« PreviousContinue »
a task so fraught with difficulties, that we should willingly avoid it. This difficulty does not indeed consist in the subtilty or latent nature of the causes, but in the generally questionable character of these causes. Party spirit—in other nations, operating for the most part in subservience to the ordinary action of civil and social elements, and breaking at remote intervals, into those storms that purify the air—seems to have found in Ireland, a perpetual focus for the concentration of its calamitous elements. No sanatory interval of repose from discontents, dissensions, plots, rebellions, rash aggressions, and the summary justice of arms, allowed the growth of national prosperity to spring up to maturity, and gather resisting force. No sense of prudence or duty tempered the waves, and little political virtue governed the helm; an aristocracy, whose undefined rights and privileges were incompatible with any system of order or civil polity, were alternately tyrants and victims. A populace in a state of slavery and savage ignorance, the sport of the opposite winds of arbitrary oppressions, and Btill more hapless resistances. And though the main policy of the English government was beneficent, it was neutralized throughout by feebleness, and by the counteraction of its own instruments and agencies—so that the greatest sum of evils was extracted from the most useful, just and necessary measures.
To prove and to describe the character and progress of such a state of things, may appear to demand no nice hand, the outline is strongly marked, and the facts too abundant and notorious. But in the course of these ensuing ages, may be traced the beginnings of those very causes, which have ever since, continued to disturb the peace of this island; and the consequence is, that it becomes more and more difficult to separate our statements from the entanglement of modern politics. We have indeed already noticed this difficulty, and forewarned the reader, that it would at this stage become necessary to enter more fully into its consideration.* We nevertheless trust, that this will not occupy much of our space; and that the few remarks we shall offer, will not be thought a digression from the direct pursuit of our historical office. Our explanation must be the establishment of an essential but partly overlooked distinction.
The events of the reigns of the Stuart family, have sufficient connexion with the political parties of the present day, to be identified with them, by the indiscriminate zeal of party. With the general consequences of this confusion, we are not here concerned; but as we must state these facts, it is evident, that we shall almost at every future step, be compelled to make statements, as well as comments, which must be contrary to the notions of all who look on the facts of history simply with relation to their own special doctrines; an error by no means confined to the ignorant or deceitful, or to the advocates of a question, or to one side. For, first, there is in the course of human affairs a general analogy, the ground of all reasoning; secondly, there is a natural and general disposition, to understand the past only through the medium of the present, and to notice resemblances in the events of which the distinctions are latent; thirdly, it is the general character
'Life of Shane O'Neals.
of party, to cause a bias of the judgment; fourthly, the party writer i» additionally influenced by the eager temper of advocacy, which sees according to its purpose, and excludes all such considerations as tend to spoil a case. Thus a set of private documents will be called historical by one party, while another set, equally unauthoritative, will give equal support to the statements of another. The pamphleteer or the orator, will in all the hurry of his avocation, in which a popular effect is all he seeks, sit down to consult the history which he has never studied: with a prejudiced spirit, he will glance from point to point, and fact to fact, seizing with an eclectic affinity, just what according to his creed strikes him as just. His readers and hearers who take his word for the facts, and think as he prescribes, cannot conceive the remotest possibility of the manifold errors which are thus propagated.
But among the many causes which have tended to give permanency to Irish dissension, there is one, which of all others we are the most reluctant to notice, more than very generally: it is the incessant tissue of misrepresentation, consequent upon the long strife of parties in this country. This has been, indeed, an inevitable evil; the warfare of interests, passions, and prejudices, consists in misrepresentation. And once men have recourse to the missiles of faction, it is not in human nature to be thoroughly impartial in statement—nor is it to be expected, that the rank and file of the combatants will suffer defeat for want of all the varied resources by which opinion is to be swayed. If this evil were confined to public orators and journalists, it might be less permanent in its effects; their statements are made on the impulse and for the purpose of the moment, and with it pass away: no one ever thinks of attributing any authority to a rhetorician. But it is the misfortune of Ireland, that with a few bright exceptions history is expressly written to serve the prejudice of the hour. Great learning and comprehensive research have been perverted for the most useless, trifling, and mischievous ends. But we chiefly complain of those writers who undertake to write history, with the discontents of generations swelling in their breasts, and sit down to journalize upon the events of distant ages, to fix and render permanent the animosities which time in its healing progress bears away, and to imbitter the strife or the suffering of the present day, by the addition of those calamities which have disturbed the past. All illusions are to be deprecated: but the most pernicious are those which impose on the multitude. If such, indeed, were the realities of our history, it were better consigned to oblivion. We should here add that, generally speaking, it is not of positive falsehood we complain, but of misconstructions, and of comprehensive omissions of all that gives its entire character to a transaction. The facts are true, but yet the statement is false. The conduct of whole parties of public men is made worse than ever public men, under any circumstances were, or could have been, unless in a few extreme cases. To this strong complaint we must add, that in Ireland it is hard to avoid these errors, on account of the causes we have already stated at length. Party prejudice is exacting, and will not be content to have its grounds made questionable or explained away; it is impossible to be fair, without collision with some angry prejudice. It is, nevertheless, to be desired that the already sufficiently irritating politics of the day, should bo allowed to rest on their own proper basis of principle and fact. The history of Ireland may be admitted, like all history, to abound with precedent, but it is hard and unsafe ground, and full of perilous exaggerations and distortions.
Taking as we profess to do, a view of Irish history, in many respects unfavourable to every party, it is our claim to call the attention of our candid and perspicacious readers, to the important fact, that in the occurrences we are to relate, there exists no precise analogy with those which appear to represent them in the present day. The relative position of ranks, parties, and creeds, has widely shifted; new claims have arisen, and old ones become long extinct; other wants and expectations have grown up, and other classes have sprung up and advanced their banners under ancient names; justice and injustice have for the most part changed sides, and the contending parties who occupy the field, have unknowingly, adopted new and different grounds of contest, from those whom they imagine themselves to represent. It is on this general fact that we desire to take our stand, and advance it distinctly here, as the ground of our pretence to neutrality. Taking the factions of the 17th century as we find them, and delivering our impressions as they arise, whether just or erroneous, we begin by the assertion, that the parties we shall thus exhibit are not now in existence; and that any decision to which we may be led, pronounces nothing on the parties of the present time. It might be sufficient to have stated a fact, which it is the course of our regular duty to exemplify. But before we proceed, we cannot forbear from reminding our friendly reader, of the just and catholic application of that historical analogy of the abuso of which we have said enough. It is the unvarying principle bv which every age and climate, the whole current of human affairs, and every direction of human conduct, however varied by circumstance, must, when rigidly analyxed, present the same motives. The objects, the relative positions, the states of opinion and knowledge, and the form and degree of civilixation, may be at the remotest extremes apart, but the moving springs of human action will be still reducible within the same narrow limits. That the historian can accurately perform this solution, is another proposition, which would be empirical to assert: but the fact is a principle, and may be always assumed as a safe guide. In this view, we do not mean to exclude the existence of patriotism and public virtue, in any degree of exaltation or purity that may be insisted upon; for among our views of man, we neither exclude the nobler feelings, or the more elevated social virtues; we believe that some are endowed with noble moral virtues, in the same manner that a few are distinguished by intellect beyond the ordinary lot. But these we are disposed to regard as exceptions, and bv no means admit the common pretensions which gloss the currents of life, to be the real measure of the views of parties. Our creed is governed by the tenet that there is a constant and invariable tendency to abuse m all the movements, institutions, and forces of society, however constituted. Monarchy will tend to despotism—corporated institutions to monopoly—popular privilege to social disorder. An aristocracy would compress and confine the forces of the empire within limits unconstitutionally narrow; the people would pull down authority and arrogate that destructive ascendancy by which the freedom of each becomes crushed under the collective tyranny of all. It is only by means of those safeguards and limitations, which separate the public duties and private interests of men, that these tendencies, all the result of a common nature, are converted by a slow social process, which is the nearly spontaneous progress of civilization, into the machinery of peace, order, and prosperity. The social polity of a civilized nation, is itself a comprehensive system of moral machinery; acting by many latent as well as perceptible provisions, for the correction of evil impulses and the development of good.
Viewing it then, as the tendency of every public body, invested with any discretionary force, to carry that force to the most extreme abuse, which opposite circumstances admit; we shall not be found to vindicate either the usurpations of the few, or the insubordinations of the many; or to labour to vindicate the integrity or fairness of any whose deeds are not such as to be their own justification. But for the same reasons we shall be moderate in our strictures upon the follies and errors of those, whose derelictions bear no mark to distinguish them from the vast community in which we are inclined to set them down.
There is indeed nothing would more tend to reduce within salutary limits, the overflowing of that insane and irrational animosity, with which the opposed in politics look on each other, as the acquisition of a just view of the origin, character, and causes of their differences; of the real influences which modify and govern them; and of the nature of the questions and facts of which the beginnings are clouded in the past, though their pressure in some form, acts in the present state of things. It would occur to Irishmen, that the wrongs and retaliations of seven hundred years, complicated beyond all unravelling, reciprocal beyond crimination, altered and annulled beyond reasonable prolongation; cannot now be entertained with any chance of adjustment on any other basis, than the perpetually shifting and oscillatory quicksand of force and fraud. The actors of the past history of Ireland, have by their human infirmities, aggravated by the incidents of position, left questions which the next thousand years will be insufficient to settle; because in point of fact, they have no foundation in real existence. Such claims and complaints, as in any way rest upon a non-existent state of things, upon the crimes and passions of former generations, or upon the shiftings and transitions caused by the common changes of national state, are only effective to exclude the peace and submission to the laws of order, wKich must precede the very beginnings of prosperity. Widely different are the laws of progress. The results of human crime and error pass away, and order resumes its natural power—laws begin to renew their sway, commerce restores or produces the balance of prosperity, the prostrate and the depraved rise into a new position in the altered system, and all become one; for by the natural tendency of society, the root becomes incorporated with the whole; the wrongs real or imaginary of a few pass, for in the current of human affairs individuals are soon merged with all that concerns them.
It might also mitigate the rancour of party animosity, if the feet were more generally understood, that much the greater part, of those evils which are reciprocally made the topics of invective and reproach, were actually the necessary results of the chains of circumstance and position in which the several classes of agents were bound, as well as of the principles on which they could not cease to act, without the compromise of real or imagined laws of duty. To this class of agencies, we must refer much of the conduct of the two great leading parties into which all others now began to merge. The English government, and the hierarchy of the church of Rome, each of which had its principles of obligation wholly contradictory to the other. Again, in tracing the failures of English measures, and the occasional harshness of the policy of the crown, we must say, that on the strictest scrutiny, it will appear, that government could not but have taken the steps which have been so ignorantly questioned. Admitting the evil working, it will be found that it was but an escape from some worse evil; an effect inherent in a disordered constitution of things. The best course to be pursued was but a choice of evils, but the object, to give a first impulse to civilization, was effected. If in thi3 great revolution in the condition of Ireland, mistakes were made, they should not be set down as injuries. Justice, at least, would demand a fair and thorough inquiry, to ascertain that the evils thu3 imputed, are not more justly attributable to other causes.
Retrospect.—For the determination of these questions, we conceive that there can be no means so good, as to endeavour to place throughout before the reader, the actual state of things under which the events of our history have taken place, and to refer the whole to its true light and line of distance in the perspective of history. To this method we must resort repeatedly as we advance: but we shall commence with a summary but faithful view of the state of the country preceding the changes we have next to relate in order. We are arrived at a great and sudden transition in the condition of the island, and a few sentences must be devoted to clearing the way: though the task would need a volume. In any attempt to estimate, statistically, the precise condition of the Irish people before the period of James, as well as long after, the difficulties are very great—the statements of the ancient authorities are conjectural, and those of the more recent, upon uncertain data. Some main facts, however, are well ascertained, and afford reasonable limits to conjecture. According to the general account of all authority, the country was entirely pastoral to the death of Elizabeth, with the exception of the English pale. It was even thus in a great measure waste, the woods and bogs occupying a great proportion of the whole. The effect was the necessary consequence of a thin population, and this in a state of primitive rudeness and poverty. Indeed, one main reason why this does not appear to the full extent, is that in the ancient accounts of this period, the mere people are not at all contemplated: the Irish, of the writers of the middle period, are the chiefs and their immediate connexions. Sir William Petty, estimates the population at three hundred thousand, in the latter end of the 12th century; Morrison makes them more than double this amount at the accession of king James. If we were to