Memoirs of Captain Rock, the celebrated Irish chieftain

Chapter V.
1763.—1778.

Political State of Ireland during the early part of the Captain’s Life.—Dr. Lucas.—Undertakers.—Administration of Lord Townsend, Lord Harcourt, &c.— Corruption.—The “Catholic Enemy.”—Jews.—Converts.

FoR about fifty years after the Revolution, there was in the Politics of Ireland no Irish Party. Our Parliament was but a sort of Chapel of Ease to that in Westminster. Irish pensions, Irish peerages, and even Irish patriotism were all exclusively in the hands of Englishmen, or the sons of Englishmen and, though now and then their deliberations affected to be patriotic and national, the country itself had as little to do with the matter, as a corpse has with the inquest the coroner holds over it.

Even the patriotism of Swift, as I have already remarked, might have come under his own interdict, as an imported article; and, useful and honorable as his genius has been to Ireland, that happy illustration of the machinery of most human motives, “une roue de cuivre fait tourner une aiguille d’or,” may, without much injustice, be applied to those of Swift—as English discontent was, after all, the “roue de cuivre” that put the “aiguille d’or” of his patriotism in motion.

It was not till about the period of Lord Harrington’s administration (1747-9), that the English in Ireland began to be, as Burke says, “domiciliated,” and to feel that they had a country—and it is in the writings of that indefatigable Tribune, Dr. Lucas, that the first dawnings of a national and Irish feeling are to be found. No longer circumscribing the Spirit of Patriotism within the wizard circle of the “Protestant Interest,” he was the first member of the Parliament of Ireland, that dared to extend his sympathies beyond the little colony around him, to the great mass of the Irish nation;—and there is one of his Addresses, in which, putting aside, boldly and entirely, the eternal scapegoat of Popery, he arraigns the whole conduct of England towards Ireland, and declares that “the Mexicans were never used worse by the barbarous Spaniards, than the poor Irish had been for centuries by the English.”

The duration of our Parliaments had been, till this time, for the whole life of the King—so that the Parliament, which the death of George II. dissolved, had been in existence thirty-two years!—and it was by the exertions of Lucas, that they were at length, in the year 1767, limited to the period of eight years. But still their dependency on the will of England was so absolute, and all power of originating Bills,—even Money-Bills—was so completely taken away from them, that their deliberations and decisions, except for purposes of corruption, were mere acting and child’s play.

In this shackled state our Parliament remained till 1782,-and, among the farces on a grand scale which have been played off before the world, the Debates of such a House of Commons, in the leading-strings of the English Attorney-General, could not have been the most unamusing to an indifferent spectator. The solemn proposal by some patriot member, of a Bill previously submitted to the censure of the Privy Council—the appeals to liberty and the Constitution on both sides—the animation of the opposition benches—the agitation of the galleries—and, all this time, a perfect consciousness every where, that the Attorney-General of England could, with a dash of his pen, reverse, alter, or entirely do away the matured result of all the eloquence, and all the abilities of this whole assembly!

With a Parliament so constituted, corruption would seem hardly necessary; but the influence of the Undertakers (as three or four great families* were called) had become, at length, so enormous, and so embarrassing to the Government, that it was found necessary to break it down by every mode of seduction and bribery, that intrigue and a Pension-list, expansible ad infinitum**, could supply.

In Swift’s time, “burgundy, kind words, and closetting” was the recipe for bringing over refractory country-gentlemen; but something more substantial was requisite now and Lord Townsend, under whom the experiment was first tried***, found the decomposition of these parliamentary clans, a process not less costly than it was invidious and hazardous. He seems, however, to have succeeded—particularly with the patriots; and the names of Loftus, Beresford, &c. among the apostates of that period, show the foundations upon which Tory titles and fortunes are sometimes constructed.

*The Shannons, Leinsters, Ponsonbys, &c.—so called from their undertaking, under every successive Lord-Lieutenant, on certain terms for themselves and their followers, to “do the King’s business” (as the phrase was) in the House.

**“The pensions then charged upon the civil estabslishment, amounted to seventy-two thousand pounds per annum. The private revenue of the crown, which the law left at its discretionary disposal, did not at the same time exceed seven thousand per annum, so that the pensions exceeded the fund which could at all be charged with them by sixty-five thousand per annum.” PLOWDEN.

***“By his diverting the channel of court favour, or rather dividing it into a multitude of little streams, the gentlemen of the House of Commons were taught to look up to him, not only as the source, but the dispenser of every gratification. Not even a commission in the Revenue could be disposed of without his approbation. Thus were the old Undertakers given to understand that there was another way of doing business than through them.”—CAMPBELL’s Philosoph. Survey.

Under a subsequent administration (Lord Harcourt’s) so little did Court influence mask its operations, that, for the purpose of recruiting the Treasury bench against the meeting of Parliament, five Earls, seven Viscounts, and eighteen Barons were all made in one day.

This system of government was all but a long rehearsal for the Union—that last grand bouquet of the feux d’artifice of Corruption. But though even thus soon did that “coming event cast its shadow before,” the slightest hint of such a measure was received with universal indignation. The people preferred, of the two, a bad Parliament to none at all—and the event has shown that they were right. Like Harlequin decapitated, “though his head was no great ornament to him when on, you cannot imagine how awkward he looks without it.”

All this time the Catholic “Enemy” (as the laws called their own manufacture) went on increasing in silence and in darkness, like that fire which some French philosophers suppose to exist at the centre of the earth,—working its way upward in secret, till it will at last make the surface too hot to hold us. So little were they attended to, except for purposes of persecution, that, in a case where one of their body was tried for having given refuge to a young lady, whom some Protestant converters were laying siege to rather violently, it was stated gravely from the bench that “the laws did not presume a Papist to exist in the kingdom, nor could they breathe without the connivance of Government.” This is one of those sublime and daring fictions, in which Law leaves Poetry so very far behind it—two or three millions of souls “not supposed to exist”—five-sixths of a people alive only by courtesy!

It seemed, indeed, as if these wise legislators had really succeeded in persuading themselves, that Catholics not only went for cyphers in the census of a population, but, like the devils in Milton’s Pandemonium, took no room. For, while in every direction this enslaved race was multiplying (contrary to the noble example of the elephant, which refuses to propagate its race in bondage), we find the Parliament in such fear of a deficiency of population, as to encourage the importation of Palatines, Hugonots, and even Jews, by every inducement that not only full toleration, but the most lavish grant of privileges could furnish.

This notable and pious plan for strengthening the Protestant Interest by a plentiful infusion of Jewish blood, was first suggested in the year 1747, when a Bill for “naturalizing persons professing the Jewish religion” passed the Irish House of Commons, but was lost, I believe, in England. So late, however, as the year 1796, “all foreigners of all descriptions” (including, of course, Jews, Turks, and other outlandish infidels,) were invited not only to the benefits of naturalization, but to the enjoyment of all those civil advantages, from which the native Catholic was then, and is now, excluded.

The Preamble of one of these latitudinarian Acts (1780) merits well to be recorded, both as a sample of legislative effrontery, and of that fancy which some tyrants have for showing that they know what is right, merely to enhance their pleasure in doing all that is wrong: “Whereas the increase of people is a means of advancing the wealth and strength of any nation, and whereas many foreigners and strangers, from the lenity of our government, the benefit of our laws, the advantages of our trade, the security of our property, and the consideration of the plentifulness of all sorts of useful and profitable commodities, with which Ireland abounds, might be induced to settle in the kingdom, if they were made partakers of the advantages and privileges, which the natural-born subjects of this realm do enjoy,” &c.

It is evident that, under Lord Townshend’s administration, Patriotism was a much more formidable thing than Popery, as, in buying up the former article, no expense was spared,—while the addition of ten pounds to the annual sum of thirty, secured by the 8th of Anne to every Popish priest that should become Protestant, was all that the favourite old cause of Proselytism could obtain. As the Act itself piteously recites, “It was found by experience that the former provision of thirty pounds was in no respect a sufficient encouragement for Popish priests to become converts;”—therefore, what neither thirty pounds nor some centuries of persecution could effect, it was thought a bidding of ten pounds more might perhaps bring about. It was ordered, too, that the forty pounds annually should be “levied on the inhabitants of the district wherein the convert last resided;” and thus the same mode since adopted to check the practice of illicit distillation, namely, that of fining the townland where an illicit still was found, was by this sagacious Act applied to encourage the growth of conversion—as if it was necessary to add fiscal to spiritual considerations, to keep a neighbourhood on the alert against the introduction of Protestantism among them.

Such (I again and again repeat it) were the bungling bigots and oppressors, whose handy-work we see before us in the present condition of Ireland—whose wicked absurdity still lives among their worthy Orange successors—and whose system will, I foresee, like the old Bucentaur of Venice, be carefully kept together in patched-up preservation, as long as a single fragment of the rotten, but sacred, hulk remains.

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