« PreviousContinue »
same period, had appeared the Oakboys and the Steelboys, outdoing one another in atrocities. Their sudden risings filled the country with alarm. The oppressors trembled as do gay skaters when great cracks suddenly sound across the ice. The Oakboys, Steelboys, and Rightboys, all aimed, like the Whiteboys, at redressing evils connected with rent and tithes.
The disturbances begun by the Presbyterian Peep-ofday-boys in the north in 1786 brought the element of religion into play. A new and fiercer wave of insurrection rolled southwards, involving the whole peasantry, and continuing till the peasant movement met and was lost in the movement of the upper classes, which ended in the rebellion of 1798.
The Peep-of-day-boys searched the houses of the Catholics for arms. Often they burnt and destroyed as well the houses as the chapels of the Catholics. The Catholics, in turn, organised themselves as Defenders. The rival organisations, commencing in Armagh, were quickly extended. The Defenders soon assumed the aggressive. Insurgents under this name rising in districts where no Protestants existed, filled them with every species of outrage. The Peep-of-day-boys ultimately became Orangeboys or Orangemen; the Defenders, merging into the United Irishmen, were finally lost in the important movements of 1798.
So far of the Irish peasants and their reactions under suffering down to the date of the Rebellion. Their miseries united them in extensive secret confederations, not designed at first for political purposes, which, however, they afterwards subserved.
Similar sufferings might have had similar results in a people whose history had been different; but the sufferings and combinations of the Irish peasantry are seen to have
sprung directly from their history,—from those settlements of the country which erected society on a basis of antipathy between its higher and lower sections; a small Protestant ascendancy ruling the proscribed Catholic mass; a tenant class without rights, under alien landlords made powerful by the law and unrestrained by the sense of justice or mercy.
While the Irish peasants were being thus beggared and rendered desperate, the native Irish aristocracy and middle class were sunk in a profound political apathy under oppressions that had not become tolerable through being constant, and seemingly irremovable. The aristocracy had lost position and influence as their landed estates crumbled under the penal laws. The substantial Catholic farmers had gradually given place to their more favoured Protestant competitors; many of them had even sunk to the level of the peasantry. The class of traders, however, had better fortune, and embraced
many men of wealth, intelligence, and energy. Their disabilities were indeed so many qualifications for success in business, as they left no objects, interests, or occupations to draw them aside from money-making. Had the Irish been free to do it, they must in time have recovered, by purchase, a great portion of the soil ; which being early perceived, led to those laws which prevented them investing money either in land or heritable securities. The prohibition was not unattended by advantages. Wealth increased in their hands the more rapidly that it could only be employed in manufactures or commerce. There was nothing, however, in their prosperity to lighten the sense of being outcasts in their native country. On the contrary, they must have felt it the more keenly the richer they grew, as a slave with a large peculium has the quicker sense of the
advantages of freedom. We may see what their feeling was, and the completeness of their prostration, in the subdued and supplicatory tone in which they implored George III., on his accession to the throne, for some mitigation of their condition. The King having declared himself “ the friend of religious toleration,” the
, Irish Catholics ventured very humbly to submit to him a statement of their grievances. “Overwhelmed with affliction, and depressed by our calamitous and ruined circumstances,”—so opens the address, which spoke the truth as concerned the main body of the Irish,—“we beg leave to lay at your Majesty's feet some small part of those innumerable and unsupportable grievances under which we have long groaned, not only without any act of disobedience, but even without murmur or complaint.”
It was not, however, from the King or his Government that relief was to come. When rogues fall out honest men get their own. The struggles between the Irish Ascendancy and the English Government for the supremacy in Ireland, concurring with the American war of independence and continuing down to the French Revolution, procured for the Irish numerous relaxations of the penal code.
England, since the time of Henry VII., had claimed the supremacy in Ireland in legislation and jurisdiction. No Parliament could be held in Ireland without the consent of the King and his Council, and all statutes passed in England were effectual in Ireland. On the other hand, the Irish Parliament, the organ of the Ascendancy, had long been so completely the creature of the English ministers, that while it could of itself neither originate nor complete any act of legislation, it was rarely slow to pass such measures as were called for
by English policy. A consequence of this dependence on the English legislature, and subservience to English ministers, was the regulation of Irish trade in English interests, as they were conceived according to the notions of the time. Ireland had neither free trade with England nor with the British colonies; while her manufactures were put under exceedingly unfavourable restrictions, and some of them even interdicted, as interfering with the trade of England. This highly prejudicial state of matters had led to great discontent in Ireland in the only class that dared to express discontent. On the breaking out of the American war, the Ascendancy saw a chance of extorting from England's weakness a measure of independence and free trade which they had in vain demanded from her justice. In 1775 they began boldly to assert their rights. Government saw the danger and prepared to meet it. “ Ireland is American,” said Lord Chatham, defining the danger of the time, as that of to-day might be defined by saying “ America is Irish.” The more probable a quarrel with the Ascendancy, the more necessary to the Government was an alliance with the Catholics. They threw a sop to them. By the concessions of 1778, the Irish were permitted to take long leases of the land, and even to buy it, under certain restrictions.
The Irish Volunteers represented not Ireland, but the Ascendancy clamouring for free trade, a reformed Parliament, and political independence. They played their cards badly, and lost the game. It is amusing now to read their eloquent speeches in the light of their acts. The glowing patriots and advocates of liberty decided, in public convention, against the admission of the Catholics to the franchise in their projected Parliamentary Reform! In 1791, when the Catholics, having taken heart and organised themselves, desired to petition the Irish Parliament for admission to the franchise, they could not get a member of Parliament to present their petition! And by this time they numbered considerably more than three millions, in a population of four millions.
The French Revolution having now alarmed all the governments of Europe by a sudden revelation of the powers of the people, the British Government hastened to make further concessions to the Catholics. In 1792 they were granted the right of education, admitted to the bar, and allowed to intermarry with Protestants. Their spirits rose as their case improved. Much remained to be conceded, and, assuming a bolder tone, they began to demand it. Enumerating the various disabilities which still shut them out from the constitution, they asked, “Where is the people who, like us, can offer the testimony of a hundred years' patient submission to a code of laws of which no living man is now an advocate, without sedition, without murmur or complaint ? Our loyalty has undergone a century of severe persecution for the sake of our religion, and we have come out of the ordeal with our religion and our loyalty. Why, then, are we still under the ban of our
The Catholic organisation had now become powerful. The organisation of the United Irishmen, begun by Wolfe Tone in Belfast in 1791, overlay the country. Simultaneously the peasant organisation of the Defenders -summing up Steelboys, Oakboys, Whiteboys, and Rightboys—filled Ireland with outrage and alarm. The leaders of the United Irishmen and of the Catholic organisation were known to be in communication with the revolutionary French Government. It was a time