Anglo-Ireland & The Protestant Ascendancy



The era of the Protestant Ascendancy began in Ireland after King William III defeated King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Fortified by the Penal Laws, which forbade Catholics to own land, to bear arms, to own horses of any value, or to practice their religion and establish schools, the Protestant land-owners came to enjoin a monopoly of wealth and office in the land. The resultant ethos was known as the Protestant Ascendancy - a mild term for a regime hardly different from the colonial system in which “natives” are excluded from the rights and the protection of the law. Indeed, at the worst period it was said that “to kill a Catholic were no crime” - echoing the words of an English planter at a much earlier period. In reality, the wealthier Catholics of Ireland - those with merchanty interests which included the importation of wood, wine and clothing - retained access to continental education throughout the period, and in this way men such as Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) arose who would form the national leadership of a later generation. (He was, in fact, but 8 years younger than Maria Edgeworth.) Otherwise, the condition of the Catholics was very much that of a subject population in a far-away colonial where race rather than religion provided the fundamental measure of difference from the dominant class - a difference primarily expressed in the form of land ownership or the lack of it. From the days of the Cromwellian Settlement in the 1650s to the end of the Williamite War, it is said that the Catholic share of land in Ireland fell from 40% to 10%, leaving them in effect as strangers in their own land, and to this literal dispossession was added the exile of the native aristocracy, the criminalisation of their religion, and the stripping of their culture and their language.

The Anglo-Irish are often seen a “rollicking” people whose interest of life extended no farther than horse-breeding and the consumption of claret, and who enjoyed in an immense amount of social freedom in relation to the oppressed majority, but there numbers also included soldiers, churchmen and architects who made a world-wide reputation for their vigour and discipline in all these spheres. The also produced literary genius with a surprising frequency: Swift, Farquhar, Goldsmith and Sheridan were among the best-known names of English literature in the eighteenth century. In especial, they were a nation of lawyers perhaps since litigation stood at the centre of a system of land-ownership which counted for everything in that period. They also had a strong educational tradition. Dublin had had a university since 1596 - Dublin University, of which Trinity College, Dublin was (and remains) the sole college and this supplied a stream of educated talents such as those already mentioned with George Berkeley and Edmund Burke added for good measure. The study of Greek oratory in the tradition of Demosthenes was a specialism of the dons of Dublin University. In fact some of the luminaries of Graeco-Roman scholarship in the eighteenth century were Anglo-Irish, as was Edmund Malone, the founder of textual scholarship on scientific principles who successfully dated the folios of Shakespeare and demonstrated the Ossianic forgeries of MacPherson. The capital city of the Anglo-Irish sprang up in the decades between Restoration in 1660 to the Act of Union in 1800 when the Irish Parliament voted itself out of existence. Dublin was, and still remains, a well-planned monument to the ideals of Augustan architecture, generally in the Palladian manner, while and their “country houses” - known as the “big house” in Irish tradition - often exceeded those of similar grandees in England. (Only a few of these survived the ensuing ravages of social change in the nineteenth century and many were destroyed by Irish republican rebels in the revolutionary period, 1919-22).

In 1782, when Great Britain was threatened by the warlike stance of Revolutionary France, and later by the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Anglo-Irish formed a militia of so-called Irish Volunteers equipped with uniforms, guns and cannons, supposedly intended to defend Ireland against the threat of French invasion. Simultaneous the “patriotic” leaders of the Irish Protestant Parliament raised the demand for liberation from the rule of the British Parliament at Westminister and, under the leadership of Henry Grattan, they succeeded in gaining Legislative Independance in 1782. This was to form the high-point of Anglo-Irish history since, without eighteen years, the members of the exclusively Protestant Parliament in Dublin voted themselves out of existence in the face of the threat of republican violence represented by the United Irishmen, a consort of Northern Presbyterians and Southern Catholics - with some Anglo-Irish radicals such as Theobald Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward Fitzgerald who were carried away by the French republican fever. In 1798 the United Irishmen rose up against the British state in Ireland and, after some initial victories, were violently repressed by the British Army and the Irish Portestant militia many elements of which were former Irish Volunteers.

With the Act of Union in 1800 the era of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy ended and, although the Protestants of Ireland possessed a near-monopoly of land-ownership at that period, their political power was gradually eroded throughout the 19th century by the advent of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and later by the redistribution of land which followed the appalling Famine of 1845-49 - a nation-wide tragedy which exposed the complete inadequacy of the system of ownership and tenancy upon which they depended for their rents and livelihood and which condemned the Catholic majority to poverty of the worst kind at the mercy of a landlord class extracted from a different country and adhering to a different religion. Indeed, the chief mark of the indifference of the landlord class to the fate of their tenants was probably the abuse known as “absenteeism” which involved their travelling to London and Bath to spend the money which they extracted from their Irish tenants. Maria Edgeworth was strongly opposed to that abuse wrote her novel The Absentee (1817) to make that very point. In it, Lord Colambre makes a secret visit to his family’s Irish estate and witnesses the brutality of the “middle-man” system, thus coming to understand that the social pretensions of his mother Lord Clonbrony are ultimately responsible for the ruin of the country.

The Edgeworths were, therefore, “meliorists”, believe that with “judicious kindness” (as she argues in that novel) it would be possible for an enlightened landlord class to save the Irish from themselves and educate them in the ways of English thrift and progress. All of this was, of course, a political ideology and a dream: the reality is that the economic interests, as well as the loyalties, of the Anglo-Irish and the Irish were are sternly opposed as those of any plantation owner and his slaves in a colonial cotton plantation - even if the actually relations between then were not as brutal as in the latter instance. The peculiarity of Castle Rackrent (1800) among he novels - and among all the fiction of the period - is that Maria Edgeworth gave the telling of the story to a family servant called Thady Quirk who effectively narrates the stages by which an Anglo-Irish family ruin themselves while his own son becomes a lawyer and successfully cheats them out of their estate, which becomes his own. This narrative strangely parallels the greatest fear of the Protestant Ascendancy which was finally embodied by Daniel O’Connell - the scion of a surviving family of Catholic gentry who lived by smuggling on the Kerry coast and who became a lawyer after a Catholic education in France and who finally forced the Act of Catholic Emancipation through the British Parliament by getting himself elected a Member by the voters of Co. Clare.

All of this required a huge amount of social agitation and political organisation, and it is no wonder therefore that Maria Edgeworth spoke of post-Union Ireland as a place in which the people would “crack the mirror” if she attempted to portray it any further in her novels. After her Anglo-Irish fiction took another turn, partly because of the rising tide of Catholic writers but also because the Protestant writers become increasingly engaged in Gothic fiction - a specialism of theirs which has been called “Protestant magic” by one critic. Excepting Castle Rackrent, Edgeworth represents the “liberal” branch of Anglo-Irish culture for which the idea of a improving form of landlordism most clearly represented by the formation of the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Dublin Society in that period - bodies devoted to scholarship and progress. But meliorism was not enough and the political future of Ireland was indistinguishable from the rise of Catholic democracy by troubled paths which ultimately led to nationalist rebellions and eventually to a war of independence that, in turn, brought in a predominantly Catholic Irish state in the Independance period following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 - meaning (for once) an agreement between England and Ireland about the national rights and independence of the Irish people.

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LEM 2055: Irish Literature
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