The Catholic Relief Act (33 George III, c.21 enabled Catholics to hold civil and military offices that were not specifically excepted, and removed the statuary bar to university degrees.
In 1792 a bill was introduced with government support, removing all disabilities attaching to marriages between Roman Catholics and Protestants, admitting Catholics to the practice of law and removing all remaining restrictions in education. The proposal that the Catholics be admitted to the County franchise was defeated in Parliament.
The Catholic Convention met in December 1792. Representatives of the Catholic Committee appointed a delegation to present a petition to the King in person seeking political rights for Catholics.
Some weeks later, following a favourable reception from British administration and in a desire to pacify the country in the face of the threat from abroad, the government introduced a wide ranging Relief Bill under pressure from the Lord Lieutenant and the English administration.
The progress of the French revolutionary armies and the outbreak war with France had changed the situation. The bill was supported on the grounds that it would be unsafe to disappoint hopes that have been aroused.
Catholics were to be admitted to parliamentary and municipal franchises on the same terms as Protestants. They were to have the right including subject to conditions and a property qualification, to bear arms. Almost all remaining restrictions on land holding were removed. All civil and military posts, with some exceptions for the highest post were to be opened. The only substantial disability remained was membership of parliament.
In effect, the concessions made little difference to the distribution of political power and more substantial reform was sought in the system of representation. A bill to grant more wide-ranging reforms was defeated in 1794.
They hereditary revenue of the Crown was brought under full control of the Irish Parliament in 1793. The pension list was curtailed. It sought to secure the freedom and independence of the House of Commons and reduce government influence over members.
It excluded from House of Commons all those who held pensions during pleasure or for a terms of years and also the holders of places of profit under the Crown created after the passing of the Act. A sitting member who accepted a place of profit must vacate the seat, although he might be re-elected.
A number of oppressive measures were also passed including
- an Arms Act prohibiting the importation, distribution of arms and ammunition except under licence
- a Convention Act prohibiting representative assemblies and
- a Militia Act intended to strengthen the government and weaken the Volunteers.
The reforms of 1793 although significant did not conciliate Roman Catholics and Protestant radicals. The rejection of the 1794 bill strengthened the alliance between them.
In July 1794, one of Lord Fitzwilliam of Portland’s principal allies was to be made Viceroy as soon as a suitable post to be found for Westmoreland who had held office since 1790. Portland and his allies had broken with the main body of Whigs and joined Pitt. This had a significant impact on the political atmosphere in Ireland.
In Dublin, it was assumed that Grattan’s influence would be re-established, but he made it clear he would not accept any government appointment. The Catholic Committee was encouraged by Fitzwilliam’s known sympathy for its claim. Pitt was not in favour of an immediate change to policy despite his alliances with Reformers
When Fitzwilliam was dispatched to Ireland in 1795, he was instructed not to make any general change in administration and not to bring in a Relief Bill. If it should be brought in by a private member, he was to use his influence to defeat it. The instruction was not committed to writing and Fitzwilliam felt himself free to deal with the situation as he thought.
Catholics were seeking immediate relief and Grattan announced his intention to introduce a bill in the Parliament to admit Catholic members. Fitzwilliam was warned by the Cabinet that he could not support engagement on the question and when he tried to defend his action, he was peremptorily instructed to oppose the bill and was withdrawn.
Fitzwilliam dismissed Beresford and two undersecretaries of State and was known to intend to replace the Attorney General and Solicitor General with supporters of Grattan. Beresford appealed to Pitt, whose influence was used to recall the Lord Lieutenant. Grattan and the Whig group were reduced to opposition once more.
The episode sent a signal of the apparent hopelessness of working within constitutional means for reform. It created an atmosphere favourable to insurrection and brought a host of recruits to the United Irishmen.
A new viceroy Lord Camden was appointed. Beresford and the Dublin Castle reactionaries were reinstated, and the Viceroy was explicitly instructed to oppose all pressures for Catholic relief. Grattan’s relief bill was rejected in May 1795. From that point onwards, Catholic emancipation ceased to be a parliamentary question.
There was a strong body of opinion among the Catholics and Protestants in favour of educating students of both denominations in the University of Dublin to which Roman Catholics were already being admitted. However, the proposal was disregarded and as a conciliatory step and a Royal College of Saint Patrick at Maynooth was established in 1795. It ultimately became profoundly influential on Roman Catholicism and the Irish clergy.
Amongst heightening tensions, the Orange Society was established to protect its interests and maintain Protestant ascendancy. There were incidents of sectarian persecution in Ulster and Connaught, although it is not clear to what extent the new societies and groups were involved. The Defenders were a Roman Catholic group organized in opposition. Many members of the Defenders were members of the United Irishmen.
An Insurrection Act was passed in 1796 in response to internal and external threats. A group of the United Irishmen sought an alliance with the French and sought a French expedition to Ireland.
The Insurrection Act made it a capital offence to administer an unlawful oath and allowed the Lord Lieutenant and Privy Council to proclaim a district as disturbed. Magistrates were given extraordinary powers in searching for arms and to deal with suspected traitors. Habeas Corpus Act was suspended.
A militia was raised by conscription largely of Catholics and a yeomanry was recruited by landlords from their own tenants, mainly Protestants. In 1796, the French expedition accompanied by Wolfe Tone carrying 7000 troop arrived at Bantry Bay. They were unable to attempt landing and sailed away. This alarmed the government and encouraged the United Irishmen. The government feared that the French could take control of the South and encourage insurrection in the North.
During 1796, the United Irishmen established a military organization particularly in the North. Thousands of peasants were armed with muskets that belonged to the Volunteers or with pikes. The example of the Presbyterians had made the much numerous Defenders potentially dangerous. The Defenders had traditionally been another agrarian society at war with the Orangemen and a menace to landlords and tithe collectors but did not threaten the State.
The government resolved to break the United Irishmen organization in Ulster. Some of its principal leaders were arrested and military forces were sent to Belfast with extraordinary powers.
There were questions about the reliability of the militia, many of whom are believed to be members of the United Irishmen. However, they remained loyal to the government. In many cases, the militia and yeomanry acted without restraint, burning down houses in search of arms and torturing.
The policy of military oppression was applied throughout the country especially in Leinster and Munster where the Defenders were becoming increasingly active. It was argued that this oppression was aimed at provoking insurrection. The efficiency of the government’s spy system and its military preparation pressured the United Irishmen, leaders so that they were forced to insurrection at an early day.
Grattan urged concessions and a Parliamentary Reform Bill was overwhelmingly defeated in 1797. Grattan withdrew from the House of Common.
The expectation of French invasion remained high, and the country seemed to be drifting into chaos. The United Irishmen thought they could rely on up to 200,000 men but still believed they would require support from France.
The government further intensified repression. Many Protestant gentry criticized the relentless oppression but found little support in Parliament which was overwhelmingly behind the government and represented the ascendancy in general.
With significant information at its disposal, the government arrested most of the principal United Irishmen in 1798 and their papers were seized. A general proclamation of martial law followed.
Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the most important of the leaders who escaped arrest was captured in May 1798 and mortally wounded. He had supported the radical cause in Parliament and had joined the United Irishmen in 1796.
Insurrection broke out in May 1798 but lacked coherence. The original plans had been to seize the capital and paralyze the government. It was not attempted. Isolated risings throughout Leinster were quickly put down.
The military began further repression with many persons of high social rank being summarily executed by court martial on minimal evidence In June 1798, Henry Joy McCracken, one of the original founders of the United Irishmen led 4000 men against town of Antrim and was driven off in a sharp encounter. In County Down, Henry Munro led 7000 men, but the insurrection was defeated too. In Ulster it was essentially a Protestant affair.
The most famous insurrection began in Wexford and lasted six weeks. The Wexford rising was loosely linked with the United Irishmen, and this was essentially a Catholic insurrection with the support of few Protestant radicals
Until the last weeks before their insurrection, all hope was based on French help for which Tone and others were working ceaselessly. In August 1798, 1000, men under General Humbert reached Killala in County Mayo. Connaught had been little influenced by the revolutionary propaganda and that was no general rising. A few thousand peasants joined the French but proved unreliable auxiliaries.
Humbert conducted a larger force under Lake but eventually surrendered in September 1798 after marching his diminished forces, little more than 150 men into enemy territory. A week after the fall of Killala in September 1798, Wolfe Tone and 3,000 troops sailed from Brest. They were intercepted off Donegal by a British Naval Force and most French ships were captured. Tone was taken prisoner tried by court-martial and condemned to death.
The rebellion of 1798 provided Pitt with the stimulus and opportunity to execute a policy of legislative union accompanied by Catholic emancipation. Pitt sought to win over the Irish administration in Parliament.