Page images



The scarcity of works upon Irish history, as compared with those on the other portions of the British Empire, shows that, hitherto, but little interest has been felt by the English people in the condition of the sister country. The statement of Lord Normanby, in the House of Lords,* that, “there exists and prevails in England the greatest possible ignorance as to the state and wants of Ireland," seems to be unfortunately but too wellfounded. In fact, a large portion of the people of England are still as ignorant of the condition of Ireland as Swift alleged they were in his time,-when all they knew of Ireland was, that it was a country subject to the crown of England, full of bogs, and inhabited by “wild Irish papists,” who were kept in awe only by means of English troops. But the time for the prevalence of such dangerous ignorance is now past. England must be informed of the real condition of Ireland, and adopt the necessary steps to raise her people from the deep degradation into which the English government stands chargeable with having sunk them. Indeed, the English people must bestir themselves to better the condition of Ireland, were it only as the means of ensuring their own preservation. Our intimate connection, and our easy communication with the Irish nation, cannot continue, without our population being ultimately dragged down to the same level with themselves. To do justice to Ireland, to elevate her people, to enlarge their resources, and to establish their liberties, is neither more nor less than doing justice to England, and increasing the well-being and happiness of the English people. And in order to do full justice to Ireland, it is necessary that Irish history should be known and studied; for we are persuaded that there only is the true key to its present position to be found—there only are the secret springs of Irish discontentment to be traced.

The student of Irish History will find that Ireland stands out from the history of the rest of Europe in striking relief. Like England, Scotland, and most European countries, the sword of Conquest has passed over Ireland ; but, unlike them, the evils of tirat Conquest have never for a moment subsided, and they are at the present day almost as rife as they were seven hundred years ago. In England and Scotland, the conquering and the conquered races—Danes, Normans, Saxons, Britons, &c.—have, in a great measure, fused down into one people ; but in Ireland, the two races of the Conquest are still at war; and after a resistance which has lasted for centuries, the struggle is almost as inveterate now as at the period of its commencement. The blame of this protracted and destructive enmity between race and race, rests with the conquering classes themselves, as well as with the English Government, which has supported them throughout in their anti-national and inhuman policy. Instead of amalgamating themselves with the nation, the Norman invaders, and afterwards the English and Scotch colonists who settled in Ireland, erected themselves into an Ascendancy of the most despotic and tyrannical kind. In course of time, they possessed themselves of almost the entire soil of Ireland, treating the natives as Helots and slaves, and with a cruelty that has never been exceeded in any age or country. Laws were passed for the express purpose of keeping the nation distinct from the settlers, and thus preventing them from merging into one people. “Mere Irish” were deprived of the protection of the English law, and might be killed with impunity. Statutes were even passed expressly to prevent the English settlers from conforming to Irish language, dress, and manners, on pain of forfeiture of goods, imprisonment, and being dealt with as “ Irish enemies." And thus were the Irish people placed under the ban of proscription and exclusion by their conquerors, and a mark was set upon them to be shunned and hated by their fellow-men.

* Debate in the House of Lords on the state of Ireland, February 13th, 1844.

The evils of the Conquest were never allowed to subside. The Barons, who had at first monopolized so large a proportion of the soil of Ireland, at length grew so powerful and dangerous, that it became the policy of the English crown to destroy them, to confiscate their estates, and divide them anew among English and Scotch settlers. Hence the wars of extermination and confiscation of Elizabeth ; and the extensive confiscations of James I. The Civil War also, during which the native Irish clung to the cause of their legitimate sovereign, issued in extensive confiscations of Irish estates by Cromwell, which were afterwards confirmed on the restoration of Charles II. This, however, was not the end of the confiscation of Irish lands; for, at the Revolution of 1688, in consequence of the Irish adhering to the cause of James II, after the rest of his subjects had deserted him, there was another extensive seizure of Irish estates by the English government. During the seventeenth century, the confiscations of lands on account of “rebellion," amounted to about eleven millions and a half acres,—the entire surface of Ireland amounting to only about twelve millions of acres! Thus more than eleven-twelfths of the soil of Ireland were seized by the red hand of power from the original Irish people, and conferred upon an English colony, who, owing their possessions to the sword, have ever since trusted to the same for maintaining themselves in their occupancy. “Confiscation," said the Earl of Clare, at the Union, “is their common title ; and from their first settlement they have been hemmed in on every side by the old inhabitants of the island, brooding over their discontent in sullen indignation.”

All the evils springing out of the Conquest of Ireland have been immensely aggravated by religious causes. At the Reformation, the English colony in Ireland, like the English people, adopted the new doctrines; the native Irish, alone among the northern nations, clinging fondly to their ancient faith. They seem to have loved it the more that it had been renounced by their conquerors. From henceforward the Catholic religion became the test of Irish race; Protestantism was associated in native minds, with spoliation, confiscation, and massacre ; and the Protestant Church was regarded as an abomination, the mere badge of English usurpation and conquest. The constancy of the Catholic priesthood also, to the cause of their suffering flock, in all times and circumstances, endeared the old religion-sanctified as it was by the most venerable associations

to the minds of the Irish people. Thus, the Church of the Irish became ranged in direct hostility to the Church of the English from a very early period, and continues down even to the present day, to be the great engine of opposition to British power. Hence, from an early period, it was conceived to be the true policy of the Ascendancy to crush the Catholic religion, in order to keep down the spirit of resistance among the Irish people.

“Extirpation” of the Catholics has been spoken of at various periods, -and laws of the most ferocious cruelty have been devised against the Catholic priesthood. They have been hunted like wild beasts, hanged, tortured, beheaded and quartered,-yet still Catholicism grew and flourished, -and, by these very measures against their priesthood, it was only more deeply imbedded than before in the hearts of the Irish people.

At the Rebellion of 1688, the sanguinary and cruel policy of open force was abandoned; but a system of penal persecution was devised and enforced, which was not less oppressive and crushing in its operation. The Catholic Irishman was degraded into a mere serf and bondsman of the soil, from all proprietorship in which he was to be completely debarred. His property (if he had any) might now be seized by Protestants, the child might plunder his father, the wife her husband, the servant his master. The nation lay at the mercy of the vilest class of discoverers and informers. They had at their command, to use the words of Burke, “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance; and, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” It has been said that during the century of legalized oppression by means of the penal laws, “Ireland had no history,”—and Moore has observed that “ with this part of his country's history an Irish chronicler has little else to do than to mourn over it and be silent." But in our opinion, the history of that century is one of the most eloquent in the history of Ireland ;--eloquent, not of heroism or achievement, but of suffering and endurance under the deadliest wrongs. The century of penal persecution is the most instructive of all the epochs in Irish history, and must be read before the temper, character, and social and political condition of the people at the present time, can be clearly comprehended and understood.

[ocr errors]

Almost the only bright period in Irish history is that between 1780 and 1785, when a splendid effort was made by the Irish people, headed by the Liberal Protestant party, to achieve for their unhappy country a place among nations. Catholic Relief followed; but the course of improvement was suddenly and harshly arrested by the English government, and the Rebellion of 1798 broke out, which 'was ferociously crushed and shortly after followed by the Union. This measure, which might have been a great step in civilization, has hitherto proved the reverse. It was carried when the country was bristling with bayonets, and the people were placed under martial law by the government. From the first it was hated and distrusted, and would have been resisted, but that the people were pinioned down to the earth by military force. The Catholics, who might have been reconciled to the Union by benefits, were deceived by it; henceforward it became identified in their minds with violated faith ; and, in course of time, opposition to it became a national movement. The number of Coercion Acts passed for Ireland since the Union, shows that during almost the whole of that period the country has been in a state of “smothered war.” The government is, down to the present day, sullenly and reluctantly obeyed,—the laws being still regarded as the mere instruments of an ascendancy class for the subjugation of the rest of the nation. The hostile attitude of the Irish people has even increased of late years; and it would sometimes seem as if the prediction of Mr. Grattan were yet to be fulfilled in reference to the Union-a measure which, he said “ would be fatal to England; beginning with a false compromise which they might call a Union, to end in eternal separation, through the process of two civil wars."

That the Union has been of little or no advantage to the mass of the Irish people, may be inferred from the fact that, according to the Poor Law Commissioners in 1836, of the 8,175,124 persons in Ireland, 2,385,000 are absolute paupers. With the rapid increase of population since the Union, misery of all kinds has greatly increased ; agrarian revolt and outrage have also increased, until of late years, when they have been somewhat held in check by the leaders of the Irish people. The “ clearing " system has recently been enforced with unwonted severity, as many as 70,000 persons having been expelled from their homes and their farms in the course of a single year. In short, according to the testimony of all travellers, English, French, and German, the Irish peasantry,

« PreviousContinue »