Catholic Emancipation (1823-1829)

Patrick Weston Joyce

942. In 1823 the “Catholic Association” was founded by O’Connell and Richard Lalor Sheil; it was the chief agency by which Catholic emancipation was ultimately achieved. The expenses were defrayed chiefly by a subscription from the people of one penny a week, which was called “Catholic rent”: and the association soon spread through all Ireland. O’Connell and Sheil were all through the mainsprings of the movement: and it was the means of establishing a free press and of creating healthful public opinion. The government viewed the new association with jealousy and alarm; and an act of parliament was passed in 1825 to put it down, which O’Connell called the “Algerine act” in allusion to its despotic character.

943. But O’Connell, with his usual astuteness, dissolved the association, and reconstructed it. The new act forbade meetings for longer than fourteen days: but he arranged to hold meetings for exactly fourteen days, and made some other changes: so that he completely evaded the act; the law was obeyed (936); and the association went on as powerfully as before.

944. In January 1828 the duke of Wellington became prime minister; and Robert Peel was home secretary. The marquis of Anglesea came to Ireland as lord lieutenant: but he was removed soon after for being in favour of emancipation; so little was the sudden coming change anticipated. In Waterford and several other places, by means of the perfect organisation of the Catholic Association, Protestant members favourable to emancipation were returned; the forty-shilling freeholders voting for them in spite of the great landlords.

945. It had been recommended by the veteran John Keogh (867) that some Catholic should be elected member, and should present himself and be excluded; so that the absurdity of disfranchising a constituency because the chosen member refused to take an oath that his own religion was false, should be brought home to the people of the empire. Keogh believed that this would lead to emancipation. A vacancy now occurred in Clare, as the sitting member Mr. Vesey Fitzgerald, having accepted the office of president of the Board of Trade, had to seek re-election. O’Connell determined to oppose him. His address to the people of Clare aroused extraordinary enthusiasm, and he was returned by an immense majority.

946. This election aroused sympathy all through England for the Catholics. The government became alarmed; and still more so when they found that the Association were preparing to return Catholic members all through Ireland, Wellington and Peel, forced by public opinion, gave way, being now convinced that emancipation was necessary to save the country from civil war or revolution. Peel, on account of his change of opinion, resigned his seat for the university of Oxford in order to test the opinion of his constituents; and having been defeated in seeking re-election, he was afterwards elected for Westbury. In 1829 he introduced into the commons a bill for the emancipation of the Catholics. After several days’ stormy debate the third reading was carried on the 30th of March.

The debate in the lords was even more violent than in the commons. But Wellington ended the matter by declaring that they should choose either of the two alternatives, Emancipation or civil war. It passed the third reading, and received the royal assent on the 13th of April 1829.

947. After the bill had become law O’Connell presented himself at the bar of the house to claim his seat for the first time since his election; knowing well what was to come. According to the terms of the act it was only those elected after the 13th of April that came under the new oath: this was designedly inserted by Peel in order to force O’Connell to seek re-election. The old oath was put into his hand; and looking at it for a few seconds he said:—“I see here one assertion as to a matter of fact which I know to be untrue: I see a second as to a matter of opinion which I believe to be untrue. I therefore refuse to take this oath.” He then withdrew; but he was afterwards allowed to make a speech of three hours. A new writ was issued for Clare, and he was returned unopposed.

948. By this Emancipation act a new oath was framed which Catholics might take. The act therefore admitted Catholics to the right of being members of parliament in either house. It admitted them also to all civil and military offices, with three exceptions:—those of regent, lord lieutenant, and lord chancellor.

A portion of the act was directed to the suppression of the Catholic Association: but this the association had anticipated by dissolving itself, after it had accomplished its main purpose.

949. The act contained one fatal provision which O’Connell had to agree to; it raised the franchise in Ireland to £10, though in England the qualification remained at the limit of forty shillings: this disfranchised all the forty-shilling freehold voters (869), who constituted the main strength of the Catholic party.

950. The credit of carrying emancipation is due to Daniel O’Connell; but he was very ably assisted by Richard Lalor Sheil.