IT WOULD be fair to say that Ireland has had more than its fair share of rulers, even prior to the establishment of the Parliament of Ireland in 1297.
Despite the existence of that government’s predecessor, the English Parliament, many earls and noblemen still held onto power and continued collecting their own taxes.
The Parliament of Ireland came into existence in Dublin as a result of the English to control the country. In fact, their power had been so well eroded over the years that they controlled very little territory outside the capital. The new government was classified as a legislature, which is a decision-making body. But how much power this parliament had in the beginning is open to question. Still, it was a voice for the people and, to that end, it was useful. It would last until 1800. During that period, many changes were made, but most of these were not by choice, as we will see.
Prior to that, I do not want to ignore the fact that on 18 June 1264 a parliament was declared and its first meeting was held on that day in Castledermot. This event was recently commemorated by the Seanad which, as usual, developed into a full-blown argument, with Sinn Féin challenging minister Jimmy Deenihan by describing it as obscure and claiming it was wrong to call it an Irish parliament. Despite this, Kildare County Council and many other groups also commemorated the event. It certainly deserves its place in our history, as the facts are very clear and available in Trinity College. You can Google chancery.tcd.ie to examine the details. But we have to examine the make-up of this parliament because it was formed by unelected noblemen. Nevertheless, it was called the Irish parliament. Its principal purpose was to regain control of lost rights and take back tax collecting areas from the crown. This took place just months before the first English parliament was formed in this country.
Wars outside Ireland placed a massive demand for finance and manpower on England. This meant Ireland was more or less left to her own devices during the time of the English parliament. The Irish Charter (or Magna Charta Hibernaie) was issued on 12 November 1216 and transmitted to Ireland in 1217. It brought in laws which protected the rights of the Anglo-Normans living in Ireland. The only surviving copy of the charter was found in the Red Book of the Dublin Court of Exchequer. This complete book was lost, along with so much of our precious historical records, when the Four Courts was shelled in June 1922 during the Civil War. As luck would have it, the charter had been recorded in the early Statutes of Ireland (1907) by John Berry and is now a priceless piece, retained and protected under a 2007 act.
Sir John Wogan, a Cambro-Norman (Normans who settled in Wales following the conquest of England in 1066; Strongbow was another Cambro-Norman) judge, served as justiciar (member of the king’s bench) from 1295 to 1313. He founded the parliament in 1297 to represent the Irish and the Anglo-Normans of the Lordship of Ireland (the lord being the King of England), who was represented by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Membership was by fealty (an oath of allegiance to the king), which meant that most of the Irish kings were outside the parliament, which comprised two chambers. One was the House of Commons, which was elected by a very small and select set of voters, while the other was the House Lords. It consisted of Irish bishops (after the Reformation, only Church of Ireland bishops were included) and members of the Irish peerage (these were awarded titles of nobility created by the king or queen). The main purpose of the parliament was to curtail the Irish kings collecting taxes. Instead, the parliament would levy and approve the collection of such taxes for the Lordship of Ireland, the majority of which would be paid by the clergy, landowners and merchants.
The Gaelic kings practically ignored the new parliament and continued to collect taxes under Brehon law (Irish law), which contained the statutes that governed Irish life in medieval times.
The 14th and 15th centuries saw royal support diminish significantly, while the landed families were increasing their powers. This, allied to the fact that a Gaelic resurgence was taking place, was a huge setback to the crown. This led to the Anglo Irish nobility joining the Gaelic nobles in asserting their independence. Soon, the crown was only in charge of what became know as the Pale, which extended northwards from Dublin to Dundalk and to just beyond the border with Wicklow in the south. Even then, the Pale was always under pressure with repeated attacks from the clans – especially the nearby Earls of Kildare – who were now in the ascendancy.
With the Irish parliament crumbling in 1494, it encouraged the passing of Poynings’ Law in 1494, which placed the Irish parliament under the control of the English parliament. Sir Edward Poynings, the lord deputy of Ireland under King Henry VII, called a meeting in Drogheda for 1 December of that year. His target was to once again make Ireland obedient to the crown. This meant Ireland was under direct Tudor rule, even though Henry still had to rely on former English nobilmen to control the country.
In 1542, the Kingdom of Ireland was created under the Crown of Ireland Act. This meant that King Henry VIII the also king of Ireland. Despite the attempts by the native Irish, especially the Catholic Confederation of the 1640s, to bring self-government to Ireland, Poynings’ Law remained in force until the Repeal of Act for Securing Dependence of Ireland Act, 1872, which became law on 17 April that year. This acknowledged the parliament of Ireland to legislate for Ireland and take total control of Irish courts. It also gave practical effect to a series of legislative changes already passed by the parliaments of both Ireland and Britain, which included the amendment of Poynings’ Law. This meant, once again, some Irish parliamentary independence. This initiative was mainly due to the campaigning of Henry Grattan. It became known as Grattan’s Parliament. This period had also seen the Roman Catholic Relief Act in 1791. It gave Catholics the right to vote, although they were still not allowed to hold public office.
June 1798 saw Lord Cornwallis appointed viceroy for Ireland in an attempt by prime minister Pitt to have the union accepted in Ireland, but Cornwallis reported no sense of care for the union. This was less that a month into the rebellion, which began on 24 May and concluded on 24 September.
It saw the end of Grattan’s hard-fought freedom, as the 1798 Rebellion was followed by the ***Acts of Union*** in 1801, which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, merging the legislatures of both into a single parliament of the United Kingdom.
To gain Irish support for the union, prime minister Pitt was aware that Catholic emancipation would carry it. He also knew that Protestants and Presbyterians were against it. When Pitt brought his plan to government, emancipation was not acceptable and was dropped from the proposal.
In the Irish House of Commons, Grattan was vehemently opposed to the union. However, support in both Irish houses was sufficient to ensure the progression of the Acts of Union, which came into effect on 1 January 1801. There were two parts to this piece of legislation: theUnion with Ireland Act of Union 1800, an act of parliament of Great Britain, which was passed on 2 July 1800; and the Act of Union (Ireland) Act 1800, an act of the parliament of Ireland that was passed on 1 August 1800.
These twin acts united the separate kingdoms of Britain and Ireland which, in turn, created the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Although amended, the acts still remain in force in Britain. In Ireland, the Union with Ireland Act 1800 was repealed when the Oireachtas passed the Statute Law Revision Act in 1983, 21 years after the Act of Union (Ireland) Act had been repealed in 1962.
There were many concessions to Ireland in the Union Act. It allowed 100 Irish MPs represent Ireland in the Westminster parliament, as well as 32 lords and 28 peers. The union flag now included a St Patrick’s cross as the Irish section. And this is the flag that is used today.
It is my opinion that despite its frailties and failings, the Act of Union was one of the first indications that there was an end in sight of our bondage to Britain, and although there would be many ups and downs between the act and the treaty that was signed in December 1921, it created a framework for the voices of Irish people, perhaps not totally accepted, but at least being considered. Others may not agree, but I have always been of that opinion. Many things would get in the way of rapid progress, including WWI, but every day drew us closer to a British withdrawal and the foundation of our own government and the first Dáil.
We have to remember, too, that the Act of Union gave Irish MPs more scope to put their home rule bills to parliament. And although they didn’t succeed, there were no reprisals or repercussions.
When patience grew thin and Pearse stood on the steps of the GPO to read the proclamation of independence at the start of the Easter Rising on Sunday 24 April 1916, it was only a matter of time before Britain would have to accept Irish independence. And this came to pass in the 26 counties after the War of Independence. Unfortunately, we also had to suffer a civil war to cement that independence, probably the most bitter part of our history.
The first Dáil was elected on 14 December 1918, in which Sinn Féin won 73 of the 105 seats. This time, no-one sat in Westminster. Instead, the first Dail Éireann or Assembly of Ireland was formed. The first meeting of the first Dáil was held in the Round Room of the Mansion House on 21 January 1919.
So that is the evolution of Irish legislation in all its guises from the beginning to the present day.