From The United Irishman, December 29, 1900.
A century is a fairly long stretch of a nation’s history, and affords time for the making or marring of much of its individuality. It can have lifted itself within that period to a position which assure its existence for practically an unlimited time, and it can by indifference and neglect have contracted habits which make its separate existence only a question of years. Within the last hundred years the United States has grown from a comparatively small commonwealth on the eastern fringe of America to a vast organisation dominating the whole north of the Continent from ocean to ocean, and from the Great Lakes to the Bay of Florida, while Spain has degenerated to a third or fourth-rate power. The history of either does not concern us much just now, further than to serve to prove our opening statement. We are at the close of a century, and a glance back at things as they have fallen out in our own country within those years may be of service. We desire to contrast the present state of things here with those which held before the Act of Union, and to see how far we have advanced or how far we have declined since the Union Jack first flew over Dublin Castle.
The year 1800, as we know, found Ireland still suffering keenly from the gloom and disappointments of ’98. It may be granted that there was scarcely a home in Wicklow, Wexford, Carlow, Kildare, Dublin, Meath, Louth, Down, and Antrim but had something of the terrors of trials of that time and tasted, many of them, the bitterest of its sorrows. The West, after her glorious response to the summons of Humbert, had fallen into silence, stunned by the failure of her hopes; and the rest of the country, in part of which the spirit of the time had been unknown, had taken the course of things in sullen indifference. The election of the last Anglo-Irish Parliament was not an event that aroused much enthusiasm. Nobody of the masses took much interest in the existence or eclipse of the body which had promoted the half-hangings, house-burnings, and other outrages perpetrated by the various yeomanry corps, for the men whose hopes had been fixed on the utter extinction of English law in Ireland were not likely to be concerned for its perpetuation in Dublin; so they left the election to the blatant loyalist element and to such of the Catholic freeholders as the promises of Emancipation induced to support the designs of Pitt and Castlereagh.
The Union passed, and Emancipation did not come. A few years convinced even, some of those who had voted for a Union of the ruinous consequences of their action. They saw the manufactures which had given employment growing fewer and fewer; the saw the artisans growing poorer and poorer, sinking to absolute poverty in many cases, and they found themselves, instead of the equals of British lords and commoners, looked down upon as an inferior class, and, in spite of themselves, always regarded as mere Irishmen. The Act of the Parliament of 1794 which had given the franchise to Catholics and led to the establishment of the forty-shilling freeholders had filled the land with a host of small farmers, none of whom could be said to have been wealthy, but all were above the reach of want. Napoleon’s wars gave them a great foreign market for their produce, and though the trade of the towns had declined woefully, yet their market was secure, their cornfields needed workers, and the population of the land went up every year by tens of thousands. A few creatures of the new state of public affairs had prospered by the extinction of the College Green Parliament, but the bulk of those whose fathers or themselves had been the leaders of the society and political life of their time began to long for a return of the old regime, some shrewdly enough seeing extinction for themselves and their class in the continuance of the provincial life that had come; others honestly enough concerned for the country. Out of this spirit of dissatisfaction a movement might have grown, aided by the complications on the Continent, sufficiently strong to have secured the re-constitution of the old Parliament from the British Minister; but O’Connell came, and seizing the disabilities of the Catholics as a cause, drew off to the relieving of them that great bulk of popular opinion and influence which, behind a movement making for more, would have as easily achieved what it sought, and far sooner, as O’Connell secured Emancipation. The opportunity afforded by the lengthened strife in Europe passed with the fall of Napoleon; the markets went, and a famine in 1817 pressed the people almost as severely as that of ’47. Rents were all but unobtainable, and the full fruits of the Union stared all classes of Irishmen in the face. Many of the forty-shilling freeholders, unable to meet their landlords, became paupers, and were thus dependent on the charity of people not much better off than themselves. The landlords had maintained a host of these small farmers purely for the influence which their votes gave them, and O’Connell, by accepting Emancipation at the price of the disfranchisement of those men, at once sealed the fate of all those of them who by one means or another had tided over famine and misfortune and still retained their holdings. Emancipation sounded the knell of the small tillage farmer, and the repeal of the Corn Laws completed whatever the other had left undone. The consolidation of small farms became the object of the landlords, and the beginning of that terrible tide of emigration commenced which still goes on.
Emigration had never been quite unknown, but it had been more from the plantation parts of Ulster than from the other provinces. It had brought to America the sturdy men who gave the Knoxes, Greenes, Hancocks, Waynes, and Montgomerys to the war of the Revolution. The breaking-up of the small farms drove a host of a different set across the ocean, men and women whom generations of penal law had deprived of the simplest forms of education, and whom the combination of Orange corporations had shut out from the acquirement of most of the technical handicrafts. They were not likely to secure any desirable positions in their new surroundings, and they were compelled to become the mere drudges of their fellows. They were mainly Gaelic speakers, but that did not interfere with their prospects, for Gaelic was then as prevalently spoken in the States as any European tongue save English, and had been used on the field of battle in giving the words of command as often as English during the war of the Revolution. The earlier immigrants to America had as little idea of abandoning their tongue as the German, French or Italian immigrant has today. The bad habit was begun at home, and grew out of as short-sighted a policy as ever influenced men. A hundred years ago Irish was spoken in every part of Ireland by all classes of its inhabitants, save the Ulster Scotch, who never seem to have taken kindly to it. During the famine of 1817, which has been referred to above, the proselytising societies of the metropolis decided on making a great effort to give their patrons value for their money, and accordingly despatched through the country a swarm of agents laden with the Bedell Gaelic Bible, and charged to succour such of the starving people as would promise to read the Bible to their neighbours and conform to the “Church as by law established.” Flesh, alas! Is weak, and many a man’s faith yielded to the blandishments of the Bible-mongers. The Catholic clergy took fright at the state of things, and peremptorily ordered the discontinuance of the reading of Irish. The result is obvious; the command put a stop to the copying and compiling of the MSS in the Irish tongue which had done so much to perpetuate the memory of olden times and preserve the continuity of the National traditions. There ought to have been no fear of the Bible-mongers, for, except in very few cases, their labours proved fruitless once the stress was over, and the clergy, by preventing the reading of Irish, did not see that they were throwing the people back on English, where they would, and have, found literature far worse and more dangerous even than the work of William Bedell. O’Connell’s insane campaigning in English to a people who did not understand one-sixth of what he said helped on the displacing of Gaelic, and the advent of the National Schools brought the main factor, which has all but succeeded in obliterating everything with the slightest tendency towards National individuality.
Even up to the middle of the century a vast proportion of the needs of the people were supplied by themselves. In all the country districts the flax-wheel and the woollen-wheel were well known, and the woman who could not supply her own household with all its necessities held no very high place in her neighbours’ esteem. That has all but disappeared, and one meets the flimsy fabrics of Manchester and Yorkshire nowadays in the deepest recesses of the West and South, sees the latest imitations of Parisian fashions at the chapel on Sundays, and hears little or nothing of the old, innocent, enjoyable, and perfectly natural fun which once beamed around the firesides when the nights were long and the neighbours came a’ ceilidh. A hundred years ago the Catholic peasant had no civil rights, or next to none; his churches had no steeples; his children could not read the latest London story, and his leaders reposed not on the soft benches of Westminster. He was, undoubtedly, the slave of the landlords, the most soulless and tyrannical class that have ever encumbered the earth. Yet, withal, he fed and clothed himself out of his own materials; he sang songs made by some famous poet of his district; he related or listened to stories of the places and the people round about him; he believed in the existence of a land of spirits and ghosts; yet he had a stout heart and a strong arm. His food was simple; his dress was comely and comfortable; his wife was as native as himself; his sons were stalwart young men who had visions betimes, and listening to the glowing fancies of the occasional poor scholar or itinerant schoolmaster, longed with throbbing pulses to take part in one great glorious charge upon the enemy. His daughters were diligent, industrious girls, whose songs as the spinning wheel went round were gladdening to the heart; girls whose ambition looked not for husbands in the ranks of yeomen or armymen; girls whose tears fell as they listened with shaded eyes to the story of some brave fellow’s sacrifice. These times and people, simple and sincere, fit for any purpose, and true as steel, we have sacrificed for the dubious benefits accorded by a foreign Parliament. May we hope that the opening century and the re-awakened spirit that is abroad may restore to us some little of our olden life and customs.