At the onset of the nineteenth century, the Act of Union was sanctioned, marking the beginning of a new political entity known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This means, Ireland was annexed to the British Empire. Ireland lost its own parliament, and in turn, sent 100 members to the Parliament, all Protestants, in Westminster in London. This legislation came about as a direct result of the short-lived but brutal uprising in Ireland in 1798 by members of the political group known as the United Irishmen, who were willing to use force to obtain the republican idea of a non-sectarian approach to politics.
The Union was established to ensure Protestant ascendancy in Ireland, a move that was deeply distrusted and resented by the Catholics. These Protestants were descended from the British colonizers who had settled in Ireland after King William of England conquered the country in 1691. During this time, the Irish Catholic clergy was practicing the dominant religious political tradition of non-resistance, which was inculcated to them during their education in France1. This political passivity worked to the advantage of the largely Protestant landlords, who dictated in effect, their political will to their tenants.
Irish Roman Catholics at this era were more than three quarters of the entire population, giving archbishops and bishops vast powers. The tenants, who were mostly Catholics, adhere both to their landlords and their priests. Since the clergy did not concern themselves with political matters, the landlords’ were free to impose their choices over their tenantry. 1. J H Whyte. “The Influence of the Catholic Clergy on Elections in Nineteenth Century Ireland. ” The English Historical Review, Vol. 75, No. 295 (1960): 239-259 1 2
As the century advances, the penal laws against the Irish Catholic population became less rigorous, allowing for more concessions. Catholics had been given plenty of relief measures, which gradually weakened the Penal Code. Restrictions against holding civil and military offices were removed2. The process of appeasing the Irish Catholics involved the changes in the tithe system and the funding of the Maynooth College for the local education of Catholic priests. As priests were starting to get education at their homeland, they became more conscious of their rights as citizens of the British Empire.
They also started to take stock of the real plight of the poor Catholics, prompting them to become involved. The first recorded clergy intervention in political matters was in 1818 where a candidate in the general election in 1818 at the Queen’s County thanked the clergy for its support. There were also reports of priests using moral pressure and even physical force in an attempt to influence electors. Priests’ involvements were largely on a short-scale, nothing of the sort that would greatly alarm the Protestant landlords. Catholic Emancipation
The Prime Minister William Pitt had promised Emancipation to accompany the formation of the Union, securing the support of Irish Catholic Bishops. But the promise was set aside because King George III refused to ratify the law. This started a series of campaigns for the sanctioning of the Emancipation bill. The process of granting Catholic Emancipation saw the biggest, first ever turnout of clergy intervention in Ireland. The main objective of the Catholic Emancipation campaign was the removal of the oaths of supremacy and allegiance taken by Members of Parliament. 2. Kinealy, Christine.
Ireland: Politics and Administration, 1815-1870, retrieved 5 November 2007, at http://multitext. ucc. ie/d/Ireland_politics_and_administration_1815ndash1870 3 This oath effectively barred Catholics from sitting in Parliament because it called the mass, and the invocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, as idolatrous and impious. Educated Catholics led campaigns with differing degrees of success. The most successful among the Catholic Emancipation advocates was Daniel O’Connell, who brought the campaign to a different level, rousing interest all throughout the nation.
He founded the Catholic Association to fight for religious equality and political rights. One of the group’s tactics to gain recognition from the government was encouraging people, with the help from the Catholic clergy, to participate in the census to underpin how large the Catholic population was compared to Protestants. The object of this was to show how serious the discriminations were against the Catholics. Through the census, the grievances of Ireland’s Catholics were documented and brought to the government’s attention for the first time.
The Catholic priests, who were previously taking little roles in politics, took leading roles in the Association during this period. They were the most energetic and the most enthusiastic promoters of the group’s causes. Dr. Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, a very influential member of the Irish Catholic hierarchy, was one of the Association’s most vocal supporters. Other bishops in the campaign personally asked their priests to join the movement, and even mobilized their parishioners to support the campaign3. Roman Catholic priests ascertained their victory by vigorously campaigning for their candidates in the elections of 1826.
This is considered to be the first major intervention of the Catholic clergy. They gathered people in chapels all throughout Ireland, to be instructed on how to vote. 3. P. J. Jupp, “Irish Parliamentary Elections and the Influence of the Catholic Vote, 1801-20. ” The Historical Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, 183-196. 4 During the election, priests chose strategic locations in towns to remind people to vote in accordance with their faith. They also went to polling precincts to supervise the elector and to provide moral support to those experiencing last-minute weaknesses. As a result, Thomas Wyse,
a Catholic country gentleman in Waterford unseated Lord George Beresford, an opponent of Emancipation4. The clergy and the Catholic people obtained a decisive victory in 1828 through the election of O’Connell to the House of Commons — the first Catholic to ever do so. In four years time, the Irish leader successfully obtained Emancipation for his people, largely due to the clergy’s support. The outcome of the Emancipation campaign established the Catholic clergy’s leading role in Irish politics. After this victory, the clergy once more adhered to their political motto of non-involvement.
In 1830, the Irish bishops sent a pastoral letter to its priests telling everyone that having obtained just rights, they now would adopt their usual political stance of non-interference. A few years later, a decree was issued prohibiting priests to use churches or chapels and the pulpit to discuss matters unrelated to religion and faith. For years, the decree was to a general extent met. In the 1832 elections, only a few clergymen were actively engaged in politics. Some assisted their parishioners in registration and voting, while others spoke at public gatherings.
The impression however, was they did so without the energy they exhibited during the Emancipation campaign. This same attitude was adopted in the general elections of 1835, 1837, and 1841. 4. Whyte, JH. “The Influence of the Catholic Clergy on Elections in Nineteenth Century Ireland. ” The English Historical Review, Vol. 75, No. 295 (1960): 239-259 5 The Irish clergy was once more seen active in the electoral campaigns when the issue of the repeal of the Union surfaced. In 1840, O’Connell set up a repeal pressure group called the National Association of Ireland for Full Justice or Repeal5.
The decree for political non-involvement was still in effect, but the priests believed that the issue was not just political in nature, but was also moral. If they won’t take up the people’s cause, the priests knew that a rebellion would likely follow. However, the most compelling reason for the clerics’ renewed involvement was that they did not want to lose their popularity with the people. In 1844, bishops and archbishops were already members of the Repeal Association. Priests were also very active during that year’s general elections.
The passage of the Ecclesiastical Titles Act in 1851 strongly awakened religious fervor. As a result, voter turnout at the 1852 elections was very large. Priests were seen speaking at public meetings, endorsing candidates, and bringing voters to polling stations. It was at this time that the Irish clergy’s influence was at its greatest6. Protestants were outraged, and filed numerous cases against priests on various grounds. Some Members of Parliaments who were proven to have gotten their seats through the clergy’s intimidation tactics were unseated.
One example of intimidation was a proven case of priests gathering mobs to attack supporters of opposing candidates. Because of the overwhelming evidence against intimidation and offensive behavior, Bishops suspended some priests, who were also held liable in civil courts. 5. David Butler and Austin Ranney, “Chapter on electioneering in England,” in Electioneering: a comparative study of continuity and change, eds. (Oxford, 1992). 6. David Fitzpatrick, “Ireland and the British Empire. ” The Oxford History of the British Empire, Vol. 3: The Nineteenth Century, 494-521.
6 The clergymen’s influence extended into the 1860s and 1870s. During elections, they canvassed, spoke at public forums, endorsed candidates, and brought voters to the polling places. But their success had been limited due to their division. There were generally two camps: one was headed by Cardinal Cullen of Dublin, who supported liberals; while the other was led by Archbishop MacHale of Tuam, who favored extreme candidates. This division worked greatly in favor of the conservative camp, which had more candidates elected to parliament.
Towards the end of the 1870s, clerical leadership showed signs of decline. In the two elections in 1869, the clergy’s chosen candidates lost. But the priests’ influence did not diminish overnight. Their help was still considered important but it was no longer essential for a candidate to win. Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien in his book, Parnell and his Party, 1880-1890, described how authority had shifted from the clergy to members of parliament in Dublin in 1885. A new system was in place that called for conventions of candidates before the selection process.
The clergy attended the convention, but it was a member of parliament who controlled, and sometimes manipulated, who got chosen. Within a few years, the clergy was pushed out of a field they dominated for many decades. The decline of the Irish clergy’s influence can be attributed to a number of factors. The peasants at the end of the nineteenth century had already benefited under a national education system, enabling them to get a better understanding of current issues. They were also taught how to write, read, and do for themselves the necessary work involved in the election process.
They were no longer ignorant. Another factor that lessened the clerics’ influence was the population’s 7 growing prosperity. Many Catholics became well off, making them capable of handling their own affairs. There was a resurgence of clergy leadership in the late 1890s during a split in Parliament caused by Charles Stewart Parnell7. The clergy, on moral grounds, was against Parnell, who was condemned by the Catholic Church by marrying Katharine O’Shea, a divorcee. Divorce is forbidden under the Catholic doctrine. In essence, Parnell was legally the cause of the divorce, despite the truth being different.
All candidates who were opposed to Parnell could expect clerical support in terms of canvassing, public speaking, and gathering of supporters. But the anti-Parnell became divided: one faction was for John Dillon, and the other was for T. M. Healy. The nature of the conflict was personal that it disgusted many priests, causing them to retire permanently from politics. Those who remained largely supported Healy. The Dillon faction’s candidates won in most conventions. The outcome of these factional struggles marked how little the clergy’s opinions counted in the elections.
The clerics had obviously become powerless. However, clerical participation in politics did not come to an end. They were still sought after as members of conventions in candidate selection, and public speakers during meetings. They’re sometimes asked, even to this day, to ink nomination papers of candidates, a gesture that is more ceremonial than anything else. From being the prime movers of Ireland’s largely Catholic population, the clergy was booted out of politics and electioneering not by will but by gradual changes in the different sectors of the country. 7. D.George Boyce, “Nineteenth Century Ireland: The Search for Stability,” 58-74.
Boyce, D. George. Nineteenth Century Ireland: The Search for Stability, 58-74. Butler, David and Ranney, Austin. “Chapter on electioneering in England,” in Electioneering: a comparative study of continuity and change, eds. (Oxford, 1992). Fitzpatrick, David. “Ireland and the British Empire. ” The Oxford History of the British Empire, Vol. 3: The Nineteenth Century, 494-521. Jupp, P. J. “Irish Parliamentary Elections and the Influence of the Catholic Vote, 1801-20. ” The Historical Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, 183-196. 1967
Kinealy, Christine. Ireland: Politics and Administration, 1815-1870, retrieved 5 November 2007, at http://multitext. ucc. ie/d/Ireland_politics_and_administration_1815ndash1870 O’Brien, Conor Cruise. Parnell and his Party, 1880-1890 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957). The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII. New York: Robert Appleton Company, . Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, S. T. D. , Censor. Imprimatur. + John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York. Whyte, JH. “The Influence of the Catholic Clergy on Elections in Nineteenth Century Ireland. ” The English Historical Review, Vol. 75, No. 295 (1960): 239-259.