The American War of Independence awakened much sympathy in Ulster,
especially among the Presbyterians, who, being disqualified from
holding office, desired a general emancipation including that of
the Roman Catholics.
In 1778 the Irish parliament, under the influence of the reformist
leader Henry Grattan, passed the Relief Act, removing some of the
most oppressive disabilities. Meanwhile Irish Protestants, under
the pretext of defending the country from the French, who had entered
into an alliance with the Americans, had formed military associations
of volunteers, with 80,000 members. Backed by this force they demanded
legislative independence for Ireland, and as a result of Grattan's
tireless campaigning the British parliament repealed Poynings' Law
and much of the anti-Catholic legislation.
Various societies were formed to carry on the agitation, and considerable
lawlessness occurred, fostered by the so-called Ribbon Society.
The reform of the British parliament in 1832 increased the number
of Irish members from 100 to 105. More important, it gave the middle
class more power, weakening the pro-English aristocracy.
In 1838 a bill was passed converting the tithes into rent charges,
to be paid by the landlords; as a result, agitation in connection
with the Anglican Church ceased to be acute for a time.
From 1845 to 1849 rent-racked Ireland suffered a disastrous famine
resulting from the failure of the potato crop. The government, influenced
by laissez-faire ideology, failed to provide adequate relief, and
widespread tenant evictions compounded the problem. It has been
estimated that 1 million died, mostly as a result of diseases caused
by severe malnutrition; the west of the country was worst affected.
Concurrently, over 1 million people emigrated, especially to America