Ireland was a problem for successive English governments. This was largely because a Protestant minority in Ireland ruled a Roman Catholic majority whose political and economic rights were severely restricted. Until 1829, Catholics were discriminated against because of their religion, and although they were given some legal and political rights in the 1790s, Catholics were denied access to parliament, both in Dublin and, after 1800, in Westminster. Economically, Catholics formed the poorest sections of a predominantly rural and agricultural society. They were also seen as a potential source of revolution and, therefore, as a threat to Britain’s security. Politicians like William Pitt and Sir Robert Peel tried to improve the position and status of Catholics, but they met with considerable opposition from Irish Protestants and an anti-Catholic British public. It is not surprising that to some Catholics, the Great Famine of 1845 was seen as an attempt to resolve the Irish problem through starvation.
The 1801 Act of Union brought a closer link between England and Ireland. Ireland acted as a catalyst on English politics.
- Daniel O’Connell and the Catholic Association had conducted such a powerful campaign that the government passed the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. The methods used by the Catholic Association were adopted in England by the Birmingham Political Union and the Anti-Corn Law League in their campaigns.
- John Doherty was an active trade unionist and set up the Spinners’ Union in 1828.
- Feargus O’Connor, George Julian Harney and James Bronterre O’Brien were all Chartist leaders.
- The Lichfield House Compact, April 1835 between Lord John Russell and the Whigs and Daniel O’Connell and the Irish MPs were responsible for the fall of Peel’s first ministry.
- The Irish potato famine had a lasting impact on Anglo-Irish relations.
- The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 has been linked with the potato famine although the legislation had little effect in Ireland.
The Roman Catholic Emancipation Act 1829 gave full civil and political rights to Roman Catholics. They could now become MPs and occupy public offices with a few minor exceptions such as the office of Lord Chancellor. O’Connell believed that Catholic advancement in politics, government service and the professions would eventually lead to the end of Protestant dominance. There was, however, a change in voting qualification that was raised from a forty-shilling freeholder to a ten-pound householder. This cut the Irish electorate to a sixth of its former size. There was great disappointment especially from the 40/- freeholders who were disenfranchised. The Reform Act (Ireland) 1832 extended the vote to leaseholders to the £10 with leases of at least twenty years. This increased the number of those entitled to vote to a respectable, though not pre-1829, level. There was no redistribution of county seats and the 32 counties retained their two members. Thirty-one boroughs retained their members but an extra member was added to Belfast, Galway, Limerick and Waterford. A second seat was given to the University of Dublin with a franchise extended to holders of MAs and higher degrees. The 1832 Irish Reform Act was conservative and its outcome was disappointing. Although there was an increase in the number of voters, the possibility of bribery, corruption and impersonation remained high. The effect of the Act can be seen in the constituencies of County Carlow and the borough of Carlow. There was an increase in contested elections: of the eleven parliamentary elections between 1800 and 1832 only three were contested compared with eight out of the ten elections between 1832 and 1852. In the borough, thirteen burgesses, often related to each other and controlled by the borough patron the Lord Charleville, elected the MP before 1832 and electoral contests were unknown. After reform, there were 278 electors for the borough. All but one of the seven borough elections between 1832 and 1852 were contested.
The Whigs in London were fully aware of the problems of Ireland and of the need to find solutions to make rule from Westminster more acceptable. The police, magistracy, jury system and the courts needed reform, a poor law for Ireland had to be devised, and something had to be done about tithes and the unreformed municipal corporations. The informal compact between O’Connell and Melbourne at Lichfield House in 1835 in which the Whigs were kept in power by O’Connell’s MPs in return for good government, reform and better administration in Ireland was assisted by the appointment of Thomas Drummond as Under-Secretary at Dublin Castle.
Drummond vigorously pursued a campaign of reform. He was a bureaucrat rather than a politician and so was less intimidated by vested interests. He was determined that the police, military and legal system should not be used as a tool of Protestant dominance. He kept the Whig side of the Lichfield House Compact by effectively opening large areas of official employment and patronage to Catholics. The yeomanry, long been under the control of local property owners, had already been abolished in 1834. He refused to allow the police or military to collect tithe arrears. In 1836, he brought the entire police force under the control of an inspector-general, began recruitment on non-sectarian lines, initiated training procedures and provided Dublin with its own metropolitan police. He increased the number and functions of stipendiary magistrates, reformed the jury system and for the first time Catholics were appointed to the Bench. Drummond’s administration aimed to make the legal system and the machinery of enforcement more acceptable to Ireland.
The Whig government attempted to improve conditions in the country by reform acts dealing with tithes, the poor law and municipal corporations. However, the religious problem was not solved. The Irish continued to pay tithes to the Anglican Church that maintained its supremacy. In 1838, a Tithe Act wrote off all arrears and converted tithes into a rent charge payable by the property owners who passed the charge down to sub-tenants, exempting only the lowest class of cottiers and tenants. Tithes had previously led to widespread disturbances especially between Catholic and Protestant clergy and the Act, despite its limitations, ended the tithe war that had waged since the early 1830s. However, the imposition of rent charges merely transformed the confrontation into one between tenants and property owners.
The Irish Poor Law Act passed in 1838 set up workhouses. O’Connell opposed it on moral and economic grounds. The Whigs ignored their own Royal Commission set up years earlier, which concluded that importing the English post-1834 system would be unsuitable. By 1841, Ireland had been divided into 130 poor law unions with elected boards of guardians, and Catholic ratepayers gained their first experience of local government and administration. The Irish Municipal Corporations Act of 1840 broke the control of the Protestant and Tory Orange organisations over the administration of Irish cities and towns. As in England, the unrepresentative and inefficient nature of urban government was attacked and 58 Irish corporations were abolished. The Act provided elected town councils for the largest cities and towns and handed over the administration of the smaller and poorer towns to the poor law guardians. The Irish Act was far narrower than the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 that applied to mainland cities and towns. It was based on a ten-pound household suffrage rather than the much wider ratepayer suffrage that applied in England. The powers of the elected Irish councils were also more limited with the police, for example, being excluded from their control. Though considerably less liberal than O’Connell wanted, the 1840 Act did free municipal government from the absolute control of borough patrons and enabled Catholics to have a role in local administration. O’Connell and his supporters won ten local councils and in 1841, he was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin, the first Catholic to hold that position since the 1680s.
The land problem was not solved. Evictions, rack-renting and the payment of rents to the Anglican Church and absentee landlords continued. Contemporaries and historians have considerable difficulty in explaining why the Famine took place. It is generally agreed that the structure of the Irish economy and especially its system of land tenure played a significant part. Most of the cultivated land in Ireland in the 1840s was in the hands of Protestant landowners. Estates were regarded as sources of income for these landowners, many of them absentees in England rather than long-term investments. This led to a failure to invest in Irish farming. Robert Kane commented in 1845 that “England has capital, Ireland has not; therefore England is rich and industrious and Ireland is poor and idle.” Tenants were unable to invest in their land because of the high rents they were charged. Where improvement in farming did occur in Ireland, it proved very profitable. Irish agriculture promised returns of between 15 and 20 per cent compared to a 5 to 10 per cent yield in England. This was, however, the exception. This was recognised in the Devon Commission report in 1847, “The tenant willingly expends any capital he may possess in obtaining possession of the land and thus leaves himself without the means of tilling it effectively.” There was simply insufficient land available to satisfy the demand for land, despite the conclusion of the Devon Commission that over 1.5 million acres of land suitable for tillage was uncultivated. This led to the division and sub-division of land, a process accelerated in the first four decades of the nineteenth century. By 1845, a quarter of all holdings were between one and five acres. Forty per cent were between 5 and fifteen acres and only seven per cent over thirty acres. Those who did not rent land became day-labourers working for farmers when they could get work. This created considerable under-employment and forced many of the labourers to become migrant workers in England for part of the year. By 1794, open field farmers in Bedfordshire relied on wandering Irish workers for harvesting crops. They became navvies for road building, canal digging and railway construction. Many turned seasonal migration into permanent settlement and were largely involved in work English people found dirty, disreputable or otherwise disagreeable – jobs like petty trading, keeping lodging-houses and beer houses. In 1840, three out of four stallholders in Manchester were Irish. Inadequate investment meant that Ireland’s industrialisation was stunted. It could not provide the employment necessary to absorb the growing population.
Ireland continued to have a Malthusian economy: that is, the population outstripped food production. This was exacerbated by the potato famine. The ‘Great Famine’ began unexpectedly in the late summer of 1845. There had been a wet but warm spring and summer and reports from the west of Ireland suggested that there would be a better-than-average potato harvest. By September, potatoes were rotting in the ground and within a month, blight was spreading rapidly. In Tipperary and Cork, it made some fearful ravages and extended into other counties. Three-quarters of the country’s potato crop, the chief food for some three million people was wiped out. The following year blight caused a total crop failure. In 1847, the blight was less virulent but in 1848, a poor grain harvest aggravated the situation further. 1848 proved to be the worst year in terms of distress and death during the whole history of the Great Famine. Both 1849 and 1850 saw blight, substantial in some counties, sporadic in others. Famine with its deep social, economic and psychological effects changed Ireland’s political agenda. Under O’Connell Ireland had been generally loyal and pacifist. That loyalty and pacifism perished in the Famine. Whether English rule was in fact to blame for the Famine mattered less than the belief that it was. John Mitchel was not alone in believing that “the Almighty indeed sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine”.
These problems were to the front of O’Connor’s mind and he equated them with English grievances. There were two levels of Irish radicalism
- Conservative radicalism under O’Connell, who wanted the social order to remain, but the political order to change. He wanted to repeal of the Act of Union and win home rule for Ireland under the British Crown. These people were political reformers.
- Popular radicals who opposed English Protestant domination and sought social reform as expressed by ‘ribbonism’, secret agrarian societies seeking rent reductions and the abolition of tithes. They tended to be the violent element.
 Paul Adelman Great Britain and the Irish Question 1800-1922, Hodder & Stoughton, 1996 is designed with the beginner in mind. J.C. Beckett The Making of Modern Ireland 1603-1923, London, 1969 and Roy Foster Modern Ireland 1600-1922, Penguin, 1987 provide contrasting perspectives. K. T. Hoppen Ireland since 1800: Conflict and Conformity, Longman 2nd ed., 2000 is more focused. G.O. Tuathaigh Ireland before the Famine 1798-1848, Dublin, 1972 remains the most accessible general account.
 On the Great Famine, Cormac O’Grada The Great Irish Famine, Macmillan, 1989 provides a short overview of the controversies surrounding the subject. Christine Kinealy This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine, 1845-52, Dublin 1994 and A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland, Pluto Press, 1997 are essential. Cathal Porteir (ed.) The Great Irish Famine, Dublin, 1994 is an invaluable collection of essays.
 The Act of Union meant that the separate Irish Parliament disappeared and 100 Irish MPs were added to the House of Commons. Twenty-eight Irish peers were elected for life to the House of Lords. One archbishop and three bishops represented the Irish Anglican Church. The Anglican Churches of England and Ireland were united.
 Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) came from the Irish Catholic gentry; his father was a small landowner and shopkeeper. Educated in France, he studied law at Lincoln’s Inn in London between 1794 and 1796 qualifying as a barrister at the Irish Bar in 1798. He was involved in drafting the 1805 Petition and was increasingly involved in the emancipation debate. In 1823, he established the Catholic Association. He was known as ‘The Liberator’ because of his success in getting Emancipation. He was much less successful in his campaign for Repeal of the Act of Union in the 1840s.