In July 1690 a 36,000-strong Protestant force led by William of Orange defeated a smaller Catholic force at the Battle of the Boyne, near the eastern city of Drogheda. Twelve months later Protestant forces were again victorious over the Catholic Jacobites at Aughrim, County Galway, on the other side of Ireland. These victories spelled the end of Jacobite resistance and the beginning of the so-called Protestant Ascendancy. Catholic aristocrats were stripped of their estates; by the mid-1700s more than nine-tenths of all land in Ireland was owned and controlled by Protestants. The passing of the Penal Laws in the late 17th and 18th centuries discriminated against Catholics in religion, education and, most importantly, politics. Catholics, and indeed other non-Protestant religions, were excluded from voting and political participation. By the middle of the 1700s Britain had established control over Ireland and Anglo-Irish landowners filled the benches of the Irish parliament. Since Britain was a significant imperial power, with the world’s largest military and naval force at its disposal, Irish Catholics could do little to resist this ascendancy.
The last quarter of the 1700s produced a transformation in Irish society and politics. Some of this stemmed from political changes outside Ireland and a softening of English attitudes towards Catholicism. In the 1770s Anglo-Irish politicians, inspired by ideas of liberty and equality, began to wind back (though not completely abolish) the Penal Laws. Irish Catholics were allowed some property rights and political participation. By the 1790s Catholics could buy and own land, study at Trinity College in Dublin, practice as lawyers and vote in elections if they owned property. The 1790s also saw the formation and development of an indigenous Nationalist movement in Ireland. The late 18th century was marked by successful revolutions in France and the United States, sending ideas of liberty, equality and self government echoing around the globe. These events inspired many Irishmen to form their own movement for independence: if the French and Americans could overthrow repressive monarchies and establish their own governments, could not the Irish do the same?
Inspired by these revolutions, Irish Nationalists launched several uprisings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The most significant was a 1798 rebellion aimed at freeing Ireland from British rule. Its leader, Wolfe Tone, was a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen, one of the first significant Nationalist groups. Wolfe Tone himself was in communication with French revolutionaries, something that aggravated the British government, which had declared war on France in 1793. Fearful that the French revolutionary government might use nearby Ireland to stage an invasion of Britain, London banned the Society of United Irishmen in May 1794. But the society continued illegally and later encouraged a French naval landing on Irish soil. The British, their suspicions of a French-Irish Nationalist alliance confirmed, brutally suppressed the United Irishmen and encouraged Loyalist Protestant groups like the Orange Order to harass its members. Wolfe Tone and the Society initiated their anti-British rebellion in May 1798 and enjoyed some initial success – however by August the rebels had been crushed at Vinegar Hill and the leaders of the rebellion were arrested and executed or driven into hiding. Wolfe Tone was captured in October, put on trial in Dublin and sentenced to death; he committed suicide while awaiting execution.
These failures showed Irish radicals that armed rebellion against the British was unlikely to succeed: they needed to find another path to freedom. The British meanwhile were fearful that political instability and rising nationalism might lead to a Catholic-dominated Irish parliament, or even Irish independence. In 1800 London took action, passing the Act of Union. This legislation abolished the Irish parliament and absorbed Ireland into the United Kingdom, effectively ending Irish autonomy. The British promised to Irish Catholics full emancipation and voting rights, however it took almost 30 years for this promise to be fulfilled. The Act of Union fuelled a rise in Irish nationalism and triggered a campaign for Catholic emancipation, led by Daniel O’Connell. Emancipation was finally legislated in 1829, permitting Irish Catholics to stand for political and public office. This opened the way for Irish Nationalists to stand for seats in the British parliament and push for Home Rule in Ireland. These ‘Parliamentary Nationalists’ believed in a political path to freedom; they looked to give Ireland a say in its own destiny through political pressure and reform.
Alan O’Day, historian
The mid 1800s saw Irish Nationalist groups organise and take shape. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was formed in 1858. As well as demanding the repeal of the Act of Union and the restoration of Irish self government, the IRB also raised awareness and relief for impoverished Irish Catholics. One of the IRB’s more successful programs was the establishment of a Land League, to assist famers in danger of eviction from unjust landowners. In the 1870s several political groups were formed to advance the case for Home Rule. One of these was the Irish Nationalist Party, which in 1882 became the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). By 1885 the IPP had 85 members sitting in the British parliament at Westminster. The IPP proposed the first two Home Rule Bill in 1886 and 1893; both bills were defeated, however the Nationalists were now a political force worthy of British notice, their very presence a sign of widespread public support for Irish independence. The Nationalist landscape changed further in 1905 with the formation of Sinn Fein (‘We Ourselves’). Sinn Fein was founded by Arthur Griffith, a Dublin-born journalist and IRB member. Griffith was fervently anti-British, a position intensified by his experiences of British imperialism in South Africa during the Boer War. He criticised the IPP and its members in the British parliament, arguing that the best path to Irish independence was revolution rather than reform. Griffith declared the Act of Union to be illegal. He called for Irish MPs to withdraw from Westminster and establish their own parliament in Ireland. British rule, he argued, should simply be ignored. However in its first decade Griffith’s party was too small to exert much influence and unable to attract much public support. Sinn Fein would remain a fringe group until the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising.
The situation altered again in May 1914 when the British Parliament passed the third Home Rule Act, also known as the Government of Ireland Act. The passing of this legislation heralded the success of the Home Rule movement, however it did not please everyone in Ireland. The first attempt to pass Home Rule in 1886 gave rise to the Irish Unionist Party, a coalition of Protestant Anglo-Irish and British conservatives who opposed the reintroduction of Irish self government. Most anti-Home Rule sentiment was located in the six north-eastern counties of Ulster (modern-day Northern Ireland). By 1905 this movement had solidified into the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). The UUP threatened to take up arms against Nationalists if Home Rule was to pass. By 1912, when victory for the Home Rule Bill seemed assured, radical Loyalists formed a private army called the Ulster Volunteers. Members of Nationalist groups like Sinn Fein and the IRB responded by forming their own paramilitary, the Irish Volunteers. With these two paramilitaries committed to either defending or destroying Home Rule, it seemed that Ireland might soon collapse into a state of civil war. This prospect was delayed, though not averted, by the August 1914 declaration of World War I.
1. The English domination of Ireland began in the late 1600s with a Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne.
2. Irish Nationalism began to emerge in the late 1700s, inspired by successful revolutions in America and France.
3. Following the failed Wolfe Tone rebellion, England extended its control over Ireland with the 1800 Act of Union.
4. Ireland’s Catholics were later granted political rights but remained marginalised, exploited and impoverished.
5. Irish Nationalists and Republicans began to organise and mobilise in the mid-1800s, gaining seats in the British parliament and pushing for Home Rule, or Irish self government. Home Rule was opposed by Protestants in the north-east, who formed Unionist political parties and paramilitaries to fight against it.
This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “Anglo-Irish relations 1690-1914”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/northernireland/anglo-irish-relations-1690-1914/