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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 1: The Penal Laws


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The Penal Laws

The Revolution of 1688 saw James II, who had sought to make Catholicism the major religion in Britain, dethroned in favour of William of Orange. The outcome of the revolution was an Anglican constitution, the union of Church and State, and the exclusion of Catholics and Dissenters from positions of power. Various pieces of legislation were introduced which discriminated quite severely against citizens on the basis of their religion. In Ireland the objective was to disempower Catholics in every respect, political, financial and social. Successive governments sought to establish Protestantism as the majority religion by financially supporting various proselytizing agencies. Education provision became something of a sectarian battleground. As the century unfolded, amendments were occasionally made to lessen the impact of the coercive legislation in response to the wider needs of the government. In addition, independent observers and local Protestant philanthropists began to question the educational arrangements.

To a large degree, the administration of Ireland by British governments, from the eighteenth century onwards, was colonial in nature, notwithstanding the existence of an Irish Parliament. The monarch’s representative in Ireland was the Lord Lieutenant whilst the administration was under the control of the Chief Secretary, or, more formally, Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant. As the titles imply, the Lord Lieutenant was the more senior post. In practice, the dominant position tended to vary depending on the individuals involved and the ability and energy they brought to...

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