The Protestant Ascendancy, known simply as the Ascendancy, was the political, economic, and social domination of Ireland between the 17th century and the early 20th century by a minority of landowners, Protestant clergy, and members of the professions, all members of the Established Church (Anglican; Church of Ireland or the Church of England). The Ascendancy excluded other groups from politics and the elite, most numerous among them Roman Catholics but also members of the Presbyterian and other Protestant denominations, along with non-Christians such as Jews, until the Reform Acts (1832–1928).
The gradual dispossession of large holdings belonging to several hundred native Catholic nobility and other landowners in Ireland took place in various stages from the reigns of the Catholic Mary I (1553–1558) and her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I (1558–1603) onwards. Unsuccessful revolts against English rule in 1595–1603 and 1641–53 and then the 1689–91 Williamite Wars resulted in much Irish land confiscated by the Crown, and then sold to people who were thought loyal, most of whom were English and Protestant. English soldiers and traders became the new ruling class, as its richer members were elevated to the Irish House of Lords and eventually controlled the Irish House of Commons (see Plantations of Ireland). This class became collectively known as the Anglo-Irish.
From the 1790s the phrase became used by the main two identities in Ireland: nationalists, who were mostly Catholics, used the phrase as a "focus of resentment", while for unionists, who were mostly Protestants, it gave a "compensating image of lost greatness".
The phrase was first used in passing by Sir Boyle Roche in a speech to the Irish House of Commons on 20 February 1782. George Ogle MP used it on 6 February 1786 in a debate on falling land values, saying that "When the landed property of the Kingdom, when the Protestant Ascendancy is at stake, I cannot remain silent."
Then on 20 January 1792 Dublin Corporation approved by majority vote a resolution to George III that included this line: "We feel ourselves peculiarly called upon to stand forward in the crisis to pray your majesty to preserve the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland inviolate ...." The corporation's resolution was a part of the debate over Catholic emancipation. In the event, Catholics were allowed to vote again in 1793, but could not sit in parliament until 1829.
The phrase therefore was seen to apply across classes to rural landowners as well as city merchants. The Dublin resolution was disapproved of by a wide range of commentators, such as the Marquess of Abercorn, who called it "silly", and William Drennan who said it was "actuated by the most monopolising spirit".
The phrase became popularised outside Ireland by Edmund Burke, another liberal Protestant, and his ironic comment in 1792: "A word has been lately struck in the mint of the castle of Dublin; thence it was conveyed to the Tholsel, or city-hall, where, having passed the touch of the corporation, so respectably stamped and vouched, it soon became current in parliament, and was carried back by the Speaker of the House of Commons in great pomp as an offering of homage from whence it came. The word is Ascendancy." This was then used by Catholics seeking further political reforms.
In the Irish language, the term used was An Chinsealacht, from cinseal, meaning "dominance."
Main article: Penal Laws (Ireland)
The process of Protestant Ascendancy was facilitated and formalized in the legal system after 1691 by the passing of various Penal Laws, which discriminated against the majority Irish Catholic population of the island. While the native Irish Gaels comprised the majority of the Irish Catholic population, long-standing fully Gaelisized and intermarried Norman families (e.g. de Burgo/Burke, FitzGerald/FitzMaurice Dynasty, etc.), having previously held immense power in Ireland, became major targets of the crown and of more stridently anti-Irish members of the Ascendancy. With the defeat of Catholic attempts to regain power and lands in Ireland, a ruling class which became known later as the "Protestant Ascendancy" sought to ensure dominance with the passing of a number of laws to restrict the religious, political and economic activities of Catholics and to some extent, Protestant Dissenters. These aspects provided the political basis for the new laws passed for several decades after 1695. Interdicts faced by Catholics and Dissenters under the Penal Laws were:
They also covered the non-conforming ("Dissenter") Protestant denominations such as Presbyterians, where they:
However, those protected by the Treaty were still excluded from public political life.
The situation was confused by the policy of the Tory Party in England and Ireland after 1688. They were Protestants who generally supported the Catholic Jacobite claim and came to power briefly in London from 1710 to 1714. Also in 1750, the main Catholic Jacobite heir and claimant to the three thrones, Charles Edward Stuart ("Bonny Prince Charlie"), converted to Anglicanism for a time but had reverted to Roman Catholicism again by his father's death in 1766.
The son of James II, James Francis Edward Stuart (the Old Pretender), was recognised by the Holy See as the legitimate monarch of the Kingdom of England, Kingdom of Scotland and the separate Kingdom of Ireland until his death in January 1766, and Roman Catholics were morally obliged to support him. This provided the main political excuse for the new laws, but it was not entirely exclusive as there was no law against anyone converting to Protestantism. While a relatively small number of Catholics would convert to the Church of Ireland between the 17th and 19th centuries, more often than not these "conversions" amounted to the alteration of paper work, rather than any changes in religious beliefs or practices. With job prospects and civil rights for Irish Catholics having grown quite grim since the mid-17th century, for some, converting to the Anglican Church was one of the few ways one could attempt to improve their lots in life. A handful of members of formerly powerful Irish clans also chose to convert, learn English, swear fealty to the King, and perform roles on behalf of the Anglo-Irish of The Pale in exchange for lands and other privileges. Records of these conversions were tracked in "Convert Rolls", which can be located through various online resources. Interestingly, early 20th century census records inform us that a fair number of Irish men and women who'd converted to the Anglican Church between the mid 17th and mid 19th century actually returned to their original Catholic faith by the early 20th century. A similar phenomenon can also be observed during with the return of "O" and "Mc" to surnames during the mid/late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period known to scholars as the Gaelic Revival (Athbheochan na Gaeilge).
As a result, political, legal and economic power resided with the Ascendancy to the extent that by the mid-18th century, the greater part of the land in Ireland (97% in 1870) was owned by men who rented it out to tenant farmers rather than cultivating it themselves. Smaller landlords in the east, in Ulster or on the outskirts of towns were more favourably placed than the owners of tracts of infertile bog in the west. In 1870 302 proprietors (1.5% of the total) owned 33.7% of the land, and 50% of the country was in the hands of 750 families of the Ascendency. At the other end of the scale, 15,527 (80.5%) owned between them only 19.3% of the land. 95% of the land of Ireland was calculated to be under minority control of those within the established church. Absenteeism is accepted as having been an almost universal practice in Ireland and detrimental to the country's progress.
Reform, though not complete, came in three main stages and was effected over 50 years:
The confidence of the Ascendancy was manifested towards the end of the 18th century by its adoption of a nationalist Irish, though still exclusively Protestant, identity and the formation in the 1770s of Henry Grattan's Patriot Party. The formation of the Irish Volunteers to defend Ireland from French invasion during the American Revolution effectively gave Grattan a military force, and he was able to force Britain to concede a greater amount of self-rule to the Ascendancy.
The parliament repealed most of the Penal Laws in 1771–93 but did not abolish them entirely. Grattan sought Catholic emancipation for the catholic middle classes from the 1780s, but could not persuade a majority of the Irish MPs to support him. After the forced recall of the liberal Lord Fitzwilliam in 1795 by conservatives, parliament was effectively abandoned as a vehicle for change, giving rise to the United Irishmen – liberal elements across religious, ethnic, and class lines who began to plan for armed rebellion. The resulting and largely Protestant-led rebellion was crushed;[page needed] the Act of Union of 1801 was passed partly in response to a perception that the bloodshed was provoked by the misrule of the Ascendancy, and partly from the expense involved.
Main article: 1801 Act of Union
The abolition of the Irish Parliament was followed by economic decline in Ireland, and widespread emigration from among the ruling class to the new centre of power in London, which increased the number of absentee landlords. The reduction of legalised discrimination with the passage of Catholic emancipation in 1829 meant that the Ascendancy now faced competition from prosperous Catholics in parliament and in the higher-level professional ranks such as the judiciary and the army that were needed in the growing British Empire. From 1840 corporations running towns and cities in Ireland became more democratically elected; previously they were dominated until 1793 by guild members who had to be Protestants.
Main article: Great Irish Famine
The festering sense of native grievance was magnified by the Great Irish Famine of 1845–52, with many of the Ascendancy reviled as absentee landlords whose agents were shipping locally produced food overseas, while much of the population starved, over a million dying of hunger or associated diseases. Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout most of the famine. About 20% of the population emigrated. The Encumbered Estates Act of 1849 was passed to allow landlords to sell mortgaged land, where a sale would be restricted because the land was "entailed". Over ten percent of landlords went bankrupt as their tenants could not pay any rent due to the famine. One example was the Browne family which lost over 50,000 acres (200 km2) in County Mayo.
As a consequence, the remnants of the Ascendancy were gradually displaced during the 19th and early 20th centuries through impoverishment, bankruptcy, the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland by the Irish Church Act 1869 and finally the Irish Land Acts, which legally allowed the sitting tenants to buy their land. Some typical "Ascendancy" land-owning families like the Marquess of Headfort and the Earl of Granard had by then converted to Catholicism, and a considerable number of Protestant Nationalists had already taken their part in Irish history. The government-sponsored Land Commission then bought up a further 13 million acres (53,000 km2) of farmland between 1885 and 1920 where the freehold was assigned under mortgage to tenant farmers and farm workers.
Main article: Irish Nationalism
The Irish Rebellion of 1798 was led by members of the Anglo-Irish class, some of whom feared the political implications of the impending union with Great Britain. Reformist and nationalist politicians such as Henry Grattan (1746–1820), Wolfe Tone (1763–1798), Robert Emmet (1778–1803), and Sir John Gray (1815–1875) were also Protestant nationalists, and in large measure led and defined Irish nationalism. At the same time the British Government included Anglo-Irish figures at the highest level such as Lord Castlereagh (1769–1828) and George Canning (1770–1827), as well others such as the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816). Even during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Irish nationalism became increasingly tied to a Roman Catholic identity, it continued to count among its leaders Protestants like Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–1891).
With the Protestant yeoman class void being filled by a newly rising "Catholic Ascendancy", the dozens of remaining Protestant large landowners were left isolated within the Catholic population without the benefit of the legal and social conventions on which they had depended upon to maintain power and influence. Local government was democratized by the Act of 1898, passing many local powers to councilors who were usually supportive of nationalism. Formerly landlords had controlled the grand jury system, where membership was based on being a large ratepayer, and therefore from owning large amounts of land locally. The final phase of the elimination of the Ascendancy occurred during the Anglo-Irish War, when some of the remaining Protestant landlords were either assassinated and/or had their country homes in Ireland burned down.[page needed] Nearly 300 stately homes of the old landed class were burned down between 1919 and 1923. The campaign was stepped up by the Anti-Treaty IRA during the subsequent Irish Civil War (1922–23), who targeted some remaining wealthy and influential Protestants who had accepted nominations as Senators in the new Seanad of the Irish Free State.[page needed]
Many members of the Ascendancy played a role in literary and artistic matters in 19th- and 20th-century Ireland, notably Oscar Wilde and Nobel prize-winning author George Bernard Shaw, and Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats who started the influential Celtic Revival movement, and later authors such as Somerville and Ross, Hubert Butler and Elizabeth Bowen. Ballerina Dame Ninette de Valois, Samuel Beckett (also a Nobel prize-winner) and the artist Sir William Orpen came from the same social background. Chris de Burgh and the rock concert promoter Lord Conyngham (formerly Lord Mount Charles) are more recent high-profile descendants of the Ascendancy in Ireland.
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