Repeal Movement

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Repeal Movement

Many Irish people, including Daniel O'Connell, opposed the Act of Union (1800) from its inception, but it was not until the late 1830s that nationalists began an organized campaign to bring about its repeal and to develop a form of self-government for Ireland. O'Connell launched the Precursor Society of Ireland in 1838 as a preliminary to forming the Loyal National Repeal Association in July 1840. By 1843 this organization, whose general structure resembled that of the Catholic Association of the 1820s, had drawn thousands into its ranks and had become the vehicle for mass agitation on an unprecedented scale.

The repeal movement differed from the campaign for Catholic emancipation in a number of ways. First, the Repeal Association brought political organization to a new level of sophistication. It boasted a permanent staff of nearly sixty people who formed departments and committees that specialized in particular issues and activities; it featured a three-tiered membership, each with its own identification card and annual dues; it operated at the parish level through "repeal wardens" who were in regular contact with the central organization and who supervised repeal reading rooms and collected the "repeal rent." The latter, a national fundraising scheme, was crucial to the functioning of the organization; in 1843 and 1844 alone it brought in £92,590 (this compared with around £55,000 collected for the "Catholic rent" between 1826 and 1829). Second, O'Connellites were more skilled in politics by the 1840s than they had been in the 1820s. The campaigns for Catholic emancipation, tithe reform, tenant right, and other issues had turned countless numbers of them into experienced activists and politicians. As well, the Municipal Corporations Act of 1840 created Catholic-nationalist majorities on the town councils and corporations of more than a half-dozen large municipalities. Third, it was easier to mobilize the Catholic population in the 1840s than it had been two decades earlier. Thanks to a slow but steady growth in literacy and an expanded nationalist press—by 1843 the Young Ireland weekly, the Nation, enjoyed the largest circulation of any newspaper in the country—repeal supporters were better informed about national issues and could be reached more easily. Father Theobald Mathew's temperance crusade in the early 1840s had produced a more sober population and, through its mass assemblies, showed the enthusiasm that immense public gatherings could generate. Finally, a substantial majority of the Catholic hierarchy endorsed the repeal movement, as did most ordinary parish priests, many of whom became the key organizers in their parishes. "Do nothing without the clergy," was the advice that O'Connell gave to his colleagues in the field.

Monster Meetings

When a Tory government took office in 1841, the prospects of gaining repeal solely through Parliament appeared to fade. O'Connell believed that some sort of extraparliamentary pressure was needed and, with the conclusion of his term as lord mayor of Dublin in late 1842, he and his aides focused their attentions on obtaining repeal. The plan they developed involved the staging of a series of large open-air meetings in the three southern provinces (O'Connellite support was weakest in Ulster) that would attract as many people as possible. As O'Connell put it, the purpose of these "monster meetings" was not to convince Irish nationalists of the need for repeal, "but to convince our enemies—to convince the British statesmen. . . . I want to make all Europe and America know it—I want to make England feel her weakness if she refuses to give the justice we require—the restoration of our domestic parliament."

During a six-month period in 1843—the "Repeal Year"—O'Connell and his followers organized more than thirty repeal gatherings. Some of the sites that they chose, such as the Hill of Tara (the seat of the ancient high kings of Ireland), Clontarf (where Brian Boru defeated a Danish army in 1014), and the Rath of Mullaghmast (where English soldiers slaughtered Irish leaders in 1577), were intended to evoke a sense of continuity with Ireland's past. Other meetings took place in the larger cities and provincial towns in order to blanket Leinster, Munster, and Connacht and thereby enable everyone in these areas to attend at least one of them. The number of people who did attend has always been a subject of debate. Nationalists naturally gave inflated estimates, invariably reporting crowds in the hundreds of thousands and, in the case of the Tara meeting, claiming that more than a million people attended. The government and the Tory press, by contrast, downplayed the size of the meetings. Precise figures are impossible to come by, but it is certain that the assemblies were huge by any standard. Even reducing nationalist figures by as much as 75 percent would mean that about one and a half million people—or approximately one-quarter of the total population of the three southern provinces—attended monster meetings in 1843. This in itself constituted an unparalleled achievement in political mobilization in Europe and North America. The meetings were spectacular events that commenced with massive processions that numbered in the thousands and that featured bands, elaborate banners, floats, and street theater. By including townsfolk and people from the surrounding countryside, the parades symbolized the way that the repeal movement had united the urban middle classes and small farmers. This was also apparent when the same crowds later gathered in a large open area to hear O'Connell and other dignitaries speak on the subject of repeal. There were additional speeches at an evening banquet, this time to a smaller, more select group of the local elite in a hotel or special pavilion.

The End of Repeal

Despite their color and excitement, the monster meetings failed in their objective. British opinion remained steadfastly opposed to granting self-government for Ireland in any form because it seemed to threaten the very existence of the United Kingdom and the empire. The government banned the monster meeting scheduled for Clontarf on 8 October 1843 and charged O'Connell and eight of his associates with conspiring to alter the government and constitution by unlawful means. After a lengthy trial they were found guilty, fined, and sent to Richmond prison for nine months to a year. An appeal to the House of Lords gained their early release in September 1844, after which O'Connell renewed the repeal campaign. He appeared at a few more monster meetings in the summer of 1845, but at age seventy his physical strength and mental powers were obviously waning. Leadership of the Repeal Association fell increasingly to his son John, whose tactlessness and arrogance alienated many nationalists.

Most important, rifts opened up in the repeal movement between the Young Irelanders and O'Connellites who proudly styled themselves as "Old Ireland." Their differences were generational and ideological, but they were fought out over specific issues such as the Queen's Colleges Bill of 1845. This measure, which established three colleges in Ireland, also placed restrictions on theological education and thereby appealed to Thomas Davis and other Young Irelanders who believed that it would promote an all-inclusive nationality. By contrast, O'Connell and his supporters condemned the "godless colleges." The split grew wider after Davis died in September 1845; it became irreparable a year later when the O'Connellites introduced resolutions calling upon all repealers to renounce the use of physical force as a means of obtaining Irish self-government. John Mitchel, William Smith O'Brien, and other Young Irelanders soon left the Repeal Association, and in January 1847 they formed a rival organization, the Irish Confederation. These events, coupled with the death of O'Connell in May, the devastation of the Great Famine, and the abortive Young Ireland rising of July 1848, effectively ended the repeal movement. Nevertheless, it established a potent legacy that found expression in the Home Rule movement of the late nineteenth century.

SEE ALSO Davis, Thomas; Electoral Politics from 1800 to 1921; Mitchel, John; Newspapers; O'Connell, Daniel; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; Primary Documents: On Repeal of the Act of Union at the "Monster Meeting" at Mullingar (14 May 1843)


Cronin, Maura. "'Of One Mind'? O'Connellite Crowds in the 1830s and 1840s." In Crowds in Ireland, c. 1720–1920, edited by Peter Jupp and Eoin Magennis. 2000.

MacDonagh, Oliver. O'Connell: The Life of Daniel O'Connell, 1775–1847. 1991.

Nowlan, K. B. The Politics of Repeal: A Study in the Relations between Great Britain and Ireland, 1841–50. 1965.

Owens, Gary. "Nationalism Without Words: Spectacle and Ritual in the Repeal 'Monster Meetings' of 1843–45." In Irish Popular Culture, 1650–1850, edited by James S. Donnelly, Jr., and Kerby Miller. 1998.

Gary Owens