Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930

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Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930

During the course of the nineteenth century the term ascendancy—whether Protestant or Anglo-Irish—gradually shed its earlier connotations of a political condition reflecting Protestant hegemony and came to be applied almost exclusively to the Protestant landed class, ignoring those in other walks of life. The landed class (comprising up to ten thousand families in the mid-nineteenth century) was itself far from homogeneous; the estates of most landlords could be measured in hundreds rather than thousands of acres, but a few hundred landlords owned over ten thousand acres each. Recent scholarship has tended to qualify the stereotypical nationalist depiction of the rack-renting landlord, and casts doubt on the view that Catholic landlords, whose numbers were increasing in the postfamine era, were in general more sympathetic toward their tenants.

The Act of Union of 1800 weakened the Ascendancy by removing a parliament that they had been able to monopolize, and which had served to enhance their Irish credentials. A further blow came with the granting of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, which allowed Catholics to sit in Parliament, but until the 1880s the very limited franchise meant that the bulk of Irish seats were still filled by propertied Protestants. Of greater immediate consequence for the Protestant community was the passing of the Irish Municipal Corporations Act of 1840, which abolished the bulk of the urban corporations—town governments created by the Crown. Despite being legally open to Catholics since 1793, their composition had remained almost exclusively Protestant. A uniform £10 household vote was introduced for the remainder. The act facilitated the transfer of control of the surviving corporations (except in Ulster) from Protestants to Catholics. Together with the legacy of the 1798 rebellion and a postwar agricultural slump, it prompted emigration among middle-class and poorer Protestants. It has been estimated that up to half a million Protestants left Ireland during the first half of the nineteenth century. In Ulster, Protestant numbers were sufficiently high to enable such losses to be absorbed without much effect on the social structure. Elsewhere, the middle-class hemorrhage left the landed class dangerously exposed. Overall, the Protestant proportion of the population dropped from well over one-quarter in the eighteenth century to little over one-fifth by 1861, and in the three southern provinces the proportion was only about 10 percent (Vaughan and Fitzpatrick 1978).

In 1869 the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland removed a serious grievance of Catholics and (some) Presbyterians, but after the initial shock, it had an invigorating effect. Church members took advantage of the financial arrangements for compensation to secure the church's future, and it was to remain an important and influential institution, particularly for southern Protestants, four-fifths of whom were members. At this time Protestant landlords still enjoyed dominance in rural local government through the grand-jury system and boards of poor-law guardians. However, the advent of competitive examinations for the civil service in the 1850s, together with the establishment of the Queen's Colleges, gradually improved the prospects of Catholics for state employment.

The cause of land reform first made significant headway in the aftermath of the Great Famine, which had highlighted the lack of security of tenure for tenants. A limited land act was passed in 1870. Subsequently, a run of poor harvests created serious hardship for small tenant farmers in the west of Ireland and led to the formation in 1879 of the Irish National Land League, which pledged to resist rack rents and landlordism, an institution portrayed as anti-Irish. The ensuing land-reform agitation, which continued intermittently until the 1920s, witnessed rent strikes and other tactics designed to weaken landlord control, and prompted a series of measures from government (in 1881, 1885, 1891, 1903, and 1909) that facilitated the purchase by tenants of their holdings, a process that was still not fully complete by 1921. The Local Government Act of 1898, substituting elected county councils for Protestant-controlled grand juries and extending the vote in local government elections, further marginalized the Ascendancy.

The land issue helped to drive the Ascendancy toward the Conservative Party, and this was reinforced when the advent of an effective Irish Nationalist Party at Westminster in the 1880s prompted successive Liberal governments to back Home Rule. Protestants in the three southern provinces were the first to mobilize in defense of the Union, but the extension of the vote in 1884 to all male householders enabled Nationalists, with the backing of many of the Catholic clergy, to win 85 percent of the Irish seats in Parliament. Only in Ulster could Unionists win significant electoral support. Their support for the Union, predicated on the assumption that "Home Rule was Rome Rule," was reinforced by economic considerations, especially trade with Britain and the empire; the industrialization of linen manufacture and the rise of the shipyards had contributed to the spectacular growth of Belfast's population from about 25,000 in 1800 to 350,000 in 1901, of whom three-quarters were Protestants (Vaughn and Fitzpatrick 1978). With a Home Rule measure due to come into effect after World War I, the decision of Ulster Unionists to accept partition for six of the nine counties in the historic province (embodied in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921) had the effect of leaving Protestants in the twenty-six counties resentful and largely leaderless.

Although the territorial and political powers of the Ascendancy had been greatly reduced even before the revolutionary period (1919–1923), Protestants were not exempt from the troubles of those years. Many suffered intimidation and even murder; their houses often were raided for arms, and some were burned. Some Protestant businesses were boycotted. The Gaelic and Catholic ethos of the Irish Free State was uncongenial to most Protestants, and all this tended to deter them from participating fully in public life, though the Senate afforded some opportunities for Protestant representation in the Oireachtas (legislature). The transition to independence in the south led to a marked exodus of Protestant residents (not only British army personnel), some of whom moved to Northern Ireland, increasing the concentration of Protestants there. The Protestant population of the Free State dropped from 10 percent in 1911 to 7 percent in 1926, with the greatest losses occurring in areas where their numbers had been fewest (Vaughn and Fitzpatrick 1978). However, their small numbers, generally comfortable circumstances, and the partial earlier transfer of land ownership to tenants helped somewhat to protect southern Protestants in the new state, and for some time to come they were regarded by the Catholic majority with a mixture of deference, resentment, and envy.

SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1690 to 1845; Agriculture: 1845 to 1921; Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921; Catholic Emancipation Campaign; Church of Ireland: Since 1690; Electoral Politics from 1800 to 1921; Famine Clearances; Great Famine; Great War; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1870 to 1891; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1891 to 1918; Hyde, Douglas; Irish Tithe Act of 1838; Land Acts of 1870 and 1881; Land Purchase Acts of 1903 and 1909; Land Questions; Land War of 1879 to 1882; Local Government since 1800; Parnell, Charles Stewart; Plan of Campaign; Plunkett, Sir Horace Curzon; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; Protestant Ascendancy: 1690 to 1800; Protestant Community in Southern Ireland since 1922; Struggle for Independence from 1916 to 1921; Tenant Right, or Ulster Custom; Tithe War (1830–1838); Unionism from 1885 to 1922; United Irish League Campaigns; Primary Documents: Irish Act of Union (1 August 1800)


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Jacqueline Hill

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Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930

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