Decorative Initial Following the Reformation in England and the establishment of the Church of England, legislation was passed which prevented all non-Anglicans from holding public office. Only Anglicans were allowed to vote and sit in parliament. These laws also applied in Ireland even though some 80% of the population were Catholics. Until 1823 the campaign for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland was mainly the preserve of an intellectual minority and there was no informed public opinion on the subject.

In 1823 Catholic Emancipation was taken to the people by Daniel O'Connell as their concern and as a popular campaign when he established the Catholic Association. O'Connell was a democrat and a Dublin lawyer who had close contact with the social and economic problems of the Irish through his work in the minor courts. He had seen the effects of English rule on the Irish. He decided to crusade to liberate the Irish socially, economically and politically by taking one step at a time within the system. His ultimate aim was Home Rule. Catholic Emancipation was the first step because it already had support in the House of Commons. O'Connell thought that once there were Catholic MPs in the Commons they could use their influence for Home Rule.

His tactics were adopted from American and French examples of agitation and pressure from the majority towards a single objective. His organization was so successful that later English movements used the Catholic Association as their model. The Political Unions of the early 1830s and the Anti-Corn-Law League of the late 1830s and early 1840s both asked O'Connell for advice and help.

In 1823 the Catholic Association was set up by O'Connell. All Irish citizens were encouraged to join. They paid a 'Catholic rent' of 1d per month, collected after Mass on Sunday, which financed the Association's activities and was used as an insurance fund for members who were evicted for being members of the Association. The priesthood was won over and churches became a propaganda vehicle for the Association and many joined the Association as a religious crusade. Catholics had little to lose and all to gain. In its first year of existence the Association had an income of £1,000 per week (960,000 pennies a month) and at the end of the year it had £10,000 invested. O'Connell realised that a successful campaign needed money to pay for speakers, pamphlets and so on.

The campaign was non-violent but agitation was constant and by 1825 the Association was so active that it was declared to be illegal. O'Connell simply changed its name and continued as before. Also in 1825 Sir Francis Burdett proposed another Emancipation Bill. It passed the Commons but was rejected by the Lords. O'Connell felt that there was a need for fully committed believers in emancipation in the Commons, so the Association influenced elections by encouraging Irish voters to elect only pro-emancipation candidates in the 1826 election. Candidates pledged to support emancipation were elected at Louth and Waterford.

In 1828 William Huskisson, the President of the Board of Trade, proposed a sliding scale on corn and after a disagreement with Wellington, resigned. This disagreement had nothing to do with Ireland but its results were startling. Wellington appointed Vesey Fitzgerald as his new President of the Board of Trade, but Fitzgerald had to stand for re-election because the post carried a salary. This precipitated the County Clare election. O'Connell, who was a Catholic, decided to stand against Fitzgerald: he could do so, but would not be allowed to take his seat if he won. Fitzgerald was an English Anglican was happened to be in favour of emancipation. O'Connell's aim was to present parliament with a fait accompli, to provoke a crisis and force parliament to do something. He was elected in what Peel called "an avalanche."

Wellington had two choices. Either he could pass a Catholic Emancipation Act and let O'Connell take his seat or he could declare the election null and void. Here he ran the risk of violence in Ireland, and possible civil war. Wellington did want to avoid bloodshed. He knew the majority of MPs favoured emancipation and that they were against the use of force in Ireland. He could not resign because that was no solution, and only a Tory ministry could get the Bill through the Lords and get George IV's consent. The crisis was provoked; the threat of violence existed and the Irish got their way.

In April 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act was put through parliament by Wellington's ministry. Peel put it to the House of Commons, and arguably spent the rest of his political career attempting to live down his 'ratting' on the Constitution in 1829. The Act said that

O'Connell accepted the Act although the majority of members of the Catholic Association were 40/- freeholders. It was political reality — he had achieved his aim. However, O'Connell was seen as a traitor by the peasants.


Victorianism: An Overview History Robert Peel

Last modified 7 August 2002