All Irish history from around 1550 onward can be regarded as an extended comment on the Catholic question. However, contemporary historians use the term the ‘Catholic question’ in reference to the readmission of Catholics to full civil, religious and political equality in three ways, which were timing, terms and sponsorship. At what point could such concessions with safety be made and with what safeguards and under whose auspices should these concessions be made.
18th-century Ireland was a Protestant country in which all political power and most social and economic consequence was confined to those who conformed to the established church; Irish Protestants were keenly aware that they constituted a minority of the Irish population. The “Protestant Nation” as they considered themselves were well aware that the sole basis of their claim to be not just ‘a people’ but ‘the people of Ireland’ lay in the destruction of Catholic power, the confiscation of Catholic land and concurrent denial to Catholics of social and political authority. They had every right to be deeply concerned when something called ‘the Catholic question’ emerged in Ireland in the late 1760s.
The emergence of the Catholic question which would progress to dominate the Anglo-Irish political agenda, cannot but have alarmed Protestant opinion in Ireland. The penal laws had been enacted to ensure the hopes of a Catholic recovery would be forever forlorn. English opinion of the so-called Catholic menace augured well for Irish Protestants. Given that the Catholic question appeared to have been once and for all resolved by the beginning of the 18th century, how then can its re-emergence be explained by the 1760s? One answer would be that Catholics had shown by their good behaviour conduct that they felt deserved favour.
The ideas of Enlightenment were having an influence on Ireland and notions of persecution for religious belief were generally reprobated throughout Europe. It is important to realize that Enlightenment was, more or less, anti-Catholic and the teachings of the Catholic Church were cast as the biggest obstacle to the spread of enlightened ideas. In short, Irish Protestants could legitimately comfort themselves that the Penal Laws, by putting dependency on adherence to superstition and general ignorance, were actually forwarding the work of the Enlightenment.
Another reason frequently advanced for the emergence of the Catholic question around mid-century was the perception that a wealthy Catholic merchant class had grown up and that Catholic money, because of the penal laws, was shut out of the Irish economy, the land market in particular.
It may be that the chief reasons for the emergence of the Catholic question by 1760 Leidy in changes within the political world of Protestant Ireland and also in developments within the Anglo-Irish relationship itself. In the history of the rise of the Catholic question, the Money Bill dispute of the 1750s marked a watershed for it sowed divisions among Irish Protestants and arouse suspicions in the minds of British ministers about the reliability of Irish Protestants. In creating these tensions between governing elites the Money Bill dispute gave Irish Catholics their chance to stand forward. It comes as no surprise to learn that it was at the time of the Money Bill dispute that a Catholic committee of sorts was convened to consider Catholic grievances and to seek redress.
The chemistry of the Anglo-Irish relationship was changing with the growth of a Protestant nationalism which alarmed English politicians and led them to believe that new alliances in Ireland should be contemplated in order to restrain the exuberance of Irish Protestant self-assertion. There was never any question of replacing the Protestant interest with the Catholic one but British ministers saw it as common sense to keep on good terms with Irish Catholics, if only to remind Irish Protestants that, though they might called themselves the people of Ireland, there was another people on the island who could equally lay claim to that title.
The fears of Irish Protestants took second place to the very real needs of the Empire and also to the requirements of the Armed Forces of the crown. The scale and extent of warfare along with the expansion of empire may offer good reasons for the emergence, at this time, of the Catholic question. There is a certain irony in this; the Catholic question in the early 18th century had also been linked to the trash of war, Irish Catholics had been seen as Jacobites in sympathy and thus inherently disloyal; they maintained what amounted to a standing army abroad; the so-called Irish Brigade in the service of France which recruited clandestinely among Irish Catholics; and when wars did break out, as for example in 1743 at the start of the war of the Austrian succession, it was usual for extra security precautions to be taken against them. Military necessity, essentially the manpower requirements of the British Army, provides the context for the Americans of the Catholic question in the 1760s and its persistence thereafter.
Catholic recruits were taken into the armed forces in increasing numbers. Irish Protestants grew restive at this development and suspected that the British government in its eternal quest for troops was not above offering Catholic relief in return for Catholic recruits. These suspicions were not groundless; for there was in fact a plan to offer concessions to the Catholics of England, Scotland and Ireland, and this scheme formed the background to the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, the first major breach in the penal code. This act repealed some of the penal laws concerning ownership of land by Catholics but its main aim was to encourage the Catholic gentry to beat the recruiting drum and enlist their co-religionists into the British Army.
Towards the end of the American War, another major Catholic Relief Act was passed and this act effectively repealed those penal laws directed specifically at the practice of the Catholic religion. This time, however, the concession was not granted with an eye to recruits but with an intention of keeping Irish Catholics detached from the Volunteers.
In the highly charged atmosphere produced by the French Revolution, the matter of relief for Catholics was once again actively canvassed. In the 1780s the Catholic question had remained in abeyance, because of Catholic support for Volunteers in 1782. The Catholics, having been courted by the volunteers, has soon been abandoned by them: the volunteer plan for parliamentary reform made no attempt to include Catholic franchise or representation. This parliamentary reform campaign which to volunteers embarked on in the early 1780s quickly ran out of steam but from the failure of that campaign certain lessons were learned by the more committed reformers. Any future reform movement had to enlist the support of the Catholics if it was to make any headway. In this realization lay the seeds of the future Society Of United Irishmen.
This society was set up in Belfast in 1791 and aimed to curb the influence of England in the government of Ireland through parliamentary reform. Theobald Wolfe Tone stressed that no reform is practicable if it does not include the Catholics. The British government were alarmed at the rise of the United Irishmen and urged that major concessions being made the Catholics in order to head off future problems. Dublin Castle resisted and concessions offered fell far short of those demanded. British government responded by repealing penal laws and by extending the parliamentary franchise to Irish Catholics on the same terms as Irish Protestants: it seemed to be only a matter of time before Catholics were restored to full political equality in Ireland.
Catholic Relief Acts.
The scale of concessions were revolutionary and one can find explanation for this generosity in that area where political considerations and military requirements intersected. British government were alarmed by the United Irishmen and hence no steps were spared to stop the popularity of this organization. United Irishmen were harassed, suppressed and banned. However, the ever-expanding group could bring pressure on England desirous of conciliation with Catholics rather than provocation leading to association with the enemy. Within a generation, the British state had gone from a policy of firm exclusion of Catholic soldiers to one of forced inclusion; from fear of Catholic numbers to reliance on them to meet the needs of war.
Closing The Concession Account.
With Irish Catholics now having the vote on the same terms as Irish Protestants, and with their playing a front-line role in the defence of Ireland in the event of a French invasion, it might have been assumed that the Catholic question was now over. But this was not to be the case. The right of Catholics, if elected to take their seat in Parliament, proved elusive. Mounting violence in Ireland, widespread evidence of a well organized conspiracy to subvert the government, and the prospect of a long war against France combined to make British ministers close the concession account where Irish Catholics were concerned. Catholic emancipation, as it was now called, remained so elusive that it was becoming clear that it would never be given; it could only be taken. And this could only be achieved when the Catholic question was divorced from party politics and from questions of defense and military strategy. The Catholic question could only be addressed properly when it was finally recognized for what it now was – are in fact may have been all along – the Irish question.
The Catholic Question in the Eighteenth Century