How effectively did Irish Catholic and Nationalist leaders advance their cause in the years 1801-1921

The Irish Catholic and Nationalist leaders were able to advance their cause to varying degrees of success in the years 1801-1921.

The measure of how effective each leader was depended largely on his current situation and the results of his predecessor. The later Nationalist leaders were clearly able to build upon the work of those before them, therefore giving them more chance of effectively advancing their causes.Daniel O’Connell was the first of the nationalist leaders. He aimed to achieve Catholic Emancipation and created the Catholic Association in 1823. This was extremely effective as he mobilized the Catholic majority. The Church then provided the framework for O’Connell to build his new movement around.

This was effective as it gave his movement the strength it needed to survive. At this point he had achieved a genuine mass protest forcing the British Prime minister, Wellington, to the conclusion that Emancipation was inevitable. The repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 which removed restrictions on nonconformists was clearly a major step forward; it reinforced the view that Wellington was willing to cooperate.R.

F. Foster stated that ‘the exclusion of Catholics from formal power had not succeeded in restricting their social power’1, O’Connell was able to exploit this social pressure to advance his cause. In 1828, O’Connell ran to become the member of Parliament for County Claire. His previous actions and formation of the Catholic Association became extremely useful at this point, clearly demonstrating effective leadership, as with the vote of its members O’Connell was able to win. This created a major crisis, O’Connell stated that ‘they must now crush us, or conciliate us’. At this point it would appear that O’Connell had been relatively effective in advancing his cause, he had paved the way for emancipation and forced major beneficial changes in British policy.However, O’Connell was soon to realize that continuing to effectively move toward emancipation would be increasingly difficult.

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Robert Peel, the home secretary, was able to offer a solution that would concede to the Catholics while at the same time undermining O’Connell. This was achieved by the 1829 ‘Catholic Relief Act’ which withdrew many of the laws suppressing the Catholics and led to the electorate in Ireland shrinking from 216,000 to 37,000. O’Connell was now in a much weaker position. This completely diminished the power of the Catholic Association. O’Connell had achieved Emancipation clearly advancing his cause; yet he was no longer in a position to take any further action. However, due to the uproar O’Connell had raised, Ireland was to remain central to British Politics throughout the 1830’s and 1840’s. O’Connell, although less powerful, was still able to lend his support to reform ideas that appealed, for example, he guarded the Irish Church Temporalities Act of 1833 leading to ten Anglican Bishoprics being abolished in Ireland. This advanced O’Connell’s cause as it reduced the financial burden on the Irish to support an alien Church, leading to a more Nationalist Ireland.

In 1840 O’Connell began his battle to achieve a repeal of the Act of Union; however, he lacked the support of the Whigs. Nonetheless, O’Connell was once again able to harness the power of the Catholic Church, who provided the backing needed. He was also able to gain the support of a group referring to themselves as ‘Young Ireland’ while continuing to maintain the support of the peasantry. Unfortunately for O’Connell the Tories returned to power in 1841, with Peel as Prime minister, he was not willing to back down to O’Connell again.

This is reinforced by the historian Patrick O’Farrell, who stated ‘having been forced to give ground on the Emancipation issue, English attitudes hardened against any further concessions’2. It is clear that at this point O’Connell was struggling to gain the repeal of the Act of Union due to the new attitude of the British; he was therefore not advancing his cause effectively. Following these difficulties came the proposal in 1843 of a ‘monster meeting’ at Clontarf, designed to intimidate the British. This was quickly banned by Peel and O’Connell decided it was best to concede rather than risking violence. However, this destroyed his alliance with ‘Young Ireland’, who were disappointed with his conservatism. He was then arrested in 1844, which disabled his movement.It would seem that O’Connell was effective in many ways in advancing his cause, for example he did successfully achieve Emancipation. However, he did experience shortfalls, such as losing the support of more radical elements such as ‘Young Ireland’.

His initial actions were extremely effective, by harnessing the power of the Catholic Church O’Connell was able to get the movement underway, a task which clearly took great determination. The failure over the Clontarf meeting began the downward spiral for O’Connell, his rejection of physical force left him with very few options. His arrest in 1844 broke his movement. Overall O’Connell had been effective in advancing his cause initially. Beginning the movement and achieving emancipation had planted the seed for later leaders to nurture. However, he had been thwarted by the Catholic Relief Act in 1929 and then later failed with the repeal of the Act of Union.The Fenian Brotherhood followed O’Connell announcing their existence in 1867 following the Great Famine. The devastation that this event had caused and the inadequate response of the British led to the Fenians turning to violence.

Cecil Woodham-Smith wrote that ‘In the long and troubled history of Ireland no issue has provoked so much anger or so embittered relations between the two countries’3 as the failure of the British to export food to Ireland. The Fenian organization was prone to quarrelling yet still became an enduring Nationalist society aiming to nationalize Ireland. In the spring of 1867 the Fenians attempted a nationalist revolution centered upon Dublin which was quickly put down by the British.

It is clear that the Fenians had not been effective at this point; their failure with the revolution in Dublin was down to poor organization and British spies infiltrating their ranks. In 1867 the Fenians acted again, attempting to free one of their imprisoned leaders, Captain Kelly. They succeeded in rescuing Kelly; but also killed a police officer in the process.The British authorities reacted by arresting five Irishmen and three were hanged. Many felt that the hanged men were innocent, and therefore labeled them as the ‘Manchester Martyrs’. Although this was a tragedy it did have some beneficial consequences – it raised awareness of the Fenian cause and forced Gladstone to later appease the Fenian demands.

In 1867 another failed rescue plan took place, which took the lives of several civilians. The death of innocent people was clearly not popular, and one could argue that both Fenian rescue plans did little to actually advance their cause for Nationalism other than raising awareness. However, William Gladstone, leader of the Liberal party decided that he would make it his task to ‘pacify Ireland’. He therefore took the approach of granting concessions to those who supported the Fenians destroying their ability to command a large following. For example, he passed the Irish Church Act in 1869 which disestablished the Anglican Church in Ireland. The 1870 Land Act was also passed, which gave legal backing to many Irish farmers.

Although their movement was now weakened they had been granted small concessions.It would seem that the Fenians had achieved some success in their quest for a Nationalized Ireland, the disestablishment of the Anglican Church had been down to their radical tactics and may not have occurred had they not have acted as they did. However, they had not achieved their ultimate goal, the nationalization of Ireland.

In 1879 Charles Stewart Parnell set up the Irish National Land League. This followed the Great Agricultural Depression of the mid 1870’s. It was his long term aim to overthrow the Act of Union and restore an Irish Parliament which had closed in 1800.

Parnell appeared to be an unlikely candidate for advancing this cause as he was a Protestant and a member of the Ascendency Elite. However, the Land League gained Parnell much support. His position as an MP at Westminster and as a respected figure amongst the Fenians meant that he was able to command much influence. Gladstone was also aware of his status, and was therefore more willing to compromise. This clearly enabled Parnell to effectively challenge the Act of Union, as he truly had the ability to command change.Parnell used the Land League to place immense pressure upon Gladstone through the use of ‘boycotts’. This forced the passing of the Land Act of 1881. This was a step forward for the Parnell’s cause, it entitled tenants to fair rent, fixity of tenure and a right of free sale of their tenure.

However, it did come close to failure when landlords insisted that their rent be paid. This came close to undermining all that Parnell had achieved. He was arrested in October 1881. In a letter to Katharine O’Shea following his arrest he admitted ‘the movement is breaking fast, and all will be quiet in a few months, when I shall be released’.4 This would suggest that Parnell knew that his movement was not advancing effectively.

However, he took action and still achieved the Arrears Act, which became known as the ‘Kilmainham Treaty’. The fact that Parnell had been imprisoned at the time, and had still negotiated the deal with Gladstone suggests that he was effectively advancing his cause.Parnell then aimed to achieve ‘Home Rule’, bringing the Irish parliament back to Dublin. In December 1885 Gladstone announced his support for ‘Home Rule’ leading to a disaster for Ireland. The Conservatives adopted an oppositional stance and the Liberal Party was split. Parnell failed to deliver ‘Home Rule’ and was destroyed by a divorce scandal.

Unable to recover from the situation he died in 1891. It would appear that Parnell had been predominantly effective in advancing his cause, for example, the signing of the ‘Kilmainham Treaty’ was a success, even more so considering it was orchestrated from within prison. However, failure to deliver ‘Home Rule’ demonstrates that there were times when Parnell was unable to advance his cause effectively.

Following the Parnell came the formation of the Gaelic League in 1893. The effectiveness of the Gaelic movement is questionable; it could be argued that the League had a profound impact on later Nationalist leaders. For example, Pearse, Collins and de Valera all claimed to have been inspired by its ideas.

Approximately 50 per cent of the Free State’s first generation of leaders had been members. In an address known as ‘The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland’ given by Douglas Hyde it was stated that ‘it is our Gaelic past which…is really at the bottom of the Irish heart, and prevents us from becoming citizens of the [British] Empire’5. It could therefore be argued that cultural nationalism was effective, as it marked a clear divide between Britain and Ireland.Perhaps the League had been extremely effective in achieving their aims to promote nationalism.

It proved to be a breeding ground for Nationalist revolutionaries and organizations related to the Gaelic League were clearly vital in gaining support, for example, the Gaelic Athletic Association was able to politicize large numbers of people at sporting events.John Redmond became leader of the IPP in 1900 aiming to achieve Home Rule. He realized that the liberal victory of 1906 was now offering the Home Rule party their chance. Redmond knew that the Liberal Party required the support of the IPP and therefore demanded that Home Rule be exchanged for this. This seemed extremely effective, as it led to the removal of the Lords’ Veto in the 1911 Parliament Act which removed a huge obstacle from the path leading to Home Rule – moving Redmond one step closer to achieving his aim.

However, there was formidable opposition to the Home Rule bill from Edward Carson and James Craig. They organized the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant, a pledge to resist Home Rule. This was signed by over 400,000 people in Belfast and stated that members would join together ‘defending for ourselves…our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom’6 and use ‘all means which may be necessary to defeat the present conspiracy’7. In addition to this came the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a militia aiming to resist Home Rule. This led to the creation of the Irish Volunteers, a nationalist group opposing the UVF, two opposing armed divisions now existed within Ireland.

The threat of violence did little to advance Redmond’s movement toward Home Rule, suggesting that he was not effectively advancing his cause.However, the outbreak of World War I rescued Ireland from descending into chaos; both the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers encouraged their men to join the British Army. Redmond believed that by doing this it would show the British that the IPP was prepared to cooperate. He also stated that the issue of Home Rule would be suspended until the war was over. This was extremely unpopular with the more radical nationalist elements of the IPP.

Nationalism as a movement began to divide. The Irish Volunteers split into factions, loyal and revolutionary, it soon became clear that a militant form of Nationalism had been created. This followed the ideas of Wolfe Tone suggesting that ‘England’s difficulty’ would be ‘Ireland’s opportunity’. The 1916 Easter Rising sealed Redmond’s fate, many felt empathy with the executed rebel leaders and saw Redmond as being in ‘Westminster’s Pocket’, supporters of the Home Rule party instead turned to Sinn Fein.

Redmond had successfully united the IPP following the Parnell scandal, and had mobilized Irish MP’s in Westminster. Despite this, the Home Rule bill was not passed. The formation of militant groups following his actions to pass the bill had achieved little and tarnished Redmond’s name. Furthermore, following his decision to suspend Home Rule negotiations the IPP began to divide; Redmond had not achieved his aim of Home Rule and had narrowly avoided civil war within Ireland.

The Easter Rising of 1916 led by Pearse and Connolly was the next major Nationalist movement. It was their aim to achieve a ‘blood sacrifice’ for Ireland and undermine the British Army while they were crippled by World War One. The aim was to use violence and weapons, Pearce announced ‘I should like to see any and every body of Irish citizens armed.

..we may make mistakes in the beginning.

..but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing’8. The Rising began relatively well. On the steps of the General Post Office Pearce declared Ireland’s freedom and the birth of the Republic.

However, the British responded quickly and destroyed any hope of success. The rising had failed. Irish Public opinion at this point was extremely hostile toward Pearce and his followers.However, the executions of the leaders by the British changed opinions of many – radicalizing main-stream Irish opinion. John Dillon spoke out in Parliament stating ‘thousands of people in Dublin, who ten days ago were bitterly opposed to..

.the rebellion, are now becoming infuriated with the government on account of these executions, that feeling is spreading throughout the country in a most dangerous degree’.9 Although Pearse had lacked National support during his campaign, after his death it came in abundance, even General Blackadder, President of the Courts-Martial, felt that the executions were unjust and declared ‘I have just done one of the hardest tasks I have ever had to do. I have had to condemn to death one of the finest characters I have ever come across [Pearce]’10, he went on to say ‘There must be something very wrong in the state of things that makes a man like that a rebel’11. Pearce and Connolly had therefore changed the direction of public opinion, many were now extremely anti-British. Through their actions and deaths they were able to successfully advance their cause, this later allowed Michael Collins to begin where the Easter Rising left off.Michael Collins began his campaign in 1919 to free Ireland from British control.

Collins created a movement that the British struggled to combat, his aims revolved around the idea that ‘the sooner fighting was forced and a general state of disorder created…the better it would be for the country’12. The Irish Volunteers were restyled into the Irish Republican Army, who began to undermine the British.

This was extremely successful, and led to the assassination of thirteen British intelligence agents in November 1920, known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. However, this resulted in retaliation from the British; the introduction of the ‘Black and Tan’ divisions marked a turning point in relation to levels of violence.A Black and Tan Commander stated, with reference to civilians, ‘the more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get in trouble for shooting anyone’13.

Collins worked alongside Eamon de Valera, who had become an MP for East County Claire in 1917 and President of the Dail in 1919. Both men knew that Collins would not be able to defeat the British Empire by military force. In 1921 De Valera accepted the offer of a truce and travelled to London to begin talks.

The failure of these meetings was a setback for their cause, and shows that at this point the journey for a free Ireland was not advancing effectively. The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1921 by Collins which gave Ireland Dominion status. This was bitterly disputed by many Nationalists, but Collins stated that it was the best that could be done. Collins had achieved nominal independence for Ireland; it could now refer to itself as the Irish Free State. It can therefore be stated that Collins had advanced his cause effectively, as he had come close to achieving the Irish Nationalist rule.In conclusion, it would seem that the nationalist and Catholic leaders achieved varying success in achieving their aims. Many, such as O’Connell and Parnell made huge advances – achieving not only their own causes but also paving the way for later leaders.

Some groups, such as the Fenian movement were less successful and failed to achieve what they set out to do. John Redmond was undermined by violence, turning public opinion against his cause; this prevented him from making any major progress. Collins did achieve partial success, but did not actually achieve a Nationalist Ireland, but instead Dominion status and a partitioned Ireland.


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