In my last essay, I took a short review of the state of Ireland, miserable, impoverished, enslaved, and contemned, as she was, 70 years ago. In that stupor of wretchedness she remained without exertion, and almost without sensation, for nearly 60 years. It is within the memory of the youngest of us, when the cup of her sorrows, filled as it was by the profuse hand of unmitigated and rancorous oppression, at length overflowed. On the instant the spell was broken, the genius of the land aroused himself, and again turned his eagle eye on the sun of liberty; he looked down on his manacles and his fetters, and they melted beneath his glance; he walked forth, glorying in his might; in his right hand he grasped the sword of resistance, in his left he held the charter of his freedom; on his head appeared the sacred helmet of the Constitution, and tyranny was appalled, and oppression withered before him.
It was in the year 1778, when the lust of power and the pride of England had engaged her in a visionary scheme of subduing the spirit of America, (a scheme which met with the fate such arrogant presumption deserved,) that the germ of the Irish revolution budded forth. It rose and spread in a grand and growing climax, from a non-importation agreement, whose object was trade, to associations of armed men, whose object was liberty. Ireland, in its need, felt only the oppression of its Government, but found no protection from it, for corruption had exhausted the funds, and tyranny had drained the force of the nation. Our armies were slaughtering their brethren in America, whilst our ports were insulted by petty and piratical incursions. The wretched rulers of the land, competent to harass, to plunder, and to insult, were unable to defend the people. We were left, fortunately left, to defend ourselves. An army of 50,000 men at once burst into existence, self-appointed, self-arrayed, self-disciplined – an army, whose principle was patriotism, whose object was their country; whose ardour was tempered by wisdom, whose valour was fortified by reflection, who were led on by the high spirit of freedom, and supported by the steady consciousness of dignified virtue. Such an army encompassed the Island as with a wall of fire. The enemy, dazzled by its brightness, or daunted by its consuming heat, ventured not to approach it; and, whilst England trembled to her centre behind the shield of her boasted navy, then flying before the fleets of France and of Spain, Ireland rested on her arms, dauntless and unterrified, with the calm confidence of unshaken valour, expecting, but not dreading the impending foe.
But it was not the invasion of a foreign enemy alone that Ireland had to fear. She saw herself robbed of her constitution, and cheated of her commerce, by England; she saw that every prosperous event in the war, was instantly followed by some direct or covert attack on her interest or her honour. The triumphs of the British, in America, few as they were, were as a necessary sequel attended by victories over Ireland in her own Senate. “The mutiny bills were passed, and Charlestown taken.” But the people had now felt their own strength; relying on the arms in their hands, the justice of their cause, and the goodness of their God, they demanded their trade, they demanded their constitution, from the proud and bullying English Minister, who had seized, and the corrupt and cowardly Irish Senate, who had surrendered them. The voice of the people in such a cause, is the voice of God. At a word, the power of England, in this country, was annihilated; the lofty superstructure of her tyranny, that had stood for ages, tumbled into ruins, when the sacred ark of our freedom was brought forth, and the trumpets of liberty sounded before it.
In 1782, this great and unparalleled revolution was accomplished by a complete, explicit, and final surrender on the part of Great Britain, of all right or pretension to legislate for Ireland, externally or internally. Poyning’s act was modified, the appellate jurisdiction was restored, the habeas corpus law enacted, the Judges were made independent of the Crown, the mutiny bill was limited; in a word, every offensive statute was repealed, and Ireland restored to her ancient imperial hereditary rights. It was said at that time, perhaps incautiously, that no question could hereafter arise between the two countries. We have seen that assertion contradicted by experience, more than once already, and, from appearances, it is not unlikely that we may see it contradicted again.
We have now beheld Ireland in two situations not a century removed from each other; we have seen her in the most abject slavery; we see her in almost perfect freedom. What have been the causes and the means of her emancipation? Those very circumstances which the cold and the corrupt, the venal and the spiritless, deny her – public virtue, wisdom, and spirit. It is in her people, I would be understood to mean, that those qualities are to be found. They have done their part, and, if Ireland is not yet completely free, they have not themselves to accuse. The very Senate to whom they gave rank and consequence; the Government to which they gave dignity, deserted and reviled, but they could not degrade them; their virtue stands, and will forever stand, a great and luminous object on the page of history. It is to ages yet unborn that the deeds of our fathers and our own will appear in their due grandeur and elevation. The object is too vast for us; we stand as pygmies at the base of the pyramids, too near to comprehend them.
But though we are not enough to duly prize the virtue, the wisdom, and the spirit of the Irish people, we yet can compare this revolution in our country with some that we have read of, and others that we have seen, and see what is the result. Was ever so great and important a change, carried nearly into completion, at least as far as the people, deserted by their Governors, could advance it, without shedding one drop of blood? Did ever, in any age or country, so many virtuous citizens concur to liberate their native land, where no individual had a view beyond the public good? Was one man enriched by the emancipation of Ireland? Was one man aggrandized, unless by the unanimous voice of his grateful and applauding countrymen? It was not a revolution of wild experiment, where all order was subverted; it was not a revolution of fanaticism, intolerance, and bigotry. It was a great and glorious exertion of steady and temperate valour, founded on the principles of strict justice, conducted by intuitive and daring wisdom, and animated by that disinterested and ardent spirit that sought no object but the common good, the common freedom, and the common glory. Such a revolution could not but succeed; to doubt its success, we should doubt the beneficence of our Creator, and the wisdom of his Providence.
After the testimony of our senses to this grand proof of the wise, the gallant, and the uncorrupted patriotism of Irishmen, let us not listen to the idle and wicked babble of those who tell us that the spirit of the nation is incapable of active and disinterested exertion for the common good. Let those who feel their own hollow incapacity, impotently endeavour to attach the vices of the individual to the character of the nation, and elude the justice of public opinion, by arraigning the tribunal before whom they must appear, but let those who feel in their own bosoms no latent sparks of corruption and dishonour, be not disheartened by such vile and degrading sentiments. Let them remember that Ireland can never hereafter have to do so much as she has already gloriously accomplished; and let the pride of well earned fame incite them, if not to future exertion for their country’s complete emancipation, at least to preserve inviolate and sacred that freedom and those benefits, which have been but just acquired by the virtue of their fathers and of themselves.