Probably no other country has been so much influenced as Ireland by its religious history.* In this record must be sought the true explanation of that extraordinary state of public feeling in the unfortunate island which still renders it the chief anxiety, if not the chief danger, of England. To understand Irish history fairly at this period it is necessary to consider the state of continental Europe. France, Spain, and Italy have all been more or less connected with Ireland’s religious history. During the Protestant Reformation western Europe was singularly divided between its successes and defeats. The result somewhat disappointed both contending parties. Some Protestants eagerly anticipated the extinction of Catholicism like that of its Pagan predecessor, and thus contemplated its disappearance from a converted world. On the other hand, many Roman Catholics confidently believed, that the new heresy would be as thoroughly suppressed as those of the previous English Lollards and French Albigenses. It was a doctrinal, and in some respects showed the spirit of apolitical, revolution, and was, therefore, dreaded by the French and Spanish monarchies, from political as well as religious motives. In Italy, likewise, the seat of the Papacy, all Protestantism was suspected of a tendency to political revolt. It was therefore forcibly and zealously suppressed both in Spain and Italy. In France it became more formidable, but was finally checked though never entirely extirpated, by the massacre and banishment of its followers.
*”It is possible—and, indeed, likely—that but for religion there would not now be an Irish Question.”—”The Speaker’s Handbook,” p. 21.
Many French Protestants fled to England and the north of Ireland, where they found their subjected and persecuted form of Christianity transformed into the dominant and persecuting. As a rule, Protestantism, in slightly different forms, triumphed in the north of Europe and failed in the south.* In this respect, the newly discovered world of America in a singular manner resembled the old. While its northern parts were chiefly colonised by British Protestants, the middle and southern portions of its vast continent, with most of its islands, were colonised by Spanish and Portuguese Catholics. Thus, these two forms of Christianity reappeared in new quarters of the globe, alike represented by descendants of European Protestants and Catholics. Although some French Catholics settled in the British dominion of Canada, and some Dutch Protestants in south America, the former were outnumbered by British Protestants, and the latter by Spanish and Portuguese Catholics. Yet, fortunately for the new world’s prosperity, its different religious denominations rarely came into hostile collision. In Europe, after bitter doctrinal strife, sometimes causing political contest, most countries settled down undisturbed, either gladly accepting the new or contentedly retaining the old form of Christianity. It was, however, the fate of Ireland to be involved with Great Britain in a permanent conflict of religious opinion. During the Reformation, theological strife in these three countries completely supplanted the political contests of former days. England and Scotland, firmly united under James the First, abandoned all national jealousies in striving to promote Protestantism within and without their actual limits. In this object, Ireland was their determined opponent, being politically defeated, yet doctrinally victorious. Ireland was subdued by England, but Irish Catholicism rejected every form of Protestantism by an immense majority. The enmity of the Irish appeared not only in frequent revolts and tumults at home, but in bitter complaints which they spread throughout Catholic Europe against British authority. James the First knew, therefore, that under his nominal sway there existed foes as implacable as any foreign enemy.
*”Alone among the northern nations the Irish adhered to the ancient faith; and the cause of this seems to have been that the national feeling which in happier countries was directed against Rome was in Ireland directed against England.”—Macaulay’s “Essay on Ranke’s History.”
Religion, however, was not yet the sole cause of Irish animosity. The national hatred between Celt and Saxon still predominated, but this antipathy was soon to blend with the yet more bitter feeling of religious prejudice. The fallen Church was now all the more distrusted in England owing to the detection of the Gun-powder Plot. This design was the work of a few English Catholics of desperate character and broken fortune. Yet, despite the alarm it excited, British Catholics were never viewed or treated like their Irish coreligionists. They belonged to the same race as their rulers, and while enduring legal restrictions, retained their property free from spoliation. While they deplored their King’s Protestantism, they acknowledged no rival to him or his dynasty. But to Irish Catholics the British of Stuart merely represented a long line of invaders, whom their ancestry had steadily resisted, and never obeyed except when compelled. To banish or oppress them, was the tempting but unscrupulous policy that James adopted. England was now aided by Scotland in invading and colonising Ireland. From this reign, inclusive, the three religious divisions of English Prelatists, Scottish Presbyterians, and Irish Roman Catholics, made Ireland a scene of either warfare or political intrigue. British colonists, by their King’s special will and sanction, took possession of a large part of Ulster. The rest of Ireland also was under either his real or nominal authority. This remarkable invasion, called the Plantation of Ulster, while resembling former invasions in political design, was inspired by a thoroughly new religious motive. In all previous English incursions the religion of invaders and natives was at least nominally the same. Hence probably the indifference with which all European nations had viewed the cause of Irish independence. But the Reformation aroused new feelings and new political motives throughout Europe. The freedom of thought which British Protestants professed to advocate as being unknown under Roman Catholic dominion, during their own supremacy, was not always granted to others. This right was eloquently advocated in England by the illustrious Milton, the most enlightened of republican dissenters. He earnestly vindicated his party for executing Charles the First, owing to alleged violation of their political rights, yet he bitterly rebuked the Ulster Presbyterians, immediate descendants of James the First’s British colony, for loyalty to their King and his family. Although a conscientious rebel himself against regal tyranny, he somewhat suddenly discovered and sternly condemned the guilt of rebellion when directed against the rule of his own party.*
*After denouncing Irish Catholics, Milton thus rebukes Irish Presbyterians, whose support he evidently expected, for disapproving the execution of Charles the First. “We [British republicans] have now to deal, though in the same country, with another sort of adversaries—in show far different [from Irish Catholics], in substance much the same. These write themselves the Presbytery of Belfast. And let them take heed that these their treasonous attempts and practices have not involved them in a far worse guilt of rebellion, and in the appearance of a co-interest and partaking with the Irish [Catholic] rebels.”—”Articles of Peace with Irish Rebels.”
The British revolution against Charles the First, his execution, and the subsequent dictatorship of Cromwell, produced a strange, even bewildering effect upon the three religious denominations of Ireland. None of them favoured republicanism. An hereditary British monarch or independent native chiefs were the only alternatives in the Irish mind of the period. No foreign government claimed, or apparently desired, authority over the island. The Papacy acknowledged no Irish sovereign but the English monarch. The descendants of former independent chiefs, unlike Scottish Highlanders, acknowledged no particular native king. Irish Catholics, therefore, unanimously resisted Cromwell, some, perhaps, wishing to restore the British monarchy; others, under Sir Phelim O’Neill, a chief of ancient lineage, probably hoping for Irish independence.
Religious interests, therefore, during and after this period chiefly decided Irish feeling and policy. The Prelatists at first favoured the fallen monarchy, while the Presbyterians, though glad at the downfall of English Prelacy, were shocked at the King’s execution, warmly protested against it, and with some reluctance finally submitted to Cromwell.* They were, indeed, at this time far more monarchical than their British coreligionists. This feeling, however, had soon to yield before the necessities of their position. The Irish Catholic majority, who now tr|ed to banish or extirpate them as well as the Prelatists were totally defeated by Cromwell, heading united British and Irish Protestants. He, by the conquest of Ireland, subdued the majority, while obtaining the reluctant but universal adhesion of the non-Catholic minority. He also poured fresh supplies of Protestant colonists into Ireland, and apparently contemplated substituting them for the native race altogether.* Cromwell’s triumph, though at first disapproved by Irish Protestants, owing to monarchical principle, thus resulted in confirming their political supremacy over the Catholic majority. But this supremacy only widened the breach between them. The greater part of Ireland, subdued by force, controlled, and, in some respects, governed by a minority devoted to British rule, remained in feeling and principle perfectly independent of England. The native Irish found themselves placed by British power under the rule of that same minority whom they had previously tried to banish or exterminate. They neither expected nor received consideration or justice from foes who had so narrowly escaped their vengeance. Fortunately, however, for human nature, the Irish Protestants, though often cruel and vindictive, were unable, from their comparatively small numbers, to inflict as much injury as they wished, or as they had themselves been threatened with by the Catholic majority.
*”They [Irish Presbyterians] concurred with the Royalists in condemning the execution of the king, and in maintaining the rights of his son to the throne, and with the Republicans in opposing the restoration of Prelacy.”—Reid’s “History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland,” Vol. II.
Historians and politicians often blame the conduct of opposing factions, usually insinuating, perhaps believing, that their own party made a better use of power, or had more excuse-for undeniable crimes than their opponents. Yet history, if impartially studied, tells a different story, provided due allowance is made for the prejudices of individual writer. In fact, the terms cruelty, oppression, and injustice, as they are now understood in peaceful, civilised communities, would not have been so understood at this period by any party in Ireland. British history has been for many years comparatively influenced by the spirit of civilisation. In the historical works of Burnet, Clarendon, Hume, Tytler, and Lingard, even in the historical plays and novels of Shakespere and Scott, there appears a love of justice rarely found among writers on Irish history. The latter, whether British or Irish, usually resemble political or religious advocates. Irish poets also, among whom Moore is supreme, whether in prose or verse, generally show the same party spirit, rendering it the more alluring, if not convincing, by the charm of their fascinating talents. Irish novelists, like Carleton, Lever, &c, usually ignore historical inquiry, preferring to describe the comic and tragic incidents of Irish military and peasant life. Yet these writers, compared to Moore, had little influence over Irish minds. British historians have permanently influenced their readers in forming political views. The Irish are more guided, even in historical opinion, by poetry, political speeches, and often by sermons. British civil wars and religious divisions have long ceased to excite English or Scottish readers to any dangerous extent. Their records are studied for truthful instruction in a spirit of calm, scholastic inquiry. The study of historical persecutions now arouses in British minds feelings of pity, regret, and even shame, but neither triumph nor desire for revenge. The perpetrators, long gone to their account, have taken their place among the tyrants and zealots of former ages. The British public, enlightened by those literary benefactors whom Macaulay ranks among the many glories of England, have learned valuable lessons for the great duty of human government. Since the last British civil war in 1745, English and Scottish literature, instead of inflaming, has tended to pacify all angry passions or resentful feelings among supposed descendants of victors and vanquished. Sir Walter Scott proved his true patriotism by thus devoting literary genius to its cause. In his historical novels especially, the motives of opposing religious or political factions are described with conscientious truth. He thus enlightened, pacified, and improved the united British nation, divided, yet not much embittered, by religious or political differences. This result Scott accomplished with a success perhaps unequalled in literary history.* In these noble compositions of mingled truth and fiction all readers are induced to respect opponents as well as partisans.
Without attempting to effect religious or political conversion, Scott taught, or rather induced, all parties to be just, considerate, and merciful. He left to professed politicians and theologians the task of advocacy, while practically enabling readers to respect right motives in those they distrust as well as in those they believe.
*The two chief Scottish historians of this century, differing on most subjects, agree in praising even the historical merits of Scott. “No man ever threw a more charming radiance over the traditions of ancient times, but none ever delineated in a nobler spirit the virtues of the present. It has been truly said that the influence of his writings neutralised to a certain extent the effect of the Reform Bill; but it is not less true that none ever contributed more powerfully to that purification without which all others are nugatory—the reform of the human heart.”—Alison’s “History of Europe,” Vol. I., chap. v. Macaulay says that Scott “used those fragments of truth which historians have scornfully thrown behind them in a way which may well excite their envy. He has constructed out of their gleanings works which, even considered as histories, are scarcely less valuable than theirs.”—”Essay on History.”