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Act of Union of 1800

The Declaratory Act of 1720 granted Britain the right to legislate for Ireland. The restraints placed by English commercial jealousy on Irish trade destroyed manufacturing industry. The religious penal code it was thought meritorious to evade; the commercial penal code was ostentatiously defied; and both tended to make Ireland the least law-abiding country in Europe. In the eighteenth century, there was much economic development. The linen industry flourished, particularly in Ulster, and Irish wool, beef, butter and pork were important exports. The Protestant Ascendancy came to see itself as the Irish nation and developed a vigorous and distinctive parliamentary tradition. Sustained Irish emigration began in the eighteenth century, as many thousands of Ulster Presbyterians and a lesser number of Catholics departed for the New World.

The dispossessed men carried to America an undying hatred of England which had much to say to the American revolution, and that again reacted on Ireland. The developing dispute between Britain and her colonies in North America from the 1760s helped create a tradition of radical patriotism that was ultimately, under the impact of the French Revolution, to produce the Society of United Irishmen. Under the influence and the example of the American War of Independence, new political ideas began to develop and pressure by the Protestant ascendancy itself for reform led to a significant constitutional change.

Before 1782, Britain treated Ireland as a colony, installing a "lord lieutenant" to act on behalf of British interests, bribing Irish officials to gain political support and controlling Irish legislation. In 1782 the Irish parliament, legally subservient to Westminster, was granted legislative independence. Yet the life of this independent Irish parliament was a mere 18 years.

In 1798 the United Irishmen staged an insurrection in Ireland, with the objective of establishing an independent Irish republic in which all religions would be equal, though the rebellion was marked by some episodes of sectarian violence. Reacting against the spreading revolutionary ideas of the French Revolution and the rising of the United Irishmen, this rebellion was crushed and the Act of Union of 1800 created a full parliamentary Union between Britain and Ireland. The London government induced the parliament in Dublin to vote itself out of existence under the 1800 Act of Union.

By this time however, Britain and Ireland were moving apart, especially in economic and demographic terms. As Britain industrialised and urbanised, Ireland, outside Ulster, in effect de-industrialised, with the bulk of its rapidly growing population becoming ever more dependent on the potato for sustenance. In the late 1840s, as a result of the wholesale failure of the potato crop in successive years, a terrible famine occurred: one million people died of starvation and epidemic disease and some two million emigrated in the ten year period 1845-1855. The population had fallen by more than a quarter from 8 million to less than 6 million by 1856, and would fall further as emigration became a dominant feature of Irish society. Comparison with other modern and contemporary famines establishes beyond any doubt that the Irish famine of the late 1840s, which killed nearly one-eighth of the entire population, was proportionally much more destructive of human life than the vast majority of famines in modern times. In 1801, when the population of England was estimated at 14,000,000, Ireland had 8,000,000 inhabitants. The population had fallen from eight millions in 1841 to six millions in 1861. In 1911 the population of England and Wales had increased to 36,000,000: that of Ireland had fallen to 4,382,000.

In politics, the nineteenth century was dominated, initially, by the pursuit of Catholic emancipation. The penal laws were gradually loosened from the late eighteenth century on. This process culminated in 1829 in Daniel O'Connell's achievement of Catholic emancipation allowing Catholics to take seats in Parliament and enjoy other civil and religious rights long denied. This was the spur to political activity and development in the country. Thereafter, there was a succession of efforts to reform or undo the Union between Great Britain and Ireland.

With the easing of anti-Catholic legislation in the 19th Century, culminating in the Emancipation Act of 1829, the tradition of military service abroad gradually waned. At the same time the United States, Canada and Australia, rather than Europe, became the favoured destinations for Irish emigrants.

The Famine of 1847 was a defining event in the history of Ireland and of Britain. It has left deep scars. One million people died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world. The famine, emigration and the new poor law nearly got rid of starvation, but the people never became frankly loyal, feeling that they owed more to their own importunity and to their own misfortunes than to the wisdom of their rulers. The literary efforts of young Ireland eventuated in another rebellion (1848); a revolutionary wave could not roll over Europe without touching the unlucky island. After the failure of that outbreak there was peace until the close of the American civil war released a number of adventurers trained to the use of arms and filled with hatred to England.

The Great Famine (1845-1848) was not just an immense human tragedy and a socio-economic watershed, but had far reaching political repercussions. The British Government stood indicted in the popular mind and the desire of a majority of Irish voters for some form of self-government was strengthened. Irish landlords, too, came under political and economic pressure in the post-Famine decades. By the early twentieth century, after sustained agrarian unrest, legislation was in place inducing the great landlords to sell land to their tenants. The tenants were offered loans to enable them to purchase their holdings.

Up to the date of the Great Famine, the bulk of the nation was Irish speaking. Even down till the end of the 19th century, English-writing authors in Ireland mostly came of a caste partly separated from the mass of the people. Only in the early days of the 20th Century was Ireland genuinely articulate in the English language.

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Page last modified: 06-02-2013 19:00:55 ZULU