Before the act of union waspassed, despite being the majority, Catholics were very much treated as secondclass citizens. This was due to the establishment of the Anglican Ascendancy inIreland. This allowed the Anglican church of Ireland to dominate politics andreligion in Ireland.
This had also limited the power of the Irish parliamentwhich was also solely Protestant. The catholic majority eventually becamefrustrated at the lack of reform which led to a rebellion in 1798 which was ledby the Society of United Irishmen. The rebellion was supported by Frenchrevolutionaries who wanted to help the society of united Irishmen. As a resultof the rebellion, the Prime Minister William Pitt put forward plans for a unionbetween Great Britain and Ireland saying ‘gradually bringing both parties tothink of a union with this country had long been in my min. the admission ofthe Catholics to a share of suffrage would not then be dangerous’. The Actof Union 1801 was passed with the aim to make the Catholics a minority underthe union rather than keeping Irish Catholics as the majority in Ireland.
Thiswas quite an insignificant event in improving the lives of Irish Catholics.Nothing had been enforced which had changed the lives of the Irish Catholicsfor the better. The Act of Union combined the two protestant churches, thechurch of Ireland and the Church of England, into one church called the Churchof Ireland and England. This meant that the protestant ascendancy in Irelandremained in control of Ireland and its politics. This was further worsened bythe fact that only Irish protestants were able to sit as spiritual lords in theHouse of Lords and were, therefore, less likely to support reform for Irish Catholics.The unionists were mostly protestant and the union had developed ulster’s linkswith Great Britain. Nothing came out of the Act of Union for Irish Catholicsother than awareness to Catholic Emancipation, which saw the rise of DanielO’Connell. Posterior to the Act of Union1801 there were many events which improved the lives of Irish Catholics; thefirst event being the Catholic Emancipation 1829.
Despite this being animportant factor in the improvement of Irish lives it had many limitations andI would, therefore, argue that it wasn’t the most important factor in theimprovement in the lives of Irish Catholics. The most important factor inimproving the lives of Irish Catholics was the Anglo-Irish war which added fuelto the fire in the fight for an end to British rule in Ireland. This was the mostsignificant event which led to the passing of the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1921. The Catholic Emancipation hadbeen considered before the passing of the Act of Union by the Prime Minister,William Pitt. In 1800, William Pitt’s plans for passing the Act of Union alongwith catholic emancipation were abandoned and instead prioritised a union withIreland to keep the powerful protestant ascendancy in Ireland content. WhilstGeorge VI was prince regent, 1811-1820, he remained firmly opposed to grantingthe Roman Catholics emancipation. As a result the Catholic Emancipation wasprolonged.
During this time, O’Connell became an influence over the push forCatholic Emancipation by creating the Catholic Association which increased thesupport for Catholic Emancipation. An emancipation bill was passed throughparliament but it was once again rejected by the House of Lords. However, in1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed through the House of Commonssuccessfully; assisted by the Duke of Wellington threatening to resign if theking and House of Lords didn’t support the bill.
The Catholic Emancipation Actgranted Irish Catholics full civil and political rights. This was verysignificant in improving the lives of Irish Catholics as it allowed Irish Catholicsto become MPs. As a result, Daniel O’Connell was able to sit in parliament andlead the Irish parliamentary party. O’Connell was also able to push for reformfor the under represented Irish Catholics, which he wouldn’t have been able todo without the Catholic Emancipation Act. The catholic emancipation was also astepping stone towards home rule. However, the impact it had in improving thelives of Irish Catholics was limited. First of all, prior to the CatholicEmancipation Act, Catholics who owned land worth at least 40 shillings earnedthe right to vote. However, after the act was passed, the 40 shilling freeholdwas increased to a £10 household suffrage where only the male head of thefamily who possessed £10 could vote.
This worsened the lives of Irish Catholicsas it reduced the electorate, roughly, by 85%. Therefore, Irish Catholicscouldn’t vote for their representatives. Beyond the electorate, the catholicpeasants were becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of reform for thepeasants following the Catholic Emancipation. This was worsened by the fact thatthe Catholic Emancipation was heavily in favour of the richer Catholics. Forexample, allowing Irish Catholics to sit as MPs was only in favour of thoseCatholics who had professional backgrounds, such as Daniel O’Connell.Therefore, its impact in improving the lives of Irish Catholics was not much;it only supported the upper class Catholics rather than being aimed to improveall the lives of Irish Catholics. Overall, the Roman CatholicEmancipation Act 1829 was fairly important. It gave Irish Catholicsrepresentation in parliament through O’Connell who later pushed for reforms inthe 1930s.
It was most definitely a stepping stone towards home rule. However,its impact on the lives of Irish Catholics is limited by the fact that it washeavily in favour of upper class Catholics, who were a minority of IrishCatholics. Therefore, it didn’t provide improvements to all Irish Catholics.