O’Connell and Emancipation

Eleanor Hull
O’Connell and Emancipation

It is deplorable to reflect that it was the Members of Grattan’s “independent Parliament” who thus allowed themselves to be bought and sold. Had the Parliamentary reforms that had been so urgently pressed for by the more enlightened among the Members been carried, such abuses could not have occurred, but the representatives showed a disposition to reform everything but themselves.

The English Government became ashamed of their part in the bargain and showed a disposition to withdraw from their engagements. Sixteen new peerages looked badly, even if by this means Lord Cornwallis had, in Castlereagh’s words, been able to “buy out and secure to the Crown for ever the fee-simple of Irish corruption”; in their new-found contrition the main movers were preparing to sacrifice their principal agent, Cornwallis.

The cool, cynical voice of Castlereagh is heard commenting on the business. He, at least, has no illusions and makes no pretences. “It appears,” he writes to Cooke, Under-Secretary, on June 21, 1800, “that the Cabinet, after having carried the measure by force of influence, of which they were apprised in every dispatch sent from hence for the last eighteen months, wish to forget all this; they turn short round and say it would be a pity to tarnish all that has been so well done, by giving any such shock to the public sentiment. … The only effect of such a proceeding will be to add the weight of their testimony to that of the anti-Unionists, in proclaiming the profligacy of the means by which the measure has been accomplished.”[1]

Of the two high officials chiefly responsible for the methods employed in carrying the Union there is no doubt that Castlereagh was by far the abler man. Clear-sighted, unbending, and imperturbable, he was hated in Ireland as being “so very unlike an Irishman,” and he allowed no scruples of conscience to stand in the way when carrying out the policy of his superiors, even while despising it and them. His political abilities were to be shown on other fields of European diplomacy; but it is remarkable, as a testimony to a certain rectitude of personal character, that old political foes, like Grattan and Plunket, bore him no resentment in after life. Grattan made it a last personal request to Plunket that he would cultivate friendly relations with his former opponent.

Cornwallis was of a different temperament. Well-meaning but weak, he allowed measures to be carried and put in force of which he heartly disapproved, though he made little effort to check them. If the life of an Irish Viceroy was to him “his ideal of perfect misery”[2] he yet did nothing to make it respected. “Hating the whole dirty business,” he yet saw it through, just as, during the rebellion, he had permitted the excesses of the military over which he groaned. His sentiments were excellent and he sought no personal ends, but he had not the strength of character to resist the stream of violent tendencies with which he found himself surrounded; in the end it was Castlereagh who protested against the intention of the Ministry to make him their scapegoat.[3]

The only true test of the Union was in its results. The first result universally expected was the declaration of Catholic relief. That Pitt had intended this to be the immediate outcome of his measure is clear. It is plain, too, that the Viceroy and Castlereagh had been authorized unofficially to hold out hopes of concessions to the Catholic bishops as an inducement to them to support the Union—a support which they had loyally given. This is shown by a remarkable letter addressed by Castlereagh to Pitt, and by a paper giving Pitt’s reasons for resigning rather than to be the means of disappointing the hopes he had raised.[4]

The obstacle that intervened was the violent opposition of the King. George III. had been persuaded to believe that in signing a bill for Catholic relief he would be breaking his coronation oath. This had been the position long taken up by Lord Clare and pressed by him upon the Sovereign. “What is it this young Lord (Castlereagh) has brought over and is going to throw at my head?” exclaimed the King on January 28 to Dundas. “The most Jacobinical thing I ever heard of.” He ordered the coronation oath to be read aloud to him. “Where,” he burst out, “is the power on earth to absolve me from the due observance of every sentence of that oath?”

Pitt was in a dilemma. The King was in an excitable state of mind and on the borders of one of his recurrent fits of madness. He openly blamed Pitt and the Catholic cause for having been the cause of this. A crisis now occurred; Pitt resigned, as he had threatened to do, and Cornwallis also sent in his resignation.

Lord Clare rejoiced that the question was, as he believed, closed for ever, though Pitt considered it only deferred. But for himself personally he determined never again to embroil himself with the Sovereign by bringing forward the Catholic question, and when in the spring of 1805 a Catholic deputation led by Lord Fingall waited on Pitt, now again Prime Minister, the members were bluntly told that they must apply elsewhere, for he intended to oppose their petition. Pitt died in the following year.[5]

The two pivots on which the Government of Ireland turned during the years after the Union were described by Bright in 1849 as “force and alms.” The first Acts of the United Parliament were those for the suppression of the rebellion in Ireland and the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and from that time till 1829, as Peel stated in the House in that year, Ireland was governed scarcely one year by ordinary law.

The Habeas Corpus Act had been suspended in the country in 1800, from 1802 till 1805, from 1807 till 1810, in 1814, and from 1822 till 1824. Commissions and select Committees sat upon Irish questions almost every year, distress was rampant and disturbances frequent. The miseries of the country were to culminate in the great famine of 1846–48. This was, however, only the climax to successive seasons of famine, arising immediately out of the shortage of potatoes, but ultimately out of the pressing poverty of large sections of the population owing to bad social conditions.

Doles and relief works were applied with a generous hand, but they could not set right ailments which arose out of a system of things that needed radical reform. The great struggles during the coming years were to be for better land laws, freedom from the burden of tithe, disestablishment of the Protestant Church of Ireland, education, and repeal of the Union. The last was eventually to transform itself into the demand for Home Rule. Behind all these lay the as yet unsettled question of emancipation.

It is to be remembered that a legacy of unrest had been left for the new United Parliament to face. The country was only slowly righting itself after the rebellion, which had been put down not so much by trained or half-trained troops as by the exertions of the country gentlemen, who had devoted their whole time and properties to keeping their neighbourhoods in order, as Lord de Clifford stated in a letter to Townshend in July, 1799. They were heartily seconded in their efforts by the Catholic prelates, who denounced rebellion from their altars, and in many districts which were preparing to rise held back their flocks by their earnest persuasions and warnings.

The admonitions of leading members of the hierarchy, like Dr. Troy, Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Moylan, and others prevented a wider spread of the rebellion of 1798, and quieted the people after the Union, imploring them to restrain themselves from hasty action, and themselves accepting without complaint the rather lame explanations made to them by the Government through Lord Cornwallis.

Dr. Moylan, Bishop of Cork, who cordially approved the Union, spoke of the recent civil and religious disorder, as having “shamefully disgraced the nation”; and Dr. Troy ordered a pastoral against treasonable practices to be read from every altar in his diocese during the course of the insurrection. Even the patriotic Bishop Doyle, in 1824, checked the progress of disaffection in his diocese by a ringing condemnation of the secret societies of the Defenders and Ribbonmen which were permeating every part of his parishes. He spoke of them as “a vile and wicked conspiracy,” and of their members as “dupes”; and he admonished his astonished and terrified hearers to desist from illegal associations “which have always augmented the evils of our country, and tend to bring disgrace upon our holy religion.”[6]

Lalor Sheil pointed out as an unquestionable fact that it was the exertions of this Bishop, living in one of the most disturbed parts of the country, which tamed many an insurgent congregation into submission.

The fact that the Ribbonmen aimed at the restoration of the Catholic Church as one of their tenets did not reconcile Dr. Doyle to the association of these aims with agrarian crime; it rather stimulated the horror he felt at any such alliance between the Church and brutal lawlessness. His address was printed in Irish and English and 300,000 copies of it were circulated throughout the country; but the personal visits of the Bishop to the various parishes and the stern admonitions which fell from his lips had a still greater effect.

The Marquis Wellesley, late Governor General of India, on coming to Ireland as Viceroy in 1821,[7] gave a just commendation of the support afforded to the Government during a troublous time by the prelates; he accepted their congratulations “with the cordiality and respect due to their character, conduct, and sacred functions”; of “the propriety of their past behaviour” he speaks with admiration.

The Act of Union brought a new personality into the field. In January, 1800, the voice of the man who was to exercise a power never before wielded in Ireland by any Irishman was heard for the first time in public, speaking in the Royal Exchange, Dublin, against the Union. In after life Daniel O’Connell was wont to say that all his later political principles were contained in this speech. To a Catholic audience he declared that they had resolved to meet no more as Catholics for political discussion, but as Irishmen. “If emancipation,” he exclaimed, “be offered for our consent to the measure (of the Union)—even if emancipation after the Union were a gain—we would reject it with prompt indignation.”

In 1810 he declared the same opinion in yet more explicit terms: “If the Premier were to offer me to-morrow the repeal of the Union upon the terms of re-enacting the entire Penal Code, I declare from my heart and in the presence of my God that I would most cheerfully embrace his offer.”[8]

Thus the Emancipator announced a programme which was to combine Catholics with Protestants in one national effort, as Irishmen, in the task of regaining for Ireland its national position. But for the attainment of the chief object he had at heart, the repeal of the Union, O’Connell felt that the liberation of the Catholics was a first step.

The Protestant gentry had allowed themselves to be bought over; he believed that only by a union between the general body of the Catholics of the middle and lower classes with their aristocracy could the position be retrieved.

Later, when he found his unaided efforts were not sufficient, he called in the assistance of the priests and populace, and for the first time made them a power in Irish politics. Hitherto the people had engaged in politics only as electors bound to return their own Protestant landlords to Parliament; they had neither will nor thought in the matter.

But O’Connell saw in the mass of the small tenants a potential source of power, and he set about to draw upon it for the accomplishment of his aims. To unite them under their natural leaders, the Catholic gentry, and later under the Catholic bishops and clergy, and to inspire in them a sense of their own dormant political force, was his first object. More than any man before his time O’Connell saw his country as one nation, possessed of a national life and aims.