Irish Catholics Back Britain in War of Independence; BILLY KENNEDY Looks Back 225 Years, When Protestants and Roman Catholic Attitudes in Ireland to the British Crown Were Radically Different from What They Are Today

The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), November 23, 2001 | Go to article overview

Irish Catholics Back Britain in War of Independence; BILLY KENNEDY Looks Back 225 Years, When Protestants and Roman Catholic Attitudes in Ireland to the British Crown Were Radically Different from What They Are Today


Byline: BILLY KENNEDY

DURING the American Revolutionary War, Sir John de Blacquire presented, on behalf of Roman Catholics in Ireland, an address to King George III in London "abhorring the unnatural rebellion" which had lately broken out among some of the monarch's American subjects.

This may seem odd to many in the Ireland of today for it is somewhat of a paradox that generally Irish Protestant and Roman Catholic attitudes to Britain during the American Revolutionary War were so different from what currently prevails.

Today, almost all of the Protestants (unionists) now back the maintenance of the Union and the overwhelming majority of Roman Catholics (nationalists) seek separation and the setting up of an all-Ireland republic. In the 1770s, attitudes in Ireland were not as clearly defined in the traditional mould.

Interestingly, a large swathe of middle-class Roman Catholic opinion in Ireland, in both the clerical and lay sectors, publicly supported the British war effort in America in the 1770s.

It was the view of many Roman Catholics that the best way to undermine the Penal Laws in vogue against them at the time was to demonstrate that they were more loyal to the Crown than Protestants, particularly non-conformist Presbyterians who moved into Ulster from Scotland in the 17th Scottish Plantation years.

When the War broke out in 1775, a group of influential Roman Catholics in Dublin sent memorials to the British authorities, stating their abhorrence of the Presbyterian rebellion in America and offering to encourage recruitment, even though Roman Catholic enlistment at the time was barred. This group described the American Revolution as an "unnatural rebellion".

In Limerick, Roman Catholic leaders, both clergy and laity, raised half a guinea per volunteer for the first 200 men to enlist in the British Army. In the Co Down town of Newry, Roman Catholic merchants publicly aligned themselves with British interests in quelling the Presbyterian uprising in America. Loyal addresses were also sent to London from Cork, another strongly Roman Catholic city.

This attitude by Irish Roman Catholics was entirely in line with that taken by the Vatican in Rome, where the then Pope in 1760 gave full recognition to British monarch King George III, a High-Church Anglican, on the King's assension to the throne in London.

The fall-out from the aborted Roman Catholic-supported rebellions against the Crown in Scotland in 1715 and 1745 had run its course and both the Irish and Scottish church hierarchies were broadly on track with the established order in the British Isles.

In return for their support in the American War, the British Government provided legal relief for Roman Catholics in Ireland and Scotland, legislation which effectively freed members of this faith from educational, marital and professional disabilities.

Anglicans or members of the Church of Ireland, many of whom held civil positions under the Crown in the administration run from Dublin, were also generally agreeable to the continuance of British interests in the American colonies. Not so the Presbyterians in Ulster! In the Irish cities and towns there was a significant measure of Protestant Whig support for the American Revolution, as was evidenced by referenda conducted among its citizens. Roman Catholics were disenfranchised at the time.

Of course, most of the American Presbyterian revolutionaries, their religion shaped by a radical dissenting form of Protestantism, were not sympathetic to the heirarchal systems of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. Indeed, there was an innate suspicion by some of the revolutionary leaders in Pennsylvania of the Roman Catholic Church and its monolithic, perceived all-pervading traditions.

Some historians claim a major context of the American Revolution was Protestant colonialist fears over the Quebec Act of 1774 which recognised Roman Catholicism in the Canadian Province and extended Quebec territory to the Ohio River. …

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