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Peel and Ireland 1841-6

Daniel O'Connell could expect little from Sir Robert Peel and the Conservatives because they wanted to maintain the Act of Union. Also, it was O'Connell who had labelled Peel "Orange Peel", and had been party to the Lichfield House Compact to oust Peel from office. There was no love lost between the two men.

The Irish showed little enthusiasm for the repeal of the Act of Union: the 1841 general election returned only 12 repeal candidates (of the 40 who stood). The Catholic rent which O'Connell had established in 1823 with the establishment of the Catholic Association diminished too - and this was O'Connell's main source of income.

O'Connell was 65 years old and could not wait for another Whig government. He knew that the Whigs would not support repeal, but O'Connell remembered that Wellington and Peel had conceded emancipation in 1828-9 under the threat of civil war. O'Connell declared that 1843 was to be the year of the 'great repeal' and organised monster meetings all over Ireland to whip up support. Funds increased, but O'Connell came into conflict with the younger, new men who called themselves "Young Ireland".

"Young Ireland" was made up of men of a different generation from O'Connell. The leaders were predominantly intellectuals and journalists: the Protestant poet Thomas Davis; the Catholics Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon. The Presbyterian republican John Mitchel [sic]; the Protestant landowner William Smith O'Brien later joined them. These men had seen nationalist movements such as "Young Italy" at work in Europe but had not seen the terror and aftermath of rebellion in Ireland. They thought in terms of an independent Irish nation, rather than in terms of Irishmen. Most of "Young Ireland" could not speak or understand Gaelic - the language spoken by half the Irish population - and saw the repeal struggle very differently from O'Connell. They stressed Irish culture and the differences between England and Ireland in race, religion, language and outlook.

"Young Ireland" had little constructive ability and continually quarrelled among themselves. They did little for Ireland except that they gave birth to the policy of violence deliberately directed against the government. Their journal, The Nation, at least published good poetry but preached hatred of the English. They made it impossible for the British government to cure Irish discontent by kindness. Disputes between O'Connell and "Young Ireland" began over the character of repeal agitation. O'Connell thought that Peel would give way before civil war broke out.

In October 1843 O'Connell had called a mass meeting at Clontarf. Peel's government banned the meeting and O'Connell complied with the law but was arrested anyway. He was found guilty of many charges by a packed jury and was sentenced to one year in prison and a fine of £2,000. The verdict was quashed on an appeal to the House of Lords, but O'Connell was broken as a political power in Ireland. Power and influence passed to "Young Ireland".

Peel reacted to events in Ireland by

Peel wanted to make concessions, so in 1843 the Devon Commission was set up 'to inquire into the state of the law and practice in respect of the occupation of land in Ireland'. TheDevon Commission, which sat from 1843 to 1845, is the familiar title for the Royal Commission on the state of the law and practice relating to occupation of land in Ireland. It was chaired by William Courtenay, 29th earl of Devon, who had an estate in Co. Limerick. The enquiry was established as part of Peel's attempt to balance his uncompromising rejection of repeal with measures of moderate reform. Its most important recommendation was that outgoing tenants be compensated for any improvements they had made. However a bill to this effect, introduced in the House of Lords in June 1845, was effectively killed off. The commission's report was nevertheless of importance in helping to confirm the emerging contemporary belief that Irish rural poverty and low agricultural productivity were primarily the result of an oppressive land system. Its extensive collection of oral and written testimony remains a major resource for historians of pre-Famine rural society.

Its report was presented in 1845 - at the start of the famine and too late for any effective action to take place. Peel also

In July 1846 'Connell engineered the expulsion of "Young Ireland" from the Repeal Association on the grounds that they would not totally, absolutely and for ever abjure the use of violence. By this time, Ireland was in the grip of the famine, and the political in-fighting was totally alienated from the realities of starvation and death.

O'Connell died on 15 May 1847, while he was on his way to Rome to see the Pope. Also in 1847 John Mitchel was encouraging the peasants to arm themselves, for which he was expelled from "Young Ireland". He retaliated by setting up his own, overtly republican newspaper, the United Irishman. He began to call for 'Ireland her own, and all therein, from the sod to the sky. The soil of Ireland for the people of Ireland, to have and to hold from God alone.'

This went much further than O'Connell had ever been prepared to go, for even in 1845 when he had begun to draw up an agrarian programme he had confined himself to proposals for

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Last modified 12 June, 2019

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