The divided Irish; an historical sketch


The leaders of the 1798 revolt were the first Irishmen who tried to inspire American principles among fellow-countrymen, although the new aggressive French republic was their chief model. French enmity to England was far greater than that of the United States against the mother country. The Americans, while proud of their independence, felt much in common with British ancestry. A common language and origin, besides many common interests, always preserved feelings more or less friendly between the British and American governments ever since their final contest. The ’98 revolutionists comprised the three Irish religions, the majority being Catholic, while the chief leaders were Prelatists and Presbyterians.* This rebellion, according to the plan of its leaders, was entirely political, and, therefore, called the United Irish movement; but among so religious a people as the Irish it was never understood in the same sense. While its promoters exhorted and wrote about new political ideas, most of their followers longed to restore exclusively the Roman Catholic faith, which their leaders’ favourite example, the French republic, wished to abolish altogether. The new French government was the model of the United Irish leaders, but its principles were utterly fatal to the wishes of the Irish Catholics forming the rebel majority. Their chiefs, of whom Wolfe Tone was the most eminent, detested clerical influence, and though, perhaps, not atheists, opposed all established Churches. These men, however, being mostly arrested before the outbreak, retained little influence over the insurgents. Tone’s character and career are instructive, even to Irishmen of the present day, as he was the prime mover and original founder of the United Irish society; but he only represented the principles of its leaders. Between them and the disaffected majority there was a vast difference. Tone was utterly unlike devout Irish Catholics, or strict, conscientious Irish Protestants; yet he possessed rare qualities, which, for a time, gave him some influence over both. His courage, resolution, perseverance, or thorough going disposition, to use a common phrase in Ireland, were admired more or less by all Irish divisions, with whom these qualities are almost essential to popularity. He also possessed a gaiety of heart, a force of animal spirits, with a constant liveliness and intense love of excitement. When he mingled these qualities with determined, even fiery resolution, Tone resembled an Irishman and an Irish youth combined. In one very essential point, however, he was a thorough contrast to most Irishmen: he had little reverence for religion of any kind. It is possible that, had he lived longer, he might have changed, and his energetic spirit have become religious with advancing age. But in his fatal career Tone’s ambition was entirely worldly.**

*”It has indeed always been a matter of indifference to the Catholic peasantry whether they were led by Protestants or Catholics.”—Rosebery’s “Life of Pitt.”

**” His judgment of men and things was keen, lucid, and masculine, and he was alike prompt in decision and brave in action. Coming to France without any advantage of birth, property, position or antecedents, and without even a knowledge of the language, he gained a real influence over French councils. Of the Irish Catholics Tone knew little, but he believed their religious prejudices had disappeared, that they would follow the lead of the intelligent Presbyterians of the North, and that they were burning to throw off the government of England. He lived to see all his illusions dispelled.”—Lecky’s “Ireland in the Eighteenth Century,” Vol. v., chap. vi.

He rather resembled some of Lever’s Irish characters, being eager and impetuous, yet wonderfully observant of all around him. He constantly mingled mere trifles with important subjects; sometimes expressing his thoughts like a statesman, and then changing to a drunken, reckless boaster. Yet, amid all his fancies and levity, he kept his restless eye steadily upon Ireland. He never lost sight of his dangerous project of severing her by revolution from British rule, with the aid of the French republic. His rage against all Irishmen who, opposed his own views was, perhaps, the worst feature in his otherwise not unamiable disposition. His strange diary, published after his death, reveals his extraordinary character better than any other description. He lived much in Paris before the ’98 revolt, chafing and fretting about the delayed French invasion of Ireland, in which he, with other Irish leaders, was to join. At one moment he eagerly enjoys the gay pleasures of Paris, while alternately blaming and praising the French republican officers, whom he constantly urged to invade Ireland. He often describes his own drunkenness without shame, but over all the changes and freaks of his restless mind revolutionary designs always predominate.* His diary resembles more the writing of a sensational novelist than the journal of a man of genius, possessing considerable knowledge of human nature. Yet this knowledge was only keen observation of men immediately around him, whom he describes with amusing intelligence. Of the Irish people, especially the Catholics, both his conduct and language betray not only ignorance, but misconception. Devoted to the French infidel republic, which he served as a subject, he apparently thought its principles, as as well as rule, would be accepted by the Irish Catholic majority. He exulted in the banishment of the Pope from Rome by his chosen masters, the French republicans, and joyfully predicted the speedy downfall of the Catholic faith. He evidently expected that his Catholic fellow-countrymen would sooner or later share his feelings, which he freely expressed in his diary while associating with the chief enemies of Roman Catholicism in France. During this short revolution the non-Catholic rebels were more impressed with the republican ideas of their leaders than the Catholics. The philosophical theories, eloquence and daring of Tone, the Emmets, and Lord Edward Fitzgerald, represented no religious element; they neither advocated nor recalled any religious triumph. Their French republican allies were as much mistaken in the Irish people as their own chief leaders. The changes in French thought and history between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were to most of the Irish quite incomprehensible.**

*”I am to get my order for three months’ pay to-morrow. Called on the American Consul, who gave me £50. I am now ready to march. I see the Orange boys are playing the devil in Ireland. I have no doubt it is the work of the Government. Please God, if I get safe into that country, I will settle those gentlemen and their instigators. Met General Hoche, who took me in his carriage to General Cherin, with whom I am to travel. I told Hoche that I hoped the glory was reserved for him to amputate the right hand of England for ever, and I mentioned the immense resources in all respects, especially in men and provisions, which Ireland furnished to that country, and of which I trusted we were now on the eve of depriving her. Saw Cherin this morning. He tells me it may be ten days before we get off. I fell! Hell! Hell! How shall I get over these infernal delays? Put on my regimentals for the first time; as pleased as a little boy in his first breeches; foolish enough, but not unpleasant; walked about Paris to show myself. Huzza! Citizen Wolfe Tone, Chef de Brigade in the service of the Republic! Opera in the evening. Madame Guenet a charming singer. Madame Gardel and Nindon in the pas Russe inimitable. It is worth a voyage from Ireland to America, and from America to Paris, to see that single dance. I think now I have got on my regimentals I begin to write like a very pretty gentleman. John Bull is not all beaten into his senses yet. What an execrable nation that is, and how cordially I hate them. If our expedition succeeds, I think we will give her the coup de grace. Oh ! that I were this fine morning at the head of my regiment on the Cave Hill [near Belfast]. It is seven days at least to our departure. D————n it for me.”—”Life of Tone,” Vol. II., pp. 172-73.

**”The soldiers of the [French] Revolution, whom the panic-stricken priests in other lands had long regarded as the most ferocious and most terrible of the agents of Anti-Christ, now found themselves to their own astonishment and amusement suddenly transfigured into Crusaders, surrounded by eager peasants who declared that they were come to take arms for France and the Blessed Virgin; and old soldiers of the Italian army exclaimed with no small disgust that, having just driven the Pope out of Italy, they had never expected to meet him again in Ireland.”—Becky’s “Ireland,” Vol. V., chap. xi.

Though less under Papal control than Spain and Austria, yet France, while under a monarchy, always called herself the champion of the Papacy. When James the Second, a deposed Catholic king, sought aid against rebellious Protestant subjects, he became immediately an object of religious sympathy to the French nation. In ’98 this feeling was not only changed, but reversed. The Catholic faith was publicly abolished, and with its nominal abolition all religious worship was abolished also. No preference for any form of Protestantism or Deism actuated the French Jacobin republic. Utter Atheism, bold, defiant, and persecuting, supplanted the sneering insinuations of Voltaire and others, who usually advocated the humane principles while ridiculing the profession of Christianity. This republic recognised in Tone and other Irish leaders ardent political allies, not, perhaps, agreeing with all its ideas, but animated with hatred to all monarchy, which, in England’s case, was specially odious to the French, from historical enmity.

The Irish Catholic clergy perceived that their people must choose between joining an atheistical republic in open rebellion or a Protestant government, which, though unjust in their opinion, no longer aimed at the destruction of their religion. They knew that the conduct of French allies in banishing the Pope and abolishing religion in France was far more dangerous to their cause than either the continuance of British rule or of the bitter insults constantly exchanged between them and Protestant fellow-countrymen. For such intolerance, though odious, indeed, to the sensitive, the conscientious, and the thoughtful, rather strengthened than diminished religious enthusiasm. It aided to preserve from generation to generation the divided Irish from any tendency to conversion. It maintained with strict, zealous exactness the lines of doctrinal demarcation by appealing to pride as well as conscience in recalling the glories or sufferings of ancestral civil war. A general but wrong impression prevailed in Britain that the ’98 revolt was a Catholic rising suppressed by loyal Irish Protestants, assisted by British troops. It was really a republican movement, headed by men who disliked the Catholic probably more than another form of Christianity, but mostly supported by ignorant Catholic peasants having no real sympathy with the political views of their leaders. A few years after its suppression, the parliamentary Union of Great Britain and Ireland induced many loyalists in the three countries to expect that Ireland, like Scotland a century before, would become really as well as nominally, united to England. Yet these unions of 1700 and 1800 occurred under such different circumstances that like results could not be reasonably anticipated. In England and Scotland, James the First had no rival, while republican opposition was then unknown.

Although great enmity existed between the Prelatist and Presbyterian majorities in Great Britain, they were equally loyal to the same king, and alike opposed to Roman Catholicism. In Ireland the year of its Union found Irish Protestants accusing Catholic fellow-countrymen of implacable hostility to Britain, of which they believed the ’98 revolt was a recent proof. On the other hand, Irish Catholics complained of the constant injustice of the Protestants, and actually favoured union with Britain, hoping that from British legislators they might get better treatment than from the triumphant minority of Irish Protestants, who alone composed the Irish Parliament. A long period had elapsed since Roman Catholics opposed Protestants in Britain. The last Jacobite revolt in 1745 was not a Catholic movement exclusively, though its triumph would certainly have favoured that Church. It was headed chiefly by Prelatist nobles and gentry throughout Britain; even some Protestant clergymen favoured it, owing to their strict ideas of political loyalty. Since its suppression the British public became more tolerant towards Catholicism, perhaps chiefly owing to its political weakness. The London ” No Popery ” riots in 1780 checked with great severity, if not cruelty, by a Protestant government, proved that British rulers, no longer apprehending Catholic revolt, were, therefore, inclined to treat Catholic subjects with more justice, if not favour, than before.
But in Ireland religious animosities at the time of the Union were nearly as general, though not as violent, as in the days of James the Second. The Irish Catholic prelates, therefore, desired the Union, and the measure was passed without opposition from their people, who, like Irish Protestants, often appealed to the British public in complaints of each other.*

*”The Irish Catholic Bishops have been so useful to the British Government ever since the Union that it was not safe to make enemies of them.”—John Mitchel’s “History of Ireland,” p. 249.

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