Ireland: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

Ireland in the Eighteenth Century

The eighteenth century in Ireland is the story of the rule of the "English Garrison," the name given to the dominant English, that "race of men alien in nationality, hostile in faith, opposite in sentiment, to the people beneath them," as Sir William Butler describes them, who crushed into submission the Irish nation. Each English statesman in succession carried on the policy of civilizing Ireland by means of the English colony; but at the same time they treated that colony selfishly, regardless of its interests when they clashed with those of England. Though the ascendant party in Ireland, the Protestants had their own disabilities and grievances. They were restricted in trade by the narrow jealousy of England, who had in the reign of Charles II. forbidden the introduction of live cattle into England, and then, when the Irish farmers had turned their fields into pasture for sheep in order to sell the wool to France and other Continental countries, sternly prohibited the export of wool to any other country but England. This brought ruin, for the manufacturers who had started mills had to shut them down and return to England.

Protestants filled the Irish Parliament, which was quite powerless during the first half of the century, being completely under the control of the English Privy Council. As the hereditary revenue was sufficient to carry on the government, it was not necessary to apply to Parliament for money, so that it had no voice in the expenditure.

Though oblivious of the wrongs of the Catholics, who, silent and impotent under their ruthless persecution, seem almost to pass out of history during the early years of the century, the Protestants raised an outcry against their own grievances. A certain William Molyneux, just before the seventeenth century closed, had written an able book against England's method of treating Ireland, thrusting upon her laws passed in England without her consent. This book was honoured by being consigned to the common hangman to be burnt. Twenty-five years later, Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick, took up the cudgels for Ireland; not that he loved the Irish, "but, fortunately for Ireland," as Mr. Dunlop tells us, "he hated the Whigs," then in power in England. Though born in Ireland, Swift was an Englishman who never grew to love the land of his birth, where a cruel fate, as he considered it, condemned him to live. But he loved using his sharp ironic pen against the follies of mankind, and the Whig Government in particular, and when the opportunity came he fought for the Irish, though he had no real sympathy for the cause of Ireland. The opportunity which dressed Swift in the outward clothes of an Irish patriot was the need of a copper coinage. Without reference to the Irish Parliament, the English Government issued a patent to the Duchess of Kendal, one of George II.'s mistresses, who handed over her rights to William Wood, an English iron-founder, for 10,000. So small was the total amount of currency in Ireland, owing to the drainage of rents to absentee landlords, that the amount of copper coinage granted by the patent would have swamped all other currency, a dangerous economic expedient. The coins themselves were good, being guaranteed by Sir Isaac Newton, then Master of the Mint. Swift wrote letters as if proceeding from a Dublin tradesman, signing them "M. B. Drapier," urging the Irish people to refuse these coins, which he assumed to be base, and succeeded in rousing such great indignation in Ireland that the Government were forced to give way and withdraw the patent. This incident is memorable, being one of the few occasions when Irish public opinion, unassisted by resource to arms, has weighed with the English Government.

Jonathan Swift


As the century went on, the Penal Code was less rigorously enforced, though no single part of it was repealed. When Lord Chesterfield was Viceroy in 1745, he allowed considerable freedom to the Catholics, whose priests were no longer hunted and whose chapels were opened. Though unable to abolish the inhuman laws, Chesterfield used his influence to disregard them, having come, as he said, "to proscribe no set of persons whatever." This wise policy was too broad for the time, and Lord Chesterfield was soon recalled; but the spirit of religious indifference spreading over the Continent gradually influenced Ireland, making religious animosity less bitter.

Ireland failed to rise for the Stuarts in 1715 or 1745, when Scotland was aflame with Jacobite enthusiasm, and this time of peace assisted in the material prosperity of the country, the upper classes being able to erect those large eighteenth-century mansions which still adorn the landscape. The wealth which peace brought to the land was not shared by the poor. Ground down by taxation, tithes, high rents, and finally pushed to desperation by the wholesale enclosure of common lands, the peasantry formed themselves into an association which was beyond the power of the law. Known as the "Whiteboys," from their custom of wearing shirts as a disguise over their clothes, these men, finding that the law would give them no redress, took the law into their own hands, punished obnoxious landlords and middlemen, and issued rates of rents and wages which were enforced by terror. The Whiteboys indulged in unspeakable cruelties, descending to torturing their victims, cutting off ears and noses; and so widespread was the organization that no evidence could be obtained to convict the law-breaker.

The Parliament meeting in Dublin, entirely shackled by England, took no steps to improve the condition of the poor, the members merely seeking rich posts and jobs for themselves. A certain section of the Irish aristocracy, who obtained the name of "Undertakers," carried out the wishes of the Viceroy and the English in authority in the Castle, agreeing to keep Parliament quiet and acquiescent, provided they obtained all the patronage and lucrative positions to distribute among themselves and their friends. It is claimed by some apologists that these Undertakers, while notoriously corrupt, were yet Irish in birth and sentiment, having more consideration for their country than any Englishman would have. They carried into effect some useful public works, partly, it is said, to use up the surplus in the Treasury, and thus to necessitate the calling in of Parliamentary supplies, making the votes of members worth buying. When George III. became King in 1760, he brought about a change of policy concerning Ireland, for he was determined to play the part of King, and not merely to look on. Viceroys were to be resident in Ireland, not brief visitors as hitherto, and the power of the Undertakers was to be crushed in the interests of the Crown. Lord Townshend came over in 1767 as the first of this new order of Viceroys. He had no experience in political life, having up till then been a distinguished soldier, fighting on the Continent and under Wolfe in Canada. When Wolfe fell on the Heights of Abraham, Townshend had taken command, and when he came home he claimed "more than his share of the honours of victory." His conduct in Ireland shows him to have been vain, loving popularity, jovial when not crossed, and with considerable ability, but lacking as a tactful administrator. He was ill-fitted to perform the difficult task of removing power from the Undertakers, the dominant aristocratic class, in order to transfer it to the representative of the Crown. According to Mr. J. R. Fisher, whose recent book, "The End of the Irish Parliament," should be studied by all interested in Irish affairs, the members of the Irish Parliament were at this time not really patriotic: "that they should have the right to divide the spoils of Irish politics without the interference of England—therein consisted the patriotism of the Irish Parliament." Yet Townshend's methods were in no way preferable to the corrupt jobbery of the Undertakers. It was merely a transference from one set of men to another. At first Townshend was popular, for he obtained the Octennial Act, granting a new Parliament every eight years; but when the Parliament became troublesome over the question of Money Bills and their right to originate them, he dissolved Parliament. In the interval he proceeded to use all forms of patronage in the various professions and the Church, to distribute lavish peerages and pensions, with the one aim of buying a Government majority. Naturally enough, he was cordially detested by the fallen Undertakers, and his post was made so uncomfortable by abuse and calumny that he must have been grateful to be recalled after five years' experience of Irish rule.

An example occurred during the reign of the succeeding Viceroy, Lord Harcourt, of the galling interference of England, and the narrow spirit with which she regarded the sister country. A Bill to tax absentee landlords two shillings in the pound, admitted by Harcourt to be eminently just, was proposed in the Irish Parliament. It was received with great favour in Ireland, and Chatham, then Prime Minister of England, also supported it, but owing to the furious indignation of the absentees the Bill had to be dropped. With moving eloquence some of the great Whig nobles, who were also absentee Irish landlords, announced in their written remonstrance that they were being laid under a partial tax, being penalized in their free choice of residence, going on to say, with touching pathos, that invalids would no longer be able to seek health abroad, or young men be able to obtain the advantages of education.

When the American colonies revolted from England's method of taxing without affording means of representation, the Irish people were much in sympathy with them, though the Irish Parliament voted supplies for the war and despatched nearly all the available troops to assist England. It was then discovered that Ireland lay a defenceless prey for any foreign foe, the English navy being too occupied to guard it. American privateers were hovering round the coast, and the French might descend at any moment. Belfast at this crisis determined to protect herself, and enrolled the citizens as Volunteers. Her example was followed all over Ireland, till 40,000 men, equipped with arms from the Government, stood as a Volunteer army against invasion—"one of those movements of enthusiasm that occur two or three times in the history of a nation," as Lecky describes it. All classes participated in this movement, which was headed by Lord Charlemont, a scholarly, capable man who had travelled considerably in foreign countries, and who was also well known to the literary men of London, counting among his friends Dr. Johnson and Horace Walpole.

Two of the leading Colonels of the Volunteers were Henry Flood and Henry Grattan, two men who stand out pre-eminent at this period of Irish history. They had been great friends, both working enthusiastically for the independence of Parliament. After Flood accepted office under the Government, the friends became estranged, Grattan stepping into Flood's position of leader of the Patriot Party. Grattan's main object was to free Irish legislation from England, to give the Irish Parliament the power of passing measures without the permission of the English Privy Council. Though at first helpless to resist the corrupt influences of the Government, Grattan was at length able to realize his dreams. The Volunteers were a force with which to back demands, and, once the fear of an invasion was over, they began to think of the redress of wrongs. The first thing they sought to remove was the restriction upon trade, which was much depressed owing to the war with France. Lord North, the head of the English Government, distraught by the war in America, for which he had been largely responsible, gave way, and granted Ireland permission in 1780 to trade with the colonies and to export wool to the Continent.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Ireland by Beatrice Home


A great step in liberty having been obtained, Grattan, supported by the Volunteers, proceeded to strive for Parliamentary independence. At a Convention held at Dungannon in Tyrone early in 1782, the Volunteers, who were a well-disciplined, orderly, and loyal set of men, set forth their claim for a free Parliament, and Grattan in the House of Commons, in an eloquent speech, echoed the demand. The English Government bowed before the inevitable, and withdrew all the laws which made Ireland submissive to English rule, leaving her almost as independent as the Parliament at Westminster. But no sooner had Grattan's life-long desire been granted, and Poynings' Act no longer held Ireland in its grip, than English statesmen began to realize the possible dangers of this freedom. Ireland might, if she so chose, refuse to assist England in her wars, might even open her ports to the enemy, and, moreover, was free to refuse all English goods by a prohibitive tariff. As a matter of fact, during her brief period of independence the Irish Parliament did none of these things, showing great loyalty to the Crown and acquiescing in English foreign policy. Of course, the Parliament only represented a very small section of the nation, the majority of which was certainly not conspicuously loyal during the latter years of the century, and might, had it held any part in the Parliament, have realized some of the anticipated dangers. At one moment the awkwardness of the situation was realized, when, in 1788. King George III.'s illness developed into insanity, and a Regent became necessary. Pitt, then in power, was not anxious to choose the Prince of Wales, who would place Fox in authority, but finally prepared to pass a Bill giving the Regency to the Prince, coupled with restrictions. It was expected that Ireland would do the same, but Grattan persuaded the Parliament to pass an address, merely requesting the Prince to take upon himself the duties of Regent. The Viceroy refused to submit this address, so a Commission was appointed to convey it personally; but when the Commissioners arrived in London the King had recovered and the crisis was over. "His recovery sealed the fate of the Irish Parliament. . . . The end did not come immediately. The Irish Parliament had still ten years of sickly existence before it. But even in 1789 the Union was a foregone conclusion."

Grattan's Parliament, as the Parliament was known after the freedom of 1782, was far removed from a free assembly. Of its 300 members, only one-third was open for free election, the other two-thirds being practically the private property of various peers and patrons, who sold their seats for sometimes as much as 2,000 for the duration of Parliament. No Catholic was allowed to sit in Parliament, or even to vote, and the franchise only admitted the property-owners among the Protestants. While admitting that there were some men of honour in this assembly capable of voting independently, yet it is undoubtedly the fact that the great majority of the members were shamelessly corrupt, selling their votes to the highest bidder. Over such men Grattan's eloquence, after the first fervour of freedom had died down, could not prevail, and his efforts at further reform were unsuccessful.

Pitt made one great effort to assist Ireland, which was still suffering from commercial depression, when he proposed in 1785 a complete freedom of trade between England and Ireland. The only stipulation was that any surplus in the hereditary revenue, above a certain fixed sum, should be used for the British navy, "devoted," as Pitt put it, "to our common safety." The scheme was adopted in the Irish Parliament, but in England the manufacturers raised their cry of ruin; and being supported by Fox, who acted entirely from a party spirit, the proposals were so altered that the Irish Parliament threw them out. Irish trade, however, owing to greater freedom, began to look up gradually, and prosperity during the remaining years of the century began to smile upon the country. A protective Corn Law was passed in Ireland, imposing duties upon imported corn, but granting a bounty upon all that was exported. This measure is said to have changed the face of Ireland, converting the land from pasture into arable, and causing wages to rise. England's energies being now devoted to manufactures, she was a good market for Irish corn; but this rapid improvement was not a permanent one, for Ireland is not intended by nature for a corn-growing country. By 1790 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir John Parnell, stated that "it was his pride and his happiness to declare that he did not think it possible for any nation to have improved more in her circumstances since 1784 . . . . than Ireland had done." To the casual observer Ireland seemed at last on the right road to prosperity—a Penny Post had been started in Dublin, where a National Bank also was founded, and a College of Physicians. But though the finances were satisfactory, the corruption of Parliament and its refusal to emancipate the Catholics or to remove the tithes which oppressed the poorer classes of the nation, brought about the disaster of 1798, and the subsequent legislative union with England.