Irish Sectarianism

This essay will detail and consider the sectarianism and discrimination that existed in Ireland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as it related to Irish Catholics and the Protestant hierarchy that had been imposed upon them by the English. Sectarianism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the “The sectarian spirit; adherence or excessive attachment to a particular sect or party, especially in religion; hence often, adherence or excessive attachment to, or undue favouring of, a particular ‘denomination”; this was certainly quite evident in Ireland during this period. It also emerged in the Australian Colonies during that time due to the disproportionately high number of Irish Catholic convicts that were transported there and the unjust political and social systems that followed them to the new continent. This embodied repression, lower living and health conditions, social and religious discrimination and economic inequity.


The fourth census of Great Britain in 1831 was the first one to include Ireland and so probably offers the first comprehensive study of Ireland’s demographics. It was the earliest official detailed assessment of Ireland’s population and, at less than 50 years after the First Fleet, was the closest breakdown to the arrival of British in Australia. There was little in that half-century between the First Fleet and the census that would have significantly altered Ireland’s population, although Irish society would certainly change in the subsequent decade, so the figures in the 1831 census were probably quite similar to what would have existed in late eighteenth century Ireland.


According to this census, Ireland’s religious composition was highly Catholic with approximately 80.3% being Catholic, 10.7% Church of Ireland and 8.1% Presbyterian. Although overwhelming Catholic, religious divisions were not uniformly dispersed, which only intensified sectarianism; a more evenly distributed sectarian breakdown with Catholics consistently dominant might have resulted in (perhaps ironically) a less polarised and divided Irish society. North-eastern Ireland was especially polarised and sectarian differences especially rife due to the extreme concentration of Protestants, with 96% of all Irish Presbyterians being located in Ulster and 56% of Anglicans also in Ulster (the remainder being more generally dispersed throughout Ireland). The Protestants had been transplanted from Scotland and England, and their power was, in addition, a result of both their greater numbers and the support of the British state. The counties in question were Antrim, Down, Armagh and Londonderry, which all had Catholic minorities, and Fermanagh and Tyrone, which had almost equal amount of Catholics and Protestants. Because of earlier migrations from Scotland and England, The population of Ireland was, of course, dramatically affected by the Famine, with the Catholics experiencing a significantly greater number of deaths than the Protestants, and therefore invariably also suffering an even greater loss of political and social influence.


Prior to this tragedy, though, in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, the larger number of native Irish Catholics, likely closely matching the figures in the 1831 census, would have probably been unnerving to the British authorities and minority Anglo-Irish elites; these elites certainly acted as if this were the case, given their implementation of harsh and repressive measures of control that incorporated both political and economic elements, against the majority native Irish Catholic population.


The first economic sanctions against the Irish Catholics occurred during the late Seventeenth Centuries, in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish wars of 1641 and 1688 which had been quite catastrophic for the Catholic population. At the end of both of these conflicts, Catholics suffered significant confiscations of land to the benefit of Protestants which were formalised in the Limerick Treaty. At the end of the Seventeenth Century, 95 % of what had been Irish Catholic holdings had been lost to Protestants. This newly acquired property then had to be protected, probably adding to the insecurity of Protestants and subsequently to the intensity of the measures directed against Catholics (Arkins, T 1912, p. 514; McGrath, CI 1996, p.33).


The primary instrument of the Anglo-Protestant repression in the face of this insecurity were probably the Penal Laws, which were an ad hoc assemblage of statutes targeting Catholics on several different fronts. For instance, access to education was an early target, with a 1694 bill designed to restrict Catholics from accessing foreign education; this complemented even earlier, unrelated efforts such as had been introduced in 1666 by the Act of Uniformity and during the 1670s when clergy proclamations were banned. (McGrath, CI 1996, p.42). These had the effect of removing foreign threats to Protestant interests and offering inducements for Catholics to covert to Protestantism.


Another law was directed towards the ‘rapparees’, who were the Catholics who had previously been the land-holders and who attempted to strike back at those who took their land. The initial statutes passed to control Catholics included both incentives like the Act of 1703 which allowed for preferential treatment in the inheritance or gaining control of family land for Catholic aristocrats who converted to Protestantism, or ‘conformed’, and disincentives like the harsh Act of 1707 that threatened transportation to Catholics who were vagrant around estates and who claimed to be ‘gentlemen’ (Arkins, T 1912, p. 515). Other laws limited the right of Catholics to purchase land and prevented them from becoming game-keepers (Arkins, T 1912, p. 516). Catholics lost their right to vote in 1727 (Arkins, T 1912, p. 520). These changes had significant detrimental effects upon the productivity of the land, ultimately leading to less food for the poor (Arkins, T 1912, p. 521). Fortunately, though, the anti-Catholic measures under the Penal Laws had eased towards the end of the Eighteenth Century, but, even so, the results of the Penal Laws, particularly with respect to the loss of property, were largely unreversed. This very likely would have had exacerbated the disasters that hit Ireland in the following century.


Beyond this, social conditions were also disadvantageous towards Catholics, with pervasive anti-Catholic attitudes existing in both Anglo and Scottish communities, and especially within the establishment. Catholicism was associated with moral depravity and corruption (Hill, Jacqueline R 1988, p.113.) and consequently the plight Catholics did not invoke much sympathy, particularly at the higher levels of society. This antipathy was primarily targeted at ‘the lower classes and their attachment to the Priesthood. David Hume, for instance, believed Irish Catholic religious excess, as prompted by their Priests, was superlatively cruel (Hill, Jacqueline R 1988, p.111). Ferdinando Warner, in his book History of Ireland, contended a viewpoint that was equally hostile towards ‘lower-class Papists’ who were under the sway of Priests and that this was significantly holding Ireland back (Hill, Jacqueline R 1988, p.112, 113).


The last proper statute under the Penal Laws was passed in 1756 (Cullen Louis 1986 p. 25) and so, towards the end of the Eighteenth Century, the situation for Irish Catholics appeared to be improving and the repressive policies directed at them were being eased. By the 1790s, this trend had reached the point where they were being granted important, specifically in the Catholic Relief Acts of 1792 and 1793, which respectively provided them with the right to vote, to be armed and to be admitted to the legal profession. These positive developments, however, inspired Protestant retaliation that strongly undermined the effect of these changes (Hill, Jacqueline R 1988, p.125). Protestant views toward Catholics became notably more disparaging with Catholics seen as a notable threat to Ireland’s, and England’s, security, prosperity and liberty. This attitude became especially apparent after the 1800 Act of Union to merge Ireland and Great Britain, when the idea of the ‘beleaguered Protestant’ strongly emerged within the Irish hierarchy, as well in Britain, and this blocked additional reforms to discriminatory laws from that point on. (Hill, Jacqueline R 1988, p.127; Cullen, Louis 1986, pp. 24, 25).


In the face of such measures, Irish Catholics unsurprisingly turned quite restive, resulting in a few rebellions in 1798 and 1803 (Hill Jacqueline 2001, pp.61, 62). These actions were obviously unsuccessful and participants were punished and punishment included penal transportation to Australia; such political prisoners constituted a major portion of those sent to the Australian colonies after 1798, in contrast to the Irish prisoners transported between 1791 and 1794 who were probably predominantly urban criminals (Reece, Bob and University of London. Australian Studies Centre 1987, p.8; Hughes, Robert 2009, p.181).


The military and civilian administrators overseeing the convicts, who were predominantly Irish, came from sectors of the government and society that had become decidedly anti-Irish Catholic over the last few decades, and likewise many of the Irish convicts were transported for activities against the state, and, probably like convicts in general, had a similarly poor attitude toward the British authorities. As a result, the degree of sectarianism that arose in Australia was almost unavoidable and it is clear that the prejudices evident in the ruling classes in Ireland and Great Britain were equally transported to the Australian colonies.


One of the first to publish a severe judgment against the Irish in the Australian colonies was Captain David Collins, who had an Anglo-Irish background and who was serving in the army. He referred to the Irish convicts as not deserving “the appellation of men”; in other words that they were not to be even considered as men (Hughes, Robert 2009, p.188). Far more extreme, though, were the views of the Reverend Samuel Marsden wrote in his report of 1807 about transported convicts to the London Missionary Society:


“The number of Catholic convicts is very great in the Settlement,

and these in general composed of the lowest class of the Irish

nation, who are the most wild, ignorant and savage race that were

ever favoured with the light of civilisation, men that have been

familiar with robberies, murders and every horrid crime from their

infancy. The low Irish convicts are an extraordinary race of beings,

their minds are depraved beyond all conception, and their whole

thoughts are employed on mischief.” (Whitaker, Anne-Maree 1994, p.36)


The Reverend Marsden was also highly responsible for in keeping Catholic Priests out of the New South Wales colony, on the basis that if the Mass were tolerated, “the colony would be lost to the British Empire within the year.” In 1812, he also wrote: “We have now cleared the colony of all the Catholic Priests, have schools established in almost every district so that the rising generation will be brought up in the principles of the Protestant religion.” (Campion Edmund 1987, p.12).


These concerns extended all the way up to the highest levels of the Colony, with Governor King who, in a despatch he sent to Lord Hobart on 9 May, 1803, wrote: “I believe it will be admitted that no description of people are so bigoted to their religion and Priests as the lower order of the Irish, and such is their credulous ignorance that an artful Priest may lead them to every action that is either good or bad. The number of this description now in the Colony is more than a fourth of the inhabitants. They have frequently felt uneasy at being excluded from excising their religion, which has been heightened by the idea of having Priests among them who are forbid preaching to them.” (Australia. Parliament. Library Committee 1914-1925, p 83).


With, as Governor King indicated, the Irish Catholic prisoners, constituting over 25% of the population and with them being prevented from fully practising their religion, fears about convict agitation were hardly unreasonable, although when the inevitable revolt did occur in the following year, it was not serious as it might have been. The February1804 rebellion was short-lived, due to poor planning and the presence of an informer. The intention was to capture the insufficiently guarded and out-of-the-way settlement of Castle Hill, gather up the weapons there, join up with convicts in Parramatta and then march to Sydney. They gathered weapons, but also alcohol and looted properties as they made their way to Parramatta. The colony’s authorities became aware of this march and sent the Rum Corp to confront them. The rebels were quickly routed and their effort fizzled. (Hughes, Robert 2009, pp.190-193).


This tepid rebellion certainly had no serious negative effect upon the endurance of the convict transportation and system which last for nearly above four decades in New South Wales and longer elsewhere. It was also not the last one to be planned. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser newspaper reported, in 1807, that another ‘insurrection’ which it described as ‘most atrocious and wicked’ had been contemplated. The ringleaders were labelled as “Irish Prisoners who had artfully instilled into the minds of their Countrymen a certainty of taking the Country” (1807-2-22-The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser-Postscript, p.2). Clearly Irish convicts were at least perceived as being the primary threat to the Colony amongst the convicts and there was significant ill-feeling.


The memories of this, however, on both sides did not fade and almost certainly would have greatly intensified the sectarianism that was ingrained within the nature of the settlement and which lingered throughout the remainder of the century.









Arkins, T 1912, ‘The Penal Laws and Irish Land’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 514-523.


Australia. Parliament. Library Committee 1914-1925, Historical records of Australia. Series 1,Governors’ despatches to and from England, vol. 4, 1803-June, 1804, Sydney.


Campion Edmund 1987, Australian Catholics, Viking, Ringwood.


Cullen, Louis 1986, ‘Catholics Under the Penal Laws’, Eighteenth-Century Ireland, vol. 1, pp. 23-36.


Hill, Jacqueline 2001, ‘Irish Identities Before and After the Act of Union’, Radhare, vol. 2, pp. 51-73.


Hill, Jacqueline R 1988, ‘Popery and Protestantism, Civil and Religious Liberty: The Disputed Lessons of Irish History’, Past and Present, no. 118, pp. 96-129.


Hughes, Robert 2009, The Fatal Shore, Vintage, London.


McGrath, CI 1996, ‘Securing the Protestant Interest: The Origins and Purposes of the Penal Laws of 1695’, Irish Historical Studies, vol. 30, no. 117, pp. 25-46.


Reece, Bob and University of London. Australian Studies Centre 1987, Writing about the Irish in Australia, Australian Studies Centre, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, London.


Whitaker, Anne-Maree 1994, Unfinished Revolution, Crossing Press, Darlinghurst, N.S.W.