The movement of conciliation of its peoples that was shaping a new Ireland, silent and unrecorded as it was, can only be understood by the astonishing history of the next fifty years, when the spirit of a nation rose again triumphant, and lesser passions fell before the love of country.
The Protestant gentry, who alone had free entry into public life, were of necessity the chief actors in the recorded story. But in the awakening country they had to reckon with a rising power in the Catholic Irish. Dr. Lucas, who in 1741 had begun to stir for reform and freedom, had stirred not only the English settlers but the native Irish. Idolised by the Irish people, he raised in his Citizens’ Journal a new national protest. The pamphlet war which followed—where men argued not only on free trade and government, but on Ireland itself, on its old and new races, on its Irish barbarism, said some, its Irish civilisation, said others—spread the idea of a common history of Ireland in which all its inhabitants were concerned. In parliament too, though Catholics were shut out, yet men of old Irish race were to be found—men of Catholic families who had accepted Protestantism as a means of entering public life, chiefly by way of the law. They had not, save very rarely, put off their patriotic ardour with their old religion; of the middle class, they were braver in their outlook than the small and disheartened Catholic aristocracy. If their numbers were few their ability was great, and behind them lay that vast mass of their own people whose blood they shared.
It was an Irishman who first roused the House of Commons to remember that they had a country of their own and an “Irish interest”—Antony Malone. This astonishing orator and parliamentarian invented a patriotic opposition (1753). A great sea in a “storm” men said of him. Terror was immediately excited at his Irish origin and his national feeling. Dublin Castle feared that he might mean emancipation from the English legislature, and in truth the constitutional dependency upon England was the object upon which Malone’s eye was constantly fixed. He raised again the protest of Molyneux for a free parliament and constitution. He stirred “the whole nation” for “the last struggle for Ireland.” They and their children would be slaves, he said, if they yielded to the claim of the government that the English privy council could alter the money bills sent over by the Irish parliament, or that the king had the right to apply at his will the surplus funds in the treasury.
Malone was defeated, but the battle had begun which in thirty years was to give to Ireland her first hopes of freedom. A fresh current of thought poured through the House—free trade, free religion, a Habeas Corpus Act, fewer pensions for Englishmen, a share in law and government for Irishmen, security for judges, and a parliament elected every seven years. Successors of Malone appeared in the House of Commons in 1761—more lawyers, men said, than any one living could remember, or “than appears in any history in this or any other kingdom upon earth.” They depended, not on confiscation, but on their own abilities; they owed nothing to government, which gave all the great posts of the bar to Englishmen. Some freedom of soul was theirs, and manhood for the long struggle. In 1765 the issue was clearly set. The English House of Commons which had passed the Stamp Act for the American colonies, argued that it had the right to tax Ireland without her consent; and English lawyers laid down the absolute power of parliament to bind Ireland by its laws. In Ireland Lord Charlemont and some other peers declared that Ireland was a distinct kingdom, with its own legislature and executive under the king.
In that same year the patriots demanded that elections should be held every seven years—the first step in Ireland towards a true representation, and the first blow to the dominion of an aristocracy. The English government dealt its counter-stroke. The viceroy was ordered to reside in Dublin, and by making himself the source of all favours, the giver of all gratifications, to concentrate political influence in the English Crown. A system of bribery began beyond all previous dreams; peerages were made by the score; and the first national debt of nearly two millions created in less than thirty years. The landowners who controlled the seats in the Commons were reminded that “they held by Great Britain everything most dear to them, their religion, their pre-eminence, their property, their political power”; that “confiscation is their common title.” “The king’s business,” as the government understood it, lay in “procuring the supplies which the English minister thought fit to ask, and preventing the parliament from examining into the account of previous years.”
Meanwhile misery deepened. In 1778 thirty thousand Irishmen were seeking their living on the continent, besides the vast numbers flying to America. “The wretches that remained had scarcely the appearance of human creatures.” English exports to Ireland sank by half-a-million, and England instead of receiving money had to send £50,000 for the payment of troops there. Other dangers had arisen. George Washington was made commander-in-chief of the forces for the American war in 1775, and in 1778 France recognised American independence. The shores of Ireland lay open to attack: the country was drained of troops. Bands of volunteers were formed for its protection, Protestant troops led by landlords and gentry. In a year 40,000 volunteers were enrolled (1779). Ireland was no longer unarmed. What was even more important, she was no longer unrepresented. A packed parliament that had obscured the true desires of the country was silenced before the voice of the people. In the sense of a common duty, landlord and tenant, Protestant and Catholic, were joined; the spirit of tolerance and nationality that had been spreading through the country was openly manifested.
In those times of hope and terror men’s minds on both sides moved quickly. The collapse of the English system was rapid; the government saw the failure of their army plans with the refusal of the Irish to give any more military grants; the failure of their gains from the Irish treasury in the near bankruptcy of the Irish state, with the burden of its upkeep thrown on England; the failure of the prodigious corruption and buying of the souls of men before the new spirit that swept through the island, the spirit of a nation. “England has sown her laws in dragons’ teeth, and they have sprung up in armed men,” cried Hussey Burgh, a worthy Irish successor of Malone in the House of Commons. “It is no longer the parliament of Ireland that is to be managed or attended to,” wrote the lord-lieutenant. “It is the whole of this country.” Above all, the war with the colonies brought home to them Grattan’s prophecy—”what you trample on in Europe will sting you in America.”
The country, through the Volunteers, required four main reforms. They asked for justice in the law-courts, and that the Habeas Corpus Act should be restored, and independent judges no longer hold their places at pleasure. They asked that the English commercial laws which had ruined Irish industry and sunk the land in poverty and idleness should be abandoned; taught by a long misery, Irishmen agreed to buy no manufactures but the work of Irish hands, and Dublin men compelled members to swear that they should vote for “the good of Ireland,” a new phrase in politics. A third demand was that the penal laws which divided and broke the strength of Ireland should cease. “The Irish Protestant,” cried Grattan, “could never be free till the Irish Catholic had ceased to be a slave.” “You are now,” said Burke, “beginning to have a country.” Finally a great cry for the independence of their parliament rose in every county and from every class.
The demands for the justice of free men, for free trade, free religion, a free nation, were carried by the popular passion into the parliaments of Dublin and London. In three years the Dublin parliament had freed Protestant dissenters from the Test Act and had repealed the greater part of the penal code; the English commercial code had fallen to the ground; the Habeas Corpus Act was won. In 1780 Grattan proposed his resolutions declaring that while the two nations were inseparably bound together under one Crown, the King, Lords, and Commons of Ireland could alone make laws for Ireland.
The claim for a free parliament ran through the country—”the epidemic madness,” exclaimed the viceroy. But the Irish had good reason for their madness. At the first stirring of the national movement in 1778 “artful politicians” in England had revived a scheme favourably viewed there—the abolition of an Irish parliament and the union of Ireland with England. “Do not make an union with us, sir,” said Dr. Johnson to an Irishman in 1779; “we should unite with you only to rob you.” The threat of the disappearance of Ireland as a country quickened anxiety to restore its old parliament. The Irish knew too how precarious was all that they had gained. Lord North described all past concessions as “resumable at pleasure” by the power that granted them.
In presence of these dangers the Volunteers called a convention of their body to meet in the church of Dungannon on Feb. 15, 1782—to their mind no unfit place for their lofty work.
“We know,” they said, “our duty to our sovereign and our loyalty; we know our duty to ourselves and are resolved to be free.” “As Irishmen, as Christians, and as Protestants” they rejoiced in the relaxation of penal laws and upheld the sacred rights of all to freedom of religion. A week later Grattan moved in the House of Commons an address to the king—that the people of this country are a free people; that the crown of Ireland is an imperial crown; and the kingdom of Ireland a distinct kingdom with a parliament of her own, the sole legislature thereof. The battle opened by Molyneux a hundred years before was won. The Act of 1719, by which the English parliament had justified its usurpation of powers, was repealed (1782). “To set aside all doubts” another Act (1783) declared that the right of Ireland to be governed solely by the king and the parliament of Ireland was now established and ascertained, and should never again be questioned or questionable.
On April 16, 1782, Grattan passed through the long ranks of Volunteers drawn up before the old Parliament House of Ireland, to proclaim the victory of his country. “I am now to address a free people. Ages have passed away, and this is the first moment in which you could be distinguished by that appellation…. Ireland is now a nation. In that character I hail her, and bowing in her august presence, I say esto perpetua!” The first act of the emancipated parliament was to vote a grant for twenty thousand sailors for the English navy.
That day of a nation’s exultation and thanksgiving was brief. The restored parliament entered into a gloomy inheritance—an authority which had been polluted and destroyed—an almost ruined country. The heritage of a tyranny prolonged through centuries was not to be got rid of rapidly. England gave to Ireland half a generation for the task.
Since the days of Henry VIII the Irish parliaments had been shaped and compacted to give to England complete control. The system in this country, wrote the viceroy, did not bear the smallest resemblance to representation. All bills had to go through the privy council, whose secret and overwhelming influence was backed by the privy council in England, the English law officers, and finally the English cabinet. Irish proposals were rejected not in parliament, but in these secret councils. The king had a veto in Ireland, not in England. The English cabinet, changing with English parties, had the last word on every Irish bill. There was no Irish cabinet responsible to the Irish Houses: no ministry resigned, whatever the majority by which it was defeated. Nominally elected by about one-fifth of the inhabitants, the Commons did not represent even these. A landlords’ assembly, there was no Catholic in it, and no merchant. Even the Irish landlords were subdued to English interests: some hundred Englishmen, whose main property was in England but who commanded a number of votes for lands in Ireland, did constantly override the Irish landlords and drag them on in a policy far from serviceable to them. The landlords’ men in the Commons were accustomed to vote as the Castle might direct. In the complete degradation of public life no humiliation or lack of public honour offended them. The number of placemen and pensioners equalled nearly one-half of the whole efficient body: “the price of a seat of parliament,” men said, “is as well ascertained as that of the cattle of the field.”
All these dangers might with time and patience be overcome. An Irish body, on Irish soil, no matter what its constitution, could not remain aloof from the needs, and blind to the facts, of Ireland, like strangers in another land. The good-will of the people abounded; even the poorer farmers showed in a better dress, in cleanliness, in self-respect, how they had been stirred by the dream of freedom, the hope of a country. The connection with England, the dependence on the king, was fully accepted, and Ireland prepared to tax herself out of all proportion to her wealth for imperial purposes. The gentry were losing the fears that had possessed them for their properties, and a fair hope was opening for an Ireland tolerant, united, educated, and industrious. Volunteers, disciplined, sober, and law-abiding, had shown the orderly forces of the country. Parliament had awakened to the care of Ireland as well as the benefit of England. In a few years it opened “the gates of opulence and knowledge.” It abolished the cruelties of the penal laws, and prepared the union of all religions in a common citizenship. It showed admirable knowledge in the method of restoring prosperity to the country, awakening its industrial life, increasing tillage, and opening inland navigation. Time was needed to close the springs of corruption and to bring reform to the parliament itself.
But the very success of parliament woke fears in England, and alarm in the autocratic government of Ireland. Jealous of power, ministers set themselves to restore by corruption an absolute authority, and recover by bribery the prerogative that had been lost.
The first danger appeared in 1785, in the commercial negotiations with England. To crush the woollen trade England had put duties of over £2 a yard on a certain cloth carried from Ireland to England, which paid 5-½d. if brought from England to Ireland; and so on for other goods. Irish shipping had been reduced to less than a third of that of Liverpool alone. Pitt’s proposal of free trade between the countries was accepted by Ireland (1785), but a storm of wrath swept over the British world of business; they refused Pitt’s explanation that an Ireland where all industries had been killed could not compete against the industrial pre-eminence of England; and prepared a new scheme which re-established the ascendency of the British parliament over Irish navigation and commerce. This was rejected in Ireland as fatal to their Constitution. Twice again the Irish parliament attempted a commercial agreement between the two countries: twice the Irish government refused to give it place; a few years later the same ministers urged the Union on the ground that no such commercial arrangement existed. The advantages which England possessed and should maintain were explained by the viceroy to Pitt in 1792. “Is not the very essence of your imperial policy to prevent the interest of Ireland clashing and interfering with the interest of England?… Have you not crushed her in every point that would interfere with British interest or monopoly by means of her parliament for the last century, till lately?… You know the advantages you reap from Ireland…. In return does she cost you one farthing (except the linen monopoly)? Do you employ a soldier on her account she does not pay, or a single ship more for the protection of the British commerce than if she was at the bottom of the sea?”
The Catholic question also awakened the Castle fears. The penal laws had failed to diminish the “Papists”: at the then rate of conversion it would take four thousand years to turn the people into Protestants. A nobler idea had arisen throughout Ireland. “The question is now,” Grattan said, “whether we shall be a Protestant settlement or an Irish nation … for so long as we exclude Catholics from natural liberty and the common rights of man we are not a people.” Nothing could be more unwelcome to the government. A real union between religious bodies in Ireland, they said, would induce Irish statesmen to regulate their policy mainly by the public opinion of their own country. To avert this danger they put forth all their strength. “The present frame of Irish government is particularly well calculated for our purpose. That frame is a Protestant garrison in possession of the land, magistracy, and power of the country; holding that property under the tenure of British power and supremacy, and ready at every instant to crush the rising of the conquered.”
Finally the pressing question of reform, passionately demanded by Protestant and Catholic for fifteen years, was resisted by the whole might of the Castle. “If,” wrote the lord-lieutenant to Pitt, “as her government became more open and more attentive to the feelings of the Irish nation, the difficulty of management had increased, is that a reason for opening the government and making the parliament more subservient to the feelings of the nation at large?”
To the misfortune both of Ireland and of England the Irish government through these years was led by one of the darkest influences known in the evil counsels of its history—the chancellor Fitzgibbon, rewarded by England with the title Earl of Clare. Unchecked by criticism, secret in machinations, brutal in speech, and violent in authority, he had known the use of every evil power that still remained as a legacy from the past. By working on the ignorance of the cabinet in London and on the alarms and corruptions of Ireland, by using all the secret powers left in his hands through the privy council, by a system of unexampled bribery, he succeeded in paralysing the constitution which it was his business to maintain, and destroying the parliamentary rights which had been nominally conceded. The voice of the nation was silenced by the forbidding of all conventions. In the re-established “frame of government” Fitzgibbon was all-powerful. The only English viceroy who resisted him, Lord Fitzwilliam, was recalled amid the acclamations and lamentations of Ireland—all others yielded to his force. Government in his hands was the enemy of the people, parliament a mockery, constitutional movements mere vanity. Law appeared only as an instrument of oppression; the Catholic Irish were put out of its protection, the government agents out of its control. The country gentry were alienated and demoralised—left to waste with “their inert property and their inert talents.” Every reform was refused which might have allayed the fears of the people. Religious war was secretly stirred up by the agents of the government and in its interest, setting one part of the country to exterminate the other. Distrust and suspicion, arrogance and fear, with their train of calamities for the next hundred years distracted the island.
A system of absolute power, maintained by coercion, woke the deep passion of the country. Despair of the constitution made men turn to republicanism and agitation in arms. The violent repression of freedom was used at a time when the progress of the human mind had been prodigious, when on all sides men were drinking in the lessons of popular liberties from the republics of America and France. The system of rule inaugurated by Fitzgibbon could have only one end—the revolt of a maddened people. Warnings and entreaties poured in to the Castle. To the very last the gentry pleaded for reform to reassure men drifting in their despair into plots of armed republicanism. Every measure to relieve their fears was denied, every measure to heighten them was pursued. Violent statesmen in the Castle, and officers of their troops, did not fear to express their sense that a rebellion would enable them to make an end of the discontented once for all, and of the Irish Constitution. The rising was, in fact, at last forced by the horrors which were openly encouraged by the government in 1796-7. “Every crime, every cruelty, that could be committed by Cossacks or Calmucks has been transacted here,” said General Abercromby, sent in 1797 as commander-in-chief. He refused the barbarities of martial rule when, as he said, the government’s orders might be carried over the whole kingdom by an orderly dragoon, or a writ executed without any difficulty, a few places in the mountains excepted; and demanded the maintenance of law. “The abuses of all kinds I found here can scarcely be believed or enumerated.” “He must have lost his senses,” wrote Clare of the great soldier, and “this Scotch beast,” as he called him, was forced out of the country as Lord Fitzwilliam had been. Abercromby was succeeded by General Lake, who had already shown the ferocity of his temper in his command in Ulster, and in a month the rebellion broke out.
That appalling tale of terror, despair, and cruelty cannot be told in all its horror. The people, scared into scattered risings, refused protection when their arms were given up, or terms if they surrendered, were without hope; the “pacification” of the government set no limits to atrocities, and the cry of the tortured rose unceasingly day and night.
The suppression of the rebellion burned into the Irish heart the belief that the English government was their implacable enemy, that the law was their oppressor, and Englishmen the haters of their race. The treatment of later years has not yet wiped out of memory that horror. The dark fear that during the rebellion stood over the Irish peasant in his cabin has been used to illustrate his credulity and his brutishness. The government cannot be excused by that same plea of fear. Clare no doubt held the doctrine of many English governors before him, that Ireland could only be kept bound to England by the ruin of its parliament and the corruption of its gentry, the perpetual animosity of its races, and the enslavement of its people. But even in his own day there were men who believed in a nobler statesmanship—in a union of the nations in equal honour and liberties.