The Patriot Party fights the Irish Act of Union (1800)

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900
CHAPTER LXXXI. (continued)

The patriot party felt convinced that they were outnumbered, but they resolved to fight the battle vehemently while a chance remained. At the worst, if overborne in such a cause, they could expose the real nature of the transaction, and cause its illegality, infamy, and fraud, to be confessed; so that posterity might know and feel the right and the duty of appealing against, and recovering against, the crime of that hour. They persuaded Grattan to re-enter parliament [4] to aid them in this last defense of his and their country's liberties. He was at the moment lying on a bed of sickness, yet he assented, and it was decided to have him returned for Wicklow town, that borough being the property of a friend. The writ was duly applied for, but the government withheld its issue up to the last moment allowed by law, designing to prevent Grattan's return in time for the debate on the address to the throne, the first trial of strength. Nevertheless, by a feat almost unprecedented in parliamentary annals, that object was attained.

"It was not until the day of the meeting of parliament that the writ was delivered to the returning officer. By extraordinary exertions, and perhaps by following the example of government in overstraining the law, the election was held immediately on the arrival of the writ; a sufficient number of votes were collected to return Mr. Grattan before midnight. By one o'clock the return was on its road to Dublin; it arrived by five; a party of Mr. Grattan's friends repaired to the house of the proper officer, and making him get out of bed, compelled him to present the writ in parliament before seven in the morning, when the House was in warm debate on the Union. A whisper ran through every party that Mr. Grattan was elected, and would immediately take his seat. The ministerialists smiled with incredulous derision, and the opposition thought the news too good to be true.

"Mr. Egan was speaking strongly against the measure when Mr. George Ponsonby and Mr. Arthur Moore walked out, and immediately returned, leading, or rather helping, Mr. Grattan, in a state of feebleness and debility. The effect was electric. Mr. Grattan's illness and deep chagrin had reduced a form never symmetrical, and a visage at all times thin, nearly to the appearance of a specter. As he feebly tottered into the House, every member simultaneously rose from his seat. He moved slowly to the table; his languid countenance seemed to revive as he took those oaths that restored him to his pre-eminent station; the smile of inward satisfaction obviously illuminated his features, and re-animation and energy seemed to kindle by the labor of his mind. The House was silent. Mr. Egan did not resume his speech. Mr. Grattan, almost breathless, as if by instinct attempted to rise, but was unable to stand; he paused and with difficulty requested permission of the House to deliver his sentiments without moving from his seat. This was acceded to by acclamation, and he who had left his bed of sickness to accord as he thought his last words in the parliament of his country, kindled gradually till his language glowed with an energy and feeling which he had seldom surpassed. After nearly two hours of the most powerful eloquence, he concluded with an undiminished vigor miraculous to those who were unacquainted with his intellect."

The debate lasted for sixteen consecutive hours. It commenced at seven o'clock on the evening of the 15th, continued throughout the entire night, and did not terminate until eleven o'clock of the forenoon on the 16th, when the division was taken. Then the minister's triumph was made clear. The patriots reckoned one hundred and fifteen votes; the government one hundred and fifty-eight. There were twenty-seven absent from various causes, nearly every man an anti-Unionist; but even these, if present, could not have turned the scale. The discussion clearly showed that Ireland's doom was sealed.

There now commenced that struggle in the Irish Senate House in College Green over which the Irish reader becomes irresistibly excited. The minister felt that the plunge was taken, and now there must be no qualms, no scruples, as to the means of success. Strong in his purchased majority, he grew insolent, and the patriot minority found themselves subjected to every conceivable mode of assault and menace. The houses of parliament were invariably surrounded with soldiery. The debates were protracted throughout the entire night, and far into the forenoon of the next day. In all this, the calculation was, that in a wearying and exhausting struggle of this kind, men who were on the weak and losing side, and who had no personal interest to advance, must surely give way before the perseverance of men on the strong and winning side, who had each a large money price from the minister. But that gallant band, with Grattan, Ponsonby, Parsons, and Plunkett at their head, fought the struggle out with a tenacity that seemed to experience no exhaustion. In order to be at hand in the House, and to sit out the eighteen and twenty hour debates, the ministerialists formed a "dining club," and ate, drank, dined, slept, and breakfasted, like a military guard, in one of the committee rooms. The patriot party followed the same course; and through various other maneuvers met the enemy move for move.

But the most daring and singular step of all was now taken by the government party—the formation of a dueling club. The premier (Lord Castlereagh) invited to a dinner party at his own residence a picked band of twenty of the most noted duelists among the ministerial followers, and then and there it was decided to form a club, the members of which should be bound to "call out" any anti-Unionist expressing himself "immoderately" against the conduct of the government. In plain words, Grattan and his colleagues were to be shot down in designedly provoked duels.

Even this did not appall the patriot minority. "With spirit undaunted they resolved to meet force by force. Grattan proposed that they should not give the ministerial "shooting club" any time for choosing its men, but that they themselves should forestall the government by a bold assumption of the offensive. He was himself the first to lead the way in the daring course he counseled. On the 17th of February the House went into committee on the articles of union, which, after a desperate struggle, as usual, were carried through by a majority of twenty votes; one hundred and sixty to one hundred and forty. It was on this occasion Corry, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, made, for the third or fourth time that session, a virulent attack on the enfeebled and almost prostrate Grattan. But soon Corry found that though physically prostrated, the glorious intellect of Grattan was as proud and strong as ever, and that the heart of a lion beat in the patriot leader's breast. Grattan answered the chancellor by "that famous philippic, unequaled in our language for its well-suppressed passion and finely condensed denunciation." A challenge passed on the instant, and Grattan, having the choice of time, insisted on fighting that moment or rather that morning, as soon as daylight would admit. Accordingly, leaving the House in full debate, about day dawn the principals and their seconds drove to the Phoenix Park. Before half an hour Grattan had shot his man, terminating, in one decisive encounter, the Castlereagh campaign of "fighting down the opposition." The ministerial "dueling club" was heard of no more.

"Throughout the months of February and March, with an occasional adjournment, the constitutional battle was fought on every point permitted by the forms of the House." On the 25th of March the committee finally reported the Union resolutions, which were passed in the House by forty-seven of a majority. After six weeks of an interval, to allow the British Parliament to make like progress, the Union Bill was (May 25, 1800) introduced into the Irish Commons, and on the 7th of June the Irish Parliament met for the last time. "The closing scene.," as Mr. M'Gee truly remarks, "has been often described, but never so graphically as by the diamond pen of Sir Jonah Barrington." That description I quote unabridged:

"The Commons House of Parliament on the last evening afforded the most melancholy example of an independent people, betrayed, divided, sold, and as a state annihilated. British clerks and officers were smuggled into her parliament to vote away the constitution of a country to which they were strangers, and in which they had neither interest nor connection. They were employed to cancel the royal charter of the Irish nation, guaranteed by the British government, sanctioned by the British legislature, and unequivocally confirmed by the words, the signature, and the great seal of their monarch!

"The situation of the speaker on that night was of the most distressing nature. A sincere and ardent enemy of the measure, he headed its opponents, he resisted it with all the power of his mind, the resources of his experience, his influence, and his eloquence.

"It was, however, through his voice that it was to be proclaimed and consummated. His only alternative (resignation) would have been unavailing, and could have added nothing to his character. His expressive countenance bespoke the inquietude of his feelings; solicitude was perceptible in every glance, and his embarrassment was obvious in every word he uttered.

"The galleries were full, but the change was lamentable; they were no longer crowded with those who had been accustomed to witness the eloquence and to animate the debates of that devoted assembly. A monotonous and melancholy murmur ran through the benches, scarcely a word was exchanged among the members, nobody seemed at ease, no cheerfulness was apparent, and the ordinary business for a short time proceeded in the usual manner.

"At length the expected moment arrived, the order of the day for the third reading of the bill for a 'Legislative Union between Great Britain and Ireland,' was moved by Lord Castlereagh. Unvaried, tame, cold-blooded, the words seemed frozen as they issued from his lips, and as if a simple citizen of the world, he seemed to have no sensation on the subject. At that moment he had no country, no god but his ambition. He made his motion, and resumed his seat, with the utmost composure and indifference.

"Confused murmurs again ran through the House; it was visibly affected; every character in a moment seemed involuntarily rushing to its index; some pale, some flushed, some agitated; there were few countenances to which the heart did not dispatch some messenger. Several members withdrew before the question could be repeated, and an awful momentary silence succeeded their departure. The speaker rose slowly from that chair which had been the proud source of his honors and his high character; for a moment he resumed his seat, but the strength of his mind sustained him in his duty, though his struggle was apparent. With that dignity which never failed to signalize his official actions, he held up the bill for a moment in silence: he looked steadily around him on the last agony of the expiring parliament. He at length repeated in an emphatic tone, 'As many as are of opinion that this bill do pass, say ay.' The affirmative was languid but indisputable: another momentary pause ensued, again his lips seemed to decline their office, at length with an eye averted from the object which he hated, he proclaimed with a subdued voice, 'The ayes have it.' The fatal sentence was now pronounced; for an instant he stood statue-like, then indignantly, and with disgust, flung the bill upon the table, and sank into his chair with an exhausted spirit. An independent country was thus degraded into a province: Ireland as a nation was extinguished."[5]

The subjoined verses, written on the night of that sorrowful scene—by some attributed to the pen of Moore, by others to that of Furlong—immediately made their appearance; a Dirge and a Prophecy we may assuredly call them:

"O Ireland! my country, the hour
Of thy pride and thy splendor is past;
And the chain that was spurned in thy moment of power,
Hangs heavy around thee at last.
There are marks in the fate of each clime—
There are turns in the fortunes of men;
But the changes of realms, and the chances of time,
Can never restore thee again.

"Thou art chained to the wheel of thy foe
By links which the world shall not sever.
With thy tyrant, thro' storm and thro' calm shalt thou go,
And thy sentence is—bondage forever.
Thou art doom'd for the thankless to toil,
Thou art left for the proud to disdain,
And the blood of thy sons and the wealth of thy soil
Shall be wasted, and wasted in vain.

'Thy riches with taunts shall be taken,
Thy valor with coldness repaid;
And of millions who see thee thus sunk and forsaken
Not one shall stand forth in thine aid.
In the nations thy place is left void,
Thou art lost in the list of the free.
Even realms by the plague or the earthquake destroy'd
May revive: but no hope is for thee."


[4] Three years before, he and many others of the patriot party had quitted parliament in despair.

[5] In their private correspondence at the time the ministers were very candid as to the villainy of their conduct. The letters of Lord Castlereagh and Lord Cornwallis abound with the most startling revelations and admissions. The former (Lord Castlereagh) writing to Secretary Cook, June 21, 1800 (expostulating against an intention of the government to break some of the bargains of corruption, as too excessive, now that the deed was accomplished), says:"It will be no secret what has been promised, and by what means the Union had been carried. Disappointment will encourage, not prevent disclosures, and the only effect of such a proceeding on their (the ministers) part will be to add the weight of their testimony to that of the anti-Unionists in proclaiming the profligacy of the means by which the measure was accomplished."