The Protestant Ascendancy refers to the political, economical, and social domination by a minority of Anglican landowners and Church of Ireland during the late 17th and 18th century. The Ascendancy discriminated against the majority Catholic population and the non-conforming Protestant denominations like the Presbyterians though the position of the Ascendancy depended on their status, and thus poor Protestants were also excluded politically and socially into the 1800s. In this article, I will closely examine the economic and political situation of Ireland during the Ascendancy and the discriminations Catholics endured. More importantly, I explore how the Protestant Ascendancy eventually spurred resistance movements from both the Catholics and Protestants, which lead to the Act of Union.
During this period, economic struggles were only aggravated by the exploitative legislations passed by the English parliament. The Navigation acts prohibited exporting goods to any English colony unless they were loaded in English ships. Tariffs were placed on Irish produce entering England, but exempted English goods from tariffs entering Ireland. The Woolen act restricted Ireland to export her woolen goods to any country and eventually lead thousands of weavers emigrating or left to starve. Ireland was also the major provider of food such as salted beef, pork, and butter for the English and the British Navy, yet were unable to feed half its population who were dying of hunger. These inequalities only worsened with the unfortunate successive cold winters, and the Irish faced a great famine in 1740, which was caused by a series of poor harvests. In addition, Catholics were pushed further down the economic ladder with the implementation of higher rents and payment of tithes to the Church of Ireland. By the late 18th century, attempts were made to create a more favorable trading relationship and in 1782, free trade was granted between Ireland and England. Ireland went through an economic boom into the 1780s; however, great economic disparities existed between the different areas, which were involved in the export of goods and others that were roadless and hardly developed.
The Catholic majority briefly ruled the country as Confederate Ireland during the mid 17th century until Oliver Cromwell re-conquered Ireland in 1649 on behalf of the English Commonwealth. As a result of the rebellion in 1641, the majority of the land owned by the Catholics was confiscated and allocated to British settlers. Followed by the Glorious Revolution, where James was deposed by the English Parliament and replaced by William of Orange, the Bill of rights was passed and stamped out all possibility of a Catholic monarchy. In essence, the move toward absolute monarchy was ended by restricting the monarch’s powers and made it no longer possible to suspend laws without the Parliament’s permission. Supporters of James were prepared to resist the force of arms and lead to the Jacobite uprising. However, with the Battle of the Boyne, James confidence to regain his throne was crumpled and marked the beginning of the Protestant Ascendancy.
The Penal Laws were essentially passed to displace Catholicism as the major religion in Ireland. It is often argued whether, the Protestant Ascendency also aimed to convert the Catholics into Protestants; however, it is clear that it was more of an economic rationale. A large number of poor Protestants would mean a loss in income, because they were supported by the church tithes. By 1776, it was estimated that the Catholic land ownership in Ireland declined from 60% to 5%. There were cases of Catholics converting in order to keep family lands intact, though the vast majority of the populations were poor tenant farmers or laborers. Some attended Protestant services, as the law required, and celebrated Mass behind closed doors. Education was also not possible, thus Catholics were in some way forced into conversion if they wanted a better life.
In retaliation against the oppression, the Catholic peasantry organized into secret societies and inflicted covert punishments on Protestant landlords. Organization such as the Whiteboys and the Carders in particular adopted violent tactics to defend tenant farmer rights. It was common to see mutilating livestock, burning houses, and in rare cases beating and killing the aristocrats themselves. The actions performed by these groups were extremely violent; however, the Catholics believed it was a direct reflection of the horrors inflicted upon them. The Protestants responded by forming secret groups like the Peep o’Day boys, who paraded through Catholic areas to drive Catholics away from their homes. It is often claimed that the 1700s was not a bloody time in Ireland’s history; however, Ireland soil absorbed a great deal of blood prior and during the rebellion. During the early 18th century, the Penal laws were augmented and strictly enforced; however we can identify how they became relaxed or lightly enforced once the Protestant elites were comfortable with their position and not threatened by the existence of the Irish Catholic regiments.
In 1789 the French Revolution began, and in 1793 France declared war against Britain. The concept of the French Revolution was one that the Irish population favored, because it was what both the Catholic and Protestants wanted. The Roman Catholics wanted equality and the Irish Protestants wanted a parliamentary reform. In addition, both groups wanted political and economical reform. The problem was that many Irish politicians wanted to preserve the link with Britain. This continued until Theobald Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward Fitzgerald formed the United Irishmen in 1791, which aimed to break all ties with England and become an independent nation. The United Irishmen was a significant resistance movement, because it included both Catholic and Protestant denominators. The movement was initially endorsed by only Protestants; however, soon attracted supporters of the Catholic Committee and notable allies like the Defenders. Although it is important to establish that it was not endorsed completely by Catholicism, but a realization that religion must be separated from politics.
The formation of the United Irishmen was in essence an inevitable product of the Protestant Ascendancy. The realization that the Ascendancy was eventually a slow process of giving the best posts, in church or government, to newcomers from the other side of the Irish Sea, brought together the Catholic and Protestant populace. In spite of the advantages secured for the Protestants, the majority of the Protestants were actually barred similar to the Catholics because they did not pass certain property thresholds. Hence, many Protestants and Catholics sought similar reforms inspired by the French revolution. With the Catholic Relief Act in 1793, Catholics had the franchise on comparable terms as the Protestants, and were no longer barred from most government positions. Fundamentally, the United Irishmen were capable of pressuring the British government to enforce such reforms and transformed into a society that aimed to free Ireland.
With Britain at war with the French, the possibility of a close neighbor, Ireland providing a base for the enemy was an unthinkable scenario. Since the beginning of the 18th century, the Irish Protestants had proposed the union of England and Ireland; however, unlike the union between England and Scotland, there seemed no possible advantage. Nevertheless, the British saw the union as an advantage and in 1800, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was born under the Act of Union. In essence, the Act of Union was a political expedient in wartime solving none of the grievances in Ireland. It had no social dimension at all and Ireland’s economic problems were completely ignored. Pitt saw the social and economic reforms necessary, yet George III refused to allow full emancipation for the Catholics and thus the Catholics were left in the same position as before.
Prior to the Union, Ireland had been ruled over four hundred years by its own Parliament. However, it was neither a truly Irish parliament, nor an independent parliament since Catholics could not vote until the late 17th century and were excluded from most public offices. The Lord Lieutenant, appointed by the crown, was not accountable to the parliament. Moreover, with Poyning’s law, the parliament was not able to take action of any law without the confirmation of the crown. Thus the Irish Parliament was left incapable of protecting Irish economic and trade interests from being subordinated by English ones until the Constitution of 1782, which gained a large measure of independence for the parliament. It is interesting to note that this change occurred shortly before the American Revolution of 1776, which is believed to have contributed to Westminster’s decision of allowing the Irish Parliament a greater autonomy. The slogan of “No taxation without representation” appealed to the Irish Protestants who felt that the British parliament was denying them from ruling their own country. Thus, it is evident that both the American and French revolutions influenced a reform within the Irish nation, and lead to the formation of the Act of Union.
In spite of the liberalizations, Ireland continued to be ruled by a colonial oligarchy, which was protected by the government. The Catholics Emancipation was not endorsed and the Catholics gained no advantages until the repeal movement by O’Connell. Ireland was then struck by the Great famine that marked a period of starvation and emigration. It was a common belief that the people of Ireland looked back during the Protestant Ascendancy, because it was a more prosperous time. Thus, it is clear that the Act of Union was no solution to the Protestant Ascendancy. However, it is an important period in Ireland’s history, because it changed the attitudes of the Irish people and made them realize that the rivalry between the Catholics and Protestants was not as significant, but rather the British influence on the Irish people.