The Union and Aftermath

Despite the fact that the 1798 Rebellion had ended in utter failure, it had nevertheless made the British cabinet very much aware of the Irish Question. William Pitt had already conceived the idea of abolishing the Irish Parliament completely and uniting it with the British parliament in what would be termed “The Union” with Britain. Lord Cornwallis had also been sent to Ireland as Lord Lieutenant and Commander-in-Chief of the army, with a dual purpose in mind ... to quell the Rebellion and to pave the way for the proposed Act of Union. With the first of those tasks successfully completed he could now turn his full attention to the second.

First efforts at getting the Irish aristocracy and members of the Irish parliament to agree to a complete Union with Britain met with complete failure, but Cornwallis now began to employ other methods. With Lord Castlereagh, the Chief Secretary, taking the lead in what only can be described as despicable practices, votes were bought, while titles and bribes were offered in lavish amounts to those who might be likely to vote against the motion when it came before them. In due course, this disgraceful practice proved hugely successful. The recipients of titles and bribes were even described by Cornwallis as “the most corrupt people under heaven.” All objections to the proposed Union gradually evaporated.

Under the terms of the Act, the Irish Parliament would be abolished and, in future, Ireland would be represented by one hundred members in the British House of Parliament and by 32 peers in the House of Lords. The vote was eventually carried on August 1st 1800, and the “Act of Union” then came into force on the first day of the new century, the 1st of January 1801. The members of the Irish House of Parliament accordingly went down in world history as the only parliamentarians ever “to have voted themselves out of a job.” A new cross (the cross of St.Patrick) was added to the ‘Union Flag’ and the House of Parliament in College Green, Dublin, became vacant. (It is currently the Bank of Ireland).
Pitt and Castlereagh had also won ‘middle-class Catholic’ support for the Act of Union by promising that, if passed, Catholic Emancipation would quickly follow. The majority of the leading Catholic clerics thus advocated the passing of the Act, but they were sadly disappointed when all efforts at introducing a Catholic Emancipation Act were very soon forgotten. The Catholic Church in Ireland justifiably felt both betrayed and humiliated. In addition, promises and guarantees that Irish trade and industry would also flourish under the new act, also proved to be completely groundless and, from now on, the commercial and industrial life of the country went into serious decline.

Dublin city also ceased to be the metropolis where the great landowners had their lovely homes, as the majority of these now moved to London, which, in turn, became the principal social and political centre, while Dublin gradually went into decline, the beautiful buildings eventually being converted into tenements for a rapidly expanding population of the so-called ‘lower’ classes. This exodus of the rich also gave rise to “absentee landlordism”, which would cause so much strife and bitterness in the Ireland for the next hundred years. These absentee landlords appointed agents to collect their rents and taxes from them, and these latter appointees proved so despicable that there was constant friction, even warfare, between them and the unfortunate tenants whom they pressurised so ruthlessly for the payment of rents and taxes. This even resulted in occasional assassinations of some such agents throughout the country.

Despite the apparent obliteration of the United Irishmen and the introduction of the Act of Union, the spirit of republicanism and revolution remained strong, especially in Dublin, where a young lawyer named Robert Emmet now came to the fore. He was the younger brother of Thomas Addis Emmet, one of the leaders of the Dublin United Irishmen and secretary of their supreme council in the city.

Born in Dublin in 1778, Robert Emmet was educated at Trinity College, went to France in 1800 and later, unsuccessfully, tried to persuade the emperor Napolcon to send yet another French expedition to Ireland. Arriving back in Ireland in 1802 he planned a rebellion of his own, convinced that the surrounding counties would respond to his call to arms. Unfortunately, those surrounding counties failed to respond, while an accidental explosion at one of his depots in the city alerted the authorities to the danger of yet another uprising and he was forced to go ahead with the revolution earlier then he had planned. On July 23rd 1803 he sallied into Thomas Street in the city, at the head of his small group of spirited revolutionaries, intending to attack Dublin Castle. He was, unfortunately, joined by a number of undesirables whom he could well have done without, and the insurrection ended in total confusion, especially when the lord chief justice Lord Kilwarden and his nephew were dragged from their carriage and callously murdered.

Emmet escaped, however, and hid for a period in the Wicklow mountains, but then moved back to Harold’s Cross, Dublin, in order to be close to the girl he was engaged to, Sarah Curran. His housekeeper Anne Devlin was jailed in Kilmainham and tortured in an effort to get her to tell where her master was hiding but the brave girl steadfastly refused. Eventually, Emmet was captured on August 25th 1803, tried for treason, found guilty and hanged. His speech from the dock, in which he asked that his epitaph should not be written until Ireland had attained complete freedom, has frequently been used as a rallying cry for Irish republicans down through the years.

Robert Emmet’s love affair with Sarah Curran is recalled in Thomas Moore’s lovely melody “She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps” while Emmet himself has always been held in the highest esteem as one of Ireland’s finest heroes. His youthfulness made him an endearing character to all, while his truly remarkably courage became an inspiration and example to those who came after him.
In Ulster that same year (1803), Thomas Russell, who had returned from France in July with the disappointing news that Napoleon would not be sending any further expeditions to Ireland, led an abortive uprising near Loughinisland in Co. Down but, like Emmet’s effort in Dublin, it ended in total failure. Russell was captured, tried for treason and then hanged at Downpatrick jail. His memory is celebrated in the lovely poem “The Man From God Knows Where.”

The abject failure of the British government to grant Catholic Emancipation, as was promised in the articles of the Act of Union, now led to further and even more bitter sectarian strife. Secret societies flourished and new ones were founded, with the ‘Defenders’ gradually merging into the ‘Ribbonmen’ to combat the outrages continually being committed in the name of the Orange Order, especially in Ulster. The Catholics, even those who had supported the Union, now turned completely against the Act, and the fight to be admitted to parliament began in real earnest.

A new power was now appearing on the Catholic side, however who would transform the situation completely. He was a landowner and lawyer from Co.Kerry, named Daniel O’Connell. Born on August 6th 1775 near Cahirciveen, he studied law in London and was called to the Irish bar in 1798. He would later become the first of the great 19th century parliamentary leaders and would also be instrumental in raising the Irish people from the gutter and turning them into a force to be reckoned with, in both British and Irish politics. Justifiably, he would be nicknamed “The Liberator” by a very grateful Irish peasantry.

A vigorous opponent of the concept of physical force, having been an eye-witness to some of the excesses perpetrated on the continent following the French Revolution, while he was at college in St.Omer and Douai, he spoke out strongly against the United Irishmen and the whole idea of revolution. He even marched with the company of Trinity College militia against the Robert Emmet insurgents in Dublin in 1803. He was also a native Irish speaker, but he repeatedly refused to use the Irish language, even in his meetings with the people of the Gaeltacht areas of the West during the 1840s.

Despite all this, he would have an amazing influence on the Irish people in their struggle against the British, particularly by his denunciation of the Act of Union and in his efforts to attain Catholic Emancipation. Towards this latter end he set about bringing together the priests, the Catholic middle classes and the peasantry and forging them into one strong unit that would very successfully agitate for the removal of the last of the Penal Laws and attaining their basic civil right to be represented by one of their own religion sitting in parliament.