The Volunteers (1778-1779)

Patrick Weston Joyce

795. While the American war was going on, with France and Spain also hostile, the possibility of foreign invasion was in men's minds. At the same time Ireland was in a very defenceless state: for since the withdrawal of the 4,000 men for America (786) there were very few troops.

796. The danger was brought home to the people of the three kingdoms by the great number of American privateers that swarmed around the coasts, capturing British merchant vessels and doing immense damage. Paul Jones, a Scotchman in the American service, who commanded the "Ranger," especially distinguished himself by his daring exploits. He committed great havoc on the Irish coast, and outside Carrickfergus he captured, in 1778, the English brig the "Drake," and got safely off with her to Brest.

797. The Irish saw that if they were to be protected at all they must protect themselves; and this gave origin to the volunteers. The first volunteer companies were raised in Belfast in 1779, where the people still retained a vivid memory of the descent of Thurot, nineteen years before.

798. The movement rapidly spread: the country gentlemen armed and drilled their tenants: and by May 1779 there were nearly 4,000 enrolled in the counties of Down and Antrim. The Irish government did not look upon this movement with favour; but the feeling of the country was too strong for them. The movement extended to other parts of Ireland; and before the end of 1779, 42,000 volunteers were enrolled. Lord Charlemont was in command of the northern volunteers: the duke of Leinster of those of Leinster.

799. We must remember two things in regard to these volunteers. First, the government measures for suppressing Irish trade had produced great distress and great discontent all over the country. The rank and file of the volunteers were the very people who felt the prevailing distress most, and without being in any sense disloyal, they were bitterly hostile to the government, while their sympathies were entirely with the patrotic party. It was indeed the Patriots who originated and controlled the volunteers.

800. The government were well aware of all this: but they dared not attempt to keep down the movement. They were obliged even to go so far as to supply arms, though much against their will: but all other expenses, including uniforms, were borne by the people themselves.

801. The second matter to be borne in mind is that this was almost exclusively a Protestant movement, the Catholics not yet being permitted to take any positions of trust.

802. Parliament met in October 1779. The patriotic party had now the volunteers at their back, and assumed a bolder tone. Flood had been their leader down to 1774 when he took office from the government, having been appointed vice-treasurer with a salary of £3,500. This obliged him to keep silent on most of the great questions that agitated parliament; and he lost the confidence of the people, which was now transferred to Grattan.

803. The embargo had been removed; but all the older restrictions on Irish trade (chap. II.) still remained, under which it was impossible for the country to prosper.

804. On the assembling of parliament, Grattan in an amendment to the address, demanded free trade. After some discussion the following motion was carried unanimously:—"That it is not by temporary expedients, but by a free trade alone, that this nation is now to be saved from impending ruin."

805. Even the members in government employment voted for this: it was proposed by Walter Hussey Burgh the prime serjeant, and was supported by Flood, Hutchinson, Ponsonby, and Gardiner, all holding offices. Dublin was in a state of great excitement, and the parliament house was surrounded by an immense crowd shouting for free trade.

806. The address, with Grattan's amendment, was borne through Dame-street by the speaker and the commons in procession, from the parliament house to the castle, to be presented to lord Buckinghamshire the lord lieutenant. The streets were lined both sides with volunteers under the duke of Leinster, and as the procession walked along they were received with acclamation by an immense multitude; and the volunteers presented arms.

807. It was in the debates on this question that Hussey Burgh made his reputation as an orator. In one of them he used a sentence that has become famous. Someone had remarked that Ireland was at peace:—"Talk not to me of peace," said he: "Ireland is not at peace; it is smothered war. England has sown her laws as dragons' teeth: they have sprung up as armed men."* This sentence produced unparalleled excitement; and when it had calmed down so that he could be heard, he announced that he resigned his office under the crown. "The gates of promotion are shut," exclaimed Grattan: "the gates of glory are opened!"

808. But to the British parliament alone, which had laid on the restrictions, belonged the task of removing them. In November 1779 the English prime minister, lord North, introduced three propositions to relieve Irish trade: the first permitted free export of Irish wool and woollen goods; the second free export of Irish glass manufactures; the third allowed free trade with the British colonies (707). The two first were passed; the third after a little time. The news of this was received with great joy in Dublin.

* Alluding to a well-known classical myth.