Ulster Covenanters


The folly of the anti-Conciliationists went further. They transformed the National Party and the National Movement into one from which not only all Unionists but all Protestants were excluded.——We proclaimed the first dogma of the Nationalist faith to be that the Protestant minority must not only be relieved from any imaginable danger to their religious or social liberties, but, on the one condition of their being "Irishmen first of all," must be welcomed into the high places of honour and power in an Irish nation of which the master-builders were the Protestant Grattans and Davises and Parnells. Our critics, on the contrary, proceeded to add fresh fuel to the flame of Orange fanaticism by subjecting the National movement to the new ascendancy of a sham Catholic secret society, with the result of changing the tepid suspicions of the most level headed of the Episcopalian and Presbyterian farmers and shopkeepers into sheer terror for the future of their children and themselves in an Hibernian-ridden Ireland.

It happened thus. There had of late years crept into the North of Ireland a seceding wing (calling itself "The Board of Erin") of the great American Antient Order of Hibernians, a genuine Benefit Society which had distinguished itself by many works of charity and benevolence. The seceding Board of Erin never offered any public explanation of the objects of their establishment in Ireland. Their work was carried on in secret, under an obligation equivalent to an oath, not to reveal their secrets and passwords; and nobody was admitted to membership who was not a Catholic, frequenting the Catholic Sacraments. Such a body would have been entirely harmless, if confined to the legitimate sphere of a Friendly Society; but suddenly and secretly established in control of the entire visible National organisation, the effect in Ulster was that of a brand flourished in a powder-magazine. The transformation was effected by a stealthy process without any consultation with or consent of the Party, the League, or the country, and indeed passed all but unnoticed until the operation was complete. The paid Secretary of the United Irish League (Mr. Joseph Devlin, of Belfast, who now for the first time came into prominence) became the National President of the Board of Erin;[5] the Standing Committee of the League was flooded with young members of Parliament who had taken their vows of secrecy on initiation into the Hibernian Order; the paid organisers of the League were similarly initiated and were despatched through the country to turn the Branches into as many occult Hibernian Divisions at the expense of the United Irish League. The public organisation gradually ceased to exist save as a respectable means of collecting funds and passing resolutions hawked about by their secret masters and soon fell into contempt under the nickname of "The Resolutionists."

The Board of Erin Hibernians, who became thenceforth the real dispensers of all power and offices and titles, from 1906 to 1916, had every demerit that could inflame sectarian passion in Ulster: a secret society without any publicly avowed purpose; a body so far from being authentically commissioned by the Catholic Church, that their initiatory ceremony was originally so near to blasphemy that it had to be dropped under threat of excommunication; but none the less composed exclusively of Catholics pledged by a Sacramental Test. Into this sinister fraternity, now the undisputed masters and wirepullers of the public movement, no Protestant Irishman, were he the most illustrious in the history of our nation, was permitted to enter. The new disability and its Sacramental Test debased the National Ideal from the aim of Wolfe Tone—which was "to unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter"—to the level of a Catholic Orangeism in green paint, deformed by the same vices of monopoly and intolerance which had made Protestant Orangeism a National scourge. The results were catastrophic. Those who study the records of the time will not, I think, be able to escape from the conclusion that the uprise of the Board of Erin, which became for all practical purposes the real Government of the country behind Mr. Birrell's genial mask, was a more effective instrument than Sir Edward Carson in organising the Covenanters of Ulster and in driving them to desperation and to arms. The ablest historian of the Sinn Féin movement, Professor Mitchell Henry, of Belfast, tells us:

"All sections of Sinn Féin as well as the Labour Party, saw in the Antient Order of Hibernians a menace to any prospect of an accommodation with Ulster. This strictly sectarian society, as sectarian and often as violent in its methods as the Orange Lodges, evoked their determined hostility."

What the leaders of the Insurrection of Easter Week thought on the subject is no less emphatic. Says Mr. Patrick H. Pearse, the most romantic of the Insurgent Chiefs, who was shot in Kilmainham Jail: "The narrowing-down of Nationalism, by a job-getting organisation, to the members of one creed is the most fatal thing that has taken place in Ireland since the days of The Pope's Brass-band [a notorious crew of self-styled Catholic placehunters] "and is a silent practical riveting of sectarianism on the nation."

The judgment of Mr. James Connolly, a Labour leader of remarkable sagacity as well as bravery, who was also shot as the Commander of the Citizens' Army, is more unequivocal still:

"Were it not for the existence of the Board of Erin the Orange Society would long since have ceased to exist. To Brother Devlin, and not to Brother Carson, is mainly due the progress of the Covenanter Movement in Ulster."

This was the power which was henceforth to be the roguish voice of Jacob, while the hand continued to be the unwilling hand of Mr. Redmond. In its new phase of occupation, the Irish Party ceased to exist as the National Party of Parnell, and became the sham-Catholic Hibernian Party.

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The Irish Revolution

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William O'Brien was a County Cork M.P. who participated in the negotiations for Home Rule in Ireland. In this account, first published in 1923, he provides an insight into the politics and politicians of the time - John Redmond, John Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Sir Edward Carson, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. - and gives his analysis of the origins of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Civil War. From his own perspective, O'Brien was very much anti-Partition, and was evidently frustrated at the failure to give adequate reassurance to the Northern Unionists.

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