Between 1801 when the act of Union was passed and in the 1840’s during the Great Famine Ireland played a focal part in British politics; although Ireland was definitely a significant part of British politics in this era, fundamentally is it an accurate conjecture to say that Ireland was a ‘pivotal issue’ in the nineteenth century. The question in which this essay deems to undertake upon itself to answer, is vital as it will provide an insight into the Irish problem, and an explanation into the reasons, how- in retrospect, it affects us today as a result of how it was dealt with (in a series of quick fixes which prolonged the problem. by Britain during the early to mid nineteenth century.
Before beginning this essay it is important to introduce some background history, about the roots of the Irish problem. The Irish problem, which had escalated significantly by the nineteenth century, had its roots about seven centuries previously in the twelfth century. When Robert Fitzstephen and Richard the second earl of Pembroke, (know as Strongbow) who first crossed to Ireland from England in 1169 and 1170, were Norman adventurers. They came to Ireland not for England’s interests but their own searching for land, power and wealth.
Such Normans integrated themselves into Gaelic society intermarrying with the Irish, adopting their language, customs and in essence became Irish too, for centuries afterwards. Henry II alarmed at Strongbows’ self- aggrandizement in Ireland visited the country to assert the feudal ties between the ‘old English’ and himself. In the sixteenth century the new Tudor state, decided that they would replace not only the independent power of the ‘Old English’ nobles but also of the power of the Gaelic tribes.
A peaceful system of submission where Gaelic tribal leaders would submit their land to the king and receive it back ‘regranted’ from the king, in the knowledge that it was through the king in which they’re status stemmed. Though some accepted willingly, the system, which required the Gaelic to accept English laws of succession, clashed directly with Gaelic tradition. Those leaders who wished to acquiesce to the English wishes to maintain their independent power were motivated by personal aims, and those who did not accept these new ‘rules’ imposed on them by the Tudors were again motivated by personal greed for power.
Eventually conflict was encountered which the Tudors dealt with a ferocity, which Lecky a historian stated “has seldom been exceeded in the pages of History. ” The Tudors confiscated lands to create plantations to provide crops to ship to England. The greatest of these plantations was the 1609 Ulster plantation, which were taken from the Lands of Hugh O’ Neill, Earl of Tyrone, He was as Robert Kee described ” The last of those great Gaelic Chiefs who, though acknowledging in theory the sovereignty of the English monarchy, tried to resist the new Tudor administrative machine.
And in 1607 realising that he would never be able to regain his for power left Ireland forever with the Earl of Tyrconnel, the event that is now remembered as the ‘flight of the Earls’ which left the Gaelic nation leaderless. Without a national identity, and a ‘foreign’ nation ruling over them, Ireland became ripe for unrest and a conduit for political conundrums. To access the situation within Ireland the social structure of the country must be understood.
Although eighty percent of the country belonged to the Catholic Church, ten percent of the population belonged to the Church of Ireland (The National Anglican Church of Ireland), and most of the other ten percent of the population belonged to Ireland. Contrary to popular belief Ireland as a whole was not particularly poor, however the distribution of wealth was extremely unbalanced, with almost all of the land being owned by the protestant elite.
While ten thousand landowners had estates many of these were absent for much of the year, they drew money from Ireland not only taking much money from Ireland but not feeding it back into the economy, becoming a drain onto Irelands resources, destroying the country from the inside. The vast Bulk of the population were labourers and rented less than five acres apiece. In 1841 forty percent of the houses in Ireland were one roomed mud cabins. When England tried to find ways to implement the poor law in 1838 they found it problematical, due to the fact that the majority of the Irish were so poor that the workhouse system would not work.
Society within Ireland was severely imbalanced, most of the population were severely rich or destitute the latter being vastly the most common, Britain had become a drain on the Irish economy, and with Westminster, instituting a series of interim solutions, the problem was increasing on an exponential scale. This issue was starting to press onto Westminster, and the consensus of the majority of the Irish was rebellious. The situation in Ireland 1801 was that Westminster was keeping a tight hold onto Ireland. Westminster felt that they had no other choice than this, as for over centuries Ireland had proved to be the friend of English enemies.
For example in 1690, Ireland supported the Catholic King James II against the strongly protestant parliament. In the Battle of the Boyne and Battle of Augrim England had been ‘forced’ to defeat Irelands royalists. In the American colonies rebellion in the 1770’s led Ireland to demand for better trading rights, and revolutionary France actively helped the Irish rebellion of 1798- to Westminster it seemed that Ireland was exploiting every opportunity to gain an advantage to tip the scales of English power in Ireland.
As a direct consequence of the rebellion of 1798, Pitt the Younger, as priminister passed the Act of Union and direct rule was imposed. Westminster felt that this was necessary, although Britain had been able to impose change rule through their connections with Irish parliament; however due to the fact that England had to bail out a Bankrupted Dublin, and they’re failure to quell the uprising of 1798 Britain passed this act. Under the terms of the Act of Union Ireland would be represented through 100 elected MPs in London, together with twenty-eight temporal and for spiritual peers (twenty eight lords, and four Bishops).
This act took two years to achieve, mainly due to resistance to the change in Ireland, thus Catholic Emancipation was promised (although not passed). The problems, which arose due to this act, were profound, however they partly of Britain’s own making. Britain tended to give Ireland less attention than was needed. This suggests that although the act of Union was a pressing issue within Westminster, it was a quick fix, in the short term the Irish problem was quelled but the consequences in the long-term would prove to heighten tension between Ireland and Britain exacerbating the problem.
Agriculture within Ireland, was a main issue within Britain, this was where the majority of the Irish worked, It was a central issue due to a fact that many lords, politicians, and dignitaries had a vested interest in this area, – they received rent from labourers who worked their land. Much of the experiences of all the classes of agricultural workers varied according to how well estates were run and there was a diversity of experience here.
Some were managed very badly; in 1844 for instance, on hundred and thirty-two estates were in the hands of the courts, usually in preparation for paying off creditors. Much of the bureaucracy involved with agriculture discouraged investment as well; leases on land were normally very short, meaning that the investors may not reap gains of any investment. Wars against France in 1793- 1815 had caused a general rise in prices, however after the war prices fell, and depression followed, 1815 prices were not recovered until the mid 1840’s.
Many landlords, to combat the fall in prices, cancelled their leases and drew up new ones auctioning them off to the highest bidder and existing farmers were left without land in which to work. This ‘rack-renting’ was made possible through growing pressure on land. The increase in the Irish population did nothing to help matters, in the 1750’s the Irish population was at two and a half million, by 1800 it had doubled and by 1845 the population had grown to eight and a quarter million.
The poorest members of society rented tiny pieces of land called conacre plots, on which they grew potatoes. This was due to the fact that in comparison to all cereals potatoes gave the highest yield per acre, which a family could depend on. This created an unhealthy monoculture on which many Irishman relied, if the crop failed there would be disastrous consequences. While Britain industrialised before any other country in the world, Ireland’s trading and manufacturing were retarded by the Navigation Acts, which treated Ireland as a colony until the 1770’s.
Any industry, which rivalled that of Britain, was stifled, resulting in Ireland economy becoming more dependant than ever on agriculture. However industries, which did develop- mainly in the north, such as textile production, allowed the emergence of a Catholic and Protestant middle class, Britain’s failure however to fully emancipate after 1800 the Irish meant that this group were alienated, creating sectarian problems, which not only created the issue of Catholic emancipation a topic of even greater debate but, meant that British politics were once again focused on Ireland.
Religious issues were becoming greater and greater within Ireland, which would soon be an excuse for protest within Ireland. This state was partly brought about due to matters of land. In 1610 Catholics held two-thirds of land; by 1690, Protestants held almost eighty percent of the land due to conquests of Cromwell and the defeat of James II in 1690, subsequent penal laws passed, discriminated against Catholics badly, the share of Catholic land fell, primogeniture was abolished for Catholics, meaning that holdings could not be inherited by the eldest Catholic child.
Persecution became so intense that a Catholic could not own a horse worth more than five pounds. Areas where the majority were catholic, were impoverished in comparison to a densely protestant populated area, although eighty percent of the population were Catholic, the church was under funded and had difficulty in finding enough priests for its masses. The Catholic ‘peasantry’ were forced to pay for the National Church of Ireland, depriving Catholics of even more money.
Religious questions were being raised and once again Westminster had to find a way of answering them. Because Irelands problems were of great enormity no quick solutions were found. After 1800, the main Irish issue within Westminster was Catholic emancipation. The Government was so split over what should be implemented to solve the Irish problem that it became an open question i. e. there was no policy at all. When acts were passed through the House of Commons, they were then rejected by those in the house of Lords-, who had a vested interest in Ireland.
This happened with such acts as the Plunketts Bill (1821) and Nugent’s Bill (1823). O’ Connell in 1823, brought this issue to the forefront of British politics once again, he became a Catholic leader in Ireland- ‘The liberator’ and was able to bring the Catholic masses together. The PM Wellington, Peel realised that emancipation was needed if peace was to be kept. The Act of Union had been passed quickly to prevent further unrest and so was Catholic Emancipation. Both were intended to keep Ireland quiet for the foreseeable future.
In the 1830’s a change in government, however brought something of a change in attitude. The new Whigs had always been more favourable to Catholic emancipation than their Tory counter parts, and therefore mad changes within the political and social structures of Ireland, although these reforms were small, they were had a big impact over the Irish problem for example the Irish poor law of 1938 led to the creation of one hundred workhouses and the 1840 municipal corporations act.
Lastly a failure in Irelands potato harvest in 1845 due to the crops mono-culture which, many Irishman were relying for income, the work houses were unable to cope with the mass starvation, and the governments relief attempts were insufficient- and the liberal government of 1846 tried to keep to a non-intervention policy as best it could. By August 1847, three million people were being fed in makeshift kitchens, and in breach of the poor law a charity for the able-bodied was allowed.
As a direct consequence Irelands population fell, over one million dieing due to the famine and emigration to England and America ensured that the population fell again by one and a half million. In conclusion by 1850 Ireland was not much further forward than it had been in the 1800, the government in Westminster had implemented a series of quick fix solutions in Ireland, which in the long run made things worse.
I feel that actually Ireland was not a central issue throughout British politics in the nineteenth century, due to the implementation of the, solutions imposed to subdue the problem rather than solve it. However Ireland was a central issue, during certain periods of the nineteenth century, especially in the 1820’s when Westminster were so split over the Irish question it became an open question.