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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: March 2008

6 - Prose in English, 1690–1800: from the Williamite wars to the Act of Union


The defeat of the Jacobite forces in 1691, confirmed by the Treaty of Limerick, was soon followed by varied attempts by the Protestant (and particularly Anglican) minority in Ireland to justify their position of dominance over the country’s Roman Catholic majority, at times in defiance of the terms of the treaty. This they did by appeal to Providence, by the assertion of the Irish parliament’s legislative independence of the parliament in London, and by means of penal legislation directed against the economic interests as well as the political, religious, and educational freedoms of Catholics. Though working in a cultural context marked by an uneasy admixture of self-confidence and defensiveness, Protestant writers of varying beliefs produced literary work – political, philosophical, theological, economic and scientific – of remarkable assurance for an audience that extended, at times, far beyond those like themselves, to include pre-eminent figures in Great Britain, continental Europe and North America.

Enlightenment and Counter Enlightenment, 1690–1750

Attempts to legitimise Protestant ascendancy in Ireland began early. In his State of the Protestants of Ireland under the late King James’s Government (1691), the Trinity College, Dublin-educated William King (1650–1729), archbishop of Dublin from 1703, gave a damning account of the oppression suffered by Protestants during the earl of Tyrconnel’s Roman Catholic administration in the late 1680s. Attributing the triumph of Protestantism to divine providence, King offered a justification of the change of allegiance from James II to William and Mary, but he was not himself notably hostile to Roman Catholicism, later voting against a great part of the penal legislation.

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