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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 Receives Royal Assent

coat-of-arms-of-the-united-kingdomThe Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, the culmination of the process of Catholic emancipation throughout the United Kingdom, receives royal assent on April 13, 1829. In Ireland it repeals the Test Act 1673 and the remaining Penal Laws which had been in force since the passing of the Disenfranchising Act of the Parliament of Ireland of 1728. Its passage follows a vigorous campaign that threatens insurrection led by Irish lawyer Daniel O’Connell. The British leaders, starting with the Prime MinisterArthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington,  and his top aide Robert Peel, although personally opposed, give in to avoid civil strife. Ireland is quiet after the passage.

In 1778, English Catholics are relieved of the restrictions on land inheritance and purchase. A savage reaction to these concessions produces the Gordon Riots of 1780, and the whole history of Catholic Emancipation is one of struggle against great resistance. In 1791 the Roman Catholic Relief Act repeals most of the disabilities in Great Britain, provided Catholics take an oath of loyalty. In 1793 the army, the navy, the universities, and the judiciary are opened to Catholics, although seats in Parliament and some offices are still denied. These reforms are sponsored by William Pitt the Younger, who hopes thereby to split the alliance of Irish Catholics and Protestants. But Pitt’s attempt to secure a general repeal of the Penal Laws is thwarted by George III. Pope Pius VII consents to a royal veto on episcopal nominations if the Penal Laws are repealed, but the move fails. In Ireland the repeal of Poynings’ Law in 1782 is followed by an act (1792) of the Irish Parliament relaxing the marriage and education laws and an act (1793) allowing Catholics to vote and hold most offices.

The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 permits members of the Catholic Church to sit in the parliament at Westminster and to hold all but a handful of public offices. O’Connell had won a seat in a by-election for Clare in 1828 against an Anglican. Under the then extant penal law, O’Connell as a Catholic, is forbidden to take his seat in Parliament. Peel, the Home Secretary, until then is called “Orange Peel” because he always supports the Orange (anti-Catholic) position. Peel now concludes, “Though emancipation was a great danger, civil strife was a greater danger.” Fearing a revolution in Ireland, Peel draws up the Catholic Relief Bill and guides it through the House of Commons. To overcome the vehement opposition of both the House of Lords and King George IV, the Duke of Wellington works tirelessly to ensure passage in the House of Lords, and threatens to resign as Prime Minister if the King does not give Royal Assent.

With the Universities Tests Act 1871, which opens the universities to Roman Catholics, Catholic Emancipation in the United Kingdom is virtually complete.

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Birth of Katharine O’Shea Parnell

katharine-osheaKatharine O’Shea (née Wood), English woman of aristocratic background, whose decade-long secret adultery with Charles Stewart Parnell leads to a widely publicized divorce in 1890 and his political downfall, is born in Braintree, Essex on January 30, 1846.

Katharine is the daughter of Sir John Page Wood, 2nd Baronet (1796–1866), and granddaughter of Sir Matthew Wood, a former Lord Mayor of London. She has an elder brother who becomes Field Marshal Sir Henry Evelyn Wood and is also the niece of both Western Wood MP (1804–1863) and Lord William Wood, William Ewart Gladstone‘s first Liberal Lord Chancellor.

Katharine marries Captain William O’Shea in 1867, a Catholic Nationalist MP for Clare from whom she separates around 1875. She first meets Parnell in 1880 and begins a relationship with him. Three of her children are fathered by Parnell. Although Captain O’Shea keeps publicly quiet for several years, he is aware of the relationship. He challenges Parnell to a duel in 1881 and initially forbids his estranged wife to see him, although she says that he encouraged her in the relationship. Although their relationship is a subject of gossip in London political circles from 1881, later public knowledge of the affair in an England governed by “Victorian morality” with a “nonconformist conscience” creates a huge scandal, as adultery is prohibited by the Ten Commandments.

Out of her family connection to the Liberal Party, Katharine acts as liaison between Parnell and Gladstone during negotiations prior to the introduction of the First Irish Home Rule Bill in April 1886. Parnell moves to her home in Eltham, close to the London-Kent border, that summer.

Captain O’Shea files for divorce in 1889 and his reasons are a matter for speculation. Some say he may have political motives. Alternatively, it is claimed that he has been hoping for an inheritance from Katharine’s rich aunt whom he had expected to die earlier, but when she dies in 1889 her money is left in trust to cousins. After the divorce the court awards custody of Katharine O’Shea and C.S. Parnell’s two surviving daughters to her ex-husband.

Katharine’s November divorce proceedings from Captain O’Shea, in which Parnell is named as co-respondent, leads to Parnell’s being deserted by a majority of his own Irish Parliamentary Party and to his downfall as its leader in December 1890. Catholic Ireland feels a profound sense of shock when Katharine breaks the vows of her previous Catholic marriage by marrying Parnell on June 25, 1891. With his political life and his health essentially ruined, Parnell dies at the age of 45 in Hove on October 6, 1891 in her arms, less than four months after their marriage. The cause is stomach cancer, possibly complicated by coronary artery disease inherited from his grandfather and father, who also died prematurely.

Though to her friends Katharine is known as Katie O’Shea, Parnell’s enemies, in order to damage him personally, call her “Kitty O’Shea” because at that time “kitty,” as well as being an Hiberno-English version of Catherine/Katherine/Katharine, is also a slang term for a prostitute. She lives the rest of her life in relative obscurity. She dies on February 5, 1921, at the age of 75, and is buried in Littlehampton, Sussex, England, apparently never once setting foot on Irish soil.

Captain Henry Harrison, MP, who had acted as Parnell’s bodyguard and aide-de-camp, devotes himself after Parnell’s death to the service of his widow. From her he hears a completely different version of the events surrounding the divorce issue from that which had appeared in the press, and this is to form the seed of his later two books defending Parnell published in 1931 and 1938. They have a major impact on Irish historiography, leading to a more favourable view of Parnell’s role in the O’Shea affair.


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Birth of Sir Lucius O’Brien, 3rd Baronet

lucius-obrien-3rd-baronetSir Lucius Henry O’Brien, 3rd Baronet PC (Ire), Irish baronet and politician for 34 years, is born on September 2, 1731.

O’Brien is the son of Sir Edward O’Brien, 2nd Baronet and his wife Mary Hickman, inheriting the baronetcy upon the death of his father in 1765. He is educated at Trinity College, Dublin and enters the Middle Temple in 1753, later becoming a barrister.

In 1761, O’Brien enters the Irish House of Commons as the member for Ennis, sitting until 1768. Subsequently he successfully runs for Clare, a seat previously held by his father, holding it until 1776. He is then again elected for Ennis, but following the unseating of Hugh Dillon Massy as Member of Parliament for Clare, he returns to represent that constituency in 1778. In the election of 1783, he becomes the representative for Tuam. He is sworn of the Privy Council of Ireland in 1786. He serves for the latter constituency until 1790, when he is re-elected for Ennis. He holds this seat finally until his death on January 15, 1795.

O’Brien is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1773.

O’Brien marries Anne French, the daughter of Robert French, in 1768 and has by her seven children, three sons and four daughters. He is succeeded in the baronetcy as well as in the constituency of Ennis by his oldest son Edward.

O’Brien’s grandson James FitzGerald (1818–1896) is a prominent politician in New Zealand.


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Birth of Patrick Hillery, Sixth President of Ireland

patrick-hilleryPatrick John Hillery, Irish politician and the sixth President of Ireland, is born in Spanish Point, County Clare on May 2, 1923. He serves two terms in the presidency and, though widely seen as a somewhat lacklustre President, is credited with bringing stability and dignity to the office. He also wins widespread admiration when it emerges that he has withstood political pressure from his own Fianna Fáil party during a political crisis in 1982.

Hillery is educated locally at Milltown Malbay National school before later attending Rockwell College. At third level he attends University College Dublin where he qualifies with a degree in medicine. Upon his conferral in 1947 he returns to his native town where he follows in his father’s footsteps as a doctor.

Hillery is first elected at the 1951 general election as a Fianna Fáil Teachta Dála (TD) for Clare, and remains in Dáil Éireann until 1973. During this time he serves as Minister for Education (1959–1965), Minister for Industry and Commerce (1965–1966), Minister for Labour (1966–1969) and Minister for Foreign Affairs (1969–1973).

Following Ireland’s successful entry into the European Economic Community in 1973, Hillery is rewarded by becoming the first Irishman to serve on the European Commission, serving until 1976 when he becomes President. In 1976 the Fine GaelLabour Party National Coalition under Liam Cosgrave informs him that he is not being re-appointed to the Commission. He considers returning to medicine, however fate takes a turn when Minister for Defence Paddy Donegan launches a ferocious verbal attack on President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, calling him “a thundering disgrace” for referring anti-terrorist legislation to the courts to test its constitutionality. When a furious President Ó Dálaigh resigns, a deeply reluctant Hillery agrees to become the Fianna Fáil candidate for the presidency. Fine Gael and Labour decide it is unwise to put up a candidate in light of the row over Ó Dálaigh’s resignation. As a result, Hillery is elected unopposed, becoming President of Ireland on December 3, 1976.

When Hillery’s term of office ends in September 1983, he indicates that he does not intend to seek a second term, but he changes his mind when all three political parties plead with him to reconsider. He is returned for a further seven years without an electoral contest. After leaving office in 1990, he retires from politics.

Hillery’s two terms as president, from 1976 to 1990, end before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which sets terms for an end to violence in Northern Ireland. But he acts at crucial moments as an emollient influence on the republic’s policies toward the north, and sets a tone that helps pave the way for eventual peace.

Patrick Hillery dies on April 12, 2008 in his Dublin home following a short illness. His family agrees to a full state funeral for the former president. He is buried at St. Fintan’s Cemetery, Sutton, near Dublin. In the graveside oration, Tánaiste Brian Cowen says Hillery was “A humble man of simple tastes, he has been variously described as honourable, decent, intelligent, courteous, warm and engaging. He was all of those things and more.”