‘Rumours of War’: the Catholic Agitation, 1791–3

Part of the Studies in Modern History book series (SMH)


Between 1783, when it was raised by certain Volunteer reformers, and 1829, when emancipation was finally won, the catholic question remained the central issue in Irish politics. The ‘question’ concerned the admission of catholics to, or put the other way, the continued exclusion of catholics from, the political nation. The political nation, the ‘Protestant Ascendancy’ as it was defined in response to the catholic agitation in 1792, rested on legal exclusivity. The repeal of those penal laws which related to political, as distinct from civil or property, rights, would therefore, many believed, endanger the state itself. The catholic question thus raised issues of first principle and of the first importance. It is not surprising that when the question was re-opened in the summer of 1791 (and again at the start of 1795) it produced a sharp reaction from the ascendancy. This conflict is the theme which runs through the whole political history of the 1790s. Catholic agitation provoked a crisis in Anglo-Irish relations in 1791–3. 1792 witnessed rumours of civil war. Catholic politics proved the undoing of a lord lieutenant, Fitzwilliam, in 1795. Nor is it too much of an exaggeration to describe the unrelenting violence and the expanding clandestine organisation which followed Fitzwilliam’s recall and led to rebellion as a continuation of the catholic question by other means. Any account of Irish politics in the 1790s, popular or otherwise, must come to terms with the politics of catholic emancipation. And in the history of the 1790s, indeed in the history of the struggle for emancipation generally, 1792 stands out as the critical year.


French Revolution Parliamentary Debate Grand Jury General Politics Popular Politicisation 
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Copyright information

© Jim Smyth 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Notre DameUSA

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