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Updated on April 15, 2013


Though the 17th century mercifully ended for Ireland, the 18th would bring little relief, at least to the native Catholic population. Their status was succinctly stated by the English Lord Chancellor Bowes, “The law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic.” Indeed, the Penal Laws enacted basically stripped Catholics of any legal standing in their own country. Edmund Burke, a Whig member of Parliament put England’s treatment of the Emerald Isle in this way: “Every measure was pleasing and popular just in proportion as it tended to harass and ruin a set of people who were looked upon as enemies to God and man; indeed, as a race of savages who were a disgrace to human nature itself.”

The Gaelic language and Catholicism were banned, clergy outlawed. To preserve their culture and traditions, the Irish took to the hills. Masses were said in secret and the famous hedgerow schools conducted across the island.

When the night shall lift from Erin’s hills,

T’were shame if we forget

One band of unsung heroes whom freedom owes a debt

When we brim high cups to brave ones then, their memory let us pledge

Who gathered their ragged classes behind a friendly hedge

“The HedgeSchool Masters”- Seamus MacManus

By the late 1700’s, there were some who began to call for better relations with Catholics, like the Protestant Bishop of Killala in 1793- “I look upon our Catholic brethren as fellow subjects and fellow Christians, believers in the same God and partners in the same redemption. As children of the same Father- as travelers on the same road- and seekers of the same salvation, why not love each other as brothers?” Unfortunately, not enough English felt the same way at the time, as Catholic emancipation would not come for another generation. As always, the Irish used humor to help them persevere. The following, which appeared in writing on the town gates of Bandon, is an excellent example- “Town notice: Enter here Turk, Jew, or atheist, any man except a papist.” Written in chalk below the sign: “The man who wrote this, wrote it well, for the same is writ on the gates of Hell.”

While their Catholic neighbors struggled against oppression, Irish Protestants had done much better. They owned the best land, and just about all of it- 95% in 1750; occupied positions of local authority, and were even granted their own Parliament in Dublin. The Irish Parliament oversaw most domestic issues, though its English counterpart retained a final veto and controlled foreign policy. Among some of the Protestant Ascendancy, resentment grew concerning London’s interference in Ireland’s affairs, and a feeling that the Irish, both Protestants and Catholics, would be better off independent from England. One such was Theobold Wolfe Tone, who wrote in 1797- “That the influence of England was the radical vice of our government, and that Ireland would never be either free, prosperous, or happy until she was independent, and that independence was unattainable whilst the connection with England existed.”

One year later, Wolfe Tone launched an abortive uprising against English rule. He had gone to France in search of assistance for the endeavor, yet similar to the Spanish earlier, not enough foreign help would materialize to make a difference. Tone did rally his Catholic countrymen, but their pikes were no match for the muskets and cannons of the English. Wolfe Tone was captured, and sentenced to death. He cheated the hangman, however, by committing suicide in prison. In 1803, Robert Emmet, another Protestant, would also conspire against the English, only to fail. Emmet became famous for his gallows oration- “Let no man write my epitaph. When my country takes her place amongst the nations of the earth, then and not until then, let my epitaph be written.” Two more martyrs for old Ireland, to be celebrated in song and verse:

In Bordenstown church yard there is a green grave

And freely around it let the winter winds rave

For better they suit him- the ruin and gloom

Till Ireland, a nation, can build him a tomb

- “Tone’s Grave”- Thomas Davis

Bold Robert Emmet, the darling of Erin

Bold Robert Emmet, will die with a smile

Farewell companions, both loyal and daring

I’ll lay down my life for the Emerald Isle

“Bold Robert Emmet”- Tom Maguire

The English responded to this latest Irish insolence by abolishing the Dublin Parliament, and further cementing the ties of the two countries in the Act of Union (1800). Ireland could send representatives to London, but the role played in its own governance became seriously diminished. Freedom was still a speck on the horizon, and the quest for it would be interrupted by the greatest tragedy in Erin’s history.

Murmurs passed along the valleys

Like the banshees lonely croon

And a thousand pikes were flashing

At the risin of the moon

“The Rising of the Moon A.D. 1798”- John Keegan Casey


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