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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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Cover image: ‘The Great Agi-tater’ [sic]. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

The most pointed and satirical political commentary in the early nineteenth century was provided by cartoonists. While they sought to exercise influence on the great issues of the day, they also reflected contemporary thinking. In the case of Ireland, they invariably portrayed a negative picture. No instance has been unearthed that featured Bishop Doyle but O’Connell, identified by his barrister’s robes, was a regular target. In this case his head is on top of a large potato. It has four roots of evil shooting forth: Popery (two), Intolerance and Bigitory [sic]. Two roots are re-emerging from the ground in barbed form. On the left hand side, Popery is uprooting the monarchy. The Established Church is being toppled by Bigitory, on the right, and this is being celebrated by figures in the vicinity. The Pope’s eye is focused on property described as Church of England lands and Protestant ground. The Pope in the background, holding a cross, is addressing a flock in support of O’Connell. Agi-tater is a reference to the dependence of Irish people on the potato. Similarly, the spelling of Bigitory is an allusion to the views of Tory politicians.

Figure 1: ‘Protestant Descendency’ [sic]. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

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