Milestone of royal assent marks 175 years of Catholic Emancipation

Exactly 175 years ago this week, on April 13, a significant milestone in Irish history was reached when King George IV reluctantly gave the royal assent to the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829.

The King had bitterly declared a month earlier that the Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington, was now “King Arthur”. Daniel O’Connell was “King of Ireland” and that he himself was merely “Dean of Windsor”.

Catholic Emancipation, as the parliamentary measure was more commonly known, was greeted more favourably by Lord Ellenborough, who wrote in his diary: “That I should, if I lived, live to see this I did expect; but that I should see it so soon, and that I should happen to be a member of the Government that carried it, I did not expect I must say with what delight I view the prospect of having Catholics in Parliament.”

Ellenborough’s amazement at the sudden change in Government policy can be easily understood when one considers the vigorous opposition which various proposals to introduce emancipation had met since the Act of Union. In 1801, William Pitt resigned as Prime Minister when King George III refused to accept his Emancipation of Catholics Bill. Lord Grenville was only 13 months in office when he too resigned over the same monarch’s refusal to accept emancipation, and thus his administration delighted the king.

Tragically, Perceval was shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons on May 11, 1812.
Lord Liverpool’s administration lasted 15 years, during which two emancipation bills were passed by the Commons but rejected by the Lords.

Having suffered a stroke in February 1827, Liverpool felt obliged to resign two months later, but George Canning, his successor, was only 100 days in office when he died of pneumonia on August 8, 1827.
Canning had supported emancipation, having resigned in sympathy with Pitt in 1801. It was while Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, was Prime Minister that Catholic Emancipation for Catholics was finally granted. Although emancipation for Catholics was a considerable achievement in 1829, it would not have been achieved had it not been for the series of Catholic Relief Acts passed over the previous 50 years. In particular, the Relief Act 1793 had extended voting rights to Catholics holding freehold land to the value of 40 shillings per annum. These “40-shilling-freeholders” later formed the backbone of the campaign for emancipation.

Daniel O’Connell formed the Catholic Association in May 1823. In January ‘24, O’Connell introduced a scheme whereby a subscription of a penny a month would enable someone to become an associate member of the Catholic association.

Not alone did this payment, known as “the Catholic Rent”, give many people a sense of participation in the emancipation campaign, but it also enabled the creation of a network of committees and agents throughout the country.

In March 1825, the Catholic Association was declared an illegal organisation. O’Connell quickly responded by renaming it the New Catholic Association in July of that same year. In the 1826 election, pro-emancipation candidates were ejected in Louth and Waterford.

Two years later, a most remarkable election contest took place: Vessey Fitzgerald, an Anglican who supported emancipation, was obliged to seek re-election prior to taking up a Government appointed position. O’Connell decided to contest the election, even though he would be unable under the current legislation to take his seat if he were to win. He knew that if he were to be successful, the Prime Minister would be faced with an uncomfortable decision. Either he (Wellington) could pass the Act that would enable O’Connell to take his seat of he could declare the election null and void. When O’Connell was elected for Clare in July 1828, in what Robert Peel termed “an avalanche”, the decision was taken to pass a Roman Catholic Relief Act with two mean spirited aspects.

The county franchise was raised from 40 shillings to £10, which removed the vote from the majority of those who had supported the emancipation campaign, and only those Catholics elected after the passing of the Act could avail of its terms. Thus, O’Connell was obliged to seek re-election and was returned to parliament without opposition.

Daniel O’Connell aptly described the achievement of Catholic Emancipation as “one of the greatest triumphs recorded in history - a bloodless revolution more extensive in its operation than any other political change that could take place”. He also wrote of his hope that Catholics and Protestants would unite together to ensure “that something solid and substantial may be done for all”.

One hundred and seventy five years after O’Connell wrote these words, such unity in political terms appears to remain as elusive as ever. Nevertheless the emancipation campaign sowed the seeds for later campaigns for self -government in that it demonstrated that democracy can work when people peacefully join together to purse a commonly agreed and clearly defined end. In terms of its immediate impact many churches were built in Ireland after emancipation, and people both locally and internationally felt a sense of renewed pride in being Irish Catholics.

Courtesy of the Limerick Leader
April 2004