The Struggle for Legislative Independence (3)

Eleanor Hull
The Struggle for Legislative Independence | start of chapter
Henry Grattan

Henry Grattan
From the painting by Sir Thomas A. Jones, P.R.H.A., after James Ramsay, in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Matters were approaching a crisis when, in 1775, Grattan first entered Parliament. His mind had only slowly turned to the idea of a public career. Born on July 3, 1746, in Dublin, where his father was Recorder for the city, Henry Grattan was educated at Mr. Young’s school in Abbey Street, and entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he came into contact with many of his future political associates. John Foster, who became Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and a warm defender of the principle of Free Trade, was one of them. Another was Fitzgibbon, then carrying all before him, who was later, as Lord Clare, to exert his immense influence in carrying the Union.

From Dublin University Grattan passed on to the Middle Temple in London, and was entered in the autumn of 1767 as student of law. But he was not enamoured of the profession, and a disposition to despondency which marked his youth found its best relief in the solitudes of Windsor Forest or the debates in the British Parliament, where the power and eloquence of Chatham’s speeches delighted and impressed him.

In the glades of Virginia Water he practised aloud a similar oratory. He was called to the Irish Bar in Hilary Term, 1772, but he returned to Dublin with regret.

“Here,” he writes, “there is nothing new, nothing interesting; a noisy Four Courts, a lazy metropolis, and a childish public spirit.” “I am tired of Dublin,” he writes later, “with all its hospitality and all its claret. Upon our arrival it seemed a town hung in mourning, swarming with poverty and idleness. We feel relaxation growing upon us as soon as we arrive, as we watch the epidemic sloth of the luxurious capital.”

The “contagious laziness” of Dublin was, however, stirred by the presence of many men of energy and talent. The Club known as the Society of Granby Row, contained among its members a group of men of wit and education, the friends and associates of Lord Charlemont, around whom all that was best in Anglo-Irish society gathered, and whose fine house was a centre for literary and artistic people.

But young Grattan found the debates in the House insipid, “everyone speaking, nobody eloquent,” and “the Four Courts of all places the most disagreeable”; while “the sociable disposition of the Irish will,” he complains, “follow you wherever you fly, and in every barren spot of this kingdom you must submit to a state of dissipation or hostility.”

It was on the death of Lord Charlemont’s brother that Grattan entered public life as Member for the borough which Francis Caulfeild had hitherto represented in Co. Tyrone. He immediately flung himself into the debates, and his long studies in oratory and his admiration for Chatham’s Parliamentary style bore fruit in his new career. His first speeches were attacks on the lucrative sinecures often given to absentees; on the unconstitutional attempts of the Crown to suspend the law, and on the embargo laid upon free trade. He took the opportunity thus afforded him to condemn the policy of Great Britain with regard to America.

Fox, who, when in Dublin, heard one of Grattan’s early speeches, was struck by his facility of style and soundness of argument, and an introduction to him resulted in a sincere friendship.

The town was in a miserable state of poverty, in spite of the outward luxury of the rich; the unemployed paraded the streets; the Treasury, formerly possessed of an annual balance, was at this moment empty; and the “desperate political gamblers” who had squandered the revenues of the State had to apply to La Touche’s private Bank for £20,000 to prevent collapse. Soon afterwards the Government had to borrow £50,000 from the Bank of England to pay the army.[14]

It was the low condition of commerce that gave Grattan his first real opening in Parliament and proved to be the beginning of his career. In a debate on an address to the Sovereign at the opening of the session on October 12, 1779, he succeeded in securing the approval of members of the Government to an amendment pressing for an immediate consideration of the state of the country, with a view to assisting its trade and manufactures.

Hussey Burgh, who was then Prime Serjeant, proposed “Free export and import,” and Grattan adopted the words. “Say simply Free Trade,” whispered Flood, and the House, struck by the unaccustomed sight of an agreement between members of the Government and the independents, passed the amendment with only one dissentient vote.

The words “Free Trade” spread like a watchword through the country. When the address was brought up to the Castle by the entire House the Volunteers, commanded by the Duke of Leinster, lined the streets and presented arms to the Speaker. The next day, Thomas Conolly, brother-in-law to the Viceroy, moved a vote of thanks to the Volunteers, which was carried unanimously. Thus, for the first time in their history, a large body of the people was brought into direct and sympathetic touch with their Parliament.

The Government was alarmed, and the King answered evasively; but the Volunteers determined that the country should not be duped; they stopped the carriages of their representatives and tendered to them the oath that they would vote for Free Trade and a short Money Bill.

On November 4, they paraded round the statue of William III on College Green, and a placard affixed to two field-pieces was inscribed: “A Free Trade—or this.”

“The glorious Revolution” became a party watchword; but at this moment Williamite and Jacobite were in complete accord, and the cheers of Protestant and Catholic mingled in the streets. The military were called out, but the people refused to disperse; some rioting occurred, until the lawyers’ volunteer corps, mingling with the people, induced them to return to their homes.

The effect of the national awakening was seen in the Irish House of Commons. Resolutions “that this time it would be inexpedient to grant new taxes,” and “that the appropriated duties should be granted for six months only,” were carried in spite of the exertions of the Castle party. It was in this latter debate that Hussey Burgh electrified the House by his brilliant speech, concluding with the famous words:

“Talk not to me of peace; Ireland is not in a state of peace; it is smothered war. England has sown her laws like dragons’ teeth, and they have sprung up in armed men.”

The House rose as one man and cheered him repeatedly, but the Government cleared the galleries, and the Prime Serjeant lost his office. But on December 13, Lord North submitted to the British Parliament three propositions admitting Ireland to the colonial trade on terms of equality of dues and customs, and allowing the free exportation of Irish wool and woollen manufactured goods and of Irish glass. Within a few months, and with little opposition, these measures were passed in England, and they were received in Ireland with the greatest enthusiasm.

At the close of 1779, Buckinghamshire, the Viceroy, wrote: “The satisfaction of Ireland seems final and complete,” and, indeed, the effect upon the trade and industries of the country was at once seen. But the very fact that it lay in the power of England either to restrict or to relieve the trade of Ireland, proved beyond doubt that the liberties of the Irish Parliament, long shackled, had now in practice, ceased to exist.

Measures bestowed by the British Parliament as acts of concession were dependent only on goodwill and were at any time liable to be repealed by the same power; a free Parliament was needed in order to ensure the permanence of free trade. Thus the conferring of trade liberties upon Ireland led directly to the demand for an independent Parliament to regulate and control that trade.

The years from 1777 to 1781 were among the most disastrous in English history. The declaration of American Independence in 1776, had been followed by the surrender of the English army on the heights of Saratoga, and France and Spain had joined America against England. Chatham was dead and with him all hope of a federal union with the revolting colony.

The weakness of the Ministry and the dogged obstinacy of the King left the country helpless in the face of a disturbed Europe and with her proudest dominion rent from her. In 1781 the series of disasters was completed by the capture of the army of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. “It is all over,” Lord North exclaimed wildly, as he paced up and down his room, and he sent in his resignation. As Britain grew weaker Ireland increased in strength.

On April 19, 1780, Grattan had made in Parliament his “Declaration of Irish Rights,” inspired directly by the action of America. He moved “That the King’s most excellent Majesty and the Lords and Commons of Ireland, are the only power competent to make laws to bind Ireland.”

The debate lasted for fifteen hours, and the Lord-Lieutenant was obliged to report with the utmost concern “that the sense of the House against the obligation of any statutes of the Parliament of Great Britain within this kingdom is represented to me to have been almost unanimous.”

The strength of this feeling was tested by the question of the Mutiny Bill which it was proposed to make perpetual. It was declared that the English Mutiny Act was not binding in Ireland, and magistrates in the country refused to put it in force. Buckinghamshire resigned and was succeeded by Lord Carlisle.

Meanwhile, the Volunteer organization was gathering fresh strength, fully thirty thousand men having been enrolled in 1780, and it became a definitely political force in the country.

The reviews of 1781 and 1782 showed its discipline, and when threats of a French landing were made the Ulster corps instantly placed themselves at the disposal of the Viceroy, in conjunction with the regular army, to march to the South and meet it. But, on the other hand, some of the warmest supporters of the Volunteer movement began to feel alarm at its growing influence in politics.

The Duke of Leinster, hitherto the colonel of the Dublin corps, suddenly withdrew. He said that he “had been long enough a slave to popularity; he had no idea of constitutional questions being forced by the bayonet.”

Lord Charlemont succeeded to the general command, but he was too strong a supporter of the British connection to be more than a timid advocate of independence, while he was directly opposed to Catholic relief. The time was not far off when he and Grattan, who had for so long worked in concert, were to become estranged from want of sympathy on these points.

There was, indeed, some danger at this moment that the delegates of the Volunteers would form themselves into a body to overawe Parliament, and so place themselves in an unconstitutional position; but the wisdom of their leaders averted this possibility.

In their Convention which met on February 15, 1782, in the parish Church at Dungannon, 145 representatives of the Ulster corps assembled, and a number of resolutions were passed, calling for the modification of Poynings’ Law, condemning the unlimited Mutiny Bill, and demanding the independence of the judges. They subscribed to a resolution “that the claim of any other body of men other than the King, Lords, and Commons of Ireland to make laws to bind this kingdom is unconstitutional, illegal, and a grievance.”

Lastly, they accepted a motion proposed by Grattan that the right of private judgment in matters of religion was held by them to be equally sacred in others as in themselves, and that they conceived the relaxation of the Penal Laws against their Catholic fellow-subjects to be fraught with the happiest consequences to the union and prosperity of Ireland.

Thus was the cause of the Catholics taken up by their Episcopal and Presbyterian countrymen, and the various bodies brought together for the coming struggle. The resolutions were sent through the country and everywhere adopted by the Volunteers, by the grand juries, and by meetings of freeholders.

On February 22, 1782, Grattan, in a stirring speech, brought forward the question of the rights of Ireland. He moved, in the form of an address to the Crown, a series of propositions, assuring the Sovereign of the sincere and unfeigned attachment of the Irish people to his Majesty’s person and Government; but he contended that the people of Ireland was a free people, and that the crown of Ireland was an Imperial crown.

The kingdom of Ireland, he further asserted, was a distinct kingdom with a Parliament of its own, the sole legislature thereof; so that the subjects of this kingdom, by the fundamental laws and franchises, cannot be bound or affected by any other legislature, “a privilege treasured by them as their lives and the very essence of their liberty.”[15]

There was, at this time, no idea of separation from England; rather, the address assured the King that, “next to our liberties we value our connection with Great Britain, on which we conceive … the happiness of both kingdoms intimately depends,” a sentiment the reality of which had recently been proved in a remarkable manner by the spontaneous offer of the Volunteers to fight in the British army if there was a French invasion. “The Volunteer,” said Grattan, “had no objection to die by the side of England, but he must be found dead with her charter in his hand.”

The subject was taken up by Flood in a different form on February 26, and adjourned on both occasions. But it was at this critical moment, after the fall of the Ministry of Lord North, that the Irish Secretary, William Eden, later Lord Auckland, who hastily crossed over to London to tender the resignation of Lord Carlisle, found to his surprise that a new Ministry was in process of formation under Lord Rockingham, and that the Viceroy’s resignation had been forestalled.

Eden gave an alarmist account of affairs in Ireland; he urged the House to agree to all the measures proposed by the Volunteers, with a partial repeal of the 6th Act of George I, declaring that if he did not return the next day with the promise of these measures all would be too late.

On April 14 Lord Portland arrived in Dublin, and two days later Grattan, in a great speech, brought forward his motion for a Declaration of Rights. The excitement was at its height; the city was full of Volunteers and the galleries of the House were crowded.

Grattan was ill, but determined. He lived opposite to the Castle, and his doorsteps had been crowded all day with anxious Members. The House was breathless as he rose, looking worn and harassed, to utter the memorable words:—

“I am now to address a free people. … I found Ireland upon her knees, I watched over her with a paternal solicitude; I have traced her progress from injuries to arms and from arms to liberty. Spirit of Swift! Spirit of Molyneux! your genius has prevailed. Ireland is now a nation! … Bowing in her august presence, I say Esto perpetua.”[16]

The House then adjourned to give the new Government time to decide on the exact measures to be proposed, while addresses of support flowed in from all sides. In England, Fox agreed to all the propositions. “Unwilling subjects,” he said, “are little better than enemies.” He had no objection so to word the Act of Repeal of the 6th of George I as to contain an explicit renunciation of England’s rights, which Burke also approved.

The Act of Repeal received the Royal Assent on June 21, and with it the restoration of the appellant jurisdiction. Flood was not yet satisfied; he considered that simple repeal not sufficient, and that the British Parliament should make a positive renunciation of all right to bind Ireland. The English Government brought in a Bill to meet this objection and the Act of Renunciation of 23 George III, ch. xxviii expressly resigned all right of the English over the Irish Parliament.

Thus was this great question settled, as was then supposed, finally. A vote of £100,000 to the Government and twenty thousand men to the navy testified to the gratitude of the Irish nation to Britain; and a similar grant of money of which he accepted half, showed the admiration felt for the exertions of Grattan. Volunteer bodies proffered their services to Great Britain across the Channel. They declared that now they were free “they would stand or fall with England.”