An Emancipation Election: (Louth, 1826)

Article excerpt

The 1826 Louth election was one of a handful in Ireland in which the Catholic Association first demonstrated its electoral muscle, by successfully mobilizing the Catholic electors against their Protestant landlords in support of a pro-emancipation candidate. The threat of similar victories across the country was dramatically brought home by Daniel O'Connell's triumph in the 1828 county Clare by-election, and this played a key role in persuading the Wellington ministry to pass Catholic emancipation in 1829.

Politics in Louth, the smallest county in Ireland, had for many years been dominated by the landowning families of the earls of Roden and John Foster (Lord Oriel), the last speaker of the Irish parliament. At the 1826 general election it was widely expected that their nominees--hitherto staunch opponents of allowing Catholics to hold public office--would as usual be returned for the county's two seats without any opposition.

A week before the election, however, a local 'liberal Protestant', Alexander Dawson, was persuaded by Catholic activists to stand as a pro-emancipation candidate. Addressing the electors from his modest farm, he urged the Catholic freeholders to 'rescue' the county from its 'hereditary bondage' and elect him free of expense.

Encouraged by reports that the leading Irish agitator Daniel O'Connell would assist Dawson in person, Sir Patrick Bellew, a wealthy Catholic landowner, volunteered to chair his committee and donated 240 [pounds sterling]. Support from other 'respectable' Catholics quickly followed and within a few days over 2,500 [pounds sterling] had been subscribed.

In the event it was not O'Connell but his talented associate Richard Sheil who arrived to spearhead the campaign. In a speech that 'astonished all parties', delivered outside Dundalk chapel after Sunday mass, he likened the claim by Irish landlords to direct their tenants' votes to their feudal claim to take a tenant's daughter 'to his own bed' on her wedding night: 'I tell you that your landlords have no more right to ask you to vote against your religion and your conscience, than they have to ask you for the virginity of your children' (loud cheers).

The ensuing contest, recorded a local diarist, was 'decidedly Papist against Protestant ... The Catholic priests ... harangue the freeholders ... and tell them if they vote for Dawson their souls will be saved, but if they oppose him, they will be damned'. Oriel's candidate, John Leslie Foster, later informed Peel, the home secretary, that:

'Very many Protestants were forced to vote against me by threats of assassination or having their houses burnt. …