How far the Parliament which sat in Dublin in 1689 was right or wrong has been much disputed. As the history of it becomes more accurately and generally known, the grounds of this dispute will be cleared.
Nor is it of trifling interest to determine whether a Parliament, which not only exercised great influence at the time, but furnished the enactors of the Penal Laws with excuses, and the achievers of the Revolution of 1782 with principles and a precedent, was the good or evil thing it has been called.
The writers commonly quoted against it are, Archbishop King, Harris, Leland; those in its favour, Leslie, Curry, Plowden, and Jones. Of all these writers, King and Lesley are alone original authorities. Harris copies King, and Leland copies Harris, and Plowden, Curry, and Jones rely chiefly on Lesley. Neither Harris, Leland, nor Curry adds anything to our knowledge of the time. King (notwithstanding, as we shall show hereafter, his disregard of truth) is valuable as a contemporary of high rank; Lesley, also a contemporary, and of unblemished character, is still more valuable. Plowden is a fair and sagacious commentator; Jones, a subtle and suggestive critic on those times.
If, in addition, the reader will consult such authorities as the Letters of Lord Lieutenant Tyrconnell; the Memoirs of James the Second by himself; Histoire de la Révolution par Mazure; and the pamphlets quoted in this publication, and the notes to it, he will be in a fair way towards mastering this difficult question.
After all, that Parliament must be judged by its own conduct. If its acts were unjust, bigoted, and rash, no excuse can save it from condemnation. If, on the other hand, it acted with firmness and loyalty towards its king—if it did much to secure the rights, the prosperity, and the honour of the nation—if, in a country where property had been turned upside down a few years before, it strove to do justice to the many, with the least possible injury to the few—if, in a country torn with religious quarrels, it endeavoured to secure liberty of conscience without alienating the ultra zealous—and, finally, if in a country in imminent danger from a powerful invader and numerous traitors, it was more intent on raising resources and checking treason than would become a parliament sitting in peace and safety, let us, while confessing its fallibility, attend to its difficulties, and do honour to its vigour and intelligence.
Before we mention the composition of the Parliament, it will be right to run over some of the chief dates and facts which brought about the state of things that led to its being summoned. Most Irishmen (ourselves among the number) are only beginners at Irish history, and cannot too often repeat the elements: still the beginning has been made. It is no pedantry which leads one to the English invasion for the tap-root of the transactions of the seventeenth century.
Four hundred years of rapacious war and wild resistance had made each believe all things ill of the other; and when England changed her creed in the sixteenth century it became certain that Ireland would adhere to hers at all risks. Accordingly, the reigns of the latter, and especially of the last of the Tudors, witnessed unceasing war, in which an appetite for conquest was inflamed by bigotry on the English side, while the native, who had been left unaided to defend his home, was now stimulated by foreign counsels, as well as by his own feelings, to guard his altar and his conscience too.
James the First found Ireland half conquered by the sword; he completed the work by treachery, and the fee of five-sixths of Ulster rewarded the “energy” of the British. The proceedings of Strafford added large districts in the other provinces to the English possessions. Still, in all these cases, as in the Munster settlement under Elizabeth, the bulk of the population remained on the soil. To leave the land was to die. They clung to it amid sufferings too shocking to dwell on; they clung to it under such a serfhood as made the rapacity of their conquerors interested in retaining them on the soil. They clung to it from necessity and from love. They multiplied on it with the rapidity of the reckless. Yet they retained hope, the hope of restitution and vengeance. The mad ferocity of Parsons and Borlace hastened the outbreak of 1641. That insurrection gave back to the native his property and his freedom, but compelled him to fight for it—first, against the loyalists; next, against the traitors; and lastly, against the republicans. After a struggle of ten years, distinguished by the ability of the Council of Kilkenny, and the bravery of Owen Roe and his followers, the Irish sunk under the abilities and hosts of Cromwell. Those who felt his sway might well have envied the men who conquered and died in the breach of Clonmel, or fell vanquished or betrayed at Letterkenny and Drogheda. During the insurrection of 1641, the royal government, at once timid and tyrannical, united with the sordid capitalists of London to plunder the Irish of their lands and liberty, if not to exterminate them. In order to effect this, a system of unparalleled lying was set afoot against the natives of this kingdom. The violence which naturally attended the sudden resumption of property by an ignorant, excited, and deeply wronged people, was magnified into a national propensity to throat-cutting. Exaggerations the most barefaced were received throughout England. Deaths, which the English-minded Protestant, the Rev. Mr. Warner, has ascertained to have been under 12,000—reckoning deaths from hardships along with those by the sword—were rated in England at 150,000, and by John Milton at 616,000. No wonder the English nation looked upon us as bloody savages; and no wonder they looked approvingly at the massacres and confiscations of the Lord Protector. But the Irish deemed they were free from crime in resuming by force of arms the land which arms had taken from them; they regarded the bloodshed of ’41 as a deplorable result of English oppression; they fought with the hearts of resolved patriots till 1651.
The restoration of the Stuarts was hailed as the restoration of their rights. They were woefully disappointed. A compromise was made between the legitimists and the republicans; the former were to resume their rank, the latter to retain their plunder, Ireland was disregarded. The mockery of the Court of Claims restored less than one-third of the Irish lands. While in 1641 the Roman Catholics possessed two-thirds of Ireland, in 1680 they had but one-fifth. Besides, the new possessors were of an opposite creed, and fortified themselves by Penal Laws. Under such circumstances the aim of most men would be much the same, namely, to take the first opportunity of regaining their property, their national independence, and religious freedom. With reference to their legislation on the two latter points, doubts may be entertained how much should be complained of; and even those who condemn that on the first, should remember that “the re-adjustment of all private rights, after so entire a destruction of their landmarks, could only be effected by the coarse process of general rules.”
Let us now run over a few dates, till we come to the event which gave the Irish this opportunity. On the 6th of February, 1685, Charles the Second died in the secret profession of the Roman Catholic faith, and his brother, James Stuart, Duke of York, succeeded him.
James the Second came to his throne with much of what usually wins popular favour. He united in his person the blood of the Tudor, Plantagenet, and Saxon kings of England, while his Scottish descent came through every king of Scotland, and found its spring in the Irish Dalriad chief, who, embarking from Ulster, overran Albany. In addition, James had morals better than those of his rank and time, as much intellect as most kings, and the reputation acquired from his naval administration, graced as it was by sea-fights in which no ship was earlier in action than James’s, and by at least one great victory—that over Opdam—fought near Yarmouth, on the 3rd June, 1665.
Yet the difference of his creed from that of his English subjects blew these popular recollections to shivers. He tried to enforce, first, toleration; and, secondly, perfect religious equality, and intended, as many thought, the destruction of that equality, by substituting a Roman Catholic for a Protestant supremacy; and the means he used for this purpose were such as the English Parliament had pronounced unconstitutional. He impeached the corporate charters by quo warranto, brought to trial before judges whom he influenced, as all his predecessors had done. He invaded the customs of the universities, as having a legal right to do so. He suspended the penal laws, and punished those who disobeyed his liberal but unpopular proclamations. Some noble zealots, the Russells and Sidneys, crossed his path in vain; but a few bold caballers, the Danbys, the Shaftesburys, and Churchills, by urging him to despotic acts, and the people to resistance, brought on a crisis; when, availing themselves of it, they called in a foreign army and drove out James, and swore he had abdicated; expelled the Prince of Wales, and falsely called him bastard; made terms with William, that he should have the crown and privy purse, and they the actual government; and ended by calling their selfish and hypocritical work, “a popular and glorious revolution.”
It is needless to follow up James’s quarrel with the university of Oxford, and his unsuccessful prosecution of the seven Bishops on the 29th of June, 1688, who, emboldened by the prospect of a revolution, refused to read his proclamation of indulgence. From the day of their acquittal, James was lost. Letters were circulated throughout England and Ireland, declaring the young Prince of Wales (who was born 10th June) spurious, and containing many other falsehoods, so as to shake men’s souls with rumours, and arouse popular prejudices. The army was tampered with; the nobles and clergy were in treaty with Holland. James not only refused to retract his policy till it was too late; but refused, too, the offer of Louis to send him French troops.
Similar means had been used by and against him in Ireland. Tyrconnell, who had replaced Clarendon as Lord Lieutenant in 1686, got in the charters of the corporations, reconstructed the army, and used every means of giving the Roman Catholics that share in the government of this country to which their numbers entitled them. And, on the other hand, the Protestant nobles joined the English conspiracy, and adopted the English plan of false plots and forged letters.
At length, on 4th November, 1688, Prince William landed at Torbay with 15,000 veterans. James attempted to bear up, but his nearest and dearest, his relatives and his favourites, deserted him in the hour of his need. It seems not excessive to say that there never was a revolution in which so much ingratitude, selfishness, and meanness were displayed. There is not one great genius or untainted character eminent in it. Yet it succeeded. On the 18th of December, William entered London; on the 23rd, James sailed for France; and in the February following the English convention declared he had abdicated.
These dates are, as Plowden remarks, important; for though James’s flight, on the 23rd of December, was the legal pretence for insurrection in the summer of 1689, yet negotiations had been going on with Holland through 1687 and 1688, and the Northern Irish formed themselves into military corps, and attacked the soldiers of the crown before Enniskillen, on the first week in December; and on the 7th December the gates of Derry were shut in the face of the king’s troops, facts which should be remembered in judging the loyalty of the two parties.