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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 7866

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The eagerness shown at this time by the principal Irish Protestants to give full emancipation to their Roman Catholic countrymen is eminently creditable to them, and stands in strong relief to the bitterness on both sides, both in earlier and latter times. By 1792 there seems to have been something almost like unanimity on the subject. What reads strangest perhaps to our ears, 600 Belfast Protestant householders warmly pressed the motion on the Government. In a work, published six years earlier, Lord Sheffield, though himself opposed to emancipation, puts this unanimity in unmistakable words. "It is curious," he says, "to observe one-fifth or one-sixth of a nation in possession of all the power and property of the country, eager to communicate that power to the remaining four-fifths, which would, in effect, entirely transfer it from themselves."

The generation to which Flood, Lucas, and Lord Charlemont had belonged, and who were almost to a man opposed to emancipation, was fast passing away, and amongst the more independent men of the younger generation there were few who had not been won over


By Gillray.

to Grattan's view of the matter. In England, too, circumstances were beginning to push many, even of those hitherto bitterly hostile to concession, in the same direction. The growing terror of the French Revolution had loosened the bonds of the party, and the hatred which existed between the Jacobins and the Catholic clerical party, inclined the Government to extend the olive branch to the latter in hopes of thereby securing their support. Pitt was personally friendly to emancipation, and in December, 1792, a deputation of five delegates from the Catholic convention in Dublin was graciously received by the king himself, and returned under the impression that all religious disabilities were forthwith to be abolished. Next month, January, 1793, at the meeting of the Irish Parliament, a Bill was brought in giving the right of voting to all Catholic forty-shilling freeholders, and throwing open also to Catholics the municipal franchise in the towns. Although vehemently opposed by the Ascendency, this Bill, being supported by the Opposition, passed easily and received the royal assent upon April 9th.

It was believed to be only an instalment of full and free emancipation soon to follow. In 1794, several of the more moderate Whigs, including Edmund Burke and Lord Fitzwilliam, left Fox, and joined Pitt. One of the objects of the Whig members of this new coalition was the admission of Irish Roman Catholics to equal rights with their Protestant fellow-country men. To this Pitt at first demurred, but in the end agreed to grant it subject to certain stipulations, and Lord Fitzwilliam was accordingly appointed Lord-Lieutenant, and arrived in Ireland in January, 1795.

His appointment awakened the most vehement and widely expressed delight. He was known to be a warm supporter of emancipation. He was a personal friend of Grattan's, and a man in whom all who had the interests of their country at heart believed that they could confide. He had himself declared emphatically that he would "never have taken office unless the Roman Catholics were to be relieved from every disqualification." He was received in Dublin with enthusiastic rejoicings. Loyal addresses from Roman Catholics poured in from every part of Ireland. Large supplies were joyfully voted by the Irish Parliament, and, although he reported in a letter to the Duke of Portland that the disaffection amongst the lower orders was very great, on the other hand the better educated of the Roman Catholics were loyal to a man. For the moment the party of disorder seemed indeed to have vanished. Grattan, though he refused to take office, gave all the great weight of his support to the Government, and obtained leave to bring in an Emancipation Bill with hardly a dissenti

ent voice. The extreme Jacobine party ceased apparently for the moment to have any weight in the country. Revolution seemed to be scotched, and the dangers into which Ireland had been seen awhile before to be rapidly hastening, appeared to have passed away.

Suddenly all was changed. On February 12th, leave to bring in a Bill for the admission of Roman Catholics to Parliament was moved by Grattan. On February 9th, a letter reached Lord Fitzwilliam from Pitt, which showed that some changes had taken place in the intentions of the Government, but no suspicion of the extent of those changes was as yet entertained. On February 23rd, however, the Duke of Portland wrote, "by the king's command," authorizing Lord Fitzwilliam to resign. The law officers and other officials who had been displaced were thereupon restored to their former places. Grattan's Bill was hopelessly lost, and all the elements of rebellion and disaffection at once began to seethe and ferment again.

What strikes one most in studying these proceedings is the curious folly of the whole affair! Why was a harbinger of peace sent if only to be immediately recalled? Why were the hopes of the Roman Catholics, of the whole country in fact, raised to the highest pitch of expectation, if only that they might be dashed to the ground? Pitt no doubt had a very difficult part to play. George III. was all his life vehemently opposed to the admission of Roman Catholics to Parliament. Two of the officials whom Fitzwilliam had dismissed, Cooke, the Under Secretary of State, and Beresford, the Chief Commissioner of Customs, were men of no little influence, and Beresford, immediately upon his arrival in England had had a personal interview with the king. That Pitt knew how critical was the situation in Ireland is certain. He was not, however, prepared to resign office, and short of that step it was impossible to bring sufficient pressure to bear upon the king's obstinacy. His own preference ran strongly towards a Union of the two countries, and with this end in view, he is often accused of having been cynically indifferent as to what disasters and horrors Ireland might be destined to wade through to that consummation. This it is difficult to conceive; nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the rising of four years later dated from this decision, and was almost as directly due to it as if the latter had been planned with that object.

From this point the stream runs darkly and steadily to the end. Lord Fitzwilliam's departure was regarded by Protestants and Catholics alike as a national calamity. In Dublin shops were shut; people put on mourning, and his carriage was followed to the boat by lamenting crowds. Grattan's Bill was of course lost, and the exasperation of the Catholics rendered tenfold by the disappointment. "The demon of darkness," it was said, "could not have done more mischief had he come from hell to throw a fire-brand amongst the people."

Henceforward the Irish Parliament drops away into all but complete insignificance. After two or three abortive efforts to again bring forward reform, Grattan gave up the hopeless attempt, and retired broken-hearted from public life. The "United Irishmen," in the first instance an open political body, inaugurated and chiefly supported by Protestants, now rapidly changed its character. Its leaders were now all at heart republicans, and thoroughly impregnated with the leaven of the French Revolution. It was suppressed and apparently broken up by the Government in 1795, but was almost immediately afterwards reconstructed and re-organized upon an immense scale. Every member was bound to take an oath of secrecy, and its avowed object had become the erection by force of a republican form of Government in Ireland. The rebellion was bound to come now, and only accident could decide how soon.


(From a sketch from life.)

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