By Tim Lambert

At the end of the 18th century the British government decided that radical reform was needed. They decided the answer was to abolish the Irish parliament and unite Ireland with Britain. In 1800 they managed to persuade the Irish parliament to agree to the measure. It came into effect in 1801.

In 1803 Robert Emmet (1778-1803) and a small group of followers attempted an uprising in Dublin. They killed the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland and his nephew but the rising was quickly crushed. Emmet was hung, drawn and quartered.

In the early 19th century a movement to remove remaining restrictions on Catholics was led by Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847). In 1823 he founded the Catholic Association. In 1829 their wishes were granted. The Catholic Emancipation Act allowed Catholics to become MPs and to hold public office.

In 1840 O'Connell began a Repeal Association to demand the repeal of the Act of Union. He arranged 'monster meetings' of his supporters. In 1843 he called for one at Clontarf. However, the British government banned the meeting. O'Connell canceled the meeting and his movement collapsed.


In 1845 a large part of the Irish population lived on potatoes and buttermilk. It was an adequate diet but if anything happened to the potato crop there would be a disaster. In 1845 potato blight hit Ireland. Peel, the British Prime Minister, appointed a scientific committee to study the disease. Unfortunately, they did not understand its true nature.

Faced with famine Peel started relief works to provide work for the starving. (Peel was reluctant to give away free food). The potato blight returned in 1846. By 1847 the situation was so bad that Peel's successor, Lord John Russell realized direct relief was necessary and soup kitchens were set up. Private charity also struggled to cope with the calamity.

However hundreds of thousands of people died each year of starvation and disease such as cholera, typhus and dysentery. (In their weakened condition people had little resistance to disease).

The famine was worst in Southern and Southwest Ireland. The North and the East coast were less affected.

Many people fled aboard. In 1851 alone some 250,000 people emigrated from Ireland. (Many of them died of disease while onboard ship). The population of Ireland fell dramatically. From over 8 million in 1841 it fell to about 6 1/2 million in 1851 and it continued to fall. An estimated 1 million people died during the famine. Many others emigrated.

The failure of the British government to deal with the famine caused a lasting bitterness in Ireland.


In 1842 an organisation called Young Ireland was formed to campaign for Irish independence. (They were called 'Young Ireland' because they were opposed to O'Connell's 'Old Ireland', which advocated peaceful methods. In 1848 Young Ireland attempted an uprising. Led by William Smith O'Brien 1803-64 a group of Irish peasants fought with 46 members of the Irish Constabulary at Ballingarry in County Tipperary. The skirmish later became known as 'the battle of the Widow McCormack's cabbage patch'. Afterward O'Brien was arrested. He was sentenced to death but instead was transported to Tasmania.

In 1858 another movement called the Fenians was formed. In 1867 they attempted a rising in England, which did not succeed. In 1870 they were banned by the Catholic Church but they continued to operate.

Also in 1870 a lawyer named Isaac Butt (1813-1879) founded the Irish Home Government Association. The aim was to gain MPs in the British parliament and fight for independence. The Association was a success in that it soon gained a large number of MPs but Butt was regarded as too moderate. He soon lost control of the movement to a Protestant Lawyer called Charles Steward Parnell (1846-1891).


In the late 1870s Irish agriculture entered a recession and many tenant farmers were evicted. Then in 1879, a Fenian called Michael Davitt (1846-1906) founded the Irish National Land League to demand land reform. He asked Parnell to lead the movement. The land war of 1879-1882 followed. Rents were withheld until the last moment. Anyone who took the land of an evicted tenant was boycotted. This word came from a Captain Charles Boycott. He managed an estate in Mayo. Local people refused to work for him but in 1880 50 laborers from Ulster, protected by troops, were sent to harvest his farm. However, life was made so unpleasant for Boycott he was forced to leave.

During the land war some people became violent. As a result in 1881, the British government passed the Coercion Act, which allowed them to imprison people without trial. The leaders of the land league were arrested. At the same time, Gladstone passed another land act. Tenants could apply to a special land court for a fair rent. Gladstone's land acts of 1881 and 1882 also gave tenant farmers greater security of tenure.

The land war ended with an agreement called the Kilmainham Treaty. The government released the leaders and agreed to some more concessions and the violence died down (although the Chief Secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and the Under Secretary were murdered in Phoenix Park, Dublin).


In 1886 Gladstone introduced his first Home Rule bill but it was rejected by the House of Commons. Gladstone introduced a second Home Rule bill in 1893. This one was passed by the House of Commons but it was rejected by the House of Lords.

Gladstone introduced a second Home Rule bill in 1893. The House of Commons passed this one but the House of Lords rejected it. Nevertheless, some reforms were made to land ownership. In 1885 money was made available for leaseholders to borrow to buy their land. The loans were repaid at low rates of interest. The loan system was extended in 1891. More land acts were passed in 1903 and 1909. As a result, many thousands of tenant farmers purchased their land.

In 1893 the Gaelic League was founded to make Gaelic the main language of Ireland once again.

A brief history of Cork

A brief history of Dublin

A brief history of Galway

A brief history of Limerick

Ireland in the 18th Century