Antonia Fraser on Emancipation

A Book Review by Frank O’Shea

Antonia Fraser:THE KING AND THE CATHOLICS. The fight for rights 1829. Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2018. 319 pp

RRP: €14.88 (price from Kennys.ie)

ISBN978 1 4746 0966

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On the cover of this book, we are told that its author Antonia Fraser ‘… has few equals as a storyteller.’ The surprising thing is that she manages to make an engrossing story about what many might regard as a dry, academic topic: the granting of Catholic Emancipation in 1829.

At school, we often wondered what the fuss was about, why our syllabus regarded the event as so important: this book certainly explains why it was significant. Among other things, Catholics, at the time, could not sit in the Westminster parliament where, after 1801, legislation on all matters to do with Ireland was drafted, discussed and enacted. English Catholics were given some concessions in the Relief Act of 1778, resulting in what became known as the Gordon Riots, regarded as the worst that London ever experienced before or since.

Most of those small improvements for English Catholics did not apply to Ireland and, after the Act of Union, there were half a dozen attempts to give relief to Irish Catholics. These efforts were initially rebuffed when presented to the House of Commons; later attempts were approved, only for resulting bills to be turned down by the House of Lords. Protestant bishops sat in the Lords and voted against on every occasion, as did most of the non-clerical Lords. The word ‘Popery’ was heard in both houses as much as in the streets: in any public discussion, opponents had only to raise the image of the Pope to be assured of strident support.

However, the main obstacle was the resistance of King George III, who regarded any change as contrary to his Oath; his ‘madness’ was exacerbated if not caused in the first place by how seriously he took the matter. His successor George IV was equally sure that if he were to sign any bill allowing a change, he would be violating his oath.

In Ireland, the main advocate for change was Daniel O’Connell and it was only after he was elected to the House of Commons as member for Clare that the issue became critical. But his election would have been little more than a futile gesture had not the cause of Emancipation been taken up with some seriousness by Home Secretary Robert Peel, previously one of its most fervent opponents, and the newly created Prime Minister Arthur Wellesly, Duke of Wellington. The most engrossing part of the story is the success of the hero of Waterloo in persuading George IV to sign the bill. Even then, there were petty tricks to try to keep O’Connell out of the Commons and he had to go to another election which he won easily.

This is a completely engrossing read, made only slightly awkward by the multitude of references to titled grandees – what is the order of priority, for example, between Duke, Earl, Baron and Marquess? The Royal Family is also confusing and the book might have benefited by a genealogy. Here is my best effort at untangling: George III had 15 children and no mistresses; he was succeeded by two of his three oldest sons George IV and William IV; however, they had no ‘legitimate’ children, so the next in line was the only ‘legitimate’ offspring of his second son Frederick who had died before he could become king – that was the 18-year old Victoria.

In the book, we meet the opinions of writers like Wordsworth, Southey and Walter Scott – all against – and Byron, Shelley and Thomas Moore who were all supportive of change. Grattan is given due credit, but the hero is O’Connell.

It is possible to say with certainty that O’Connell’s charismatic character, his decisions, his gifts and the use he chose to make of them, his attitude to apparently insuperable obstacles, entitles him to emerge as one of the chief heroes of the fight for Emancipation.

A completely satisfying account of events that show how the idealism of people like Grattan and O’Connell combined with the practical politics of Peel and Wellington to arrive at an outcome that saved England from world ridicule and Ireland from almost certain civil strife.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tintean collective.

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