With Bit and Bridle

Matthew Kelly

  • Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The Isle of Slaves by Ian McBride
    Gill and Macmillan, 563 pp, £19.99, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 7171 1627 0

On 12 March 1689, James II, the deposed king of England and Ireland, Catholic and absolutist, landed at Kinsale on the south coast of Ireland with a substantial French force. He had fled England a few months before when William and Mary had been declared joint sovereigns – the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’. In April, the House of Commons responded by voting for war with France. Initially, that war, which would continue intermittently for much of the next century, was fought in Ireland. The campaigns of 1689-91 bequeathed to modern Ireland many of its most important lieux de mémoire: Limerick, Londonderry, the Boyne and Aughrim, thereafter celebrated – or cursed – in songs and poetry. Whether in battle, or in laying or surviving a siege, the Williamites – synonymous with the Protestant cause – eventually triumphed. The place names are perhaps remembered only in Ireland but this was a war fought on a European scale: 62,000 men clashed on the Boyne in 1690; 7000 Jacobites were killed during Aughrim’s ‘grim disaster’ in 1691.

Recovering a sense of scale is important. In 1740-41, nearly half a million Irish died as a result of famine during the largely forgotten ‘year of the slaughter’, reducing the population to 2.5 million. By 1800, however, Ireland’s population was 5.3 million. Though a remarkable demographic fact by any standard, it seems even more remarkable given that at the time the combined population of England and Wales was only 9.2 million. It was the famine and emigration of the 19th century – as nationalists were acutely aware – that saw Ireland’s population drop and then stabilise while Britain’s surged ahead. From a British perspective, 18th-century Ireland was a bigger and more potentially threatening place than it has been at any time since.

The Protestant victories at Boyne, Aughrim and Limerick were pivotal to the establishment of what is usually referred to as Ascendancy Ireland, a system of oligarchic government based on an Anglo-Irish class of landowners. ‘Anglo-Irish’ has complex and shifting meanings, but we can take it to describe an elite landed class descended largely from 16th-century settlers of English origin who worshipped as Anglicans. This caste included neither the Scots Presbyterians associated with the Ulster Plantation of 1606-9 nor the Cromwellian footsoldiers who received land for service after the conquest of Ireland in 1649-53. Two further striking demographic facts: between 1600 and 1700, the proportion of Ireland’s population that were settlers of Scots or English descent rose from 2 per cent to 27 per cent; during the same period, the proportion of profitable land in Catholic ownership fell from 90 per cent to 5 per cent.

Confiscation and settlement alone, however, did not secure the Ascendancy. As Ian McBride emphasises, the Franco-Jacobite threat was temporarily removed in 1713, when France recognised the Protestant succession as part of the Treaty of Utrecht. Paving the way for the Anglo-French alliance of 1716-31, Utrecht allowed the consolidation of Hanoverian power. At the same time, Protestant ascendancy was strengthened by the development of the Penal Laws. Popularly known as the ‘popery laws’ and enacted primarily between the 1690s and the 1720s, these were a comprehensive but not systematic attempt to destroy the military, religious, economic and political foundations of Catholic Ireland.

According to McBride’s summary, these acts sought to disarm Catholics, prohibiting them from owning weapons or horses worth more than £5; decisively to undermine the Catholic Church (bishops, monks and nuns were banished, leading to a powerful Irish Catholic presence in continental Europe; priests were required to register with the local magistrate and renounce on oath their Jacobite loyalties; and Catholic schooling and popular practices such as pilgrimages and visits to holy wells were outlawed); to weaken Catholic landed power even further (Catholic estates were to be divided between the male heirs unless the eldest son converted to Protestantism, and Catholics were prohibited from purchasing or taking long leases on land owned by Protestants); and to exclude Catholics from public life, prohibiting their participation in parliament, municipal corporations, the magistracy and the legal profession – a 1727 law formally disenfranchised Catholic Ireland.

Though William favoured greater tolerance, the laws accurately reflected the virulence of anti-popery among the Protestant elite. Typical Ascendancy views, often expounded from the pulpit, held Irish Catholics to be inveterate rebels, who in an ideal world would be ‘excluded from living in Cities, Walled Towns and Corporations, which are the strengths of the Kingdom’ and ‘held in like the Horse and Mule … with Bit and Bridle’. Commemorations marking the Catholic massacres of Protestants in 1641 were revived, and there was a ready audience (and market) for published sermons hyperbolically claiming 300,000 Protestant victims.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in