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22 Jun

Blended with Catholics

The youth of the Kingdom too, they who in a few years must determine this question, they have decided for the emancipation, with a liberality which is natural to youth, and a sagacity which is peculiar to years — and they will sit soon in these seats, blended with Catholics, while we, blended with Catholics, shall repose in the dust. Another age shall laugh at all this.

In 1793 the Catholic Relief Act was passed, allowing Catholics who took an oath and fulfilled the other criteria to vote. This was the latest step in a long slow process eroding the Penal Laws. However it still fell a great deal short of what Tone had argued for in his Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland.

On 4th May 1795 Henry Grattan proposed “A bill for the relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic Subjects”. This would have allowed Catholic MPs. The young that Grattan refers to are the students of Trinity, who presented an address in favour of Catholic emancipation. The bill was rejected 155 to 84.

Full Catholic Emancipation had to wait until 1829, nine years after Grattan’s death.

20 Jun

Wolfe Tone’s Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland

Theobald Wolfe Tone and the frontispiece of "Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland"

Theobald Wolfe Tone and the frontispiece of “Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland”

In 1724 Swift asked in the Drapier Letters, “Were not the People of Ireland born as Free as those of England?”  In 1791 Theobald Wolfe Tone answered, “We are free in theory, but slaves in fact.”

Theobald Wolfe Tone was born in Dublin 250 years ago (on 20th June, 1763). He is not an original thinker, nor a systematic one. But he does act as a “lightning conductor” (as Thomas Duddy puts it), bringing together ideas about liberty, independence and popular sovereignty and applying them to the Irish situation. These ideas picked up over time were incorporated in pamphlets, writings and finally in Wolfe Tone’s actions. He died in prison in Dublin, after arrest for his part in the failed 1798 Rising, on 19th November, 1798.

Tone’s best argued piece is probably Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, published in 1791. It is an argument based on justice, liberty and the rights of man. In the preface To the Reader he appeals directly to the work of Thomas Paine. Tone does not, he says, make an argument about “the abstract right of the people to reform their legislature; for after PAINE, who will, or who need, be heard on the subject?”
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15 May

A Giant Among Men: Daniel O’Connell’s philosophical influences

 Alarmed at the progress of a Giant of their own Creation

Alarmed at the progress of a Giant of their own Creation.
© National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The satirical picture above (1831) from the National Portrait Gallery London depicts Daniel O’Connell approaching the Irish Channel, with Anglesey (Lord Lieutenant of Ireland) and Stanley (Chief Secretary of Ireland) attempting to restrain him by a large document headed PROCLAMATION. O’Connell holds a paper on which is written “Repeal of the Union”, in his other hand a paper bearing “Agitation within the letter of the law”.The implication is that O’Connell “is a monster produced by human machinations” (more details available from the British Museum).

Depicting O’Connell as Frankenstein’s Monster is appropriate, philosophically speaking: the DoIP notes that in his early life O’Connell had been “receptive to the leading radical philosophies of the day, including the revolutionary humanism and egalitarianism of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft” (p. 255).  These two philosophers were, of course, the parents of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

Godwin’s Political Justice greatly influenced the young O’Connell regarding the nature and purpose of government. Godwin confirmed O’Connell’s abhorrence of political violence. O’Connell came to see the end of government as the happiness of the many, and since everyone was governed, everyone should participate in governing. O’Connell’s political path was set during his law training in Dublin and London from 1794-7: “in the spring of 1797 he was already a democrat in politics and a Deist in religion” (Thomas E. Hachey, Lawrence J. McCaffrey (eds) Perspectives On Irish Nationalism, University Press of Kentuckyp. 105.)

O’Connell had been converted to Deism by his reading of Paine’s Age of Reason. He rejected it after a decade as a “miserable philosophy” and returned to Catholicism. He remained radical however, seeking Catholic Emancipation from the Penal Laws (successfully, in 1829), and then repeal of the 1801 Act of Union. He insisted however that “no political change whatsoever is worth the shedding of a single drop of human blood”.

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