Irish Republicanism

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

No theory is more popular with a certain class of writers than that which asserts a total difference of character to exist between the inhabitants of Ireland and of England. Whenever a question of Irish political life arises, this theory is sure to be produced at the same time, and paraded as the solution of the problem. On one side of St. George's Channel there is the Anglo-Saxon, of a character essentially self-reliant, self-asserting, stubborn, and tenacious, caring nothing for titles, nothing for leaders, and very little for princes. These qualities he shares with all Teutonic races, as was so plainly seen in Germany, before Count Bismarck's swoop, and may even yet be discerned by any student of the proceedings of the North German Parliament. If further proof were requisite, a backward glance at the history of England would be sufficient to furnish it. Beyond the Irish Channel, however, all is different. There dwell the Celts, a fickle race, easily moved, and loving to be patronized and noticed by great people. They are gregarious, fond of organizing, and devoted to their leaders with blind submissiveness. They do not care for political progress, but they have a very keen ear for music. Fenianism is not really popular amongst them; it is merely a sickly exotic. All the tenant farmer wants is to be allowed to sit happy under the shelter of his own landlord's "great house."

To speak of Republicanism in connection with such a race shows how little is known of their real character. Plainly, their ancient system of government was an iron feudalism, and the descendants of the vassals still cast a yearning look back to their lost despotic masters, and would fain even now twine their affections round their landlords, if the latter, not seeing this, did not rather, generally, prefer to be absentees. The simple remedy, therefore, for all the ills and discontent of the Irish people is to disregard the clamour of demagogues for rights and redress, and to send back the absentee landlords to the bosom of their anxious tenantry.

This theory is based on a misconception of the old organization of the island, and on a curious ignorance of the actual state of the country. It follows, that statesmen who employ it for the solution of Irish problems, are obliged to make frequent use of it; for, in spite of the most satisfactory explanations, the questions come up again and again, as fresh as ever. Whatever influence the ancient clan-system may have had in moulding the character of the people, it will certainly not be made clear by confusing such a mode of organization with the feudal system. The clansman was a very different person from the feudal vassal or retainer. In many respects he was the equal of his chief, bound to him, in frequent instances, by the ties of kinship, and possessing a voice in his election. Both were ruled by well-defined laws of rights and privileges. "There are four dignitaries of a territory who can be degraded," says the Senchus Mor, "a false-judging king, a stumbling bishop, a fraudulent poet, and an unworthy chieftain who does not fulfil his duties". Thus these ancient Celts were acquainted with the art of deposing their great men, to whom they are usually supposed to have been so submissive. Furthermore, this ancient law, which no Brehon could abrogate, goes on to explain that by "a false-judging king" is meant, in particular, "one who pronounces a false sentence on his tenants," and that, "whether it be concerning a small thing or a large, it makes him equally unworthy."

If the Irish tenant of the present day preserves so much of the traditions of the past as to regard his landlord with the same feelings that his ancestors cherished towards their petty kings, it is to be feared that he may entertain ideas with reference to him totally undreamed of by English journalists. Should he fancy, for instance, that a landlord who raises the rent because of improvements made by his tenant, or a landlord who ejects without giving any compensation for tenant improvements, resembles "a king who pronounces a false sentence on his tenants," he might also imagine that he is a "dignitary of a territory" who should be degraded. Applying the same rule to the case of an absentee landlord, would he not also be tempted to regard him, not as the father of the prodigal regarded his son, but as "an unworthy chieftain who does not fulfil his duties?"

These and other laws of a similar character moulded the Irish nation; and there cannot be a doubt that they influence yet, to some extent, the popular mind. The Brehon laws remained in full force throughout the larger portion of Ireland long after Henry II's time. Two centuries ago, there were regularly established Brehons or judges; and many of the "agrarian outrages" of later days may perhaps be explained by a reference to the old laws of the country. The abolition of the native laws and native judges was followed by the establishment of secret societies, which enforced the sentences of their own tribunals. What is known in the north-west of Ireland as "a Glen-Swilly decree," by which, for instance, a debtor's cattle are removed, and secreted until his debt be atoned for, is carried out on a principle identical with that of an ancient law, which provided for this very case.

With laws such as these to guide us in discriminating the groundwork of the Irish national character, it is impossible not to regard the theory we have referred to as an exceedingly shallow one. If we proceed to examine what influences have in later times been likely to act upon and mould the Irish mind, we shall not find them such as are adapted to counteract the ancient ideas. The superstructure is of a piece with the groundwork. Whilst a new system has been given to the country, little trouble has been taken to naturalize it. The new dignitaries have not sought to make themselves popular; on the contrary, they have frequently estranged themselves even bodily. Of course there are exceptions—many and great; but, on the other hand, the highest and most influential dignitary of all has constantly avoided the country. Royalty has been the chief absentee. The negative effect of all this would be sufficiently great, even were there no other causes tending in the same direction. Not only, however, have there been such causes, but other influences also have arisen adverse to the new order of things, and not contrary to, though more advanced than, the older views.

The formation of a great, prosperous, and hospitable Republic as a neighbour, although a distant one, was calculated powerfully to influence the Irish mind. Had the national character been framed on the feudal mould, it would not have been naturally in harmony with the new views that came upon it from the west; but to a people who had once made laws for the election and deposition of their kings and chiefs, Republicanism appeared natural and not unfamiliar. Subsequent events were not calculated to counteract such a view among Irishmen. In America the ministers of their religion were put on a footing of exact equality with all others; their political martyrs were canonized; and their refugees were warmly welcomed. Food was shipped to them from the great Republic in the time of their grievous want; and those of their kindred who had crossed the Atlantic never wearied of sending home flattering reports and golden enclosures. To crown all, their military aptitudes found there a ready outlet and a fitting reward. They were placed in a position of perfect equality before the law, and they esteemed nothing more dearly.

But it has been too much the custom to speak of the Irish as altogether Celts, and then to construct the usual theory. Even in the days of the native chiefs there were Norse and Anglo-Saxon settlers amicably established in various parts of Ireland. Then, again, the Danes forced themselves upon its ports, and surely bequeathed some portion of their characteristics to the inhabitants, after they had lost sovereign rule. In the restricted sense in which some writers use the word, Dublin could not be spoken of as an Irish city; there, as elsewhere, the Normans succeeded the Danes. What remnant of these races was not absorbed by the native population—becoming in the process "more Irish than the Irish themselves"—was collected into the mass of the Cromwellian colony; difference of religion here intervening to prevent the subsidence and absorption of the latest settlers. We have seen how the native Irish population stood with respect to republican ideas: were the traditions of the followers of Cromwell such as to make them differ from the others on this subject? On the contrary, though starting from different points, they arrived at the same result. Lord Chancellor Clare, in 1800, thus refers to them:—"And thus a new colony of new settlers, composed of the various sects which then infested England—Independents, Anabaptists, Seceders, Brownists, Socinians, Millennarians, and dissenters of every description, many of them infected with the leaven of democracy, poured into Ireland." They had a reason of their own, too, for regarding the Americans with favour. They sympathised with them as with fellow-colonists. Both had had differences with the central authority; and when the American colony pressed on against restrictive laws, and broke them, the Norman-English colony in Ireland passed votes of sympathy, and carried their imitation so far as to obtain an acknowledgment of the independence of the Irish Parliament. The nobles of the colony did not wish to go farther.

It is desirable to ascertain what actually caused the formation of an avowedly Republican society at that period, as the fact may throw some light on the origin of the so-called "Irish Republican Society" of the present day. A Committee of the Irish House of Commons declared its opinion that "the Rebellion of 1798 originated in a system framed, not with a view of obtaining either Catholic emancipation or any reform compatible with the existence of the Constitution, but for the purpose of subverting the Government, separating Ireland from Great Britain, and forming a Democratic Republic, founded on the destruction of all Church establishment, the abolition of ranks, and the confiscation of property." The description doubtless was found officially useful, but it is not altogether in harmony with facts. The Irish Parliament was exceedingly corrupt. A great majority of the House of Commons were mere nominees of the Peers, who were themselves to a very considerable extent the slaves as well as the creatures of the Viceroy. The Volunteers, when they had achieved legislative independence, wished to give that independence some security by achieving a reform of the Legislature itself. They presented their plan of reform to Parliament; but the latter body refused to receive it, on the ground that they would not seem to be intimidated by an armed force. Then Reform was pressed upon them by petitions from all the civil organizations, but with no effect; whereupon an association was formed in the colony for "a complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in Parliament." In order to fuse the whole nation together, the Association declared also "that no reform is practicable, efficacious, or just, which shall not include Irishmen of every religious persuasion." The "United Irishmen" were at first simply Reformers; they asked for manhood suffrage, annual parliaments, the payment of representatives, and the abolition of a property qualification. It was not until they found that Parliamentary action made no progress that they betook themselves to Republicanism. The extreme party then prevailed, as is usual in such cases.

Change but a few names, and here is the history of the causes which have produced the Irish Republicanism of the present day. Some years ago the whole country pressed the Legislature with petitions for a reform of the land-laws. It made no progress. One of the leaders of the movement died, as some say, of a broken heart; another left his country in despair, and went to Australia, where he became a minister and introduced a land law. The rank and file of the agitation streamed out hopelessly to America, where they now appear as "Fenians." Those who remained at home nourished a sullen discontent, and in due time organized themselves, to some extent, into a Republican society, having sympathizers even in Great Britain, just as in the last century there were "United Englishmen" and "United Scotchmen" as well as "United Irishmen."