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Eton College

Maynooth College, 1850. Click on image for larger picture and additional information.

Anti-Irish and anti-Catholic feelings were greatly exacerbated by the controversy surrounding the Maynooth Grant. The Royal College of St Patrick at Maynooth, County Kildare, in Ireland, a seminary, was founded in 1795 and, after the Act of Union in 1801, partly to stem the flow of seminarians to revolutionary France, its grant was transferred to London. Much to the horror of staunch Protestants, the Maynooth Bill proposed to raise the grant from under 10,000 to over 26,000. Furthermore, the grant was to be made permanent and there was to be an additional 30,000 for repairs.

The Maynooth Grant was not only the question of the day but it also led to one of the fiercest and most divisive political and religious agitations of the entire century. Opposing the new Maynooth Grant were all those who argued that it was inappropriate, unnecessary, and potentially dangerous for a Protestant state to support a Catholic seminary. Joining in the agitation were the "Voluntaryists", who seized the occasion to demand the end of all government grants to private educational institutions. The Nonconformists were split on this issue, for while many Nonconformists looked to the Anglican state for grants for their educational institutions, others were strict "Voluntaryists" or, like the militant Protestants, opposed to anything which gave encouragement and succour to the Catholics. Leading the opposition to the grant was Exeter Hall in England and the Orange Lodges in Ireland. As LordMacaulay said in Parliament, "the Orangeman raises his howl, and Exeter Hall sets up its bray" (Hansard, LXXIX, 657, quoted in Norman, 29. Combined they aggravated what Harriet Martineau called "the great political controversy of the year - - the subject on which the public seemed to be going mad" (A History of the Thirty Years' Peace (1878), 247, quoted in Norman, 23).

Typical of the rhetoric of Exeter Hall was the speech of the Rev. John Cummings of the Church of Scotland, who took Calvin and Aquinas as archtypes for Protestant virtue and Catholic vice: "the contrast between them is just the contrast between liberty and slavery", he cried, "between truth and a lie, between love and bloodshed, between light and darkness, between heaven and hell". (Proceedings of the Anti-Maynooth Conference of 1845, ed., A.S. Thelwall, 1845, quoted in ibid., p.34, n.39). At one stage it looked as though Exeter Hall, the debating arena (in the Strand in London) of militant nonconformity, might succeed in taking the issue out of the realm of parliamentary debate by turning it into a plebiscite issue, but in the end the Grant passed in Parliament (1845) and three years later the government offered subsidies to Catholic schools in England. Once again, Peel was attacked for his betrayal of the Protestant cause and Punch declared

How wonderful is Peel
He changeth with the Time

Turning and Twisting like an Eel
Ascending through the Slime.

(quoted in Asa Briggs, The Making of Modern England, 1784-1867. The Age of Improvement (N.Y., Harper and Row, 1959), 342).

However, as E. R. Norman argues, there was a keen awareness that the winds of liberalism were blowing away the older, traditional notions of a the monopolist privileges, the primacy, of an established church and of a confessional state (Norman 23ff. ) and to the fear of the retreat of the Established Church was added the complementary but even greater fear of Catholic advance - - an advance that would inevitably, it was argued, result in state support for the Catholic Church in both England and Ireland. That fear is well captured by the frenzied speeches in Exeter Hall, speeches which, in their anti-Catholic vehemence, reproduced in England the prejudices and violent language of the Irish Protestant Orange Societies .

What was Robert Peel's role in the Maynooth Grant's successful passage? What do you find to be the tone of the parliamentary debates on the issue? Of The Times? How difficult do you find it to distinguish between the tax-payers concern that his taxes were going to support private education and anti-catholic prejudice?

Last modified 25 March 2002