Irish Act of Union

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXVI. concluded

Ireland having been reduced to the lowest state of misery and servitude, the scheme for which much of this suffering had been enacted was now proposed and carried out. The first parliamentary intimation was given in a speech from the throne, on the 22nd of January, 1799; a pamphlet was published on the subject by Mr. Cooke, the Under-Secretary; but it required more cogent arguments than either speeches from the throne or pamphlets to effect the object of Government. Mr. Pitt had set his heart upon the Union, and Mr. Pitt had determined that the Union should be carried out at any expense of honour. The majority of the Irish lawyers protested against it. The Irish people, as far as they dared do so, opposed it.

At a meeting of the Irish bar, on the 9th of December, there were 166 votes against the Union and only thirty-two in favour of it. The published correspondence of Lord Cornwallis and Lord Castlereagh has revealed an amount of nefarious corruption and treachery at which posterity stands aghast. "These noblemen," writes Sir Jonah Barrington, "seemed to have been created for such a crisis, and for each other. An unremitting perseverance, an absence of all political compunctions, an unqualified contempt of public opinion, and a disregard of every constitutional principle, were common to both." But Lord Cornwallis had some compunctions; for he wrote to General Ross, describing his office as "the most cursed of all situations," and expressing, in language more forcible than gentlemanly, his ardent desire to "kick those whom his public duty obliged him to court."

The immediate arrangements made for carrying out the Union were extremely simple. A scale of "compensation" was arranged—a word which could, by a slight perversion of the ordinary meaning of the English language, be used as a new form of expressing what was formerly called bribery. Every one was promised everything that he wished for, if he would only consent to the measure. The Catholics were to have emancipation, the Protestants ascendency, the bar promotion, the people higher wages, the boroughmongers magnificent compensation. FitzGibbon, who had been made Lord Clare, and was then Chancellor, bribed, threatened, and cajoled the Upper House; Mr. Secretary Cooke employed himself with equal ability in the Lower House. Grattan had left Ireland; Flood was in retirement; the members of the bar who had voted against the Union were dismissed from office, and the Prime Serjeant, Mr. FitzGerald, was the first victim. The thirty-two who formed the minority were at once removed. I have not space for the details of the various attempts which were made to pass the unpopular measure. Barrington has given a list of the members for the Union, and the rewards they received. His description of the last night of the Irish Parliament is too graphic to be omitted:—

"The Commons' House of Parliament, on the last evening, afforded the most melancholy example of a fine, 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 connexion. 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 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 feeling; 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 benches, scarcely a word was exchanged amongst 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, coldblooded, the words seemed frozen as they issued from his lips; and, as 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 involuntary rushing to its index—some pale, some flushed, some agitated; there were few countenances to which the heart did not despatch 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 honours and of 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 aye.' 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 sunk into his chair with an exhausted spirit.

"An independent country was thus degraded into a province—Ireland, as a nation, was extinguished."

Lynch's House, Galway

Lynch's House, Galway