The Speeches of Grattan (Review by Thomas Davis) [1]

By Thomas Davis

OF the long line of Protestant patriots Grattan is the first in genius, and first in services. He had a more fervid and more Irish nature than Swift or Flood, and he accomplished what Swift hardly dreamed, and Flood failed in--an Irish constitution. He had immeasurably more imagination than Tone; and though he was far behind the great Founder of the United Irishmen in organising power, he surpassed him in inspiration. The statues of all shall be in our forums, and examples of all in our hearts, but that of Grattan shall be pre-eminent. The stubborn and advancing energy of Swift and Flood may teach us to bear up against wrong; the principles of Tone may end in liberation; but the splendid nationality of Grattan shall glorify us in every condition.

The speeches of Grattan were collected and his memoirs written by his son. The latter is an accessible and an invaluable account of his life; but the speeches were out of print, not purchasable under five or six guineas, and then were unmanageably numerous for any but a professed politician. Mr. Madden's volume gives for a trifle all Grattan's most valuable speeches, with a memoir sufficient to explain the man and the orator.

On the speeches of Grattan here published we have little to say. They are the finest specimens of imaginative eloquence in the English, or in any, language. There is not much pathos, and no humour in them, and in these respects Grattan is far less of an Irishman, and of an orator too, than Curran; but a philosophy, penetrating constitutions for their warnings, and human nature for its guides--a statesman's (as distinguished from an antiquarian's) use of history--a passionate scorn and invective for the base, tyrannical, and unjust--a fiery and copious zeal for liberty and for Ireland, and a diction and cadence almost lyrical, made Grattan the sudden achiever of a Revolution, and will make him for ever one of the very elements of Ireland.

No other orator is so uniformly animated. No other orator has brightened the depths of political philosophy with such vivid and lasting light. No writer in the language except Shakespeare has so sublime and suggestive a diction. His force and vehemence are amazing--far beyond Chatham, far beyond Fox, far beyond any orator we can recall.

To the student of oratory Grattan's speeches are dangerously suggestive, overpowering spirits that will not leave when bid. Yet, with all this terrible potency, who would not bask in his genius, even at the hazard of having his light for ever in your eyes. The brave student will rather exult in his effulgence--not to rob, not to mimic it--but to catch its inspiration, and then go on his way resolved to create a glory of his own which, however small, being genuine, shall not pale within its sphere.

To give a just idea of Grattan's rush and splendour to any one not familiar with his speeches is impossible; but some glimmer may be got by one reading the extracts we shall add here. We shall take them at random, as we open the pages in the book, and leave the leader, untaught in our great orator, to judge, if chance is certain of finding such gems, what would not judicious care discover! Let him use that care again and again.

"Sir, we may hope to dazzle with illumination, and we may sicken with addresses, but the public imagination will never rest, nor will her heart be well at ease; never! so long as the parliament of England exercises or claims a legislation over this country: so long as this shall be the case, that very free trade, otherwise a perpetual attachment, will be the cause of new discontent; it will create a pride to feel the indignity of bondage; it will furnish a strength to bite your chain, and the liberty withheld will poison the good communicated.

"The British minister mistakes the Irish character; had he intended to make Ireland a slave he should have kept her a beggar; there is no middle policy; win her heart by the restoration of her right, or cut off the nation's right hand; greatly emancipate, or fundamentally destroy. We may talk plausibly to England, but so long as she exercises a power to bind this country, so long are the nations in a state of war; the claims of the one go against the liberty of the other, and the sentiments of the latter go to oppose those claims to the last drop of her blood. The English opposition, therefore, are right; mere trade will not satisfy Ireland--they judge of us by other great nations, by the nation whose political life has been a struggle for liberty; they judge of us with a true knowledge and just deference for our character: that a country enlightened as Ireland, chartered as Ireland, armed as Ireland, and injured as Ireland, will be satisfied with nothing less than liberty.

"Impracticable! impracticable! impracticable! a zealous divine will say; any alteration is beyond the power and wisdom of parliament; above the faculties of man to make adequate provision for 900 clergymen who despise riches. Were it to raise a new tax for their provision, or for that of a body less holy, how easy the task! how various the means! but when the proposal is to diminish a tax already established, an impossibility glares us in the face, of a measure so contrary to our practices both in church and state."

We were wrong in saying there was no humour in Grattan. Here is a passage humorous enough, but it is scornful, rhetorical humour--

"It does not affect the doctrine of our religion; it does not alter the church establishment; it does not affect the constitution of episcopacy. The modus does not even alter the mode of their provision, it only limits the quantum, and limits it on principles much less severe than that charity which they preach, or that abstinence which they inculcate. Is this innovation?--as if the Protestant religion was to be propagated in Ireland, like the influence of a minister, by bribery; or like the influence of a county candidate, by money; or like the cause of a potwalloping canvasser, by the weight of the purse; as if Christ could not prevail over the earth unless Mammon took him by the hand. Am I to understand that if you give the parson 12s. in the acre for potatoes, and 10s. for wheat, the Protestant religion is safe on its rock? But if you reduce him to 6s. the acre for potatoes and wheat, then Jupiter shakes the heavens with his thunder, Neptune rakes up the deep with his trident, and Pluto leaps from his throne! See the curate--he rises at six to morning prayers; he leaves company at six for evening prayer; he baptises, he marries, he churches, he buries, he follows with pious offices his fellow-creature from the cradle to the grave; for what immense income! what riches to reward these inestimable services? (Do not depend on the penury of the laity, let his own order value his deserts); £50 a year! £50! for praying, for christening, for marrying, for churching, for burying, for following with Christian offices his fellow-creature from cradle to grave; so frugal a thing is devotion, so cheap religion, so easy the terms on which man may worship his Maker, and so small the income, in the opinion of ecclesiastics, sufficient for the duties of a clergyman, as far as he is connected at all with the Christian religion.

"By this trade of parliament the King is absolute; his will is signified by both houses of parliament, who are now as much an instrument in his hand as a bayonet in the hands of a regiment. Like a regiment we have our adjutant, who sends to the infirmary for the old and to the brothel for the young, and men thus carted, as it were, into this house, to vote for the minister, are called the representatives of the people! Suppose General Washington to ring his bell, and order his servants out of livery to take their seats in Congress--you can apply this instance.

"It is not life but the condition of living--the slave is not so likely to complain of the want of property as the proprietor of the want of privilege. The human mind is progressive--the child does not look back to the parent that gave him being, nor the proprietor to the people that gave him the power of acquisition, but both look forward --the one to provide for the comforts of life, and the other to obtain all the privileges of property."

But we have fallen on one of his most marvellous passages, and we give it entire--

"I will put this question to my country; I will suppose her at the bar, and I will ask her, Will you fight for a Union as you would for a constitution? Will you fight for that Lords and that Commons who, in the last century, took away your trade, and, in the present, your constitution, as for that King, Lords, and Commons who have restored both? Well, the minister has destroyed this constitution; to destroy is easy. The edifices of the mind, like the fabrics of marble, require an age to build, but ask only minutes to precipitate; and as the fall of both is an effort of no time, so neither is it a business of any strength--a pick-axe and a common labourer will do the one--a little lawyer, a little pimp, a wicked minister the other.

"The constitution, which, with more or less violence, has been the inheritance of this country for six hundred years--that modus tenendi parliamentum, which lasted and outlasted of Plantagenet the wars, of Tudor the violence, and of Stuart the systematic falsehood--the condition of our connection--yes, the constitution he destroys is one of the pillars of the British Empire. He may walk round it and round it, and the more he contemplates the more must he admire it--such a one as had cost England of money millions and of blood a deluge, cheaply and nobly expended--whose restoration had cost Ireland her noblest efforts, and was the habitation of her loyalty--we are accustomed to behold the kings of these countries in the keeping of parliament--I say of her loyalty as well as of her liberty, where she had hung up the sword of the Volunteer--her temple of fame as well as of freedom--where she had seated herself, as she vainly thought, in modest security and in a long repose.

"I have done with the pile which the minister batters, I come to the Babel which he builds; and as he throws down without a principle, so does he construct without a foundation. This fabric he calls a Union, and to this his fabric there are two striking objections--first, it is no Union; it is not an identification of people, for it excludes the Catholics; secondly, it is a consolidation of the Irish legislatures--that is to say, a merger of the Irish parliament, and incurs every objection to a Union, without obtaining the only object which a Union professes; it is an extinction of the constitution, and an exclusion of the people. Well! he has overlooked the people as he has overlooked the sea. I say he excludes the Catholic:, and he destroys their best chance of admission--the relative consequence. Thus he reasons, that hereafter, in course of time (he does not say when), if they behave themselves (he does not say how), they may see their subjects submitted to a course of discussion (he does not say with what result or determination); and as the ground for this inane period, in which he promises nothing, and in which, if he did promise much, at so remote a period he could perform nothing, unless he, like the evil he has accomplished, be immortal. For this inane sentence, in which he can scarcely be said to deceive the Catholic, or suffer the Catholic to deceive himself, he exhibits no other ground than the physical inanity of the Catholic body accomplished by a Union, which, as it destroys the relative importance of Ireland, so it destroys the relative proportion of the Catholic inhabitants, and thus they become admissible, because they cease to be anything. Hence, according to him, their brilliant expectation: 'You were,' say his advocates, and so imports his argument, 'before the Union as three to one, you will be by the Union as one to four.' Thus he founds their hopes of political power on the extinction of physical consequence, and makes the inanity of their body and the nonentity of their country the pillars of their future ambition."

We now return to the memoir by Mr. Madden. It is not the details of a life meagre for want of space, and confused for want of principles, as most little biographies are; it is an estimate--a profound one--of Grattan's original nature, of the influences which acted on him from youth to manhood, of his purposes, his principles, and his influence on Ireland.

Henry Grattan was twenty-nine years of age when he entered on politics, and in seven years he was the triumphant leader of a people free and victorious after hereditary bondage. He entered parliament educated in the metaphysical and political philosophy of the time, injured by its cold and epigrammatic verse and its artificial tastes--familiar with every form of aristocratic life from Kilkenny to London--familiar, too, with Chatham's oratory and principles, and with Flood's views and example. He came when there were great forces rushing through the land--eloquence, love of liberty, thirst for commerce, hatred of English oppression, impatience, glory, and, above all, a military array. He combined these elements and used them to achieve the Revolution of '82. Be he for ever honoured!

Mr. Madden defends him against Flood on the question of Simple Repeal. Here is his reasoning--

"It is an easy thing now to dispose of the idle question of simple repeal. In truth, there was nothing whatever deserving of attention in the point raised by Mr. Flood. The security for the continuance of Irish freedom did not depend upon an English act of parliament. It was by Irish will and not at English pleasure that the new constitution was to be supported. The transaction between the countries was of a high political nature, and it was to be judged by political reason, and by statesmanlike computation, and not by the petty technicalities of the court of law. The revolution of 1782, as carried by Ireland, and assented to by England (in repealing the 6th George the First), was a political compact--proposed by one country, and acknowledged by the other in the face of Europe: it was not (as Mr. Flood and his partisans construed the transaction) of the nature of municipal right, to be enforced or annulled by mere judicial exposition."

This is unanswerable, but Grattan should have gone further. The Revolution was effected mainly by the Volunteers, whom he had inspired; arms could alone have preserved the constitution. Flood was wrong in setting value on one form--Grattan in relying on any; but both before and after '82 Flood seems to have had glimpses that the question was one of might, as well as of right, and that national laws could not last under such an alien army.

Taken as military representatives, the Convention at the Rotundo was even more valuable than as a civic display. Mr. Madden censures Grattan for having been an elaborate neutral during these Reform dissensions; but that the result of such neutrality ruined the Convention proves a comparative want of power in Flood, who could have governed that Convention in spite of the rascally English and the feeble Irish Whigs. Oh, had Tone been in that council!

In describing Grattan's early and enthusiastic and ceaseless advocacy of Catholic liberty, Mr. Madden has a just subject for unmixed eulogy. Let no one imagine that the interest of these Emancipation speeches has died with the achievement of what they pleaded for; they will ever remain divinest protests against the vice and impolicy of religious ascendency, of sectarian bitterness, and of bigot separation.

For this admirable beginning of the design of giving Ireland its most glorious achievement--the speeches of its orators--to contemplate, the country should be grateful; but if there can be anything better for it to hear than can be had in Grattan's speeches, it is such language as this from his eloquent editor--

"Reader! if you be an Irish Protestant, and entertain harsh prejudices against your Catholic countrymen, study the works and life of Grattan--learn from him, for none can teach you better how to purify your nature from bigotry. Learn from him to look upon all your countrymen with a loving heart--to be tolerant of infirmities caused by their unhappy history--and, like Grattan, earnestly sympathise with all that is brave and generous in their character.

"Reader! if you be an Irish Catholic, and that you confound the Protestant religion with tyranny, learn from Grattan that it is possible to be a Protestant and have a heart for Ireland and its people. Think that the brightest age of Ireland was when Grattan--a steady Protestant--raised it to proud eminence; think also that in the hour of his triumph he did not forget the state of your oppressed fathers, but laboured through his virtuous life that both you and your children should enjoy unshackled liberty of conscience.

"But reader! whether you be Protestant or Catholic, or whatever be your party, you will do well as an Irishman to ponder upon the spirit and principles which governed the public and private life of Grattan. Learn from him how to regard your countrymen of all denominations. Observe, as he did, how very much that is excellent belongs to both the great parties into which Ireland is divided. If (as some do) you entertain dispiriting views of Ireland, recollect that any country containing such elements as those which roused the genius of Grattan never need despair. Sursum corda. Be not disheartened.

"Go--go--my countrymen--and, within your social sphere, carry into practice those moral principles which Grattan so eloquently taught, and which he so remarkably enforced by his well-spent life. He will teach you to avoid hating men on account of their religious professions or hereditary descent. From him you will learn principles which, if carried out, would generate a new state of society in Ireland."


[1] "The Select Speeches of the Right Hon. Henry Grattan. To which is added his Letter on the Union, with a Commentary on his Career and Character." By Daniel Owen Madden, Esq., of the Inner Temple. Dublin: James Duffy, 1845. 8vo, pp. 534.