The divided Irish; an historical sketch


During Mr. Gladstone’s administration Earl Spencer was Lord Lieutenant. He showed firm resolution in trying to preserve order, while Mr. Gladstone declared in Parliament that crime and outrage followed the Land League. They were, therefore, vehemently opposed by the Home Rulers, headed by Mr. Parnell, who, without using the violent language of his supporters, seldom tried to restrain them. Alike unmoved by the indignation of opponents or occasional taunts of unscrupulous partisans, this imperturbable Protestant gentleman steadily animated the Irish Catholic democracy against the interests of his own religion and class with a practical success never hitherto attained. But his chief triumph, socially, intellectually, and politically, was to come, and was perhaps never expected even by himself. After the extension of the Franchise in 1884, Mr. Gladstone’s favourite measure, the admission of more Catholic voters, naturally caused the return of more Irish Catholic members, who followed Mr. Parnell’s leadership. It was proved,however, that in electing his adherents, voters, in some places,were not permitted to openly express any opinion against the popular candidate. In the name of Irish liberty generally, that of individuals was sometimes suppressed. It was dangerous in some districts for voters to openly oppose Mr. Parnell’s nominees. The “guilt of rebellion ” against the Nationalist cause was occasionally more promptly and severely punished than rebellion against legal authority. The Irish majority, declaring their cause was that of ultimate freedom, often suppressed it among individuals to ensure its future triumph’for the generality. It was evident that hitherto many who declaimed eloquently in behalf of Irish liberty had no wish to extend it to those differing from them. This conduct may not prove insincerity, but it proves how unable political enthusiasts often are to be consistent with professed principles. The reproachful threats uttered against “unworthy,” “degenerate” Irishmen, “traitors to their country’s cause,” &c, occasionally accompanied by brutal assaults, proved that some, at least, of Mr. Parnell’s supporters were forced as well as tempted to join a cause they were told was the National one.

This policy of mingled persuasion and menace gave Mr. Parnell a large majority of Irish members. Except a few constituencies, chiefly in Ulster, the Irish members supported him as their virtual dictator. The Ulster Protestants, however, mostly opposed him, disapproving the language, and apprehending the future conduct of many among his Catholic followers. Despite his declaration in Parliament that he was a Protestant and hoped to die one, probably an unpleasing avowal to Catholic supporters, the Irish Protestants generally distrusted him. Some suspected he was secretly a Catholic; others thought him an atheist, promoting Catholic interests solely for political objects. Mr. Gladstone and Lord Spencer, however, seemed amazed and overcome at such increasing influence acquired by a man whom they had for years watched and even imprisoned as dangerous to the public peace. His great accession of strength, moreover, had resulted from their own measure, of Franchise extension. They accordingly made a great change in their Irish policy in 1885. Earl Spencer, though opposed and threatened when Lord Lieutenant by Irish Nationalists, followed his chief, Mr. Gladstone, in changing his opinions. He expressed very different views about Irish disaffection since Mr. Parnell’s success at recent elections.* The smallness of the loyal Irish minority, which he calls “a startling disclosure,” also surprised him more than might have been expected, considering his long residence in Ireland. Apparently, Mr. Gladstone and he could not endure opposing even an anti-English majority any longer, and they were now inclined to accede in some measure to Mr. Parnell’s views. Their Conservative opponents, with some influential Liberals, openly declared that they were yielding too much to Mr. Parnell. On the other hand, they maintained that, having for the first time ascertained the opinions of the Irish people, they wished to make considerable concessions to the majority of whom Mr. Parnell seemed the representative. It was not ascertained how far Mr. Gladstone would have actually met Mr. Parnell’s views. At the ensuing general election in 1886, the Conservatives obtained power under Lord Salisbury, through alliance with many alarmed and indignant British Liberals. The latter, headed by Lord Hartington, elder brother of the murdered Lord Frederick Cavendish, renounced a long allegiance to the aged Liberal chief, whose sudden change of policy they agreed with Conservatives in thinking most dangerous to the empire. To the general surprise of old friends and new supporters, Mr. Gladstone suddenly adopted many Irish Nationalist views. He apparently in old age read Irish history again in a different spirit from his earlier studies of it. He evidently views William the Third, the historical hero of British Liberals, as Ireland’s enemy.** He seems to consider Ireland for the first time as a thoroughly Roman Catholic country. He mentions the Boyne battle as partly won by “foreign mercenaries,” meaning some Dutch and German Protestants who followed William, without mentioning Irish Protestants who had narrowly escaped extirpation for following the British Liberal example in supporting William the Third.

*”The Irish peasantry are also imbued with all the advanced political notions of the American Republic, and are sufficiently educated to read the latest political doctrines in the Press which circulates among them. Their social condition at home is a hundred years behind their state of political and mental culture. They naturally contrast the misery of many Irish peasants with the position of their relatives in the New World. This cannot but embitter their views against English rulers, and strengthen their leaning to national sentiments.”—Lord Spencer’s Preface to “Handbook of Home Rule.”

**”Ireland reached the nadir of political depression when, at and after the Boyne, she had been conquered not merely by an English force, but by Continental mercenaries.”—Mr. Gladstone’s Article in “Handbook of Home Rule.”

The Irish Home Rule or Nationalist press, overjoyed at the apparent conversion or surrender of their .former rulers, warmly declared that Ireland should forgive their past severity in maintaining British authority, and mentioned them as persons who should be excused by the Irish nation whom they had previously misgoverned through ignorance. The more violent Nationalists, however, in America, represented by O’Donovan Rossa and others, held aloof and so far resembled their indignant foes, the Irish Conservatives, in distrusting Mr. Gladstone. But the influence of this extreme party yielded in Ireland altogether to the cool, resolute Mr. Parnell. He quietly, and with little comment accepted the adhesion, or at least the more friendly sentiments of the English Liberal statesmen with whom he had for years waged parliamentary warfare. They had no longer to station vigilant police at their doors for protection against the threatened violence of his admirers. From the date of their conversion to a Home Rule policy their personal safety incurred no risk in Ireland, except perhaps from a few vehement members of the loyal Protestant minority, who considered and called them traitors to the cause they had formerly upheld. Many eminent British Liberals and Radicals, including the poet Tennyson and the aged politician, John Bright, viewed Mr. Gladstone’s changed policy with indignation, sorrow, and dismay. They argued, remonstrated, and reasoned in vain with him, but successfully with many distinguished Liberals throughout Britain.* These, calling themselves Liberal Unionists, headed by Lord Hartington, Mr. Chamberlain, and Mr. Bright, actually preferred to support the Conservatives in power than to follow their old chief, now cheered and surrounded, somewhat like James II. in former days, by eager Irish adherents, many hostile to England, and all opposing English rule in Ireland. His life will, doubtless, form a most interesting and instructive history. He represents in himself the scholar, statesman, and philanthropist of the nineteenth century. He has had the rare advantage of knowing most of the wisest men of his time in Britain, and throughout Europe. The knowledge acquired from their intercourse his classic mind can well connect with the wisdom bequeathed by the greatest minds of antiquity. His relaxations from politics are not usually to repose or pleasure, but the exchange of one mental toil for another. Some of his learned works on classic literature, his favourite subject, were composed as a relief from the cares of public life. His sympathy for the freedom of the Ionian Islands from British control, and his ardent assistance and favour to Italian liberty, display the philanthropist and statesman combined. Yet, while the earnest friend to Continental liberalism, he was never a favourite with the extreme republicans of Europe. While admiring Garibaldi, he favoured the rule of King Victor Emanuel instead of the republican views of Mazzini. Even in England his liberalism never satisfied the most extreme Radicals. His recent Irish policy, however, alienated him from many moderate Liberals, of whom he was not only the chief political leader, but the highest intellectual representative.** It was his singular fate in old age to be censured and distrusted by most men capable of appreciating him, and to be admired by many to whom his changed Irish policy was the only attraction.

*”Sharers of our glorious past,
Brothers must we part at last?
Shall we not thro’good and ill
Cleave to one another still?
Britain’s myriad voices call,
Sons be welded each and all,
Into one imperial whole,
One with Britain heart and soul,
One life, one flag, one fleet, one throne—
Britons, hold your own.”


**”Even Mr. Gladstone’s idolaters stood aghast. We tell Mr. Gladstone, said the Spectator (August, 1887), that not all his magical hold over the people, not all the admiration for his genius and his sincerity, not all the worship felt for the loftiness of his moral character will save him at the polls, if it is once suspected that, in his enthusiasm for Ireland, he has abandoned his desire to see good government, the first condition of which is order, prevail withn great Britain.”—”Mr. Gladstone”: A Study by L. J. Jennings, M.P.. p. 13.

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