Dissent Treated as a Crime in Ireland

From Derry and Enniskillen in the Year 1689 by Thomas Witherow

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CHAPTER IX...concluded

Thus it was that the High Church and Tory party, through their influence in the Irish Parliament, sought to impoverish and degrade, and, so far as Parliament could do it, actually did impoverish and degrade, the men and the descendants of the men who fought for King William and for religious and civil freedom, and that, too, in the very city where they and their kindred had shed their heart's best blood. From all public offices under the Crown they were excluded, for the sake of their religion, and they consented like true men to suffer all the bitter consequences, rather than act unfaithfully to conscience and to truth. The aldermen and burgesses of Derry were as much alive to civic honours as most men in their position are usually found to be, but when such things could be retained or procured by religious dishonour only, they knew how to trample them under their feet. Honour to them for it! A faith that has among its followers men who are ready to suffer for its sake, will hold its ground in spite of prelates and parliaments. There is a moral heroism in such a deed, far more rare and far more precious than the mere animal courage that presses into the hottest of the battle and looks unmoved on death.

The treatment of the Presbyterians of Ireland throughout the eighteenth century by the High Church Prelates, and by the Irish Parliament, which seemed to make itself the humble tool of the Prelates' bigotry, was very little less disgraceful than that which was dealt out to the Roman Catholic population. First, they were refused a legal toleration for their faith; Dissent was then regarded in the eye of the law as very much worse than Buddhism or Atheism would be regarded now. When toleration came, it was fettered with the Test Act, and men were thrust out of the service of the Crown and the country, for no other fault than that they were Presbyterians. They were made churchwardens against their will, and then prosecuted for not acting as officers of a Church to which they did not belong. They were subject to expensive actions at law, for the crime of being married by their own ministers. They would not be allowed to teach school without licence from a Bishop, and this licence no Dissenter, in ordinary cases, could obtain. All the penal machinery that prelates and clergy could put in operation, was employed to ruin the Presbyterian faith, and to induce its adherents to desert it.

The Presbyterians sought redress in every form that they could think of, but, notwithstanding that the King and the English Parliament were favourable, there was still the Irish Lords and Commons, stimulated by the prelates, standing in the way. Then, when hopes of redress grew dim and dimmer, numbers, fortunately for themselves, rose, crossed the ocean to the American Colonies, and left behind them poverty and oppression, many of them with anything but kind feelings to prelacy and to the Government in their hearts. Mr. Froude tells the consequences in his own true and eloquent words:—

"Now recommenced the Protestant emigration, which robbed Ireland of the bravest defenders of English interests, and peopled the American seaboard with fresh flights of Puritans. Twenty thousand left Ulster on the destruction of the woollen trade. Many more were driven away by the first passing of the Test Act. The stream had slackened, in hope that the law would be altered. When the prospect was finally closed, men of energy and spirit refused to remain in a country where they were held unfit to hold the rights of citizens; and thenceforward, till the spell of tyranny was broken in 1782, annual shiploads of families poured themselves from Belfast and Londonderry. The resentment which they carried with them continued to burn in their new homes; and, in the War of Independence, England bad no fiercer enemies than the grandsons and great-grandsons of the Presbyterians who held Ulster against Tyrconnel."[20]

And so till the end of time may every nation suffer, whose legislators shall condescend to make themselves the ready tools to enable the priesthood of any faith to wreak their bigotry and hatred upon those who dissent from their creed.

Injustice, persecution, oppression, and expatriation—such were the rewards that the nation heaped upon not a few of the men, and upon the descendants of the men who had fought in the great Revolutionary Wars. Even the vanquished did not fare worse than many of the victors. Reward from the world, they got none. Their only recompense was the approbation of their own conscience, the conviction that they had tried to do their duty to their religion and to their country and to the King of their choice, and the confidence that they had performed a heroic deed which will live in history while England herself survives. It was but a small amount of liberty that rewarded their toils; but they sowed seed which has taken root and grown, and we sit safely to-day under the shadow of that magnificent tree, whose humble beginning they watered with their blood and with their tears.

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[20] English in Ireland, vol. i., p. 392.

William R. Young’s Fighters of Derry has for decades been one of the most overlooked works on the Siege of Derry and as a local genealogical resource. First published in 1932, the book was the product of ten years’ research into identifying participants at the siege which the author undertook when suffering from ill-health in the latter part of his life.

The book is essentially divided into two parts: the first contains 1660 biographical entries relating to the defenders of Derry, tracing, where possible, the family lineage; and the second part includes 352 entries on the Jacobite side. Apart from individual accounts of eminent protagonists in the siege, such as David Cairnes, Rev. George Walker, the Duke of Schomberg, Patrick Sarsfield, etc., there is also background given to many of the most influential families involved in the conflict.