The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

National Struggle in Ireland

Category: 19th century

The Act of Union with Ireland came as the natu­ral sequence of the suppression of the revolt of the United Irishmen. The Act was followed by a series of Coercion Acts intended to crush the continued revolt of the peasants against the crushing burden of rent, tithes and taxes. Having grouped into several secret organizations, such as the Whiteboys and the Ribbon-men, the Irish peasants conducted an irregular war­fare, and tithes especially could only be collected at the point of the bayonet. Battles like that at Rathcor-mack where twelve people were killed were frequent. No repression could destroy this revolt, which sprang from the profound misery of the people, but what English bayonets failed to do was done by the Irish under the guidance of Daniel O’Connell.

Daniel O’Connell, assisted by the Catholic priests, created the Catholic Association, which soon gained an undisputed ascendancy over the peasants. The whole strength of the Association was turned to securing “Catholic Emancipation”, by which O’Connell meant the right of the Catholic gentry to become members of the Westminster Parliament.

He achieved his object in 1829, but at the same time the 40 s. franchise was abolished and the number of Irish voters reduced from 200,000 to 26,000. After his victory O’Connell began an agitation for the repeal of the Union, but was careful to confine it within lim­its that prevented any effective action of the masses.

Ireland was important to Great Britain as a source of cheap food. With the development of manufactures in England, Ireland was turned into a corn-growing country. During the high prices of the Napoleonic Wars, rents rose amazingly and there was an extreme subdi­vision of holdings. After the war, Ireland was the only place from which corn could be freely exported to England under the Corn Laws, and, though prices fell, the profits of the landowners were not affected be­cause the fall in prices only meant that the peasants had to produce more wheat to pay their rent. Evic­tions were frequent and the steady growth of the pop­ulation always made it easy to find new tenants how­ever extortionate the rent was.

In 1835, the total value of Irish agricultural pro­duce was £36,000,000. Of this £10,000,000 went in rent, £20,000,000 in taxes, tithe, and the profits of middle­men and merchants, and less than £6,000,000 to the actual producers, the small holders and labourers. The peasant grew wheat to pay the rent and potatoes to feed himself and his family. These are the facts which provide the essential background to the Great Famine which raged from 1845 to 1850.

There was really no famine in any ordinary sense of the word, but only the failure of one crop, the potatoes. “Providence sent the potato blight, but England made the famine” was a saying current at the time. In 1847, when hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation, food to the value of £17,000,000 was ex­ported from the country under the protection of En­glish troops. The million and a half people who died in these years did not die of famine but were killed by rent and profit.

The place of O’Connell’s Association had been taken by the Young Ireland Movement that advocated the forcible seizure of the land and the refusal of all rent and tithes. The leaders of the movement, John Mitchel and James Finan Lalor, planned for an insurrection in conjunction with the English Chartists. The rising was forestalled by the arrest of the leaders. Still some local riots took place in 1848, but they were a failure.

The next four decades were a time of great mis­ery, when many of the Irish emigrated to the USA and to Canada. After the repeal of the Corn Laws Irish wheat lost its monopoly in the English market and wheat growing gave way to cattle grazing. The popu­lation of Ireland fell from 8,170,000 in 1841 to 4,700,000 in 1891, while the area under corn fell from 3,000,000 acres to 1,500,000 acres.

The period saw the driving out of the hand spin­ners and weavers by the machine-made goods from England. At the same time Irish industry remained backward except round Belfast, where shipbuilding and linen-weaving were carried on almost entirely with English capital.

In 1857 the next big social movement was started. The Fenian Society remained unimportant till after the American Civil War, in which thousands of the Irish emigrants served with distinction. After the war had been finished, many of these experienced soldiers were ready to put their military skill at the service of Ireland. The members of the Fenian Society, or the Fenians, soon gained strength. They also planned for a rising, but once again these plans were betrayed to the British government and the leaders arrested. With­out them the rising that took place in 1867 was quickly crushed. In 1879 the Fenians started the Land League to defend the economic interests of peasants. The Land League headed by Michael Davitt soon developed into a nation-wide resistance to the landlords and the gov­ernment. Economic struggle went along with the polit­ical one. The Home Rule Party was formed in 1872. Its members had a bitter sense of Irish wrongs and were determined to end them at all costs. Charles Stuart Parnell, the leader of the Home Rule Party, saw in the Land League a means of uniting the agrarian struggle with the struggle for national liberation.

The famine that struck Ireland in 1879, with its consequent misery, made Parnell and Davitt the lead­ers of a nation-wide political and economic struggle. The peasantry saw in them the only power that could save them from ruin.

In 1881 the British government passed an act which made it possible for anyone suspected of supporting the Land League to be imprisoned and held without trial. Soon most of the Land League leaders were ar­rested.

While their leaders were imprisoned, some peas­ants, now without any centralized leadership, appeared to be breaking up in acts of individual terrorism. Par­nell was released in 1882 and tried to stop the violent and illegal methods of struggle as he had never be­lieved in terrorism. At the same time he turned his energies to a campaign for Irish self-government within the British Empire.

Parnell believed that a body of Irish Nationalists in the Parliament would be strong enough to com mand serious attention and at times, when the main parties were evenly divided, would be able to hold the balance and extort large concessions at the price of their support. Under Parnell’s leadership these tactics did win success. But after the Nationalist Party had been split and Parnell himself was driven out of the leadership by an unprincipled alliance between Catho­lic Church, Irish landowners and the government, his successors led the Irish Nationalist Party into the depth of opportunism until the day in 1914 when their leader John Redmond stood up in the House of Commons to assure the English government of the support of Ire­land in the event of war. That pledge was the death sentence of Parnell’s party.

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