Politics: 1690 to 1800—A Protestant Kingdom

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Politics: 1690 to 1800—A Protestant Kingdom

Politics is contention for power, and we may call that subset of the population within which a country's politics takes place the "polity." Ireland's political history over this period of eleven decades begins with the expulsion from the polity of one of the major groups of contenders in the politics of the previous era—propertied (or previously propertied) Catholics. It ends with the collapse of that polity in the face of demands not only by the heirs of those contenders but also by various other groups for admission to the polity, and with a decision by the government to replace the old polity with an entirely new one.

A polity is always more than just the government but less than the whole population. The government is one contender for power; other contenders in an early modern European polity typically include elite coalitions organized around some interest—economic, religious, dynastic, ideological, and so on—and the object of their contention is usually some degree of influence in or upon the government. Normally, however, all members of the polity regard themselves as entitled to protection by the combined resources of the whole polity, including those of the government, whenever threatened by those outside its geographic or social boundaries. There are, however, abnormal times when members of the polity seek alliances with entities outside the polity—for example, domestic nonelite groups or foreign powers. We call such times "revolutionary."

The process by which a government gained a monopoly of one particular component of power—physical coercion—has a special name in the historiography of early modern Europe: "the rise of the state." In the modern world we measure the legitimacy of a state by the extent to which its population recognizes the right of its government to such a monopoly. Two successive polities embracing Ireland—the "Kingdom of Ireland" in its Protestant-dominated phase (1691–1800) and the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland" (1801–1922)—spectacularly failed to attain legitimacy by this standard. Just what sort of a state was the eighteenth-century Irish polity, and why did it fail?

The Composition of the Irish Polity

The Irish polity in this period consisted of the Protestant landed class (who, together with their clergy, came to be known as the "Ascendancy") and a government headquartered in Dublin Castle. The fact that the Irish polity excluded the great majority of the population—the "lower orders"—was quite normal in ancien régime Europe. It had, however, two quite peculiar features. First, it excluded a large and important elite: those members of the nobility and gentry who were Roman Catholics. Second, its government was extraterritorial—that is, government officials owed their appointments to the workings of the polity of another country, Great Britain (or England prior to 1707).

The ideal of a nonmartial politics was symbolized in Ireland by the existence of a parliament modelled on its English counterpart. During the late Middle Ages the geographic range within which the government might dare to hope that local elites could be trusted to engage in politics with voices rather than with swords was reflected in the territory that had been "shired"—that is, carved up into counties entitled to send representatives to the House of Commons. It was not until the 1690s, however, that the government was forced by financial needs to summon Parliament with sufficient frequency to make it the primary venue of contention within the polity.

The first object of contention was the composition of the polity itself. At the end of the seventeenth century, of course, it went without saying that membership in the polity would be limited to the landed. Confiscations had reduced the Catholic land ownership to 22 percent of the land in Ireland by 1688. In 1691 William consented to terms of Jacobite surrender at Limerick whose leniency toward Catholic landowners enraged Protestants. Catholics having been barred from sitting in the Irish parliament in 1691, Protestants used their control of that institution to put pressure on the king to restrict implementation of provisions favorable to continued Catholic landowning. By 1703 the Catholic share of Irish land had been reduced to 14 percent. Furthermore, the Irish parliament insisted upon enactment of a series of anti-Catholic penal laws toward which the government was lukewarm. While this legislation seemed to envisage the complete elimination of the Roman Catholic Church from Irish soil, restrictions on the exercise of the Catholic religion came to be rarely implemented. Patterns of enforcement suggest that the Ascendancy's real objective was to reduce the property of wealthy Catholic laymen even further and to prevent them from ever acquiring more land.

Thus by about 1710 the composition of the polity seemed decided: It would consist of the Protestant Ascendancy and the government and no one else. So long as that remained true, no monarch would be able to play off the Catholics against the Protestants in the manner of several earlier Stuart kings. For the foreseeable future the principal object of contention within the polity would be the power relationships between the Ascendancy and the government. The principal mechanism regulating those relationships was Poynings' Law, which had been enacted in 1494 to prevent Ireland from being used as a launching pad for pretenders to the English crown. In the eighteenth century its practical effect was to give the king's ministers in London the power to amend or veto legislation proposed by the Irish parliament. In the Declaratory Act of 1720 the British parliament further asserted its right to pass legislation binding on Ireland. Members of the Ascendancy generally acquiesced in these arrangements, though a Patriot Party opposed to the subordinate status of the Irish parliament emerged in mid-century. Most of the time the government was able to manage the Irish parliament through the same arts of influence and patronage that were perfected in the British parliament in this period.

How well did this curious polity work? Certainly, it did succeed for eight decades in averting violent contention for power among its own members: Differences among gentlemen might lead to duels, but not to civil wars. Of course, the Catholic side in the violent contentions of the previous century had been decisively weakened by the penal laws as well as by the departure of many of their gentry to the continent. However, even when a reversal of their fortunes seemed possible during the invasions of Scotland in 1715 and 1745 by the Stuart pretenders (nominally recognized as the legitimate royal line by the Catholic Church), Catholic gentry in Ireland lay very low indeed.

But how well did the polity succeed in gaining the acquiescence of those who were outside it not because of their religion (or at least not solely because of it) but because of their social class? Outbreaks of violence involving either Catholic peasants in southern districts or their Protestant counterparts in parts of Ulster became especially frequent from around 1760. These disturbances, however, were focused on local grievances and did not threaten the authority of the polity itself. Indeed, there is evidence that rioters had a "moral economy" perspective on their plight—a deferential expectation that the gentry could and should be expected to redress their grievances on principles of social justice.

To the extent that there was a cultural "glue" that legitimated the eighteenth-century polity it was not nationalism (however fervently patriot orators might espouse the cause of the "Irish nation") but a political culture based on patron-client relationships. To sustain cordial relations with their local tenants and other dependents, members of the polity practiced various sorts of reciprocity, ranging from rent abatements to generous provision of popular festivities. In addition, reliable Protestant retainers participated in a special ritual of clientage in times of alarm, foreign or domestic: Their patron might assemble them as an ad hoc military force upon which the government might (or might not) confer the official status of a militia.

During the late 1770s some unofficial local militias, which had been mobilized in recent years to deal with agrarian disturbances, were suddenly supplemented by the formation of numerous other "volunteer" units throughout the country in response to rumors of a possible invasion by the French allies of the U.S. rebels. Though the original purpose of these forces was security and the maintenance of public order, the Volunteers quickly became a political movement allied with the Patriot Party. Volunteer agitation contributed both to the British government's decision in 1779 to yield to the Irish parliament's demand for an end to restrictions on Irish trade with Britain and the colonies and to its 1782 concession of a drastic amendment of Poynings' Law. Although it is easy to overstate the importance of this move to "legislative independence," it was clearly a major victory for the patrons of the rank-and-file Volunteers in the former's contention with the government.

A Theater State?

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz has proposed the term theater state to describe polities remote from the modern western state conceived as an entity that commands virtually unanimous consent for a government having a monopoly of coercive force within the national territory (Geertz 1980). It would be hard to find a better example of political theater than the parade of the Dublin Volunteers outside the Parliament House on 4 November 1779, with a cannon bearing a sign which read "Free Trade or this!" The gun was a prop that no one actually expected would be fired in anger. In this exercise—as in all their countless parades, reviews, drills, and mock battles—Volunteers were acting out their understanding of their place in the polity. For the officers, these military performances symbolized the honor-laden right and duty of the Protestant male elite to defend the polity, and the reciprocal duty of the government to grant their political demands.

Ireland's lack of a resident monarch did leave it relatively impoverished in some particular types of ritual performance that have interested students of various other early modern European countries. Moreover, the fact that the religion of the polity was rejected by the overwhelming majority of the population made it difficult for the established church to play the role of sacralizing the polity as effectively as did her counterparts in other theater states in early modern Europe. Nevertheless, the Irish polity managed to affirm itself in various ceremonial ways, ranging from processions by high officials to the exemplary spectacles of capital and corporal punishment. The flamboyant oratorical performances of leading politicians gave the Irish parliament a theatrical character confirmed by the audience of fashionable ladies in the gallery in Francis Wheatley's famous painting of the The Irish House of Commons (1780). However, it was the martial spectacles of the Volunteers that in most parts of Ireland most faithfully reflected the patron-client relationship that underpinned the political system. Nevertheless, by taking their act onto the stage of national politics, Volunteer leaders unwittingly placed the boundaries of the polity in question.

While Volunteer performances symbolized essential features of the political system, Volunteer activities in defense of public order, as well as political advocacy by Volunteer gatherings, exposed some of the anomalies and ambiguities of that system. An important ambiguity in the boundaries of the polity was the status of the wealthy Presbyterian elite of Belfast. Although they had not suffered from such severe legal disabilities as had elite Catholics, in practice they were excluded from the governance of their own town by an Anglican landlord who owned the land on which it was situated. The Volunteers in Belfast and its immediate hinterland (as well as those in and around Derry) had been an exception to the general rule that Volunteering embodied and celebrated the patron-client culture. Since Presbyterians had long been welcomed into militia arrays at times of crisis, their enthusiastic volunteering was a way of demonstrating the claim of their lay and clerical leaders to full membership in the polity. A few respectable Catholics, eager to demonstrate their loyalty by taking a stand against French invasion and internal commotion, were welcomed into certain Volunteer units; and after the attainment of legislative independence in 1782 some Volunteer meetings began to pass resolutions in favor of restoring civil and political rights to Catholics.

Did willingness to defend the polity call for admission to its membership? The question was perhaps less urgent with respect to elite Catholics and Presbyterians than to rank-and-file Protestant Volunteers, who might already have had the right to vote but lacked political influence because the system of representation ensured that a majority of seats in the House of Commons were controlled by a small number of wealthy Protestant landowners. Volunteer meetings began to pass resolutions in favor of parliamentary reforms that would mainly have benefited neither the Ascendancy nor their disenfranchised Catholic gentry rivals, but rather their clients—nonelite Protestants. Accordingly, in 1784 Ascendancy leaders took steps to put a stop to political advocacy by the Volunteers.

Even this suppression of Volunteer meetings, however, did not resolve all problems over the social boundaries of the polity. During the mid-1780s in the County Armagh linen country, young Protestant males, most of whom were probably too poor to have been considered fit material for the Volunteers, began attacking Catholic homes. Angered by reports of Catholics being admitted to Volunteer units, they implicitly claimed membership in the polity by asserting that they were enforcing the penal laws against possession of arms by Catholics. Catholic "Defenders" responded to the sectarian aggression of these "Peep o' Day Boys," and in counties south and west of Armagh growing sectarian threats prompted the spread of a network of Defender cells on the model of agrarian secret societies.

Other types of politically charged ritual existed alongside the "patriotic" performance of the Volunteers. The Whiteboys and other agrarian combinations practiced "communitarian" rituals whose purposes were to enforce communal solidarity upon fellow peasants in a given locality and to remind the elite of their duties of reciprocity toward their dependents. So long as the moral economy was intact, communitarian ritual tacitly supported the patron-client political culture. Two other species of ritual, however, challenged that culture. Freemasonry, whose lodges were multiplying in the last third of the century, practiced "enlightenment" rituals that anticipated the replacement of birth by merit and tradition by reason in political culture; its adherents envisaged something like modern civil society as an alternative to the patron-client culture. A fourth variety of political ritual was associated with the rapidly growing conservative Presbyterian sects in rural Ulster that harked back to the theocratic political order advocated by the Scottish Covenanters. In revisions and renewals of seventeenth-century covenants and in open-air festal communions, "theocratic" ritual celebrated an alternative system of governance by neither the well-born nor the enlightened, but by the godly. They shared with Freemasonry a suspicion of the existing political order, but while the former looked to the past for an alternative, the latter looked forward.

Thus by the late 1780s the theatrical character of the Irish state was abundantly manifest. It was members of the polity who, by sponsoring patriotic ritual on a grand scale, had initiated an era of performance politics on the national level. Those excluded from the polity, however, had rich repertoires of ritual to contribute to the spectacle that was the theater state.

Why the Irish Polity Failed

The French Revolution, which began in 1789, would profoundly change the situation. Northern Presbyterians, who had sympathized with the American rebels (many of them their own kinsmen) a decade earlier, tended to welcome the news from France. By 1791 the local Volunteer units were being revived, and celebrations of anniversaries of the fall of the Bastille were initiated. In that same year a group of Belfast radicals organized the Society of United Irishmen, in conscious imitation of the Masonic lodges, to advocate reform of the system of representation and equality of rights for members of all religious persuasions.

The government was increasingly alarmed at the course of the revolution and in 1793 joined other European powers in a war against France. In this situation the government was especially concerned both with placating Catholics in Ireland, whose leaders were vigorously lobbying for concessions, and with maximizing the Irish contribution to defense. Under government pressure, in 1793 the Irish parliament granted Catholics the right to vote and established a new militia that would conscript by lot from all religions. These measures stopped short of full admission of Catholics to the polity: Catholics were still prohibited from sitting in Parliament. However, the grant of both the franchise and the right to bear arms certainly blurred the sharp line that had hitherto excluded them. Perhaps surprisingly, there was widespread violent resistance by Catholic peasants, often within the organizational framework of the Defenders, to conscription for the militia. It has been powerfully argued (Bartlett 1983) that these disturbances marked a decisive end to the moral economy that had tempered earlier peasant disturbances but that had been under stress in recent decades as landlords increasingly privileged market forces over paternalistic considerations.

The end of the moral economy facilitated a profound reconfiguration of ritual systems. Communitarian ritual in its current manifestation—Defenderism—no longer supported the patron-client culture. Older histories represent the politically sophisticated United Irishmen as manipulating the backwoods Defenders, but recent students have seen the latter as much more politicized and proactive. In any event, the enlightenment repertoire of United Irish ritual and the communitarian repertoire of Defender performance tended to merge during the mid-1790s. Efforts in Belfast to revive the Volunteers for a radical agenda, plus the manifest lack of enthusiasm on the part of Catholics for the role of defending the polity in the new militia, prompted some Ascendancy leaders to sponsor new institutions as bearers of the patriotic ritual tradition. Reaffirmation of the patron-client culture and defense of the polity were entrusted to the Loyal Orange Order (established in 1795) and a yeomanry force of cavalry (set up in 1796) completely separate from the new militia. These developments reflected Ascendancy recognition that their reliable clientage now extended no further than the non-radical subset of nonelite Protestants—essentially Anglican tenants.

In the mounting excitement from 1795 to 1798 the principal form of political ritual was oath-taking. Solemn oaths of secrecy and obedience were central to both the United Irish and the Defender projects, and the government's principal legal weapon against them was a provision of the Insurrection Act of 1796 making the administration of such oaths a capital felony. Conversely, magistrates often offered suspects the opportunity to clear their names by taking the official oath of allegiance, which radicals might scruple to take on the grounds that it constituted acceptance of recent repressive legislation. As performance politics, swearing had an improvisational character. Local United Irish societies might devise variations upon the oath prescribed by their national convention, and local magistrates might recast official oaths either to create snares for tender consciences or to remove them, as suited the occasion. This orgy of reliance upon and fascination with oaths was symptomatic of the rupture of whatever social bonds had earlier existed; the prospect of divine retribution had to be invoked where human trust was lacking.

These changes in the structure and content of ritual performance were portents of the end of the Irish theater state. Whatever social cohesion had been generated by the patron-client political culture (beyond cohesion among Anglicans) had now been shattered. Performance politics had called into question all the social assumptions upon which rested such authority as the polity enjoyed, and it was reduced to its final resource: naked coercion. In the spring following the December 1796 attempt of the French fleet to land an expeditionary force in Bantry Bay (thwarted only by weather), government and Ascendancy forces carried out a systematic campaign to disarm the countryside of Ulster, which was perceived to be the most disaffected province. Routinely employing public torture, this campaign was typical of the terroristic methods to which weak regimes resort when they know they have lost all popular claim to authority.

Despite disappointment of their hopes for another French expedition and penetration of their organization by government spies, United Irish leaders initiated a rebellion in May 1798. Hostilities were concentrated mainly in three theaters. In the southeast, especially County Wexford, rebels enjoyed the able leadership of a number of liberal Protestant and Catholic gentry, who were, however, unable to prevent some sectarian atrocities against Protestant loyalists. It was in this region that the rebels made their most impressive stand against the Crown forces. In the northeast, rebels had a few minor victories before being soundly defeated. Their cause no doubt suffered from the effects of the terror campaign of the previous years, from hardheaded calculation on the part of the Belfast elite that the cause was now hopeless, and from the reports of atrocities from Wexford. On the other hand, rebel numbers were probably augmented somewhat by the tendency of some rural Presbyterians to rely more on millenarian hopes than on hardheaded calculation. Finally, after both the southeastern and northeastern rebellions had been suppressed, the French landed forces near Killala, County Mayo. Together with forces raised locally, the French conducted a two-week campaign before the Crown forces engaged and defeated them at Ballinamuck in early September.

Although policymakers in London no doubt breathed a sigh of relief at the defeat of the rebels, they gave scant credit to the Ascendancy. The Irish polity had manifestly failed, and the government decided that it should be replaced by a different polity. In particular, it proposed an Act of Union providing for a single parliament for the entire British Isles in which Irish Protestant landlords—or Irishmen of any description—would never constitute a majority. The idea was attractive to prominent Catholics, who were quietly promised that once the union was implemented, Catholic Emancipation (i.e., legislation to allow Catholics to sit in the new parliament) would be introduced. Many members of the Ascendancy, however, were bitterly hostile to the union, and they mobilized their sole remaining reliable clients, the Orangemen, in opposition to it—a special irony from the perspective of later generations, when the Orange Order was the union's staunchest defender.

Two separate parliamentary sessions—1799 and 1800—were required to secure passage of the act by the Irish parliament. The government succeeded only through a massive distribution of patronage to Protestant politicians. On 1 January 1801 a new polity—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland—came into existence. One immediate result was a measure of parliamentary reform comparable to that sought by the United Irishmen, for many of the least democratic boroughs represented in the Irish House of Commons were not given seats in the united parliament. The other principal demand of the United Irishmen did not fare so well; early in 1801 George III, who had not been apprised of the plan to introduce Catholic Emancipation, angrily refused to assent to such legislation. Prime Minister Pitt resigned, and the issue remained unresolved for nearly three decades, a delay that contributed significantly to the eventual failure of the new polity.

SEE ALSO Act of Union; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1690 to 1714—Revolution Settlement; 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; Government from 1690 to 1800; Penal Laws; Protestant Ascendancy: 1690 to 1800; Primary Documents: An Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704); The Declaratory Act (1720); The Catholic Relief Act (1778); The Catholic Relief Act (1782); Yelverton's Act (1782); The Renunciation Act (1783); The Catholic Relief Act (1793)


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