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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 11049

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The early half of the eighteenth century is such a very dreary period of Irish history that there is little temptation to linger over it. Two men, however, stand out conspicuously against this melancholy background, neither of whom must be passed over without a few words.

The first of these was William Molyneux, the "Ingenious Molyneux," as he was called by his contemporaries, a distinguished philosopher, whose life was almost exclusively devoted to scientific pursuits. Molyneux is, or ought to be, a very interesting figure to any one who cares, even slightly, about Ireland. He was one of the chief founders of the Philosophical Association in Dublin, which was the parent both of the present Dublin Society and of the Royal Irish Academy. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a friend of John Locke, with whom he constantly corresponded. Both his letters, and those of his brother, Dr. Thomas Molyneux, show the most vivid and constant interest in everything connected with the natural history of Ireland. Now it is a moving bog, which has scared the natives in its neighbourhood out of their senses; now, again, some great find of Irish elks, or some tooth of a mammoth which has been unearthed, and it is gravely discussed how such a "large-bodied beast" could have been transported over seas, especially to a country where the "Greeks and Romans never had a footing," and where therefore the learned Mr. Camden's theory, that the elephants' bones found in England were the remains of those "brought over by the Emperor Claudius," necessarily falls to the ground. Both the brothers Molyneux belong to a band of Irish naturalists whose numbers are, unfortunately, remarkably limited. Why it should be so is not easily explained, but so it is. When Irish archaeology is mentioned, the names of Petrie, of Wilde, of Todd, of Graves, and, last but not least, of Miss Margaret Stokes spring to the mind. Irish geologists, with Sir Richard Griffiths at their head, show as good a record as those of any other country, but the number of Irish naturalists whose fame has reached beyond a very narrow area is small indeed. This is the less accountable as, though scanty as regards the number of its species, the natural history of Ireland is full of interest, abounding in problems not even yet fully solved: the very scantiness of its fauna being in one sense, an incentive and stimulus to its study, for the same reason that a language which is on the point of dying out is often of more interest to a philologist than one that is in full life and vigour. This, however, is a digression, and as such must be forgiven. Returning to the arena of politics, Molyneux's chief claim to remembrance rests upon a work published by him in favour of the rights of the Irish Parliament in the last year but one of the seventeenth century, only seven years therefore after the treaty of Limerick.

As one of the members of the Dublin University he had every opportunity of judging how the grasp which the English Parliament maintained by means of the obsolete machinery of Poynings' Act was steadily throttling and benumbing all Irish enterprise. In 1698 his famous remonstrance, known as "The Case of Ireland being bound by Act of Parliament made in England," appeared, with a dedication to King William. It at once created an immense sensation, was fiercely condemned as seditious and libellous by the English Parliament, by whom, as a mark of its utter abhorrence, it was condemned to be burned by the common hangman.

Few things will give a clearer idea of the extraordinarily exasperated state of politics at the time than to read the remonstrance which produced so tremendous a storm. Take, for example, the words with which the earlier portion of it closes, and which are worth studying, if only for the impressive dignity of their style, which not a little foreshadows Burke's majestic prose:--

"To conclude, I think it highly inconvenient for England to assume this authority over the kingdom of Ireland, I believe there will need no great arguments to convince the wise assembly of English senators how inconvenient it may be to England to do that which may make the lords and the people of Ireland think that they are not well used, and may drive them to discontent. The laws and liberties of England were granted above five hundred years ago to the people of Ireland, upon their submission to the Crown of England, with a design to keep them in the allegiance of the king of England. How consistent it may be with true policy to do that which the people of Ireland may think an invasion of their rights and liberties, I do most humbly submit to the Parliament of England to consider. They are men of great wisdom, honour, and justice, and know how to prevent all future inconveniences. We have heard great outcries, and deservedly, on breaking the edict of Nantes, and other stipulations. How far the breaking our constitution, which has been of five hundred years standing exceeded these, I leave the world to judge."

In another place Molyneux vindicates the dignity of a Parliament in words of singular force and moderation:--

"The rights of Parliament should be preserved sacred and inviolable wherever they are found. This kind of government, once so universal all over Europe, is now almost vanished amongst the nations thereof. Our king's dominions are the only supporters of this most noble Gothic constitution, save only what little remains may be found thereof in Poland. We should not

therefore make so light of that sort of legislature, and, as it were, abolish it in one kingdom of the three wherein it appears, but rather cherish and encourage it wherever we meet it[14]."

[14] "The Case of Ireland being bound by Acts of Parliament made in England." By William Molyneux, Esq., Dublin.

For a remonstrance so dignified, couched in language so respectful, burning by the common hangman seems a hard lot. The disgrace, if such it was, does not appear to have very deeply penetrated its author, who pursued the even tenour of his way, and the same year paid a visit to his friend John Locke, on the return journey from which visit he unfortunately caught a chill, from the effects of which he died the following October. After his death the momentary stir which his eloquence had created died out, as the circles left by the falling of a stone die out upon some stagnant pool, until nearly a quarter of a century later a much more violent splash again aroused attention, and a far less pacific exponent of Irish abuses than Molyneux sprang fiercely into the turmoil.

Jonathan Swift had been eleven years Dean of St. Patrick's before he produced those famous letters which have left their mark so indelibly upon the course of Irish politics. Swift's part in this Stygian pool of the eighteenth century is rather a difficult one to explain. He was not in any sense an Irish champion, indeed, objected to being called an Irishman at all, and regarded his life in Ireland as one of all but unendurable banishment. He was a vehement High Churchman, and looked upon the existing penal proscription under which the Catholics lay as not merely desirable, but indispensable. At the same time it would be quite untrue to suppose, as is sometimes done, that he merely made a cat's-paw of Irish politics in order to bring himself back into public notice. He was a man of intense and even passionate sense of justice, and the state of affairs in


(From an engraving by Fourdinier after Jervis.)

the Ireland of his day, the tyranny and political dishonesty which stalked in high places, the degradation and steadily-increasing misery in which the mass of the people were sunk, were enough to lash far less scathing powers of sarcasm than he possessed to their highest possible pitch of expression.

The cause that drew forth the famous Drapier letters--why Swift chose to spell the word draper with an i no one has ever explained--appears at first sight hardly worthy of the occasion. Ireland wanted a copper coinage, and Walpole, who was then the Prime Minister, had given a patent for the purpose to a person called Wood, part of the profits of which patent were to go to the Duchess of Kendal, the king's mistress. There seems no reason to think that the pennies produced by Wood were in any way inferior to the existing English ones, and Sir Isaac Newton--who was at the time Master of the Mint--declared that, if anything, they were rather better. The real wrong, the real insult, was that the patent was granted by the Minister without reference to the Lord-Lieutenant, to the Irish Parliament, or to any single human being in Ireland. It was a proof the more of that total indifference with which the interests of Ireland were regarded, and it was upon this score that Swift's wrath exploded like a bomb.

The line he chose to take was to attack the patent, not as a monstrous job--which undoubtedly it was--but from the point of view of the value of the pennies. Assuming the character of a tradesman, he adjured all classes of the community, down to the very beggars, not to be induced to accept them. Assured them that for the benefit of Mr. Wood, "a mean man, a hardware dealer," every human being in Ireland was about to be deliberately robbed and ruined. His logic sounded unanswerable to the ignorant. His diatribes produced the most extraordinary effect. A terrific panic set in, and so overwhelming was the sensation that the Ministers in the end found it necessary to cancel the patent, and suspend the issue of Wood's halfpence. For the first time in Irish history public opinion, unsupported by arms, had carried its point: an epoch of vast importance in the history of every country.

That Swift knew perfectly well that the actual value of the copper coinage was not a matter of profound importance may be taken for granted, and so far his conduct is certainly not justifiable on any very strict rule of ethics. If the pennies were of small importance, however, there were other things that were of more. Little of a patriot as he was, little as he was supposed, or supposed himself, to care for Ireland or Irishmen, his wrath burnt fiercely at what he saw around him. He saw, too, his own wrongs, as others have done before and since, "writ large" in the wrongs of the country, and resented them as such. With his keen, practical knowledge of men, he knew, moreover, how thick was that medium, born of prejudice and ignorance, through which he had to pierce--a medium through which nothing less pointed than the forked lightnings of his own terrible wit could have found its way. Whatever his motives were, his success at least is indisputable. High Churchman as he was, vehement anti-papist as he was, he became from that moment, and remained to the hour of his death, beyond all question the most popular man in Ireland and his name was ever afterwards upon the lips of all who aspired to promote the best interests and prosperity of their country.

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