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Catholic Committee from 1756 to 1809

Catholic Committee from 1756 to 1809

The Catholic Association, the forerunner of the Catholic Committee, was established in July 1756 by Charles O'Conor of Belanagare, John Curry, and Thomas Wyse, who were Catholic gentlemen whose family fortunes had greatly suffered in the confiscations of the previous age. The establishment of this body, together with the pamphleteering activity of O'Conor and Curry, can be taken as a noteworthy signal of a major turning point in the political history of Irish Catholics. Until after the middle of the eighteenth century the Catholic community rested its hopes on a Stuart restoration and saw little point in dialogue with Ireland's Protestant community, beyond the obligation to engage in religious polemic. Now minds were turning to the problem of finding a place for the upper ranks of Catholic society under a Hanoverian regime likely to endure.

The establishment of the association was probably a little premature, if for no other reason than the out-break of the Seven Years' War. This inevitably sharpened the anxieties of Protestants, whom Catholics feared to provoke. Clerical fears of laymen making blundering statements about Catholic principles and continuing Jacobite commitments also rendered the approaching of politicians a cause of division. However, the 1760s saw the defeat of France, banishing Jacobitism from the realm of practical politics, and the emergence of an issue suitable for Catholic agitation. This was the quarterage dispute, occasioned by the attempt of the Protestant-controlled urban trade guilds to coerce Catholics into remaining within their structures (and thus preserve guild monopolies) without giving them access to economic or political power, that is, as mere "quarter brethren." The guilds and their champion, the "Wilkes of Ireland," Charles Lucas, were unpopular among many and failed to gain the necessary political support for this. Henceforth, though the guilds retained their constitutional power in the municipalities, their economic influence was substantially lost. Not only was there this victory, but the Catholic trading interest, a disproportionately large part of the respectability of the Catholics by virtue of the laws regulating landholding, had been politicized.

Catholic relief, when it began with the acts of 1778 and 1782, owed very little to Catholic campaigning. Indeed, the Catholic Committee had ceased to function for a few years before 1778. Then a desire to raise troops among the enthusiastically anti-American Catholics brought concessions. More came in 1782 from an attempt by the government to divide those Protestants seeking Irish legislative independence and to keep Catholics from giving them support. The attempt failed when the government's opponents united to match its display of generosity. In the following years, too, both the government and proponents of political reform sought to use the Catholics in their struggles. Most members of the committee thought an uncommitted stance the one most likely to bring what was still desired—commissions in the army, admission to the bar, and perhaps even to the franchise. However, the adoption of partisan positions by some of the most influential created division. The ideological depth of this division became manifest in the winter of 1791 to 1792, when again events outside Ireland had brought Catholic relief onto the political agenda and intensified the activity of the Catholic Committee. Viscount Kenmare led those who sought to resolve the Catholic question by the integration of Catholics and their church with the established order. When despite government pressure the committee declined to repudiate a tract that expressed hostility to any kind of confessionalism, the viscount and his followers seceded from the committee. Despite ecclesiastical support and their own status as the Catholic landed interest, those who seceded lacked substantial support among activists. In any case, they were not as submissive to the government's wishes as was imagined and were reconciled with the Catholic Committee. The Catholic Convention of 1792, which the committee organized, manifested Catholic unity as well as boldness, and contributed to the passing in 1793 of the relief act that was judged necessary for the conciliation of Catholics at the onset of the war with revolutionary France.

With Catholics now admitted to the franchise, the committee declared its work at an end. Indeed, this was true as nothing more could be achieved for a very long time. The Catholic Committee was revived at the time of the viceroyalty of the 2d Earl Fitzwilliam (1794–1795), and a Catholic Association was brought into existence when Charles James Fox and William Wyndham, Lord Grenville came to power in 1806. Such events rendered Catholic activists sanguine. However, as the fate of Fitzwilliam and the general election of 1807 showed, their hopes were unrealistic. Catholic demands were now seen to constitute a threat to Britain's essentially Protestant constitution and the Protestant control of Ireland, and traditional forms of Catholic activism were impotent in the face of firm rejection.

SEE ALSO Catholic Merchants and Gentry from 1690 to 1800; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1714 to 1778—Interest Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1778 to 1795—Parliamentary and Popular Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1795 to 1800—Repression, Rebellion, and Union; Keogh, John; O'Conor, Charles, of Balenagare; Penal Laws; Religion: Since 1690; Roman Catholic Church: 1690 to 1829; Tone, Theobald Wolfe; Primary Documents: The Catholic Relief Act (1778); The Catholic Relief Act (1782); The Catholic Relief Act (1793)


Bartlett, Thomas. The Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation: The Catholic Question, 1690–1830. 1992.

Leighton, Cadoc D. A. Catholicism in a Protestant Kingdom: A Study of the Irish Ancien Régime. 1994.

Wall, Maureen. Catholic Ireland in the Eighteenth Century: Collected Essays of Maureen Wall. 1989.

C. D. A. Leighton

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