Protestant Ascendancy — known simply as the Ascendancy — was
the political, economic and social domination of
Ireland between the
17th century and the early 20th century by a minority of landowners,
Protestant clergy and members of the professions, all members of the
Ireland or the Church of England. The Ascendancy excluded
other groups – widely seen as primarily Roman Catholics, but also
members of the
Presbyterian and other Protestant denominations, along
with non-Christians such as Jews — from politics and high society.
Reform Acts (1832–1928) even the majority of Irish
Protestants were effectively excluded from the Ascendancy, being too
poor to vote. In general, the privileges of the Ascendancy were
resented by Irish Catholics, who made up the majority of the
The gradual dispossession of large holdings belonging to several
hundred native Roman Catholic landowners in
Ireland took place in
various stages from the reigns of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary and
her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I onwards. Unsuccessful revolts
against English rule in 1595–1603 and 1641–53 and then the
Williamite Wars caused much Irish land to be confiscated by
the Crown, and then sold to people who were thought loyal, most of
whom were English and Protestant. English soldiers and traders became
the new ruling class, as its richer members were elevated to the Irish
House of Lords and eventually controlled the Irish House of Commons
(see Plantations of Ireland). This class became collectively known as
From the 1790s the phrase became used by the main two identities in
Ireland: nationalists, who were mostly Catholics, used the phrase as a
"focus of resentment", while for unionists, who were mostly
Protestants, it gave a "compensating image of lost greatness". 
1 Origin of term
2 Penal Laws
2.1 Grattan's parliament
3 Act of Union and decline
3.1 Great famine 1845–52
3.2 Land War
3.3 Nationalist movement
3.4 Northern Ireland
3.5 Artistic and cultural role
4 See also
6 External links
7 Further reading
Origin of term
The phrase was first used in passing by Sir
Boyle Roche in a speech to
Irish House of Commons
Irish House of Commons on 20 February 1782. George Ogle MP used
it on 6 February 1786 in a debate on falling land values:
When the landed property of the Kingdom, when the Protestant
Ascendancy is at stake, I cannot remain silent.
Then on 20 January 1792
Dublin Corporation approved by majority vote a
resolution to George III that included:
We feel ourselves peculiarly called upon to stand forward in the
crisis to pray your majesty to preserve the Protestant ascendancy in
Ireland inviolate ...
The Corporation's resolution was a part of the debate over Catholic
emancipation. In the event, Catholics were allowed to vote again in
1793, but could not sit in parliament until 1829.
The phrase therefore was seen to apply across classes to rural
landowners as well as city merchants. The Dublin resolution was
disapproved of by a wide range of commentators, such as the Marquess
of Abercorn, who called it "silly", and
William Drennan who said it
was "actuated by the most monopolising spirit".
The phrase became popularised outside
Ireland by Edmund Burke, another
liberal Protestant, and his ironic comment in 1792 was then used by
Catholics seeking further political reforms:
A word has been lately struck in the mint of the castle of Dublin;
thence it was conveyed to the Tholsel, or city-hall, where, having
passed the touch of the corporation, so respectably stamped and
vouched, it soon became current in parliament, and was carried back by
the Speaker of the House of Commons in great pomp as an offering of
homage from whence it came. The word is Ascendancy.
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Main article: Penal Laws (Ireland)
The process of
Protestant Ascendancy was facilitated and formalised in
the legal system after 1691 by the passing of various Penal Laws,
which discriminated against the property rights of the leading
families of the majority Roman Catholic population. They also
covered the non-conforming ("Dissenter") Protestant denominations such
as Presbyterians, where they:
had revolted against the government and
had not under the 1691
Treaty of Limerick
Treaty of Limerick sworn allegiance to William
III and Mary II, the head of the Protestant established church in
However, those protected by the Treaty were still excluded from public
The situation was confused by the policy of the Tory party in England
Ireland after 1688. They were Protestants who generally supported
the Catholic Jacobite claim, and came to power briefly in London in
1710–14. Also in 1750 the main Catholic Jacobite heir and claimant
to the three thrones,
Charles Edward Stuart
Charles Edward Stuart ("Bonny Prince Charlie"),
converted to Anglicanism for a time, but had reverted to Roman
Catholicism again by his father's death in 1766.
The son of James II,
James Francis Edward Stuart
James Francis Edward Stuart (the Old Pretender),
was recognised by the
Holy See as the legitimate monarch of the
Kingdom of England,
Kingdom of Scotland
Kingdom of Scotland and the separate Kingdom of
Ireland until his death in January 1766, and Roman Catholics were
morally obliged to support him. This provided the main political
excuse for the new laws, but it was not entirely exclusive as there
was no law against anyone converting to Protestantism. Thousands did
so, as recorded on the "Convert Rolls", and this allowed for the
successful careers of Irishmen such as that of William Conolly, but
the majority declined to convert.
From 1766 onwards the Papacy did not object to the fact of an
established Anglican Church, as Roman Catholicism was the established
church in countries such as
Spain until 1931 and
Austria until 1918.
It did, however, push for reforms allowing equality within the system.
As a result, political, legal and economic power resided with the
Ascendancy to the extent that by the mid-18th century, though a small
fraction of the population, 95% of the land of
Ireland was calculated
to be under minority control of those within the established church.
Some 9% of this land belonged to formerly-Catholic landlords who had
converted to the state religion.
Reform, though not complete, came in three main stages and was
effected over 50 years:
Reform of religious disabilities in 1778–82, allowing bishops,
schools and convents.
Reform of restrictions on property ownership and voting in 1778–93.
Restoration of political, professional and office-holding rights in
The confidence of the Ascendancy was manifested towards the end of the
18th century by its adoption of a nationalist Irish, though still
exclusively Protestant, identity and the formation in the 1770s of
Henry Grattan's Patriot Party. The formation of the Irish Volunteers
Ireland from French invasion during the American Revolution
effectively gave Grattan a military force, and he was able to force
Britain to concede a greater amount of self-rule to the Ascendancy.
The parliament repealed most of the Penal Laws in 1771–93 but did
not abolish them entirely. Grattan sought
Catholic emancipation for
the catholic middle classes from the 1780s, but could not persuade a
majority of the Irish MPs to support him. After the forced recall
of the liberal Lord Fitzwilliam in 1795 by conservatives, parliament
was effectively abandoned as a vehicle for change, giving rise to the
United Irishmen – liberal elements across religious, ethnic, and
class lines who began to plan for armed rebellion. The resulting
and often Protestant-led[clarification needed] rebellion was
crushed;[page needed] the Act of Union of 1801 was passed
partly in response to a perception that the bloodshed was provoked by
the misrule of the Ascendancy, and partly from the expense
Act of Union and decline
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St. Patrick's Cross – the Geraldine symbol. It became incorporated
into the Union Flag after the 1800 Act of Union merged the formerly
separate Kingdom of
Ireland into the United Kingdom.
The abolition of the Irish Parliament was followed by economic decline
in Ireland, and widespread emigration from among the ruling class to
the new centre of power in London, which increased the number of
absentee landlords. The reduction of legalised discrimination with the
Catholic emancipation in 1829 meant that the Ascendancy now
faced competition from prosperous Catholics in parliament and in the
higher-level professional ranks such as the judiciary and the army
that were needed in the growing British Empire. From 1840 corporations
running towns and cities in
Ireland became more democratically
elected; previously they were dominated until 1793 by guild members
who had to be Protestants.
Great famine 1845–52
The festering sense of native grievance was magnified by the Great
Irish Famine of 1845–52, with many of the Ascendancy reviled as
absentee landlords whose agents were shipping locally produced food
overseas, while much of the population starved.
Ireland remained a net
exporter of food throughout most of the famine. About 20% of the
population emigrated. The Encumbered Estates Act of 1849 was passed to
allow landlords to sell mortgaged land, where a sale would be
restricted because the land was "entailed". Many landlords (10%) went
bankrupt as their tenants could not pay any rent due to the
famine. One example was the Browne family which lost over 50,000
acres (200 km2) in County Mayo.
As a consequence, the remnants of the Ascendancy were gradually
displaced during the 19th and early 20th centuries through
impoverishment, bankruptcy, the disestablishment of the Church of
Ireland by the
Irish Church Act 1869
Irish Church Act 1869 and finally the Irish Land Acts,
which legally allowed the sitting tenants to buy their land. Some
typical "Ascendancy" land-owning families like the Marquess of
Headfort and the
Earl of Granard
Earl of Granard had by then converted to Catholicism,
and a considerable number of Protestant Nationalists had already taken
their part in Irish history. The government-sponsored Land Commission
then bought up a further 13 million acres (53,000 km2) of
farmland between 1885 and 1920 where the freehold was assigned under
mortgage to tenant farmers and farm workers.
Irish Rebellion of 1798
Irish Rebellion of 1798 was led by members of the Anglo-Irish
class, some of whom feared the political implications of the impending
union with Great Britain. Reformist and nationalist politicians
Henry Grattan (1746–1820),
Wolfe Tone (1763–1798), Robert
Emmet (1778–1803), and Sir John Gray (1815–1875) were also
Protestant nationalists, and in large measure led and defined Irish
nationalism. Even during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when
Irish nationalism became increasingly tied to a Roman Catholic
identity, it still counted among its leaders Protestants like Charles
Stewart Parnell (1846–1891).
With the Protestant yeoman class now driven out by a newly rising
"Catholic Ascendancy", the dozens of remaining Protestant large
landowners were left isolated within the Catholic population without
the benefit of the legal and social conventions once used to prop them
up. Local government was democratised by the Act of 1898, passing many
local powers to councillors who were usually supportive of
nationalism. Formerly landlords had controlled the grand jury system,
where membership was based on being a large ratepayer, and therefore
from owning large amounts of land locally. The final phase of the
decline of the Ascendancy occurred during the
Anglo-Irish War, when
some of the remaining Protestant landlords were either assassinated
and/or had their country homes burned down.[page needed]
Nearly 300 stately homes of the old landed class were burned down
between 1919 and 1923. The campaign was stepped up by the Anti-Treaty
IRA during the subsequent
Irish Civil War
Irish Civil War (1922–23), who targeted
some remaining wealthy and influential Protestants who had accepted
nominations as Senators in the new Seanad of the Irish Free
Irish Free State
Irish Free State became a semi-autonomous entity as a dominion
British Empire in December 1922, while the United Kingdom
Government had already, in 1920, partitioned Northern
Ireland from the
rest of Ireland. The Parliament of Northern
Ireland voted to remain
within the United Kingdom in 1922. There, the newly elected ruling
class included many of the Protestant landed gentry, despite the area
having an industrial economy. This gave the term 'ascendancy' a
continuing role well into the 20th century. The remainder of Ireland
comprising the Free State gained complete independence and sovereignty
in 1949 as the Republic of Ireland.
Artistic and cultural role
Many members of the Ascendancy played a role in literary and artistic
matters in 19th- and 20th-century Ireland, with
Lady Gregory and
William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats starting the influential
Celtic Revival movement
and followed by authors such as Somerville and Ross,
Hubert Butler and
Elizabeth Bowen. Ballerina Dame Ninette de Valois, Nobel prize-winning
author Samuel Beckett and the artist Sir
William Orpen came from
the same social background. Chris de Burgh and the rock
concert promoter Lord Conyngham (formerly Lord Mount Charles) are
high-profile descendants of the Ascendancy in
Plantations of Ireland
Official Ireland, the "ruling class" of the Irish Free State/Republic
^ McCormack, W.J (1989), "Essay", Eighteenth Century Ireland, 4
^ McCormack 1989, p. 181.
^ McCormack 1989, p. 162.
^ Calendar of the Ancient Records of Dublin, 14,
pp. 241–42 .
^ McCormack 1989, p. 177.
^ McCormack 1989, p. 175.
^ Oliver Rafferty (1994). Catholicism in Ulster, 1603–1983: An
Interpretative History. U of South Carolina Press. p. 57ff.
^ Crosbie, Barry Irish Imperial Networks Migration, Social
Communication and Exchange in Nineteenth-Century India.' Cambridge
University Press (2012) ISBN 0-521-11937-5.
^ Hull, Eleanor A History of
Ireland and Her People. Phoenix
Publishing (1931) ISBN 0-8369-6956-1.
^ a b "Act of Union". Queen's University Belfast. Retrieved 21 October
^ "Revolution, Counter-Revolution and Union" (Cambridge University
Press, 2000) Ed. Jim Smyth ISBN 0-521-66109-9
^ Encumbered Estates Act detail Archived 16 April 2009 at Archive.is
^ Triarc notes on the Browne family – February 2009
^ a b D. George Boyce, Nationalism in
Ireland (Routledge, 2 Sep 2003),
^ Clifford, Brendan, Canon Sheehan: A Turbulent Priest p.17, Irish
Heritage Society, Dublin (1990) ISBN 1-873063-00-8
Canon Sheehan of Doneraile asked in a long editorial, which was the
Manifesto of the All-for-
Ireland League, published by the Cork Free
Press 11 June 1910 "We are a generous people; and yet we are told we
must keep up a sectarian bitterness to the end; and the Protestant
Ascendancy has been broken down, only to build Catholic Ascendancy on
its ruins. Are we in earnest about our country at all or are we
seeking to perpetuate our wretchedness by refusing the honest aid of
Irishmen? Why should we throw unto the arms of England those children
Ireland who would be our most faithful allies, if we did not seek
to disinherit them? "
^ a b Murphy, Gerard (2010), The Year of Disappearances: Political
Killings in Cork 1920–1921, Cork: Gill & McMillian Ltd.
^ "Beckett and Ireland" CUP 2010
^ John Turpin (Autumn 1979). "
William Orpen as Student and Teacher".
Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol 68, No 271.
JSTOR 30090194. Missing or empty url= (help)
^ Clayton-Lea, Tony Chris de Burgh: The Authorized Biography.'
Sidgwick & Jackson (1996) ISBN 0-283-06236-3.
^ Mount Charles, Henry Public Space-Private Life: A Decade at Slane
Castle.' Faber & Faber (1989) ISBN 0-571-15497-2.
Protestant Ascendancy decline 1800-1930
Episode 6 of the Irish Passport Podcast explores the modern legacy of
Anglo-Irish Ascendancy on the island today.
Bence-Jones, Mark (1993). Twilight of the Ascendancy. London:
Constable. ISBN 0-09-472350-8.
Claydon, Tony and McBride, Ian (Editors). Protestantism and National
Identity: Britain and Ireland, c. 1650-c. 1850 (Cambridge University
Press, 1999). ISBN 0-521-62077-5
Hayton, David. "
Anglo-Irish Attitudes, Changing Perceptions of
National Identity among the
Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, C.
1690–1750." Studies In Eighteenth-Century Culture 17 (1987):
Hill, Jacqueline R. "National Festivals, the State and'Protestant
Ascendancy'in Ireland, 1790–1829." Irish Historical Studies (1984):
30–51. in JSTOR
Lecky, William Edward Hartpole. History of
Ireland in the Eighteenth
Century (6 vol. 1892)
vol 1 1700–1760, online;
vol 2, 1760–1789
vol 3, 1790–96
vol 4, 1796–98
vol 5, 1798–1801
vol 6, international affairs of 1790s
McCormack, W. J. The Dublin Paper War of 1786–1788: A
Bibliographical and Critical Inquiry Including an Account of the
Protestant Ascendancy and Its 'Baptism' in 1792 (Irish
Academic Press, 1993). ISBN 0-7165-2505-4
Walsh, Patrick. The Making of the Irish Protestant Ascendancy: The
Life of William Conolly, 1662–1729 (Boydell & Brewer, 2010)
Wilson, Rachel, Elite Women in Ascendancy Ireland, 1690–1745:
Imitation and Innovation (Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge, 2015).