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The Parliament of Ireland (Irish; Parlaimint na hEireann) was a legislature that existed in Dublinmarker from 1297 until 1800. It comprised two chambers: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Lords consisted of members of the Irish peerage, while the Commons was directly elected, albeit on a very restricted franchise.

The main purpose of parliament in the Middle Ages was to approve taxes that were then levied by and for the Lordship of Ireland. Those who would pay the bulk of taxation, the clergy, merchants and landowners, naturally comprised the members.

Over the centuries, the Irish parliament met in a number of locations both inside and outside of Dublinmarker - the first place of definitive date and place was Castledermotmarker, County Kildaremarker on 18 June 1264 some months earlier than the first English Parliament containing elected members. Among its most famous meeting places were Dublin Castlemarker, the Bluecoat School, Chichester House and, its final permanent home, the Irish Parliament Housemarker in College Greenmarker.

Early history

Middle Ages

The Irish Parliament was originally founded in 1297 to represent the Irish and Anglo-Norman population of the Lordship of Ireland. Because most of the Gaelic Irish often refused to swear allegiance to the crown, to respect the authority of the Lordship of Ireland, or to recognise common law, they were officially considered outlaws and were not eligible to either vote or stand for office. However, in the 14th and 15th centuries, shrinking numbers of those loyal to the crown, growing power of landed families, and the increasing inability to carry out judicial rulings, reduced the crown's presence in Ireland. In turn this resulted in considerable numbers of the Anglo-Irish Old English nobility joining the independent Gaelic nobles in asserting their feudal independence. Eventually the crown's power shrank to a small fortified enclave around Dublin known as the Pale. The Parliament thereafter became essentially the forum for the Pale community until the 17th century. Unable to implement and exercise the authority of the Parliament or the Crown's rule outside of this environ, and increasingly under the attack of raids by the Gaelic Irish and independent Anglo-Irish nobles, the Palesmen themselves encouraged the Kings of England to take a more direct role in the affairs of Ireland. Geographic distance, the lack of attention by the crown, and the larger power of the Gaelic Ireland, reduced the Irish Parliament to a mere figurehead. Thus, increasingly worried that the Irish Parliament was essentially being overawed by powerful landed families in Ireland like the Earl of Kildare into passing laws that pursued the agendas of the different dynastic factions in the country, in 1494, the Parliament encouraged the passing of Poynings' Law which subordinated the Irish Parliament to the English one.

Kingdom of Ireland

The role of the Parliament changed after 1541, when Henry VIII declared the Kingdom of Ireland and embarked on the Tudor re-conquest of Ireland. Despite an era which featured royal concentration of power and decreasing feudal power throughout the rest of Europe, King Henry VIII overruled earlier court rulings putting families and lands under attainder and recognised the privileges of the Gaelic nobles thereby expanding the crown's de jure authority. In return for recognising the crown's authority under the new Kingdom of Ireland, the Gaelic-Anglo-Irish lords had their position legalised and were entitled to attend the Irish Parliament as equals under the policy of surrender and regrant. Most members continued to be of English descent. The Protestant Reformation introduced in stages by the Tudor monarchs did not take hold in Ireland, but did not affect the operation of parliament until after the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis of 1570. Many of the Irish Commons had several disputes in Parliament with the crown's authorities over the introduction of Protestantism as the state religion and over paying for the pacification of the countryside. For this reason, in 1613-15, constituencies for the Parliament were changed to allow English and Scottish Protestant colonial representatives to be elected. As a result of these additions to the Parliamentary constituencies, in conjunction with royal supporters in Parliament, the majority of members of the House of Commons thereafter were Protestant. In the House of Lords the Catholic majority ended with the 1634 session. Initially, Roman Catholics were not disbarred from voting, and Catholic lords and MPs continued to sit. However, following the general uprising of the Catholic Irish in the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and the self-established Catholic assemblymarker in 1642-49, Roman Catholics were barred from voting or attending the Parliament altogether in the Cromwellian Act of Settlement 1652.

1688 to 1800

However, following the death of Cromwell and the end of the Protectorate, the Stuarts returned to the throne thereby ending the sectarian divisions relating to parliament. Then, during the reign of James II of England, who had converted to Roman Catholicism, Irish Catholics briefly recovered their pre-eminent position as the crown now favoured their community. When James was overthrown in England, he turned to his Roman Catholic supporters in the Irish Parliament for support. In return for its support during the Williamite war in Ireland (1688-91), a Roman Catholic majority Patriot Parliament of 1689 persuaded James to pass legislation granting it autonomy to and to restore lands confiscated from Catholics in the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. The Jacobite defeat in this war meant that under William III of England, Protestants were returned to a favoured position in Irish society while substantial numbers of Catholic nobles and leaders could no longer sit in parliament unless they took a loyalty oath as agreed under the Treaty of Limerick. Having proven their support for Catholic absolutism by their loyal support for James during the war, and because the Papacy supported the Jacobites after 1693, Irish Catholics increasingly faced discriminatory legislation in the Penal Laws that were passed by the predominantly loyalist and Protestant Parliament from 1695.

Nonetheless, the franchise was still available to Catholics. Until 1728, Catholics voted in House of Commons elections and held seats in the Lords, but in that year another Jacobite uprising against the Protestant throne occurred and following which they were explicitly banned from doing so. Privileges were also mostly limited to supporters of the Church of Ireland. Protestants who did not recognise the state supported Church were also discriminated against in law. Non-conformists such as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Quakers, also had a subservient status in Parliament: after 1707 they could hold seats, but not hold public office. Thus, the new system favoured a new Anglican establishment in Church and State.

By 1728, the remaining nobility was either firmly Protestant or loyal Catholic. The upper classes had dropped most of its Gaelic traditions and adopted the Anglo-French aristocratic values then dominant throughout most of Europe. Much of the old feudal domains of the earlier Anglo-Irish and Gaelic-Irish magnates had been broken up and given to Irish loyalists soldiers, and English and Scottish Protestant colonial settlers. Long under the control of de jure power of magnates, the far larger peasant population had nonetheless under the relatively anarchic and sectarian conditions established a relative independence. Now, the nobility and newly established loyalist gentry could exercise their rights and privileges with more vigour and. Much like England, Wales, and Scotland, the franchise was always limited to the property owning classes which favoured the landed gentry.

The Irish Parliament was left incapable of protecting Irish economic and trade interests from being subordinated to English ones, at a time of English commercial expansion. This in turn severely weakened the economic potential of the whole of Ireland and placed the new and largely Protestant middle-class at a disadvantage. The result was a slow but continual exodus of Anglo-Irish, Scots-Irish, and Protestant Irish families and communities to the colonies, principally in North America. Ironically, the very efforts to establish Anglicans as the primacy in Ireland, slowly subverted the general cause of the Protestant Irish which had been the objective of successive Irish and British Parliaments.

The Anglo-Irish Parliament did assert its independence from London several times however. In the early 18th century it successfully lobbied for Parliament to be called every two years (as opposed to the start of each new reign) and shortly thereafte, it declared itself to be in session permanently, mirroring developments in the English Parliament. As the effects on the general prosperity of the Kingdom by submitting the Irish Parliament to review of the British Parliament became apparent, the Irish Parliament slowly asserted itself, and from the 1770s the Irish Patriot Party began agitating for greater powers relative to the English Parliament. Additionally, later ministries moved to change the Navigation Acts that had limited Irish merchants' terms of trade with Britain and its empire.


After 1707, Irelandmarker was, to varying degrees, subordinate to the Kingdom of Great Britainmarker. The Parliament of Ireland only had control over legislation, while the executive branch of government, under the Lord Lieutenant, answered to the British government in London. Furthermore, the Penal Laws meant that Catholics, who constituted the majority of Irish people, were not permitted to sit in, or participate in, elections to the parliament. Meanwhile, building upon the precedent of Poyning's Law which made the Irish legislature subordinate to the Parliament of Great Britain, new bills were passed by the British Parliament which forbade the Irish parliament from discussing any bill without the British legislature's prior approval.

The effects of this subordination of Irish Parliamentary power soon became evident, as Ireland slowly stagnated economically and the Protestant population shrank in relative size. Additionally, the growing relative wealth of the American colonies, whose local authorities were surprisingly independent of the British Parliament, provided additional ammunition for those who wished to increase Irish Parliamentary power. When the British governments started centralising trade, taxation and judicial review throughout the Empire, the Irish Parliament saw a surprising ally in the American colonies, who were growing increasingly resistant to the British government's objectives. When open rebellion broke out in the American colonies, the Irish Parliament passed several initiatives which showed support for the American grievances.

Fearing another split by Ireland, as rebellion spread through the American colonies and various European powers joined in a global assault on British interests, the British Parliament became more acquiescent to Irish demands. In 1782, following agitation by major parliamentary figures, most notably Henry Grattan, supported by the Patriot movement, the Irish parliament's authority was greatly increased. Under what became known as the Constitution of 1782 the restrictions imposed by Poyning's Law were removed. A little over a decade later, Catholics were given the right to cast votes in elections to the parliament, although they were still debarred from membership.

From 1792 the efforts of Henry Grattan to promote a wider Catholic involvement in politics caused his opponents to declare their support for a continuing Protestant Ascendancy, but this ended with the Act of Union 1801.


The House of Lords was presided over by the Lord Chancellor, who sat on the woolsackmarker, a large seat stuffed with wool from each of the three lands of England, Ireland and Scotland. In the Commons, business was presided over by the Speaker who, in the absence of a government chosen from and answerable to the Commons, was the dominant political figure in the parliament. Speaker Connolly remains today one of the most widely known figures produced by the Irish parliament.

Much of the public ceremonial in the Irish parliament mirrored that of the British Parliament. Sessions were formally opened by the Speech from the Throne by the Lord Lieutenant, who, it was written "used to sit, surrounded by more splendour than His Majesty on the throne of England". The Lord Lieutenant, when he sat on the throne, sat beneath a canopy of crimson velvet. At the state opening, MPs were summoned to the House of Lords from the House of Commons chamber by Black Rod, a royal official who would "command the members on behalf of His Excellency to attend him in the chamber of peers".
Engraving of section of the Irish House of Commons chamber by Peter Mazell based on the drawing by Rowland Omer 1767

Sessions of Parliament drew many of the wealthiest of Ireland's Anglo-Irish elite to Dublin, particularly as sessions often coincided with the social season, (January to 17 March) when the Lord Lieutenant presided in state over state balls and drawing rooms in the Viceregal Apartments in Dublin Castle. Leading peers in particular flocked to Dublin, where they lived in enormous and richly decorated mansions initially on the northside of Dublin, later in new Georgian residences around Merrion Squaremarker and Fitzwilliam Squaremarker. Their presence in Dublin, along with large numbers of servants, provided a regular boost to the city economy.

The Parliament's records were published from the 1750s and provide a huge wealth of commentary and statistics on the reality of running Ireland at the time. In particular, minute details on Ireland's increasing overseas trade and reports from various specialist committees are recorded. By the 1780s they were published by two rival businesses, King & Bradley and Grierson.


In 1801, the Parliament of Ireland was abolished entirely, when the Act of Union created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Irelandmarker and merged the British and Irish legislatures into a single Parliament of the United Kingdommarker.

The union arose from a number of strains in Anglo-Irish relationships. In 1798, British rule in Ireland was shaken by the failed United Irishmen rebellion. The crisis over the 'madness' of King George III produced tension, as both of the King's parliaments in each of his two kingdoms possessed the theoretical right to nominate a regent, without the requirement that they choose the same person. Nonetheless, the situation was resolved when both chose the Prince of Wales.

The result of these tensions was a British government decision that the entire relationship between Britain and Ireland should be fundamentally changed. Constitutionally, it was necessary for the Act of Union to be passed by both the British and Irish parliaments before it could become law. The Irish parliament was therefore effectively asked to vote for its own abolition, strongly opposed by Henry Grattan who campaigned for legislative freedom for the Irish Parliament.

After one failed attempt, the passage of the act in the Irish parliament was finally achieved, albeit with the mass bribery of members of both houses, who were awarded British and United Kingdom peerages and other 'encouragements'. After convening for the final time on 15 January 1800, on 1 January 1801 the Kingdom of Ireland and its parliament ceased to exist. It was the last legislature in Irish history, apart from the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, to have power to legislate for the whole island.

Part of the deal involved the concession of Catholic emancipation, which meant the removal of all remaining discriminatory laws against Catholics and faiths, other than the established Church of Ireland. This had long been resisted by the Irish Parliament. However, following the Union, King George III blocked emancipation, arguing that it conflicted with his coronation oath to uphold the Protestant faith. The Emancipation bill was finally passed in 1829 under the Premiership of the Irish soldier politician and statesman the Duke of Wellington. Daniel O' Connell M.P. was the first elected Irish Catholic member

In the 1830s and 1840s, nationalist leader Daniel O'Connell led an unsuccessful campaign for the repeal of the Act of Union and the restoration of 'Grattan's Parliament'. Those advocating repeal insisted that Catholics be granted the right to sit in any restored parliament.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Unsourced eighteenth century quote used in the Bank of Ireland, College Green, an information leaflet produced by the Bank of Ireland about the Irish Houses of Parliament.
  2. See Cullen, Louis; "An Economic History of Ireland since 1660" (1972)

External reference

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