From The United Irishman, January 12, 1901.
I propose to be retrospective and in a manner prophetic, and if in the course of these articles I may go over ground already well-trodden, my excuse must be that the temper of the time and the evident prospects which a knowledge of the truth may make realities, compel one even at the risk of being accused of re-iteration to call attention to a number of matters that demand the attention of all who seriously regard the present and future state of Ireland. I propose to prove that the temporary loss of the Irish language has been responsible for much more of our present condition than is generally imagined, and to show that till we have impregnated every section of our people with the ideal of a Gaelic-speaking nationality that genuine progress in the sense understood by the present day, in the sense of a comfortable and contented people, is at least a very dubious possibility.
We have, I believe, reached that height of intelligence when the greater section of our people believes that the created legislature of a foreign parliament cannot by any chance, give us an Irish Nation. In spite of all the ecstasies of the newspapers anyone can see that the last ten years of turmoil and temporising have wrought such harm to the cause of what is called “moderate” Nationalism as to cripple its effectiveness for years to come, if not forever. The country, however, is not now more than in any other period without an innate belief in the righteousness of the path she has generally trodden or in the prospects of the future, but then she has recognised that the age of miracles is gone, and that the only road to success now is a knowledge of what one wants, of one’s means of securing it, and more than either a determination to obtain it at all hazards. The country in short wants a policy, that is to say Freedom, individual and national Freedom of the fullest and broadest character. Freedom to think and act as to each best beseems; National Freedom to stand equal with the rest of the world, to support the claims of every people to work along their own lines, to develop their own ideas, and thus advance the common intellectual interests of mankind. People who sneer, like certain new writers, at “Ireland a Nation” forget that there are others who hold by the ideal of a self-governing, self-supporting Ireland, besides the class who are stirred to enthusiasm by the oratory of a British Parliamentarian or the glare of a torchlight. There are students and thinkers who having satisfied themselves of Ireland’s capabilities for separate existence, see nothing inconsistent or quixotic in the beliefs which every Irish Irishman has held to a greater or less extent since it first became necessary to take cognisance of the existence of England, or rather of Englishmen. These beliefs I have chosen to denominate Gaelicism, and I have set out with the intention of showing that while they were held and practised generally by the people the influence of the foreigner in Ireland was practically nil, and in such wise I propose to show that so far from being a merely sentimental or academical movement, this Gaelicism which is again beginning to exercise the minds of our people is of all movements the most practical, and the best calculated to restore us to that state of mind which best becomes a people eager to occupy a definite and distinct place in the world’s life. I propose to show that while Ireland retained her Gaelicism she not only supported herself, but maintained a vast commercial intercourse with the European continent – and that in spite of all the agencies that the Crown and Government of England could employ against her – and further that not only did her own people practise their customs and fashions and direct commerce, but that also those of the strangers who came amongst them primarily to work against them were assimilated and influenced to such an extent they became more active against the London Government than those whom they came to quell.
Today and for many years back we have been regarding the land as the sole source of wealth in Ireland, and we have heard of the land as if Ireland has always depended on it as her only means of subsistence. How far that is true, we shall see later on, but a passage from an essay of Lord Dufferin’s, published as far back as 1867, may be useful en passant: –
“From the reign of Queen Elizabeth until within a few years of the Union, the various commercial confraternities of Great Britain never for a moment relaxed their relentless grip on the trades of Ireland. One by one each of our nascent industries was either strangled in its birth or handed over gagged and bound to the jealous custody of the rival interest in England, until at last every fountain of wealth was hermetically sealed, and even the traditions of commercial enterprise have perished through desuetude. What has been the consequences of such a system pursued with relentless pertinacity for over 250 years? This: that debarred from every other trade and industry the entire nation flung itself back on the land with as fatal an impulse as when a river whose current is suddenly impeded rolls back and drowns the valley it once fertilised.”
This to a great extent is the reason of the state of the land question today, the real germ of the trouble, however, being the change of ownership and title, caused by the substitution of the foreign for the native code of land laws, a matter which it did not, of course, suit Lord Dufferin to dwell upon.
It is a long hark back to pre-Christmas days, but it is necessary to show that commerce and industry was practised by the Gael long before the advent of any foreigner. The reader of W. A. Sullivan’s introductory volume to O’Curry’s “Manners and Customs” will find sufficient data to convince him of the commercial relations existing between Ireland and the great trading communities of the then-known world. We have positive proof in the collections of the Royal Irish Academy of the skill and artistic genius of the early Irish artificers. We see in the remains of cell and cross the advanced state of the handicrafts of those days. In the Book of Rights, and throughout O’Curry’s “Lectures” we find references going to show that artificers in textiles were equally as talented and perfect as their contemporaries in stone and the metals. The woollen trade especially is of the remotest antiquity in Ireland. In the Brehon Laws the various processes by which wool was prepared into cloth, teasing, cording, combing, spinning, weaving, napping and dyeing, are dealt with. The women of the tribes carried on this work, and the laws are very explicit in laying down the divisions of the raw material and of the cloth in different stages of its manufacture, which a woman should be entitled to take with her in case of separation from her husband, the proportions being adjusted by an estimate of the amount of labour expended by the wife on the wool or on the fabric. All the dyes necessary in the preparation of the various cloths were home grown. Some are still known and used by the peasantry, others have been forgotten or lost. All the great mantles of our heroes, of which we read so much in Irish romance, were made by the hands of these tribeswomen, and, in fact, as an article of revenue, manufactured cloth came very close to live stock. The cloak especially was esteemed a great treasure, and indeed only in our own day has it been discarded for the fripperies of Paris and the fashion plates of the London journals. While the higher ranks had of course the best that the age could provide, the humbler people were dressed in clothes composed almost entirely of woollen material. A thin stuff answered for shirting or vest, a thicker composed the tunic and the truis, or trousers, and the cloak was fashioned of frieze. The women had longer mantles than men, and wore them over a kirtle or gown which reached to the ankle. The Norman adventurers found an active industrial life in Ireland, for the Danish occupation, though it had interfered seriously with the higher artistic achievements of the people, and interrupted the continuance of artistic development, had scarcely, if at all, affected the production of textiles. They had not been long here till, as even the veriest tyro in Irish history knows, they began to follow the fashions and styles of dress of the natives. This, in the main, was due to their adoption of the Irish tongue, their marriage with Irish women, and the influence wrought upon them by the habits and mode of living around about them. This fancy to appear in the garb and style of the natives did not recommend itself to the Britishers in authority, and hence the Statute of Kilkenny passed in the reign of Edward III, and prohibiting the use of the Irish fashions in dress or language. Yet, though the English objected to the styles of the Irish tailors of the 14th century, they had no objection to the manufactures of the Irish looms, for we find Irish frieze allowed into England free of duty by an Act passed in the 28th year of this monarch’s reign. During the same time we have proofs that Irish serge was imported and held in high esteem by the merchants of Florence, and a celebrated Italian poet of the 14th century, Fazio degli Uberti, refers to Ireland as “a country worthy of renown for the beautiful serges she sends us.” In the reign of Henry VII an act was passed ordering the Irish lords who attended the Parliament to appear in the same Parliament robes as those of England or suffer a penalty, but the Act had little to no effect. In the next reign, Henry VIII, the citizens of Galway were ordered to “wear no mantles in the streets but cloaks or gowns, coats, doublets, and hose shapen after the English fashion, but made of the county cloth or any other it may please them to buy,” and every loyal woman was forbidden to wear “any kirtle or coat tucked up or embroidered with silk, or laid with uske after the fashion, or any mantle, coat, or hood of the said pattern.” Spenser some years later reviles the fashion in dress, more especially of the men. “The cloak,” he writes,
“…is a fit house for an outlaw, a meet bed for a rebel, and an apt cloak for a thief. Firstly, the outlaw, being for his many crimes and villainies banished from the towns and houses of honest men, and wandering in waste places, far from danger of law, maketh his mantle his house, and under it covereth himself from the wrath of heaven, from the offence of the earth, and from the sight of men. When it raineth it is his penthouse; when it bloweth it is his tent; when it freezeth it is his tabernacle. In summer he can wear it loose, in winter he can wrap it close; at all times he can use it, never heavy, never cumbersome. Likewise, for a rebel, it is serviceable; for in this war that he maketh – if at least it deserve the name of war, when he still flieth from his foe, and lurketh in the thick woods and strait passages, waiting for advantages – it is his bed, yea, and almost his household staff. For the wood is his house against all weathers, and his mantle is his couch to sleep in, therein lie wrappeth himself round, and croucheth himself strongly against the gnats, which to more in that country to more annoy the naked rebels whilst they keep the woods, and do more sharply wound them than their enemies’ swords or spears, which can seldom come nigh them. Yea, and oftentimes their mantle serveth them when they are near driven, being wrapped above their left arm, instead of a target; for it is hard to cut through with a sword. Besides it is light to bear, light to throw away, and being, as they commonly are, naked, it is to them all in all. Lastly for a thief it is so handsome as it may seem it was first invented for him, for under it he may clearly convey any fit pillage, that cometh handsomely in his way. And when he goeth abroad in the night on free-booting it is his best and surest friend.”
These strictures of Spenser were not the only efforts made to wean the people, both the nobles and commonality, from the use of their native garments. Sir John Perrott, Deputy, made presents of cloaks cut in the English fashion to the various Irish and Anglo-Irish lords – but, though they accepted them, they still continued the use of their own long-flowing mantles, while the country people clung to their warm friezes. In the reign of James I, a set was made upon the glibbe, which Spesner had also anathematised as a mask for all kings of villainy. Sir John Davies, writing in 1613, rejoices that the enactments of James have “reclaimed the Irish from their wildness, caused them to cut off their glibbes and long haire, to convert their mantles into cloaks, to conform themselves to the manner of England in all their behaviour and outward forms,” so that he hopes “the next generation will in tongue, and heart, and everyway else become English; so as there will be no difference or distinction but the Irish sea betwixt us.” All the while, however, despite innovations, the women went on spinning, dyeing and weaving the wool, and cutting the clothes of the nation after the fashion of their ancestors. We know that practically all the towns were then and for many centuries previously occupied by the English, and that trade corporations, composed almost exclusively of Englishmen, or men of English descent, existed in them. But the fairs, at which the greater portion of the commerce of the country was then transacted, were controlled by the Irish, and there the clothing commodities sold consisted exclusively of fabrics made by the people of the materials grown by themselves, and of clothes fashioned after the styles of their ancestors. We find the merchants of France, Brabant and Flanders with agencies in Youghal, Waterford, Cork and elsewhere, for the exportation of Irish wool and woollen goods, and Campion, the Jesuit, describes Waterford and Dungarvan as full of traffic with England, France and Spain. Galway everyone knows to have been a famous trading port with the south of Europe, and Irish fabrics were held in such esteem that in Catalonia, in Northern Spain, the inhabitants took advantage of the prevailing taste, and supplied France with serges which they passed off as Irish.
All this industrial activity finding an outlet for its production as far away as Florence had been in existence for ages before the Earls sailed from Lough Swilly, and the planters came to the North to grip the fields and uplands of the gallant children of the Hi Niall. Yet people quote Froude to justify them in attributing the commencement of manufacture of any kind in Ireland to the advent of the gentry sent over here by the companies of Skinners, Fishmongers, Haberdashers, Vintners, &c. Mr. Froude says they came “Over to earn a living by labour in the land which had produced little but banditti,” and that
“…for the first time, the natural wealth of Ireland began to reveal itself, commerce sprung up, busy fingers were set to work on loom and spinning well, fields fenced and drained grew yellow, with rolling corn, and the vast herds and flocks which had wandered at will on hill and valley were turned to profitable account.”
Yet as Mrs. Sarah Atkinson points out, in this very reign, in the year 1622 to be exact, it was proposed to put a restraint on Irish wools and woolfells, the exportation of which was calculated to interfere prejudicially with England’s foreign trade. In the succeeding reign we find Ireland engaged in a great trade with Spain and Portugal in “bides, wool, yarn, rugs, blankets, and sheep-skins with the wool.” To meet this Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, Charles’s Deputy, proposed to levy a tax on bees, to secure for the Castle Government a monopoly of salt and of tobacco, and by imposing exorbitant rates on raw wool and manufactured woollens to compel the people to purchase their clothes from England. The Irish were to be prevented from weaving or spinning their own wool, but this same wool was first to be taken to England where it was to pay a heavy import duty, and when turned into cloth, carried back to Ireland where an import duty was again to be levied. However, the turn of politics in England put an effective end to Stafford’s plotting. “The tour of the French traveller M. de la Boullaye le Gouz in Ireland A.D. 1644,” edited by Crofton Croker for the Antiquarian Society, gives us an idea of the Irish dress of the middle 17th century:
“Their breeches are a pantaloon of white frieze, which they call trousers and for mantles they have five or six yards of frieze drawn round the neck, the body and over the head. The women wear a very large mantle, the cape being made of coarse woollen frieze, in the manner of the women of Lower Normandy. They (the Irish) import wine and salt from France and sell their frieze cloths at good prices.”
Father Meehan in his “Irish Hierarchy in the 17th Century,” quotes the Secretary to Rinuccini’s reference to the sheep of the country “from which fine wool is made.” Sir Wm. Petty, ancestor of the Marquis of Lansdowne, writing in 1672, of the dress of the Irish peasantry says:
“Their clothing is far better than that of the French peasants, or the poor of most countries; which advantage they have from their wool whereof twelve sheep furnish a competency to one of these families, which wool and the cloth made of it doth cost these poor people no less than £50,000 per annum for the dyeing of it, a trade exercised by the women of the country.”
“The diet, housing, and clothing of the 16,000 families who are computed to have more than one chimney in their houses is much the same as in England; nor is French elegance unknown in many of them, nor the French and Latin tongues, the latter thereof is very frequent among the poorest Irish, and chiefly in Kerry, most remote from Dublin.”
For a long time previous to this an extensive cattle and live-stock trade had been carried on with England, but in 1663 an Act of the British Parliament was passed prohibiting the importation from Ireland of cattle (dead or alive), sheep or swine, beef, pork, or bacon. Three years later the importation of horses was prohibited, along with cheese and butter, so that consternation seized the English element in Ireland who had been mainly depending on their foreign markets for existence. The crisis decided the great Duke of Ormonde to fall back on the woollen trade till then absolutely monopolised by the Catholic Celts, and having succeeded in getting the restraints upon the exportation of commodities of Irish growth and manufacture to foreign countries removed, be brought over several colonies of woollen weavers started woollen factories in Clonmel, Kilkenny and Carrick; other colonies gathered round Limerick, Waterford, Kinsale and Cork, and business flourished remarkably well till the outbreak of the revolution of 1688, when the war in Ireland smashed up the plantations and practically wiped out the manufacture. With the fall of James the colonists got the upper hand again, and the woollen trade revived. Gradually the Catholic artisans and wool-growers grew in strength in the trade, France, the old friend, provided them with a ready market for any surplus that remained over the supplying of the home demand, and so strong did they become that it was feared that the estates of the Protestants would ultimately fall into their hands by purchase.
“The peasantry,” says Matthew O’Connor in his “History of Irish Catholics,”:
“…thus acquired valuable interests, and became a rich, a sturdy and an independent yeomanry, even that miserable race known by the name of cottiers, the working slaves of the Irish gentry, were in a more thriving and prosperous condition in those days than at any subsequent period. Most of them were in possession of a cow, two goats, and six or seven sheep.”
But the nation which had broken the articles of Limerick was not likely to allow much latitude, even to men of their own kindred settled elsewhere, and accordingly the British Parliament and the British King William III bowed to the wishes of the British people, and by the 10th and 11th Act of William III suppressed the manufacture of Irish woollens in toto. The extent to which the trade had grown may be gauged from the articles enumerated in the statute, wool, woolfells, worsted, wool flocks, woollen yarn, cloth serges, shalloons, cloth, serge, bays, kerseys and days, friezes, druggets, &c. A fine of £40 was threatened on the master and every sailor of a vessel carrying such goods abroad, and the vessel itself was to be forfeited, and in order to further effectually stop the exportation, two ships of the fifth-rate, two of the sixth-rate, and eight armed sloops were appointed to constantly cruise between Ireland and Scotland with power to enter and search any vessel supposed to contain the prohibited goods. The result was the immediate destitution of numerous families of artisans and the commencement of emigration to America. Several families of Catholic artisans removed to the north of Spain and to France, and there started manufactures which eventually smashed the English trade in woollen textiles on the Continent. It was against this outrageous legislation that William Molyneux rose, and against which Swift wrote his inimitable pamphlets. But it has to be pointed out that the only people who suffered by the enactments of the British king and Parliament were the very men who themselves or their fathers had been imported into Ireland to make it a British colony. The Catholic population bothered little about British kings or their enactments. “The Wild Geese” flying to join the armies of France, Spain, and Austria opened up markets for the wool which their kindred at home continue to grow, and with the trade of the natives with the Continent increased in spite of armed cruisers and revenue men. All along the West and South, and indeed from every little port and inlet around the island barques sped across to France bearing the fleeces and the shorn wool to the manufactories of Rouen, Abbeville, Ameins, Beauvais, &c. I may mention here a relic of those days which still survives in Fingal – that portion of Dublin extending from the Tolka north to the Delvin river and from the sea west to the borders of Meath. The people there have got the reputation of niggardliness and inhospitality from the fact that the doors are always shut during mealtimes. The origin was nothing to do with such an un-Irish spirit, but is a relic of these wool-smuggling days, when the household gathering around the table at meal-times discussed the various ramifications of the trade in which they were engaged, and naturally bolted the door to protect themselves against interlopers. Eventually, the men engaged in the traffic became so fearless that they ventured boldly into such ports as Cork, Waterford, and Wexford, and shipped their goods under the noses of the soldiers sent to prevent them. Other means, too, were adopted, the wool being combed, put into butter firkins or provision barrels, and sent through the custom house as salt provisions. Well known merchants of Wexford, Waterford and Youghal brought their ships into Rochelle, Nantes, St. Malo and Bordeaux, and disposed of their cargoes there in full view of any Englishmen who might be about. Froude throws rather a luminous light on this period: –
“The entire nation, high and low, was enlisted in an organised confederacy against the law. Distinctions of creed were obliterated, and resistance to law became a bond of union between Catholic and Protestant, Irish Celt and English colonist, from the great landlord, whose sheep roamed in thousands over the Cork mountains, to the gauger who, with conveniently blinded eyes, passed the wool packs through the custom house as butter barrels; from the magistrate, whose cellars were filled with claret on the return voyage of the smuggling craft, to the judge on the bench, who dismissed as frivolous and vexatious the various cases which came before the court to be tried. All persons of all ranks in Ireland were principals or accomplices in a pursuit which made it a school of anarchy; and good servants of the State, who believed that laws were made to be obeyed, lay under the ban of opinion as public enemies. Government tried stricter methods, substituted English for Irish officers at chief ports like Waterford and Cork, and stationed cruisers along the coast to seal the mouths of the smaller harbours. But the trade only took refuge in bays and creeks where cruisers dare not run in. if encountered at sea, the contraband vessels were sometimes armed so heavily that the Government cutters and schooners hesitated to meddle with them. If unarmed and overhauled they were found apparently laden with some innocent cargo of salt provisions… Driven from Cork warehouses the packs were stored in caves about the islands, cliffs and crags where small vessels took them off at leisure; or French traders, on signal from shore, sent in their boats for them. Chests of bullion were kept by the merchants at Rochelle and Brest to pay for them as they were landed. When the French Government forbade the export of so much specie, claret, brandy and silks were shipped to Ireland in exchange on board the vessels which had brought the wool.”
Add to this the fact that a trade was also carried on with Spain and Portugal, that Irish serges were smuggled into Scotland, and that the whole peasant population were clothed in garments made by themselves, and we get an idea of the extent of Ireland’s interest in the woollen industry. Swift’s agitation in favour of homemade goods was not made for them, but for the English colonists and their wives and daughters, who had been accepting anything the Englishman sent over when the Acts of William and Anne had succeeded in extirpating the woollen factories in the towns. The scathing irony of the great Dean of St Patrick’s shamed them into something like manhood, but their narrow bigotry and intolerance drifted them back after a shorter time into wretchedness and degradation, the artisans in many cases slaving and the shopkeepers ever on the verge of bankruptcy. The Irish, on the other hand, though their condition cannot be said to have been ideal, were far from as badly off as we are oftentimes led to believe.
From The United Irishman, January 19, 1901.
“Those Penal Days,” of which Davis sung, though the acme of all that fiendish cruelty and bigoted injustice could devise, as far as Acts of Parliament are concerned, were in actual fact not worse than any of the other days which our people have enjoyed since English law gained anything like a hold here. True, the Irish Catholic was a serf by law, denied education, position, and influence, but he exercised a far greater influence abroad than he does today. Though there was a price on the head of every priest, still the people managed to hear Mass; though education was denied, still they produced scholars whose fame still survives, and poets whose songs live yet on the lips of the people, and are daily winning a wider audience. The population of the country increased, Arthur Young in his “Tour in Ireland, 1776-1778,” notes the visible encroachment of the Catholic tillage population on the grazing tracts, and Gervase Parker Bushe, writing in 1789, gives the population then as 4,000,000 Catholics and 1,500,000 Protestants, and this was after almost a hundred years of Penal Law. In spite of enactments, Catholic merchants had grown to power in the towns and cities, and in some cases, notably that of the Sweetman family, stood at the head of their trades and callings. Nor were these townsmen less National in their dress than the peasantry. Factories had grown in the towns, where a superior kind of cloth was made, mainly from Spanish wool, and for all that could be produced of this article a ready market was found among the professional men and merchants of the town. Not till the advent of the Volunteers were the restrictions on those one trade removed, and then only through fear. Then, for a brief spell, something like a National spirit dominated all Ireland. “The Press, the pulpit, and the ballroom,” says MacNevin,
“…were enlisted in the cause of Irish industry. The scientific institutions circulated gratuitously tracts on the improvement of manufacture, on the modes adopted in the Continental manufacturing districts, and on the economy of production. Trade revived; the manufacturers who had thronged the city of Dublin, the ghastly apparitions of decayed industry, found employment provided for them by the patriotism and spirit of the country: the proscribed goods of England remained unsold, or only sold under false colours by knavish and profligate retailers; the country enjoyed some of the fruits of freedom before she obtained freedom itself.”
I have traced the Irish woollen trade at some length, because for centuries it was the one staple trade round which centred much of the life of Ireland. It was not the only Irish industrial occupation, nor the sole one which earned the jealousy of British traders and the British Parliament. Froude, as has been pointed out earlier, is under the impression that the linen trade was the direct result of the plantation of Ulster, but this is a mistake so easily disposed of that one wonders why even Froude should have made it. One reads of the great plaited linen garments of the Gael in all the old books, and in the poem on the battle of Down, fought in the 14th century, and in which Brian O’Neill, King of all Ireland, was killed, the combatants are described as attired –
Fine linen shirts on the race of Conn,
And the foreigners one mass of iron.
Linen was sold at the markets and fairs in the preceding century; Irish linen was imported into and sold at Chester in the 15th century, and sold likewise at Brabant and other Continental marts. In 1539 an Act of the Anglo-Irish Parliament limited the quantity of linen to be used for the making of a shirt to seven yards, and Spenser, in his “View of Ireland,” already quoted, refers to the thick-folded linen shirts of the Irish. This trade does not make anything like the figure in our history which the woollen does, but that it was practised, and widely, throughout the century is beyond all doubt. Strafford gets credit for having introduced it, but what he did was to induced French and Flemish linen weavers to settle in Ireland and devote their abilities to the production of superior linen, but English jealousy manifested itself here, too, for in 1698 an import duty was put on all Irish linens going into England, though those of Holland were admitted almost duty free. The fishing industry was attacked; the towns of Folkstone and Aldborough in Suffolk representing that the Irish herring fishery at Waterford was ruining their trade with the Mediterranean. The Irish glass manufacture was interfered with, duties were imposed on the hemp manufacture, Irish fishermen were not permitted to appear off Newfoundland, and petitions were even presented to the British Parliament praying that the Irish might be interdicted from fishing off Wexford and Waterford. The provision trade alone was the only one not interfered with, and in that for a time Ireland maintained a great business with the British colonies and with France. But in 1776 an embargo was laid on this trade, which resulted in dire poverty to many, Dublin alone having to meet the necessity of feeding daily 20,000 poor citizens who had been ruined by these exactions of the British Government.
The Union found the country, in spite of all the enactments of the King and Parliament of Britain and their generally willing tools in Dublin, possessed of a population of almost 7,000,000. She had direct commercial relations with France, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Spain, Portugal, the Baltics, with Britain and with all the British colonies. She was equipped with manufactures of all kinds, and not alone supplied herself, but ran the British manufacturer close in his foreign markets. She was then Irish-speaking practically, except in the larger towns and cities, and even there a great proportion understood and utilised her tongue. I make the assertion from a careful study of the hundred years preceding the Union that the one thing that preserved her, the one thing that consolidated her people and caused them to outlive all that the ingenuity of their enemies could devise for their destruction, was the Irish language. It was a barrier that no amount of English legislation could break down. Behind it, as behind a rampart, again and again they rallied, building up afresh whatever breaches the onset of the enemy had made in their institutions, maintaining, clothing, and developing themselves on their own lines and out of their own resources. The fall of Limerick, and the constant rush of the young men to the Continent to join the Brigade, deprived them in a great measure of leaders, but yet they held on their way, and not only retained their own views, but impregnated the children and grandchildren of the Williamites and Cromwellians with them. Settlements, established for the direct purpose of Anglicising the Irish districts, collapsed after a generation, their populations intermarrying and merging with the Gaelic population, to become, in a later generation, more implacable and irreconcilable “rebels” than the clansmen whom their fathers had come to subjugate. Froude’s statement before quoted shows us how far the settlement of utter disregard of English law had grown in all circles during the century succeeding the Jacobite struggle. Nor was it merely in circumventing the enactments of the Castle that the Gaelic genius showed its power. Although English was nominally the official language, every landowner, merchant, and professional man found himself compelled to know Irish in order to transact his business. It was merely for convenience sake, of course, with most of them; but that self-same power which had enabled it to change the descendants of Strongbow’s knights and men-at-arms into bard-reverencing and glibbe-wearing Irishmen would also have made real Irishmen of the seed of Cromwell’s Puritans and William’s troopers. During all that century of transition, the century which witnessed the first evidence of the general breakdown of the old Irish codes of land tenure, &c., the only portions of Ireland which suffered distress were the English-speaking portions – that is to say, the towns and cities the majority of whose inhabitants were, at the best, but natives of the third or fourth generation. In the Gaelic districts, from which were recruited the men who have given to Irish military annals Cremona and Fontenoy, distress of various kinds there was often, but never so keen as in the other parts. Partial failures of harvest there were often, but never actual famine. The people were not dependent merely on one crop for their sustenance: if wheat failed, they fell back on oats, and one never hears of a failure of the potato causing the widespread misery which characterised 1847.
The fact is that Ireland then – thought without any of the outward semblances of a nation: laws, legislature, flag, or armaments – was, in sober and real earnest, more certainly one than she has ever been since. In half the University towns of Europe Irish presses turned out books in Gaelic; Irish scholars thronged the schools of Louvain, Paris, Rome, and Salamanca; Irish soldiers and Irish officers were high in the esteem of Governments as widely divergent otherwise in their views as France and Russia; Irish merchants, as we have seen, utilised and supplied the marts of the Continent, and Irish ships sailed the seas in spite of the cruisers of His Britannic Majesty. At home here, though the Penal Laws prevented a Catholic from owning property above five pounds in value, made the seeking of education a capital crime, outlawed the schoolmaster and penalised the priest, there were schools and scholars in defiance of all that could be devised to tempt the cupidity of the people, and, to their credit be it spoken, not of the Catholic Celts alone, but of many sterling broad-minded Protestants, whom birth or residence amongst the Gaelic-speaking population had made sympathetic with the ideas and practises of the great bulk of the nation. The Gaelic population is generally set down as illiterate, but we know from actual fact now that there was scarcely a farmer’s house without its manuscripts copied by the hands of some one of the family, and that even the humblest peasant was the repository of quite a literature of songs, sagas, stories, and traditions, bearing on the history, manners, customs and characteristics of the nation, and embracing no mean knowledge either of men and places very far away from Ireland, and very widely removed in point of time from those days. We know that poets and musicians abounded, and that classical learning was quite common, that in fact many of the poets wrote equally well in Latin and Gaelic, and had Greek on their finger ends. They imported no foodstuffs, all the grain necessary for their consumption was either ground in the houses by the quern or in the little mills which rose upon the bank of almost every stream and river. The linen wheel, worked by the deft hands of the women, supplied them with the materials for all their household wants, and left them such surplus than in 1783 they exported more linen to England than the entire of all the imports from that country. Practically the only things imported, to use the words of the Anti-Union pamphleteers, were “salt and hops, which she could not grow; coals, which she could raise; tin, which she had not; bark, which she could not get elsewhere,” all which, says he, “she got in exchange for her manufactured goods.”
The partial relaxation of the Penal Laws in the middle of the century, the Act of 1794, and the establishment of Maynooth College, by severing to an extent the Irish connection with the Continent, more especially with France, had a great effect on the tenor of the times. The French Revolution, too, by wholly breaking the connection, had its effect; but still, as I have said already, the Union found Ireland as Gaelic and as self-supporting as the day when the wail of the women followed Sarsfield’s soldiers from the quays of Cork. From the days when those who undertook to lead her turned her eyes across the waters of the Irish Sea, and taught her to look for redemption to the foreigner, whose policy for six hundred years had been to rob and pauperise her, to exterminate her very name, she began to fail. I do not believe that the assembly which met in College Green was a National Parliament. I do not believe that it was an Irish Parliament, but I do believe that that self-same spirit, or power, or influence, or whatever it was, that aided the Irish Catholic Celt to preserve himself, ever growing stronger in numbers, and ever increasing in hope through years of the most malignant tyranny that man has ever conceived would have eventually resulted in the assimilation of that Parliament, and the development from it of such an assembly as would have satisfied our highest ideals. The success of the policy of the United Irishmen most certainly would have given us an Irish nation; for, though few of the leaders were Gaelic speakers, most of them were students of the tongue, and recognised its potency. But even after the failure of their hopes, after the Union, and on down to Catholic Emancipation, it would have been comparatively easy for a leader of the people to have maintained the old system in the country. I am not now arguing that the Union was not mainly responsible for the downfall of the remarkable prosperity which characterised the last twenty years of the 18th century, but I do assert that much of it was due to the wholesale desertion by our leaders of the Gaelic ideal. The idea of O’Connell using English in his campaign at a time when five-sixths of the people had only the faintest glimmering of that tongue, and his slavish adulation of English sovereigns, did more to degrade, demoralise, and impoverish our people, than all the enactments of the British monarchs or their henchmen in the Anglo-Irish Parliament. By discarding the Irish tongue as a weapon to rouse them to action, he made them think it was a thing to be despised, and by perpetually beslavering whatever sovereign happened to be on the throne he weaned them to a respect for that power which their ancestors had contemned. By teaching them to look for the remedying of their grievances to England, he made them distrustful of their own strength. Catholic Emancipation, by opening up offices to Irishmen in the English service, carried off a host of that brain and talent which had previously worked against Britain.
I do not say that it was not a thing for which the Irish Catholics should have not risked their lives, but I do say that by throwing over their Gaeldom, and accepting the service of Britain under the terms of the Emancipation Act, they enslaved still further, instead of enfranchising, their co-religionists. No one pretends to believe there is today religious freedom in Ireland. We may be told that a Catholic can gain, if his abilities entitle him to it, almost the highest offices in the Government of Ireland, but does he do so without sacrificing his political convictions? Is not every position of importance in the hands of the ascendancy party, with an occasional one held by some renegade from the popular side? Is there a fair proportion of the important posts in commercial life in the hands of the Catholics, or even of Irishmen of any creed? Are our corporate bodies, nominally under popular control, owners of their own soul? And yet “Catholic Emancipation” is a matter of some seventy years’ existence. I do not believe that if we had preserved the life of the Ireland of even a hundred years ago we should not only have maintained our numbers, but we should have forced by the sheer strength of an organised Irish-speaking nation a real Catholic Emancipation, and have solved longer since the question of higher education by the assimilation of Trinity College. This looks Utopian, but let any one who doubts it study the matter in the light of the history of the 18th century, and the fact that the only portions of Ireland which were self-supporting during the century just closed were the Irish-speaking districts. It is a matter of common knowledge that only when English began to be spoken in the West. North, West, and South, did the people cease to clothe themselves out of the materials grown by themselves. The whirr of the spinning-wheel ceased, and the music of the shuttle stopped when our people forsook the language of their fathers, for the fashionable accents of the stranger. Wherever the old tongue still has sway, there still the people dress after their own fashions and in their own materials; there still the stories and songs, some of them centuries old, still circle from generation to generation. There still is the old reverence for the past, the old respect for age and valour and piety, and purity of thought and living. There is a civilisation, though the garb of the people may be rough and their manners unpolished after the style of the 20th century. They are merely men and women, mere flesh and blood, no cold idealistic beings, but men and women full of life and all the passions of life. Many of them have a little English, few of them can read it, fewer still write even the English of their names in it; but they have memories stored with such wealth of song and legend, such lore of many kinds, as the graduate of any university might be proud to possess, and this they have at their disposal without any preparation at all times. We will be told that the progress of the times, and the unsuitability of our old systems to the requirements of life, have caused the breakdown of what once was common from end to end of Ireland; but surely what the Dane, the Hollander, the Belgian, not to speak of other peoples, have been able to overcome, surrounded as they are by “Progress,” ought not to prove insurmountable obstacles to the Irishman. The truth is we are where we are through incompetent guidance and through sheer neglect of our resources – through loss of self-respect and national self-reverence, and a certain undefined belief in the eternity of existing circumstances. We have all but lost our identity, and only since Catholic Emancipation came to bribe our talent, the national schools to stupefy our youth, and the policy of looking to our enemy for the remedying of our grievances to sap our trust in ourselves.
Since the Irish nation, in a word, ceased to depend upon herself for mental and physical sustenance she has drooped and dwindled in strength, in influence, and numbers. Only by going back to what she was, only by looking within her own borders for the life-giving power that makes a nation, can she recover. There are signs that she is seriously considering that step now – there are signs of mental and material activity. Naturally they are both apparent in the same circles, for nationality means the developing of more than one phase of national existence. “Not by bread alone can man exist,” but only by the development of all the resources, only by the continuance and re-adoption of that life and civilisation which was stopped by the prophets of expediency a century since, shall Ireland go down – as Ireland – to the future. We are circumstanced auspiciously today. A new era opens with us. We have had a hundred years of West Britain, with an odd space here and there of the spirit of earlier days. The fruits of the century are visible. West Britain has failed dismally. The old soul still stirs in the country, the old ideals are once more abroad. Let us therefore this year, with determination, earnestness, and sincerity resume – the History of Ireland.