Gladstone and The Irish Church Act - 1869

Gladstone and his fight for the Irish PeopleAs early as 1845 Gladstone had seen the injustices in the treatment of the Irish by Great Britain. He had even felt some responsibility for it and spent the rest of his life helping to put things right. By the 1860s he had in mind at least the outline of an Irish policy based on disestablishment of the church and reform of the land system.

On 1 December 1868 Gladstone was felling a tree at Hawarden, his family estate, when a messenger arrived with a telegram from Windsor announcing that General Grey was bringing a message from the Queen. He put down his axe. He handed the telegram to a friend beside him, remarking "very significant", and then resumed his work. Shortly he stopped and with great earnestness said "My mission is to pacify Ireland."

When Gladstone was returned to power after the General Election of 1868 as Prime Minister of a Liberal administration, he began his great crusade which lasted for the remaining 25 years of his political career to solve the Irish problem.

The Fenian outrages had brought the Irish Question to the forefront of politics, and Gladstone was determined to try to solve it by reforming legislation. Three issues faced him at the outset: agrarian resentment against the Anglo-Irish landlords, which was frequently a cause of violence; Catholic resentment against the privileges and wealth of the Anglican Church of Ireland; and the almost complete absence of university education for Catholics. The first two were connected, in that the Anglican Church drew its tithes largely from the Roman Catholic peasantry.

Gladstone said "The Irish Establishment was the worst enemy of the established church and a religion which appropriated the revenue of a national church to provide services and sacraments for themselves, was taking the surest way to make itself hated."

Within days of taking office, Gladstone had prepared draft proposals to deal with the Irish Church, and shortly afterwards the large Liberal majority in the House of Commons secured the passage of a Bill to disestablish the Church, thus severing its connection with the State. In economic terms it meant depriving the Church of Ireland of its endowment wealth and its legal title to tithes. As some compensation, the Church was allowed to retain about half its assets of about 20 million, the remainder being put to financing various social and economic purposes, such as agriculture, fisheries and education. In administrative and political terms, the Church's bishops were reduced in number and their role as public figures limited to that of religious leaders. The Irish Church Bill was introduced in March 1869 and in spite of strong conservative opposition in the Commons and Lords became law in July.

The Terms of the Act:

  • From 1871 the Church of Ireland would become a voluntary body.
  • Its ecclesiastical law would no longer be the law of the land.
  • Irish bishops would no longer be appointed by the crown or sit in the House of Lords.
  • All church property, except churches in use, were confiscated and used to:
  • Provide for the clergy, schoolmasters and officials of the Established Church who had lost their posts.
  • Compensate those who had lost rights of patronage.
  • Relieve poverty. £13m was paid out between 1871 and 1923.

The Importance of the Act:

  • It showed the influence of the old Protestant Ascendency was in decline
  • It gave encouragement to the Irish and was a popular measure.
  • It was seen as a prelude to the destruction of the landlords.

Gladstone's own evaluation of his achievement was this; 'I see the discharge of a debt of civil justice, the disappearance of a national reproach and relief to a devoted clergy from a false position'. Certainly a Protestant Anglican Church, representing a small percentage of the Irish population, no longer enjoyed status and wealth denied to the bishops, clergy and members of the Roman Catholic Church. Even so,it was somewhat ironical that the devoutly Anglican Gladstone should sponsor a Bill which Benjamin Disraeli, a convert, would roundly condemn as 'legalising confiscation, consecrating sacrilege, condoning treason and destroying churches'. Nevertheless, within a year Gladstone had tackled and resolved one major conflict in Ireland. The others, affecting land and education, were to prove far more testing.


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