Protestant Ascendancy: 1690 to 1800

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Protestant Ascendancy: 1690 to 1800

The anglophone landed elite, whose command of the political, economic, and social structures of Ireland was at its most complete in the period between the defeat in 1690 to 1691 of the Jacobite armies and the enactment of an Anglo-Irish union in 1800, is familiarly known as the Protestant Ascendancy. Significantly, this term was neither coined nor popularized until the late eighteenth century, when conservative elements within the elite, perceiving that it was at risk, rallied to defend the "Protestant constitution" in the face of external threat. As it was famously defined by Dublin Corporation in 1792, Protestant Ascendancy encompassed "a Protestant king of Ireland—a Protestant parliament—a Protestant hierarchy—Protestant electors and government—the bench of justice—the army and the revenue—through all their branches and details Protestant." Though ostensibly just a list of those elements of church and state that Protestant ideologues were determined to preserve unaltered, it reflected the actuality of the command that Protestants enjoyed of the levers of power from the mid-seventeenth century.

The emerging Protestant elite was well placed to consolidate its dominant position in the kingdom of Ireland when, following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II confirmed them in possession of three-quarters of the land and acknowledged the Church of Ireland as the established church. Yet the fact that they chose to describe themselves variously as the "Protestant interest" or "the English interest" provides a reliable pointer to their imperfectly developed sense of identity. They were, for a ruling elite, also surprisingly lacking in confidence, arising out of the conviction, annually reinforced by ceremonies recalling the "massacres" perpetrated during the early phases of the 1641 Rebellion, that the Catholic population was committed to their extirpation. Their unease was heightened during the late 1680s when, in the course of James II's unsuccessful attempt to use Ireland as a base from which to regain the throne, it seemed not just that the Catholic Church would be elevated to a position above that of the Church of Ireland but that Irish Protestants would be obliged to forfeit the lands that they currently occupied. As a result, they determined, having overcome this challenge, to take the measures necessary to protect themselves in the future. To this end they oversaw the introduction of a body of anti-Catholic legislation commonly known as the penal laws. Parallel with this, the command that the Protestant elite already possessed over the wealth of the country was increased as a result of the Williamite land settlement, which ensured the transfer of a further 14 percent of the land from Catholic to Protestant ownership.

In an environment where Irish Protestants were genuinely fearful of the Jacobitism and Catholicism of the population at large, the maintenance of a secure connection with England was of obvious importance. At the same time, Irish Protestants remained convinced that as the "English in Ireland" they were entitled to the same rights and privileges as Englishmen. To this end they repeatedly asserted the right of the Irish parliament to possess greater powers than the government in London was willing to concede. Despite this refusal to admit the Irish Protestants' constitutional claims, the centrality of the ascendancy to the effective rule of Ireland was confirmed by the English government's growing reliance on certain Irish Protestant leaders ("undertakers") to manage the Irish parliament.

The confidence that Irish Protestants vested in their legislature was augmented from the 1720s by the reinforcement of the culture of improvement already established among the elite. This was given institutional expression by the foundation of the Dublin Society in 1731. The mid-eighteenth century witnessed a striking acceleration in the range and variety of schemes and initiatives that were pursued both to increase the generation of wealth and to model the Irish landscape to reflect a familiar anglicized ideal. The construction of villages and towns, the development of the main cities, and the laying out of elegant demesnes created an appropriate milieu for the scores of Palladian and neoclassical houses that came to occupy the remodeled urban and rural landscape. As all this activity suggests, the Anglo-Irish elite were the arbiters of taste as well as the patrons of the architects, artists, book binders, silversmiths, mapmakers, tailors, and others whose handiwork has proved so influential in shaping the prevailing positive impression of the Georgian era. In practice, most of what was achieved was provincial in scale as well as standard, but this must not obscure the fact that the Anglo-Irish elite constituted Ireland's equivalent of an ancien régime aristocracy. The enthusiasm that they showed for dueling, that emblem of aristocratic exceptionalism throughout Europe, is merely the most obvious manifestation, but it is also exemplified in the general embrace of the ideals of civic virtue and, in the political sphere, of patriotism.

The Patriots' belief in the virtue of self-government climaxed during the late 1770s and early 1780s, when the Irish parliament secured the right to free trade within the empire (1780) and the right to make law untrammeled by restriction (1782). The late-eighteenth-century Irish parliament was legislatively active, but the atavistic incapacity of a majority of the Irish Protestant elite to perceive how they could possibly broaden the parameters of their constitution to admit Catholics caused many of their number to seek security in the rhetoric of Protestant Ascendancy from the mid-1780s. The popularity of this ideology, misleadingly attributed to mercantile and urban interests by William J. McCormack, extended across the Protestant elite. It was tangibly increased in the 1790s by the admission of Catholics to the franchise as well as by the emergence of republican separatism with the United Irishmen. Faced with the implications of redefining their constitution and identity to accommodate Catholics and with the threat of separation from Great Britain, many Irish Protestants found the rhetoric of continued Protestant Ascendancy more compelling. They found it more acceptable indeed to accede to the abolition of the Irish parliament, even though this body had been critical to their capacity to express their vision for Ireland when their influence was at its greatest during the mid-eighteenth century. The enactment of an Anglo-Irish union whereby, from 1 January 1801, Ireland sent one hundred MPs to the newly formed imperial parliament at Westminster paradoxically represented a milestone in the decline of the Protestant Ascendancy as a historical phenomenon.

SEE ALSO Church of Ireland: Since 1690; 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; Penal Laws; Politics: 1690 to 1800—A Protestant Kingdom; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Religion: Since 1690


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James Kelly

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Protestant Ascendancy: 1690 to 1800

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