The War of the Two Kings came to an end in 1691. With a few short-term exceptions, Ireland would not have another sustained bout of political violence for over a century. This time has been dubbed, by academics like Ian McBride in his history of the period, as “the long peace”. It would be a mistake to take that as meaning that Ireland was some kind of happy carefree land during the 18th century, because there were plenty of problems, dissensions and plotting. But major wars and rebellions largely passed Ireland by until the very end of the century. In this post, I’ll discuss why this occurred.
There is no single factor that determined why Ireland, after a century of unrelenting bloodshed, should suddenly become so peaceful. A multitude of influences combined to produce this result, but if I was to place one above the others it would be the complete dominance of the Protestant Ascendency, which held a position of strength and power over the traditionally subversive sections of society – namely, the Catholic underclass – that no English-backed force in Ireland has enjoyed up to that point. The War of the Two Kings and its aftermath left Irish Catholics at the mercy of Protestant overlords, many of whom had little interest in fair rapprochement with those of the “Popish” persuasion. The Treaty of Limerick promised much to Catholics in terms of individual and property rights, but the first half of the 18th century was a time when all of this was gradually rejected, overruled or distorted.
What we today call the “Penal Laws” first began to be implemented shortly after the end of the war, and continued to be added to over and over as years passed and legislatures in Dublin and London became entrenched in their sectarianism. Their goal was not just to ease the subjugation of Ireland and to prevent another rebellion, but to essentially end the Catholic religion in the land, by making it extremely uncomfortable, legally, socially and financially, to be one.
Some of the laws were subtle, others less so. Catholics were barred from holding most public offices, which guaranteed Protestant control of government. Intermarriage with Protestants was banned. Membership of Parliament was refused, and this would remain until the 19th century. From 1728 Catholics had no right to vote in elections, so could not even influence the political direction of the country. Catholics could not join legal professions, insuring domination of the law went against then. Access to places of higher learning, like Trinity College, was banned. In 1695 Parliament attempted to ban Catholics sending their children abroad to be educated, though many continued to do so. Catholics couldn’t buy a lease for land if the lease was over 31 years, limiting Catholic ties to land. Catholics could not inherit Protestant land. Catholics could not adopt orphans. Catholics could not own horses worth more than £5, a ruling perhaps driven by memories of Jacobite cavalry. Catholics could not be teachers. Catholic Churches were not permitted to be made from stone. Protestants were banned from converting to Catholicism.
The most important though, were a set few, that included a ban on serving in the armed forces, a ban on holding firearms privately, and the institution of “gavelkind” inheritance law for Catholics whereby land would be divided between sons upon the death of the father as opposed to going just to the elder son, a situation that encouraged Catholics to convert (in fact, there was a tradition of Catholic families raising their elder son as Protestant in some parts because of this). These laws left Catholic landowners with gradually diminishing holdings, refused them the opportunity to defend themselves, and barred them from gaining the kind of training and experience that could be useful in a rebellion.
Now, it is important to note that the Penal Laws were unevenly implemented and enforced, with their particular effect depending more on the mood and disposition of local officials and magistrates than the national government. It is also important to note that most of them would be repealed before the 18th century was out, for numerous reasons. But, for a time, they left the Catholic class in Ireland crushed under the weight of Protestant power, which held all the cards in terms of the government, the law, the military, educational services and land distribution. Such a reality meant that many Catholics had less thought for large scale rebellion, and more for simple survival.
And even if they had the impetus to rebel, they lacked the leadership. Much of the Irish Catholic gentry had either been killed or imprisoned during the War of the Two Kings, and much of the rest had left the country to take up service in foreign Kingdoms. Those that were left had much to lose and little to gain from attempted revolt, and often sent their sons abroad to join the “Wild Geese” in the service of France or Spain. Such people, as I will discuss in greater detail in the coming weeks, never forgot the aim of freeing Ireland from the tyranny that now held sway, but the organising of such an effort had many difficulties and pitfalls. As we know, known of them came to fruition, and without that outside intervention or the presence of a class of Catholics with the means to rebel – as there had been in 1594, 1641 and 1689 – Irish resistance was neutered.
Other, more devastating, factors also played their part. In late 1739 and carrying on into 1740, Ireland and the rest of Europe suffered through the “Great Frost”, a bizarrely harsh winter that was extremely abnormal for the period. Records are sparse, but confirmed temperatures as low as -12 degrees Celsius occurred. Stockpiles of fuel were used up quickly, and frozen waterways often prevented the importation of any more. Deaths by hypothermia spiked. Crops of potatoes planted in autumn were destroyed, not even yielding seeds for next year’s planting.
The frost ended in the spring of 1740, but simply yielded to a similar calamity, a sustained period of drought. Continuing into the summer, the drought left herds dead in the fields and resulted in the destruction of tillage crops, which at the time were even more important to the national diet than the potato. Starvation levels rose sharply, along with price inflation for what food existed, leading to numerous food riots in places like Dublin and Drogheda, port towns where people grew angry and resentful at the continuance of exportation of Irish foodstuffs at a time of crisis. War in the continent also affected Ireland in this way, disrupting imports. When the time came for the autumn harvest, the results were poor, with a shortage of milk, due to undernourished cows and a falling cattle population generally, the newest crisis. Another frost, shorter than the first but no less devastating as it unfolded, brought snowdrifts and floods to Ireland late in the year.
Food supplies remained low into the following year, and it was not really until into the summer of 1741 that things improved enough that the crisis eased. The death toll was gigantic, though cannot be known with exact certainty: some of the more thorough academic research has suggested that as much as a third of the Irish population, then in the region of 2.4 million, may have perished. Even estimates at the lower end of the scale are terrible, and would have caused significant demographic change. Proportionally, what is now called the “Irish Famine”, was worse than the Great Famine of a century later.
In terms of the political situation in Ireland and the likelihood of violent rebellion, the famine had a gigantic effect. It was the Catholic population that suffered most, and in the years after, thoughts were more firmly set on rebuilding lives and surviving than trying to overthrow the government. The famine had practically been a war in itself when you consider how many must have died in it, and it is easy to see how its effects would have stunted any groundswell of support for any kind of violent political action. Harvests improved markedly in the following years, but full recovery took some time.
Added to all that may simply have been a sense of war exhaustion among large parts of the Irish population. At the start of the century, Ireland had just suffered through a hundred year period with three larger scale wars that had all ended badly for Catholics. The Jacobite cause was floundering abroad with many Catholic gentry attached to it, and with the effects of the Famine, the dominance of the Protestant Ascendency and the crushing weight of the Penal Laws, the popular will for violent resistance was quashed.
At least for a time. Resentment over the laws, the governments perceived failure during the famine (not as well commented upon as that during the Great Famine, but similar in many respects), the continued links with the Wild Geese abroad, the influences of foreign revolutionaries, not to mention a growing sense of nationality (that occurred just as strongly in Protestant circles) all came to the boil during the 18th century, bubbling just under the peaceful surface. The end result would be the explosion of 1798, but that is still some ways off.
Before I get to that critical moment in Irish history, I’d like to spend some time on the Wild Geese. In 1691, they left Ireland to take up arms for France, Spain, Austria and others. Soldiers, singing Irish songs and marching under a green banner, fought in numerous battles, always keeping in mind the homeland they wished one day to liberate. Those wars were Ireland’s wars too.
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