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   Chapter 54 THE UNION.

The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 11518

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

By the month of August the last sparks of the rebellion of '98 had been quenched. Martial law prevailed everywhere. The terror which the rising had awakened was finding its vent in violent actions and still more violent language, and Lord Cornwallis, the Lord-Lieutenant, was one of the few who ventured to say that enough blood had been shed, and that the hour for mercy had struck. The ferocity with which the end of the contest had been waged by the rebels had aroused a feeling of corresponding, or more than corresponding ferocity on the other side. That men who a few months before had trembled to see all whom they loved best exposed to the savagery of such a mob as had set fire to the barn at Scullabogue, or murdered the prisoners at Rossbridge, should have been filled with a fury which carried them far beyond the necessities of the case is hardly perhaps surprising, but the result was to hurry them in many instances into cruelties fully as great as those which they intended to avenge.

It was at this moment, while the country was still racked and bleeding at every pore from the effects of the recent struggle, that Pitt resolved to carry out his long projected plan of a legislative Union. Public opinion in Ireland may be said for the moment to have been dead. The mass of the people were lying crushed and exhausted by their own violence. Fresh from a contest waged with gun and pike and torch, a mere constitutional struggle had probably little or no interest for them. The popular enthusiasm which the earlier triumphs of the Irish Parliament had awakened had all but utterly died away in a fratricidal struggle. To the leaders of the late rebellion it was an object of open contempt, if not indeed of actual aversion. Wolfe Tone, the ablest man by far on the revolutionary side, had never weaned of pouring contempt upon it. In his eyes it was the great opponent of progress, the venal slave which had not only destroyed the chances of a successful outbreak, and whose endeavour had been to keep Ireland under the heel of her tyrant. To him the opposition as little deserved the name of patriot as the veriest place-men. Grattan, throughout his long and noble career had been as steadily loyal, and as steadily averse to any appeal to force as any paid creature of the Government. To men who only wanted to break loose from England altogether, to found an Irish republic as closely as possible upon the model then offered for their imitation in France, anything like mere constitutional opposition seemed not contemptible merely, but ridiculous.

This explains how it was that no great burst of public feeling--such as a few years before would have made the project of a Union all but impossible--was


now to be feared. Pitt had for a long time firmly fixed his mind upon it as the object to be attained. He honestly believed the existing state of things to be fraught with peril for England, and to have in it formidable elements of latent danger, which a war or any other sudden emergency might bring to the front. He knew too, undoubtedly, that no opportunity equally favourable for carrying his point was ever likely to recur again.

He accordingly now proceeded to take his measures for securing it with the utmost care, and the most anxious selection of agents. Two opposite sets of inducements were to be brought to bear upon the two contending factions. To the Protestants, fresh from their terrible struggle, the thought of a closer union with England seemed to promise greater protection in case of any similar outbreak. Irish churchmen too had been always haunted with a dread sooner or later of the disestablishment of their Church, and a union, it was argued, with a country where Protestants constituted the vast majority of the population, would render that peril for ever impossible, and it was agreed that a special clause to that effect should be incorporated in the Act of Union. To the Roman Catholics a totally different set of inducements were brought forward. The great bait was Emancipation, which they were privately assured would never be carried as long as the Irish Parliament existed, but might safely be conceded once it had ceased to exist. No actual pledge was made to that effect, but there was unquestionably an understanding, and Lord Castlereagh, the Chief Secretary, was untiring in his efforts to lull them into security upon this point.

So much discrepancy of statement still prevails upon the whole subject that it is extremely difficult to ascertain what really was the prevailing sentiment in Ireland at this time for and against the project of a Union. In Ulster the proposal seems certainly to have been all but unanimously condemned, and in Dublin, too, the opposition to it was vehement and unhesitating, but in other parts of the country it seems to have met with some support, especially in Galway and Tipperary. In January, 1799, Parliament met, and the proposal was brought forward in a speech from the throne, but encountered a violent opposition from all the remaining members of the patriotic party. Grattan, who had returned to Parliament for the express purpose, eloquently defended the rights of the Irish legislature, and was supported by Sir John Parnell, by Plunkett, and by all the more prominent members of the opposition. After a debate which lasted nearly twenty-two hours, a division was called, and the numbers were found to be equal; another fierce struggle, and this time the Government were beaten by five; thus the proposal for the time was lost.

Not for long though. Pitt had thoroughly made up his mind, and was bent on carrying his point to a successful issue. Most of those w

ho had voted against the Union were dismissed from office, and after the prorogation of Parliament, the Government set to work with a determination to secure a majority before the next session. There was only one means of effecting this, and that means was now employed. Eighty-five boroughs--all of which were in the hands of private owners--would lose their members if a Union were passed, and all these, accordingly, it was resolved to compensate, and no less than a million and a quarter of money was actually advanced for that purpose, while for owners less easily reached by this means peerages, baronetcies, steps in the peerage, and similar inducements, were understood to be forthcoming as an equivalent.

It is precisely at this point that controversy grows hottest, and where it becomes hardest, therefore, to see a clear way between contending statements, which seem to meet and thrust one another, as it were at the very sword's point. That the sale of parliamentary seats--so shocking to our reformed eyes--was not regarded in the same light at the date of the Irish Union is certain, and in questions of ethics contemporary judgment is the first and most important point to be considered. The sale of a borough carried with it no more necessary reprobation then than did the sale of a man, say, in Jamaica or Virginia. Boroughs were bought and sold in open market, and many of them had a recognized price, so much for the current session, so much more if in perpetuity. We must try clearly to realize this, in order to approach the matter fairly, and, as far as possible, to put the ugly word "bribery" out of our thoughts, at all events not allow it to carry them beyond the actual facts of the case. Pitt, there is no question, had resolved to carry his point, but we have no right to assume that he wished to carry it by corrupt means, and the fact that those who opposed it were to be indemnified for their seats no less than those who promoted it, makes so far strongly in his favour.

On the other hand, the impression which any given transaction leaves upon the generation which has actually witnessed it is rarely entirely wrong, and that the impression produced by the carrying of the Irish Union--almost equally upon its friends and its foes--was, to put it mildly, unfavourable, few will be disposed to deny. Over and above this general testimony, we have the actual letters of those who were mainly instrumental in carrying it into effect, and it is difficult to read those of Lord Cornwallis without perceiving that he at least regarded the task as a repellent one, and one which as an honourable man he would gladly have evaded had evasion been possible. It is true that Lord Castlereagh, who was associated intimately with him in the enterprise, shows no such reluctance, but then the relative characters of the two men prevent that circumstance from having quite as much weight as it otherwise might.

The fact is that the whole affair is still enveloped in such a hedge of cross-statement and controversy, that in spite of having been eighty-seven years before the world, it still needs careful elucidation, and the last word upon it has certainly not yet been written. To attempt anything of the sort here would be absurd, so we must be content with simply following the actual course of events.

The whole of that memorable summer was spent carrying out the orders of the Prime Minister. The Lord-Lieutenant and the Chief Secretary travelled in


(Engraved by James Stow from an original drawing by S.D. Koster.)

person round Ireland to assist in the canvass, and before the Parliament met again the following January, they were able to report that they had succeeded. Grattan had been suffering from a severe illness, and was still almost too ill to appear. He came, however, and his wonted eloquence rose to the occasion. He appealed in the most moving and passionate terms against the destruction of the Parliament. Even then there were some who hoped against hope that it might be saved. At the division, however, the Government majority was found to be overwhelming, only a hundred members voting against it. The assent of the Upper House had already been secured, and was known all along to be a mere formality. And so the Union was carried.

How far it was or was not desirable at the time; how far it was or was not indispensable to the safety of both countries; to what extent Pitt and in a less degree those who acted under him were or were not blameworthy in the matter--are points which maybe almost indefinitely discussed. They were not as blameworthy as they are often assumed to have been, but it is difficult honestly to see how we are to exonerate them from blame altogether. The theory that the end justifies the means has never been a favourite with honourable men, and some at least of the means by which the Union of Great Britain and Ireland was carried would have left fatal stains upon the noblest cause that ever yet inspired the breast of man. Early in the last century Ireland through her Parliament had herself proposed a legislative union, and England had rejected her appeal. Had it been accomplished then, or had it been brought about in the same fashion as that which produced the Union between Scotland and England, it might have been accepted as a boon instead of a curse, and in any case could have left no such bitter and rankling memories behind it. It is quite possible, and perfectly logical, for a man to hold that a Union between the two countries was and is to the advantage of both, and yet to desire that when it did come about it had been accomplished in almost any other conceivable way.


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