P B Shelley's An Address to the Irish People


Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote this pamphlet and published it in Dublin in 1812. Catholics in Ireland had been second-class citizens for centuries, and the Act of Union, passed in 1800, though addressing some of their grievances, gave them minimal representation in Parliament. Shelley’s pamphlet calls for agitation to repeal the Act of Union. 

What was the background to Shelley’s pamphlet? 

Shelley visited Ireland between February and April 1812, and immediately became aware of the situation of Irish Catholics. The Constitution of 1782 had confirmed the Irish Parliament’s independence, but Catholics, who made up the vast majority of the Irish population, were not allowed to be MPs. By 1798 they had minimal voting rights, but a rebellion that year, supported by the French, led the British Government to merge the two parliaments in an attempt to resolve the situation. However, the King still refused to sanction Catholic MPs. 

Shelley’s approach to Catholic emancipation distanced him from his mentor William Godwin, who favoured a softer, more gradual method of political change. Shelley followed this pamphlet with another, Proposals for an Association of Philanthropists, which analyses where the French revolution failed, and proposed a more gradualist and idealistic idea of change – ‘We are in a state of continually progressive improvement’. 

What does Shelley actually state?

On page 5 Shelley points out the foolishness of trying to force people to change their beliefs – note that he is not directing this towards the retention of Catholic faith, but the folly of stating that ‘What we think is right, no other people throughout the world have opinions any thing like equal to ours'. Shelley writes later that any deprivation of rights consequent on not following the ‘orthodox’ faith is by implication folly and tyranny. 

Shelley advises people to ‘think, read and talk’. He appeals to readers not to ‘disclaim all manner of alliance with violence, meet together if ye will, but do not meet in a mob’. He states that Irish Catholics should know that the English are predisposed against them, and that therefore they should ‘give no offence’.  

How was the pamphlet distributed? 

Shelley’s method of distributing the pamphlet shows his youthful exuberance and generosity. He stood on his balcony and threw copies of it at likely-looking passers-by, gave them out in the street, and passed them out in pubs; but it is also notable from the advertisement on the title page that he has set the price as low as possible to make it accessible to the poor. However, it is unlikely that many of the people to whom it was addressed were able to follow it; and early on Shelley criticises Catholicism for its persecution of Protestants, which would not have endeared him to his intended readers. After this Shelley decided never again to address himself to direct political change.

Full title:
An Address to the Irish People
1812, Dublin, Ireland
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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