The divided Irish; an historical sketch


Among a population so divided, opposed, and grievously prejudiced, Daniel O’Connell occupied a remarkable position.* His influence was so great among Irish Catholics that nearly all of them adopted his views, while most Irish Protestants heartily opposed him; they suspected that his great object, the Repeal of the legislative Union, could only result in injury, if not ruin, to their interests. Among them the Orangemen were the most active, vigilant, and demonstrative. Their association, named after William the Third’s Dutch title, called him their special champion, hero, and model. Although always opposing the Ribbonmen, they resembled them in sectarian exclusiveness, but were essentially different in moral and political principle.
While some Protestants discouraged them, thinking that they rather preserved old animosities by returning evil for evil, there were always some among them who, unlike the Ribbonmen, laboured to keep their brethren within the bounds of moderation. Some Prelatist and Presbyterian clergymen also joined or favoured this society, ‘but the Ribbonmen were utterly denounced by their clergy, and, therefore, few respectable Catholics, except, perhaps, some ignorant, excitable young men, were to be found among them. Thus this condemned yet extensive association presented the strange spectacle of a society rigidly excluding members of every other Church except that which expressly denounced it. Of course a society like the Orangemen, often commended and sometimes joined by their clergy, was infinitely superior, socially and morally, even in the estimation of candid opponents, to a nominally Catholic league condemned by the respectable members of its own Church. These societies were in Ulster constantly opposed, yet probably from their like sectarian exclusiveness, they indirectly and most unwillingly strengthened each other. The desperate language and equally desperate crimes which disgraced the Ribbonmen, doubtless inclined many young Protestants to join the Orangemen as being a brave, well-armed, and strictly Protestant association, bound to support the established Government and religion.**

While, however, the zealous energy of the Orangemen often checked or avenged Ribbon outrages, they sometimes by ignorant denunciations of Roman Catholicism, which some of them judged by the very specimens it condemned, thus prevented alliance with respectable Catholics, who had to endure insult alike from avowed opponents and disreputable coreligionists. The priesthood, therefore, found it the more difficult to restrain impetuous young Catholics from joining the Ribbonmen, partly owing to the abusive language about their religion, and especially about the Pope, no matter who he was, often uttered by some vehement Orangemen. In fact, the moderate and charitable of all parties in Ireland are seldom popular. They usually find themselves despised, even distrusted, by partisans as well as opponents, who often believe them either deceitful or cowardly. This general contempt for moderation in conduct or sentiment is certainly one of the moral misfortunes of Ireland. The Orangemen, chiefly composed of Prelatists, from their speeches and conduct apparently wish to live in the past, and recall with pride the feelings existing at the time of the Boyne battle.***

*”The tone of plaintive apology which had been so familiar in the mouths of some advocates of the Catholic cause was never used by O’Connell. From the first he held his head high and cared for no man. From the first he adopted an attitude of defiance, and a tone of even aggressive scorn of his opponents.”—M’Carthy’s “Ireland since the Union,” p. 87.

**”Finding themselves in a small minority amidst a mass of hostile Roman Catholics, the Protestants in self-defence organised themselves in an opposite association, which, under the name of Orange Lodges, had in like manner secret signs, obeyed unknown authority, and too often engaged in revengeful and bloody deeds.”—Alison’s “History of Europe,” chap. xx.

***”At first Orangeism was simply a form of outrage—the Protestant side of a faction fight which had long been raging in certain counties of the north. The society as organised by the country gentlemen emphatically disclaimed all sympathy with outrage and all desire to persecute. It was to be a loyal society for the defence of Ulster and the kingdom against the United Irishmen and against the French, and also for maintaining the Constitution on an exclusively Protestant basis, but it included in its ranks all the most intolerant and fanatical Protestantism in the province.”—Lecky’s “Ireland in the Eighteenth Century,” Vol. IV., chap. ix.

They still hear ignorant, violent Catholics abuse Protestantism with undiminished enmity, and some of them judge all Roman Catholics by the worst specimens in their own neighbourhoods. These doctrinal and historical feuds continue in some parts of Ireland almost unabated, owing to their popularity among the fiery or energetic of both parties. In Great Britain, public opinion is naturally greatly influenced by the course of European history. British Catholics and Protestants, especially since Napoleon’s defeat by a European combination, have regarded each other with increasing goodwill, which has never diminished. They unite in thorough loyalty to the established monarchy. The former cruelties and wrongs of the Catholics have gradually ceased to arouse either apprehension or bitterness among the existing community. Scott’s historical novels describing the last wars of the deposed Stuarts made, or assisted to make, the very impression on the British public which their truly patriotic author desired. “Let us hope,” he wrote “that we shall never see the scenes or hold the sentiments that were general in Britain sixty years since.” These earnest words Scott addressed to British readers of all creeds and classes, who generally agreed with them. In Ireland, unfortunately, the sentiments, if not the scenes, of yet more remote civil wars than Scott mentions, remain almost as popular as ever. The language of Irish politicians or historical writers, even Moore’s beautiful verses, inspire ideas the very reverse of Scott’s. While recalling real or supposed ancestral wrongs, they incite readers to revenge rather than forgive historical injuries, and to preserve unchanged and unchangeable the national or religious animosities of centuries.

British readers, availing themselves of educational advantages, study their country’s history as well as those of others in a like impartial spirit during a long national peace. The Irish are always tempted by exciting appeals to avenge alleged historical wrongs of previous centuries, and never to forgive the supposed descendants of enemies. It was, therefore, natural that the great political act of Catholic Emancipation (1829) produced a very different effect on the British and on the Irish people. Among the former the measure was generally thought a proof of increasing mutual friendship between the religious denominations of all British subjects. In Ireland it was generally viewed with triumph or deep regret, with eager expectation of more concession by the Catholics, and with distrustful apprehension by the Protestants. Neither party, as a rule, apparently considered it an act of political justice as much as a cause of triumph or of humiliation. At this time British Protestants were inclined to favour Irish Roman Catholics far more than their Protestant fellow-countrymen thought either just to themselves or safe for the country. Recollections of the ’98 revolt, which at its close was fast becoming a religious war, and the yearly celebrations of the previous revolution of 1688, alike preserved the sectarian hatreds which had comparatively vanished from Great Britain. The British Catholics were as loyal to the monarchy as any other British subjects. But Irish Catholic and Protestant fellow-countrymen still viewed each other with a suspicious enmity which the tranquil British public could hardly understand. Thus, when the British Parliament made a grant to Maynooth College (1845) for educating Catholic priests, the measure, like its predecessor, Catholic Emancipation, alarmed most Irish Protestants. Legislation which British Protestants thought just, and not only safe but beneficial to the community, seemed to most of their Irish coreligionists unjust to themselves and dangerous to the empire. Even many Irish Catholics viewed these measures more as gratifying signs of Protestant weakness than merely as acts of political justice. In this idea they were to some extent confirmed by the evident apprehensions of Irish non-Catholics. In Ulster, the Presbyterians made an indignant protest, in which the liberal spirit they usually advocated seemed overcome by those religious prejudices for which their own history in Ireland had certainly given some reason* O’Connell, whose persevering energy had done much to obtain this measure, declined in health and even in popularity after it was passed. His exhortations to obey British rule were gradually less regarded by his former admirers. A new race of Irish politicians, Protestant and Catholic, more resembling the ’98 leaders, began to speak, to write, and to declaim. Among these were Messrs. Smith O’Brien, Thomas Meagher, and John Mitchel—Prelatist, Catholic, and Unitarian. These men, though differing slightly in some political views, regarded British rule with a hostility which O’Connell always discouraged.

He, in common with most Catholic priests, had a horror of actual revolution. He detested the reviving republicanism which again threatened European governments, and especially the Catholic ones. He dreaded lest, as in ’98, its spirit should be conveyed to Ireland under pretence of liberating her from British authority. He therefore, warmly, even bitterly, denounced the rising Young Irelanders, as they called themselves, who, in his last days, were beginning, as it were, to usurp his former influence over the Irish people.** But he had no longer the strength to oppose them. He left Ireland and died on his way to Rome, where he longed to see the venerable head of that Church to whose political interests in Ireland he had devoted the labours of his energetic life.

*”The Irish Presbyterian Church is desirous that they [Irish Roman Catholics] should enjoy every liberty which her own members possess, but believing that Popery is most injurious to the true interests with regard to time and eternity of all its adherents, she protests against all endowment for the encouragement of that system granted by a Protestant government.”—Protest of the Irish Presbyterian Assembly in Belfast.—Reid’s “History of the Presbyterian Church,” Vol. III.

**”O’Connell became aware that there was growing up around him a new generation who chafed under the benevolent despotism of his leadership, and who objected to his canon of implicit obedience unless they had first reasoned out the matter. He was now an old man, no longer the dashing young Kerry man of Emancipation days. He trembled for the possible indiscretions of these fiery orators and seditious patriotic poets, who were now rapidly infusing their bold spirit into the multitude.”—Sullivan’s “New Ireland,” Vol. I.

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