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Restoration Ireland

Restoration Ireland

The Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649–1653) had resulted in massive transfers of land, but not commensurate immigration, and in the months preceding the restoration of Charles II in May 1660, the established settlers, who had been the principal beneficiaries of the recent confiscation of Catholic estates, asserted themselves to seize the political initiative. Their desire for the return of monarchy was sincere, but it was qualified by their determination to preserve the land settlement and to defend it by excluding Catholics from political power. Catholics in Ireland sought the overthrow of the settlement and the benefits of the Ormond peace of 1649, which had granted to individual Catholics the free exercise of their religion and made them eligible for appointment to public office. Although Charles was conscious of an obligation to Catholics who had been loyal to his father, he was mindful that his political circumstances did not allow him to favor Catholics over Protestants. The Act of Settlement (1662) incorporated a compromise that aimed to restore their estates to those Catholics who established their innocence of involvement in the rebellion of 1641 before a court of claims and to compensate (or "reprise") their Protestant successors with grants of reserve lands that had not been distributed in the 1650s. The impracticality of this scheme was revealed when the success rate of the first batch of Catholic claimants proved so unexpectedly high as to exceed the reserve lands available. The court was abruptly adjourned, leaving thousands of claims unheard. An alternative approach was adopted in an Act of Explanation (1665), which required grantees to each relinquish one-third of their land to provide sufficient land reserves to make room for the reinstatement not only of those dispossessed Catholics who had received decrees of innocence from the court of claims,but also for new land grants for a number of prominent Catholics nominated by the king. This act made no provision for further hearings of claims of innocence—when a new court of claims opened to administer the act in 1666, its operating principle was that those who had not already been declared innocent were irredeemably guilty. The result was the permanent disinheritance of those Catholics who had not already benefited. When the court concluded its business in 1669, the proportion of land owned by Catholics, which had fallen from 60 percent in 1640 to about 10 percent in 1660, stood at 22 percent (Simms 1956, p. 195).

Charles's own priority in 1660 was the restoration of the Church of Ireland, and this was accomplished expeditiously through a complete set of appointments to vacant bishoprics and the passage of a new Act of Uniformity (1666). Those who hoped for a policy of accommodation with the Presbyterian community were disappointed. A three-tier system emerged in which only members of the Protestant Established Church, who constituted perhaps 40 percent of the Protestant community, enjoyed full privileges. Presbyterians, who accounted for about one-third of Irish Protestants and whose numbers increased steadily with continued migration from Scotland to Ulster, were subject to religious and civil disabilities, as were other Protestant dissenters. In practice, they were allowed to worship freely, but their marriages and the legitimacy of their children were not recognized and their conscientious refusal to take an oath acknowledging the king as the supreme governor of the church excluded them from appointment to public office. Catholics, who amounted to some three-quarters of the population, were tolerated at the Crown's discretion. Though there were instances of Catholic persecution, and a sustained period of repression during the "Popish Plot" crisis in England (1678–1681), in general Charles's tolerant inclinations and his devious foreign policy combined to favor freedom of worship, and the reconstruction of both the regular and secular components of the Catholic Church proceeded without official opposition.

At the insistence of Protestants in Ireland, who recognized that the preservation of the land settlement depended upon the retention of political power, Catholics ceased to be admitted to membership in the Irish parliament. The right to vote was not withheld, but Catholic voting strength was greatly reduced by the loss of property and by a related shift of control in the towns, which had become Protestant enclaves. The complementary mainstay of the settlement was the control of military force. The standing army, at between 5,000 and 7,000 men, was twice as large as the prewar army and was deployed widely in small garrisons as an internal security force. At first undenominationally Protestant, and a source of official anxiety because many of the soldiers had served in Cromwellian armies, the introduction of obligatory attendance at divine service converted it gradually into a predominantly Anglican force. It was supplemented by local militia forces that were organized on a county basis and attracted a degree of participation that indicated both the priority that Protestant proprietors attached to defense and their unwillingness to leave the entire responsibility for it in the hands of the central authority.

The restoration arrangements rested upon force, and the main routine business of government was to find the money to pay for the security that the system required. After initial problems of adjustment this did not prove difficult. The prewar regime, which had relied on archaic feudal taxes for its ordinary revenue, had been dominated by financial problems. The restored government drew its revenue principally from a hearth tax, customs duties, and the introduction of internal excise duties. These were largely consumer taxes, and the effect was to redistribute the costs of government from the property-holding classes to the community at large. The policy was both politically shrewd and fiscally successful. The period proved to be one of fairly constant economic expansion, revenue was buoyant, the expense of the military was easily borne, and the government was absolved from the need to summon Parliament again after its dissolution in 1666. Economic growth suffered an apparent and deeply resented setback in 1667 when the export of Irish cattle, sheep, and pork to England and Scotland was prohibited, but in reality the diversification of Irish pastoral exports was already under way and proved more profitable than the traditional supply of store cattle to the English market. Wool exports to England increased, exports to the French market expanded, and the provision trade with the transatlantic colonies was developed. The profits of expanding trade were closely associated with landownership, either directly through large-scale production for export markets or indirectly through increased rents, which meant that the Protestant community enjoyed a disproportionate benefit, all the more so because international trade was largely in Protestant hands. Nonetheless, vigorous population growth suggests that there was some trickle-down effect. Prosperity underpinned government by providing the revenue that supported the army that upheld the established order.

An important element of the new order was novel. Faced with the imperialist claims of the English Parliament in the 1640s, both Protestants and Catholics had protested that Ireland was a separate kingdom under the same crown and was not subject to the authority of the English legislature. They had not changed their minds by 1660, but Protestants were reluctant to offend Parliament and embarrass Charles by pressing the point. They raised no objection to English acts regulating Irish trade and disposing of Irish land, and their silence condoned a significant change in the legal relationship of the two kingdoms.

Outwardly, Restoration Ireland witnessed a remarkable recovery from the disruptions brought about by war and political uncertainty. By Charles's death in 1685, the government was solvent and stable, the established church was firmly in place, the land settlement and its associated social order had been maintained, trade was flourishing, and the population was growing. All of this was secured by a Protestant monopoly of administrative and political power, the protection of a large military force, and the support of the English government. The structure, however, was under a variety of strains. The most obtrusive was the discontent of those who had been deprived of land, office, and influence, most particularly the members of the Old English community. The defenses against disaffection were elaborate, but they depended ultimately on what had come to be recognized as the vital stress point—the reliability of English support. Since the early 1670s, when the conversion to Catholicism of James, Charles's brother and heir, had become public knowledge, the prospect of his succession had been a destabilizing influence in Ireland. From their different perspectives, all parties feared or hoped that the accession of a Catholic monarch would make the Protestant monopoly of power unsustainable and open the way to a sympathetic reconsideration of the inequities of the land settlement of the 1660s. As a result, the second half of Charles's reign was not the period of consolidation that it seemed to be on the surface, but a period of marking time until his death inexorably reopened the fundamental issues of land and religion that divided the communities of Ireland.

SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1500 to 1690; Boyle, Robert; Butler, James, Twelfth Earl and First Duke of Ormond; Petty, Sir William; Plunkett, Oliver; Puritan Sectaries; Smith, Erasmus


Arnold, Lawrence J. "The Irish Court of Claims of 1663." Irish Historical Studies 24 (November 1985): 417–430.

Arnold, Lawrence J. The Restoration Land Settlement in County Dublin, 1660–1688. 1993.

Barnard, Toby C. "New Opportunities for British Settlement: Ireland, 1650–1700." In The Origins of Empire, edited by Nicholas Canny. 1998.

Clarke, Aidan. Prelude to Restoration in Ireland: The End of the Commonwealth, 1659–1660. 1999.

Connolly, Sean. Religion, Law and Power: The Making of Protestant Ireland, 1660–1760. 1992.

Gillespie, Raymond. The Transformation of the Irish Economy, 1550–1700. 1991.

Moody, T. W., F. X. Martin, and F. J. Byrne, eds. Early Modern Ireland, 1534–1691. Vol. 3 of A New History of Ireland. 1976. Reprint, 1991.

Simms, J. G. The Williamite Confiscation in Ireland, 1690–1703. 1956.

Aidan Clarke

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