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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 5771

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

All power, place, and authority had thus once more swung round into the hands of the Protestant colony--"The Protestant Ascendency," as it came after a while to be called. They alone had seats in Parliament, they alone, until near the end of the century, were competent to vote. Taxes were collected over the whole island, but only Protestants had a voice in their disposal. All the parliamentary struggles of this century, it must clearly be understood, were struggles between Protestants and Protestants, and the different political parties, "patriotic" and others, were parties formed exclusively amongst the Protestants themselves. Protestantism was not only the privileged, but it was also the polite, creed; the creed of the upper classes, as distinguished from the creed of the potato-diggers and the turf-cutters; a view of the matter of which distinct traces may even yet be discovered in Ireland.

If Protestants, as compared with their Roman Catholic brethren, were happy, the Protestant colony was very far from being allowed its own way, or permitted to govern itself as it thought fit. Although avowedly kept as her garrison, and to preserve her own power in Ireland, England had no notion of allowing it equal advantages with herself, or of running the smallest risk of its ever coming to stand upon any dangerous footing of equality. The fatal theory that it was the advantage of the one country that the other should be kept poor, had by this time firmly taken root in the minds of English statesmen, and to it, and to the unreasonable jealousy of a certain number of English traders, the disasters now to be recorded were mainly due.

Cromwell had placed English and Irish commerce upon an equal footing. Early in Charles II.'s reign an Act had however been passed to hinder the importation of Irish cattle into England, one which had struck a disastrous, not to say fatal, blow at Irish agricultural interests. Then as now cattle was its chief wealth, and such a prohibition meant nothing short of ruin to the landowners, and through them to all who depended upon them. So far Irish ports were open, however, to foreign countries, and when the cattle trade ceased to be profitable, much of the land had been turned by its owners into sheepwalks. There was a large and an increasing demand for Irish wool upon the Continent, in addition to which a considerable number of manufacturers had of late started factories, and an energetic manufacture of woollen goods was going on, and rapidly becoming the principal form of Irish industry. The English traders, struck by this fact, were suddenly smitten with panic. The Irish competition, they declared, were reducing their gains, and they cried loudly, therefore, for legislative protection. Their prayer was granted. In 1699, the last year of the century, an Act was passed forbidding the export of Irish woollen good

s, not to England alone, but to all other countries.

The effect of this Act was instantaneous and startling. The manufacturers, who had come over in large numbers, left the country for the most part within six months, never to return again. A whole population was suddenly thrown out of employment Emigration set in, but, in spite of the multitude that left, famine laid hold of many of those who remained. The resources of the poorest classes are always so low in Ireland that a much less sweeping blow than this would at any time have sufficed to bring them over the verge of starvation.

Another important result was that smuggling immediately began on an enormous scale. Wool was now a drug in the legitimate market, and woollen goods had practically no market. A vast contraband trade sprang swiftly up upon the ruins of the legitimate one. Wool, which at home was worth only 5d. or 6d. a lb., in France fetched half-a-crown. The whole population, from the highest to the lowest, flung themselves energetically on the side of the smugglers. The coast-line was long and intricate; the excise practically powerless. Wool was packed in caves all along the south and south-west coast, and carried off as opportunity served by the French vessels which came to seek it. What was meant by nature and Providence to have been the honest and open trade of the country was thus forced to be carried on by stealth and converted into a crime. It alleviated to some degree the distress, but it made Law seem more than ever a mockery, more than ever the one archenemy against which every man's hand might legitimately be raised.

Even this, if bad enough, was not the worst. The worst was that this arbitrary Act--directed, it must be repeated, by England, not against the Irish natives, but against her own colonists--done, too, without there being an opportunity for the country to be heard in its own defence--struck at the very root of all enterprise, and produced a widespread feeling of hopelessness and despair. Since this was the acknowledged result of too successful rivalry with England, of what use, it was openly asked, to attempt any new enterprise, or what was to hinder the same fate from befalling it in its turn? The whole relationship of the two islands, even where no division of blood or creed existed, grew thus to be strained and embittered to the last degree; the sense of hostility and indignation being hardly less strong in the latest arrived colonist than in the longest established. "There was scarce an Englishman," says a writer of the time, "who had been seven years in the country, and meant to remain there, who did not become averse to England, and grow into something of an Irishman." All this must be taken into account before those puzzling contradictions and anomalies which make up the history of this century can ever be properly realized.

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