The divided Irish; an historical sketch


The religious antipathies of the divided Latin Church remain among the masses in Ireland less changed probably than in any other European country, aiid seem specially transmitted in social ideas, customs, and obligations. The Protestant reformation, which in Great Britain is now regarded as a matter of history, calmly rejoiced at or regretted according to differing religious beliefs, in Ireland retains the interest and influence of comparative novelty. No historical event has impressed the home-staying Irish with the same fascination and tenacity. In a moral sense, however, its recollection often has an unfortunate effect. Men respecting each other, and on most friendly terms, are, during religious excitement, liable to become enemies and ally themselves with disreputable associates against those they honour and esteem owing to the revival of ancestral enmity. In a social sense it is almost impossible to over-estimate the evil effect of an influence which can at any time array the most worthy and respectable among a divided community against each other, while forcing them into an unnatural, yet firm, alliance with the most vicious and dangerous of their own religious denominations. To recall, by songs, processions, speeches, sermons, lectures, and newspaper articles, the religious civil wars of centuries ago is still the popular delight of many home staying Irishmen, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. While the better educated, and more enlightened, persuade or flatter themselves that religious bigotry is almost a thing of the past, judging other people by their own feelings, the general evidence of votes and applauded speeches, even during the last few years, apparently proves the contrary. Some clergymen or men of business, while quietly devoted to professional duties, are comparatively little known, yet often when any of them lay aside for a time their respective avocations by publicly denouncing religious or political opponents, they acquire a popularity with which previous exemplary conduct had scarcely rewarded them in the same degree. Some Irish audiences, caring comparatively little for moral advice, become enthusiastic admirers when their religious or political prejudices are aroused, confirmed, and encouraged. The spirit of former civil wars has long expired throughout Great Britain. The descendants of historical adherents to Protestant or Roman Catholic monarchs have been long completely reconciled. The Irish rebellion of ’98, chiefly headed by Protestants though mainly supported by Roman Catholics, was yet censured by the majority of the Irish clergy of all denominations. That extraordinary revolt passed away, leaving comparatively slight traces on the Irish character. The long subsequent outbreak of 1848 and more recent Fenian conspiracies were fomented and chiefly headed by men who, although possessing talent, energy, and determination, can hardly be said to fairly represent either part of the divided Irish population. But the two civil wars of the seventeenth century had rent Ireland completely in twain. Their effects seem permanently impressed on the national character. While they prevailed, Roman Catholic or Protestant rule was the cause of contest to the entire nation. No third party, no republican designs, and no foreign invaders, except as allies, in any way weakened the opposing influences of the two Irish Christian divisions. Religious predominance, represented by Roman Catholicism on the one side, and by differing forms of Protestantism united against it on the other, was then the avowed, and has ever since been the more secret, influence ruling the thoughts and guiding the policy of the Irish majority both among Roman Catholics and among Protestants. Since the political triumph of Irish Protestantism, the changes in Europe, involving alliances between Catholic and Protestant nations against a Catholic one, the overthrow of Napoleon the First’s Empire, and many later political wars arraying co-religionists against each other, have much diminished religious bigotry throughout Europe. The more intelligent Irish, by travelling, education, or social and commercial intercourse, have in a great measure exchanged theological enthusiasm for more indulgent or enlightened views about all prevailing religions. Enlightenment about the religious opinions of different nations among some eminent public men, Catholic and Protestant, has, however, rather misled them in forming estimates of Irish popular feeling. The recent instance of Mr. Parnell, a most practical man, who had travelled in many countries, proves this assertion. When suddenly opposed and denounced by the Irish Catholic clergy, his avowed astonishment at their combined influence, energy, and success against him was nearly as great as if he had been a stranger to Ireland. This sudden revulsion of feeling towards the popular, trusted leader appeared only in the Catholic population. Yet among the Irish Protestants the more moderate or enlightened were also astonished to find that in times of real or apprehended danger, the Orangemen uttering nearly the same sentiments and actuated by nearly the same spirit that existed two centuries ago, appear on the political scene claiming the confidence of their Protestant fellow-countrymen and of the British nation. In fact, despite the vast changes, improvement, and increasing knowledge evident throughout Europe, despite the numerous enlightened highly-educated Catholic and Protestant Irishmen of the present day, the home-staying Irish masses, of both denominations, remain supremely, though often secretly, influenced, and directed by the spirit of the religious wars in the seventeenth century. They recall or present information to the Irish popular mind as attractive and as interesting for personal guidance as the most trusted newspaper or modern history. The results of the most recent votes, and the revelations of the latest parliamentary elections, if calmly examined, practically show in all essentials similar contending religious or dogmatic principles, as deep-rooted, popular and influential as ever in the warm hearts and impulsive minds of Ireland’s divided population. The sentiments of Wolfe Tone in ’98, who nominally represented and really influenced thousands of Irishmen, the subsequent ideas of Smith O’Brien and John Mitchel in 1848, and recently of Mr. Parnell, alike had their admirers, followers, and supporters throughout Ireland; yet they have all disappeared; and it can scarcely be said that their opinions influence either a Protestant or a Catholic majority at the present time. But the religious wars, in the days of Cromwell and William the Third, ending in the battle of the Boyne and siege of Limerick, have, to all appearance, indelibly impressed their pleasing or exasperating memories on the minds of the divided Irish.*

*”The name of Cromwell even now acts as a spell upon the Irish mind, and has a powerful and living influence in sustaining the hatred both of England and Protestantism.”—Lecky’s “England in the Eighteenth Century,” Vol. II.
If Cromwell’s memory retains this effect, that of William the Third inevitably does the same, both these rulers of Britain successively representing the unpopular triumph of political Protestantism in Ireland.

During times of popular excitement, which often in Ireland truly reveal existing, though occasionally dormant or suppressed, feelings, the mutual antipathy of Catholics and Protestants is vaguely connected with the differences between the British or Saxon and the Irish or Celtic races. This connection, though often believed in, is a virtual absurdity when some of the chief Irish Catholic families, inheriting ancient historic names, support British authority while some of Protestant faith and British descent oppose it. Yet, as a general rule, the Irish popular feeling remains little changed in the unreasoning animosity actuating, it is to be feared, both Catholic and Protestant majorities against each other. This animosity, when attentively examined, will be often found quite independent of any personal affront, injury, or cause of complaint. Historic, vague, and one-sided traditions are imparted to credulous hearers, sometimes by the clergy of both parties, and often by men of talent or influence. In these unjust or ignorant versions of Irish history, each religious or political division is assured that it exclusively comprises all true and right principles, while little of the kind is to be found among, or expected from, religious and political opponents. The absurdity, yet popularity, of such intolerance is so surprising, that few British statesmen or travellers in this enlightened age could probably believe in its full intensity. But the experience of constant residents in Ireland, especially in parts inhabited by a religiously divided population, finds the historic animosity of centuries very little altered. It appears not merely in the excited words of ignorant enthusiasts nor in the fanciful thoughts of lonely, dreamy thinkers, but in the eager eloquence, firm belief, and daring self-denying energy of men in the full enjoyment of those bodily and mental powers, which philanthropists might believe were granted by their common Creator for nobler purposes than those to which party spirit restricts them. Accordingly throughout the vast British empire there could scarcely be found more inveterate enemies to its authority, interest, and welfare, than exist among some of its Irish Catholic subjects.* This fact is the more surprising when in the very same section of Irishmen are found some of its most valuable and trustworthy subjects, as proved by their conduct in the army, the navy, the police, and on the judicial bench. Yet these loyal Irish Catholics are often forced to hear British rule most bitterly condemned or reviled by their co-religionists and fellow-countrymen. These extraordinary contrasts of public feeling in Ireland are hardly comprehensible to those who have not personally known the country by actual and long residence. The. author of these pages, a constant resident in Ulster, believes that the real explanation of practical Irish politics lies chiefly at least in the evil influence of party spirit, religious and political, on the national character.**

*”There is no fact in modern history more memorable than the contrast between the complete success with which England has governed her great Eastern Empire with more than two hundred million inhabitants, and her signal failure in governing a neighbouring island which contains at most about three million disaffected subjects.”—Lecky’s “Ireland in the Eighteenth Century,” Vol. V., chap. xiii.

**”Party spirit tends so much to lower the moral standard that it makes men regard with less abhorrence what is wrong, not only on their own side, but even on the opposite. Their feelings towards those of the opposed party are very much those of a soldier towards the soldiers of the hostile army. He does not think the worse of them for recklessly plundering, ravaging, and slaughtering, just as he would do in their place. The most thorough-going partisans attribute to everyone who is supposed a member of the opposite party, such conduct as is in reality unjustifiable, without thinking at all the worse of him for it. It is only what they would do in his place, and though they dislike him for being of the opposite party, they dislike him for nothing else.”—Whately’s “Annotations to Bacon.” Essay 51.

Its popularity, even among people who only lose or suffer by it, is astonishing. Political speakers, writers, or preachers, who freely indulge in it, sometimes almost trust to it alone, for the enjoyment of favour, influence, or popularity. Language and theories about religious or political opponents, which in Britain would be considered absurd exaggeration, disgraceful to speaker or advocate, are usually rewarded by applause, trust, and confidence. Perhaps few, if any countries, are more misunderstood than Ireland, except by those who, from residence or connection, have personal knowledge of it. The different religious denominations, without being deceitful, are self-controlled or self-repressed, even in youth, to a degree which often quite conceals their real feelings. In places inhabited by a divided population, who for a long time may have had no dispute, it is surprising to find that at any excitement, such as parliamentary election or anniversary celebration, an apparently sudden change occurs in their conduct, so violent and dangerous, that a stranger to Ireland could hardly believe they were the same people. Without the least personal quarrel, orderly, peaceable men, often friendly neighbours, are transformed into abusive, dangerous enemies to each other. Irish history is recalled in vehement sermons and irritating speeches, even in bitter newspaper articles. These almost avowedly one-sided versions are without question believed and trusted. Eloquence and enthusiasm unite to pervert historic truth for party purposes, and by every legal, sometimes illegal, means to prevent all chance of fair reasoning or discussion. During such excitement, which would be ridiculous if it were not dangerous, the police, or the military, have to maintain peace between suddenly enraged fellow-Christians, trying to kill or injure one another. When the immediate excitement is over, there usually follow law-suits, fines, and imprisonments, after which the distracted population again become unwillingly peaceful towards each other, seldom regretting their outrageous conduct, while eagerly trying to throw blame on the laws or government, that have prevented their gratifying ancestral animosity of which they are proud rather than ashamed. A state of feeling remains among Christian fellow-subjects living within a short distance from their shores which would recall to the British people the spirit Walter Scott censures and deplores in historical novels. The religious and political antagonism he describes between opposing Christians and fellow-countrymen during former times in Great Britain, still exists in Ireland,often, indeed, nearly devoid of the noble qualities which Scott combines with it, and certainly without any romantic interest. It usually presents the odious, unfortunate spectacle of a Christian people embittered against each other often without personal reason, yet deterred from all idea of permanent reconciliation by those very persons who it might be expected would be the first to encourage or morally enforce it.*

*”What are your opinions upon religious subjects? Are they such as agree with the notions of old Lady This or Mrs. That, who are the patronesses of the village? If not, woe betide you! You will be shunned by the rest of the society, thwarted in your attempts to do good, whispered against over evangelical bohea and serious muffins. The clergyman who partakes of the muffins and bohea will very possibly preach sermons against you from the pulpit. It is the most priest-ridden of countries. Catholic clergymen lord it over their ragged flocks as Protestant preachers, lay and clerical, over their more genteel co-religionists. Bound to inculcate peace and goodwill, their whole life is one of enmity and distrust.”—Thackeray’s “Irish Sketch Book,” chap. xxix.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!