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The Politics of Assimilation

Maurice Earls

Recently published books referred to in this article:

Evangelicals and Catholics in 19th century Ireland, James H Murphy editor, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2005, ISBN: 1851829172

Grattan’s Failure, Danny Mansergh, Irish Academic Press, Dublin 2005, ISBN: 0716528150

The Bible War in Ireland, Irene Whelan, Lilliput Press, Dublin 2005, ISBN: 1843510049

The Church Of Ireland in Victorian Dublin, John Crawford, Dublin 2005, ISBN: 1851828141

Ireland Social, Political and Religious, Gustave De Beaumont, original edition Paris 1839, new translated edition by WC Taylor, USA 2006, ISBN: 0674021657

Converts and Conversion in Ireland 1650-1850, eds. Brown, McGrath and Power, Dublin 2005, ISBN: 1851828109

When, in the late eighteenth century, some members of Dublin’s Protestant parliament began to speak of independence from Westminster the straight-talking John Fitzgibbon, later First Earl of Clare, reminded them that “… the only security by which they hold their property … is the connection of the Irish Crown with, and its dependence upon, the Crown of England”. He went on to state that Protestant land had been dubiously acquired: “ … the ancient nobility of this kingdom have been hardly treated. The Act by which most of us hold our estates was an Act of violence – an Act subverting the first principles of the common law in England and Ireland. I speak of the Act of settlement …”(1)

Fitzgibbon’s view was that any proposal to cut or weaken the link with Britain was madness, which, if carried through, would leave the numerically small Protestant establishment vulnerable to a Catholic rising. Moreover, a successful rising would inevitably involve the repossession of Protestant land and the elimination of the Anglican political order in Ireland. This was a view from which the bulk of colonial Ireland found it impossible to dissent. The notion of ameliorating the condition of the Catholic majority – another idea in circulation at the time – was widely seen as equally certain to herald destruction.

There was, however, a major difficulty, with Fitzgibbon’s position as it was emerging that Westminster was no longer wedded to maintaining Catholic disabilities as a matter of immutable principle. Some among the Irish establishment had begun to suspect that Britain would dismantle every last discriminatory measure if it suited her interests, particularly her security interests. This emerging reality prompted an obvious question. Why invest all hopes in holding close to a Protestant England which appeared willing to weaken, and perhaps ultimately to eliminate, Protestant hegemony in Ireland?

While conscious of this problem, the bulk of Anglican Ireland in the late eighteenth century nevertheless shared Fitzgibbon’s hostility to the proposed alternatives. However, in rejecting the politics of autonomy, the Protestant world was uncomfortably aware that it might also be endangering the prosperity and cultural exuberance on which its success and good opinion of itself largely rested. Despite the elaborate claims made at the time of its passage, the Union was accepted by the Irish establishment as the lesser evil which appeared to leave open options which would have been foreclosed by a declaration of independence or by the inclusion of Catholics into the establishment.

The turn of the nineteenth century, then, saw Irish Anglicanism contemplating the dependence of its entire economic and political order on an unreliable Britain whose prime minister was known to favour the removal of remaining Catholic disabilities. There was also another linked and troubling matter. Historically, Britain, as an imperial political force, had seen Ireland primarily as an entity to be exploited. This was a view which the self-confident eighteenth century colony had come to oppose as its control over a distinctively Irish economy developed. Tying itself wholly to Westminster, which Fitzgibbon advocated as its only salvation, involved rejecting the sophisticated arguments of Molyneux, Swift and other colonial luminaries who desired a future where Protestants were not the mere agents of imperial interest but architects of a successful Irish kingdom.

These conflicts rendered the Protestant position extremely difficult. Union with Britain appeared a paltry strategic alternative to the might of the penal code, the long- established and proven protector of Protestant privilege. And yet that code was clearly unravelling. It is hardly surprising that following the passage of the Act of Union Anglican Ireland was found unwilling to accept that event as its final historical option and sought instead a third way. In the early years of the new century the old establishment elaborated a new strategy and responded to its dilemma with a massive and ingenious campaign designed to assimilate and absorb the ordinary Catholics of Ireland. The appeal of this campaign, which aspired to do nothing less than turn Catholics into Protestants, is not difficult to understand. If successful, it would have eliminated the primary danger of destruction inherent in the minority demographic status of Anglicanism. It would also have rendered emerging tolerance in Britain irrelevant to Protestant hegemony in Ireland and opened the door to the assertion of independence. However, despite the enormous energy invested in pursuing this strategy, in time matters issuing from the complexities of the Irish past were to ensure that it would fail.

The eighteenth century had seen much of Ireland transformed from a landscape devastated by war and social chaos into a comparatively ordered and prosperous world under Protestant control. While the lives of the peasantry were, of course, grim, many parts of rural Ireland came to resemble peaceful English shires, with elegant manor houses and a well-organised agriculture. The degree of peace achieved was in direct proportion to the scale of Protestant military victory in the preceding era. Prestigious and elaborate buildings, reflecting the growing self-confidence of the colony, began to shape the major towns and cities. Considerable wealth, deriving from the provisions industry, agricultural exports and trade with the colonies, came to Protestant landowners who, as the decades passed, came to see themselves less as an invasive colony and more as the natural governors of a prosperous country with considerable economic potential. However, the opulence and grandeur of the colony, and particularly its Protestant identity, were understood by all as dependent on the degradation of the Catholic majority. The tendency in England towards the abolition of anti-Catholic discriminatory laws clearly threatened this essential dependency and gave rise to a nervousness which existed alongside the calm of the colony’s Palladian architecture.

Anti-Catholic penal legislation had immediately followed the Protestant victories of the late seventeenth century. These discriminatory laws addressed fundamental questions which underlay all colonial political thinking until the middle of the nineteenth century in that they offered both a means of ensuring Protestant hegemony and one of assimilating Irish Catholics to the new order. This latter aspect of the code is important though not often emphasised. In Converts and Conversion in Ireland Charles McGrath comments: “And in the broadest sense, one of the intentions of the penal code could be construed as the provision of a general encouragement of conformity.”(2)

In the pre-democratic and pre-romantic era the target for conversion was naturally the Catholic rich. The assumption was that if the superior ranks in society switched religious allegiance the lower orders would in due course follow. This legislative strategy, while ultimately unsuccessful, was far from a total failure. The conversion rolls indicate that in the eighteenth century some 5,800 Catholics conformed to the Church of Ireland, the vast bulk of whom were wealthy individuals bent on maintaining and perhaps improving their economic and social status. As the editors of Converts and Conversion remark: “On the whole Irish Catholic conversion to the Church of Ireland in the period 1650-1850 may be characterised as a defensive mechanism often utilised to forestall the deleterious effects of penal legislation on property, the professions, office holding, education and marriage.”(3) John Fitzgibbon’s family was one such which conformed in order to maintain status and facilitate ambition. Fitzgibbon himself was an ardent advocate of this form of assimilation, seeing it as the best hope for the future and the best hope of justice and opportunity for prosperous Catholics. He was, it might be added, extreme in his hostility to those Catholics who failed to appreciate the merit of the path followed by his own family. Given the evidence of the convert rolls it seems likely that if the penal system had been permitted to continue indefinitely it could have eventually achieved its purpose.

The highly politicised character of colonial culture and the logic of its ideological reflections is, however, not always acknowledged. In their introduction to the reprint of Gustave de Beaumont’s 1839 Ireland Social, Political and Religious, Tom Garvin and Andreas Hess remark: “The ascendancy essentially drifted between two extreme poles: social, political, and religious indifference to the dispossessed native Irish on the one hand and a passionate wish to exterminate Irish popery by a policy of proselytism on the other. Thus the English Ascendancy in the conquered island was never able to conceive of a majoritarian project that might have assimilated the Catholic majority to its colonial polity.”

Some qualification of this statement – which makes the colonists appear somewhat woolly-headed – is required. While it is extremely doubtful that the numerically small ascendancy was ever indifferent to the majority – a point on which de Beaumont’s view appears to have been accepted without question – it is certainly the case that the Protestant crusade of the early nineteenth century was the only serious effort to “exterminate Irish popery” through proselytism. Moreover, both the crusade and the earlier assimilationist strategy advanced by Henry Grattan, and indeed the penal laws, can be read as efforts to end ascendancy insecurity through the incorporation of the majority into the colony’s polity and, in the course of so doing, to transform the colony into the nation.

De Beaumont’s impressions, like those of his associate Tocqueville, who published his views on Ireland some four years earlier and to which the editors curiously do not refer, do not in themselves constitute incontrovertible historical evidence. Arguably, the real, and as yet untold, story of de Beaumont’s exceptional travelogue is how it came to reinforce if not implant the idea in the European mind that England was the ruthless and unconscionable exploiter of Ireland.

The primary focus of the books referred to in this essay is Anglican-dominated Ireland, that is to say, Ireland outside Ulster. The Ulster situation was, of course, unique. In that province there was an enormous Protestant population, a substantial proportion of which was dissenting. The Protestant concentration was so great that in the twentieth century Lord Brookeborough notoriously declared that he wouldn’t have a Catholic about the place. While such comments would have been absurd outside Ulster, this was not the case for Brookeborough. He didn’t need Catholic workers on his estate when there was an abundance of Protestant labour available. For the Anglican establishment outside Ulster from the seventeenth century, the problem was they couldn’t run the place without Catholics. Such was the paucity of Protestants that Catholics were needed not only as labour and tenants but also at lower management level throughout the colony.

In the eighteenth century liberals such as Grattan and radicals such as Wolfe Tone thought that a political arrangement – a somewhat different one in each case – could be devised which would incorporate Catholics into an altered governing order. Both these proposals emanated from within the colonial order and both offered the colony the central advantage of permitting assertion against Britain without having to worry about an attack from the rear mounted by Catholic Ireland. Conservatives, on the other hand, were appalled by the idea of a political alliance with any Catholics, which they regarded as the nonsensical overthrowing of a penal strategy which had facilitated outstanding stability and prosperity. Initially these conservatives responded to the problem of securing Protestant power in the no-nonsense language of Fitzgibbon. However, their complacency was to collapse under the pressure of changes which occurred in the political environment from the late eighteenth century.

Indeed Grattan’s and Tone’s politics can be read as relatively early realisations that the inherited ideological apparatus of Irish Protestantism was becoming defunct. The rebellion of 1798 and the increasing shift towards toleration in British thinking had the effect of concentrating the conservative mind. Irish Protestantism began to realise that concessions to Catholics would continue; that the discriminatory code was being progressively dismantled and that an alternative political strategy was required. Endemic rural unrest, sometimes of a decidedly political character, and finally the popular uprising of 1798 also drew attention to an implicit flaw in the logic of the penal legislative solution to the Catholic problem. It appeared that the Catholic masses would not wait quietly pending the assimilation of their upper classes. It appeared, moreover, that these masses would continue to rebel and that Britain might not indefinitely provide the means to facilitate a continuing coercion which itself would be harmful to stability and prosperity. Not even Fitzgibbon, a passionate devotee of the legislative approach, was indifferent to these fears. In a speech advocating the union of 1800 he called on the “higher orders of my countrymen … to exert their best endeavours to tame and civilise the lower orders of the people … unless you will civilise your people, it is vain to look for tranquillity or contentment”. However, it was not until the years following Fitzgibbon’s death in 1802 that Anglican Ireland hit on proselytism as the means by which the problem of the disaffected masses might be treated.

Of course colonial Ireland would never have had to resort to this and other less ambitious strategies if it had been possible to fill the country with low- to middle-ranking Protestants from England. However, from the seventeenth century America was the destination of choice for Englishmen in pursuit of something better than the rigid social hierarchies of late feudal England. One John Smith wrote home from Virginia in 1607 saying of America that there “every man may be the master and owner of his own labour and land”(4). These conditions were not on offer in Ireland, where social restrictions were at least as severe as those in England. Ireland was not America. Relatively few ordinary English people chose emigration to Ireland whereas vast numbers followed Smith across the Atlantic. Indeed the population of the British American colony quintupled between 1675 and 1740 and, of course, many of those emigrants went on to assert independence and end their political subordination to the old country.

Those American settlers, however, did not face the same problems as the Irish Protestant colony in that they had no long term dependence on the pre-existing population. Indeed, notwithstanding the vastness of the continent, the colonists were in time to find it desirable to clear the pre-existing populations off the land. This desire led directly to the ethnocide of Native Americans. Arguably, if it had not been for the attractions of America to the English from the seventeenth century, the Catholic Irish might well have suffered a fate not unlike that of the Native Americans as they made way for incoming English settlers. However, this was not to be and indeed the penal laws were a clear indication that the Irish were to be a part of the colonial order and were not to suffer a form of ethnocide. The slaughters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it transpired, were not expected to continue into the eighteenth.

Given the sparse Protestant population outside Ulster, the problem which shaped Protestant politics and ideological ruminations was that of finding a way of working in harmony with the subject Catholic peoples of Ireland while continuing to enjoy the fruits of a hegemony that had been won through military conquest. Initially, and for some time, penal legislation appeared the best answer. As the weaknesses in that system became apparent the initial alternative to emerge was that associated with Grattan. Like the assimilationist dynamic implicit in the penal code Grattan’s proposals also targeted the Catholic upper classes. His approach differed in that it rejected the slow drip of conversion in favour of a comparatively rapid assimilation without conversion.

Grattan and his liberal supporters calculated that the controlled incorporation of the numerically small class of prosperous Catholics into the governing elite would involve their cultural assimilation and serve the interests of the colony. For these Whig liberals the idea seemed to be that if you could incorporate wealthy Catholics and the remains of their aristocracy into the hierarchical structures of the ascendancy, the benefits to the existing elite would be enormous. The only potential rival ruling grouping would be, as it were, annexed by Protestant Ireland, allowing for the possibility of a new Protestant-dominated elite which could potentially enter into an organic leadership relationship with the teeming peasant masses, who would then presumably be less likely to rise up and murder Protestants.

Anglican Ireland, however, whose politics and identity involved a traditional and visceral anti-Catholicism, failed to appreciate Grattan’s logic and until the early nineteenth century remained loyal to a simple concept of domination. Conservative Ireland’s perception of Grattan’s strategy as inimical to the Protestant interest was in most respects short-sighted. Like others of his rank, the Whig grandee had deeply internalised the exclusive and hierarchical values of the colony. As RF Foster has noted, Grattan affirmed “that he was a friend to Catholic liberty only as far as it was consistent with Protestant ascendancy”(5).There may be an element of overstatement here, as Grattan’s politics did clearly imply some level of privilege-sharing.

His objections to Catholicism were, it should be noted, relatively moderate and had none of the atavistic passion which was to characterise Irish evangelical hatred of all things Catholic in the nineteenth century. Influenced by an Enlightenment-based universalism, Grattan spoke of Catholicism as merely a different means of honouring God. He would certainly have worked with affluent Catholics to transform the country if they remembered their place, something which would have been particularly required from those who had made their money in trade. Many Protestants, however, were convinced that Catholics were less malleable than Grattan appeared to think. Those ascendancy thinkers like Fitzgibbon, less influenced by the Enlightenment and whose values reflected the rhetoric of the Glorious Revolution, were, when considering the Catholic Irish, less inclined to see their common humanity than their potential to overturn the existing economic and political order. For Fitzgibbon, and other advocates of the traditional colonial perspective, conversion was the only true means by which Catholics could prove themselves worthy of social incorporation.

If the conservative majority was sceptical of Grattan, it was particularly hostile to those like Tone who entertained a more radical vision of Ireland’s future. Danny Mansergh’s recent work Grattan’s Failure refers to a Protestant radicalism of that time sponsored by what he describes as “discontented elements of the political elite”. The enterprise of this disaffected Protestant intelligentsia was more radical than that associated with Grattan. It was deeply influenced by secular Enlightenment thinking and gave rise to the United Irishmen, whose republican objective was the seizure of independence from Britain through an alliance of Anglicans, Dissenters and Catholics.

The idea of these disparate elements coming together to define a new Irish national identity, given their enormous cultural differences, was perhaps always unlikely. In the event the disparate parts did not cohere into a national force. The rising of 1798 was localised and its potential was completely dependent on French aid, which did not materialise. It was put down by the military and followed by a period of considerable oppression, largely directed at the Catholic poor and not confined to the rebellious areas. Those disaffected members of the elite who were involved and who could be apprehended were hanged or exiled. Tone avoided this fate by committing suicide in, as has been observed, a rationalist assertion of control worthy of his Enlightenment values. Had the rebellion been successful from his point of view and that of other radical Protestant ideologues, a sort of post-Protestant non-Catholic independent Ireland would have emerged. This new nation would have been capable of generating a national bourgeoisie and achieving general prosperity by drawing on Catholic and Protestant talent and through the independent exercise of rational government. The fact, however, is that this vision did not appeal to ascendancy Ireland, which put Protestant security before economic growth. The aversion to Popery was deep-seated; indeed some of the original United Irishmen became so disconcerted by what they regarded as the growing “Popish” character of the movement well before the rebellion that they felt they could best serve their community by becoming government informers.

In the nature of things it is unknowable as to what would have happened had Protestant Ireland followed Grattan’s advice and acted generously towards the Catholics. Certainly the agent of the British government, the lord lieutenant Westmoreland, believed that Britain could bid adieu to the idea of the Union “ … if the protestants should get over their prejudices”(6). Implicit in this statement is the view that a substantial level of independence, rather than union, was widely understood by Protestants to be in the objective interests of the colony and that fear of destruction at the hands of the majority prevented the ascendancy from pursuing this interest.

In some respects the project of the United Irishmen was not inconsistent with that of Grattan, the difference being ultimately of degree rather than of substance. Neither programme envisaged a reversal of the seventeenth century land transfers and both can be read as offering a means whereby the Protestant elite might retain considerable power into the future. It is therefore fascinating to learn from Mansergh that Grattan was far from hostile to the radicals within his community and that he and his supporters placed a covering bet on Jacobinism as the instrument to determine the future shape of Irish politics. Mansergh argues that the liberal Whig elite of College Green played a part “in enabling, inspiring and inciting an attempted social revolution in the late eighteenth century”(7). Grattan, it emerges, had quite close relations with the radical Protestant ideologues of the United Irishmen and distanced himself only when it became clear that their revolutionary efforts would fail. Fitzgibbon, who always believed Grattan was engaged in treasonable activity and who saw the United Irishmen as a more dangerous version of the Whig club, would not have been surprised.

No one seems to have foreseen that the numerically small class of wealthy Catholics who were the recipients of Grattan’s patronage would give rise to a vigorous new Catholic leadership ambitious for a full share of political power. Certain remnants of the Catholic aristocracy, some of Gaelic and some of Norman origin, had managed to retain their estates by keeping a low profile and avoiding provocative behaviour. By 1680 military defeat had reduced Catholic-owned land to 22% of the total. By 1780, following a century of Protestant hegemony, the figure had withered to a mere 5%. The collapse of Catholic ownership in the eighteenth century was almost certainly linked to the success of the penal laws in promoting conversion. Those major Catholic landowners who survived to the late eighteenth century were highly compliant and grateful recipients of the vague and patronising murmurings emanating from Grattan and other Whig leaders in College Green. However, these unassertive aristocrats did not comprise the entire Catholic leadership. The anti-Catholic laws of the period, reflecting the feudal hue of Protestant colonial culture, were primarily calculated to prevent Catholics acquiring land. Enterprising and energetic Catholics – many originally from a landed background – pursued careers in commerce and later in the professions which were not subject to comparable restrictions. By the end of the eighteenth century this class was taking on the characteristics of a liberal, vibrant and sophisticated Catholic bourgeoisie. These new Catholics were modernisers who – detached from traditional Gaelic mores and hostile to ascendancy culture – found the universalism of the Enlightenment highly congenial. Their agent at Westminster, Edmund Burke’s son Richard, said this emerging class had risen “by their industry, their abilities, and their good fortunes to considerable opulence and of course to an independent spirit”(8).

The emergent Catholic bourgeoisie was also distinct from the Protestant professional classes, which appear to have felt no identification with the new Catholic grouping. De Beaumont is interesting on the differences between the Catholic and Protestant middle classes. “When the professions were filled with Protestants, these professions continued to furnish their tribute to the Protestant aristocracy … when [professions] were occupied by Catholics, they stood aloof from the aristocracy … So that from the same social element there issued as it were two streams running in opposite directions, one of which flowed into the aristocracy … whilst the other held its proper course … The second is the real source of the middle class in Ireland.”(9)

The Protestant middle class – outside Ulster – was, it seems, a class which primarily serviced the landed establishment. De Beaumont is, of course, writing in the late 1830s. An embryonic Protestant bourgeoisie can be discerned around the early years of the eighteenth century Protestant parliament. The energies of that era were, however, eventually to be sacrificed to the stultifying requirements of Protestant solidarity. By the early nineteenth century the Catholic middle class, on the other hand, was rapidly transforming itself into a classic nineteenth century European bourgeoisie. The new challenge to Williamite Ireland, it transpired, would be neither Jacobite nor Jacobin but simply bourgeois.

Perhaps inevitably, this rapidly emerging Catholic entity rejected Protestant paternalism. The outcome might have been different had Grattan managed to deliver substantial improvements to the Catholic upper classes. However, this was not to be the case and those reliefs which were achieved were seen – as Irene Whelan in The Bible War In Ireland emphasises – as resulting from developments in Westminster rather than College Green, where Fitzgibbon and the majority regarded Grattan with scorn.

Westminster, as ever, thought only of Ireland and the difficulties it had bequeathed to it in terms of its own interests, particularly its security. The rising of 1798 greatly affected the thinking of the British government and encouraged it to take a determining role in Ireland’s affairs in order to ensure that the country was not used by the French as a back door to invade Britain. A full union with Britain and the conciliation of Irish Catholics was the chosen solution. The rebellion had an even greater effect on Protestant thinking. It was a crucial event in convincing the establishment that something had to be done about the Catholic danger. Urged on by Fitzgibbon’s inspired rhetoric, the ascendancy embraced the safety of the Union as a useful though incomplete answer to the colony’s fundamental political problem. Thus the centuries-old Irish parliament was dissolved with the act of Union in 1800, reluctant Protestant parliamentarians having been bribed to vote themselves out of existence.

The Union constituted a major structural change in Irish politics. Among the many changes it facilitated was to provide Catholic leaders with the opportunity to bypass the recalcitrant local elite to concentrate their efforts on lobbying like-minded liberal bourgeois politicians and thinkers in England. Significantly, many of these sympathetic English liberals were born-again Evangelicals. In the tense atmosphere immediately following 1798 there were few developments. However, with the passage of time passions cooled and an atmosphere of relative ideological calm was restored. While memories of the rebellion continued to haunt Protestant thinking, efforts were made to resume business as usual. With the Union secured, Westminster had come to view Grattan’s assimilationist option as the best way of dealing with the Catholic question and the government supported a proposal initiated by him. In a restored mood of integrationist paternalism it was suggested that the Catholic church in Ireland would be accepted and funded by the state if the state in turn was allowed a veto on the appointment of Catholic bishops. There can be little doubt that if this had been offered twenty-five years earlier it would have been accepted. Events, however, were to reveal that major political changes had occurred in the meantime. Initially the Catholic hierarchy was very positive in its attitude towards the veto proposal, as were aristocratic and conservative Catholic elements. The Vatican, which wished to gain influence in Protestant Britain and looked benignly on its conservative establishment, was also favourable. Britain, after all, was seen as the means by which Rome and the Vatican might be relieved of the Napoleonic plague that had emanated from Catholic France. However, the politicised Catholic bourgeoisie, led by the increasingly popular Daniel O’Connell, looked on the matter differently.

By the early nineteenth century the new Catholic leadership had lost interest in placating those liberal elements of the Protestant elite unable to deliver emancipation and perhaps also unable to envisage Catholics in anything other than a subordinate role. Nor were the new Catholics interested in making union with Britain work; that was for the likes of Fitzgibbon and the Catholic aristocrats. O’Connell, who was strongly influenced by eighteenth century republicanism and the achievement of American independence, opposed the Union at the time of its passage and maintained this position throughout his career. The young lawyer and those like him, who thought themselves the complete equal of any Irish Protestant, were militantly opposed to the proposed veto, which they understood to be part of an integrationist agenda of subordination and contrary to the interests of the country. It offended their independent spirit and constituted an invitation to subservience at odds with that spirit and reminiscent of both penal ideology and liberal condescension.

The new Catholic force, European in orientation and liberal in politics, had an instinctive hostility to any ancien regime. Their objective was the transformation or at least the neutralisation of the overwhelmingly anti-Catholic Protestant establishment through the winning of full rights for Catholics. Any compromise involving an implicit admission that Catholics were constitutionally suspect was incompatible with this new assertive thinking.

A discovery with enormous political implications had also been made by the new Catholic political class which encouraged their confidence and ambition. It had become clear that able and assertive leaders such as O’Connell were immensely popular with their poorer co-religionists and that they would be accepted with enthusiasm as political leaders of Catholic Ireland. With this status it became possible to think in terms of campaigning for full political equality and to aspire to the establishment of a new and more democratic parliament in Dublin. So, in the early nineteenth century, Richard Burke’s independent-minded and opulent Catholics switched their attention from the Protestant elite to their poorer co-religionists. Faced with this calibre of Catholic opposition, the veto proposal was abandoned, much to the irritation of Grattan, who came to hate this new class of ingrates now leading Catholic opinion. RB McDowell, a sympathetic biographer of Grattan, described his disappointment: “Understandably he was surprised and pained that the oppressed community, which he was so anxious to help, would not always accept gratefully and submissively the guidance of their experienced parliamentary advocates, listening instead to the vociferous, aggressive and politically radical elements in their leadership.”(10)

Emmet Larkin, in his impressive and scholarly contribution to Evangelicals and Catholics in Nineteenth Century Ireland, reminds us of the highly significant structural change that occurred within the Irish population in the century following 1750, when the Catholic population, overwhelmingly peasant in composition, increased by 270%. The political effects of this transformation among the various social elites were enormous. Fear that the peasant mass might rise and slaughter every last adherent of the Reformation on the island was endemic in the governing minority in the early nineteenth century. The Catholic bourgeoisie on the other hand came to realise that by winning the loyalty of the peasantry it could transcend its marginal status to become the most important political force in the country. It became clear that whoever enjoyed the support of the Catholic poor would be likely to control the future shape of Irish politics. Indeed politics from the veto issue to the Famine can be read as a struggle between various elites for influence with the Catholic poor. The emancipation and repeal campaigns were the main instruments of the O’Connellites, whereas for Protestant Ireland – outside Ulster – the chief means of joining battle was the crusade to convert the peasant masses to Reformation Christianity.

It was the altered political landscape of the early nineteenth century that spurred conservative Protestants to adopt this radical crusade. The huge increase in the Catholic peasantry, the obvious survival of a deep-seated resentment of the ascendancy throughout this burgeoning population, the shift away from political Protestantism at Westminster and the arrival of an assertive and self-reliant Catholic leadership left Irish Protestantism in need of a big idea. The idea which held the potential to eliminate multiple dangers at once was based on the revivalist movement affecting international Protestantism from the early eighteenth century. The movement, which owed much to seventeenth century Puritanism, is said to have originated amongst Czech Protestants locked into the enthusiastically Counter-Reformation Habsburg empire, who presumably felt the need of something more robust than the increasing rationalism of eighteenth century religion to sustain them in their isolation.

Revivalism or, as it became more widely known, Evangelicalism had at its core an unmediated and passionate faith in Christ as the only source of salvation for the individual. Anything which distorted this basic truth, such as ritual or the pretence of clerical mediation with the divine, was regarded as inimical to the crucial discovery of Christ by the individual. While the duty to perform good works was valued within the revivalist scheme, such actions were regarded as incapable of contributing to salvation. For Evangelicals, belief in Christ and the Bible was all that was required for eternal felicity. For this faith to manifest itself within the individual, conversion or re-birth was required, which usually occurred in a moment of realisation. As the eighteenth century progressed the new movement fed from and contributed to the romantic Counter-Enlightenment. The evangelical emphasis on the welfare of the individual soul gelled with the romantic rejection of those Enlightenment truths which left little room for the expression of individual feeling. Thus Evangelicalism became the main current for Protestant romanticism throughout Europe and America.

In its religious fundamentalism, the new movement was strongly reminiscent of seventeenth century Puritanism, which in fact provided the theological basis for the aptly termed revivalist movement. In essence the revival was a revival of Puritanism. In the seventeenth century a long battle had been fought between Puritans and Anglicans, who were, with good reason, fearful of a religious radicalism keen to tear down the structures of their church. Like the later Evangelicals, the Puritans favoured preachers over priests and sermons over ceremonies. The ultimate logic of Evangelicalism was rejection of the elaborate established church and its episcopal hierarchy and possibly also rejection of the secular hierarchy.

During the period of the Cromwellian commonwealth, the Anglican churches in England and Ireland were disestablished and much of their property confiscated. Significantly, the Puritan movement, as enemy to the structures of hierarchy, does not appear to have had a wide influence in Ireland, where the Protestant minority was naturally comfortable with an elaborate cultural apparatus to support its political dominance. Following the collapse of the Puritan protectorate, the Irish Anglican church was re-established and its property restored. In January 1661, two archbishops and ten bishops were consecrated, which, when added to the remaining seven, enabled the church to re-establish itself as a national organisation. In Ireland the Book of Common Prayer was adopted without murmur, whereas in England 2,000 clerics were expelled from the church for refusing to accept it. While individuals of great piety were found in the Irish church, over the following century it became a predominantly political institution, closely allied to the state in its concern to maintain Protestant material privileges. Its hierarchical organisation and property-owning status facilitated this in a way which would not have been possible had it been dissenting and heterodox.

The Wesleyans, who were a dissident element within Anglicanism, were among the first to introduce Evangelicalism into Ireland. Significantly, John Wesley, the Anglican romantic who wanted to touch individual Irish souls, did not think much of the Protestant programme he found in Ireland and asked was it “any wonder that those who are born papists generally live and die as such when the Protestants can find no better way to convert them than penal laws and acts of Parliament”(11). Initially, and unsurprisingly, the activities of the Wesleyans and other enthusiasts do not appear to have impinged much on the consciousness of the ascendancy establishment. To the extent that they were noticed at all their enthusiasms appear to have been regarded as aesthetically repulsive. Fitzgibbon, on one occasion, referred to a general who earned his displeasure as a “mad Methodist”. Indeed he was scathing about all forms of Puritanism. The problems of Irish Protestantism were, after all, political rather religious and in 1800 the Protestant establishment had not quite realised that behind the madness of Methodism lay political gold. While Wesleyans were eventually to follow the implicit Puritan logic and part with Anglicanism, the majority current within Irish Evangelicalism remained firmly within the structured Church of Ireland.

A basic activity of Evangelicals in the eighteenth century, like the earlier Puritans, was preaching, and thus encouraging others to realise that Christ had done everything necessary for salvation and that the only requirement of the lost sinner was to find Christ and believe in him. One of the consequences of this thinking was that Wesleyans in Ireland began to preach to the poor. Their activities were not always viewed with equanimity by Catholics. In 1809 Watty Cox wrote in The Irish Magazine: “There is a practice in the places of confinement in this city, of allowing Methodist causers to enter and molest the unfortunate prisoners … with their preachment. To people who believe not in their system, who know that their chief tenet is a hatred of popery, and their chief object its extermination such visitors would be unacceptable … Two unfortunate men, Roman Catholic (condemned) convicts in Kilmainham gaol last Summer were baited by two Swadlers and had every anathema and damnation thundered in their ears, in case they persisted in popery.”(12) It would appear that the Catholic poor – at least in Dublin – were aware from an early stage that they were being invited to embrace a form of Christianity which, far from augmenting the forms of existing belief, demanded their rejection.

The evangelical movement grew to become a strong force in Britain, but while it did have influence in the Church of England, that Church, unlike its Irish equivalent, did not become a predominantly evangelical Church. There, the bulk of evangelical energy was found outside the Anglican core. Those, in England, who found the revivalist message compelling were found among the artisan classes and others, such as servants, who might question the moral value of social hierarchy. In addition, many from the rising middle classes, at odds with the culture of Britain’s ancien regime, also found a spiritual home in the evangelical movement. Notwithstanding the involvement of many individuals from a conservative establishment background, the movement was not one of the establishment. Politically, English evangelicals tended to be liberal rather than conservative, supporting such measures as the abolition of slavery; indeed significant numbers supported Catholic Emancipation, echoing the stance of those seventeenth century Levellers who had opposed the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland. In time, Evangelicals were to form a significant stratum within Gladstone’s Liberal party and were to embrace the idea of home rule for Ireland, which, of course, was the complete opposite of the position adopted by Anglican Ireland.

On the face of it, it would have seemed unlikely that an Evangelicalism imported from England should have thrived in Ireland, where there was not a numerous Protestant artisan class and where Protestant servants were imbued with the ideology of social hierarchy and Protestant solidarity. In addition, the Irish equivalent of England’s middle class liberals was the new Catholic bourgeoisie, who now identified themselves as liberal Catholics. This grouping was unlikely to adopt any form of Protestantism, which it saw as the badge of Ireland’s exclusivist establishment. Similarly, it would have seemed unlikely that members of the Church of Ireland would have been prepared to endanger the integrated economic and religious apparatus of domination in Ireland by allying themselves with the successors to the great seventeenth century disrupters of order. Notwithstanding these considerations, Anglican Ireland became a revivalist powerhouse and the Church of Ireland became and remained an evangelical Church. The explanation of this outcome ultimately lies in the political potential of evangelical preaching. In Ireland, seeking to bring souls to Christ and salvation involved weaning the Irish from Popery, an object that had long been the dream of Ireland’s colonial elite. This ideal had been debated at length in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century colony. The office of baptism adopted in 1661 contained in its preface the sentiment that “it would be useful for baptising the natives in our plantations”. The concept still had currency in 1711, which saw the publication of one of many treatments of the subject, entitled Proposal for the Conversion of the Popish Natives of Ireland. Nevertheless, in the eighteenth century, the only acceptable manner of acting on this ideal proved to be legislation designed to encourage gradual conversion. However, in the first years of the nineteenth century, with Protestant security considerably reduced, Anglican Ireland transcended the penal world view, so ably defended by Fitzgibbon, and embraced evangelical romanticism as the means of protecting its interests.

Over the first two decades of the nineteenth century the Protestant conservative intelligentsia came to see the evangelical movement as representing a means which could ensure Protestant hegemony indefinitely. This happy outcome would follow automatically from the conversion of the Catholic poor to Protestantism, which itself would follow from the enthusiastic dissemination of God’s word without note or comment and appropriate follow-up activities. Desmond Bowen, author of The Protestant Crusade, described the movement’s objectives: “What the evangelicals wanted was the conversion of all the Irish people including the peasantry of the majority nation”. “Evangelical tactics,” he goes on to say, “called for unrelenting proselytising.”(13)

One of the many telling points made in Irene Whelan’s detailed study of Irish Evangelicalism is that the movement came to be led and controlled by the Protestant establishment. “ … the Church of Ireland … between 1806 and 1818 took a decisive lead in the moral crusade to rescue Catholics from ignorance and spiritual slavery”(14). Trinity College, the central cultural institution of Protestant Ireland and the training centre for clergymen, led the way in the adoption of Evangelicalism by Ireland’s political and economic elite and became a centre of enthusiasm for the new Reformation. Leading Protestant commercial and landed families moved to throw their weight and financial support behind the campaign. Finally, in 1822, Archbishop William Magee issued what has been described as a declaration of religious war. In a directive he told his clergy not to be “content merely to afford spiritual aid where it may be demanded, but vigilant to discover where it may be applied, and prompt to bestow it where it will be received”(15).

Alan Acheson, in his History of the Church of Ireland 1691-2001, confirms the extensive establishment support the revival received. In a section headed The Popular Reformation he says: “ … it prospered primarily because it won the allegiance, and harnessed the energy, wealth and authority, of significant numbers of the laity. For the revival permeated every sphere of society: aristocracy and gentry, commerce and the professions – banking, law and medicine, politics, armed services and university.”(16) Acheson also speaks of the contrast with England: “There few representatives of either aristocracy or universities had identified with CMS (Church Missionary Society) from its formation in 1799. In contrast, Hibernian CMS had as vicepatrons –under Viscount Lorton … as President – three earls, Desart, Gosford and Westmeath, and four Viscounts: De Vesci, Lifford, Northland and Valentia. Its vice-presidents were the Lord Mayor of Dublin, General Hewitt, Judge Daly and David La Touche – all privy councillors; Generals White and Trotter, Hon James Hewitt, Dr. Perceval of TCD, Peter La Touche of Bellevue, William Brownlow MP and Alexander Hamilton KC. Twenty-one committee members included two each from the Disney (of Blackrock), Guinness and La Touche families; Sergeant Thomas Lefroy, Thomas Parnell, Major Sirr, and the academics Henry Monck Mason and P.A Singer.” The English movement on which the Irish movement had been modelled did not attract comparable establishment support. When the leading English Evangelical Charles Simeon visited Dublin in 1822 he was, as Acheson records, “astonished to find earls, viscounts and judges calling on me”(17).

So what was the reason for this discrepancy between revivalist support in England and Ireland? The suggestion that wealthy Irish Protestants enjoyed a superior level of piety is clearly an unsatisfactory explanation for a divergence between peoples who shared a wide range of cultural and family connections and were in essence branches of the same people. The answer must have something to with the very different circumstances of the English and Irish elites in the early nineteenth century. In England significant elements of the conservative intelligentsia, particularly those based in the old establishment university of Oxford, were to react negatively to the new fundamentalism. The reaction, which took the form of Tractarianism, appealed to deep-seated impulses in English culture and was reminiscent of Archbishop Laud’s reaction to the minimalism of the seventeenth century Puritans. As Kenneth Milne has observed: “If the Oxford movement of the Tractarians may be said to have left an indelible mark on the persona of the Church of England, much the same can be said for the colouring of the Church of Ireland by the influence of generations of evangelicals.” Significantly, Irish Protestants loathed the Oxford movement and spent a great deal of space in their publications attacking it. The initial Tractarian emphasis was on the religious value of Christian tradition with the distinctive Anglo-Catholic emphasis on vestments and ritual following later in the century. Irish Protestants, however, quickly recognised the Tractarians’ orientation and denounced their denigration of scripture as crypto-Popery from the 1830s.

The objectives of those who led the Protestant crusade are reflected in the extensive Protestant press published in the 1820s and 1830s, which reported the successes of the numerous missionary groups around the country in head counts of converts. These journals were remorselessly political in their focus, with the supposedly central business of personal salvation playing a remote second fiddle to expressions of hatred of O’Connell and hostility to Catholic Emancipation. The more politically focused the Catholic leadership became the more hostility towards Catholics came to the surface in Protestant discourse. Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited Dublin in 1835, remarked that “all the rich Protestants whom I saw in Dublin speak of the Catholic population only with an extraordinary hatred and contempt”(18). In 1843, when the O’Connellites were vigorously campaigning for repeal of the Union, a liberal-minded Protestant from Co Meath, Thomas Leigh Claughton, remarked: “A Papist in these parts is regarded as something midway between a Protestant and a pig.”(19) Significantly, this Protestant hostility was particularly focused on the Catholic clergy and middle classes, the forces which were inhibiting Protestant interests and successfully competing for political influence. While expressions of sectarian animosity increased in the 1820s they became more pronounced with the success of the emancipation campaign and the launch of the movement to repeal the Union. Hostility increased with the fear and indeed the evidence that the Protestant campaign might be failing.

The process of an emerging political hysteria can be witnessed in the changes which occurred in the Dublin Evening Mail as the emancipation campaign progressed. The Mail, which was established in 1822, was in its first few years, although decidedly Protestant, relatively moderate in tone and anxious to avoid sectarian outbursts. It was controlled, at a distance, by Lord Farnham, who, as the Catholic counter-attack crystallised, became one of the most vigorous and sectarian Evangelicals in the country. Farnham made life extremely difficult for any Catholic tenants unwilling to accept the attentions of the numerous bible preachers he loosed on his estates. He devoted both his time and fortune to an assault on Catholics and Catholicism, which at one point came close to overt military activity. With the passage of emancipation in 1829 he believed that Protestants were in immediate physical danger and in response organised the importation of arms into the country.

Like its patron, the Mail, which was an enthusiastic supporter of the Protestant crusade, became infused with a hatred of Catholic political assertion which was denounced in increasingly venomous language. Its most frequent target was O’Connell. Protestant political interests so absorbed its outlook that it was frequently unable to comprehend the Catholic leader in rational political terms, typically declaring: “We have often maintained that filthy lucre and not love of his country was the activating motive of all Mr. Daniel O’Connell’s agitation.”(20) The Mail offered no cogent political analysis of the O’Connellite enemy and treated emancipation as a violation of the natural order commenting: “ … we have opposed all the influence of our columns to that kind of encroachment which is absurdly denominated Catholic emancipation”(21). When the measure was passed it declared in apocalyptic terms: “We tell the Protestants of Ireland that at no former period was firmness, resolution and above all union so necessary for their safety and perhaps their very existence … the intolerant insolence of the Roman Catholics in the exuberance of their triumph is not to be borne and it will not”(22). Farnham himself was in no mood to lie down and set about sourcing arms through evangelical contacts in Birmingham.

The strength and unrelenting character of Protestant opposition to the relatively modest reliefs sought by O’Connell in the somewhat over-described emancipation campaign is at one level puzzling. As it was far greater than the opposition mounted against the very significant eighteenth century dilutions of the penal code, it is difficult not to see the passion of Protestant opposition as deriving from changes in the circumstances of the colonial elite wrought by the Union. The successful O’Connellite bid for the leadership of Catholic Ireland could not have come at a worse time for Anglican Ireland, which essentially understood that it was engaged in its final attempt to secure a future commensurate with its eighteenth century heyday. The passionate opposition to emancipation was only in a marginal sense concerned with the issue of Catholics taking seats at Westminster. Its real business was winning a struggle where it was feared that the alternative to victory was political destruction.

Protestant Ireland had marshalled all its resources in pursuit of its campaign to assimilate the Catholic poor. In theory, its efforts might well have worked, as a similar campaign did in the Scottish islands. There was a sense in which the massively expanded Irish peasantry might reasonably have been thought to have been up for grabs. In Evangelicals and Catholics in 19th century Ireland Emmet Larkin explains the enormous difficulties faced by the Catholic church in ministering to its flock at that time. Due to the huge increase in the Catholic population, which far outstripped the modest increase in Catholic clergy, the church had no possibility of ministering to its followers on a regular basis, still less of insisting on Tridentine orthodoxy.The irregular hearing of Mass, celebrated by a visiting priest (stations), was the normal contact with the organised church. Easter observance was the defining characteristic of the orthodox Catholic. The religious experience of the Catholic poor, which involved practices such as daily prayer pilgrimages and patterns, was, of course, more extensive than the limited contact with the official church. These religious practices of the poor were invariably found to be offensive by evangelical observers. It might have been expected or hoped that the rural poor largely ignored – through dint of circumstance – by their own church and living in a culture under enormous pressure might respond positively to the attentions of the numerous imported and indigenous preachers, many of whom were Irish speakers.

Success however was very limited. In explaining the failure of the new Reformation the success of the O’Connellite movement is, of course, of enormous importance. However, it seems likely that the deep and intricate cultural fabric of belief which existed throughout peasant culture and which was utterly incompatible with the Christian minimalism of the evangelical crusaders must also have played a part. Additional suspicion of proselytisers must also have followed from the obvious fact that the crusade was sponsored by those who had demonstrated themselves to be fundamentally hostile to Catholic Ireland and the interests of its people. The second reformation could only have worked if the enlarged peasant population was divorced from the traditional understanding of itself as oppressed at the hands of English Protestants and from the cultural omnipresence of peasant Catholicism. As this was not the case, it is hardly surprising that the attempted re-engineering of Irish religious affiliation failed. By the 1840s the leading figures of the Protestant elite had withdrawn from the campaign, leaving control to a politically marginal admixture of the zealous and the pious.

The emancipation victory of 1829 marked the beginning of the decline in Irish Evangelicalism as a major phenomenon. However it can be argued, despite its ultimate failure, that the campaign and its consequences shaped Irish politics over the century and a half which followed. In particular it might be said that the refusal of both conservative and liberal Anglicanism to ally with the emergent O’Connellite bourgeoisie ensured an economic and cultural atrophy in Ireland which was to endure, to a greater or lesser extent, until the late twentieth century. The political failure of Protestant liberalism in the years between the veto controversy and the Famine was, arguably, crucial, as this significant though minor element within Anglicanism might well have proved decisive in determining Irish historical possibilities through succeeding eras. However, faced with a fully mobilised rhetoric, resonant of long established fears and aspirations, liberal Protestantism proved psychologically incapable of substantial resistance.

The fate of liberal Protestantism can be viewed in microcosm through the careers of Caesar Otway and George Petrie, who moved from radical nationalism in 1816 to support for the work of the Protestant crusade in Ireland by the late 1820s. In Otway’s case the support was overt, whereas in Petrie’s it was implicit.The first distinctively nineteenth century voice of liberal Protestantism was that of Otway and Petrie in The Irish Examiner, which they established in 1816. Both were cultural nationalists who wrote celebratory articles on Irish art, music and literature and always emphasised the vital connection between culture and politics. They were fully aware that separation from England was the political logic of the distinctive Irish culture they valued.

Writing prior to the near total involvement of Protestant Ireland in the Bible war, the central problem, as they saw it – in an echo of Tone’s thinking – was that the country was religiously divided and that these divisions were exacerbated through deliberate British policy: “If Ireland were wholly Catholic or wholly Protestant it would have ceased long since to be a British dependency,”(23)the Examiner declared. The way to build national bonds between the sects was to celebrate Irish arts and cease discrimination against Catholics. However, this classic statement of an inclusive romantic nationalism was not to become the new standard liberal Protestant position. In terms of defining the forms of a modern cultural nationalism, Protestant writers were more advanced than the Catholic intelligentsia, who remained attached to political values based on the principles of Enlightenment universalism. Ironically, the level of political autonomy implicit in the passionate engagement of Protestant intellectuals with a distinctively local Irish culture was greater than the rationalist O’Connellites would seek in the Repeal campaign. Over these crucial decades, despite the enormous emotional and intellectual energy invested in elaborating a romantic cultural nationalism, liberal Protestants rendered themselves politically impotent by refusing to embrace the political implications of their position. Whereas the Examiner in 1816 was overtly separatist, a decade later the position of its conductors, and that of many other liberal Protestants imbued with national sentiment, had altered to the view that independence would have to await the conversion of the peasantry who, as yet, were unprepared for freedom.

In the Examiner, Otway and Petrie proposed a Grattan-style policy of “alluring the wealthy and respectable part of the Catholic community”(24) into an alliance as a first step in a developing a national movement which would undercut what they saw as the hitherto effective divide and rule policy operated by Westminster. They also supported Catholic Emancipation, opposed the campaign to disseminate the Bible among the Catholic poor and promoted the idea of Irish independence. On the question of relations between the sects they saw the future in terms which again show the influence of Tone. “We would almost go to the length of saying that were religious liberty perfectly established in Ireland and some other matters of import attended to, not only would the progress of Catholicism be retarded but Protestantism or at least indifference to any particular sect would become very generally prevalent.”(25)

Otway and Petrie, however, failed to expand these ideas to become advocates of a liberal Protestant alliance with O’Connell, whose opinions on harmony between the sects, as stated on many occasions, would have been substantially compatible with those of the Examiner. Otway and Petrie’s unwillingness to forge such an alliance is puzzling as it held the potential to advance many of the Examiner’s stated objectives. The reason for this crucial failure can perhaps be discerned in the last extract quoted from the Examiner which, of course, echoes some of Tone’s ideas, including his reservations on the subject of Catholicism. Like many Liberal Protestants, the editors of the Examiner would, ultimately, have seen Catholicism as backward and as something whose progress all right-thinking people would want halted. Whereas conservatives focused on papal slavery and expressing a passionate hatred of Catholic religious practices, liberals tended to emphasise an alleged incompatibility of Catholicism with the practice of education and inquiry. Protestantism, on the other hand, was spoken of by its adherents as if it enjoyed the demonstrable validity of one of the physical sciences. (It was, perhaps unfortunately, to be some decades before the work of French geologists in exposing the fossil record and the unscientific character of the Bible, was to penetrate the English speaking world.) It would seem that as a result of pre-existing prejudice and the avalanche of anti-Catholic evangelical propaganda, the bulk of Protestant liberals found themselves incapable of opposing the Bible campaign. Their critique of Catholicism, which had been a marginal aspect of their politics, came to take on a central and determining role.

In this environment evangelical rhetoric proved impervious to the widely available evidence that Catholicism in practice did not involve political slavery to papal whim and intellectual subordination to dogma. In Catholic Europe the Vatican, in many cases, had to clear episcopal appointments with the relevant government, while Catholic France had given birth to a range of radical ideas clearly incompatible with intellectual slavery. Indeed one result of such ideas, as was widely known at the time, was that the Pope had been held prisoner in the Vatican by Napoleon. Closer to home, during the veto controversy of 1813, O’Connell summarily rejected the views of Rome and forced the Catholic bishops to follow the secular political line. At the time he declared: “I am sincerely a Catholic, but I am not a papist. I deny the doctrine that the Pope has any temporal authority directly or indirectly in Ireland.”(26) Indeed, it would seem that this was not a view with which the Vatican would argue. In 1814 Monsignor Quarantotti of the Roman Curia issued a prescript expressing approval of the relief bill of 1813, declaring that it was “in the spirit of this holy and truly divine religion to favour established authority, to strengthen thrones and to make subjects obedient, loyal and devoted to their country”(27).

By 1829 Otway was editing the Christian Examiner and had become an advocate of the new reformation. The Christian Examiner, in a mode quite different from the Irish Examiner, was devoted to exposing the “errors of Romanism” and looked positively on Bible distribution and associated activities. While some echoes of its editor’s earlier politics may be discerned in its pages, it is made clear that all progress on national questions depended on the Protestant reformation then believed to be under way and whose consummation was eagerly awaited. Petrie underwent a similar transformation in that he abandoned the unambiguous politics of the Examiner for the affected neutrality of the Dublin Penny Journal, which he edited with Otway from 1832. The Dublin Penny Journal sought to celebrate Ireland’s unique culture while eschewing the political nationalism which was clearly its political corollary and which bubbled below the surface. It repeated none of the political positions of the Irish Examiner, merely implying from time to time that if the peasantry were transformed desirable national political developments would follow.

In choosing the security of Protestant ascendancy over the logic of their emerging romantic nationalism Otway and Petrie were not unusual. The same leading Protestant liberals who signed a petition in favour of Catholic Emancipation shortly afterwards signed a petition against Repeal. Liberal Protestantism remained frozen and ineffectual in this position throughout the 1830s until Thomas Davis denounced the “amphibious”(28) politics of the liberal Citizen, to which he had been contributing, and left to set up the Nation, an unreservedly pro-Repeal publication in which he advocated a two-way process of mutual assimilation between Catholic and reformation Ireland in a programme of national modernisation. Protestant liberals and intellectuals watched Davis from afar with a mixture of fascination and foreboding but very few followed him. As a result it became clear that Davis did not speak for any significant section of Protestant Ireland and was therefore not in a position to ensure that a union of the sects would define Ireland’s future politics. Thomas Davis was the first in a series of maverick individuals – many of genius – who were to break ranks with Anglican introversion in magnificent and imaginative political interventions that all failed to draw any significant section of the Protestant community with them.


  1. Quoted in Modern Ireland 1600-1972, RF Foster, pbk edition London 1989,

    p 257.
  2. Converts and Conversion in Ireland 1650-1850, eds Brown, Mc Grath, Power Dublin 2005, p 57.
  3. Ibid., p 33.
  4. Quoted in “Purchase and/or Conquest”, Eric Froner, London Review of Books, vol 28 no 3, p 17.
  5. Foster, op.cit., p 261.
  6. Quoted in John Fitzgibbon, Earl of Clare, AC Kavanagh, Dublin 1997, p 257
  7. Grattan’s Failure, Parliamentary Opposition and the People in Ireland 1779-1800, Danny Mansergh, Dublin 2005, p 8.
  8. The Bible War in Ireland, Irene Whelan, Dublin 2005, p 48.
  9. Ireland Social, Political and Religious, Gustave De Beaumont, original edition Paris 1839, new translated edition by WC Taylor, USA 2006, p 246.
  10. Grattan a Life, RB McDowell, Dublin 2001, p 211.
  11. Quoted in Converts and Conversions, p 76.
  12. The Irish Magazine or Monthly Asylum, June 1809, p 278.
  13. Protestant Crusade in Ireland, D Bowen, Dublin 1978, p 83.
  14. The Bible War in Ireland, p 92.
  15. Quoted in Protestant Crusade, p 89.
  16. A History of the Church of Ireland 1691-2001, Alan Acheson, Dublin 2002, p 124.
  17. Ibid. p 125.
  18. Quoted in The Church of Ireland in Victorian Dublin, John Crawford, Dublin 2005, p 57.
  19. Ibid. p 58.
  20. Dublin Evening Mail, 27/4/1829.
  21. Ibid. 5/5/1823.
  22. Ibid 22/4/1829.
  23. Dublin Examiner, Vol I, p 288.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid. pp 10-11.
  26. Quoted in Daniel O’Connell, Fergus O’Ferrall, Dublin 1981, p 35.
  27. Grattan a Life, p 213.
  28. Thomas Davis, C.G. Duffy, p 193.

Maurice Earls is a bookseller and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.