The Catholic Association was an Irish Roman Catholic political organisation set up by Daniel O'Connell in the early nineteenth century to campaign for Catholic emancipation within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It was one of the first mass-membership political movements in Europe.
The Catholic Association was founded in 1823 by Daniel O'Connell. It was the latest in a series of similar associations formed over the previous ten years or so; none of these had prospered. Like the other associations, this new association was composed mainly of the middle-class elite: the annual subscription amounting to a guinea, an amount equivalent to what an average farmer would pay for six months' rent. In 1824, the Catholic Association began to use the money that it had raised in order to campaign for Catholic emancipation. Furthermore, in this year the association created a new category of associate member at the cost of a penny a month, the so-called Catholic rent. The reasoning behind the creation of this new membership category was to stimulate a swelling in association numbers. This new cheaper category ensured Catholics from a poorer background could join and thus the association's initial class-based entry barriers were removed.
The Catholic rent transformed the association. Arguably, it could be interpreted as having transformed the entire history of Ireland. In terms of the association, the rent catalysed a transformation in a number of ways. Firstly, as previously mentioned, it gave the Catholic Association a constant source of money which enabled Daniel O'Connell to run a consistent campaign. Secondly, it facilitated easy calculation of total association membership numbers so that O'Connell could say with confidence that he had the support of so many people. This was important as it could be used to apply pressure against the British government. Third, and perhaps most importantly however, it announced the arrival of mass mobilisation politics, it being the first such populist movement in Europe.
Daniel O'Connell decided to add this additional membership level, at a reduced price of a penny a month, deliberately. The benefits were clear. With the membership subscription set at a relatively cheap price, a large number of the peasant and working classes could join. Affordability ensured large numbers. In effect, it became a universal Catholic organisation, transparent and populist. Members of the association were in essence the owners; their subscription fees going directly into the maintenance and running of the association. The fact that each member had contributed financially to the association also ensured that they were more deeply involved in pushing the cause of Catholic emancipation. People wanted value for money. Thus, this ensured a cheap method for O'Connell to get the message of Catholic emancipation spread throughout Ireland.
The Catholic Association's funds were to be diffused widely in a variety of areas. Some was spent campaigning for Catholic emancipation, defraying the costs of sending petitions to Westminster, and for the training of Priests. Following the 1826 election campaign, funds were used to support the members of the organisation who had voted against their landlords. The money was used for those who had been evicted from land by the landlords because of their connection to the Catholic organisation, or to those who were boycotting absentee landlords. For the Catholic peasants that were in this situation the future would be grim as they would be unable to continue the boycott without food and money and they would be unable to lease land from any landlord as the peasants would be boycotted against in return. The Catholic Association's funds were used to support these boycotts so that they could continue and live well enough in order to have enough food to survive.
The strengths of the Catholic Association:
The Catholic Association was originally aristocratic in its composition, and some of the gentry (Such as Richard Lalor Sheil) held relatively conservative views. However Daniel O'Connell held an enormous influence over the society and largely dictated the policies it pursued. It was radical in nature, but also extremely loyal to the crown in appearance. This had been the strategy of the previous major catholic group, the Catholic Committee of the 1790s which achieved major Catholic Relief in 1793.
Another strength was that the aims of the Catholic Association were fairly moderate. Since the organization would still be loyal to the monarch the British MPs would be more willing to pass Catholic emancipation. Also the matter had been discussed in London since the 1800 Act of Union, when the Prime Minister Pitt and most of his colleagues had resigned from the cabinet when emancipation was denied by the king. Henry Grattan continued to support the cause and Catholic emancipation had been passed by the House of Commons previously by a majority of six, but it was rejected in the House of Lords, and generally by King George III who lived until 1820.
The biggest strength of the Catholic Association was that the Catholic Church helped in the collection of the Catholic Rent. Also Catholic priests held sermons in favour of Catholic emancipation. This meant that it was easy for the members to pay the Catholic Rent and it would attract more members as the message of Catholic emancipation was being spread throughout Ireland. Even Sir Robert Peel believed the alliance of the Catholic Association and the Catholic Church was a "powerful combination".
From 1826, the Catholic Association began to use its funds to support pro-emancipation MPs in elections. They used its money and manpower to campaign for the candidate to be elected into parliament to pressure the government from within to pass Catholic emancipation. The turning point was in 1828 for a number of reasons. The first was that the Catholic Church took over the collection of the Catholic Rent and effectively the Catholic Association itself.
Another important factor was that by 1828, Daniel O'Connell's reputation had increased dramatically. O'Connell was an internationally recognised figure and was seen as one of the leading figures in liberal thinking. This successful campaign led on to, but must be distinguished from, his later efforts to end the union with Britain, to increase the franchise and to end the payment of tithes. O'Connell's particular talent was to push the emancipation process along in an organised way.
The Catholic Association's campaign from 1828:
The year 1828 was important for a number of reasons. In May 1828, the Test and Corporation Acts were repealed. This gave non-conformists greater political freedom and equality in Britain. This was important as it had two effects. One was that it gave the Catholics hope that a similar act would be passed for Catholics as it was the next logical step in the path of reform. It also alienated Catholics, being now the only Christian sect in the United Kingdom not to have political freedom and equality.
In May, Huskisson resigned from the cabinet and William Vesey Fitzgerald was chosen as the President of the Board of Trade. According to law there was to be a by-election in his constituency of County Clare. Daniel O'Connell decided to exploit a loop hole in the Act of Union. It stated that Catholics could not sit in Westminster as a Member of Parliament (MP), but there was nothing about them sitting for an election. Therefore O'Connell sat in for the by-election and won. But since he was a Catholic, he could not take his seat in parliament. This meant that his demand rose to allow him to become an MP for County Clare as it did not have representation.
Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington saw that if O'Connell were not allowed to take his seat, then there could be a revolution in Ireland. While using non-violent methods, O'Connell hinted that he would get more Catholics elected to force the situation. In an emotive speech he said "they must with crush us or conciliate us".
Peel announced his conversion and tried to push through the new Catholic Relief Bill in February 1829. The bill was passed. It was a momentous victory for O'Connell and the Catholic middle class (less so for the numerous poor), and he became known as 'The Liberator' and the "uncrowned king of Ireland".