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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 3: A Strategic Decision


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A Strategic Decision

In the early 1820s, the campaign for change in Ireland gained momentum and then suffered a setback. Eventually, Daniel O’Connell’s success in creating a mass movement was of critical importance. Bishop Doyle began to have an impact on public opinion and, under his leadership, the Catholic clergy became involved in seeking change. Sectarian tensions increased and the government sought to control the growing power of the Catholic Association by resorting to coercive legislation.

Henry Grattan’s final effort to secure progress on the emancipation issue occurred in 1819. On this occasion, he was again defeated in the House of Commons, albeit by the very narrow margin of two votes. Following his death in 1820, the role of parliamentary champion of the cause was assumed by William Conyngham Plunket, an MP for Dublin University and an associate of the Grenville group in the Commons. Traditionally, the group had been aligned with the Whigs, but this had ceased in 1815 following a difference of opinion on foreign policy. Plunket’s prominence on the emancipation issue caused some disquiet among the Whigs as they saw the leadership of one of their traditional policies pass from Grattan, a close colleague, to a member of a group estranged from them. However, they continued to support the case for reform. In February 1821, Plunket proposed a motion, in the House of Commons, that a committee be established to inquire into Catholic claims. His speech...

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