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 OConnell 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
Ellenboroughs 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 monarchs
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 Liverpools 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 OConnell formed the Catholic Association in
May 1823. In January 24, OConnell introduced
a scheme whereby a subscription of a penny a month would
enable someone to become an associate member of the Catholic
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. OConnell 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. OConnell 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 OConnell to take
his seat of he could declare the election null and void.
When OConnell 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, OConnell was obliged to seek re-election
and was returned to parliament without opposition.
Daniel OConnell 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 OConnell
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