From The Fortnightly Review, November 1913.
Irish Protestantism remains, at least in its pulpits and politics, as distinctively a belligerent creed as when it first came to Ireland at the point of a Tudor sword.
For long it stood entrenched the Church of an alien aristocracy, holding as the first article of establishment the right to regard Ireland as an appanage of conquest, with title-deeds depending, like those of Islam, on the sword of the Lord; and in both cases, strange as it may sound, the victims of the invasion were Christian populations. Even to-day, when so much else has slipped from its control, the Church cannot in its prayers for the welfare of the State divest itself of the phraseology of conquest.
Irish Churchmen appeal every Sunday for the Lord Lieutenant ‘that he may wield the sword committed into his hand’—in the sure and certain hope that it is a Protestant and Unionist sword.
The Mussulman invaders of Eastern Europe were, however, much less capable men and less efficient dominators than their Protestant prototypes of the West. The Turk remained to the end a foreigner, and left the conquered races the enjoyment of their religion and their languages, along with much else that maintained a vivid national consciousness vigorous enough to finally oust the Conqueror by an appeal to that very sword on which he based his title. The ‘Protestant Bashaws of the West’ (as Lecky, in a flash of inspired sarcasm, termed them), while their point of view was very similar to that of the invaders of Thrace and Macedonia, were much abler than the Turk, drawn as they were from the most far-seeing people in Christendom. They perceived that a conquest such as theirs to endure must aim at the freedom of mind, no less than at the freeholds of the conquered. The Irish Christians, unlike their Eastern co-sufferers, were attacked not only in their lands and their Church; their laws, their customs, their very music, above all their language, and the literature that attached them to the past of their country were proscribed with equal penalties.
It was no less a crime to be ‘a mere Irishman’ than to be a Catholic. The terms were, indeed, synonymous.
Unlike the Eastern Christians beset by Islam, those of the West had no Balkan fastnesses, no Black Mountain, no stronghold of freedom to share with the Eagle whence, as from an eyrie, the unforgetting mind might again sweep down upon the plain to inspire ever to fresh struggle the heart and arm of a dispossessed people. The Munster Christian was less happy than his Macedonian fellow. His land was smaller, its fertility greater, its climate soft and winning, and its gracious character was imprinted on his own. It offered no refuge of retreat wherein an unconquered remnant might find a sure foothold for freemen with arms still in the hand. The struggle was not, indeed, abandoned without an effort, but the final overthrow on the plain of Aughrim left Ireland beaten to the dust. All she held dear was reft from her, and the long night of the Penal Days, as dark as was the ‘Turkish Night’ to the defeated Balkan Christians, settled down upon the land. Moreover, in a fight of this kind the Irishman was temperamentally unfitted to deal with his conquerors as were the Christians of the East with theirs.
As a late Lord Carnarvon once put it—‘the problem of Turkey in Europe is that while the Turk is wholly an Asiatic, the Christians are only half Christian.’ They gave their foe back blow for blow, and nursed a deadly vengeance in their hearts at war with every precept of the faith they professed.
No man could say the Irish were only half Christian. Possibly of all the peoples of Europe they were those in whom the precepts of their religion had the strongest hold. Their faith taught them the duty of forgiveness and self-sacrifice, and despite the frailty of human effort, as a people they have probably given the most enduring example of constancy to the principles their Church enjoined as the rule of life and conduct. They met oppression with the folded arms, not of despair, but of resignation, and in the end they won by the very quality that seemed to have lost them all.
But, even as in this they differed so much from the Eastern Christians, so their oppressors differed so greatly from the Turk that the analogy, while it offers many striking parallels to the student of history, must not be pushed too far. The English possessed, moreover, a quality that has not, I think, been sufficiently emphasised in their own histories, although very apparent in their rule over subjugated peoples. They were always better than their rulers; more liberal than their governments; in advance of their own laws. Thus, while the Protestant State in its relation to Catholic Ireland was wholly bad—abominable would not be too harsh a word to apply—the men sent to Ireland to ensure the conquest were touched with a frequent regard for the fallen that in the end was bound to produce a Bedell, a Molyneux, a Swift, a Grattan. As the conqueror drew to the conquered, the conquest itself receded, and the two peoples found they had but one country. An Irish nation, compounded of Catholic and Protestant, forgetting uninspiring feuds in a growing common aim, was a thing the State could not tolerate, and so the process of re-conquest had to be again and again attempted by methods that of necessity changed with the times. In 1600 massacre and confiscation it was thought would Anglicise the island. In 1800 these methods could not be repeated. The confiscators had largely surrendered to their environment. A common national life was finding expression in a Parliament that, by law, was restricted to one creed and one class only. The English planters were again exemplifying how much better they were than their laws, and Ireland was again showing her ability to nationalise all who dwelt within her shores.
The danger this time of a united Ireland could not be overcome by a fresh importation of foreign settlers. The days of invasion were over. The State must be maintained against the people by a wholly novel expedient—this time one not of invasion, but of withdrawal. The Protestants must be withdrawn from the softening influences of Irish national life, and separated by an irrevocable union with other interests from all interest in their own country. In this way alone it was thought could the peril of a united Ireland be averted. Since if left to themselves Protestant conqueror and Papist serf must clearly unite to form one free people, that could not be controlled or exploited from without, it was evident that the political interest of the Protestants must be transferred from their adopted country—now, indeed, their own land—to that wherein the State was resident. The formula was a Union of Great Britain and Ireland: the fact was a disunion of Irish Catholic and Irish Protestant that it was hoped might be made eternal. To withdraw the one and a half million of Protestants from political life within their own country, and to unite them compulsorily with the eight or nine millions of British Protestants across the sea would remove the danger the State perceived to its autocratic sway in Ireland from Catholic and Protestant coming finally together in one common field of political and national activity. Once that union were effected and oppressor had merged with oppressed, Ireland, it was feared, would find herself far too self-reliant and strong to be exploited by the governing classes that then made up the State.
The union of the two kingdoms as a legislative formula would hide the true design which was to be the final laying of that ‘haggard and haunting problem,’ the union of Catholic and Protestant in Ireland.
The Union was conceived, then, in no pious aspiration after union, but in an impious hope to make disunion perpetual. The four millions of Irish Catholics thus deprived of all hope of giving expression to their wishes in a common national assembly within their own country could be kept politically and socially apart from the Protestants, and could be controlled by the forms of a constitution that should rest, not on the force of the popular will, but on the physical weight of a foreign ignorance that the State believed it might count on to endure to the end. In this, again, as time has shown, the English people proved themselves better than their rulers. The ascendancy of the governing classes in Ireland, threatened with infringement and eventual disappearance by the coming together of the peoples, might thus be assured, and the aristocracy could find in the certain continuance of prerogative and privilege threatened by an Irish Parliament the best reasons for its extinction.
The loss of national liberty was to be mitigated by a liberal misuse of the national purse. The public wealth of Ireland that a free Parliament would have directed to national ends was largely retained by a privileged class to be expended as they thought fit in their own interest and that of their dependents. For the rest, if any question arose that these could not themselves deal with from the resources of repression they controlled, the State could always add the public forces of Great Britain, whose population, knowing nothing of Ireland and hard put to it to fight its own battle with privilege and power at home, could not well dissent from the use of its forces by the Executive in a country it had no knowledge of save through the interested misrepresentations of a class.
It is not to be supposed that all the Irish Protestants assented to this scheme. The great mass of them were, indeed, strongly opposed to it. Wherever an appeal could be made to the public will the State proposal to disunite Ireland was rejected with unanimous scorn. Public bodies, Orange societies, corporations of every trade and calling in the Kingdom protested against the project.
The Irish people were declared to be one and indivisible. The differences of faith were held to be no bar to a common nationality. It was that nationality itself that was threatened by the project of the State and the people, wherever they had right, power, or means to be heard, protested against a scheme of State usurpation that was, they asserted, as fatal to the future of their country as a foreign conquest.
But that, in truth, was the very end in view.
A Government that still held itself to be a Government of invasion, an Executive of conquest, met these expressions of national feeling by the methods of the conqueror.
The Union once effected in defiance of the feeling of Irish Protestants and the national sentiment of Irish Catholics, it became of vital necessity to divide the two irrevocably. The coming together of the two peoples, two far more in religious beliefs than in blood, the silent merging of animosities purposely kept alive by the agents of authority, was now a thing easier to check than when a national Parliament offered an opening door to combination and mutual understanding. Just as the sublime Porte found its ablest agents of misgovernment and extortion among the intellectuals of the conquered communities, and relied on Phanariote statesmen to make good the irregularities of irresponsible rule, so the sublime Porte of Downing Street called to its aid all that was ablest, and all that was worst in the natural equipment of the Irishman. Fitzgibbon, Plunket, Toler, Hussey, to name but a few, all who put personal gain or subsidiary interests above the public welfare of their country, were enlisted on the side of authority. The Established Church, from the first a political organisation, was guaranteed a perpetual privileged existence by a fundamental provision of the Act of Union. Representation in the foreign Parliament was assured to its nominees. Landlordism that must, if left to an Irish Parliament to deal with, have more and more attuned to the feelings and needs of the Irish people, was divorced from all observance to those who supported it, and allied to the governing classes of Great Britain, who were pledged to its maintenance as an outwork of their own authority and influence at home. With the destruction of their Parliament and the abstraction of their natural leaders, the pledging of the Church and the landed aristocracy to an external authority, the Protestants of Ireland were led to look across the water whence the law-making machinery had been transferred for the maintenance of that law and order they had themselves been prepared to share with their Catholic fellow- countrymen. Every effort of the dispossessed Catholics to claim a part in the framing of the laws being now resisted by the external law makers, it became no difficult thing to represent this popular action as aimed at the law itself. Thus the mass of Protestants, insensibly no doubt at first, became identified with the selfish interests of those who had betrayed them, and regarded the resistance to varied and growing Catholic claims as a duty they owed to the maintenance of law itself. The Catholics, on the other hand, were represented as assailing Protestant institutions where, in truth, they were but asserting the claims of the whole community. The interests of State, of Church, of Law, and of Landlord rule were now identical, and Protestant farmers who might have questioned, or even attacked the last, were so identified with the former that any union between them and the reforming Catholic peasantry became well-nigh impossible. In the days of an Irish Parliament, the Presbyterian population of North-East Ulster had shown a strong inclination to side with Catholic Ireland. Themselves not without grievances of their own, they sympathised with the greater evils that oppressed the bulk of their fellow-countrymen. Having, then, no privileged position in Church or State to maintain by holding down the members of another creed, they were prepared to share the Constitution with those who were excluded altogether from its scope, even as they themselves were from many of its higher benefits.
To maintain the Union, therefore, it became essential to identify Presbyterian with Churchman, and to weld these two differing elements of protest into an irreconcilably anti-Irish mass. The task was not an easy one, but the resources of Phanariote diplomacy were never more brilliantly displayed than in the combination that was eventually effected between the sturdy Liberalism and generous simplicity of the Ulster Presbyterian with the selfish greed and ferocious intolerance of the Ascendancy. Both lost in the transaction.
Those who had flogged or hanged in 1798 an Antrim Presbyterian with as little compunction as a Wexford Catholic, were forced to forego a less profitable prejudice against a part of the Irish nation in order to maintain the more lucrative exclusion of the great Catholic whole. To identify the Ulster Presbyterians with themselves, the State and its Establishment in Ireland abandoned an opposition to non-conformity which it was dangerous to assert and by a mitigation of landlord obstinacy in that part of the country, as well as by an admission to a minor share in public office and revenue, it sought to widen the gulf of creed that separated the Presbyterian farmer from his Catholic neighbour. Widening social opportunity increased the area of contact on one side, while it further narrowed on the other the Presbyterian outlook on the receding bulk of Irish life. Every prejudice was fostered and fomented through channels of so-called public instruction in order to de-liberalise a mind naturally prone to equality.
The rectory captured the manse, and the sturdy sons of the simpler faith were content to see their homely kirk transformed into a chapel-of-ease for those who despised it; while the impregnable rock of Holy Scripture, like the Zulu warrior’s assegai when he ‘sees red,’ became the weightiest missile of assault in the hands of men who ‘saw green’ every time Catholic Ireland dared to lift its battered head.
The rapid growth of the Catholic population, and along with it the fight for emancipation of Church and land, were represented as threats to a Protestant community hopelessly outnumbered by Jebuzites and Perizites. The sole guarantee for religious freedom in Ireland was represented as being indissolubly bound up with the Union with Great Britain.
Every outrage committed by some desperate and starving peasant in the South or West was represented as aimed, not at an evil system of Government, but at the position of Protestants in Ireland. A tithe war, followed by a land war of revolutionary scope, and of necessity waged by a Catholic population against a Protestant Executive and aristocracy, came to be regarded, in the absence of a national assembly, as a war of Catholics against Protestants. Where sectarian hatred had taken the place of national feeling, and public discussion was transferred from the Senate to the Pulpit, the fact was suppressed, or hidden in the reek of bigotry, that all the crimes denounced against the Catholic Land Leaguer in 1880 had been previously committed by Protestant Ulster fighting the same evil with the same weapons for the same end.
The flame of the land war that wrapped Connaught and Munster a century later was but a pale reflection of the fires of incendiarism that had gone up from Ulster in 1770 when landlordism there had sought to deal with a Protestant tenantry as it still dealt with its Catholic serfs of the south and west. But the hangings, maimings, and murders of the Protestant tiller were conveniently covered from sight when a Catholic plough drove the same furrow through the same rank soil. In a word, Protestantism became identified with the very thing Protestants as Irishmen had detested; and the Union carried, in defiance of their constitutional opposition, had now by virtue of its vices assumed the proportions of a Constitution, to shield them from a people from whom they had been carefully and artificially separated throughout a century.
The spectacle was witnessed as the century advanced of a Church not elsewhere identified with Liberal ideas in the forefront of a popular upheaval, and of those who were elsewhere the champions of popular liberties allied with the forces of autocracy, and protesting that rather than share the law-making power with their fellow-countrymen, they preferred to be ruled through an irresponsible executive.
The Union had too well accomplished the aim of those who planned it. It had disunited the people of Ireland and ranged them far apart. Ascendancy, indeed, had gone, but in the battle to destroy it Protestant and Catholic Irishmen had been so skilfully parted, and for so long denied a common meeting place, that when at length the latter won a great fight for human liberties, they found themselves widely severed from those whose cause they had also sustained. Every blow the Catholic peasant had struck at the framework of irresponsible tyranny in Ireland had been ablow directed at a common evil; but since the latter had arranged that its defence should be entrusted to Protestant hands, its defeat was at every stage represented as a defeat of Protestant interests and a triumph for the forces of another Church.
After more than a century of a Union that was to unite Ireland and Great Britain into one people, we find not only has the Union failed in this, its primary function, and sole justification for the means employed, but Unionists themselves assure us it has split Ireland irrevocably in two. Where it found one Irish people, after a hundred and twelve years of resolute effort it now offers us two. But the extraordinary claim does not end there. Because it has failed to achieve the union of two kingdoms intended, and has accomplished a disunion of two peoples not intended (so we were told), this disunion must now be regarded as sacrosanct and maintained to the end of time. Because under it the peoples of Ireland and Great Britain stand still apart, while under it the people of Ireland itself have been severed into ‘implacable enemies,’ we are asked to regard this instrument of enmity as the sole security for what is termed amity in Ireland. A separation of one people into two hostile bodies, artificially achieved in the face of nature, is to be regarded as a natural law, and enforced in defiance of reason, judgment, and religion. A more intolerable form of ‘amity’ it is hard to conceive where the semblance can be maintained only by keeping the constituents carefully hidden from each other. Were there no other argument for Home Rule than that its opponents select as the chief objection to it, then common sense, if nothing else, should insist that Home Rule must be tried. An internal disunion so conspicuous based on an external union so illusory should tempt us to reverse the process, and ensure the attainment of the larger area of good will by first assuring the smaller area of reconciliation.
The main argument, then, if such it can be called, now offered against Home Rule seems, to my Ulster Irish mind, to constitute the chief argument in its favour.