Rule of the English Parliament 1640-1750

Alice Stopford Green
Chapter X

The aim which English kings had set before them for the last four hundred years seemed now fulfilled. The land was theirs, and the dominion. But the victory turned to dust and ashes in their hands. The "royal inheritance" of so many hopes had practically disappeared; for if the feudal system which was to give the king the land of Ireland had destroyed the tribal system, it was itself dead; decaying and intolerable in England, it could no longer be made to serve in Ireland. Henry's dream of a royal army from Ireland, "a sword and flay" at the king's use against his subjects in Great Britain, perished; Charles I did indeed propose to use the Irish fighting-men to smite into obedience England and Scotland, but no king of England tried that experiment again. James II looked to Ireland, as in Henry's scheme, for a safe place of refuge to fly to in danger; that, again, no king of England tried a second time. As for the king's revenues and profits, the dream of so many centuries, that too vanished: confiscations old and new which the English parliament allowed the Crown for Irish government left the king none the richer, and after 1692 no longer sufficed even for Irish expenses. The title of "King of Ireland" which Henry VIII had proclaimed in his own right with such high hopes, bred out of its original deception other deceptions deeper and blacker than the first. The sovereign saw his absolute tyranny gradually taken out of his hands by the parliament and middle class for their own benefit; the rule of the king was passing, the rule of the English parliament had begun.

Thus past history was as it were wiped out. Everything in Ireland was to be new. The social order was now neither feudal nor tribal, nor anything known before. Other methods had been set up, without custom, tradition, or law behind them. There were two new classes, English planters and Irish toilers. No old ties bound them, and no new charities. "From the Anglo-Irish no man of special sanctity as yet is known to have sprung," observed a Gael of that day. Ancient patrimony had fallen. The new aristocracy was that of the strong hand and the exploiter's greed. Ordinary restraints of civilised societies were not yet born in this pushing commercial throng, where the scum of Great Britain, broken men or men flying from the law, hastened—"hoping to be without fear of man's justice in a land where there was nothing, or but little as yet, of the fear of God." Ireland was left absolutely without guides or representatives. There were no natural leaders of the country among the new men, each fighting for his own hand; the English government permitted none among the Irish.

England too was being made new, with much turmoil and confusion—an England where kings were yielding to parliaments, and parliaments were being subdued to the rising commercial classes. The idea of a separate royal power and profit had disappeared and instead of it had come the rule and profit of the parliament of England, and of her noblemen, ecclesiastics, and traders in general.

This new rule marked the first revolution in the English government of Ireland which had happened since Henry II sat in his Dublin palace. By the ancient constitution assured by compacts and grants since English laws were first brought into that country, Ireland was united to the Crown of England as a free and distinct kingdom, with the right of holding parliaments subject only to the king and his privy council; statutes of the English parliament had not force of law there until they had been re-enacted in Ireland—which indeed was necessary by the very theory of parliaments, for there were no Irish representatives in the English Houses. Of its mere will the parliament of England now took to itself authority to make laws for Ireland in as free and uncontrolled a manner as if no Irish parliament existed. The new ruling classes had neither experience nor training. Regardless of any legal technicalities they simply usurped a power unlimited and despotic over a confused and shattered Ireland. Now was seen the full evil of government from over-sea, where before a foreign tribunal, sitting at a distance, ignorant and prejudiced, the subject people had no voice; they could dispute no lie, and could affirm no truth.

This despotism grew up regardless of any theory of law or constitution. The intention was unchanged—the taking of all Irish land, the rooting out of the old race from the country. Adventurers were tempted by Irish wealth; what had once been widely diffused among the Irish tribes was gathered into the hands of a few aliens, who ruthlessly wasted the land for their own great enrichment. Enormous profits fell to planters, who could get three times as much gain from an Irish as from an English estate by a fierce exploiting of the natural resources of the island and of its cheap outlawed labour. Forests of oak were hastily destroyed for quick profits; woods were cut down for charcoal to smelt the iron which was carried down the rivers in cunning Irish boats, and what had cost £10 in labour and transport sold at £17 in London. The last furnace was put out in Kerry when the last wood had been destroyed. Where the English adventurer passed he left the land as naked as if a forest fire had swept over the country.

For the exploiter's rage, for the waster's madness, more land was constantly needed. Three provinces had been largely planted by 1620—one still remained. By a prodigious fraud James I, and after him Charles I in violation of his solemn promise, proposed to extirpate the Irish from Connacht. The maddened people were driven to arms in 1641. The London parliament which had just opened the quarrel with the king which was to end in his beheading, seized their opportunity in Ireland. Instantly London City, and a House of Commons consisting mainly of Puritan adventurers, joined in speculations to buy up "traitors' lands," openly sold in London at £100 for a thousand acres in Ulster or for six hundred in Munster, and so on in every province. It was a cheap bargain, the value of forfeited lands being calculated by parliament later at £2,500 for a thousand acres. The more rebels the more forfeitures, and every device of law and fraud was used to fling the whole people into the war, either in fact or in name, and so destroy the claim of the whole of them to their lands. "Wild Irishmen," the English said to one another, "had nothing but the human form to show that they were men." Letters were forged and printed in England, purporting to give Irish news; discountenanced by parliament, they still mark the first experiment to appeal in this way to London on the Irish question. Parliament did its utmost to make the contest a war of extermination: it ended, in fact, in the death of little less than half the population.

The Commons' auction of Irishmen's lands in 1641, their conduct of a war of distinguished ferocity, these were the acts by which the Irish first knew government by an English parliament. The memory of the black curse of Cromwell lives among the people. He remains in Ireland as the great exemplar of inhuman cruelties, standing amid these scenes of woe with praises to God for such manifest evidence of His inspiration. The speculators got their lands, outcast women and children lay on the wayside devoured by wolves and birds of prey. By order of parliament (1653) over 20,000 destitute men, women, and children from twelve years were sold into the service of English planters in Virginia and the Carolinas. Slave-dealers were let loose over the country, and the Bristol merchants did good business. With what bitter irony an Irishman might contrast the "civilisation" of the English and the "barbarism" of the Irish—if we talk, he said, about civility and a civil manner of contract of selling and buying, there is no doubt that the Anglo-Irish born in cities have had more opportunity to acquire civility than the Old Irish; but if the question be of civility, of good manners, of liberality, of hospitality, and charity towards all, these virtues dwelt among the Irish.

Kings were restored to carry out the will of parliament. Charles II at their bidding ignored the treaty of his father that the Irish who submitted should return to their lands (1661): at the mere appearance of keeping promise to a few hundred Catholic landowners out of thousands, the Protestant planters sent out their threats of insurrection. A deeper misery was reached when William III led his army across the Boyne and the Shannon (1690). In grave danger and difficulty he was glad to win peace by the Treaty of Limerick, in which the Irish were promised the quiet exercise of their religion. The Treaty was immediately broken. The English parliament objected to any such encouragement of Irish Papists, and demanded that no pardons should be given or estates divided save by their advice, and William said no word to uphold the public faith. The pledge of freedom of worship was exchanged for the most infamous set of penal laws ever placed on a Statute-book.

The breaking of the Treaty of Limerick, conspicuous among the perfidies to Ireland, inaugurated the century of settled rule by the parliament of England (1691-1782). Its first care was to secure to English Protestants their revenues in Ireland; the planters, one-fourth of the people of Ireland, were established as owners of four-fifths of Irish soil; and one-half of their estates, the land confiscated under Cromwell and William, they held by the despotic grant of the English parliament. This body, having outlawed four thousand Irishmen, and seized a million and a half of their acres, proceeded to crush the liberties of its own English settlers by simply issuing statutes for Ireland of its sole authority. The acts were as tyrannical in their subject as in their origin. One (1691), which ordered that no Catholic should sit in the Irish Houses, deprived three-fourths of the people of representatives, and left to one-fourth alone the right of citizens. Some English judges decided, without and against Irish legal opinion, that the privy councils in Dublin and London had power to alter Irish bills before sending them to the king. "If an angel came from heaven that was a privy councillor I would not trust my liberty with him one moment," said an English member of that time.

All liberties were thus rooted out. The planters' rights were overthrown as pitilessly as those of the Irish they had expelled. Molyneux, member for Dublin university, set forth in 1698 the "Case of Ireland." He traced its constitution for five centuries; showed that historically there had never been a "conquest" of Ireland, and that all its civil liberties were grounded on compact and charter; and declared that his native land shared the claims of all mankind to justice.

"To tax me without consent is little better, if at all, than downright robbing me. I am sure the great patriots of liberty and property, the free people of England, cannot think of such a thing but with abhorrence." "There may be ill consequences," he cried, "if the Irish come to think their rights and liberties were taken away, their parliaments rendered nugatory, and their lives and fortunes left to depend on the will of a legislature wherein they are not parties." The "ill consequences " were seen seventy years later when Molyneux's book became the text-book of Americans in their rising against English rule; and when Anglo-Irish defenders of their own liberties were driven to make common cause with their Irish compatriots—for "no one or more men," said Molyneux, "can by nature challenge any right, liberty, or freedom, or any ease in his property, estate, or conscience which all other men have not an equally just claim to." But that day was far off. For the moment the Irish parliament deserved and received entire contempt from England. The gentry who had accepted land and power by the arbitrary will of the English House of Commons dared not dispute the tyranny that was the warrant of their property: "I hope," was the ironic answer, "the honourable member will not question the validity of his title." With such an argument at hand, the English parliament had no need of circumspection or of soft words. It simply condemned Molyneux and his remonstrance, demanded of the king to maintain the subordination of Ireland, and to order the journals of its parliaments to be laid before the Houses at Westminster; and on the same day required of him, since the Irish were "dependent on and protected by England in the enjoyment of all they had," to forbid them to continue their woollen trade, but leave it entire to England. In 1719 it declared its power at all times to make laws which should bind the people of Ireland.

Thus an English parliament which had fought for its own liberties established a hierarchy of tyranny for Ireland: the Anglo-Irish tied under servitude to England, and the Irish chained under an equal bondage to the Anglo-Irish. As one of the governors of Ireland wrote a hundred years later, "I think Great Britain may still easily manage the Protestants, and the Protestants the Catholics." Such was the servile position of English planters. They had made their bargain. To pay the price of wealth and ascendency they sold their own freedom and the rights of their new country. The smaller number, said Burke, were placed in power at the expense of the civil liberties and properties of the far greater, and at the expense of the civil liberties of the whole.

Ireland was now degraded to a subject colony. The government never proposed that Englishmen in Ireland should be on equal terms with English in England. Stringent arrangements were made to keep Ireland low. The Habeas Corpus Act was suspended while the English parliament ruled. Judges were removable at pleasure. Precautions were taken against the growth of "an Irish interest." By a variety of devices the parliament of English Protestants was debased to a corrupt and ignoble servitude. So deep was their subjection that Ireland was held in England to be "no more than a remote part of their dominion, which was not accustomed to figure on the theatre of politics." Government by Dublin Castle was directed in the sole interest of England; the greatest posts in the Castle, the Law, the Church, were given to Englishmen, "king-fishers," as the nickname went of the churchmen. "I fear much blame here," said the English premier in 1774, "... if I consent to part with the disposal of these offices which have been so long and so uniformly bestowed upon members of the British parliament." Castle officials were expected to have a single view to English interests. In speeches from the throne governors of Ireland formally spoke of the Irish people, the majority of their subjects, as "the common enemy"; they were scarcely less suspicious of the English Protestants; "it is worth turning in your mind," one wrote to Pitt, "how the violence of both parties might be turned on this occasion to the advancement of England."

One tyranny begot another. Irish members, having no liberties to defend, and no country to protect, devoted themselves to the security of their property—its security and increase. All was quiet. There was no fear in Ireland of a rising for the Pretender. The Irish, true to their ancient horror of violence for religion, never made a religious war, and never desired that which was ever repugnant to the Irish spirit, temporal ascendency for a spiritual faith. Their only prayer was for freedom in worship—that same prayer which Irish Catholics had presented in the parliament of James I (1613), "indented with sorrow, signed with tears, and delivered in this house of peace and liberty with our disarmed hands." Protestants had never cause for fear in Ireland on religious grounds. In queen Mary's persecution Protestants flying from England had taken shelter in Ireland among Irish Catholics, and not a hand was raised against them there. Bitter as were the poets against the English exterminators, no Irish curse has been found against the Protestant for his religion, even through the black time of the penal laws. The parliament, however, began a series of penal laws against Irish Catholics. They were forbidden the use of their religion, almost every means of livelihood, every right of a citizen, every family affection. Their possessions were scattered, education was denied them, when a father died his children were handed over to a Protestant guardian. "The law," said the leading judges, "does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic." They were only recognised "for repression and punishment." Statutes framed to demoralise and debase the people, so as to make them for ever unfit for self-government, pursued the souls of the victims to the second and third generation. In this ferocious violence the law-makers were not moved by fanaticism. Their rapacity was not concerned with the religion of the Irish, but only with their property and industry. The conversion of a Catholic was not greatly desired; so long as there were Papists the planters could secure their lands, and use them as slaves, "worse than negroes." Laws which would have sounded infamous if directed openly to the seizing of property, took on a sacred character as a religious effort to suppress false doctrine. One-fiftieth part of Ireland was all that was left to Irish Catholics, utterly excluded for ever from the inheritance of their fathers. "One single foot of land there is not left us," rose their lament, "no, not what one may make his bed upon." "See all that are without a bed except the furze of the mountains, the bent of the curragh, and the bog-myrtle beneath their bodies. Under frost, under snow, under rain, under blasts of wind, without a morsel to eat but watercress, green grass, sorrel of the mountain, or clover of the hills. Och! my pity to see their nobles forsaken!"

And yet, in spite of this success, the Anglo-Irish had made a bad bargain. Cut off from their fellow-countrymen, having renounced the right to have a country, the Protestant land-hunters were no more respected in England than in Ireland. The English parliament did with them as it chose. Their subjection tempted the commercial classes. To safeguard their own profits of commerce and industry English traders made statutes to annihilate Irish competition. They forbade carrying of cattle or dairy stuff to England, they forbade trade in soap or candles; in cloth, in glass, in linen save of the coarsest kind; the increase of corn was checked; it was proposed to stop Irish fisheries. The wool which they might not use at home must be exported to England alone. They might not build ships. From old time Ireland had traded across the Gaulish sea: her ports had seen the first discoverers of America. But now all her great harbours to the west with its rising American trade were closed: no merchant ship crossing the Atlantic was allowed to load at an Irish port or to unload. The abundance of harbours, once so full of commerce, were now, said Swift, "of no more use to us than a beautiful prospect to a man shut up in a dungeon." In 1720 all trade was at a stand, the country bare of money, "want and misery in every face." It was unfortunate, Englishmen said, that Ireland had been by the act of God doomed to poverty—so isolated in geographical position, so lacking in industrial resources, inhabited by a people so indolent in tillage, and unfitted by their religion to work. Meanwhile they successfully pushed their own business in a country which they allowed to make nothing for itself. Their manufacturers sent over yearly two millions of their goods, more than to any other country save their American colonies, and took the raw material of Ireland, while Irish workers were driven out on the hillsides to starve. The planters' parliament looked on in barren helplessness. They had no nation behind them. They could lead no popular resistance. They had no call to public duty. And the English knew it well. Ministers heaped up humiliations; they quartered on Irish revenues all the pensioners that could not safely be proposed to a free parliament in England—the mistresses of successsive kings and their children, German relations of the Hanoverians, useful politicians covered by other names, a queen of Denmark banished for misconduct, a Sardinian ambassador under a false title, a trailing host of Englishmen—pensions steadily increasing from £30,000 to over £89,000. Some £600,000 was at last yearly sent over to England for absentees, pensions, government annuities, and the like. A parliament servile and tyrannical could not even pretend to urge on the government that its measures, as a patriot said, should sometimes "diverge towards public utility." It had abandoned all power save that of increasing the sorrows of the people.

A double corruption was thus proceeding.

The English parliament desired to make the Irish houses for ever unfit for self-government. The Irish parliament was seeking to perform the same office for the Irish people under it. The old race meanwhile, three-fourths of the dwellers in Ireland, were brought under consideration of the rulers only as objects of some new rigour or severity. Their cry was unheard by an absent and indifferent "conqueror," and the only reform the country ever knew was an increase in the army that maintained the alien rulers and protected their crimes. In neither parliament had the Irish any voice. In courts where the law was administered by Protestant landlords and their agents, as magistrates, grand juries, bailiffs, lawyers, and the rest—"full of might and injustice, without a word for the Irish in the law," as an Irish poem said, who would not even write the Irish names, but scornfully cried after all of them Teig and Diarmuid—the ancient tongue of the people and their despised birth left them helpless. Once a chief justice in Tipperary conducted trials with fairness and humanity: "for about ten miles from Clonmel both sides of the road were lined with men, women, and children, who, as he passed along, kneeled down and supplicated Heaven to bless him as their protector and guardian angel." The people poured from "this sod of misery" across the sea. In the service of France alone 450,000 Irish soldiers were reckoned to have died between 1691 and 1745. Uncounted thousands from north and south sailed to America. Irish Catholics went there in a constant stream from 1650 till 1798. The Protestant settlers followed them in the eighteenth century.

Like the kings of England, the parliament of the English aristocracy and commercial magnates had failed to exploit Ireland to their advantage. For a hundred years (16911782) they ruled the Irish people with the strictest severity that human ingenuity could devise. A "strong government," purely English, was given its opportunity—prolonged, undisturbed, uncontrolled—to advance "the king's service," the dependency of Ireland upon England, and "the comfort or security of any English in it." A multitude of statesmen put their hands to the work. Commercial men in England inspired the policy. English clergy were sent over to fill all the higher posts of the church, and were the chief leaders of the secular government. Such a power very rarely falls to the rulers in any country. And in the end there was no advantage to any party. Some astute individuals heaped up an ignoble wealth, but there was no profit to Ireland, to England, or to the Empire. The Irish people suffered a long agony unmatched, perhaps, in European history. Few of the Protestant country gentry had established their fortunes; their subservience which debarred them from public duty, their privilege of calling in English soldiers to protect them from the results of every error or crime, had robbed them of any high intelligence in politics or science in their business of land management, and thus doubly impoverished them. England on her part had thrown into the sea from her dominion a greater wealth of talent, industry, and bravery than had ever been exiled from any country in the world: there was not a country in Europe, and not an occupation, where Irishmen were not in the first rank—as field-marshals, admirals, ambassadors, prime ministers, scholars, physicians, merchants, founders of mining industries, soldiers, and labourers. In exchange for this an incompetent and inferior landed gentry was established in Ireland. Instead of profit for the government there was plain bankruptcy—"England," it was said, "must now either support this kingdom, or allow her the means of supporting herself." As for the Empire, the colonies had been flooded with the men that England had wronged. Even the Protestant exiles from Ulster went to America as "Sons of St. Patrick." "To shun persecution and designed ruin" by the English government, Protestants and Catholics had gone, and their money, their arms, the fury of their wrath, were spent in organising the American War. Irishmen were at every meeting, every council, every battle. Their indignation was a white flame of revolt that consumed every fear and vacillation around it. That long, deep, and bitter experience bore down the temporisers, and sent out men trained in suffering to triumph over every adversity. Brigadier-General Owen Sullivan, born at Limerick during the siege, was publicly thanked by Washington and by the congress. Commodore John Barry, a Wexford man, "Father of the American Navy," was Washington's commander-in-chief of the naval forces of the States. Charles Thompson of Strabane was secretary of the Continental Congress. Eight Irishmen, passionate organisers of the revolt, signed the Declaration of Independence. After the war an Irishman prepared the Declaration for publication from Jefferson's rough draft; an Irishman's son first publicly read it; an Irishman first printed and published it.

We have seen the uncontrolled rule of English kings and English Parliaments. Such was the end of their story. There was another experiment yet to be tried.