The question of Ireland’s independence was to cause much bloodshed in the closing decades of the eighteenth century and beyond.
The Irish Parliament was controlled by England until 1782, when the Rockingham administration granted Irish legislative independence following pressure from the ‘Patriots,’ headed by Henry Grattan and the Volunteer movement.
In theory, Grattan’s new parliament was independent of Westminster. Ireland now had its own House of Lords and House of Commons. Dublin Castle was its administrative centre. But for all practical purposes, Ireland remained subject to English rule and political influence. Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant and Lord Chancellor owed their places to the British prime minister’s patronage.
Now the ordinary people of Ireland endured massive economic and political disadvantages and deep religious divisions. The Protestant ruling class or ‘ascendancy’ owned virtually all the land, and hogged every key position in the army, navy, the law, commission of the peace, etc. Roman Catholics – the vast majority of the population – were excluded from the Irish parliament, and the franchise.
William Pitt wished to give some relief to disadvantaged Roman Catholics. But he was hamstrung by ultra-Tories in his own party, and George III’s belief that granting Catholic emancipation would violate his coronation oath.
During the 1788 Regency crisis caused by George III’s illness, Grattan’s parliament seized the initiative and asked the Prince of Wales to become Regent of Ireland, with unlimited powers.
This caused great tension between the two governments. The furious Tories realized that a Regent in Ireland with unlimited privileges could create as many peers as he liked, and tip the balance of power in parliament. ‘Prinny’ was thought to favour their opponents, the Whigs. A constitutional crisis was averted when the King recovered in early 1789.
But this abortive attempt by Ireland to assert its independence strengthened the hand of those, like Pitt, who wanted a Union of the two kingdoms. And Irish nationalists were now convinced that real independence must be fought for – but would they choose peaceful means, or rebellion?
The Bank of Ireland, Dublin, formerly the old Parliament House. Gallery of Engravings, Vol. II, (Fisher, Son & Co., c.1845).
Satirical print, 1789. The Prince of Wales (left) rises from his chair to receive the six Commissioners from Ireland, who are depicted as headless asses. Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-31022.