The divided Irish; an historical sketch


The restoration of the monarchy under Charles the Second, while occasioning warfare in Scotland between Prelatists and Presbyterians, brought comparative peace to England and Ireland. In the former, re-established Prelacy represented the faith of the majority; in the latter it represented a small minority compared to the Catholics, but a majority over other denominations. Irish Prelatists, being more connected with England than either Catholics or Presbyterians, had the chief power in Ireland, and steadily supported British rule from combined principle and interest. But the accession of James the Second again threw Ireland’s Christian divisions into singular collision. This prince, the last of the Stuart Kings, occupied, especially in Ireland, an extraordinary position. He represented the race of the invaders and the religion of the invaded.* The chief aim of his Irish policy was to reverse that of his grandfather, James the First. The period that elapsed between their reigns had witnessed the partially obeyed rule of Charles the First in Ireland, its stern conquest by Cromwell, and the comparatively quiet reign of Charles the Second.

The chief aim of his Irish policy was to reverse that of his grandfather, James the First. The period that elapsed between their reigns had witnessed the partially obeyed rule of Charles the First in Ireland, its stern conquest by Cromwell, and the comparatively quiet reign of Charles the Second. When James the Second ascended the Throne religious feuds and controversies were agitating a great part of Europe. In the south Catholicism completely extinguished Protestantism. Whether it appeared in political revolt or doctrinal argument, it was suppressed by force and legal enactment. Throughout the north, however, Protestantism, though in slightly different forms, prevailed. The contest, therefore, in the British empire, was watched with keen interest by Continental nations. The final triumph of William the Third left Great Britain divided between two allied forms of Protestantism, while the old faith was retained by a small, un-influential minority. In Ireland Protestant triumph, though apparently complete, was political alone. All Catholic claimants to the Throne seemed banished from Irish minds, but the hearts of the majority acknowledged no Protestant sovereign. To the religious obedience for centuries devoted to the Pope was now added a political deference, which, though prevented by Protestant rule from seeming more than a sentiment, has ever since been the guide of Irish Catholic policy.

*”At once an Englishman and a Roman Catholic, he belonged half to the ruling, half to the subject caste, and was, therefore, peculiarly qualified to be a mediator between them. Unhappily, James, instead of becoming a mediator, became the fiercest and most reckless of partisans. Instead of allaying the animosity of the two populations, he inflamed it to a height before unknown. He determined to reverse their relative positions, and to put the Protestant colonists under the feet of the Popish Celts. He meditated the design of confiscating, and again portioning out the soil of halt the island, and showed his inclination so clearly that one class was soon agitated by terror, which he afterwards vainly wished to soothe, and the other by hopes which he afterwards wished to restrain.”—Macaulay’s “History of England,” Vol. II.

A striking proof of unaltered principle among Irish Catholics amid European change was shown in the French invasions of Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the first the invaders under St. Ruth were ardent Catholics, and had lately persecuted French Huguenots for political as well as doctrinal reasons. This heresy, as they termed it, they considered rebellious as well as false. It was associated in the French mind at this time with revolution as well as with error. They invaded Ireland by order of their-King,Louis XIV., to restore the deposed James the Second, with the assistance of Irish Catholics, who still acknowledged his royal rights. For a brief period, through James’s favour, the Irish Catholics obtained not only liberty, but a short-lived supremacy. It was then that their clergy, in grateful loyalty, persuaded their people to support the English, or, as they called him, Saxon king, against rebellious Protestant subjects, and to renounce all idea of Celtic independence, which hitherto they had never entirely abandoned. The loyalty of Irish Catholics to James was thus chiefly caused hy the general revolt of British Protestants against him. His deposition, therefore, transformed him from a Saxon tyrant into a converted champion. Thus his French allies had again to combat Protestantism allied with political rebellion.

About a century later French troops reappeared in Ireland imbued with religious and political principles directly opposed to those of their predecessors. Ardent Catholic monarchists were replaced by equally ardent republican atheists. Their new republic had nominally abolished by public edict all religious worship in France, and declared war against Christianity throughout Europe. This law was only obeyed for a short time in France. Both the Protestant north and Catholic south of Europe preserved their religion, and successfully resisted French atheism, allied with republican principles. During the period elapsing between these two invasions of Ireland—1688 and 1798—the Irish nation had very little changed. The British revolts in behalf of James the Second’s son and grandson in 1715-45 caused no Irish rising.*

Ireland remained sullenly tranquil as far as the Catholic majority were concerned during the end of William the Third’s life and during the following reign of Queen Anne. From her reign all British sovereigns were conditionally so on being Protestant, and yet were undisputed rulers of Ireland, till the republican revolt in ’98, during the reign of George the Third.**

*”Neither when the Elder Pretender was crowned at Scone, nor when the younger held his Court at Holyrood, was the standard of that House set up in Connaught or Munster. In 1745, indeed, when the Highlanders were marching towards London, the Roman Catholics of Ireland were so quiet that the Lord Lieutenant could, without the smallest risk, send several regiments across St. George’s Channel to recruit the army of the Duke of Cumberland.”—Macaulay’s “History,” Vol. IV., chap. xvii.

**”The danger of a rebellious Catholic interest appears at this time to have been little felt. The general conservatism of Catholicism throughout the Continent, the total abstinence of the priesthood from Irish politics, the sincere and undoubted loyalty of the Catholic gentry, the passive attitude of the Catholic population during all the political troubles of the eighteenth century, the authority which the landlords exercised over their tenants, the complete concentration in Protestant hands of the elements of political power, and the enormous superiority of the Protestants in energy and intelligence, made danger from this quarter appear very remote. But among the Presbyterians of the north there were some disquieting signs of a Republican and anti-English spirit.”—Lecky’s “History of England in the Eighteenth Century,” Vol. VI.

On this occasion, for the first time in history, some Protestant and Presbyterian colonists not only joined, but headed many Catholic fellow-countrymen in united revolt against British monarchy. No rival prince, however, appeared, either of Irish or British descent. Not only had all representatives of ancient Celtic kings vanished or become, like the once regal O’Briens, obedient subjects to Britain, but no descendant of the banished Stuarts reappeared on the Irish scene of action. A part of the north of Ireland was retained tenaciously by British Protestant colonists, but the greater part, though peaceful, was as devotedly Catholic as ever. The British government, not unnaturally, believed the descriptions of Ireland and the Irish furnished by these colonists. They, truly enough, always represented Irish Catholics as intensely hostile to a rule which they certainly had little reason to love. Yet, though Irish aversion to British rule was great, attachment to Catholicism was, if possible, a still stronger sentiment.

While throughout Catholic Europe the clergy are sometimes the objects of ridicule to the frivolous, the desperate, or the sceptical, in Ireland they are viewed with some degree of awe, even by the most reckless of their people. They are always not only the mental consolers and directors, but the most trusted advisers of the Irish majority on almost every subject. This clerical influence has its effect even on Irish non-Catholics, without their being, perhaps, always aware of it. Prelatists and Presbyterians often rival each other in awarding their clergy far more influence than is usual in most countries. Even in some English parishes ridiculing “the old parson” is frequent among the giddy, immoral, or reckless members of his flock. Among the divided Irish any such jeering is comparatively unknown, even among the thoughtless and dissipated. All sneering and ridiculing, even among the most scornful, are usually reserved for the clergy of other denominations. No matter how reckless or disobedient Irish youths may be, when warned by their clergy about their conduct, they yet respect them as religious, and often as political directors. Their minds, greatly influenced by their country’s history, view their clergy as respective champions, who, though occasionally strict or vexatious, they yet hope to see triumph over all religious opponents. The Irish clergy, by often mingling historical allusions with Scriptural instruction, thus resemble eloquent advocates as well as religious teachers. This position in Ireland is occupied to some extent by all three divisions of its clergy, owing to its singular history. Of these the Prelatists represent established English Protestantism allied with English political rule. The majority of the wealthy both in land and money belong to this denomination. The Presbyterians mostly descended from Scottish colonists settled in Ulster, together with the Prelatists, in the reign of James the First. There were, however, occasional, though unimportant, disputes between them. The Presbyterians accused the Prelatists of proud, selfish arrogance, owing to their political supremacy, while the latter accused them of a secret leaning to republicanism, which only their dread of the Catholics prevented their openly avowing. There was probably some truth in both complaints, as they were precisely what might be expected from the historical and social positions of the two denominations. But these quarrels never caused serious consequences. Both parties always practically sympathised with each other in opposing Irish Catholics, who considered them, and were considered by them, as hereditary foes. This unfortunate expression is to this day disgracefully prevalent among even the clergy of Ireland’s three denominations. Impartial historical study can alone explain its retention by men whose sacred profession would seem to forbid its use altogether. Roman Catholic priests in Ireland, however, though their duties and obligations are the same everywhere, are yet in a somewhat different position from what they occupy in any other country. Throughout Europe they are, and always were, consistent, though sometimes indirect supporters of monarchy and established law.

In Poland, often compared to Ireland owing to its subjected Catholic population, the priests sympathise as much with the oppressed Catholic noble as with the peasant. In Ireland alone they are allied with democratic revolutionists, a class whom, throughout Europe, it is alike their duty and interest to oppose. Their position in Ireland, when calmly examined, is interesting and arduous to a great degree. By Church rules they are bound to their people while abandoning many social advantages, privileges, and pleasures. Among Catholics they are admired for self-denial by all classes. Even in some Protestant countries they are, to some extent, respected for conscientious motives. But in Ireland they encounter opposite feelings of intense veneration and equally intense enmity. They can hardly do wrong in the estimation of coreligionists, among whom their occasional violence of language and conduct is alike condoned. By many rules of self-denial they give proofs of devotion to their people, and are, therefore, obeyed, even venerated, in cases where they cannot be loved. But in the opinion of many Irish non-Catholics they are seldom, if ever, in the right. Some design, some secret, evil object, the more dangerous because unknown, is sometimes attributed by Protestants to priests who are above reproach, and to whom publicity can bring nothing but honour. For such suspicion the language of some priests affords more reason than their conduct, as in pulpits or at political meetings historical wrongs often influence their minds. These grievances, however, they learn in one-sided histories, from which they, and Irish Protestants in opposing versions, derive all historical knowledge. These prejudiced, often avowedly partial records, while professing to teach Irish history, cannot be expected to make men just. Thus, during the close of this nineteenth century, respect for historic truth, free from religious or political bias, though not, of course, as rare, seems nearly as unpopular among Irish people as ever.

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