The Struggle for Legislative Independence

Eleanor Hull
The Struggle for Legislative Independence

The Government of the country after the Revolution became daily more obsequious to the Parliament of England. Two successive Protestant Primates of pronounced English sympathies were sent over “to manage” the country in the English interest.

Hugh Boulter was translated from Bristol in 1724, and he made it his business during his period of office to put a stop to any appointments being given to men of Irish birth, whether in the church or in the law. He is horrified to find that “there is a majority of (Protestant) bishops here who are natives,” and esteems it wise “gradually to get as many English on the episcopal bench as can decently be sent over.” “It is absolutely necessary to His Majesty’s service that the Archbishop of Dublin’s place be filled by an Englishman.”

Equally is he anxious to purify the law courts. “The Mastership of the Rolls has been sold to a native,” he complains; “and there is talk that the Attorney-General is to be made Lord Chancellor.” He entreats that in filling up such places “a strict regard may be had to the English interest.”[1]

In the eighteenth century the Irish Parliament was “managed” by a set of magnates who were in close touch with the English Ministry and who were known in the country as “Undertakers,” their chief business being to pass supply, to prevent any interference with English trade, and to keep in check any signs of independence in the Irish Parliament.

The great borough proprietors made their bargain with the Primate on condition of being allowed to monopolise all the lucrative offices of state. On these terms they left government to pursue its policy unopposed. Boulter came over when the excitement about the scandal of Wood’s halfpence was at its height. The copper coinage was debased and insufficient, and silver being scarce, a patent had been secured for one William Wood by the Duchess of Kendal for the coinage of a large quantity of halfpence and farthings, out of which a very considerable profit was to be reaped by the interested persons.

The clamour aroused by this extravagant job had the unexpected result that it united all classes in a common grievance. All alike refused to take the new coins, and in the view of the new Primate “it had a very unhappy influence on the state of the nation by bringing on intimacies between the Papists and Jacobites with the Whigs, who before had no correspondence with them.”

A still more alarming symptom to Boulter was that “some foolish and ill-meaning people” had “taken the opportunity of propagating a notion of the independency of this kingdom from that of England,” though, he hastens to add, “those of best sense and estate here repudiate this idea, and esteem their security to lie in their dependency on England.”[2]

The disastrous effect that the new coinage would have on the already impoverished country was, in Boulter’s eyes, a lesser evil than the birth of such sentiments; he was undoubtedly right in thinking that it would have less permanent effect on the course of Irish political life.

The imposition of Wood’s halfpence without the consent of the people was only one out of a number of causes of irritation which stirred even the subservient Irish Parliament to awake to its own interests; it brought the powerful advocacy of Swift to the people’s aid; and the clamour gradually widened, as Boulter foresaw it would, into a demand for legislative independence.

Subservient, and English in its views, and purely Protestant as the Dublin Parliament had become, it had never explicitly parted with its rights as an independent legislature, and from time to time it roused itself to declare them afresh as the encroachments of the English Parliament became more apparent. It became a question whether the old constitution by which the sovereign reigned as King of Ireland, as distinct from his kingdom of England, with the assistance of the independent Irish Houses of Parliament, was to be maintained, or whether Ireland was to sink into a mere dependency of England, to be ruled entirely by its king and ministers.

Ever since the date of Poynings’ Law, passed in 1495, a claim had been made by England to the right to make laws for Ireland, and from time to time there had been voices raised in Ireland to repudiate the claim.

The demand for legislative independence was rather an appeal for the restoration of lapsed rights than a demand for a new concession. During the ninety-three years that had elapsed between the enunciation in the Parliament of James II of the right of Ireland to govern itself by its own laws, made by its own Parliament, and the enactment of legislative independence in 1782, a series of fearless Anglo-Irishmen took up the cause, and it was not abandoned until the energy of Grattan carried the demand to its logical conclusion.

The Catholics had little share in the struggle; without votes, representation, or power of assembly, they could take only a passive part in the contest; but the Catholic Remonstrance of 1642 had laid down this principle as clearly as did the Parliament of 1689.

The gradual growth of trade restrictions added urgency to the problem, and in 1698, only nine years after the date of James’s Parliament, both countries were startled by the publication of a treatise entitled The Case of Ireland being bound by Acts of Parliament made in England, by William Molyneux, Member of Parliament for Dublin University, and a man of eminence in scientific pursuits.

His chief object was to expose the hampering limitations under which Irish trade was labouring, and he showed that these restrictions were the result of laws made in England against Irish interests and without the consent of the Irish Parliament.

In the course of his dissertation, he traced the history of the commercial and legislative dealings between the two countries; and he maintained the entire independence of the Irish Parliament and its right to make its own laws. The separate and distinct jurisdictions of the two legislatures were, as he showed, part of the original settlement between the two kingdoms, any claim of superiority on the part of the English Parliament having been “a great while ago strenuously opposed and absolutely denied by the Parliament of Ireland.”

Before the passing of Poynings’ Law, he added, “we have not one single instance of an English Act of Parliament expressly claiming this right of binding us; but we have several Irish Acts expressly denying this subordination.”[3]

Neither Molyneux nor those after him who sought to re-establish the undoubted right of Ireland to legislative independence had any thought of repudiating the claims of the Crown. “It has ever been acknowledged,” he says, “that the Kingdom of Ireland is inseparably annexed to the Imperial Crown of England … and we must ever own it our happiness to be so annexed. But though so annexed to the Crown of England, Ireland has always been looked upon as a kingdom complete within itself, and to have all jurisdiction belonging to an absolute kingdom, subordinate to no legislative authority on earth.”[4]

Such views, coming from such a quarter, aroused surprise and animosity; the reply of the English Parliament was to order the book to be burned by the common hangman. It was in this year that the most destructive of all the enactments against Irish trade was passed; it brought the weaving of Irish woollens to an end, closed the mills, threw out of work forty thousand industrious weavers, and seriously hampered the fishing and other forms of industry.

Dean Jonathan Swift

Dean Swift
From the painting by Charles Jervas in the National Gallery of Ireland.

It was the depressed state of the manufactures and the wretched condition of the poor that brought into the arena another advocate of independence, Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s. He refused to allow that he was Irish, even in his sympathies, though he had been born in Dublin in 1667 and educated in Trinity College. “I happened to be dropped here, and was a year old before I left it,” he writes; “and to my sorrow did not die before I came back to it again.” “I am in a cursed, factious, oppressed, miserable country,” he writes again; “not made so by Nature, but by the slavish, hellish principles of an execrable, prevailing faction in it.”[5]

Though Ireland owes him a deep debt of gratitude for arousing her out of the slough of political servitude into which she was falling, and though in his latter years, as he writes to Pope, “a thousand hats and blessings upon old scores as I walk the streets of Dublin” showed him that his efforts were not forgotten, he disclaimed the name of patriot “as one he did not deserve.” He declared that he was forced into action “owing to perfect rage and resentment, and the mortifying sight of slavery, folly, and baseness about me and among which I was forced to live.”

Unlike those of Molyneux, the writings of Swift were no measured dissertation on the historical grounds for the claim of an independent legislature.

From his pen poured forth tract after tract, white-hot, scathing, bitter, attacking the corruption of the Government of his day and exposing the misery and servility that this corruption engendered among the people.

To flout the imposition of the degrading and costly pension list imposed upon Ireland, he seized upon the occasion of Wood’s halfpence and attacked the use of the coins in an exaggerated tirade.

To rouse the nation to consider the disabilities on trade he wrote a pamphlet calling on the Irish to wear nothing but articles of home manufacture.

To show that England had put a veto on every scheme for the benefit of the country he penned the terrible satire called A Modest Proposal. The condition of things that drew forth this shocking indictment is summed up in his scathing tract, Maxims controlled in Ireland, where he says:

“At least five children in six who are born lie a dead weight upon us for want of employment … I confess myself to be touched with very sensible pleasure when I hear of a mortality in any country parish or village, where the wretches are forced to pay for a filthy cabin and two ridges of potatoes, treble their worth; brought up to steal or beg for want of work; to whom death would be the best thing to be wished for on account both of themselves and of the public.”

The compassionate death that Swift’s satirical pen “wished for” came in the years of famine that decimated the country during the eighteenth century, culminating in the great famine of 1845 and the following years. But even the least provocative of Swift’s Drapier’s Letters was, like the tract of Molyneux, found by the authorities to be a “seditious, factious and virulent libel,” and his printer was imprisoned.

The English answer to all such suggestions of thoughtful and far-seeing men, living amid the miseries of a degraded country, had been short and sharp. It was conveyed in the Act known as the sixth of George I (1719) which clearly asserted that the English King “by and with the consent of the Lords spiritual and temporal and Commons of Great Britain in Parliament assembled, had, hath, and of right ought to have full power and authority to make laws … to bind the people and kingdom of Ireland.”

The same Bill deprived the Irish House of Lords of the right to hear appeals, about which a test case had just been fought out regarding the property of Maurice Annesley. This Act was the deathblow to Irish independence; it made the Irish Parliament in law what it was slowly becoming in fact, a mere mouthpiece to register English decrees.

It aroused a spirit of opposition which was later to take form in a definite demand for independence, and of which the most vigorous champion was at this moment the Dean of St Patrick’s. Ringing phrases burst from him. “Were not the people of Ireland born as free as those of England?” he writes. “How have they forfeited their freedom? … Am I a freeman in England and do I become a slave in six hours in crossing the Channel?”

Or again:

“Those who come over hither from England, and some weak people among ourselves, whenever we make mention of liberty and property, shake their heads, and tell us that Ireland is a depending kingdom … I have looked over all English and Irish statutes without finding any law that makes Ireland depend upon England, any more than England does upon Ireland. … I declare next under God, I depend only upon the king, my sovereign, and on the laws of my own country.”

In words that have become classic, he declared:

“For, in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery; but, in fact, eleven men well armed will certainly subdue one single man in his shirt.”

Swift lived in an age when rank materialism was the dominant note in English politics. The most shameless political corruption ran through the whole system of government in the age of Walpole. Backstairs influences and male and female favourites ruled even in military affairs and the promotion of officers. The sale of places and commissions was a public scandal and Parliament was “managed” by borough-mongers, some of whom commanded an immense number of votes.

All this political, social, and moral corruption was to be reflected in its worst forms in the government of Ireland during the eighteenth century; the more so because none but Englishmen sent over for the purpose were allowed to have any effective voice in the government of the country.

During the rule of Primates Boulter and Stone, from 1723 to 1764, the English ascendancy in Ireland was perfected in every particular. Offices, whether secular or religious, were alike filled by men sent over from the other side. To have the misfortune to have been born in Ireland rendered a man incapable of holding “any employment whatever above the degree of constable.” This was equally true whether the applicant could or could not boast English ancestry or blood. Even Viscount Castlereagh was considered disqualified for the Chief Secretaryship because he was born in the country; but Cornwallis contended that an exception might well be made in his favour, because he was “so very unlike an Irishman.”

Nevertheless, it proved difficult to persuade decent men to come over to fill Irish offices. Swift speaks of the “persons of second-rate merit in their own country, who, like birds of passage thrive and fatten here, and fly off when their credit and employments are at an end.” His parable of the divines who, on their way to take up their posts in Ireland, were robbed and murdered by highwaymen on Hounslow Heath, who seized on their robes and patents and came over to be made bishops in their stead, was hardly too severe at a time when bishoprics were knocked down to the highest bidder and an Irish Protestant bishop dared not, in an Irish House of Lords, endeavour to promote the interests of his own country without losing all hope of future preferment.

Dr. Theophilus Boulton, Bishop of Clonfert and afterwards of Elphin, to whom Swift appealed on various occasions to further the well-being of his country, excused himself on the ground that he could not afford to sacrifice all hope of advancement. But when he became an archbishop, he declared himself ready to “zealously henceforth promote the good of his country” as, being an Irishman, he could never hope to be promoted to the Primacy!