I have read the first and second volumes of your work. You could not have sent any thing to me of equal value: it refreshes my memory, and recalls the events connected with that resistance which was offered to mis-government in 1798; for I cannot call it by any other name. I am so well convinced of the impartiality of your intentions, and their accordance with my own, to be fair and faithful, that my notes are at your service, if you think them of any value to my country, which was the only view I had in writing them.
To write the history of Ireland from 1782 until 1804, is a difficult task in 1843. Many useful documents having been lost, and few are now alive who have a true knowledge of the events of that period in remembrance. The power and ingenuity of the enemies of our country during that period, exerted in distorting and suppressing truth, have never been surpassed in any age.
When writing of Ulster, you will require an extensive view of the influence with which patriotism had to contend – sectarian, mercantile, and landed – to a greater extent than in any other part in Ireland. The other provinces had only the land and church interests against them; our landed aristocracy extended to the forty-shilling freeholders; a class to which no other province compared in numbers. We had also a manufacturing aristocracy, little known in the South or West; and corruption ran through those different channels, like that which now flows into a common reservoir elsewhere.
At the time that politics were first mooted in the North by the press, the mass confided in the writers and speakers, as men who were necessarily competent to the direction of public affairs, and laid more on them than they were able to perform, had they even been, all, honest men. The seeming confidence of the mass emboldened their advocates; but the corruption above alluded to, kept pace with the progress of light, detached views of interest prevailed, and every honest man became a victim to ill-placed confidence. Besides, the idea of secrecy was a mere delusion, when so many and complicated interests were connected with the business.
The historian who avoids suspicion and surmise has the best title to credit. It is hard for a man who did not live at the time, to believe or comprehend the extent to which representations were carried at the close of struggle; for, besides the paid agents, the men who flinched and fell away from our cause, grasped at any apology for their own delinquency. I know no responsibility equal to that of the historian. To direct the judgement of future ages to the events of the past is a difficult, and in many instances, a very delicate task.
The contradiction of falsehood was called sedition in the wicked times of Pitt and Castlereagh, in consequence of which, the labour of the historian of those times, who wishes to transmit truth to after ages, is attended with great difficulty, and, in some instances, with difficulties beyond his power to overcome. But the leading facts are still attainable by unwearied perseverance, to which it is the duty of every survivor of that period, to contribute his share.
Neilson, McCracken, Russell, and Emmet, were the leading men in that struggle, with whom I was in closest intimacy. They were men – Irishmen – than whom I have met none more true – than whom none could be more true. The cause of Ireland was then confined to a few individuals. The masses had no idea of the possibility of managing their own affairs.
It is easy to asperse our struggle; but let those who asperse us, take care that those, who come after them, have not to shield them from the misrepresentations which false friends and wicked enemies have forged against them. We had bad men with us, and so may they have amongst them; but no good cause requires the support of bad men. The bad men who joined us had to play the hypocrite; they had the enemy’s ranks for a retreat, whenever they feared detection, and they then charged us with their own evil intentions.
Mr O’Connell has written a history of Ireland. He knows more of the corruption in his own ranks than I do; and I know more than he does of the corruption in mine. If our knowledge could be combined, the history would be enlarged perhaps, and enriched. When I speak of myself, I mean the survivors of the working classes, who struggled from 1794 until 1806, when the State prisoners were banished, and the Castle spies paid off: that twelve years was the period of Ireland’s infancy in politics compared to what it is now.
Things have undergone a complete change, which make our present struggle comparatively safe and easy. We have not now an overgrown mercantile and agricultural aristocracy, flushed with the profits of every speculation, which an exclusive cotton manufacture, and the war price of provisions, furnished in abundance. A printer cannot now be banished for publishing the advantages of reform to Ireland, (as John Rab, of the Northern Star, was), or pillared for the expression of truth, as Richard Dry, of Dublin, was.
The leaders of that day had the raw material of moral force to manufacture: they had tyranny to face, and treachery to defeat; and their descendants have misrepresentations to get rid of. A writer in the Nation, speaking of Sam McSkimmin, of Carrickfergus, cannot account for his aversion to United Irishmen. But I can; he was a spy, and in arms against them in 1798, and was gained over by Sergeant Lee of the Invalids, in Carrickfergus.
Belfast was the cradle of politics in Ulster, of which, the ideas held forth at their public meetings, is a clear proof. The foundation of Ireland’s freedom was laid there by a few master spirits; and, although they now rest in death, their memory can neither die, nor be run down.
In my youth, competence was attainable by industry, until the increase of ingenuity produced by the means of luxury, and worldly possession was mistaken for the chief good: ranks arose in rapid succession, and physical force became the order of the day; the pressure of ranks on each other, had a convulsive effect on the mass, of which every rank in its turn took advantage, and social intercourse became a civil war, which like convulsions in the elements, expend their fury and finally settle into a calm. Witness the physical-force men of 1798, (myself among the number), appealing to moral force in 1843, a fact that no writer of Irish history ought to overlook, and here a question arises, “Do men change? Or is it only a change of circumstances that shews what they are?”
My life has been a scene of escapes, demonstrating to me, that, “With God all things are possible.” I wanted help, and I have found it in you, for which I wish to direct thanks where it is due. Let us look to a higher motive than praise or profit – to promote truth, and labour together as Irishmen, bound by the love of country, which is a stronger tie than any human obligation.
To mix biography with the history of any political movement, and do justice to both, is the most difficult task to the historian, especially when he interferes with the personal character of men of whom he has no personal knowledge, whereby he may take, for truthful testimony, the insinuation of a traitor, corroborated by some proof in writing or other evidence, the result of an interested intercourse between him and the person concerning whose character the historian wishes to inquire.
I was the bosom friend of Neilson, McCracken, Russell, and Emmet, – I mean there was not a thought respecting public affairs that one of us, to the best of my belief, would conceal from the other, and for their truth I would answer with my life.
Volumes have been written, recording the crimes and cruelty of mankind, but the causes from which they spring, is often overlook, of which the circumstances in which men are placed appear to have a prominent share, and historians often have some reasons for avoiding their delineation, sometimes interest, and sometimes ignorance.
If the Scriptures were searched for application to our condition for rules of life, and understanding of the springs of action, instead of recurring to them for arguments of controversy, we would be better prepared for events as they occur. If historians would only state what they knew to be facts, truth would run in a freer channel from age to age. From the extension of literature, the present age lies under a heavier responsibility, than any age since the world began for the transmission of truth to posterity.