(From the “United Irishman” of April 29, 1848)
IN my letter to you last week I set before you two or three subjects which it is worth your while to reflect upon.
First, seeing that Ireland produces, one year with another, double as much as would feed and clothe all her people, what becomes of it? Who eats it and wears it, and what (besides our glorious Constitution in Church and State) do you, who create all this wealth, get in exchange for it?
Second, seeing that your tenant-right in the North is in great danger, and that you urgently want securities and guarantees to prevent its being taken from you altogether, who is it that threatens it? Who wants your tenant-right from you? Against whom do you need the securities and guarantees? Is it against farmers of Leinster and Munster? Or the Pope of Rome? Or who else?
Third, seeing that all your grand masters and deputy-grands, and grand chaplains, not to speak of their agents, drivers, stewards, sub-agents, bailiffs, and bog bailiffs, are so anxious to get your names to “addresses of loyalty” and declarations of attachment to the “Protestant Constitution in Church and State” what is the reason of such anxiety just now? What is it all about? And, above all, what interest have you in it?
If you have not begun to think seriously of these questions you had better begin to do so without delay. And I will try to help you.
Your grand master landlords and their agents, sub-agents, and bog agents, I have no doubt, caution you earnestly against anything I can say to you. They tell you that I am a “Jacobin,” and an “Anarchist,” and a “Revolutionist,” and that I am to take my trial for sedition against what they call the “laws of the land.”
Now, I confess that I am a “revolutionist,” – that is to say, I desire by any means, peaceable or otherwise, to alter the system of Government and distribution of property in this land, so that men willing to earn their bread may have leave and opportunity to earn it – so that those who till the soil may be sure that they will have enough of the produce to live upon.
And I confess that I am to take my trial (or, for that matter, two trials) for sedition and evil speaking against the present system of “laws” and “government.”
This is all true, but it does not in the least alter the state of the case as to those same subjects of reflection which I have mentioned above. I am not constitutional – yet, your harvests are carried off from you. I am not “loyal” – quite the contrary.
Yet it is true that your ancient tenant-right is slipping fast out of your hands. I may be a revolutionist, but you weave and dig for half wages. I am a “Jacobin,” but you are fast becoming paupers.
You may observe that I have not undertaken to write these letters in order to flatter you – to call you “sturdy yeomanry” and the like; in fact, I know you too well. I know your way of life, and I know that hunger is at most of your doors. A “sturdy yeomanry” is not bred upon yellow meal. Your fathers, who won the Boyne and defended Derry, did not part with their Christian food and take trans-Atlantic rations in exchange. I know how it stands with you.
The “gentry,” the “noble lords,” and fat squires (the men you won the Boyne and defended Derry for) have made a sorry yeomanry of you. They have taken the pluck out of you pretty well. While you had the spirit even to celebrate the exploits of your fathers by flaunting an orange and purple banner on the 12th of July these great patrons of yours in their “landlord Parliament” got what they called a “law” made to forbid you to hold your customary possessions – a thing that would be forbidden in no other land in Europe – but when the famine came the “law” was allowed to expire, and you may walk now if you have the heart.
It is neither to taunt nor to flatter you that I speak of these things; it is merely to remind you of matters that it may be useful for you to think of when any agent or sub-agent comes, to ask you to declare your glorious attachment to the glorious Constitution and your unalterable resolution to resist anarchy and defy the Pope.
The truth of the matter is, and you all know and feel it, that the “laws” in this land are not just laws, do not answer the purpose of laws (which is to protect the rights of all alike), and are, indeed, considerably worse than no laws.
Did you ever hear of an “anarchy” or “Jacobinism” that slew a million of men, women, and children in one year? Did you ever hear of an uncivilised and savage country so very uncivilised and savage that those who cultivated the soil, regularly delivered up the produce to others and died of hunger when they had reaped the harvest? No. It needs the skill of educated legislators and a regular government to do that – it needs a “glorious Constitution in Church and State” to do it.
Let us see what Jacobinism and revolution specially mean. These things began in France, sixty years ago, when the first French Revolution befell. France was then a poor, rack-rented, over-taxed country, somewhat as Ireland is now, only not half so miserable. And do you know what the Jacobins and anarchists did? Why, they abolished nobility, and landlordism, and church tithes, and rack-rents, and they gave the farmers of France the whole soil of France to cultivate for their own use and benefit.
There was a good deal of trouble, to be sure, in their process, because the nobles and landlords made great resistance, as was very natural, and cried out piteously about “rights of property,” and anarchy, infidelity, destruction of ancient families (as old-established gangs of robbers always call themselves), overthrow of time-honoured institutions, “throne and altar,” “Church and State” – just as they would be sure to do here in the like case – and asked foreign Powers to help them with money and arms to fasten their yoke more firmly than ever round the necks of their own people – just as the same tribe here are found running to the English Parliament to get coercion Bills for the same purpose – and those men who urged on the people to do themselves right were called Jacobins, and infidels, and philosophers, and many other bad names; and indeed there was a great deal of confusion, cruelty and misery, as there always must be for a time when the mass of the People are driven to take their affairs into their own hands – but the end of it was, the class of nobles was destroyed, the great estates of proprietors were cut up and allotted to small farmers, and France has been a rich, independent and prosperous country ever since.
Do you see anything so very hideous and horrible in this kind of Jacobinism? Does it frighten you much, the idea of holding, each man of you, the land you occupy as your own domain forever?
Ah! But you say what has all this to do with Repeal? Repeal is a Papist movement, and Papists want ascendancy, and if we had not Protestant England to back us the number of Catholics in Ireland would so preponderate that they could carry anything they liked against us.
Now, I do assure you, my friends, that, except yourselves, there is nobody in all Ireland dreaming of religious distinctions in politics, and such nonsense is kept alive only by our worshipful grand masters with their prate about Jezebel and the Man of Sin.
If you look all over the Continent of Europe you will perceive that the fullest and freest toleration, or rather the most unreserved religious equality, has been everywhere established, and that Catholic countries have taken the lead in this – especially those Catholic countries which have got their revolutions over.
In France and Belgium complete religious equality has long been acknowledged. In Italy, the moment they saw Austria’s back turned, complete religious equality was proclaimed. Whenever any of the German States becomes its own master religious equality is the first thing the people insist upon.
In truth, religious penalties and disqualifications are now nowhere to be found save as the worn-out tools and engines of some old tyranny or other. The people have no interest in them at all, see no meaning in them, and desire, above all things, to have done with them for ever. It may be laid down as a rule, admitting of no exception, that in these later ages, wherever the sovereignty of the People is established, there religious ascendancy can stand no longer.
But the reason why your grand masters and grand chaplains endeavour to represent the national movement in Ireland as a movement for religious ascendancy is tolerably plain. It is merely to disguise from you the true meaning and drift of it. “Repeal,” they tell you, involves a religious war, and penal laws against Protestants and seizures of forfeited estates.
But I tell you that no Repealer in Ireland cares a rush whether you admit seven sacraments or only two; no sane Repealer ever thinks of the forfeited estates, or would dare to propose in any assembly of three that title to landed property should be distributed on such pretext.
Neither does “Repeal” simply mean the revocation of the Act of Legislative Union passed in 1800 and the re-establishment of the jobbing Parliament of Irish landlords contemplated with so much reverence by Mr. Grattan. That Parliament is a very fine thing to talk or sing about. It has historic associations of a theatric sort; but no Irish peasant or working man will ever pull a trigger for the sake of restoring it.
What, then, is the true value of that mighty movement that has stirred the millions of our Catholic countrymen for so many years? What hope – what faith is it that has sustained them through so many famines – that has drawn them together in multitudinous assemblages on a hundred hillsides to call the earth and the heavens to witness their wrongs and their resolves? What is this great vague national aspiration, think you?
To impose penalties on your worship? – To take forfeited estates from Saxon aristocrats and vest them in Milesian aristocrats? – To enjoy the honour and glory of seeing Irish nobles and gentlemen sitting in College Green?
My good friends, what Irish Repealers really want is, that they may have leave to live, and not die; they want to be made sure that what they show they shall also reap; they want a home and a foothold on a soil, that they may not be naked and famishing beggars in their own land.
In one word – they demand Ireland for the Irish – not for the Irish gentry alone. They desire not to rob the Protestants, but to bridle the exterminators, be they Protestant or Catholic (and some of the cruellest are Catholics). They demand back, not forfeited estates, but the long-withheld and denied right of human beings.
And, inasmuch as Irish landlordism is maintained here by the English connection, and the English connexion is perpetuated by Irish landlordism, they can see no way to put an end to either but by destroying both.
Now, this – this, and nothing else – is the “Repeal” that stirs and rouses and thrills through the ancient Irish nation from sea to sea. It is essentially not only a national movement, but also – why not admit it? – a class movement.
You have heard of romantic young enthusiasts, or Constitutional idiots, inspired by Grattan’s rigmarole, denying with chivalrous indignation that there is any question of class against class involved here. Perish the thought!
They say Irish gentlemen armed for the honour of Ireland in ’82, and shall they not do so again? Think of Charlemont! Think of Leinster! Names to conjure with! These romantic enthusiasts and Constitutional idiots refuse to see that “Irish gentlemen” acted then as they act now upon the true gentlemanlike instinct. They armed for Ireland and rents, places and jobs now. “Why should they not join us? Why not lead us! Ah! Why?”
Simply, gentlemen – it is a hard saying – simply because their interest is the other way – because they know that the end of British dominion here would be the end of them.
No wonder, therefore, that they try to conceal from you the true nature of the Irish movement; no wonder the grand masters and their agents, bailiffs and bog bailiffs exhort you to resist “Popery” and withstand the woman who sitteth upon the seven hills. They would fain draw away your eyes in any direction – to Rome, to Jericho, to Timbuctoo, but at all events from your own fields and haggards.
Consider this account which I have given to you of the true nature and meaning of the movement which is called for want of a better name “Repeal,” and bethink yourself whether you, the Protestant farmers and labourers of the North, have in this matter any interest distinct from that of the Catholic farmers and labourers of the South, the East, and the West.
If you still doubt that a hankering after religious ascendancy is at the bottom of it all, I ask you to consult the Dublin newspapers of July and August, 1846, the period when the old, corrupt, sectarian, money-gathering, and hypocritical association of O’Connell was broken up and abandoned by honest men merely because it was corrupt, money-gathering and hypocritical, but especially because it was sectarian.
At the least meeting before this break-up, before leaving that Hall of Humbug for ever, I, who now address you, said (I quote from the Freeman’s Journal):
“I am one of the Saxon Irishmen of the North, and you want that race of Irishmen in your ranks more than any other. You cannot well afford to drive even one away from you, however humble and uninfluential. And let me tell you, friends, this is our country as well as yours. You need not expect to free it from the mighty power of England by yourselves – you are not able to do it. Drive the Ulster Protestants away from your movement by needless tests and you perpetuate the degradation both of yourselves and them. Keep them at a distance from you, make yourselves subservient to the old and well-known English policy of ruling England always by one party or the other and England will keep her hell upon both your necks for ever.”
This was less than two years ago. A small band of men left the aforesaid Hall of Humbug on that day, and ever since its influence declined, its treasury sank, its audiences thinned away. Not all the bluster and blarney and cant and craft of “mighty leaders,” and even, I regret to say, of some “revered prelates,” were able to save it. Why was this?
Because the Irish people despised the hypocrisy and loathed the corruption, but especially because they were heartily sick of the sectarianism that kept you away from our ranks.
If you believe this plain account of the matter, what, then is your duty? Is it to meet together, as poor Mr. Gregg’s Protestant operatives did the other night, and pass resolutions about vital religion and the necessity of revoking the Maynooth grant?
Your friend and fellow-countryman,