|1800 - 1877: The Act of Union, Emancipation and the Great Famine|
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The drastic action that was taken was the Act of Union, passed in 1800. It formed a new country ("The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland") by uniting England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. A new flag - the Union Jack - was created for it which had components from the flags of each member state. All regional parliaments were abolished, and instead the entire UK was to be ruled from a centralised London parliament. For most Irish, there wasn't a noticeable difference, but it meant the Irish government representatives could not pass laws on their own.
In 1813, a man named Sir Robert Peel set up a law-enforcing force in Ireland. Its job was to arrest those who broke the law and generally manage crime prevention. This force was known as the 'Peelers' or the 'Bobbies', and later became known as the Police. It was the world's first Police force and, by 1822, most countries has followed suit and set up their own.
The hated penal laws were still in force in Ireland in the early 1800s. These discriminated against non-Anglicans, principally Catholics and Presbyterians. It had been promised that they would be abolished with the Act of Union. However, this did not happen and it took the actions of Daniel O'Connell to lead a campaign for emancipation that captured the English public's imagination and led to the necessary legislation being passed in 1829. The importance of emancipation to the Irish people was recognised when the main street in Dublin was re-named after O'Connell after independence in 1921.
In 1800 the population of Ireland was between 4 and 5 million, with 200,000 in Dublin. However the Industrial revolution and especially the Irish Linen industry expanded explosively in the first half of the century, and this allowed the population to increase dramatically. By 1841, there were 8,175,000 people in Ireland. (This compares to the 1996 figure of 5,162,535.) Most Irish landlords were Protestants, simply because the law forbade Catholics from owning land. The Irish peasants themselves, who were both Protestant and Catholic, ate potatoes almost exclusively, since land was scarce and potatoes were an intensive crop. However, in 1845 a fungal disease called 'phytophthora infestans', or 'potato blight' struck and wiped out a third of the potato crop in Ireland. This was a disaster to the peasants who relied upon it. Those who lived near towns were better off, since towns had other sources of food, but things got very bad for those living in rural areas.
By 1846, potato supplies had sold out and many people began to slowly starve. The British government stepped in and imported £100,000 worth of maize from America to feed the starving, and this helped prevent mass death for the first year of the Famine. However, the crop of 1846 also failed and this time wiped out almost all the potatoes in Ireland. Thousands of people simply starved, particularly in rural areas. Many also died from typhus, scurvy and dysentery. The British set up soup-kitchens and workhouses for the poor but they drastically underestimated the scale of the disaster, and many people did not receive any aid at all. The problem was compounded by landlords who evicted Peasants who could not pay the rent because they had no potatoes to sell. Fortunately the crop of 1847 was good, and, although the 1848 crop failed, the starvation was never so bad as in 1846. (Note: This site contains a dedicated Famine section for those who are seeking more information).
Many thousands of Irish decided to cut their losses and set sail on emigration boats to America. This is the origin of about half of what is now referred to as 'Irish America'. Hundreds of Irish died on the ships which were so overcrowded that they became known as 'coffin ships'. By 1851, the population had fallen 25% to 6,000,000 and the emigration continued until around 1900, by which time only 4,500,000 Irish remained in Ireland. This left huge chunks of abandoned farmland and even today, large areas of derelict farmland can be seen in Mayo and Galway. Many Irish felt that the British could have done more and this caused a lot of anti-British sentiment to arise, particularly in Ireland and among the Irish who had gone to America.
While there is little doubt that the British could have done more to prevent the mass deaths in Ireland, some blame must also be attributed to the over-reliance of the rural Irish on a single food crop and on the lack of communication routes with England, meaning that many in Britain were genuinely unaware of what was happening in rural Ireland. Most visitors to Ireland stayed in the cities, which were largely unaffected by the famine.
In 1858 a new group calling themselves the Irish Republican Brotherhood or the 'Fenians' was formed with the aim of creating an independent Irish republic by force. Unlike previous groups, the IRB had a large support base, particularly from the Irish who had gone to America. In 1867 they staged an uprising but it was easily defeated by the British. The Fenians went into the background for the next 30 years, but it still existed. The IRB was the first group to add a religious (pro-Catholic/anti-Protestant) slant to Republicanism, and this widened the gap between the 2 religious groups who shared Ireland.
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