The Catholic Question

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXVII

Strangely enough, from the very day on which the Union was proclaimed, the Catholic question became a ministerial difficulty. Pitt's administration failed on this very point, although it had seemed invincible a few weeks before. The obstinacy of the King, which, indeed, almost amounted to a monomania, was the principal cause. He made it a personal matter, declared it the "most Jacobinical thing he had ever heard of;" and he informed the world at large that he would consider any man who proposed it his personal enemy. Pitt resigned. Opinions varied as to his motives. He returned to office in 1804, having promised that he would not again press the subject; and he adhered to his determination until his death.

The Irish nobles, who had worked hardest to carry the Union, were somewhat disappointed as to the result. Lord Clare was told by the Duke of Bedford, that the Union had not transferred his dictatorial powers to the Imperial Parliament. He retired to Ireland deeply chagrined, and was soon borne to his grave, amid the revilings of the people whom he had betrayed. Lord Castlereagh, who had been less accustomed to command, and had less difficulty in stooping to conquer, succeeded better with his English friends, and in a few years he ruled the cabinets of Europe; while the Iron Duke, another Irishman, dictated to their armies.

In 1803 the flame of insurrection again broke out, and again French aid was expected, and the expedition ended in disappointment. Napoleon himself regretted that he had turned his armies towards Egypt, instead of towards Ireland. Emmet's career was brief, and would probably have been almost forgotten, but for his famous speech at the moment of receiving sentence, and for the history of his love and her devoted attachment to his memory.

In 1805 Grattan entered the Imperial Parliament, at the request of Fox. An English constituency was found for him. At the same time, Plunket was brought into the house by Pitt; and thus these two famous men, the one so full of the brilliant, and the other so full of the powerful, gifts of mental science, again pleaded their country's cause together, and in perfect harmony, though differing on some political points. When Grattan first rose to address the British Senate, there was a hushed attention to his every word; as his eloquence kindled with his subject, there were suppressed murmurs of approbation; when he had concluded, there were thunders of applause. His subject was a petition from the Irish Catholics, which was presented to both Houses in 1805. The division gave 339 to 124 against going into committee; still it was something gained, when Englishmen even listened to Irish grievances, or made some effort to understand them.

The Veto was now suggested. The object of this was to allow the crown a passive voice, if not an active one, in the nomination of Catholic bishops. Happily for the Catholic Church in Ireland, the proposal was steadily rejected, though with a determination which brought even members of the same Church into collision. Connexion with the State might have procured temporal advantages, but they would have been in truth a poor compensation for the loss of that perfect freedom of action so essential to the spiritual advancement of the Church.

The Duke of Richmond came to Ireland in 1807, with Sir Arthur Wellesley as Chief Secretary. The young man, whose fame was yet unattained, showed himself as clearheaded in the cabinet as in the camp. He made every attempt to suppress the party demonstrations which have been the curse of Ireland, and induced the Wexford people to discontinue their annual celebration of the battle of Vinegar Hill. If he could have suppressed a few other anniversaries in the north, it would have been a blessing to the United Kingdom. In 1806 Mr. Grattan was returned for Dublin, and generously refused the sum of £4,000, which his constituents had collected to pay his expenses.

The Catholic question was now constantly coming up, and more than one cabinet was formed and dissolved according to the views of the different members on that matter. A new element of vitality had been introduced by the relaxation of the penal laws. Men were no longer afraid to ask for a grace which they wanted, lest they should lose a grace which they had. The people found that they might speak their real opinions without apprehensions of attempts at conversion in the shape of pitchcaps and half-hangings; and when the people were ready for a leader, the leader was ready for the people; and Daniel O'Connell took the place in the guidance of the Irish nation, which he will never lose in their memory and in their affections.