Catholic Emancipation - Daniel O'Connell

The mass rallies in support of Catholic emancipation laid the foundation of constitutional Irish nationalism, writes IrishAbroad's Ed Micheau.

Two huge political issues dominated the Irish political landscape at the turn of the 19th century - the Act of Union and Catholic Emancipation. The former was introduced on January 1st 1801 but would dominate the political agenda for another century. Catholic Emancipation - the granting of full political and religious rights to the majority of the population - was granted much sooner but not before a period of considerable political upheaval.

The struggle for political and religious rights would involve the mass mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people yet the term Catholic Emancipation is inextricably linked with one individual - Daniel O'Connell. Described later by British prime minister William Gladstone as ``the greatest popular leader the world has ever seen'', O'Connell became widely known as The Liberator for his part in securing emancipation.

Catholic Emancipation proved a divisive issue and not only in Ireland. In Britain, it had its advocates in high office - lord lieutenant Cornwallis who had put down the 1798 rising pressed hard for its cause. But his urgings fell on deaf ears - prime minister William Pitt faced a divided cabinet on the question and in fact resigned over the issue in 1801.

The British establishment included opponents to Emancipation for two fundamental reasons - one religious, like King George III who was implacably opposed to the idea, and the other political, the majority of Protestant MPs in Ireland were fearful of the consequences that Emancipation would have on their privileged Ascendancy status.

In 1823, O'Connell founded the Catholic Association that aimed to scrap the Penal Laws for once and for all. Mass political agitation was O'Connell's modus operandi and tens of thousands of followers flocked to the cause. The movement was funded by the `Catholic rent' with supporters donating a penny each month.

The 1826 general election was a watershed in Irish politics. Emancipation advocates won several seats for the first time. Two years later, O'Connell contested and won a by-election in Co Clare. He refused to swear the oath of supremacy and could not take his seat at Westminster.

The British government, led by the Duke of Wellington, saw that the game was up - Emancipation was granted. In 1829, a Catholic Relief Bill was passed and O'Connell and his colleagues were free to sit in parliament and every office in the land was open to a Catholic.

The bill contained a sting in the tail, however. The forty-shillings franchise was raised to an impossibly high ten pounds and a huge swathe of O'Connell's supporters were disenfranchised at the stroke of a pen.

The long-term implications of the movement were more important. O'Connell had engineered the bulk of the population into a national movement that could achieve political goals by peaceful means. The seeds of constitutional nationalism had been sown.


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