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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 8754

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The revolt of the English Colonies in America, although it evoked no disloyalty, had a strong and unforeseen influence upon the equally English colony in Ireland. It would have been strange had it not done so. The circumstances of the two colonies--looking at Ireland merely in that light--were in many respects all but identical. If England could tax America without the consent of its representatives, then, equally it could tax Ireland, in which case the long struggles lately waged by Flood, Grattan, and others in the Irish Parliament over Money Bills would be definitely decided against it. Compared to Ireland, America indeed had little to complain of. The restrictions which held back Irish commerce still existed in almost all their pristine force. The woollen trade, save for some very trifling home consumption, was practically dead; even the linen trade, which had been promised encouragement, had hitherto hardly received any. Bounties had been offered, on the contrary, to English woollen manufacturers, and duties levied on Irish sail-cloth, which had effectually put a stop to that important branch of the trade. Another cause had also affected commerce seriously. The manufacturers of the north, were almost to a man Presbyterian, and the laws against Presbyterians had been pressed with almost as much severity as against Catholics. Under the rule of Archbishops Boulter, Hoadly, and Stone, who had in succession governed the country, the Test Act had been employed with a suicidal severity, which had driven thousands of industrious men to join their brethren in America, where they could worship in peace, and where their presence was before long destined to produce a formidable effect upon the impending struggle.

The whole condition of the country was miserable in the extreme. Agriculture was at the lowest possible ebb. The Irish farmers, excluded from the English and all foreign markets, were reduced to destitution. Land was offered at fourteen and twelve years' purchase, and even at those prices found no buyers. Many of the principal landowners were absentees, and though the rents themselves do not seem as a rule to have been high, the middlemen, by whom the land was commonly taken, ground the wretched peasants under them to powder with their exactions. While everything else was thus steadily shrinking, the pension list was swelling until it stood not far short of £100,000. The additional troops recently raised in Ireland had been sent to America, and their absence had left the country all but defenceless. In 1779, an attempt was made to carry out a levy of militia, in which Prostestants only were to be enrolled, and an Act passed for the purpose. It failed utterly, for so miserably bankrupt was the condition of the Irish Government, that it was found impossible to collect money to pay the men, and the scheme in consequence had to be given up.

It proved, however, to be the parent of a really successful one. In the same year a volunteer movement sprang into sudden existence. Belfast had been left empty of troops, and was hourly in fear of a French descent, added to which it was harassed by the dread of a famous pirate of the period, called Paul Jones. Under these circumstances its citizens resolved to enrol themselves for their own defence. The idea, once started, flew through the country like wild-fire. The old fighting spirit sprang to sudden life at the cry to arms. After three-quarters of a century of torpor all was stir and animation. In every direction the gentry were enrolling their tenants, the sons of the great houses officering the corps and drilling their own retainers. Merchants, peers, members of Parliament all vied with one another, and in a few months' time nearly 60,000 men had been enrolled.

Although a good deal alarmed at the rapidity of this movement, the Government could not very well refuse to let the country arm in its own defence, and 16,000 stand of arms, which had been brought over for the projected militia, were after a while distributed. The greatest pride was felt in the completeness and perfection of the equipments. Reviews were held, and, for once, national sentiment and loyalty seemed to have struck hands.

Hardly, too, were the volunteers enrolled before it began to be felt what a power was thus conferred



(From an etching after a picture by Hogarth.)

upon that party which had so long pleaded in vain for the relief of Ireland from those commercial disabilities under which it still laboured. Although the whole tone of the volunteers was loyal, and although their principal leader, Lord Charlemont, was a man of the utmost tact and moderation, it was none the less clear that an appeal backed by 60,000 men in arms acquired a weight and momentum which no previous Irish appeal had ever even approached.

In October of the same year Parliament met, and an amendment to the address was moved by Grattan, demanding a right of free export and import. Then Flood rose in his place, still holding office, and proposed that the more comprehensive words Free Trade should be adopted. It was at once agreed to and carried unanimously. Next day the whole House of Commons went in a body to present the address to the Lord-Lieutenant, the volunteers lining the streets and presenting arms as they went by.

The Government were startled. Lord Buckinghamshire, the Lord-Lieutenant, wrote to England to say that the trade restrictions must be repealed, or he would not answer for the consequences. Lord North, the Prime Minister, yielded, and a Bill of repeal were brought in, allowing Ireland free export and import to foreign countries and to the English Colonies. When the news reached Dublin, the utmost delight and excitement prevailed. Bonfires were lit, houses in Dublin illuminated, the volunteers fired salvoes of rejoicing, and addresses of gratitude were forthwith forwarded to England.

The next step in the upward progress has been already partially described in the chapter dealing with Grattan. At the meeting of Parliament in 1782, the Declaration of Rights proposed by him was passed, and urgently pressed upon the consideration of the Government. The moment was exceptionally favourable. Lord North's Ministry had by this time fallen, after probably the most disastrous tenure of office that had ever befallen any English administration. America had achieved her independence, and England was in no mood for embarking upon fresh struggle with another of her dependencies. In Ireland the Ulster volunteers had lately met at Dungannon, and passed unanimous resolutions in favour of Grattan's proposal, and their example had been speedily followed all over Ireland. The Whig Ministry, now in power, was known to be not unfavourable to the cause which the Irish patriots had at heart. A Bill was brought forward and carried, revoking the recent Declaratory Acts which bound the Irish Parliament, and giving it the right to legislate for itself. Poynings' Act was thereupon repealed, and a number of independent Acts, as already stated, passed by the now emancipated Irish Parliament. The legislative independence was an accomplished fact.

The objects of the volunteers' existence was now over. The American war was at an end, the independence of the Parliament assured, and it was felt therefore, by all moderate men, that it was now time for them to disband. Flood, who had now again joined the patriotic party, was strongly opposed to this. He pressed forward his motion for "simple repeal," and was supported by Lord Bristol, the Bishop of Derry, a scatter-brained prelate, who had been bitten by a passion for military glory, and would have been perfectly willing to see the whole country plunged into bloodshed. A better and more reasonable plea on Flood's part was that reform was the crying necessity of the hour, and ought to be carried while the volunteers were still enrolled, and the effect already produced by their presence was still undiminished. Grattan also desired reform, but held that the time for carrying it was not yet ripe. A vehement debate ensued, and bitter recriminations were exchanged. A convention of volunteers was at the moment being held in Dublin, and Flood endeavoured to make use of their presence there to get his Reform Bill passed. This the House regarded as a menace, and after a violent debate his Bill was thrown out. There was a moment during which it seemed as if the volunteers were about to try the question by force of arms. More prudent counsels, however, prevailed, and, greatly to their credit, they consented a week later to lay down their arms, and retire peaceably to their own homes.

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