The divided Irish; an historical sketch


The peaceful, intellectual discussions about “hM. history, religion, and politics so’ long prevalent in Britain, are hitherto little known throughout Ireland. There is, in fact, little real freedom of thought or expression in it, which is sanctioned by popular approval. To implicitly follow the guidance of certain leaders is generally believed a patriotic, religious duty not to be doubted or questioned by any hesitation or reluctance of the private judgment. Should such hesitation or reluctance be perceived, the person who shows either is likely to be censured or distrusted if not endangered, and popular feeling is usually aroused against a lukewarm, suspected partisan, instead of in behalf of a friendless advocate of personal freedom of thought. Each party in Ireland often condemns a persecuting spirit in opponents, while encouraging and admiring it among themselves. The historical ignorance of both parties, even among those comparatively well educated in other studies, probably causes this extraordinary injustice in religious and political views. This peculiar ignorance seems little enlightened as yet despite the vast extension of general information upon other subjects. Even the National schools, from which so much knowledge was expected, and much has been derived, are avowedly closed to History. It is almost the only subject specially excluded from the study of Ireland’s rising population, yet the exclusion of a subject so important and so involved with most others of importance, greatly diminishes the moral value and practical utility of all education. Its intentional, and, as it were, unnatural omission amid increasing knowledge about other subjects, produces the perplexing result in scholars well informed, skilful, intelligent, accurate, and enlightened about most matters, yet viewing each other’s religious and political opinions with prejudices scarcely less unjust than those of the Middle Ages. This ignorance in the midst of light; this amazing amount of bigotry, prejudice, and one-sided reasoning embittering young Irish fellow-Christians against each other, with dangerous and sometimes fatal consequences, still remains the chief perplexity of Ireland’s rulers as well as the chief danger of its most peaceable inhabitants. Religious and political history, when £ fairly presented, produces perhaps a more enlightening influence on men’s minds than any other study. To promote or establish a love of rational freedom and mutual forbearance, it is almost indispensable. Its moral value in arousing a spirit of justice, liberality, and moderation among men of different religions and politics can hardly be over-estimated. It proves beyond all possible doubt that men should sometimes esteem opponents and distrust or despise partisans without being induced to alter personal convictions on religious and political subjects.

To its impartial study and comprehension much of the moral greatness of the British empire is really due. It has aided immensely to enable that empire to rule with a success and, generally speaking, a beneficence unsurpassed in history, millions of subjects composed of almost every variety of religious and political opinions. Wherever, throughout its vast boundary, persecution is attempted, the remedy derivable from impartial laws is generally procurable. The intellectual as well as political advantages of British rule throughout the world are more generally acknowledged during the latter half of this century then ever. It is becoming more and more supported and praised by the races whom it subjected by military conquest. In India, the most extensive and valuable of all the British possessions, its Brahmin, Buddhist, Parsee, and Mohammedan inhabitants are alike more peaceful than ever under British authority. These varied denominations are improving in educational enlightenment to an extent never known before, under their own governments. Their differing religions, so long the cause of enmity and misrepresentation, are now being examined by Christian scholars with impartial justice as well as profound learning. Men who know all that can be known of the Jewish Old Testament and of the Christian Gospel no longer allow belief in them to prejudice their minds when examining the faiths of Zoroaster, of the Brahmins, of the Buddha, and of Mohammed. These illustrious religious teachers, whom ignorant bigotry could only term impostors, are now appreciated by learned Christians as men of virtue and holiness. The most pious among , their votaries, therefore, are becoming more friendly to Christian Britain than their ancestry ever were or had any reason to be. Yet of all civilised countries under its rule, Ireland still seems the least inclined to avail itself of the educational advantages of historical instruction. The fond idea that modern improvements in locomotion, travelling, and general communication, would enlighten religious or political bigotry, is greatly dispelled by the moral state of Ireland. People who well understand railways, telegraphs, and other recent inventions are sometimes as ignorant of historic truth, and consequently as unjust and prejudiced as their ancestors were during remote centuries. It is possible, indeed, that men, ignorant of one important subject, yet enlightened in many, may be more hard to convince or reason with than those whose thorough ignorance might render them less opinionated, less self-confident, and more inclined to learn from others. When people feel a just self-reliance about knowledge they really possess, they may be the more averse to fair reasoning or instruction on a subject which, omitted in their educational course, they have formed decided notions about from ignorant or prejudiced persons.

The abusive language uttered against the Pope or Papacy, the classing of Roman Catholicism with heathenism or idolatry, and the reckless condemnation of all Protestantism continue to embitter the divided Christians of Ireland. Sincere men who thus think, usually judge from those few votaries who are within the narrow limits of their personal knowledge. They virtually ignore the fact, either through ignorance or prejudice, that there have always belonged and still belong to both denominations, some of the best and most enlightened men who have ever done honour to their common Creator. Although such language may be only occasionally heard, there is too much reason to believe that the state of mind which causes or sanctions it, is steadily prevalent, even when circumstances may not arouse its open expression. Thus the popular language and conduct during election contests or party excitement are not so much exceptional cases, as they are true revelations of a state of public feeling always £ existing, though occasionally dormant, but ever ready to reappear in deeds fore-shadowed by words of unchristian violence, hatred, and brutality.* Yet to eagerly oppose or warmly denounce intolerance so deeply rooted for centuries in Ireland’s population would likely only arouse irritation. It exists throughout Ireland, among many well-meaning, and, in other respects, sensible men,** and is chiefly founded on traditions of ancestral heroism and suffering which they find dangerously fascinating to recall, to celebrate, and to bewail. These traditions, instead of being examined or studied in a spirit either of historic truth or religious charity, are, as it were, purposely screened from the calm, impartial enlightenment certain to result from fair historical inquiry. They are still ignorantly preserved in partial narratives or obscure legends, often in popular songs, all alike incapable of imparting or perhaps understanding the invaluable principles of historic truth and justice. It is, however, the wisest course to attempt the discouragement of religious and political intolerance with patient forbearance, and to suppress, if possible, all language of even just indignation which its consequences may not unreasonably arouse. Thus the practical duty of all men of education and right feeling in Ireland is to strive alike by example and precept to enlighten the minds and elevate the thoughts of those among whom their lot is cast, in public life, if health and talents permit; in private, if such advantages are denied them, and thus the common sense, even of the ignorant, may be, in some cases, gradually inclined to a more consistent performance of Christian duty in political as well as in private life. Individual liberty is often opposed in many parts of Ireland by those who think they admire its principle. Men protected by existing laws delight in forming strict arbitrary, even tyrannical, associations among themselves for obtaining not merely influence, but actual power, over their fellow-countrymen. In the name of freedom, Irishmen in their own , country often virtually deny it to each other by enacting, as it were, laws within laws, and enforcing their observance by a system of vexatious penalties. They seem so fond of governing that they dislike leaving each other alone in the enjoyment of real liberty of thought. Freedom of religious or political opinion in its broad sense maybe pronounced most unpopular, if not dangerous, among many, perhaps most, of the divided Irish. They accordingly inflict social penalties of greater or less severity on those they think lukewarm partisans and co-religionists by treating them with insolence and contempt owing to differences in matters of opinion, and totally irrespective of conduct and character. People born under free laws which they have never violated, are thus exposed to a social persecution which, during political or religious excitement, may endanger life or property. Public feeling throughout Great Britain has for a long period condemned enforcing unwritten laws by any kind of penalty. The most extreme British politicians would utterly disavow the tyrannical spirit which is still actually popular among many of the divided Irish whenever their religious or political prejudices are aroused; and the history, even of this century, proves how easy it is to arouse either. A few vehement political speeches, or intolerant sermons, will disturb the peace of a whole neighbourhood for a long time after they are uttered. While enthusiastic orators thoroughly enjoy the applause of credulous audiences, the more just or free-minded are often forced by their influence into quarrels, and hostile combinations, contrary to both their judgment and inclination. Though the fervent eloquence of the Irish is usually admired, its effect in their own land often does more harm than good to its ractical interests. There never was, perhaps, a Christian country so civilised in many respects where eloquent language has so often advocated or inspired the most selfish, tyrannical, and uncharitable conduct among a people conscientiously and with every moral right divided in religious and political opinions. May the future prove that all parties have learned forbearance, wisdom, and charity from the lessons of History. Without its impartial examination this result cannot be expected; and in the earnest desire to aid such inquiry this work is written.

*”The effects of party spirit in lowering the moral standard are gradual and usually rather slow. But it often happens on the occasion of some violent party contest, that an apparently sudden change will take place in men’s characters, and we are surprised by an unexpected outbreak of unscrupulous baseness, cruel injustice, or extravagant folly.”—Whately’s “Annotations to Bacon’s Essays.” Those words so exactly describe party spirit in Ireland that they well merit the attention of all connected with that country.

**”To have an ‘opinion about Ireland’ one must begin by getting at the truth, and where is it to be found in the country? Or, rather, there are two truths, the Catholic truth and the Protestant truth. The two parties do not see things with the same eyes. I recollect a Catholic gentleman telling me that the [Protestant] Primate had forty-three thousand five hundred £ a year. A Protestant clergyman gave me chapter and verse the history of a shameful perjury and malversation of money on the part of a Catholic priest; nor was one tale more true than the other. But belief is made a party business; and the receiving of the Archbishop’s income would probably not convince the Catholic any more than the clearest evidence to the contrary altered the Protestant’s opinion.”—Thackeray’s “Irish Sketch Book,” chap, xxxii.


Source: HathiTrust Digital Library

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