Eighteenth Century Ireland: The Long Peace

Matthew Kelly writes: The Protestant victories at Boyne, Aughrim and Limerick were pivotal to the establishment of what is usually referred to as Ascendancy Ireland, a system of oligarchic government based on an Anglo-Irish class of landowners. ‘Anglo-Irish’ has complex and shifting meanings, but we can take it to describe an elite landed class descended largely from 16th-century settlers of English origin who worshipped as Anglicans. This caste included neither the Scots Presbyterians associated with the Ulster Plantation of 1606-9 nor the Cromwellian footsoldiers who received land for service after the conquest of Ireland in 1649-53. Two further striking demographic facts: between 1600 and 1700, the proportion of Ireland’s population that were settlers of Scots or English descent rose from 2 per cent to 27 per cent; during the same period, the proportion of profitable land in Catholic ownership fell from 90 per cent to 5 per cent.

Confiscation and settlement alone, however, did not secure the Ascendancy. As Ian McBride emphasises, the Franco-Jacobite threat was temporarily removed in 1713, when France recognised the Protestant succession as part of the Treaty of Utrecht. Paving the way for the Anglo-French alliance of 1716-31, Utrecht allowed the consolidation of Hanoverian power. At the same time, Protestant ascendancy was strengthened by the development of the Penal Laws. Popularly known as the ‘popery laws’ and enacted primarily between the 1690s and the 1720s, these were a comprehensive but not systematic attempt to destroy the military, religious, economic and political foundations of Catholic Ireland.