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 (Church of Ireland or the Church of England). The Ascendancy excluded from politics and the elite other groups, 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) even the majority of Irish Protestants were effectively excluded from the Ascendancy, being too poor to vote. In general, the privileges of the Ascendancy were resented by Irish Catholics, who made up the majority of the population.
The gradual dispossession of large holdings belonging to several hundred native Roman Catholic landowners in Ireland took place in various stages from the reigns of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary and her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I onwards. Unsuccessful revolts against English rule in 1595–1603 and 1641–53 and then the 1689–91 Williamite Wars caused much Irish land to be 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".
Origin of term
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 then used by Catholics seeking further political reforms.
In the Irish language, the term used was An Chinsealacht, from cinseal, meaning "dominance."
The process of Protestant Ascendancy was facilitated and formalised in the legal system after 1691 by the passing of various Penal Laws, which discriminated against the property rights of the leading families of the majority Roman Catholic population. They also covered the non-conforming ("Dissenter") Protestant denominations such as Presbyterians, where they:
- had revolted against the government and
- had not under the 1691 Treaty of Limerick sworn allegiance to William III and Mary II, the head of the Protestant established church in Britain.
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 in 1710–14. 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. Thousands did so, as recorded on the "Convert Rolls", and this allowed for the successful careers of Irishmen such as that of William Conolly, but the majority declined to convert.
From 1766 onwards the Papacy did not object to the fact of an established Anglican Church, as Roman Catholicism was the established church in countries such as Spain until 1931 and Austria until 1918. It did, however, push for reforms allowing equality within the system.
As a result, political, legal and economic power resided with the Ascendancy to the extent that by the mid-18th century, though a small fraction of the population, 95% of the land of Ireland was calculated to be under minority control of those within the established church. Some 9% of this land belonged to formerly-Catholic landlords who had converted to the state religion. By 1841 (Census and repeated in the 1851, 61 etc.) there were just shy of 10,000 landowners of Ireland's 20,000,000 acres of land: 47% were from the established church, 43% Catholic and 7% dissenting (2% owned by institutions).
Reform, though not complete, came in three main stages and was effected over 50 years:
- Reform of religious disabilities in 1778–82, allowing bishops, schools and convents.
- Reform of restrictions on property ownership and voting in 1778–93.
- Restoration of political, professional and office-holding rights in 1793–1829.
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; 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.
Act of Union and decline
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.
Great Irish Famine of 1845–52
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". Many landlords (over 10%) 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.
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. Even during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Irish nationalism became increasingly tied to a Roman Catholic identity, it still counted 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 once used to prop them up. Local government was democratised by the Act of 1898, passing many local powers to councillors 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 decline 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 burned down. 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.
Artistic and cultural role
Many members of the Ascendancy played a role in literary and artistic matters in 19th- and 20th-century Ireland, with Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats starting the influential Celtic Revival movement and followed by authors such as Somerville and Ross, Hubert Butler and Elizabeth Bowen. Ballerina Dame Ninette de Valois, Nobel prize-winning author Samuel Beckett 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 high-profile descendants of the Ascendancy in Ireland today.
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