The divided Irish; an historical sketch


In examining Ireland’s eventful history it seems still unequally divided between Catholics and Protestants, the former mostly opposing, the latter mostly supporting -British rule.* An eager contest irrespective of religion, between landowners and occupiers is now, however, added to religious enmity, the bitterness of which, among many Irishmen, has scarcely diminished through the progress of time. The question of possible remedy for so much political and social evil naturally occurs to thoughtful minds. The one demanded by the Irish majority is local government or Home Rule understood in more extended or limited degrees. Yet in any degree this change must diminish British authority and transfer it more to Irishmen. It is right, therefore, to remember that, even now, recollections of civil wars when British power established the political supremacy of the Protestant minority still inspire Irishmen with a sectarian rancour and bitterness long unknown throughout Great Britain. None abuse or censure the Irish so violently as other Irishmen. Were foreigners to inquire from Irishmen about different parties in Ireland, they would often hear opinions more bitter and unjust than from informants belonging to any other country. Such prejudices founded on historical enmity have long ceased in Great Britain. Neither in England nor Scotland are people’s lives endangered by fellow-countrymen for religious or political differences. The descendants of prominent Jacobites and of their conquerors in 1715 and ’45 view each other without a trace of historical animosity. Yet the history of the more remote civil war of 1688, still inspires deadly vindictiveness between Irish Protestant and Catholic peasants and artisans. In the trials thar. follow “party ” riots, which, but for soldiers or police, would become pitched battles, each party blames the other exclusively. They often view such encounters as legitimate warfare, in which the more foes that are killed or disabled the better. Even some local newspapers evince the same spirit, and praise or blame for “party” interests alone with little regard for truth.

The different experiences of the divided Irish about each other in Ireland from those of co-religionists elsewhere partly explain their comparative bigotry. British Protestants no longer suspect Catholic fellow-countrymen. They are well acquainted, through political, commercial, and social intercourse, with an immense variety of religious denominations. The Jews live among them on friendly terms, equally loyalto established law, and thoroughly agree with Christian fellow-countrymen in maintaining the existing institutions of the land. Between Mohammedans, Brahmins, Buddhists, and Parsees, there is frequent intercourse with British Christians, under whose political rule all four denominations live prosperously in India. Though differing in religious belief, these denominations under Christian rule, neither persecute nor oppress each other. With the two great Christian churches of Europe, the Roman Catholic and the Greek, British Protestants are thoroughly at peace. The latter is known chiefly to British travellers, yet is represented in London by Russian and Greek diplomatists and merchants. The Roman Catholic is represented not only by some British and Irish fellow-subjects, but by Frenchmen, Spaniards, Austrians, and Italians. Their intercourse with Protestant England, their friendly political relations and extensive commercial transactions, completely extinguish the religious animosities, which alienated them during the Middle Ages, and which civilised descendants now study in history with mingled regret and amazement. These European nations have much in common with Englishmen Their countries are constantly visited by British travellers. They abound in everything interesting to the scholar, artist, theologian, and antiquarian. To all these England offers special encouragement. The illustrious Greeks or Romans of former days, if revived, would find their names more venerated, and their great minds more appreciated in modern England than in the countries where they lived.

*”The Presbyterians of the north, who during the greater part of the eighteenth century formed the most dangerous element of discontent in Ireland, have been fully conciliated, but the great majority of the Catholic population, whose ancestors in 1800 had accepted the Union with indifference or with favour, are now arrayed against it.”—Lecky’s “Ireland in the Eighteenth Century,” Vol. V.

England’s insular position, her long domestic peace, her unrivalled powers of communication with all the world, civilised and uncivilised, give her advantages of which she has well availed herself.* While boasting, it is to be hoped not unreasonably, of favouring all modern improvements, England has cultivated by unequalled study and research every possible acquaintance with illustrious minds of the most remote antiquity. Though many religious people throughout her vast empire naturally wish for unanimity in Christian belief, yet no idea of attempting conversion except by most peaceful means would now be desired by the British people or sanctioned by their government. The religious bitterness of past ages has long been condemned among them. In every sense its revival would oppose the interests as well as feelings of the nation. But in Ireland, remote and isolated, religious animosity is preserved as a precious historical inheritance. People, believing themselves descended from ancestors who tried to exterminate each other, are often more proud of the example than eager to show in their own conduct the progress of civilisation. As before mentioned, men are legally punished in Ireland for proclaiming themselves “good” Catholics or “good” Protestants. Though an apparently harmless boast, it is yet found too much for Irish theological patience to endure in some places without a riot. It must not be supposed that these “party” riots in Belfast and elsewhere are mere trials of strength among rough athletes, without any wish to kill. Irish ” party” riots are really matters of life and death. The eager use of deadly weapons proves that Irish Catholics and Protestants imitate as well as praise the deeds of ancestry, for which inevitable civil war was both the cause and justification. Such excuse no longer exists. Yet the mortal hatred survives, restrained practically by civilised improved laws, yet little diminished in the hearts of supposed descendants. Even friendly fellow-workmen or neighbours, at the religious war-cries of the Pope or King William the Third, are instantly transformed into deadly foes. A year never passes in Ireland without loss or injury of life or limb wildly sacrificed at the invocation of these names by opposing fellow-Christians. Their usual ignorance of all religions but their own divisions of the same one, tends not only to preserve bigotry but to make them proud of it, as a proof of hereditary faithfulness and sincerity. It is stated by the Nationalists or Home Rulers that, if British rule were withdrawn, Irishmen of all religions would become politically united without doctrinal change, and form a contented, peaceful nation. The fact of Mr. Parnell being a Protestant some declared a sufficient proof that no anti-Protestant legislation by an Irish Parliament would have his sanction. The few non-Catholics, however, who followed him, have hitherto not influenced many co-religionists. With rare exceptions, Irish Protestants wish to retain legislative union with Great Britain. In this desire nearly all the Irish Catholic gentry, and men of property, cordially agree. But they have even less influence over co-religionists than Protestant landlords retain over theirs. Ulster is in this and some other respects unlike the rest of Ireland. In it Protestant landowners and occupiers are often united both in politics and religion. Between them the rent question is the only cause of dispute, although this is occasionally sufficient to array them against each other at elections. The temptation of rent reduction sometimes, though rarely, unites Ulster Protestant and Catholic tenants, who differ on almost all other subjects. Yet, during this alliance, the wish for “Ireland for the Irish,” so often expressed by the disaffected, usually reminds Protestant tenants that they have more in common with fellow Protestant landlords than with Catholic fellow tenants. Ulster Catholics are naturally agreed with their co-religionists throughout Ireland, but they are more irritated than the latter by constant collision with the Orangemen. In the frequent riots occurring between them, all other considerations vanish at the religious war-cries which recall historical enmity. The Catholic clergy, especially in Ulster, are often in a difficult position. They are accused by many Protestants of rather increasing discontent among tenants, and exciting them against landlords. On the other hand, they have to sometimes guard their people not only from Protestant encroachment, but from infidel allies. While accepting democratic sympathy, they have to be on the watch against the scornful enmity which most European and American democrats express towards clerical influence. They have to endure not only attacks on their faith by some Irish Protestants, but to resist the dangerous alliance of an irreligious philosophy.

*”For the past half century the relationship existing between England and India has been the cause of considerable heart searching and conflict of opinion. English rule has tended more and more to involve the conscientious discharge of the duties of our position towards the native races. There is no question now of the ruling race merely exploiting India to their own selfish advantage. Great Britain desires to share in the prosperity she has assisted in creating, it is true, but for the most part she shares indirectly, and in participation with the rest of the world. India sends her products to British markets, but she is equally free to send them elsewhere. Our gain tends to be a gain, not only to India, but to civilisation in general.”—Kidd’s “Social Evolution,” chap. x.

Ulster recalls historical Ireland perhaps more forcibly than any other part of the country. In it Prelatists and Presbyterians have the largest landed property and the chief wealth. The Roman Catholics inhabit most of its mountain districts. In its large towns, however, they are brought into constant intercourse with Protestants, which, at certain anniversaries in their history, frequently occasions fatal collision. Between them there exists an historical enmity annually revealed in “party” riots, without any other cause of quarrel.* This feeling, after it has apparently subsided, still remains ready to break out into deadly conflict at the first temptation. No matter how peaceable Ulstermen may seem towards one another, their religious divisions would at any political crisis arm old acquaintances, even friends, against each other with the hostility of former civil wars. The British government is usually blamed by both parties, directly they become excited by mutual hostility. Every year thousands of Ulstermen, armed with deadly weapons, without any personal quarrel, are compelled to keep the peace by the forces of the British government. When the immediate danger is over, each party often accuses the government of partiality. Neither seems ashamed of its own violence, while attributing all blame to opponents. The only point in which the violent members of both parties agree is in freely and vehemently blaming the government, which has kept them apart and prevented their injuring each other. In fact, the unpopularity of political justice in Ireland is even to this day only too evident. Although a great historical change appears in Irish Catholic officials, from judges to police, assisting Protestants in enforcing British laws among the Irish population, yet their alliance, like the united interests of Protestant and Catholic landlords, does not affect the religious prejudices of the community as much as might be expected. The former unite in upholding law, the latter in resisting tenants’ combinations, without religious partiality or distinction. But these alliances between Protestant and Catholic officials and landowners have surprisingly little effect on the religious animosities of their fellow countrymen. The truth seems to be that when either Catholics or Protestants enforce the law they often lose moral influence, while those who are rebellious or show party spirit immediately obtain it. It is evident that in Irish religious and political argument there is seldom much reasoning. The remarkable eloquence of the Irish is generally more devoted to eager declamation, vehement invective, or enthusiastic praise, than to calm discussion. Hence the strong prejudices usually revealed in their histories, poetry, sermons, newspapers, and political speeches. Their ardour, zeal, and eloquence are rarely mingled with real argument. The minds, even of many young Irishmen, seem averse rather than willing to receive new impressions. They adopt, or usually inherit, decided views, and employ all their powers of language in advocacy or denunciation, rather than in cool reasoning, which can alone lead to impartial judgment. Moderation in principle, freedom from prejudice, consideration for the views of others are often regarded with sincere contempt. Those who do not go entirely with their party, or rather with that section of the community to whom they belong, are usually suspected of cowardice or treachery, instead of admired for self-control or love of truth. Apparently home influences in Ireland and America produce or perpetuate hopeless enmity among the Irish. When in military, naval, or commercial occupations abroad, this “party-spirit” comparatively disappears. Irishmen, of all creeds and classes, are then engrossed by their immediate duties and interests, as well as enlightened by free association and sympathy with each other. On revisiting Ireland they again find themselves in the historical past. Former civil wars are constantly recalled by friends, clergy, newspapers, and politicians. These memories are revived, not in a spirit of calm inquiry or free discussion, but as incentives to renewed contest with alleged hereditary foes. At most parliamentary elections, even at less important ones, like those of town councillors, poor-law guardians, &c, historical enmity is usually revived as a guide for present conduct. Thus, Ireland still remains divided as formerly in religion, but more so than ever in an increasing variety of political opinions, ideas, and theories.**

*”The Union has not made Ireland either a loyal or an united country. The two nations that inhabit it still remain distinct.”—Lecky’s “Ireland, in the Eighteenth Century,” Vol. V., chap. xiii.

**A remarkable resemblance occurs in the allusions of two eminent British Liberals, historian and statesman, to Ireland in the present century.

“When the historian turns to Ireland, his steps—to borrow the fine image used by a Roman poet—are on the thin crust of ashes beneath which the lava is still glowing.”—Macaulay’s “History of England,” Vol. II., chap. vi. Published in 1853.
“The Irish question has never passed into history, for it has never passed out of politics. To take a simile from a catastrophe of nature less ruinous and less deplorable, the volcano that caused that eruption is still active: beneath the black crust the lava torrent burns, so that the incautious explorer who ventures near the crater finds the treacherous surface yield and himself plunged in the fiery marl of contemporary party strife.”—Rosebery’s “Life of Pitt,” chap. xi. Published 1893.

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