In 1798, inspired by the American and French revolutions,
the Irish staged a major rebellion against British rule. Widespread hangings
and floggings soon followed as the rebellion was brutally squashed. The
English Army in Ireland was also increased to nearly 100,000 men.
Two years later, the British Act of Union made
Ireland a part of the United Kingdom. The Act abolished the 500-year-old
independent Irish Parliament in Dublin and placed the country under the
jurisdiction of Britain's Imperial Parliament at Westminster, England.
Although Ireland was to be represented there by 100 members, Catholics
Anti-Catholic prohibitions dated back to 1695
when the British began imposing a series of Penal Laws designed to punish
the Irish for supporting the Catholic Stuart King, James II, in his battle
to ascend the British throne in place of the Protestant, William of Orange.
With an Irish Catholic army at his side, James II had been defeated at
the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690. The resulting Penal Laws stripped
Irish Catholics of their rights including; the ability to serve as an officer
in the British Army or Navy, hold any government office, vote, buy land,
practice law, attend school, serve an apprenticeship, possess weapons,
and practice their religion. The Catholic Church was outlawed. The Gaelic
language was banned. Export trade was forbidden as Irish commerce and industry
were deliberately destroyed.
With 80 percent of Ireland being Catholic, the
Penal Laws were intended to degrade the Irish so severely that they would
never again be in a position to seriously threaten Protestant rule. In
1600, Protestants had owned just 10 percent of Ireland's land. By 1778,
Protestants owned 95 percent of the land. When a Catholic landowner died,
the estate was divide up equally among all of his sons, diluting the value.
However, if any son renounced Catholicism and became a Protestant, he automatically
inherited all of his father's property.
Various Penal Laws remained in effect for 140
years until Catholic Emancipation occurred in 1829, largely through the
efforts of Daniel O'Connell, a brilliant Catholic lawyer from County Kerry.
But by the time of Emancipation, Ireland had become a nation laid low.
The French sociologist, Gustave de Beaumont, visited
Ireland in 1835 and wrote: "I have seen the Indian in his forests,
and the Negro in his chains, and thought, as I contemplated their pitiable
condition, that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did
not then know the condition of unfortunate Ireland...In all countries,
more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers
is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland."
By the mid-1800s, many high-minded English politicians
and social reformers began to think that Ireland was a nation in need of
transformation, that its people now needed to be yanked into the modern
world by tossing out the old Gaelic traditions. To the industrious, ambitious
British, their rural Irish neighbors seemed to be an alien, rebellious,
backward people, stuck in an ancient agrarian past. English reformers hoped
to remake the Irish in their own image, thus ending Ireland's cycle of
poverty and misfortune in an era when poverty was thought to be caused
by bad moral character. The laid-back, communal lifestyle of Irish peasants
with their long periods of idleness was also an affront to influential
Protestants in England who believed idleness was the devil's work. They
professed the virtues of hard work, thrift and self-reliance and regarded
the Irish as totally lacking in these qualities, a point of view also shared
by many British officials and politicians.
English reformers watched in dismay as Ireland's
'surplus' population doubled to over 8 million before the Famine. Bountiful
harvests meant the people were generally well fed but there were very few
employment opportunities. The Act of Union had resulted in Ireland's economy
being absorbed by Britain.
Although free trade now existed between the two countries, England generally
used Ireland as a dumping ground for its surplus goods. Rapid industrialization
in Britain also brought the collapse of the Irish linen and woolen industries
in the countryside with their less efficient handlooms. The British 'Poor
Enquiry' survey conducted in 1835, revealed that 75 percent of Irish laborers
were without any regular work and that begging was very common.
The British government, under pressure from English
reformers to relieve the situation, enacted the Poor Law Act of 1838, modeled
on the English workhouse system. Under this relief plan, Ireland was divided
into 130 separate administrative areas, called unions, since they united
several church parishes together. Each union had its own workhouse and
a local Board of Guardians elected by taxpaying landowners and farmers.
The chairman of the Board was usually the biggest proprietor or landlord
in the area. Each Board was responsible for setting local tax rates and
for collecting the funds necessary to maintain the workhouse. Inside each
workhouse lived a resident Master and Matron, who were also supervised
by the Board. The entire system was supervised by a Poor Law Commissioner
stationed in Dublin.
Upon arrival at a workhouse, the head of a pauper
family would be harshly questioned to prove his family had no other way
of surviving. Once admitted, families were immediately split up, had their
old clothes removed, were washed down, then given workhouse uniforms. Men
and women, boys and girls had
their own living quarters and were permanently segregated. Workhouse residents
were forbidden to leave the building. The ten-hour workday involved breaking
of stones for men and knitting for the women. Little children were drilled
in their daily school lessons while older children received factory-style
industrial training. A bell tolled throughout the day signaling the start
or end of various activities. Strict rules included no use of bad language,
no disobedience, no laziness, no talking during mealtime and prohibited
any family reunions, except during Sunday church.
The 130 pre-famine workhouses throughout Ireland
could hold a total of about 100,000 persons. Everyone knew that entering
a workhouse meant the complete loss of dignity and freedom, thus poor people
avoided them. Before the Famine, workhouses generally remained three-quarters
empty despite the fact there were an estimated 2.4 million Irish living
in a state of poverty.
Many adventurous, unemployed young Irishmen sought
their fortunes in America and boarded ships heading for Boston, New York
and Philadelphia. Emigrants during the 1700s were mostly Presbyterians
from the north of Ireland, the so-called "Scotch-Irish." Some
agreed to work as indentured servants without pay up to five years in return
for free passage. By 1776, nearly 250,000 Irish Protestants had emigrated
to North America.
Between 1815 and 1845, nearly a million Irish,
including a large number of unemployed Catholics, came to the United States.
The men went to work providing the backbreaking labor needed to build canals,
roads and railways in the rapidly expanding country. Irish pick-and-shovel
workers proved to be very hard-working and were in great demand. American
contractors often placed advertisements in newspapers in Dublin, Cork and
Belfast before beginning big construction projects. The massive Erie Canal
project, for example, was built by scores of Irishmen working from dawn
till dusk for a dollar-a-day, hand-digging their way westward through the
rugged wilderness of upstate New York. The 363 mile-long canal became the
main east-west commerce route and spurred America's early economic growth
by drastically lowering the costs of getting goods to market.
Back home in Ireland, on the eve of the Famine,
the spirit of rebellion had once again arisen. Led by the brilliant orator,
Daniel O'Connell, growing numbers of Irish were demanding self-government
for Ireland through repeal of the Act of Union. The Repeal Movement featured
mass rallies filled with O'Connell's fiery oratory. At one such rally in
County Meath, nearly 750,000 persons came together on the Hill of Tara,
a former place of Irish kings.
The movement peaked in October 1843 as O'Connell
and half-a-million supporters attempted to gather near Dublin for another
'monster' rally, but this time encountered British cannons, warships and
troops ready for a violent confrontation. To avoid a potential massacre,
O'Connell ordered his people to disperse. The British then arrested the
68-year-old O'Connell. While in prison his health broke and his Repeal
Movement faded. He died just a few years later, leaving Ireland leaderless
and without a charismatic voice during its darkest period.
Copyright © 2000 The History Place All Rights Reserved