Ireland in the 18th Century

By Tim Lambert

From 1704 all members of the Irish parliament and all holders of office had to be members of the Church of Ireland. (This Act excluded Presbyterians as well as Catholics. As a result, many Presbyterians left Ireland for North America during the 18th century).

Another Act of 1704 stated that Catholics could not buy land. They could not leave their land to a single heir, and they could not inherit land from Protestants. These measures meant that by 1778 only 5% of the land in Ireland was owned by Catholics. Both Catholics and Dissenters (Protestants who did not belong to the Church of Ireland) had to pay tithes to the Church of Ireland, which caused resentment.

An Act of 1719 reaffirmed the British parliaments right to legislate for Ireland. The Irish parliament was made definitely subordinate.

There was a great deal of dire poverty in Ireland during the 18th century, at its worst during the famine of 1741. This disaster killed hundreds of thousands of people. In the 1760s the grievances of Irish peasants boiled over into violence. In Munster the ‘white boys’, so-called because they wore white smocks or shirts to disguise themselves burned buildings and maimed cattle. In the 1770s they were followed in the north by the oak boys and the steel boys.

From 1778 the laws restricting the rights of Catholics were gradually repealed. From that year Catholics were allowed to lease land for 999 years. From 1782 they were allowed to buy land. In 1782 Poynings Law was repealed after nearly 300 years. The law of 1719, which gave the British parliament the right to legislate for the Irish, was also repealed. In 1792 Catholics were allowed to practice as lawyers and to marry Protestants. From 1793 Catholics were allowed to vote (but were not allowed to sit as MPs).

In the 1700s a linen industry grew up in Northern Ireland. A Linen Board was formed in Dublin in 1711. However, the linen industry soon became concentrated in the north and another Linen Board opened in Belfast in 1782. From the late 18th century Britain began to industrialize. In Ireland, industrialization was limited to the north. The south of Ireland remained agricultural, exporting huge quantities of meat and butter to Britain. During the 18th century, the population of Ireland rapidly increased from less than 2 million in 1700 to nearly 5 million in 1800. Trade with Britain boomed and the Bank of Ireland opened in 1783.

However at the end of the 18th century the ideas of the American Revolution and the French Revolution reached Ireland. They influenced a Protestant lawyer, Theobald Wolf Tone who, in 1791, founded the Society of United Irishmen. The society wanted Ireland to become an independent republic with religious toleration for all.

In 1794 Britain went to war with France. The United Irishmen were regarded as a dangerous organization and were suppressed. Wolf Tone fled abroad and tried to persuade the French to invade Ireland. In 1796 they sent a fleet but it was prevented from landing by a storm.

Then in May 1798 risings took place in Wexford, Wicklow, and Mayo. However, the rebellion was defeated at Vinegar Hill near Enniscorthy on 21 June. French soldiers landed at Killala in August but they were forced to surrender in September. The French sent another fleet but their ships were intercepted by the British navy and most of them were captured. Onboard one was Wolf Tone. In November he committed suicide in prison.


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