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Irish Education and Catholic Emancipation, 1791–1831

The Campaigns of Bishop Doyle and Daniel O’Connell

Brian Fleming

The restrictions applied to Catholics in the early eighteenth century to curtail their political and economic power in Ireland were gradually removed by the British government in response to changing circumstances. By 1800 the remaining restrictions related to membership of Parliament and a few senior judicial positions. The removal of these, while important symbolically, could have direct implications for very few people, given the limited franchise. Yet the campaign for their abolition, known as Catholic emancipation, presented successive British governments with serious problems and led to one prime ministerial resignation, one government collapse and many crises.

How did Daniel O’Connell use this situation to create a successful mass movement, broadening the emancipation campaign to include the issue of education? How did the area of educational provision become a sectarian battleground, and what part did Bishop James Doyle play in forcing a reluctant government to become involved in setting up a state-run education system, a highly unusual step at the time? Does his vision have a message for us now, when school patronage is such a contested issue in Ireland? This book provides an intriguing new perspective on a critical period in Irish history.

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Chapter 2: False Dawns

Extract

Chapter 2 False Dawns Despite the controversy surrounding the passing of the Act of Union, the nineteenth century commenced in an atmosphere of some optimism regarding the authorities’ improved attitude towards Irish affairs. Official reports had recognized that educational provision was in need of reform. Pitt had indicated an acceptance that other improvements were needed also, including removing the remaining restrictions on Catholics. It emerged in the first two decades of the new century that such optimism was misguided. British politics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was significantly different from present-day arrangements. The elector- ate was quite limited in size, amounting to about 10 per cent of the adult male population. Elections were rare and the vast majority of seats were uncontested, filled as they were by the nominees of powerful aristocratic families or the Crown. The role of the monarch was in long-term decline, gradually becoming the primarily ceremonial one as it is today. However, this was a slow process and the king or queen still possessed significant powers of patronage, most particularly the choice of prime minister, and indeed had a large say in who might be appointed to his or her cabinet. Also, the outcome of elections tended to follow what were perceived to be the wishes of the monarch. A clear example of this emerges in the case of the career of William Pitt. In 1783, George III invited Pitt, then twenty-four years of age, to form a government. Pitt did not have...

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