An Instalment of Emancipation (1790-1793)

Patrick Weston Joyce

861. During the year 1790 the north was far more disturbed than the south; and the Peep-o'-day boys and the Defenders increased and multiplied and continued their outrages.

Among a higher class the French revolution, now in full progress, stirred people's minds profoundly. Clubs and committees were formed, partly to stem the tide of political corruption, partly to discuss theories of government. Grattan, Curran, and others of the patriotic party openly opposed the evil system of the government: but the government was inexorable and continued its courses.

862. The members of the party of progress, the leading men of the volunteers, formed themselves into clubs which greatly influenced public opinion:—the Whig club in Dublin and the Northern Whig club in Belfast. Of both clubs, the lists included many historic names—lord Charlemont, lord Moira, Napper Tandy, Hamilton Rowan, Wolfe Tone, &c.

863. In July 1791, the anniversary of the taking of the Bastile was celebrated in Belfast by the Northern Whig club in a great procession, with drums, banners, and flags on which were depicted various scenes enacted at the Revolution; ending with a banquet, where such toasts were drunk as "The national assembly of France," "The rights of man," &c. There was nothing illegal in all this, but it gave great uneasiness to the government, who, with the example of France before them, looked on all such proceedings with an unfriendly eye.

864. Theobald Wolfe Tone was born in Dublin in 1763, and became a barrister in 1789. In the year 1791 he was appointed paid secretary to the Catholic Committee in Dublin. In the same year he visited Belfast, and thinking the Northern Whig club not sufficiently bold or advanced, he founded the society of United Irishmen in October 1791. The fundamental objects of this society, which were quite legal, were:—to include all classes and religions in its body; to reform parliament so as to break down the unconstitutional influence of the government; and to remove the grievances of all Irishmen of every religious persuasion. This last mainly aimed at the repeal of the penal laws against Catholics.

865. He next formed a branch of the society in Dublin under the auspices of the Catholic Committee; James Napper Tandy, a Protestant shopkeeper of Dublin, was its secretary.

866. The Catholic Committee had been in existence in Dublin for several years. It was formed for the purpose of looking after Catholic interests; and the main purpose it had in view was to obtain a relaxation or repeal of the penal laws. The members felt that this business gave them quite enough to do, and as a body they did not mix themselves up much in other political movements.

867. There were two parties in this Committee, the aristocratic and the democratic. The former included the Catholic nobility and hierarchy; they looked with horror on the French revolution and its excesses, and were inclined to be timid. The democratic party consisted chiefly of business men, of whom the ablest was John Keogh, a Dublin merchant. These were for pressing their claims boldly, including the right to vote at elections, which the aristocratic party wished at least for the present to postpone. On this question, and to clear themselves from the suspicion of sympathy with revolutionary principles, sixty-four of the aristocracy seceded from the Committee.

868. Notwithstanding this defection the democrats carried their point. They assembled a meeting of Catholic delegates on the 2nd of December 1792, in Back-lane, Dublin—whence it is sometimes called the "Back-lane Parliament"—at which a petition to the king was prepared asking for the franchise and some other privileges. It was signed by Dr. Troy Roman Catholic archbishop of Dublin, by Dr. Moylan bishop of Cork, and by all the county delegates. It was presented to the king on the 2nd January 1793 by five delegates, among them John Keogh, who were graciously received by his majesty.

869. On the 9th of April 1793, a bill was passed through the Irish parliament which granted the Catholics a substantial measure of relief. The franchise was restored to them, so that all who were forty-shilling freeholders had the right to vote for members of parliament. They could enter Trinity College, Dublin, and obtain degrees; almost all civil and military situations were opened to them—they could serve on juries and be justices of the peace. The higher classes of Catholics were allowed to carry arms. They might open colleges to be affiliated to Trinity College, provided they were not exclusively for the education of Catholics.

870. In order to have the benefit of the act they should take the oath of allegiance, which however any Catholic might take. But many restrictions still remained; the most serious of which was that no Catholic could sit in parliament: neither could a Catholic be lord lieutenant or lord chancellor.

871. On the other hand, in the same session two coercion acts were passed:—"the Convention act" against "unlawful assemblies" (brought in by Fitzgibbon, now lord Clare) intended to prevent meetings of delegates such as the "Back-lane parliament": the Gunpowder act to prevent the importation and sale of gunpowder and arms, and giving magistrates the power of searching for arms where-ever and whenever they pleased. Another act was passed to raise 16,000 militia, and to increase the army from 12,000 to 17,000.