The Irish Act of Union (1800)

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


"HORRORS," says Sir Jonah Barrington, "were every where recommenced, executions were multi-piled. The government had now achieved the very climax of public terror on which they had so much counted for inducing Ireland to throw herself into the arms of the 'protecting' country. Mr. Pitt conceived that the moment had arrived to try the effect of his previous measures, to promote a legislative union, and annihilate the parliament of Ireland."

"On January 22, 1799, the Irish legislature met under circumstances of great interest and excitement. The city of Dublin, always keenly alive to its metropolitan interests, sent its eager thousands by every avenue toward College Green. The viceroy went down to the houses with a more than ordinary guard, and being seated on the throne in the House of Lords, the Commons were summoned to the bar. The viceregal speech congratulated both houses on the suppression of the late rebellion, on the defeat of Bompart's squadron, and the recent French victories of Lord Nelson; then came, amid profound expectation, this concluding sentence:

"'The unremitting industry,' said the viceroy, 'with which our enemies persevere in their avowed design of endeavoring to effect a separation of this kingdom from Great Britain must have engaged your attention, and his majesty commands me to express his anxious hope that this consideration, joined to the sentiment of mutual affection and common interest, may dispose the parliaments in both kingdoms to provide the most effectual means of maintaining and improving a connection essential to their common security, and of consolidating, as far as possible, into one firm and lasting fabric, the strength, the power, and the resources of the British empire.'

"On the paragraph of the address re-echoing this sentiment (which was carried by a large majority in the Lords) a debate ensued in the Commons which lasted till one o'clock of the following day—above twenty consecutive hours. The galleries and lobbies were crowded all night by the first people of the city, of both sexes, and when the division was being taken the most intense anxiety was manifested within doors and without."[1]

"One hundred and eleven members had declared against the Union and when the doors were opened, one hundred and five were discovered to be the total number of the minister's adherents. The gratification of the anti-Unionists was unbounded; and as they walked deliberately in, one by one, to be counted, the eager spectators, ladies as well as gentlemen, leaning over the galleries ignorant of the result, were panting with expectation. Lady Castlereagh, then one of the finest women of the court, appeared in the sergeant's box, palpitating for her husband's fate. The desponding appearance and fallen crests of the ministerial benches, and the exulting air of the opposition members as they entered, were intelligible. The murmurs of suppressed anxiety would have excited an interest even in the most unconnected stranger, who had known the objects and importance of the contest. How much more, therefore, must every Irish breast which panted in the galleries, have experienced that thrilling enthusiasm which accompanies the achievement of patriotic actions, when the minister's defeat was announced from the chair! A due sense of respect and decorum restrained the galleries within proper bounds; but a low cry of satisfaction from the female audience could not be prevented, and no sooner was the event made known out of doors than the crowds that had waited during the entire night with increasing impatience for the vote which was to decide on the independence of their country, sent forth loud and reiterated shouts of exultation, which, resounding through the corridors, and penetrating to the body of the house, added to the triumph of the conquerors, and to the misery of the adherents of the conquered minister."[2]

The minister was utterly and unexpectedly worsted in his first attack; but he was not shaken from his purpose. He could scarcely have credited that, notwithstanding his previous laborious machinations of terror and seduction, there could still be found so much of virtue, courage, and independence in the parliament. However, this bitter defeat merely caused him to fall back for the purpose of approaching by mine the citadel he had failed to carry by assault. The majority against him was narrow. The gaining of twenty or thirty members would make a difference of twice that number on a division. "All the weapons of seduction were in his hands," says Sir Jonah Barrington, "and to acquire a majority, he had only to overcome the wavering and the feeble." "Thirty-two new county judgeships," says another writer, "were created; a great number of additional inspectorships were also placed at the minister's disposal; thirteen members had peerages for themselves or for their wives, with remainder to their children, and nineteen others were presented to various lucrative offices."

Both parties—Unionists and anti-Unionists, traitors and patriots—felt that during the parliamentary recess the issue would really be decided; for by the time the next session opened the minister would have secured his majority if such an end was possible. The interval, accordingly, was one of painfully exciting struggle, each party straining every energy. The government had a persuasive story for every sectional interest in the country. It secretly assured the Catholic bishops, nay, solemnly pledged itself, that if the Union were carried, one of the first. acts of the imperial parliament should be Catholic emancipation. "An Irish parliament will never grant it, can never afford to grant it," said the castle tempter. "The fears of the Protestant minority in this country will make them too much afraid of you. We alone can afford to rise above this miserable dread of your numbers." To the Protestants, on the other hand, the minister held out arguments just as insidious, as treacherous, and as fraudulent. "Behold the never-ceasing efforts of these Catholics! Do what you will, some day they must overwhelm you, being seven to one against you. There is no safety for you, no security for the Irish Protestant Church Establishment, unless in a union with us. In Ireland, as a kingdom, you are in a, miserable minority, sure to be some day overwhelmed and destroyed. United to Great Britain, you will Be an indivisible part of one vast Protestant majority, and can afford to defy the Papists."

Again, to the landed gentry, the terrors of "French principles," constant plots and rebellions , were artfully held forth. "No safety for society, no security for property, except in a, union with Great Britain." Even the populace, the peasantry, were attempted to be overreached also, by inflaming them against the landlords as base yeomanry tyrants, whose fears of the people would ever make them merciless oppressors.

And it is curious to note that in that day—1799 and 1800—the identical great things that in our own time are still about to happen, and have always been about to happen (but are never happening) since 1800, were loudly proclaimed as the inevitable first fruits of a union. "English capital" was to flow into Ireland by the million, "owing," as the ministerialists sagaciously put it, "to the stability of Irish institutions when guaranteed by the union." Like infallible arguments were ready to show that commerce must instantaneously expand beyond calculation, and manufactures spring up as if by magic, all over the island. Peace, tranquillity, prosperity, contentment, and loyalty, must, it was likewise sagely argued, flow from the measure; for the Irish would see the uselessness of rebelling against an united empire, and would be so happy that disaffection must become utterly unknown.

Nay, whosoever consults the journals of that period will find even the "government dockyard at Cork," and other stock jobs of promised "concession," figuring then just as they figure now.[3]

But the endeavor to influence public opinion proved futile, and the minister found he must make up his mind to go through with a naked, unsparing, unscrupulous, and unblushing corruption of individuals. Many of the Catholic bishops were overreached by the solemn pledge of emancipation; but the overwhelming majority of the clergy, and the laity almost unanimously, scouted the idea of expediting their emancipation by an eternal betrayal of their country. The Orangemen on the other hand were equally patriotic. All the Protestant bishops but two were gained over by the minister; yet the Protestant organizations everywhere passed resolutions, strong almost to sedition, against the union.

Most important of all was the patriotic con duct of the Irish Bar. They held a meeting to discuss the proposition of a "union," and notwithstanding the open threats of government vengeance, and public offers of "reward" or bribe, there were found but thirty-two members of the bar to support the ministerial proposition, while one hundred and sixty-six voted it a treason against the country.

The next session, the last of the Irish parliament, assembled on January 15, 1800. The minister had counted every man, and by means the most iniquitous secured the requisite majority. Twenty-seven new peers had been added to the House of Lords, making the union project all safe there. In the Commons some thirty or forty seats had been changed by bargain with the owners of the boroughs. It was doubtful that any bona fide constituency in Ireland—even one—could be got to sanction the union scheme; so the minister had to carry on his operations with what were called "patronage boroughs," or "pocket-boroughs."


[1] M'Gee.

[2] Sir Jonah Barrington, "Rise and Fall of the Irish Nation."

[3] The vote of Mr. Robert Fitzgerald, of Corkabeg, was secured by "Lord Cornwallis assuring him that in the event of the union a royal dockyard would be built at Cork, which would double the value of his estates."—Barrington's "Rise and Fall of the Irish Nation."