American War of IndependenceAlso significant to Irish history was The American War of Independence. This was being fought against the British and at the same time the French Revolution was also in full flow. The American war had a rather dramatic impact on Ireland.
The English, fearing that Ireland would take advantage allowed Catholics to join the army, and by this they also hoped to replenish their dwindling ranks. In Ireland strong characters were coming into force and all of them in favour of some degree of independence for Ireland. It is worth noting that all of these men were Protestants who wanted an Irish parliament that was independent but still loyal to the king of England.
Edmund Burke a Dublin born man had played an important part in the English parliament started writing pamphlets and making speeches on his opposition to the American War and the Stamp Act. Grattan and Henry Flood also started to make speeches about Ireland having political independence and both of these men were powerful orators. The Irish in general had some sympathy with the Americans as their grievances were similar.
As the war continued and with a lot of Irish men away fighting, the island was open to pirate attacks who hovered around the coast looking for opportunities. The Irish knew if they were to be defended then they would have to organise themselves and so began what became known as “The Volunteers”.
These began in Belfast and spread into the counties of Antrim and Down. It should be noted that this was exclusively a Protestant volunteer force that supported the patriot call to arms for the protection of their country. The Irish government didn’t like the idea of this but the country felt a need to have them and in a year there were almost 40,000 volunteers throughout Ireland.
The patriots, with the now armed volunteers in support, pushed for the laws restricting trade to be removed and were successful. In 1770 various moves were made to repeal some of the penal laws.
In 1777 an English General was forced to surrender to the Americans at Saratoga and France also came out strongly in support of America. This caused some considerable anxiety in the English parliament and soon after that various trading embargoes were lifted. In 1781 Lord Cornwallis and his entire English army were forced to surrender by the American army.
Grattans Parliament in IrelandThe Patriots continued to pursue the search for an independent Irish parliament but by means of bribery and favours, the Irish government somehow maintained a majority within the Irish parliament. Grattan, Flood and a convention of volunteers from the corps of Ulster met under the management of the powerful Lord Charlemont, at the Dissenting Meeting House in Dungannon.
They passed there 13 resolutions which included that Poyning’s law should be revoked, the ports of Ireland should be open to trade and that as men and Irishmen, as Christians and Protestants, we rejoice in the relaxation of the penal laws against our Roman Catholic fellow subjects.
These resolutions were once again repeated when the Irish Parliament met in 1782. Westminster’s direct rule was removed and amendments made to Poyning’s Law, which caused great rejoicing in the streets of Ireland. Even though this was considered a great success it did little to change the actual structure of the Irish parliament.
In the House of Commons in the Irish parliament there were a total of 300 seats, but only 72 of those were decided by elections. The rest were simply nominated by pwerful people usually with a vested interest. Although Ireland was 80% Catholic, they had no representation at all. The Irish parliament was corrupt with money exchanging hands for seats in the parliament.
There were of course exceptions to this, but in general if you had money and influence you could get a nomination. The volunteers tried many times to get some reform through but the government continued to thwart them. The Volunteers now started to arm and train their men and the government reaction to that was to attempt to restore the Militia. The Militia was a state force of the crown but they were eidely detested and soon riots and violence broke out between these Militia and the Volunteers.
I think the best way to describe the feelings in Ireland at this time is to say it must have been at time of ultimate frustration. Many of the Penal laws remained in place; the common person had to pay tithes for the support of the established church.
There were still restrictions on trade on Ireland where no such restrictions applied to English trade. And there was a bought and bribed government with a self serving interest who were not only corrupt but were ignoring the will of the people.
It was inevitable that there would be a reaction and it came in the form of secret societies once again being formed. The Whiteboys made a return and began to mutilate and kill those who collected the tithes. In the North, the Peep-o’day boys formed who also were known as the Protestant boys or Wreckers. They directed their anger against the Catholics who in turn re-formed the Defenders. Clubs began to form with the Whig in Dublin and the Northern Whig in Belfast and these were attended by many of the volunteers and leaders of that time, including Napper Tandy and Wolfe Tone.
In 1788 King George III became insane and a new regent had to be appointed. The Irish parliament wanted the Prince of Wales to be appointed but Pitt the English Prime Minister was again this. King George recovered but that now made Pitt more determined to unify the parliaments for fear that there could be two parliaments each with allegiance to a different king.
Grattans Parliament showed the basic continuing friction between the people who inhabited the island of Ireland. You may have already guessed that Irish history contains a lot of that. I would now recommend reading about the Irish Rebellion 1798.