When a king, with regrets, allowed history to move on

As a teenager interested in history overall, and Irish history in particular, I used to pester my father, born a subject of an English king on the island of Ireland in the first decade of the 20th century, about what life was like for him in Oughterard, a village in Co. Galway hard by Loch Corrib, before he crossed the Atlantic with his mother and two of his sisters as a 12 year old in 1921.

He always answered that he didn’t remember much about those years, that his clearest memories only went back to Cedar Street in Roxbury, Massachusetts, where his widowed mother first set up a home in America. He did recall, though, his mother telling him that her grandparents had worked on a farm on property owned by a “rich English family” and “went to a secret room in a castle outside of town during the night to hear Mass.”

In her new book, “The King and the Catholics: England, Ireland, and the Fight for Religious Freedom, 1780-1829,” the historian Antonia Fraser enlarges greatly my father’s reminiscence to tell the broader story of how people like my great-great-great grandparents, who married at the turn of the 19th century, came, in their lifetime, to move out of the shadows and worship at Mass in broad daylight in their village church and, among other privileges, take up civic positions, including seats in the Parliament in London.

It is a story replete with political and ecclesiastical twists and turns and royal hesitancies and stubbornesses during the period Fraser examines as the ruling Protestant ascendancy was facing what many of their company called the “Abominable Irish Question” – that is, should the Irish be emancipated from the restrictions placed on their religious practices and civil rights by English law extending back to the days of Queen Elizabeth I and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which put to an end any Roman Catholic involvement in royal and governmental affairs.

The author deftly, and deeply, describes the overt and behind-the-scenes machinations of the key players as the push for emancipation lurches from the anti-Catholic riots of 1880, set off by some mild relief measures, to the act of 1829 that bowed to the virtue of liberty, unsettled the empire, and led almost immediately to further reform in Parliament.

Storied names from the Protestant aristocracy – George III and George IV, William Pitt, Charles Fox, Wellington, Robert Peel, et al. – jump from the pages as Fraser tracks their words and deeds as each maneuvers in his own way for and against history as the crisis moves unsteadily to a firm resolution.

As to Irish names, one eclipses all the worthy others who strove with him to make emancipation a reality: Daniel O’Connell, the man the Irish and their partisans called The Liberator, the orator/politician/ whose “moral force” and rhetoric,” Fraser writes, came from a different place than the practices of elementary civic discourse. By 1829, O’Connell had, without resort to violence, helped persuade the likes of Wellington and Peel, and a conscience-stricken George IV – to that point his coronation oath constituted a firm barrier to his assent – -to bow to the pulsing push of history and establish religious and civic liberty where Roman Catholics had lived, worked, fought, and prayed -for centuries – England and Ireland.