Henry Grattan

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXIV

The American war commenced in 1775, and the English Parliament at once resolved to relieve Ireland of some of her commercial disabilities. Some trifling concessions were granted, just enough to show the Irish that they need not expect justice except under the compulsion of fear, and not enough to benefit the country. Irish soldiers were now asked for and granted; but exportation of Irish commodities to America was forbidden, and in consequence the country was reduced to a state of fearful distress. The Irish debt rose to £994,890, but the pension list was still continued and paid to absentees. When the independence of the American States was acknowledged by France, a Bill for the partial relief of the Catholics passed unanimously through the English Parliament. Catholics were now allowed a few of the rights of citizens. They were permitted to take and dispose of leases, and priests and schoolmasters were no longer liable to prosecution.

Grattan had entered Parliament in the year 1775. In 1779 he addressed the House on the subject of a free trade [9] for Ireland; and on the 19th of April, 1780, he made his famous demand for Irish independence. His address, his subject, and his eloquence were irresistible. "I wish for nothing," he exclaimed, "but to breathe in this our land, in common with my fellow-subjects, the air of liberty. I have no ambition, unless it be the ambition to break your chain and to contemplate your glory. I never will be satisfied as long as the meanest cottager in Ireland has a link of the British chain clinging to his rags; he may be naked, but he shall not be in irons. And I do see the time is at hand, the spirit is gone forth, the declaration is planted; and though great men should apostatize, yet the cause will live; and though the public speaker should die, yet the immortal fire shall outlast the organ which conveyed it; and the breath of liberty, like the word of the holy man, will not die with the prophet, but survive him."

Henry Grattan

Henry Grattan demanding Irish Independence

The country was agitated to the very core. A few links of the chain had been broken. A mighty reaction set in after long bondage. The newly-freed members of the body politic were enjoying all the delicious sensations of a return from a state of disease to a state of partial health. The Celt was not one to be stupefied or numbed by long confinement; and if the restraint were loosened a little more, he was ready to bound into the race of life, joyous and free, too happy to mistrust, and too generous not to forgive his captors. But, alas ! the freedom was not yet granted, and the joy was more in prospect of what might be, than in thankfulness of what was.


[9] Free trade.—A very important work was published in 1779, called The Commercial Restraints of Ireland Considered. It is a calm and temperate statement of facts and figures. The writer shows that the agrarian outrages of the Whiteboys were caused by distress, and quotes a speech of Lord Northumberland to the same effect.—Com. Res. p. 59.