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.

In practice, the Penal Laws were not implemented with a strictness that reflected this intensity of feeling, and much of the aggression of Episcopalian polemic was evidence of an Ascendancy anxiety that the early modern state had a limited capacity to enforce its will. Despite this, the government could be brutally coercive during periods of Anglo-French conflict (such as the War of the Austrian Succession of 1740-48 and the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63), renewing anti-Catholic sentiment and making clear the readiness of the state to flex its persecutory muscles. Indeed, as McBride argues, a summary of the Penal Laws fails to convey the extent to which the annual tabling of amendments and additions, accompanied by much pamphleteering testifying to the dangers of popery, became a ritualised part of British political life. The discussion and promulgation of such acts was often mostly show: Dublin Castle was inclined to the view that implementation could be more trouble than it was worth, especially given the threat posed by the Catholic crowd – as the ‘priest-catcher’ on the receiving end of a nasty beating could testify. What’s more, anti-Catholic sentiment was often weak in more private matters, not least as landowners and leaseholders came to accept that Ireland was not an attractive proposition to new British tenants.

This might encourage us to ask whether it was more significant that the notorious 1719 bill legislating for the castration of unregistered Catholic priests was tabled in the first place, or that it was eventually thrown out. The extreme demands made by Anglo-Irish politicians were thought characteristically batty by other British politicians – a great gap was opening up between the Irish and British elites. Though McBride’s audacious subtitle – ‘The Isle of Slaves’ – refers to Ireland’s Catholics, it is also an allusion to the pervasive trope of enslavement in Irish political polemic. The Anglo-Irish took the view that Britain was a composite monarchy of three equal parts (England, Ireland and Scotland), increasingly corrupted by novel constitutional arrangements that saw power ever more concentrated in English hands: the Declaratory Act of 1720, for example, formally subordinated the Irish parliament to the English. From the English point of view, this seemed reasonable enough, for not only had they secured Protestant Ireland but they remained largely responsible for its security. Outraged Ascendancy sensibilities generated a debate conducted in pamphlets – notably Swift’s brilliant Drapier’s Letters – and powered by the belief that the cost of Protestant security had been their own ‘enslavement’. Indeed, Protestants urging greater religious toleration were often stung into action by the humiliating thought that the British did not distinguish them from the ‘mere Irish’.

Though McBride’s analysis affirms the status of the Penal Laws as a byword for British oppression, he reminds us that neither the confessional state nor the determination of the victorious state to disarm its enemies was exceptional in early modern Europe. Sean Connolly, the most prominent proponent of the so-called ancien régime thesis, argues that the concentration of power in the hands of a small political class or oligarchy underpinned by state religion, as well as rigid social hierarchies and massive material inequality, was typical in Europe at the time. By contrast, Kevin Whelan sees 18th-century Ireland as the ‘first colony’ of the British Empire, held on behalf of the metropole by a colonial elite whose position was buttressed by certain sectarian and racial beliefs. On this reading, the distinction between ‘native’ and ‘settler’ was fundamental and enduring.

According to the highly politicised polemics of Irish historiography, Connolly is a revisionist. His analysis challenges the traditional nationalist narrative of ‘800 years of oppression’, and finds the discontinuities in Irish historical experience more telling than the apparent continuities. Sceptical of theory, inclined to emphasise contingency and drawn to the particular, Connolly’s outlook is typical of many ‘professional’ historians. Whelan, by contrast, straddles the disciplinary boundaries and, finding much historical practice ideologically compromised by unconscious or implicitly colonial attitudes, draws on postcolonial insights to trace a metanarrative that makes sense of Ireland’s history over the longue durée.

At first glance, McBride’s approach appears to be an exercise in triangulation, respectfully noting the advantages and drawbacks of both Connolly and Whelan’s approaches, though such are the zero-sum tendencies of Irish postcolonialism it is hard to introduce nuances without undermining its fundamentals. In particular, McBride asks where the ‘Scotch’ Presbyterian settlers of Ulster, who were also excluded from the political class and often seen by the Ascendancy as a greater threat than Catholic Ireland, fit into a historical paradigm dominated by ideas of native and settler. At the same time, he recognises that the scale and brutality of Catholic dispossession in the 18th century was untypical: violently to supplant and exile the existing elite rather than co-opting it was unusual in early modern Europe. In sum, if Connolly runs the risk of sanitising or normalising the appalling formative political violence of Ireland’s 18th century, the emphasis writers such as Whelan place on the ‘overriding antipathy between settler and native’ obscures the ‘subtle social distinctions that were constantly being displayed, debated and policed in Ascendancy Ireland’.

Historians can agree that 18th-century Ireland was not under a system of military government or occupation – even though, proportional to population, there was a greater military presence than in Britain – and that Catholic Ireland was not in a state of perpetual revolt (this is a more contentious claim, since many kinds of cultural practice can be seen as constituting ‘resistance’). By ‘keeping the contradictions and anomalies of 18th-century Ireland out of public view,’ McBride writes, ‘the penal code permitted the Ascendancy to admire its own confident self-portrait, undisturbed by the continuing challenge posed by the resilience of the majority faith in Ireland’. His aim is to counterpoint Ascendancy pomp and complaint with a portrait of, on the one hand, the resilience of Catholic life and, on the other, the perpetual challenge rural discontent posed to social order. The cover of his book shows the elegant front door of a Georgian house, a symbol of Ascendancy life, superimposed on a black background. McBride’s achievement is to fill in this background. To this end, he makes innovative use of the Vatican archives, clerical correspondence and women’s private writings as well as histories of popular protest in 18th-century Britain, effectively drawing on the demographic and socioeconomic history that has become unfashionable since the ‘cultural turn’ of the 1980s.

Just as McBride demonstrates that the politics of Ascendancy Ireland can be fully understood only in an international context, so it is with his explanation of the resilience of Irish Catholicism. Catholic noblemen exiled to Spain and France were prominent in the armies of their host countries, while volunteers illegally recruited in Ireland for those armies ensured a steady flow of information in both directions. The Irish seminaries in Spain, France, Italy and the Holy Roman Empire, their numbers boosted by exiles fleeing persecution, provided Irish Catholicism with an ‘extraordinary life-support system’. Graduates of these colleges were to be found among the mercantile expatriates of Cádiz, Nantes and Bordeaux (where they did much to develop the international trade in claret), were employed by the London embassies of European Catholic governments, and lived incognito in Ireland itself. Moreover, the Ascendancy failed to confine Catholicism to the agrarian class of subsistence farmers, the ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’; dispossessed Catholic landowners often worked for convert landlords as middlemen and leaseholders. ‘Despite the experience of confiscation, banishment and legal repression,’ McBride argues, ‘the continuity of social and economic structures is remarkable.’ Catholics were increasingly able to practise their faith discreetly. Chapels were tolerated if they were tucked away in back streets or confined to the margins of the landed estates. Yet, as McBride observes, until the Relief Act of 1782 abolished restrictions on Catholic worship (public ceremonies and the erection of towers or steeples remained illegal), the conditions of Catholic life in Ireland, though ‘seldom very oppressive, were nevertheless marked by profound insecurity’: prosecution and punishment faced those who exercised what McBride calls ‘popery with attitude’.

While Protestants and Catholics were reaching various forms of religious accommodation, agrarian conflict proved intractable, particularly during the population boom of the second half of the 18th century. Secret societies or ‘combinations’ with such names as the Whiteboys, Oakboys, Steelboys, Rightboys, Peep O’Day Boys and the Defenders confronted the establishment with mass protests or acts of ritualised violence and intimidation. These groups generally had a strongly sectarian identity, whether Catholic or Presbyterian. There were protests against lease speculation, the parcelling up of land for sub-letting and the more ‘efficient’ collection of rent arrears, tithes and the ‘small dues’ claimed by Anglican clergy. Even more contentious were the changes in farming practice brought about by the growth of an export market in beef. Landlords and leaseholders evicted tenants or enclosed common land in order to convert tillage into pasture.

The scale is striking. In March 1763, as many as 14,000 Catholic insurgents were mobilised in Tipperary; four months later, groups of largely Presbyterian Boys electrified Ulster. At one point, 40,000 ‘laid siege’ to Derry while 20,000 protested against an unpopular tax; in December 1770, 600 Steelboys armed with firelocks occupied Belfast. These numbers, almost certainly exaggerated, can be read as evidence of panic among officialdom. In general, there was relatively little violence against the person – though the Boys were capable of savage beatings and dreadful acts of mutilation and torture – but there was plenty of intimidating behaviour and violence against property. New fences were torn down, ditches filled, walls levelled and the landscape sprinkled with mock gallows and open graves; most notorious, there was ‘houghing’, or hamstringing of cows, which left them collapsed in a heap. The Boys were most prone to savagery when one of their own was captured. McBride cites several instances in which, faced with overwhelming numbers, the authorities had no choice but to release a prisoner.

The insurgents were directly responsible for 18 deaths, but lost 70 in clashes with the authorities and 85 to the hangman. The state’s barbarity was ritualistic: the still-breathing victim was taken down from gallows for quartering and his body parts were gibbeted as a warning to others. In February 1778, the crowd threw stones at the Dublin hangman, fracturing his skull, as he quartered the body of a Whiteboy murderer on the gallows table on St Stephen’s Green.

Those who share Whelan’s point of view see agricultural ‘improvement’ as a ‘colonial ideology’ and ‘resistance’ as an articulation of the desire to see the restoration of the cultural and landholding ethos of the old Gaelic order; the Connolly position is that agrarian protests, rather than seeking to overthrow the landed elite, aimed to compel it to act according to the mutual obligations and responsibilities linking ruled and ruler. By defending traditional rights and customs, the Boys regarded themselves as upholding the law or restoring, as E.P. Thompson might have put it, the ‘moral economy’. McBride offers two responses to these arguments. First, he emphasises the difficulty the Whelan thesis has in accommodating large-scale Presbyterian agrarian protest, questioning the degree to which opposition to ‘improvement’ saw a confrontation between a native and settler identity. Second, he sharpens Connolly’s view, arguing that although protest was primarily motivated by local economic objectives, it was not merely restorative but worked structurally (not ideologically) in opposition to the Ascendancy. By setting the Catholic rural classes in direct confrontation with the Protestant landlord or middleman, mass protests reinforced the confessional divide and undermined the system of deference and submission on which Ascendancy Ireland relied. This chimes with McBride’s highlighting of the Ascendancy’s prickly sensitivity to what it habitually referred to as Catholic ‘insolence’, which meant more than mere bad manners.

Older histories of 18th-century Ireland traced the rise of an Ascendancy patriotism that culminated in the triumph of 1782: during the American War of Independence (international affairs again), Ascendancy Ireland mobilised a popular militia and successfully demanded legislative independence from an otherwise preoccupied state, minimising the Irish parliament’s subordination to Westminster. The Volunteers are remembered less as a military threat than as witnesses to a form of Protestant patriotism predicated on the basic principle of liberty: the king could not tax his subjects without the consent of parliament. The events of 1782 have sometimes been seen as planting the seeds of a potential golden age in which a steadily increasing religious toleration, buoyed by the arguments of Edmund Burke, would see the Catholic elite gradually brought in from the cold, creating a new Ireland. It’s an attractive if rather optimistic line of thought that shares much with revisionist accounts of the French Revolution which emphasise the capacity of the French monarchy to reform itself; in these accounts the Revolution is seen as a diversion from a reformist path.

Instead, in the 1790s, the revolutionary wars that followed the French Revolution saw continental events once again bring violence to Ireland. The country rapidly became a centre of revolutionary thought, talk and action. Republican idealism (emanating primarily from Ulster Presbyterians looking to make common cause with Catholic Ireland), sectarian hostility and rural discontent combined to create an explosive situation, and Irish political life was rapidly transformed into an overt and highly vocal contest between revolutionary (the Jacobin and the Jacobite jostling for attention) and counter-revolutionary discourses – Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man circulated much more widely than Burke’s Reflections. The British government, ever more embroiled in Europe’s revolutionary wars, regarded events in Ireland with increasing alarm. Ireland was again vindicating fears that it was the British Empire’s soft underbelly. How far would the French penetrate? In May 1798 the revolutionary republican movement known as the United Irishmen kicked off a rebellion, triggering revolutionary, counter-revolutionary, agrarian and sectarian violence on a scale unmatched since William’s day. In August, the diplomatic efforts of Wolfe Tone, the United Irish leader, finally paid off when French soldiers landed at Killala, County Mayo (bad weather had waylaid an earlier attempt in 1796). But there were only a thousand of them, and initial success was quickly followed by defeat. The French POWs were exchanged for British POWs while hundreds of their Irish comrades were executed. Once again, a defeated French military intervention in Ireland gave Britain the opportunity to tighten the country’s shackles. Following Ireland’s forceful pacification, the Act of Union was passed in 1800, abolishing the Irish parliament. Between that year and 1921, Ireland was subject to a system of direct rule that, according to contemporary definitions, can be described as imperial rather than colonial.

The abolition of the Irish parliament earned the Ascendancy a stay of execution rather than a reprieve. Much of its direct political power had gone at a stroke; later reform legislation, introduced in response to pressure from popular Catholic and/or nationalist movements, saw the bases of Ascendancy social and economic power wither away. What was left of the Penal Laws finally went in 1829 with Catholic ‘emancipation’. The cumulative effect of all this was to leave Catholics free to own land, run schools according to their religious beliefs, enter the professions, vote and participate fully in the political arena; in 1845, a Tory government strengthened the financial security and institutional status of the Catholic seminary at Maynooth in County Dublin (an important step in the slow development of British religious pluralism); the Anglican tithe was retained until 1869, when Gladstone disestablished the Church of Ireland; the Irish franchise was finally brought in line with that of the rest of Britain in 1884, ending the grip of the social elites on Irish politics and propelling a host of Home Rule and Unionist MPs to Westminster a year later (a Liberal move that destroyed the Liberal Party in Ireland); local government was finally democratised in 1898 (a Tory measure), and Catholic-nationalist control asserted almost everywhere outside parts of Ulster; a succession of Land Acts eventually provided tenant farmers with cheap mortgages with which to buy their holdings (legal mechanisms were introduced to compel landlords to sell).

Despite these transformations, however, Catholic nationalist Ireland was not reconciled to the Union – the political campaigns served only to enhance its sense of difference – and Ascendancy Ireland was outlived by the sectarianism on which it was built. McBride’s scintillating book, which catapults him into the first rank of Ireland’s historians, leaves one reflecting that Ireland’s long 18th century has had an even longer afterlife.