Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Origins of Democracy in Ireland

by Arthur Russell

During the last years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and after almost four and a half centuries of struggle, the old clan based system in Ireland had been finally broken. With the accession of James Stuart to the dual monarchy of England and Scotland in 1601, thereby becoming James I, the four nations of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales had been effectively completely brought under a single monarch for the first time in history.

A century later the first Act of Union would constitutionally bind Scotland, and a further century later Ireland would be similarly grafted into the entity which would henceforth be known as the United Kingdom of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This union of the four nations remained intact until after World War I, when the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 between the Imperial Government and the elected representatives of the Irish people, who had established a Provisional Government in Dublin after the General Elections of 1918, saw the establishment of Saor Stát na hÉireann (Irish Free State) with dominion status in the British Commonwealth, under the British Crown. A totally independent Irish Republic, which was being sought by the Irish negotiators, was something Britain was unwilling to agree in 1921. The Saor Stát remained until 1949 when the Dáil (Irish Parliament) declared the establishment of the Republic of Ireland, thereby removing itself from the British Commonwealth.

It is interesting to track the birth and development of democratic Republicanism in Ireland from its earliest days in the late 18th century when the dual seismic events of the American War of Independence, closely followed by the French Revolution opened the minds of ordinary people in Europe to the feasibility of establishing representative government based on consent of the governed (of the people, by the people, for the people).

As in America and France, it is necessary to go back further into history to see how Republican ideals gained traction in the minds of ordinary people and gave birth to the modern notion of democracy.

In the aftermath of the Williamite War of the 1690’s, which ended the Stuart monarchy, the Catholic Irish, who had largely supported the Stuart cause, managed to get a reasonably generous settlement from King William III in the Treaty of Limerick which ended hostilities. A popular Irish Protestant poem of the day complained“the conquerers lose, the conquered gainers are”.

The Treaty Stone in Limerick
Provisions of this treaty in 1694 
were ignored by the Protestant
dominated Irish Parliament

Under the Treaty provisions, Catholics were allowed a measure of legal and religious toleration in line with what their co-religionists enjoyed in England, but once the Royal army returned to England the Anglican Church dominated Parliament in Dublin in its wisdom, and dictated by self interest chose to ignore Treaty provisions and passed a series of laws imposing significant restrictions on Catholics who were more than 80% of the island’s population.

These laws were also directed against the sizeable Presbyterian (or Dissenter) population living mainly in Ulster who were targets of the Sacramental Act of 1704 requiring all members of parliament to recognise the authority of the Anglican Church. The infamous legal code was collectively called “The Penal Laws” and was designed to ensure that wealth and political power in Ireland would continue to remain in the hands of the dominant Anglicans who owned or controlled 90% of the land based wealth of Ireland. In effect, the Dublin Parliament, purporting to represent all the people of Ireland, was controlled by less than 20% of its population. The Laws remained on the statute book during the 18th century, and Parliament was always ready to selectively enforce them in response to periods of crisis in International affairs as happened in 1715, 1720 (War of the Spanish Succession), 1745 (War of the Austrian Succession and the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland), 1756-63 (Seven Years War with France).

The Irish Parliament of the 17th century being addressed
by 'Patriot' leader Henry Grattan.
The code was symptomatic of a severe sense of insecurity in the outnumbered but powerful Anglican population, and its unrepresentative nature was subject of criticism from the likes of Dean Jonathan Swift, an Anglican cleric, as well as a small group of politicians within Parliament itself called “The Patriots” under the able leadership of Henry Grattan. These progressive forces had limited success in dismantling some of the more glaring civil and religious injustices contained in the code as time went on, but progress was painfully slow and begrudging. The overall anti Catholic/Dissenter bias remained right through the 18th century and was supported by no less a person than King George III who saw it as his God given duty as head of the Anglican Church to veto granting full civil rights to Catholics everywhere in his realm.

Note - Full Catholic Emancipation within the United Kingdom was finally achieved in 1829 by which time the Dublin parliament was subsumed into a UK parliament in London following the Act of Union of 1801.

Catholic repression and reaction

In response to being blocked from any possibility to exercise power or influence, the 18th century witnessed the rise of oath bound movements among the dispossessed and disenfranchised Catholics of Ireland. Agrarian organisations such as The Defenders sought to redress what they saw as obvious injustices and imbalances in the laws of what was once their land. Such agitation had the immediate effect of justifying government restrictions in defending what they considered hard won ruling class rights and privileges against a tide of a by then largely dispossessed, poverty stricken (due to the same Penal Laws) Catholics who seemed to threaten those rights and privileges. This was not helped by the fact that the population of Ireland had quadrupled during the 18th century, most of that increase arising from the Catholics who were a permanent under-class in Irish society. Even some fair minded Government members and supporters considered Catholics inherently unfit to be allowed equal rights, and this was seen as "the rock of religion and indulgence to Catholics". The spirit that drove the 17th century Popish Plot of Titus Oates and the subsequent Glorious Revolution was truly alive and well in Ireland a century later, and the country was a powder-keg with serious potential to explode, sooner rather than later. From where would the spark to cause conflagration come?

American Independence and the Rights of Man

It can be easily imagined what the impact of momentous events in North America and later France had on the unstable and unsustainable socio-political conditions that existed in Ireland. Equally it can be imagined what the attitude of Government would be towards repressed people they ruled over with such fear and disrespect of basic civil rights such as the right to own or inherit property, the right to education, the right to parliamentary representation.

Disaffection was initially obvious among the strong, independently minded Presbyterian population who suffered a loss of 40,000 persons who left Ireland to escape restrictive economic and social conditions to settle in the North American colonies during the 1769-74 period and became serious protagonists on the rebel side in the American War of Independence.

Benjamin Franklin visited Ireland in 1771 and reported strong support from both “courtiers and patriots” for the colonists' case against Imperial impositions.

“I found them disposed to be friends of America, in which I endeavoured to confirm them, with the expectation that our growing weight might in time be thrown into their scale, and by joining our interests with others, a more equitable treatment from this nation (England) might be obtained for them as well as for us”.

The Irish Volunteers 1778

The Irish Volunteers in
College Green Dublin in 1778.

Due to the fact that England was so distracted by serious problems all over its growing Empire and then by developments arising from the French Revolution, the Irish Parliament was forced to rely on its own resources, including those of its Patriot members, to protect Irish territory against potential invasion (particularly France). 1778 saw the formation of well resourced local Volunteer militias led by Lord Charlemont in 1778 in his own district, which was copied all over the country until it numbered an estimated 100,000 men under arms. This force was in reality a private army and was at the disposal of Government but not under Government control. It used its power and influence to win dearly held interests which had long been frustrated by the London government. They won significant self determination for the Dublin Parliament as well as overturning long standing restrictions on Irish trade to the Empire. Some hardwon measures were reversed when international tensions decreased and had the effect of radicalising many liberal minded members who were further influenced by returning Irish soldiers from across the Atlantic. Among these was Lord Edward Fitzgerald, son of the Duke of Leinster, who as a junior British officer witnessed the Cornwallis surrender at Yorktown but was attracted by the Republican ideals that inspired the Declaration of Independence of July 4th 1776, seeing its relevance to his own country.

The Irish Volunteer movement of 1778 was the moment it could be said the gun first entered Irish politics. At the time it was the prospect of force rather than its actual use that won political and economic concessions from an unwilling London parliament. The lessons of 1778 were well observed and would influence subsequent Irish history.

The French Revolution (1789)

The establishment of the Estates General in Paris after the fall of the Bastile in May 1789 was seen as a significant event all over Europe, but especially in Ireland.

Conservative Irish commentators such as Edmund Burke, while critical of Royal excesses and abuses, saw the destruction of many aspects of the “Ancien Regime” in Paris as catastrophic and retrograde. By contrast, Whig clubs in Dublin were excited by what was happening and caused 20,000 copies of Tom Paine's ‘Rights of Man’ to be printed and distributed. The Revolutionary Principles of the French Revolution resonated with Irish Presbyterians, reform minded Anglicans and, most significantly, Catholics, though there was some ambivalence due to the anti-religious nature of the French Revolution as it progressed and the negative attitude of Ireland’s Catholic hierarchy towards the liberal ideas of the Revolution as it progressed.

In July 1790 many Protestants and Dissenters actually marched to celebrate the Fall of the Bastille in Paris rather than the Battle of the Boyne of the previous century.

The United Irishmen (1793)

Many who viewed the emergent independent United States of America as “the promised land” drew inspiration from the ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence of July 4th 1778. This was further strengthened by the earth shattering events in France in May 1789.

These events provided the backdrop to a new departure in Irish political life. Ulster Presbyterian Dissenters were convinced of the need to make common cause with the majority Catholics if the woes of Ireland were ever to be addressed in a fair and equitable way. This led to the establishment of the United Irishmen organisation in 1791which sought “to replace the name of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter with the common name of Irishmen”.

The leader of the new movement, Theobald Wolfe Tone, a young Protestant barrister from Dublin, wrote in August 1791 one of the most influental pamphlets in Irish History, called "An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland", which aimed at allaying Protestant and Presbyterian fears. It was a document that appalled both governments in Dublin and London who in common with all the crowned heads of Europe feared the liberating notions of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”.

After France declared war on Austria in 1792, all of Europe was on war footing. This meant that in Britain and Ireland security took precedence over all other issues, even the most worthy or high-minded. In order to mollify Catholic opinion and to help the drive to recruit Catholics into the army to fight the battles that all saw coming, the London government forced an unwilling Irish parliament to endorse a very limited measure granting the vote to Catholics which soon was shown to withhold as much as it granted. Prime Minister William Pitt considered it was not a good time for further reformist experiments. As war clouds gathered, the campaign to qwell radical thought was undertaken. Private armies, including the Volunteer militias, were suppressed as was the newly established United Irishmen which immediately went underground. The most significant outcome of this outlawing of the movement caused it to add an unequivocal separatist objective to its Republican programme:

"To break the connection with England, the never failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of our country.”

In May 1793, Wolfe Tone was arrested and banished from Ireland. With his wife Matilda and their children, he sailed to America, a country he did not find much to his liking despite its Republican system of government.

"The aristocracy of money and achievement in America is still less to my liking than the European aristocracy of birth.

A year later he took a ship to France where he was welcomed by the Revolutionary Government in Paris. During 1796, he persuaded them to organise a 43 ship armada carrying 14,000 French soldiers to make a landing in southern Ireland. This was planned to be a preliminary action to overthrow the Dublin government, replacing it with an independent Republican regime ultimately drawing democratic support from the people.

The invasion failed due to unfavourable weather conditions which prevented a successful landing in Bantry Bay in December 1796. The Government was now well warned of the potential threat of the United Irishmen and their French allies. 1797 and the early months of 1798 saw a concerted campaign to destroy the United Irishmen by arresting the entire leadership and provoking the disorganised rebels to prematurely take to the field. Ireland remembers 1798 as a year of bloodshed and terror in which an estimated 50,000 rebels died in battle and by execution. Thousands more were transported to penal colonies in Australia.

Such was the turbulent birth of Irish Republicanism which though defeated in 1798, and on three further occasions in 1848, 1867 and 1916, survived to see the declaration of 1949.

In today’s Irish Republic, which Theobald Wolfe Tone dreamt of creating, he is acknowledged as the “Father of Irish Republicanism”. Words he wrote as he awaited execution in a Dublin prison after he was arrested, are often quoted:

"To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country—these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissentions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter—these were my means."


Irish Nationalism – A History of its Roots and Ideology (Sean Cronin)
Theobald Wolfe Tone – (Frank MacDermot)
The 1798 Rebellion – An Illustrated History (Thomas Bartlett, Kevin Dawson, Dáire Keogh)
The 1798 Rebellion – National Museum of Ireland (Michael Kenny)


Arthur Russell is author of the historic novel Morgallion set in early 13th century Ireland during the invasion of Ireland by King Robert Bruce's younger brother, Edward, who is determined to establish the Bruce dynasty as High Kings of Ireland, thereby creating a "Celtic Empire of the West." It follows the story of the young man Cormac who lives through those turbulent days of medieval Irish history.



  1. Sorry but that the 'Williamites' (by which read the Orangemen) were by any means 'generous' in only oppressing the Catholics and denying them rights the same extent as was done to Catholics in England is an absurd argument. The Popery Act of 1698 in effect put a bounty on the heads of ALL Catholic priests. Anyone convicted of running a Catholic school was subject to perpetual imprisonment and Catholics were barred from owning or inheriting property. Thus in a sweep of the pen, all Irish Catholics or in other words all Irish, had their lands stolen.

    1. The Orange Order did not come into being until after the so called Battle of the Diamond in 1793. The Treaty of Limerick which ended King William's Irish campaign (in 1694) did allow a measure of religious tolerance to Catholics, which was subsequently ignored by both Dublin and London Parliaments in a series of enactments (including the Popery Act of 1698. Whatever feelings of tolerance which inspired the Treaty had by 1698 effectively disappeared. In that context, the Treaty of Linerick had become "absurd". William's hope was to pacify Ireland's majority Catholic population. The Anglican dominated Irish Parliament had other ideas.


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