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  • Mathew Carey, Catholic Identity, and the Penal Laws
  • Padhraig Higgins (bio)

The career of Mathew Carey in Philadelphia—as a political pamphleteer, philanthropist, and the first prominent Catholic bookseller in the early American republic—has received a good deal of attention from historians.1 His early life and career in Ireland have, by comparison, been relatively neglected.2 In 1833 Carey published the first installment of his autobiography in the New-England Magazine.3 It recounted his youth in Dublin (where he grew up as the son of a prosperous Catholic baker), his apprenticeship to the Catholic printer and bookseller Thomas McDonnel, and his increasing political engagement, concluding with his ultimate exile to Philadelphia in 1784 at the age of 24. Chief among the events he recorded was the controversy in 1781 surrounding the advertisement for his first pamphlet, The Urgent Necessity of an Immediate Repeal of the Whole Penal Code Candidly Considered.4 [End Page 176]

Carey’s pamphlet was intended as a contribution to debates over the penal laws and the “Catholic question”—the issue of the extension of civil and political rights to Catholics. These topics have long been central to the historiography of eighteenth-century Ireland.5 From the 1750s the Catholic Committee, through the writings of John Curry and Charles O’Conor, carefully worked to overturn traditional Protestant representations of the 1641 rebellion, to undermine accusations of Catholic Jacobitism, and to emphasize the loyalty of the Catholic population to the Hanoverian regime.6 The emergence of Catholics into the public sphere in 1783–84, with such figures as John Keogh and other middle-class Catholic merchants acting as counterweights to the traditionally cautious policies of the leaders of the Catholic Committee, followed by the brief and unsuccessful alliance between radical Catholics and the movement for parliamentary reform, has received a great deal of attention from historians.7 This period has often been depicted as part of a story of the thawing of hostile relations between Catholics and Protestants, though the work of James Kelly has substantively revised this picture by highlighting [End Page 177] the “limits of liberal Protestantism,” even at this moment of apparent détente.8 The political maneuverings of the Catholic hierarchy around the removal of many of the penal laws between 1778 and 1782 have been carefully reconstructed by Eamon O’Flaherty.9 Popular Catholic attitudes to political events during the same period have received some attention, particularly when these attitudes were reflected in Irish-language sources.10 What has not been fully explored, however, is the way in which this shift occurred, from the cautiousness and overt loyalty of the Catholic Committee in the 1770s to the radical call by some Catholics for voting rights in such newspapers as Carey’s Volunteers Journal by 1783–84.11

By the early 1780s middle-class Catholics—young apprentices such as Carey and more established figures such as Keogh—had been radicalized by the war in America and by the politics of Patriotism. The Volunteers were already conceiving a new form of citizenship for Catholics based on rights rather than on limited forms of toleration. Catholic political identity during this period has often been characterized as in transition from Jacobitism to Jacobinism; the discourse of Patriotism served as a key moment of transition between these two languages. Catholic Patriot identity culminated in the radicalism of Carey’s Volunteers Journal, with its call for political reform, Catholic relief, violence against the political elite, and a severing of ties with Britain. From 1779 onward Catholics had begun to participate in the Volunteers. By 1784 they were establishing their own exclusively Catholic companies, such as the Dublin Irish Brigade. This activity was a sign that at least some middle-class Catholics were becoming less reticent than the leaders of the Catholic Committee about making common cause with the Patriot movement. Carey’s pamphlet was written in the context of this patriotic fervor and the resulting conflicts [End Page 178] over the limits of Patriot identity and citizenship. This article will focus on a key set of events in 1781: the proposal by a young Mathew Carey to publish a pamphlet calling for the removal of...


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