“The Irish are a weak, cowardly, ignorant and brutal people.” – English writers, passim.
I have endeavoured in my former letters to treat the question of Nationality, in relation to the Protestants, as a religious sect, forming the minority of the population, and, therefore, justly jealous to secure themselves against any attempt which the majority, or its leaders, might make on their religious liberty.
If I have induced a single brother-Protestant to regard the question of Irish independence as deserving to be canvassed on its own merits, irrespective of sectarianism, I am well rewarded. But the subject is too important to be passed from even thus. I shall soon return to it.
Suffer me now to ask my co-religionists to weigh the value of the objections to our making a struggle for independence.
The first and most common objection is, that we are not strong enough for a nation.
This objection takes many forms, and must be met in various ways. With one man it appears in such loose statistics as “little island,” “few people.” Another offers some much military dogma as that “if England had not us, some other country would.” Another dwells on England’s overbearing and insatiate power; and another on the duration of our slavery, as a proof that hard destiny is against us for ever and for ever.
Well, then, are we strong enough to keep the place of a nation, if we got into it? I rarely meet men who sit down gravely to canvass this who do not end by admitting it, and throwing the whole difficulty upon – “how are we to become a nation?” I shall try and answer that, too, some other time; but now, suppose Ireland independent. Fancy her to have a Senate of Irishmen, the choice of their native districts, sitting in our Capital, occupied day after day in discussing and deciding upon Irish measures. The conditions of the peasants, the demands of the manufacturers, and the projects of the merchants of Ireland, would occupy them. They would have no distant colonies to distract their attention, consume their genius, and school them into the habits of oppression. They would not be inclined nor obliged to forego the consideration of Irish agriculture, in order to canvass the Canadian boundary – nor leave Irish manufactures to sink or swim, as our rich neighbours wished, while they scuffled for the plunder of China. The harbours of Munster – the roads of Leinster – the trade of Ulster – the fisheries of Connaught – the shipping of Derry, and Cork, and Galway – the looms of Belfast and Dublin – the tillage of Armagh and Wexford – the colleges, the schools, the literature, the fine arts of every province – the land and sea – the wealth, the virtue, and the honour of Ireland – would engross their labours, while a spark of goodness remained in any sect or class of us.
This would not make Ireland an Elysium. We should still have our faults and sorrows. But the question now is, not what would be the extent of service from a national government, but could it exist? Could such a government as I have mentioned, guarded and beloved by a people made happy by their legislation, and united by the example of their charity – with a National Militia trained and ready to rally round their standard – with an Irish navy encircling our coasts – with arts, and arms, and literature, and all that ennobles and marks out a nation – with such internal statesmanship as a land containing men of all the great races and creeds of Europe could supply – and such alliances as that statesmanship, aided by inoffensive industry, could win – tell me, oh! Tell me, could not we then guard our independence?
There are few hearts in Irish Protestant bosoms that will not as freely and proudly answer, “Yes,” as any Roman Catholic’s in the land.
But heads, not hearts, must decide. He who would select his course upon the subject of Irish independence should sit down and weigh well whether we have means and might to sustain that independence; and if he sees no obstacle to it, save the disunion of Irishmen, he should, instead of resisting the effort for freedom, or sitting down in despair, or, what is quite as pestilent, railing against every man who holds back from agitation, he should apply his whole powers – tongue, purse, and pen – to spreading the conviction that disunion is the sole obstacle to independence – he should strive till his energies cracked, to pull Irishmen together, and unite them in mutual love and a common freedom.
Ireland (whether a nation or not) must endure such storms as blow over every land, fanning the vigorous into strength, tumbling the decayed, bending the cautious, and persevering and trying all things. Provincialism cannot free her from the hazards to which nationality would expose her. There is no sanctity in slavery. The dungeon is less safe than the hill-side.
Therefore, in estimating the capacity of Ireland to maintain a Native Government, let no man torture his ingenuity to frame such a conjunction of disasters as would ensure her overthrow. Tried by such a test, the largest nation as is unfit for independence as the smallest. Russia, or England, or France, would be condemned on such a trial. Decay is the destiny of the hugest empires, nor does their size insure their continuance. Athens had as lasting a foundation as Rome – Tyre and Carthage lived more years than the Parthian or Macedonian states – Venice had a longer pedigree than kingly France – and the freedom of Switzerland has witnessed the rise and fall of many an empire.
Still there is an amount of strength necessary to render the continuance of independence probable; and if a country does not possess that strength, it may deserve consideration whether it should not league with small neighbouring states subject to a like danger, yet not large enough to inflict the like mischief.
Thus, if Norway or Scotland were too weak to stand alone, they might form some federal or still closer union.
To test the time-worthiness of Irish independence, it behoves a man, in the first place, to examine well into the strength and resources of the country.
I shall go into some details of these resources and that strength in my next letter; but such details can only be well judged by unprejudiced men. On which side then does the prejudice lie in this country? Against Ireland, as it seems to me.
Would that each man who flings around him doubts and sneers on the power of Ireland would pause. Not merely to blush for the feeling that could lead him to treat his country’s weakness (if ‘twere weak) with irreverence and contempt, instead of silence and sorrow, or silence and exertions to serve it, should he pause – no, but to track up to their kennel these feelings and opinions, and see whether they are just.
The reasons which prejudice all Irishmen, of all parties against the belief in Ireland’s power of maintaining her freedom, arise from false views of the past and the present. England has had possession of our capital, with very few and short intervals, since 1171. During this long time, too, she has maintained a continual struggle to extend her dominion, or her religion, or her language, ways, and manners, over this country, with indifferent success. The strength she spent, the disasters she suffered, and, still more, the crimes she committed, embittered her spirit against Ireland. She calumniated the intellect, the language, the music and literature, the laws, the morals, the valours, the skill – nay, the very climate of this kingdom. All enemies, even the most transient and fair, do judge and speak ill of one another; but as her enmity was more enduring and her aggressions more varied and incessant, so her wrath and evil speaking were more black and unscrupulous than those of any other foe on record. If any one doubts the fact, let him look over the English books on Irish history and Ireland – let him begin with the graphic blunders of Cambrensis, and plod his way, as I have done, through the uncivil chroniclers, from thence till he reaches the masterly cruelty of act and word under Queens Mary and Elizabeth (and the one treated Ireland as badly as the other, so far as she had power) – let him go lightly over the hard speeches of Bacon, and Sir John Davies, and Stafford. By this time he will be somewhat seasoned, and it is well for him to be so. If he entered on the times of the English republicans unprepared, he would fling down their writings as the most infamous aggregation of peculating and malicious falsehood that ever was put together. I defy any man to deny the fact, that in the whole range of Republican and Whig pamphlets, printed for England from 1639 to 1693, there is not one of them which does not contain wilful or retailed falsehoods, and which does not overflow with the most brutal language towards the Irish. Nor was this always flung at the anti-English party here. The Royalists, who ruined Ireland under Lord Ormond, were hardly less assailed than the “mere Irish;” and John Milton, having blotted his page with enormous calumnies against the Irish Roman Catholics, retained vigour enough to blackguard the Ulster Presbyterians in a style unsurpassed for eloquence and insolence since scolding began. Throughout the last century the English historians copied into their books the rubbish of the London pamphleteers, while those pamphleteers were succeeded by a race only a little less unjust; and thus the pedigree of insolence has been transferred to the present time, and to the English books and journals of the day. You will find a similar strain of falsehood and incivility running through the proclamations of the English Government. The English acts of parliament, too, condescended to abuse the Irish through preamble and clause, and with all the solemnity in the world enacted against us coarse epithets, as well as bloody laws.
Nor was this entirely the result of anger – policy entered largely into it. It was comfortable for themselves to use and hear ill names of the race they robbed and slaughtered; it confirmed the doubting and disinterested portions of both the English and Anglo-Irish communities into allowing or aiding the system of spoilation; and, lastly, it was made use of to deter foreign nations from interfering in the cause, or listening to the applications of the victimized Irish.
For all these reasons, and because falsehoods, once alive, may take ages to die, English conversation, literature, and public documents, convey an unjust and falsely disparaging account of the resources, military achievements, character, and abilities of the Irish. Moreover, we have not Irish statutes (they were burnt), Irish traditionary conversation (it was punished as treason), nor Irish literature (it was scanty, and in the Irish language), to neutralize the effects of these untruths. We take England’s account of Ireland, written, not calmly not disinterestedly, but in the excitement of war, of bigotry, and of oppression.
An Irishman of this day, no matter what his party, must be prejudiced against Ireland, and, just as you rise in society that prejudice must be the stronger, for English opinions have more influence.
Men, studying the strength of Ireland, should try to be more open to proof of it than to insinuations against it, inasmuch as the very language they use is redolent of injustice and misrepresentation against Ireland.
Another reason why men are prone to undertake Ireland’s strength, is her actual history, even when stripped of English misrepresentation. They forget that Ireland is in many respects stronger than she was, and that her past failure is no more proof of her unfitness of future success, than an infant’s inability to scale a mountain is of the future incapacity of the man to do so. Besides, strength is relative; and it is in relation to the countries likely to quarrel with or to aid her in a struggle that her power is now to be measured.
The mere fact, too, of Ireland’s actual provincialism demands some effort of the mind to calculate or conceive her position and power as a nation.
But the last and commonest prejudice is from men estimating the force which Ireland would possess under a permanent National Government by what it has now. It is with her present power she must win her way to freedom, and therein she labours under all the disadvantages of an impoverished, divided, disallied, and disarmed people; but, once she is free – once she is a nation, most of these ills would vanish. Soil and sea, head, heart, and hand, wielded by native rulers, would render her as unlike what she is now, as the starved and chained eagle is from the haughty and victorious bird which breaks the mist from the mountain top, and soars from sea to sky unrivalled and resistless.
If, then, any man who denies or doubts the power of Ireland to maintain her nationality, wishes to form a sound and wise opinion on it, he must constantly guard himself against the prejudices which we, as being accustomed to the books and traditions of the English, must feel against Ireland. He should strive to neutralize these prejudices by reading Irish patriotic accounts of Ireland; he should dwell long and fondly, and till he begins to sympathize with those brief periods of freedom she has in later ages enjoyed; and he should learn to judge her true position by a frequent study of her resources, and a comparison of these with the resources, civil and military, of other states which have enjoyed, still preserve, or are (like Hungary) in the act of acquiring, independence. Thus, and thus alone, can any man – English, Continental, or Irish – judge Ireland’s power to be free.