The divided Irish; an historical sketch


Throughout Britain, for many years, party-spirit, allied with religious animosity, has been little known, or at least produced few dangerous results. To a great extent this feeling has become within it almost a matter of history* Thus the two greatest British novelists of the century, Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, describe it in historical tales with an impartiality unknown, or unexpressed at any former time. Scott, alike delighted and instructed his readers by describing estimable or worthless characters among all political and religious parties in Britain. Dickens, writing many years later, apparently saw little occasion to dwell upon this subject. His works chiefly address English readers, among whom hypocrisy, meanness, and selfish avarice, the usual accompaniments, perhaps, of a long period of domestic peace, wealth, luxury, and commercial competition, needed condemnation more than an almost extinct spirit of political and religious bigotry. In his chief historical novel, “Barnaby Rudge,” Dickens describes the “No Popery” riots in London of the last century with a fairness which would never have been popular except in a community free from religious prejudice. But in the midst of light, as Macaulay says, the thick darkness of the Middle Ages rested upon Ireland, and in some respects his remark still applies to that perplexing country. Many parts of it still cherish and recall the memory of remote civil wars with a vivid interest, and often a vindictiveness no longer manifested in other civilised lands.

*”Mere political changes leave the great body of the community untouched, or touch them only feebly, indirectly or superficially, but changes, which affect religious belief, are felt in their full intensity in the meanest hovel.—Lecky’s “England in the Eighteenth Century,” Vol. II.

During the Reformation the cause of Roman Catholicism was steadily maintained by the native Irish, while the English and Scottish colonists, chiefly in the north of Ireland, followed the example of their British fellow-countrymen in becoming Protestant. The wish of James the Second to establish the supremacy of the Irish Roman Catholics, and thus revoke the policy of his royal predecessors, changed Ireland into the battle-field of Protestant or Roman Catholic rule over the British empire. The Irish Catholics for the first time in history abandoned all lingering idea of restoring ancient national independence, and by the influence of their clergy became the champions of the deposed James the Second, considering William the Third a heretic as well as a usurper. From the civil war between these princes, ending in the defeat of James at the battle of the Boyne, may be dated the extraordinary religious prejudices which have ever since divided Ireland’s population in hereditary determined enmity. During the wars of Cromwell, the hope of Ireland’s freedom from British rule was still dear to the Irish majority, but the subsequent contest between James and William was, in Ireland, viewed as one of religion rather than of race.

While the defence of Derry and battle of the Boyne are celebrated by the descendants of victorious Protestants, the descendants of defeated Roman Catholics often allude in party songs or political speeches to a future time of revenge on their fellow-countrymen. Thus a divided population, without real or alleged personal cause of quarrel, are still often inspired with a dangerous hatred, chiefly arising from the effects produced in their minds by one-sided historical traditions. These fragments of history, with an unfairness inconsistent alike with Christianity or common sense, usually represent opponents and partisans as entirely, and always in the right, or in the wrong. Errors are hardly acknowledged as possible among religious and political partisans; nor are redeeming qualities often attributed to opponents. The latter are usually viewed as little better than the incarnations of sin and danger, while the common Creator each party confidently declares on its side, either blessing in victory, or sympathising in defeat. The custom moreover of burning effigies of religious and political foes, whether living or dead, incurs neither the legal penalty nor the general censure which might be expected among a civilised community. The denial of Divine mercy to any religious denomination, or declaration of Divine wrath against any political party, past or present, produce their natural result in these revolting exhibitions. The insults offered, either to Roman Catholicism or to Protestantism by the comparatively uneducated, only prove their stubborn, trustful belief in the sermons and speeches of those who apparently think it more their duty to embitter than to reconcile the supposed descendants of historical enemies. This implacability, when animating the devout and conscientious, evidently arises from the extraordinary unreasonable aversion of Irish religious and political parties to each other’s opinions, being often practically irrespective of personal character.

The feelings, therefore, of many Irishmen towards religious and political opponents are of a nature now almost unknown in Britain. The idea of allowing, even in argument, what is called fair-play or an equal chance of success to opponents, is often thought absurd or dangerous. When differing versions of Christianity are alternately described as soul-destroying, when ignorant excitable men are told that belief in either is fatal to salvation, their conduct in reviling or wishing to suppress each other’s faith is the practical result of credulity. The law throughout the vast British Empire protects the weaker party in all countries from religious or political persecution. In Ireland, were British rule withdrawn, it may be doubted if much freedom of thought or speech would be allowed to any local minority. The unreasoning animosity still inspiring many of the divided Irish about politics, land laws, and differing versions of the same faith, can only be understood by those living in Ireland. The most intimate acquaintance with English or Scottish people is scarcely a sufficient guide for men trying to rule or influence the Irish masses. Hence the successive difficulties, if not failures, of many Irish Chief Secretaries in dealing with the people they attempt to govern. Enlightened, fair-minded statesmen, of whom the late Lord Frederick Cavendish was a notable instance, full of civilised ideas and principles, have found them hopelessly opposed by religious or political animosities worthy of the Middle Ages, and which they apparently thought had disappeared with them. Yet they survive in full force among some most devout, energetic, and popular Irishmen. In fact, admiration for real liberty in its practical sense is either less felt in Ireland than in Britain, or its popular interpretation is very different. Many who extol it show, and sometimes avow, little consideration, not only for opponents, but even for partisans less prejudiced than themselves. Freedom of thought and expression is often confounded with religious or political ascendancy. The strange uncivilised desire to recall past times of Catholic supremacy or Protestant triumph over fellow-countrymen is not enough discouraged by Irish public opinion. To boast of the battle of Waterloo before Frenchmen, to exult over the defeated Sikhs or Mahrattas in India, or to celebrate in Scotland the Culloden victory over the Highlanders, would be thought insulting, and impolitic, and generally censured by British enlightenment and good sense. In Ireland, unfortunately, public opinion, even among some well-meaning men, is often neither so judicious nor philanthropic. The celebration in songs or processions of former civil wars is maintained with an eager desire to preserve through successive generations a spirit of religious or political alienation among fellow-countrymen owing to ancestral wrongs or triumphs. This selfish, narrow-minded policy of endangering the public peace and irritating fellow-subjects by recalling historical warfare between their supposed ancestors, is universally avoided and condemned in every other part of the British Empire. That empire now comprises a greater variety of religions and races than any other of ancient and modern times, not excepting the Roman.* British laws are not only obeyed but supported and enforced by Jews, Mohammedans, Parsees, Brahmins, and Buddhists. Persecution of Jews and warfare with Mohammedans and Brahmins have ceased; Jewish and Parsee legislators and traders, Mohammedan and Brahmin lawyers and soldiers, are among the most loyal of British subjects.** Yet in Ireland to this day even educated men of talent work themselves and others into dangerous, sometimes fatal, excitement against Christian fellow-countrymen, owing to recollections of former civil wars. In that island “the seventeenth century has left to the nineteenth a fatal heritage of malignant passions.” Thus wrote the ablest British historian of this century, and Ireland’s history during its last quarter fully verifies the emphatic statement.

*”Ours is the most widely spread and the most penetrating of nationalities. The time, indeed, cannot be far remote when the British Empire must, if it remain united, by the growth of its population and its ubiquitous dominion, exercise a controlling authority in the world.”—Lord Rosebery’s Preface to “Round the Empire.”

**”Remember what India had been for countless ages before the establishment of British rule, and then consider what it is to have established, for so many years, over the vast space from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, a reign of perfect peace, to have conferred upon more than 250 millions of the human race perfect religious freedom, perfect security of life, liberty, and property.”—Lecky’s “Empire,” p. 44.

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