schools admitting only children from families of that belief. The largest university at the time, Trinity College, was steadfastly Protestant, established in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I, but in 1854 Catholics wanted their own institution, even given that the long ban on their children entering Trinity had expired under the Catholic Relief Act. Catholic University was built, later taking the name University College Dublin, now Ireland’s largest institution for third-level education.
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