Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2011
A young man is sitting alone in his rooms in Trinity College Dublin on a spring evening in 1829 when, a little before eight o’clock, he hears that the Catholic Relief Bill has passed through parliament. The collegian leaps into movement, as if the removal of civil disabilities had effected a miracle cure:
It was on the evening of the 16th day of April, 1829 – the very day on which the memorable news reached Dublin of the Royal Assent having been given to the Catholic Relief Bill – that, as I was sitting alone in my chambers, up two flights of stairs, Trinity College, being myself one of the everlasting ‘Seven Millions’ thus liberated, I started suddenly, after a few moments’ reverse, from my chair, and taking a stride across the room, as if to make trial of a pair of emancipated legs, exclaimed, ‘Thank God! I may now, if I like, turn Protestant.’
The protagonist of Thomas Moore’s Travels of an Irish Gentleman in Search of a Religion (1833) delights in his release from ‘the penalties attached to being a Catholic’. The nature of the religious allegiance from which he can now escape turns not so much on any positive identity as on ‘the point of honour which had till then disbarred me from being any thing else’. Freed from a negative attachment to his faith, he decides on the spot to embark on a course of conversion. The Catholic collegian is, however, hampered by his ignorance of Protestants, about whom he has ‘little other notion … than as a set of gentlemanlike heretics, somewhat scanty in creed, but in all things else rich and prosperous’. Protestants govern Ireland, he remarks, ‘by right of some certain Thirty-Nine Articles, of which I had not yet clearly ascertained whether they were Articles of War or of Religion’.