The divided Irish; an historical sketch


The practical desires of the three Irish divisions—Prelatist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic—may be instructively compared. As they alike arise from their country’s peculiar history, they to some extent explain its religious, social, and political condition. The Prelatists are thoroughly English in theological and political views. They strive to maintain and strengthen British rule, and loyally obey British laws, while identifying themselves with British interests. To make Ireland as like England as possible by every means and in every way is always their cherished object. They comprise nearly all the Irish peers and most of the landowners.* This class being thoroughly English in feeling, habits, and principle, often visit England. They believe their position in Ireland was both preserved and confirmed by William the Third, whom they, like many British Prelatists, consider their historical champion. Some of the latter, however, always viewed him either as a usurper or more usually as a foreigner, prevented by British adherents from favouring Dutch fellow-countrymen at the expense of those who had made him their King. British admiration for William the Third is less than that of Irish non-Catholics. Among the latter he is transformed into a glorious, almost faultless, hero. Prelatists and Presbyterians unite in extolling his name and exploits, investing him with more great qualities than are usually admitted by British historians, except, indeed, Macaulay, who admires him rather as a political than religious champion.

Among a nation so fiercely divided as the impetuous Irish, this cautious, tolerant, un-impassioned prince was hard to understand. The different parties, therefore, put their own constructions on him; and he was considered by many Irish Catholics an eager Protestant enthusiast, who wished to extinguish their religion, if not their race. In reality he was different from either Irish Protestant or Catholic ideas of him. Living in the midst of British and Continental warfare, as well as controversy with religious intolerance raging around him, he was evidently a man whose calm judgment and European knowledge put him far in advance of his times. He usually checked intolerance and even restrained enthusiasm among all whom he could influence. It was his remarkable fate to be opposed by Irish Catholics, Scottish Presbyterian Covenanters, and even some English Prelatists. The civil war against Irish Catholics, the English revolt of Sir John Fenwick and Sir John Friend, the union of Scottish Covenanters with Scottish Jacobites against him, and the refusal of the chief English Protestant prelates—Sancroft, Ken, &c.—to acknowledge his authority, prove that this extraordinary prince had to contend with nearly all sections of his divided subjects, while obtaining the somewhat limited confidence of the majority. But in Ireland he is still the hero of all non-Catholics, while other British sovereigns are comparatively disregarded. He is at once the incarnation of preserved British rule and Protestant safety. Among Irish Presbyterians he is viewed with rather less admiration than among Prelatists. This difference probably arises from the intercourse between them and their Scottish coreligionists, with whom William was never very popular. From the south of Scotland the first Presbyterians came into Ireland, settling in Ulster, the part nearest to Scotland, where they remained closely united with their Scottish brethren in religious and political views.t Yet though less demonstrative than the Prelatists, the Irish Presbyterians were by their endangered position forced to be more unconditionally loyal to William than their Scottish coreligionists. Among the latter only the more moderate, though these formed the majority, could endure his tolerant policy, which the more vehement bitterly denounced, some even aiding their old foes, the Scottish Jacobites, composed of Prelatists and Catholics, to restore James the Second. Irish Presbyterians had no alternative but to acknowledge William as their King. Although they, like their Scottish brethren, often quarreled with Prelatist fellow-countrymen, yet all Irish non-Catholics knew that they were surrounded by foes who believed them equally hostile to their hopes and interests. The disputes among the colonists might have become serious, but the constantly threatening presence of the Catholic majority forced all quarreling Protestants into active alliance for mutual self-preservation.** Thus Irish Prelatists looked to England, and Presbyterians to Scotland, for political guidance; and in the religious history of Britain describing the disputes between these non-Catholic divisions may be found the causes of their occasional enmity in Ireland, where their common political interests always reunited them.

*”Presbyterians have never formed any very considerable portion of the Irish aristocracy, and those among them who have attained high rank have, in times past, generally evinced a disposition to pass over into the Church as by law established.”— Reid’s “History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland,” Vol. III.

**Mr. Froude differs from Macaulay about the treatment of Irish Presbyterians by Irish Prelatists. He writes: “The shadow which fell on Puritanism at the Restoration [of Charles the Second] once more blighted the new [Irish] colonies. Non-conformity was still a stain for which no other excellence could atone. The persecutions were renewed, but did not cool Presbyterian loyalty. When the native race made their last effort, under James the Second, to recover their lands, the colonists of Derry won immortal honour for themselves, and flung over the wretched annals of their adopted country a solitary gleam of true glory. Even this passed for nothing. They were still Dissenters, still unconscious that they owed obedience to the hybrid successors of St. Patrick, the prelates of the Establishment; and no sooner was peace re-established than spleen and bigotry were again at their old work.”—”English in Ireland,” Vol. II. This account seems at variance with Macaulay’s statement that “The few penal laws against Irish Nonconformists were a dead letter.”—”History of England,” Vol. II., chap. vi.

While throughout Britain, and, indeed, Europe generally, religious differences chiefly interest students, clergy, or theologians, in Ireland they still rouse and animate young, vigorous, energetic men, inspiring them with unreasoning enmity, which often allures them from either business or pleasure. In Ulster especially, where the three Irish divisions are brought together, the civil wars of Cromwell and William the Third, and the deeds of supposed ancestors, are constantly recalled in political speeches, election addresses, often in sermons and newspaper articles, with energetic eloquence. The historical characters, Sir Phelim O’Neill, Oliver Cromwell, Sarsfield, James the Second, and William the Third—are recalled with eager interest, as representing the final struggles of the contending religions in Ireland. During, comparative peace and educational enlightenment, the thoughts and deeds of men exasperated by war are yet made examples for people possessing advantages unknown to their ancestors, whose inevitable ignorance is strangely preferred to the historical knowledge and intellectual development of their more fortunate descendants. Thus Ireland’s Christian denominations, even to this day, are often inspired with more dislike to “Papists” or “heretics” ‘than to the most worthless in their own communions. Probably in no European country has the progress of time made less difference in popular ideas than in Ireland. Among its religious divisions are still heard opinions and language about each other worthy of the Middle Ages, when Europe was in the midst of religious controversy. With them the old civil wars retain the vivid interest of events they remember or hear from witnesses sharing in the triumph of victory or exasperation of defeat. Doubtless, many preachers and politicians never wish to inspire this intolerance, but such is the excitable nature of the Irish about religion and politics, that the more violent a speaker or preacher is, the more popular he becomes, for the very cause which might be reasonably hoped would render him otherwise. On the other hand, either clergymen or politicians who mention or view opponents with charity and consideration are too often despised for supposed want of spirit, instead of being respected for displaying the one most consistent with Christianity.

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