The divided Irish; an historical sketch


After a short period of turbulent remonstrance against Cardinal Cullen’s advice, or rather dictation, the Irish Catholics gradually subsided into their usual state of political dissatisfaction, but thorough religious contentment. The Fenian agitation, always detested by Irish Protestants, and generally disavowed by Irish Catholics, collapsed without actual rebellion, though causing alarm and annoyance to the British government. Most of its leaders, like those of 1848, were easily arrested, tried, and imprisoned, without attempt at rescue. James Stephens, however, escaped from his Dublin prison. Some suspected he was a Government spy, but his continued popularity with Fenian associates appeared to contradict this idea. After the failure of this movement, the two chief causes of Ireland’s endless discontent were apparently the established Prelatist Church, and the quarrels between landowners and occupiers. The Episcopal Church had been always disliked by the Catholic majority, who viewed it as a badge of conquest and injustice. It was also disliked, though in a less degree, by Irish Presbyterians, who besides disapproving of its supremacy, thought that its invidious position rather checked than aided Protestant progress among Irishmen. Many British statesmen declared that as a mission Church it had failed completely, and proposed its disestablishment and disendowment. This important measure was accordingly carried, under the auspices of Mr. Gladstone in 1869. This extraordinary statesman, whose long, eventful public career made him such a favourite with Continental Liberals, and so disliked by the Catholic clergy abroad, became in Ireland the latter’s friendly ally. For the first time in history an English Protestant Premier proclaimed to the united Parliament his dislike to the Irish Prelatist Church, and his determination to destroy its ascendancy, indignantly comparing it to a poisonous tree. The measure did not at first produce the effect desired by its promoters. Instead of being thought a mere matter of justice, as they had hoped, it was viewed as a concession by most Irish Catholics and Protestants. A people so intensely religious as the Irish, of all denominations, could not regard any Church’s humiliation as only a political measure. Many Catholics thought it a long delayed victory, gained by the constant pressure of Irish agitation over the worldly minds of British statesmen, who cared little about any religion. It was thought a dangerous, disgraceful defeat by many Irish Protestants, inflicted by a union of Irish Catholics and British Radicals upon the loyal minority of Ireland. Instead of allaying religious animosities, it apparently renewed them.

The Orangemen seemed rather revived than depressed after the first shock of the Premier’s treachery, as many called it, was over. They could see nothing in the measure but a triumph of the reviving foe whom their ancestry had defeated at the Boyne. Accordingly Orange flags, drums, processions, and watch-words were renewed with increased enthusiasm. Some influential Protestants, who had thought this Society more likely to break the peace than preserve it, now alarmed or irritated at the exulting triumph of the Catholic majority, began either to favour or to join it. Thus the old religious feuds which, since 1848, had rather yielded in popular interest to political discussion, began to revive. The former civil wars with their religious objects and motives were recalled to public attention, more than recollections of Tone, O’Connell, or even Smith O’Brien and Meagher. Meantime the death of Cardinal Cullen removed a strong, energetic mind from directing the policy of the Catholic Church in Ireland. It was now that the Land agitation, often allied with Ribbonism, and always more or less mingled with disaffection in country districts, vied with religious strife in agitating the Irish population. This subject had never been much mentioned in either the ’98 or ’48 revolts, which in some respects resembled one another. In both these there was the same marked difference between the leaders and the led in motive as well as in education. During the Phoenix conspiracy, the Fenian movement, and agrarian agitation, all indirectly connected with each other, there was. more resemblance and more mutual understanding between leaders and followers. All these three last movements were comparatively self-dependent, planned and supported by Irishmen at home, or in the United States, but independent of Continental alliance or even sympathy.*

The alienation between landlords and tenants was often shown in rapacity on one side, and ferocity on the other. From recent admissions of Nationalists or Land Leaguers, calling themselves the tenants’ advocates, it would be difficult, however, for owners and occupiers to agree if they truly represent Irish tenantry.** The increasing discontent of the latter first caused the formation of the party expressively called Home Rulers. They believed that from the British parliament in London they could never obtain the same favour as from a Dublin parliament, consisting of Irish members exclusively, and chiefly, if not entirely, composed of their own representatives. The landowners, both Protestant and Catholic, apprehending the same result, thoroughly opposed this demand for home legislation. They know that they are often viewed by their tenants almost like rapacious foreigners, having no moral right either to their fortunes or positions in the country. Their interests and influence are often thought alike opposed to the welfare of the community. If they neglect their duties or become absentees they are blamed and called useless. If they remain in Ireland and take an active part in its affairs, they are called interfering and tyrannical. Instead of their being respected, it is usually a cause of general satisfaction when they are in any way defeated, thwarted, or unfortunate. Their position is one of peculiar difficulty, as, unlike most countries, they are not the representatives of the people among whom they live,*** but are generally Protestants, and the tenants, except in Ulster, generally Catholics.

*”The vast Irish democracy in America lives in the tenement houses of the great cities, in the cottages of the factory towns, in the huts of the public works and mines, or as domestic servants in the houses of the wealthy. It is these who form the constituencies of anti-English Irish demagogues, and who contribute their money to the various funds which have become, indeed, the real cause of all political evil in Ireland.”—” Bagenal’s American Irish,” p. 36.

**”The Irish peasant is, as a rule, profoundly unwilling to emigrate. Furthermore, the Irish peasant is in his heart convinced that the land is really his.”—M’Carthy’s “Ireland since the Union,” page 241.

***”It is to the absence of Catholic landlords that both the revolutionary and sacerdotal extravagances of Irish Catholic politics are mainly to be attributed.”—Lecky’s “England in the Eighteenth Century,” chap. ii.

The few Catholic land-owners find their position and interests so endangered that they are usually forced to oppose coreligionists on every subject except their common faith. All Irish landowners must perceive how differently their class is viewed and treated in Great Britain* They cannot feel the same interest as British landlords in the welfare of tenantry, most of whom repudiate their rights altogether. There exists a feeling of alienation between these classes even when there is no actual dispute. Landlords are often tempted to employ strangers as caretakers, gardeners, land stewards, and gamekeepers, owing to the general disavowal of proprietary rights. A combination sometimes exists among Irish people to protect, or, at least, screen from justice those who injure a landlord’s property. Yet it must not be supposed that even they are mere rogues. They are often honest and forbearing among each other. But they view a landlord differently from any other individual. In their opinions he has morally scarcely any rights at all. To cheat or injure him may be an offence against existing laws framed in his interests, but that is a very different thing from being a sin in the sight of God. Tenants who habitually abuse or deceive landlords are not always the worthless characters such conduct would indicate. The truth is, they believe that all landlords are in a thoroughly unjust position, supported by existing law without moral right. Hence arises the unfortunate spectacle Ireland presents of two classes, whose interests are in most countries thought the same, viewing each other with nearly as much enmity as if they represented hostile nations. The British government, trying, as it were, to mediate between them, but satisfying neither party, enforced by law an almost general reduction in rents throughout Ireland. The measure had the effect of alarming and impoverishing landlords while encouraging occupiers in hoping for more reductions. On the other hand, this great measure, called the Land Act of 1881, for which Mr. Gladstone, as Premier, was chiefly responsible, probably prevented some cruel evictions at the time, while arousing expectations among tenants which no British government would consent to gratify.

The first Home Rule leader was Mr. Isaac Butt, a Dublin lawyer, at whose death Mr. Shaw, a man of moderate views and abilities, succeeded in the leadership of this new and popular party. But he soon gave way and yielded pre-eminence to a successor of more ability, stronger will, and greater determination, Mr. Charles Stewart Parnell. This remarkable man in himself represented three classes in Ireland, all of whom opposed the party he led. He was an aristocrat by family, a landlord by position, and a Prelatist in religion. Yet he proved himself a formidable enemy to the interests of all three. His evident knowledge of Irish character in its strength and weakness was one of his chief and doubtless one of his most successful qualities. He had the advantage of studying the previous careers of the ’98 and ’48 leaders, of Daniel O’Connell, and of the Fenian chiefs. He apparently availed himself of this knowledge in. deriving practical guidance for his own policy.

Like the Hungarian leader, Louis Kossuth, in ’48-’49, he surrounded himself with associates whom he used, directed, and managed with the skill of a master spirit over sympathising yet subordinate minds. He nominated for parliament the men he thought best fitted to further the cause of Home Rule. To this object he devoted himself, and in Ireland nearly all the candidates he recommended were returned, many without opposition. When his former adherent, Mr. Callan, M.P. for Louth, lost his confidence or failed to satisfy him, Mr. Parnell, without using abusive language, like O’Connell, calmly named a substitute, and dispensed with Mr. Callan as if he were of no further use. Unlike all previous Irish leaders, his chief scene of action was in London. In the vicinity of Westminster he held councils, appointed future Irish members, and directed the whole policy of his eager, yet obedient partisans. Although he could “play the orator,” if not “as well as Nestor,” yet well enough to attract attention when he wished, he used his oratory, like everything else he controlled, entirely for political purposes, with little regard for personal reputation or display, except when they promoted those objects. His knowledge of life and character was by no means confined to Ireland. He was educated in England, and was often in America. With the Irish in the United States, with his countrymen at home, especially in Dublin and in the south, as well as with British society in London, he was well acquainted, and with these he had chiefly to deal. He apparently knew that the British public may be influenced by other means as well as by parliamentary speeches. Accordingly, as if to aid his efforts in the House of Commons, appeared the interesting writings of his adherents, Messrs. Justin M’Carthy and T. P. O’Connor. The Messrs. M’Carthy, father and son, besides amusing British readers by such novels as “Dear Lady Disdain,” have written two important works—”The History of our own Times,” and “Ireland since the Union.” In the former Mr. Justin M’Carthy, sen., especially in the last volume, steadily supports his leader’s views, with whose approval, perhaps, the work was written. As if to suit all classes in British society, this work often mentions art, science, and literature, while throughout there can be perceived a steady advocacy of Irish Home Rule. He does not hesitate to slightly blame the violence of the ’48 leaders, and, as it were, apologises for the British government being at length forced to suppress them.** Yet, while Messrs. M’Carthy and O’Connor peacefully supported their party in London, the fiercer spirits of O’Donovan Rossa and other prominent Fenians in America, desired Ireland’s separation from Britain by open rebellion. The murders of the Irish secretaries, Lord Frederick Cavendish and Mr. Burke, in Dublin, in May, 1882, by avowed Fenians encouraged by American Irish partisans, were calmly condemned by Mr. Parnell, but vindicated by some of his admirers in America. After the immediate shock of this crime was over Mr. Parnell steadily resumed his Parliamentary agitation for Home Rule. He was, however, reproached, blamed, and suspected by many Conservatives and by some Liberals, as being indirectly connected with those American Irish who had planned the assassinations in the Phcenix Park. The murderers were convicted chiefly on the evidence of an able accomplice, James Carey, who some months after was shot by a man named O’Donnell. The latter was tried and executed in England. When convicted O’Donnell became violent, and was forcibly removed from the dock shouting “God save Ireland.” This devout, harmless expression is, strange to say, chiefly used by men from whose crimes the unfortunate country has most need of deliverance.

*”In no country, I believe, do the landowners as a class so thoroughly comprehend the character and capacities of their tenants and agricultural labourers, or take a more intimate, personal, and perennial interest in their welfare [than in England]. In no country do we see fewer and less savage outbursts of class hatred, mistrust, and rancour.”—Berkleys “Wealth and Welfare,” chap, viii , p. 156.

**”Government had to do something. The Lord Lieutenant could not go on for ever allowing a newspaper [John Mitchel’s] to scream out appeals to rebellion.”—”History of our own Times.” Vol. I.

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