The divided Irish; an historical sketch


During a period of national peace it might be expected that fair, impartial Irish histories would be written; yet, it is still rare to find impartiality devoted to Ireland. The island has always been, and still continues, more or less the scene of political and religious animosity between its divided inhabitants. This perpetual contention, though not real warfare, presents much of its nature. Yet, except in occasional riots, there has been no serious conflict with armed troops since the rebellion of ’98. For many years there has been nothing to prevent the appearance of an impartial history of Ireland. The progress of general information during this century has been unprecedented, and has received encouragement in almost every department. Authors of education, talent, and knowledge, have, indeed, written upon this subject, but their views are generally so one-sided through political or religious prejudices, that, while some truth may be found in most, yet few, if any, can be thoroughly trusted. British histories are usually impartially and carefully written. Alike before and since the Union of 1700, the details, as well as the leading facts in the histories of England and Scotland are often fairly examined and presented to the study of an impartial public.

Although these kingdoms had frequently warred against each other, their voluntary union under James the First of England and Sixth of Scotland effected their thorough pacification. The united British revolt against his son and successor, Charles the First, tended in its result rather to unite than separate the adjoining kingdoms. The King and the Commonwealth found friends and foes in both. English and Scottish royalists each resisted the Commonwealth, but were alike overcome by its victorious champion, Oliver Cromwell. The Scottish republicans, mostly Lowlanders, cordially joined English partisans in deposing the King, who was finally delivered up by the former to the latter. The British republicans were thoroughly united in policy and sentiment against British royalists, who were equally united in favour of the deposed Stuart dynasty. From this time, therefore, the national feuds between English and Scottish were completely merged in the changed political views prevalent in Great Britain for and against the monarchy. Most Scottish Highlanders were royalists, allied with the English Cavaliers, while most Scottish Lowlanders, being avowed republicans, favoured the Commonwealth. During this civil war, however, the real spirit of republicanism had few supporters. Its nominal champion, Oliver Cromwell, was more like a shrewd military despot than a lover of republican principle.* He was strenuously opposed by nearly all the landed gentry throughout Great Britain, as well as by most of the wealthier classes. The Commonwealth now became the sole rule of its great hero, Cromwell. Even his republican admirer, Milton, the most learned, accomplished, and intellectual of all his English adherents, addressed him in language of admiring, implicit obedience, hardly consistent with republican sentiment.

*Even Macaulay admits that, “beyond the limits of his camps and fortresses,” Cromwell had no party.—”History of England.”

Though at this time literary study, if not taste, was confined to a few thoughtful minds, yet Scottish ballads and traditions, as well as English historical legends and records in their different ways, mostly favoured the monarchical principle. In England, Shakespere’s historical plays seem at once the cause and effect of this feeling. The great author evidently felt and tried to inspire an attached loyal interest in his country’s royal family, with an earnestness surprising in one who personally owed nothing to them. Although he wrote in the reign of Elizabeth, his latest historical play comprised only the first years of her imperious father’s rule.

In Henry the Eighth’s eventful reign began the first doctrinal contests between fellow Christians throughout England of lasting consequence. Henry himself represented, as it were, the changing opinions of his subjects. He began his reign by vindicating Roman Catholicism against all assailants, and obtained the Pope’s thanks for so doing; but ended his terrible career as the political champion of Protestantism, excommunicated by the same Church which he had previously defended.

The short reign of his son, Edward the Sixth, and the far more eventful ones of his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, witnessed the religious strife which in England replaced, and in some respects resembled in destructive fury, the political civil wars of former days. Scotland fully shared in this religious warfare; and after Elizabeth’s death the first Protestant Scottish king peacefully occupied the throne of the United Kingdom. He also, like previous English kings, from Henry the Second’s time, claimed exclusive rule over Ireland. This nominal union of the three kingdoms had been foreseen in Elizabeth’s reign. Shakespere alludes to it in Macbeth, where he makes the Scottish usurper see in a vision shown by the witches several future British kings bearing treble sceptres. This poetical and political prophecy James the First lived to realise. He was always designated King of Great Britain and Ireland, having no avowed opponent or legal rival. During his reign the divisions in the Christian Church throughout his dominions require careful examination to fully explain the subsequent history of Ireland.

In all warfare between English and Irish since the reign of Henry the Second, the Papacy, together with the English monarchy, were allies in the political conquest and religious government of Ireland. No Irish or foreign king was recognised in Europe either by the Pope or any temporal sovereign, as a rival to English rule. The accession of James the First to the throne of the three united kingdoms brought apparent peace to all. Yet his authority was secretly disavowed by the Irish Catholic majority, and evaded often where it could not be resisted. Religion and race were the two special reasons for this opposition. The descendants of mingled Britons, Saxons, and Normans, comprising the English nation and the Scottish Lowlanders, had always viewed the Scottish Celts, or Highlanders, with distrust; but regarded the Irish Celts with a far greater hostility. The Scottish Highland Celts, however, took little part in the original English or subsequent British colonisation of Ireland. They had indeed long viewed English neighbours and Scottish fellow-countrymen with dislike and apprehension, but, unlike the native Irish, they gradually became more friendly with both.

The success of the Scottish Reformation, and the union of England with Scotland, aroused no opposition among the Highlanders, though most of them remained Roman Catholics. Their Scottish King, by legally succeeding to the united kingdom, was free, therefore, in the sight of his British subjects from all the odium of conquest. He thus represented the free and peaceful union of Great Britain. As a Protestant, he also represented the religion of the British majority. James, early taught to regard the religion of his unfortunate mother, Mary Queen of Scots, with no favour, viewed Irish Roman Catholics especially as most undesirable subjects. Their faith was still represented in England by a few distinguished families, who, though subject in consequence to civil disabilities, retained their property in legal security. The Catholic Highlanders were thoroughly loyal to James, as lawful descendant of their long line of Kings, and though, doubtless, desiring his conversion to the faith of his ancestors, showed no wish to dispute his authority. In Ireland sincere, devoted Roman Catholicism always represented the religious conviction of the majority. They, generally speaking, viewed James with dread and hostility. He represented for the first time regal Protestantism without a rival. In the previous reigns of Henry the Eighth and Elizabeth there were either Catholic rivals or legal successors. The English and Scottish Queens, Mary Tudor and Mary Stuart, thus supported the hopes of British Roman Catholics, between whom and the Irish Catholic prelates there existed feelings of political as well as religious union. But these prelates were apparently not as influential in Irish political guidance as they afterwards became. The Irish chiefs, without caring much for clerical sanction, had obstinately resisted English domination either by open revolt or sullen opposition during and since the disastrous reign of King John. But hitherto the cause of their resistance was national, not religious. The warfare waged by them against the Protestant Queen Elizabeth was not entirely a religious contest. The Pope and all true Catholics certainly disliked this Queen; but the severance of Ireland from England was never contemplated except by some of the native Irish. On the contrary, the return of England to the Catholic Church was still expected by many, and in that event Irish Catholics would have received no Papal sympathy in resisting English rule.

The suppression of the Irish revolt against Elizabeth, however, encouraged her successor, James the First, to settle a British Protestant colony in the north of Ireland. This colony viewed, and was viewed by the Irish, as hereditary foes in religion as well as in race. Yet, despite the religious bigotry of the time, no idea of treating Scottish Catholic Highlanders like the Irish seems to have occurred to James. While the British government and colony considered Irish Catholics dangerous, if not irreconcilable foes, the lives and property of their British coreligionists were legally safe. No confiscation on account of faith alone threatened British Catholic landowners. While a portion of Ulster was conferred upon British Protestants, all Catholic Ireland was regarded with apprehension by British Protestants in the three kingdoms as the dangerous refuge of present and future enemies. The conduct of British invaders and Irish natives towards each other had always given reason for mutual distrust. The efforts, not only of Irish, but of British writers on Ireland’s history, are often devoted to exclusive praise or condemnation of the opposing parties. In reality they much resembled each other in deeds and feelings of enmity, which neither thought inconsistent with the Christian profession. In the first invasions of Ireland, from Henry the Second’s time to that of Henry the Eighth, this enmity was entirely national—it was that of Saxon against Celt. After his reign the addition of religious bigotry was mingled with the former national animosity. Saxon Protestants were now opposed to Roman Catholic Celts. As Protestantism advanced in England, Roman Catholicism seemed to gain moral strength in Ireland. This combination of opposed feelings and principles has always made Ireland the supreme dignity of British rulers, even to the present time.*

*”The Reformation brought a new quarrel into Ireland. The earlier English settlers amalgamated easily with the native Irish, but the later settlers being Protestants never so amalgamated. The old quarrel was superseded by another.”—”The Speaker’s Handbook,” p. 21.

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