The divided Irish; an historical sketch


In comparing Ireland’s mixed population of Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Presbyterians, it is evident that the first named are chiefly influenced by their clergy, even in politics. To explain this fact it must be remembered that, however moderate men of all parties may deplore the violent language and unfairness which some Irish Catholic priests display in political views, they yet possess peculiar claims to the gratitude of their own people, and to the respect, though not the confidence, of other religious denominations. On them falls most of the real hard work of the country in religious duties. They appear, indeed, at their worst in politics, and at their best in the steady, practical zeal of lives devoted to those objects for which they abandon many of the attractions and pleasures of civilised society. Thus the position of Irish Catholic priests in politics is a strange and difficult one. They are said to step out of their line, and neglect religious duties when discussing political questions. But when there are so few educated Catholic laymen in proportion to their numbers, they may plead that they understand even the political interests of their people better than Protestants can be expected to do; yet their speeches rarely display fairness towards opponents, their minds seem influenced, irritated, and embittered by the intolerant language which they hear and which they utter. Readers of their political speeches would sometimes infer that Irish priests were cruel and unscrupulous from their language; when, in conduct, they are usually far superior to the sentiments they express and apparently wish to inspire. On the other hand the Orange party, composed of Episcopalian and Presbyterian Protestants, seem from their speeches and writings to rather ignore the events of the present day and to live in the past. They recall, by all possible means, the scenes, and try to perpetuate the feelings, which existed in full force about two centuries ago. Again they fancy themselves fighting for a Protestant against a Roman Catholic government. They celebrate with triumphant joy their ancestral victories, and, as the sovereigns of Ireland have ever since been Protestant, they call and believe themselves almost exclusively loyal in principle, whereas their ancestral triumph and even origin are the result of successful revolution, and the permanent victory of rebellion over an established monarchy. That this rebellion was morally justifiable, even glorious, is a matter of opinion, and quite another question. But it should never be forgotten that while the Orangemen now applaud the principles of loyalty and warmly denounce rebellion among Christians of other denominations, their own ancestors firmly advocated the cause of Revolution against established regal authority, denouncing its adherents as aiders and abettors of an odious tyranny.

It is remarkable that the history of the old civil war between the rival kings, James and William, far surpasses in interest among the Irish all subsequent wars and republican revolts. The celebration of the Boyne battle still arouses the most acute and lively feelings of triumph and exasperation. Some Roman Catholic priests persist in terming Protestants hereditary enemies, while some Protestants, both lay and clerical, practically ignore the undeniable fact of the loyalty of Irish Roman Catholics in the army, navy, police, and other branches of the public service, and persist in believing that only Protestants should be trusted or relied on by a Protestant sovereign.* While moderate Protestants and moderate Roman Catholics wish to live at peace with each other, the violent of each denomination alike desire a supremacy incompatible with political justice. It might be naturally expected that the moderate of both parties, considering the spread of general education, and the lessons of history, would have much influence in restraining and even controlling fanatical and ignorant partisans, yet the reverse is often the case. Party violence, intemperate language, and gross injustice towards opponents, are often, if not usually, thought gratifying proofs of religious zeal and political sincerity,** and it often happens that Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy, who quietly do their duty, and who are seldom heard, save when teaching it to others, are comparatively little regarded, while controversial or political preachers varying their sermons by bitter allusions to the opinions of others, instead of being restrained by the disapproval of their hearers, are trusted as political and historical guides. Many among their audience, who have no desire to hear their own conduct condemned, are attracted, and even dangerously gratified when praised and glorified at the expense of “rebellious and superstitious” Catholic or “heretic and tyrannical” Protestant neighbours. Some among the Irish clergy seem at times both the leaders and the followers of their people. Instead of being always above their ignorant prejudices, they sometimes sink to their level, though nominally their teachers, guides, and advisers. At the present time of peace and unprecedented information about the history of the world an impartial reader may profitably study the various religions of mankind during ancient, mediaeval, and existing times in a comparative spirit. If this examination is free from doctrinal prejudice, it will be found that some Jewish Rabbis, Mohammedan Mollahs, and Christian clergy have alike in different countries and periods distrusted those tolerant principles now legally established in most civilised lands. Yet to them they all in different parts of the world owe their present security from the persecuting effects of former intolerance resulting in legalised injustice. Sceptical or free-thinking historians like Voltaire, Hume, and Gibbon, with their admirers, have accordingly attacked all clerical influence with a bitterness which more modern and, therefore, more learned, writers condemn. But this condemnation is no longer expressed in the language of irritated bigotry or offended orthodoxy. It is the calm, discriminating censure of thoughtful, free minds, willing to do justice to the occasionally noble motives or designs even of intolerant, unreasoning persecutors. This intellectual power of appreciating moral merit in the most inveterate opponents is specially observable in the historians of this century. No longer personally irritated or endangered, like literary predecessors, by bigoted foes, they are now able to do justice to their motives, while deploring their conduct. It might, however, have been expected in this enlightened century, when nearly all religions and nations are brought together in comparatively friendly intercourse, that religious intolerance would disappear, at least among men of intelligence or influence. Yet Irish history during the last few years displays it in some places in full intensity. The most recent history revealed, especially at Parliamentary elections and political meetings, displays the historic antipathy of the divided Latin Church, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, nearly as intense and influential as ever. The usual restriction of clerical sympathy or interest, almost avowedly to denominational limits, is a most regrettable fact in Irish history and politics, even to the present day.

*”In the Catholic body the landed gentry, a majority of the Catholics in the secular professions, and an important and guiding section of the Catholic middle class, are as much attached to the Union as the Protestants, while the peace of the country has been mainly kept during its many agitations by a great constabulary force largely drawn from the ranks of the Catholic peasantry.”—Lecky’s “Ireland in the Eighteenth Century,” Vol. V., chap. xiii.

**”Party corrupts the conscience, by making almost all virtues flow, as it were, in its own channel. Zeal for truth becomes gradually zeal for the watchword of the party; justice, mercy, benevolence are all limited to the members of that party, and are censured, if extended to those of the opposite party, or (which is usually even more detested) those of no party. Candour is made to consist in putting the best construction on all that comes from one side, and the worst on all that does not. Whatever is wrong in any member of the party is either boldly denied in the face of all evidence, or vindicated, or passed over in silence, and whatever is or can be brought to appear wrong on the opposite side, is readily credited, and brought forward and exaggerated.”—Archbishop Whately’s “Annotations to Bacon’s Essays.”

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