Protestant Ascendancy

Protestant Ascendancy

The Protestant Ascendancy is a convenient phrase used when referring to the political, economic, and social domination of the former Kingdom of Ireland by a minority of great landowners, establishment clergy, and professionals, all members of the Established Church (the Church of Ireland and Church of England, both being the State Churches) during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The sense of Ascendancy is seen as excluding primarily Roman Catholics, as they have comprised the majority of the Irish population, but this can be misleading, as members of the Presbyterians and other Protestant denominations, along with non-christians, were also excluded politically and socially into the 1800s.

Origin of term

The phrase was first used in passing by Sir Boyle Roche in a speech to the Irish Parliament on 20 February, 1782. [W.J. McCormack, essay in "Eighteenth Century Ireland" Journal, volume 4 (1989) page 162.] George Ogle MP used it on 6 February 1786 in a debate on falling land values::"...When the landed property of the Kingdom, when the Protestant Ascendancy is at stake, I cannot remain silent."Then on 20 January 1792 Dublin Corporation approved by majority vote a resolution to George III that included::"We feel ourselves peculiarly called upon to stand forward in the crisis to pray your majesty to preserve the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland inviolate..." [Calendar of the Ancient Records of Dublin, vol.14, pages 241-242.]

The Corporation's resolution was a part of the debate over Catholic Emancipation. In the event, Catholics were again allowed to vote in 1793, but could not sit in parliament until 1829.

The phrase therefore was seen to apply across classes to rural landowners as well as city merchants. The Dublin resolution was disapproved of by a wide range of commentators, such as the Marquess of Abercorn, who called it "silly", and William Drennan who said it was "actuated by the most monopolising spirit". [McCormack, op cit., page 177.]

The phrase became popularised outside Ireland by Edmund Burke, another liberal Protestant, and his ironic comment in 1792 was then used by Catholics seeking further political reforms::"A word has been lately struck in the mint of the castle of Dublin; thence it was conveyed to the Tholsel, or city-hall, where, having passed the touch of the corporation, so respectably stamped and vouched, it soon became current in parliament, and was carried back by the Speaker of the House of Commons in great pomp as an offering of homage from whence it came. The word is Ascendancy." [McCormack, op cit., p.175.]

Duality of Use

From the 1790s the phrase became used by the main two identities in Ireland:
*Catholics, who were mostly nationalists, who used the phrase as a "focus of resentment" and
*Protestants, who were mostly unionists, for whom it gave a "compensating image of lost greatness". [McCormack, op cit., p.181.]


The gradual dispossession of large holdings belonging to several hundred native landowners in Ireland took place in various stages from the reigns of the Catholic Queen Mary and her Protestant sister Elizabeth I onwards. Unsuccessful revolts against English rule in 1595–1603 and 1641-1653 and then the 1689-91 Williamite Wars caused much Irish land to be confiscated by the Crown, which was then sold to people who were thought loyal, most of whom were English and Protestant. English soldiers and traders became the new ruling class, as its richer members were elevated to the Irish House of Lords and eventually controlled the Irish House of Commons (see Plantations of Ireland).

This process was facilitated and formalized in the legal system after 1691 by the passing of various Penal Laws, which discriminated against the property rights of the leading families of the majority Catholic population, and the non-conforming ("Dissenter") Protestant denominations such as Presbyterians, where they :
* had revolted against the government and
* had not sworn allegiance to William and Mary under the 1691 Treaty of Limerick.

However, those protected by the Treaty were still excluded from public political life.

The situation was confused by the policy of the Tory party in England and Ireland after 1688. They were Protestants who generally supported the Catholic Jacobite claim, and came to power briefly in London in 1710-14. Also in 1750 the main Catholic Jacobite heir, Bonny Prince Charlie, converted to Anglicanism for a time, but had converted back to Roman Catholicism again by his father's death in 1766.

The son of James II of England, James Francis Edward Stuart (the Old Pretender), was recognised by the Holy See as the legitimate monarch of the Kingdom of England, Kingdom of Scotland, and the separate Kingdom of Ireland until his death in January 1766, and Catholics were morally obliged to support him. This provided the main political excuse for the new laws, but it was not entirely exclusive as there was no law against anyone converting to Protestantism. Thousands did so, as recorded on the "Convert Rolls", and this allowed for the successful careers of Irishmen such as that of William Conolly, but the majority decided not to convert.

Among the forms of discrimination now faced by Catholics and Dissenters under the Penal Laws were:

* Exclusion of Catholics from most public offices (since 1607), Presbyterians were also barred from public office from 1707.
* Ban on intermarriage with Protestants (repealed 1778)
* Presbyterian marriages were not legally recognised by the state
* Catholics barred from holding firearms or serving in the armed forces (rescinded by Militia Act of 1793)
* Bar from membership in either the Parliament of Ireland or the Parliament of Great Britain from 1652; rescinded 1662-1691; renewed 1691-1829.
* Disenfranchising Act 1728, exclusion from voting until 1793;
* Exclusion from the legal professions and the judiciary; repealed (respectively) 1793 and 1829.
* Education Act 1695 - ban on foreign education; repealed 1782.
* Bar to Catholics entering Trinity College Dublin; repealed 1793
* On a death by a Catholic, a legatee could benefit by conversion to the Church of Ireland
* Popery Act- Catholic inheritances of land were to be equally subdivided between all an owner's sons
* Ban on converting from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism
* Ban on Catholics buying land under a lease of more than 31 years; repealed 1778.
* Ban on custody of orphans being granted to Catholics
* Ban on Catholics inheriting Protestant land
* Prohibition on Catholics owning a horse valued at over £5 (in order to keep horses suitable for military activity out of the majority's hands)
* Roman Catholic lay priests had to register to preach under the Registration Act 1704, but seminary priests and bishops were not able to do so until the 1770s.
* When allowed, new Catholic churches were to be built from wood, not stone, and away from main roads.
* 'No person of the popish religion shall publicly or in private houses teach school, or instruct youth in learning within this realm'; repealed in 1782. []

As a result, political, legal, and economic power resided with the Ascendancy to the extent that by the mid-eighteenth century, though a small fraction of the population, 95% of the land of Ireland was calculated to be under minority Protestant control. Some 9% of this land belonged to formerly-Catholic landlords who had converted to the state religion.

Act of Union

effectively gave Grattan a military force, and he was able to force Britain to concede a greater amount of self-rule to the Ascendancy.

The parliament repealed most of the Penal Laws in 1771–1793 but did not abolish them. Grattan sought Catholic Emancipation for the catholic middle classes from the 1780s, but could not persuade a majority of the Irish MPs to support him. Following the forced recall of the liberal Lord Fitzwilliam in 1795 by conservatives, parliament was effectively abandoned as a vehicle for change, giving rise to the United Irishmen - liberal elements across religious, ethnic, and class lines who began to plan for armed rebellion. The resulting and largely Protestant-led Irish Rebellion of 1798 was conducted and crushed with vicious brutality; the Act of Union of 1801 was passed partly in response to a perception that the bloodshed was provoked by the misrule of the Ascendancy, and partly from the expense involved.

In the opinion of professional historians, the Ascendancy ended with the closing of the Dublin parliament in 1801, but it became a convenient expression to denote areas of life where a small minority of Church of Ireland members still had unique legal advantages, such as sitting in the London parliament (until 1829) or the tithe support for their church which was levied on most landowners.


The abolition of the Irish parliament was followed by economic decline in Ireland, and widespread emigration from among the ruling class to the new centre of power in London, which increased the number of absentee landlords. The reduction of legalized discrimination with the passage of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 meant that the Ascendancy now faced competition from prosperous Catholics in parliament and in the higher-level professional ranks such as the judiciary and the army that were needed in the growing British Empire. From 1840 corporations running towns and cities in Ireland became more democratically elected; previously they were dominated until 1793 by guild members who had to be Protestants.

Great famine 1845-49

The festering sense of native grievance was magnified by the horrors of the Irish Famine of 1845-52, with many of the Ascendancy perceived as absentee landlords whose agents were shipping food overseas, protected by the British establishment, while much of the population starved. About 12% of the population died or emigrated. The Encumbered Estates Act of 1849 was needed to allow landlords to sell mortgaged land; many went bankrupt as their tenants could not pay any rent due to the famine. [ [ Encumbered Estates Act detail] ] Some 5,000,000 over-mortgaged acres were sold to new landlords by 1857, some of whom were Catholic merchants. This area comprised a quarter of the entire land area of Ireland which is just over 20 million acres.

Land War

As a consequence, the remnants of the Ascendancy were gradually displaced during the 19th and early 20th centuries through impoverishment, bankruptcy, the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869, and finally the Irish Land Acts, which legally allowed the sitting tenants to buy their land. Some typical "Ascendancy" land-owning families like the Marquess of Headfort and the Earl of Granard had by then converted to Catholicism, and a considerable number of Protestant Nationalists had already taken their part in Irish history. A survey of the 4,000 largest landlords in 1872 revealed that already 43% were Roman Catholics, 48% were Church of Ireland, 7% were Presbyterians, and 2% unknown. [ [;col1 Perry Curtis paper, 2003] ]

Arguably the term "Protestant Ascendancy" was used from 1879-90 in the Land War and the Plan of Campaign as an emotive term in what was really an economic dispute. The government-sponsored Land Commission then bought up a further 13 million acres of farmland between 1885 and 1920 where the freehold was assigned under mortgage to tenant farmers and farm workers. Given the violent aspects of the Land war most remaining landowners were glad to sell up unless they were active farmers.

National movement

With the Protestant yeoman class now driven out by a newly rising "Catholic Ascendancy", the dozens of remaining Protestant lords were left isolated within the Catholic population. Local government was democratised by the Act of 1898, passing many local powers to councillors who were usually supportive of nationalism. The final phase of the decline of the Ascendancy occurred during the Anglo-Irish War, when some of the remaining Protestant landlords were either assassinated and/or had their country homes burned down by the Irish Republican Army. Nearly 300 stately homes of the old landed class were burned down, hundreds of Protestant and Catholic tenants who remained loyal to the landowners were murdered, and dozens of Protestant landlords were assassinated. The campaign spread to the cities and was stepped up by the Anti-Treaty IRA during the subsequent Irish Civil War (1922-23), who targeted some remaining wealthy and influential Protestants who had accepted nominations as Senators in the new Seanad of the Irish Free State.

Northern Ireland

An unplanned outcome of the Irish nationalist movement was the enactment of Home Rule for Northern Ireland in 1920, where the new and democratically elected ruling class was comprised mainly of the Protestant landed gentry, despite the area having an industrial economy. This gave the term "ascendancy" a renewed but localised lease of life into the twentieth century, until direct rule from London was re-imposed in 1972. Its first Prime Minister Sir James Craig commented in 1934::"All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State." [Northern Ireland House of Commons Official Report, Vol 34 col 1095. Sir James Craig, Unionist Party, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, 24 April 1934.]

Artistic role

Long before the independence of most of Ireland in 1922, the formerly-landed Ascendancy had lost any real political influence and those who remained comprised a small, isolated, landed minority in their own land. By now their involvement had passed to literary and artistic matters, with Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats starting the important Celtic Revival and followed by authors such as Hubert Butler and Elizabeth Bowen.


ee also

*Orange Institution
*Plantations of Ireland

Further reading

* Claydon, Tony and McBride, Ian (Editors). Protestantism and National Identity: Britain and Ireland, c. 1650-c. 1850. Cambridge University Press, January 1, 1999. ISBN 0-521620775
* Gregg, Reverend Tresham Dames. Protestant Ascendancy vindicated, and national regeneration, through the instrumentality of national religion, urged; in a series of letters to the Corporation of Dublin. 1840.
* McCormack, W. J. The Dublin Paper War of 1786-1788: A Bibliographical and Critical Inquiry Including an Account of the Origins of Protestant Ascendancy and Its 'Baptism’ in 1792. Irish Academic Press, December 1993. ISBN 0-716525054

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