The Union

The Union

In Brief

Twice in close succession in Nestor Mr. Deasy refers to "the union," one of the most consequential and contentious events of Irish history, and twice he makes false claims about it, undermining his proudly unionist politics. The term refers to the legislative act of 1800 by which the Irish Parliament in Dublin was dissolved and government of the island transferred to the British Parliament in Westminster, effective 1 January 1801. The Union, which remains in force today in Northern Ireland, was an unmitigated disaster for the city of Dublin.

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Deasy's claim that "the orange lodges agitated for repeal of the union twenty years before O'Connell did" is misleading at best. The Lodges, which were dedicated to British rule and to Protestant domination of Catholics, did strongly oppose the Union at first, but they quickly became rabid supporters. The other claim—"I am descended from sir John Blackwood who voted for the union....He voted for it and put on his topboots to ride to Dublin from the Ards of Down to do so"—is simply false. Sir John was hurrying to Dublin to vote no.

Catholics lacked the vote in the 1790s, and the Irish Parliament in Dublin was stuffed with Protestant aristocrats and landholders. Nevertheless, the ideal of an independent and inclusive Ireland appealed to many Protestants of the time—even in Ulster, as is clearly demonstrated by the ecumenical orientation of the United Irishmen and its eventual commitment to rebellion. Additionally, the Grattan Constitution of 1782 had given the Irish Parliament a large measure of independence, and many of its members were reluctant to vote their body out of existence and cede power to Westminster. But the British government was determined to consolidate control of the island after the 1798 rebellion, and it resorted to bribery on a massive scale, including promises of peerages to members who would switch their votes. The first vote in 1799 (the one that Sir John died trying to attend) failed. The second one, in 1800, succeeded.

The Act of Union repeated the process that had united Scotland with England in a "United Kingdom" in 1707. That union proved more beneficial for Scotland than the Irish one did for the Irish, but it was enacted by similarly disgraceful means. Scottish legislators were bribed so massively that Robert Burns could write,

The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valour's station.
But English gold has been our bane.
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

The 1800 legislation bequeathed to Ireland a legacy of bitter contention between unionists and nationalists that was not completely resolved even by the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922. As for the magnificent Parliament building in which the votes were taken, in 1802 it was sold to the Bank of Ireland after the legislation made it useless. Gifford notes that it was sold "with the stipulation that the chamber of the House of Commons be altered so that it could not be used as a place for public discussion and debate," and it remains a bank today. The conversion into a banking establishment is apt, Parliament having been, according to another line of the Burns song, "bought and sold for English gold." (In Wandering Rocks Ned Lambert refers to the moving of the bank from its old headquarters near St. Mary's Abbey, telling Reverend Love that "the old bank of Ireland was over the way till the time of the union.")

If the Bank of Ireland stood as a striking symbol of Ireland's loss of political independence, the rest of Dublin in 1904 offered equally striking visual evidence of the material effects of decommissioning the deliberative body. In Dublin in Bloomtime, Cyril Pearl writes powerfully of the economic impact: "In 1904 Sir Charles Cameron published a horrifying report on the housing of the poor. Nowhere in the world was the contrast between squalor and splendour more acute or the distribution of slums more widespread. 'In most cities,' he wrote, 'the purlieus are in a limited number of districts, but in Dublin they are to be met with everywhere. The lanes at the rear of such fashionable squares and streets as Merrion Square, Fitzwilliam Square, Stephen's Green, Upper Mount Street...are now occupied to a large extent by the poorest classes.' So were many of the former mansions. More than two-fifths of Dublin's 60,000 families—about 100,000 people—lived in single rooms, sometimes as many as ten or twelve people to a room.

"The transition from mansion to tenement was the result of the Act of Union of 1800, which abolished the Irish Parliament and deprived Dublin of its 270 peers, its 300 members of the Commons, and their innumerable hangers-on. (It was estimated that each member of the Lords spent an average of £6,000 a year, and each member of the Commons £2,500.) Until then it had been an elegant, animated European capital—'the seventh city of Christendom,' as Oliver Gogarty was fond of intoning—proud of its culture, its architecture, its hospitality, and its wit. After the Union, paralysis was followed by decay and Dublin declined rapidly to the level of a shabby provincial town, the general depression caused by the Napoleonic war accelerating the process. 'On the last stroke of midnight, December 31,' writes Maurice Craig, Dublin's most eloquent biographer, 'the gaily caparisoned horses turned into mice, the coaches into pumpkins, the silks and brocades into rags, and Ireland was once again the Cinderella among the nations'" (42-44). 

JH 2022
The Irish House of Commons in 1780, painted by Francis Wheatley. The figure addressing the body, in a red coat in the right foreground, is Henry Grattan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The old Irish Parliament building, now a branch of the Bank of Ireland. Source: dspace.ndlr.ie.
Source: Cyril Pearl, Dublin in Bloomtime.