The divided Irish; an historical sketch


In Scott’s historical novels and poems there are many descriptions resembling the relative positions still held by the clergy and laity in Ireland. His descriptions are usually during times of civil war, yet the feelings secretly animating many of the divided Irish, though partially suppressed, are more like those preserved by the vivid recollections of religious warfare, than those produced by the calm influence of a tolerant peace. Indeed, in some sermons, political speeches, and newspaper articles, the blessings and advantages of the existing tranquillity are sometimes ignored and even denied. Men are often exhorted to recall with pride, emulation, and gratitude, the deeds and sentiments of ancestral civil war, and to view the present peace rather as a time of comparative sloth and religious apathy, than as a priceless worldly blessing which should be devoted to the progressive enlightenment and amelioration of the people that enjoy it. This practical contempt for peaceful thoughts, habits, and pursuits, is still rather popular than otherwise in Ireland. In it the enthusiastic energy and excitement aroused by party spirit, give that state of mind a general and dangerous attraction. It is therefore sometimes a mistake to term the Irish unhappy owing to their bitter religious and political disputes. If so, they would probably show a more general desire to soften asperities and diminish vehemence. But, apparently, they are only too well satisfied with a state of feeling which perpetuates irritation. To praise, magnify, and exalt the good men, or good deeds of one party to the exclusion or avowed denial of all the good men or good deeds of the other, is a constant practice, and often thought morally justifiable among each section of opposing parties in Ireland. Under its influence they resemble each other more than they perhaps could believe possible. This fact is well known to the moderate and reasonable of all parties alike. Thus men of moderate views, who try to check bigotry, reason with prejudice and enlighten ignorance, are often reproached, scorned, or disparaged by co-religionists or political partisans, and distrusted or strangely misunderstood by opponents. But when “party” encounters occur, ending in death or severe injury, moderate men are then usually sought to bear the responsibility, sometimes the odium, of peaceful arbitration, or of fixing legal penalties or of pronouncing judicial censure on those who had previously despised their counsel and scorned their advice. Yet when the immediate necessity for their advice or action is over, men of moderate views are usually relegated to their former position in the contemptuous estimate of all parties for preserving that freedom from prejudice, and from all “party” connexion which had before made them specially reliable and trustworthy. They are, in fact, used and consulted in times of extremity, and yet have little influence or popularity afterwards. They are seldom admired or imitated by any large section of their fellow-countrymen. Whether among clergy or laity, moderate men in Ireland rarely attract interest or popularity, while violent political speakers, or intolerant preachers, often permanently establish themselves, not only in the avowed respect of their own party, but in the secret esteem of opponents. The former exultingly applaud them as champions of their own opinions, while the latter often secretly wish that so much admirable spirit and energy were devoted to the vindication of theirs. If the sentiments revealed in political speeches, controversial sermons and “party” newspapers are calmly examined, the conduct of their believers in riots and outrages seems, to a great extent, logically explained. When comparatively ignorant people hear, or understand, from what they think good authority, that Catholic or Protestant neighbours are not only their deadly foes, but entirely to blame for being so, the public safety is more really endangered by the teachers than by the taught. It is often a mistake to suppose a town or district particularly turbulent or vindictive. They are usually at the mercy or moral disposal of a few influential inhabitants. When such persons use language likely to arouse hatred in the neighbourhood, no matter how peaceful they may be themselves, it is they rather than their believers who are really to blame for those violations of law, for which the latter alone incur legal penalty. Indeed, these violations are often the natural result of such teaching, which, if true, would almost justify or at least render them less inexcusable. It is not easy for ignorant excitable men to see others, whom they are told wish to kill or rob them, without wishing or trying to prevent their ever being able to do either. The moral guilt of many an assault or riot in Ireland rests with men who are never punished, and who think themselves always in the right, but are more wise and self-controlled than their implicit, though imprudent followers. The mass of the Irish population, sincere Roman Catholics, are therefore induced and persuaded to distrust Protestant fellow-countrymen by two powerful and vehement factions. The intemperate of their own denomination constantly remind them of their past sufferings in history, resulting from political defeat and subjection, utterly ignoring every sin of their own, and representing them as injured innocents oppressed by ruthless conquerors. The intemperate among the Protestants support these misrepresentations indirectly by exulting in the recollection of the defeat and humiliation of their foes; thus memories of former injuries inflicted and received by those who have been dead for centuries are constantly revived by both parties to prevent apparently all chance of reconciliation among supposed descendants. In no country is the same extraordinary conduct pursued—even in Scotland, though the scene of a terrible war between England and the Highland population, the memory of the Culloden defeat is never publicly revived, and its mention excites not the slightest triumph or depression among the descendants of the conquerors or conquered. Yet this battle, stained by acts of deliberate cruelty on the part of the English victors, took place nearly a century later than that of the Boyne, the celebration of which, to this day, causes bloodshed in Ireland.

In the midst of national peace and comparative security from foreign enemies, the history of the Irish civil war still rouses the spirit of mortal hatred between men who have never personally injured each other. Again, one party conjures up Protestant ancestors slaughtered by hordes of the native Irish, while the other party imagine they see their clergy massacred or banished, and their lands divided among heretic conquerors. During a time of peace, the horrors of the past are frequently appealed to, and, it may be said, invited to again rouse and inflame those evil passions which the spirit of Christianity strives to abolish, and all wise legislation endeavours to restrain. Scarcely any recognition of personal merit, or noble feeling in religious or political opponents seems permitted by the contending parties in Ireland, at least in their political speeches and writings. All admiration, all respect, and nearly all consideration appear exclusively reserved for partisans. They are always in the right, and opponents always in the wrong. “Party spirit,” Archbishop Whately observes “has a tendency to pardon anything in those who belong to the party and nothing in those who do not.” This eminent man never wrote a truer sentence, and it is one which specially applies to the present as well as to the past state of Ireland among the comparatively uneducated classes. The more that Irish political and religious discords are examined, the more inexcusable the spirit that pervades them must appear to any thinker possessing historical knowledge.

Though Protestant and Catholic clergy and their respective laity may perform almost every Christian duty towards each other, it by no means follows that they are either learning or teaching it towards other denominations. It sometimes appears as if each thought that their Christian duties were restricted to their own denomination, and that outside its limit there was little reason to feel sympathy, extend charity, or perform duty. The question, therefore, for just men to ask of both parties is, what treatment are they willing to extend to opponents, and what are their real feelings, wishes, and designs about them? It is comparatively easy and often advances personal interests to be friendly, kind, charitable, and generous to co-religionists, and to political partisans. A common worldly interest in such cases often makes the moral duties profitable as well as agreeable. Even unconsciously, the personal pride, self-importance, ambition or private interests of men may often cause their being generous, forgiving, and kind to those allied with them in religious or political views. Thus the surest tests of men’s sincere love of justice and capacity for appreciating its value or true meaning are their real feelings and wishes about religious or political opponents. These are tests which many influential and even excellent Irishmen seem hitherto unable or unwilling to stand, yet it is by them alone that a consistent love of rational liberty, and of just principles, can be really proved.

When men allow their sympathies to be mainly guided, ruled, aroused, and restrained by religious partialities or prejudices, their conduct and sentiments are soon at the command of party spirit. They then often view men who commit the same offences as pardonable, if not praiseworthy, or as inexcusable and deservedly punishable according to their several religious or political professions. It is only too evident amid the divided Irish populace, that the liberty which some of both parties profess to desire, is that of being able to withhold it from the other. Hence the present time of comparative peace and justice is often denounced or despised as contemptible, mean, and apathetic by the intolerant of both parties. They recall Roman Catholic and Protestant triumphs over each other with admiring interest. Their speeches, sermons, and popular songs are usually devoted to extolling times of warfare as glorious, patriotic, and ennobling, while its attendant horrors, crimes, and miseries are recklessly or artfully ignored. The blessings of peace and the useful purposes to which such a period might be devoted, are often practically denied, and its influence indirectly depreciated as causing a state of religious apathy and political degradation.

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