Religion, Law and Power: The Making of Protestant Ireland 1660 -1760. S. J. Connolly (1:1)

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Spring 1993), Penal Laws, Reviews, Volume 1

This is an extremely well-organised and comprehensive treatment of its subject matter. Writing in a crisp, precise style, Connolly takes a thematic approach so that each chapter stands on its own. Not only is the book generously foot-noted but the author gives the reader a précis of the significant debates currently animating historians of the late 17th and early 18th centuries – religion and land ownership, the theory and practice of the Penal Laws, demography, law and order, etc.. This will make the book particularly useful as a reference for the hard-pressed undergraduate (or lecturer, for that matter).

The time span chosen will surprise some readers. As every schoolboy knows, the 18th century, and Protestant Ascendancy (although the phrase was only first coined in 1782), actually starts in 1691 with the Treaty of Limerick. Connolly flies in the face of this convention and argues, convincingly, that, despite hiccups such as the Jacobite parliament of 1689, Protestants had been unchallenged rulers of Irish society for the previous forty years.

He is less convincing in his central argument (his own words), that ‘Ireland in the century or so following the Restoration is best seen as first and foremost a part of the European ancien regime’ rather than ‘the alternative label of a colonial society, so casually yet so persistently applied’. But if the colonial label has been persistently applied, it is surely because it fits. Ireland was a colony in the two senses of that word: it was both politically subordinate to and had been subject to wholesale and recent plantation of a population from the metropolitan power. If the colonial label has been casually applied, then Connolly’s critique of it serves as a series of useful and sometimes insightful qualifications, but not as a substitute.

Part of the problem lies in his unconventional time frame. By commencing his study at the Restoration (1660), he spares himself the necessity of considering the overt colonisation of the Cromwellian period (1650s), when Catholic land ownership shrank from almost 60 per cent of the total to less than 10 per cent. The Acts of Settlement and Explanation, which restored some land to ‘innocent’ Catholics, pushed the figure back up to 22 per cent by 1685. ‘Catholic’ did not necessarily mean ‘native’ in the Gaelic sense. The most influential Catholics were the ‘Old English’, descendants of Anglo-Norman medieval settlers, but the upheavals and expropriations of the 17th century blurred the distinction. Connolly suggests that the Cromwellian influence has been exaggerated and cites as evidence the fact that only 26 per cent of MPs to the 1661 Irish parliament were adventurers or soldiers in the English parliamentary armies. But surely their relative paucity of numbers was determined by their recent arrival. By the time of George II’s parliament (1727-60), the percentage of MPs of Cromwellian origin had more than doubled (57 per cent), and in a larger parliament at that.

Connolly contends that the real targets of the Penal Laws were Catholic landowners rather than Catholics in general. Exclusion from the franchise or denial of the right to sit in parliament were of little consequence to the poor who would have been excluded through property qualifications in any case. In the century in which the full rigour of the Penal Laws operated, Catholic ownership of land declined from 14 to 5 per cent. Very little land actually changed hands. The changeover was largely through conformities to the established church, many of which were purely formal, or through collusive ‘discoveries’. But this raises the question of the mechanism by which the other 86 per cent came to be in Protestant hands. The answer is largely through military conquest and the subsequent expropriation of land and the plantation of English and Scottish settlers in the 17th century. Ironically, Connolly’s demonstration of how little the Penal Laws affected the transfer of land reinforces rather than undermines the colonial paradigm.

The Penal Laws may not have been responsible for the transfer of land from Catholic to Protestant hands but, regardless of the lack of consistency in their internal detail, they were certainly designed to maintain it, and, consequently, Protestant political power. Connolly’s stress on the vertical ties of patronage and clientship rather than the horizontal bonds of shared economic or social position provides a useful insight into the plight of the Catholic masses:-

the real flaw in the structure of eighteenth-century Irish society was not that it excluded a large section of the population from democratic freedoms. It was rather that it debarred them from taking on as fully as they might otherwise have done the role of deferential subordinates.

They could not because their natural elite had either been exiled or stripped of political power. Nevertheless the Catholic masses remained remarkably quiet, a point Connolly makes much of in his anxiety to undermine an overtly repressive, colonial, paradigm for 18th century Irish society. From the 1760s onwards, however, Catholic passivity increasingly gave way to resistance, at first purely agrarian (the Whiteboys and Rightboys), but later overtly political (the Defenders and United Irishmen). Thus the quietude of the Catholic masses in the early 18th century and the apparent order and stability of society were illusory. Again, Connolly’s unconventional time frame side-steps consideration of this, apart from a brief mention in the epilogue. Despite the contrariness of many of its interpretations, the great merit of this book is the transparency and rigour of its line of argument which, combined with the impressive organisation of material, will allow readers to draw their own conclusions and construct their own counter-arguments.
Tommy Graham


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