How Did the British Hurt the Irish During the 19th Century?

The Irish Famine killed a million people in five years.

Irish and British history are inseparable from each other, and some of the events of the 1800s continue to influence Irish society today. Following the 1801 Act of Union, the entire island of Ireland was administered as part of the United Kingdom for more than a century, though an increasingly vocal movement argued for Irish independence. The constitutional position did not change until 1921, when the island was partitioned into Northern Ireland, which stayed within the United Kingdom, and the Irish Free State, which governed itself.

1 Penal Laws

The Penal Laws, or Popery Laws as they are now called, discriminated against Catholics in Irish life. First brought in during the 1690s, the laws aimed to prevent Catholics from owning land or playing any part in Irish politics. Although most had been repealed by the end of the 18th century, Catholics were still excluded from parliament and from some higher public offices. A lengthy 30-year campaign eventually forced the government to pass the Roman Catholic Relief Bill in 1829, and the following year Daniel O’Connell became the first Catholic elected to Westminster Parliament in the modern era.

2 Famine

The British did not cause the Irish Famine, but their reaction to it increased its impact. A potato fungus devastated the harvest between 1846 and 1851, during which time an estimated million people died of starvation and disease. The British government allowed food exports from Ireland to continue during this time, and implemented a large scale soup kitchen scheme for just six months. The government also failed to prevent landlords from evicting their starving tenants and instead allowed the British public to believe that the Irish themselves were responsible for their dire situation due to their lack of self-reliance.

3 Land Reform

Before 1880, most Irish farmers were tenants, working land owned by a wealthy landlord. Landlords owned an estimated 97 percent of Irish farmland in 1870. Many were absentee landlords who lived elsewhere in Ireland or in Great Britain. Tenants had few rights and often no formal lease agreement; they could be evicted or have their rent payments increased at any moment. The British government did not move to strengthen tenants’ rights until forced to by a campaign fronted by the newly formed Land League, which organized mass meetings while riots and even assassinations also took place. The resultant 1881 Land Law (Ireland) Act created a commission to adjudicate on tenant issues.

4 Blocking Home Rule

The British government’s blocking of the Home Rule bills put before it in 1886 and 1893 polarized Irish politics. The issue of Home Rule, or allowing Ireland a more significant say in its own government, divided Unionists and Nationalists in Ireland and led to civil unrest. Sectarian rioting in Belfast linked to the First Home Rule Bill was “probably the worst episode of violence in Ireland in the 19th century,” say Gillian M. Doherty and Tomas O’Riordan of University College Cork. These years and their legacy were part of the buildup that led to the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912, when two rival paramilitary groups -- the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers -- stood ready to fight each other on the eve of World War I.

Rita Kennedy is a writer and researcher based in the United Kingdom. She began writing in 2002 and her work has appeared in several academic journals including "Memory Studies," the "Journal of Historical Geography" and the "Local Historian." She holds a Ph.D. in history and an honours degree in geography from the University of Ulster.