James II and Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


ON February 6, 1685, Charles the Second closed a life the chronicles of which may be searched in vain for a notable act of goodness, wisdom, valor, or virtue. On his deathbed he openly professed the faith which for years past, if not at all times, he had secretly believed in, but dared not publicly avow—Catholicity. The man, however, on whom now devolved the triple crown of England, Scotland, and Ireland—Charles' brother, James, Duke of York—was one who had neither dissembled nor concealed his religious convictions. He was a sincere Catholic, and had endured much of trouble and persecution in consequence of his profession of that faith. He was married to the young and beautiful Princess Mary of Modena, an ardent Catholic like himself,[1] and the ultra-Protestant party witnessed his accession to the throne with undisguised chagrin and sullen discontent.

All writers have agreed in attributing to James the Second a disregard of the plainest dictates of prudence, if not of the plainest limits of legality, in the measures he adopted for the accomplishment of a purpose unquestionably equitable, laudable, and beneficent—namely, the abolition of proscription and persecution for conscience' sake, and the establishment of religious freedom and equality. It may be said, and with perfect truth, that though this was so, though James was rash and headlong, it mattered little after all, for the end he aimed at was so utterly opposed to the will of the English people, so inconsistent with "vested interests" throughout all three kingdoms, that it was out of all possibility he could have succeeded, whether he were politic and cautious, or straightforward, arbitrary) and rash. For the English nation was too strongly bent on thorough persecution to be barred in its course, or diverted into tolerance or humanity by any power of king or queen; and already the English people had made it plain that no man should be ruler over them who would not be of their mind on this subject. But James' conduct rendered his overthrow simply inevitable. Before he was well seated on the throne he had precipitated conflicts with the judges, the bishops, and parliament; the point of contention, to be sure, being mainly his resolution of granting freedom of conscience to all creeds.

It was in Ireland, however, that this startling programme evoked the wildest sensation of alarm on the one hand, and rejoicing on the other; and it was there that, inevitably, owing to the vast preponderance of the Catholic population, relative equality appeared to the Protestant eye as absolute Catholic dominance. Two Catholic judges and one Protestant may have been even short of the Catholic proportion; yet the Protestant colony would not look at the question in this way at all, and they called it intolerable popish ascendency. James had selected for the carrying out of his views in Ireland a man whose faults greatly resembled his own, Richard Talbot, subsequently Earl and Duke of Tyrconnnell. He was devotedly attached to the king; a courtier, not a statesman; rash, vain, self-willed; a faithful and loyal friend, but a famous man to lose a kingdom with.

If the Irish Catholics had indulged in hopes on the accession successively of James' grandfather, father, and brother, what must have been their feelings now? Here, assuredly, there was no room for mistake or doubt. A king resolved to. befriend them was on the throne! The land burst forth into universal rejoicing. Out from hiding place in cellar and garret, cavern and fastness, came hunted prelate and priest, the surplice and the stole, the chalice and the patten; and once more, in the open day and in the public churches, the ancient rites were seen. The people, awakened as if from a long trance of sorrow, heaved with a new life, and with faces all beaming and radiant went about in crowds chanting songs of joy and gratitude. One after one, the barriers of exclusion were laid low, and the bulk of the population admitted to equal rights with the colonist-Protestants. In fine, all men were declared equal in the eye of the law, irrespective of creed or race; an utter reversion of the previous system, which constituted the "colony" the jailers of the fettered nation.

Ireland and England accordingly seethed with Protestant disaffection, but there was an idea that the king would die without legitimate male issue [2] and so the general resolution seemed to be that in a few years all would be right, and these abominable ideas of religious tolerance swept away once more. To the consternation and dismay of the anti-tolerance party, however, a son was born to James in June, 1688. There was no. standing this. It was the signal for revolt.

On this occasion no native insurrection initiated the revolution. In this crisis of their history—this moment in which was molded and laid down the basis of the English constitution as it exists to our own time—the English nation asserted by precept and practice the truly singular doctrine that even for the purpose of overthrowing a legitimate native sovereign, conspiring malcontents act well and wisely in depending upon "foreign emissaries" to come and begin the work—and complete it too! So they invited the Dutch and the Danes and the Swedes and the French Calvinists—-and indeed, for that matter, foreign emissaries from every country or any country who would aid them—to come and help them in their rebellion against their king. To the Stadtholder of Holland, William Prince of Orange, they offered the throne, having ascertained that he would accept it without any qualms, on the ground that the king to be beheaded or driven away was at once his own uncle and father-in-law.

This remarkable man has been greatly misunderstood, owing to the fact of his name being made the shibboleth of a faction whose sanguinary fanaticism he despised and repudiated. William Henry, Prince of Orange, was now in his thirty-seventh year. An impartial and discriminating Catholic historian justly describes him to us as "fearless of danger, patient, silent, imperious to his enemies, rather a soldier than a statesman, indifferent in religion, and personally adverse to persecution for conscience' sake," his great and almost his only public passion being the humiliation of France through the instrumentality of a European coalition. In the great struggle against French preponderance on the continent then being waged by the league of Augsburg, William was on the same side with the rulers of Austria, Germany, and Spain, and even with the pope; James, on the other hand, being altogether attached to France. In his designs on the English throne, however, the Dutch prince practiced the grossest deceit on his confederates of the league, protesting to them that he was coming to England solely to compose in a friendly way a domestic quarrel, one of the results of which would be to detach James from the side of France and add England to the league. By means of this duplicity he was able to bring to the aid of his English schemes men, money, and material contributed for league purposes by his continental colleagues.

On November 5, 1688, William landed at Torbay in Devonshire. He brought with him a Dutch fleet of twenty-two men of war, twenty-five frigates, twenty-five fire-ships, and about four hundred transports; conveying in all about, fifteen thousand men. If the royal army could have been relied upon, James might easily have disposed of these "invaders" or "liberators;" but the army went over wholesale to the "foreign emissaries." Thus finding himself surrounded by treason, and having the fate of his hapless father in remembrance, James took refuge in France, where he arrived on December 25, 1688; the Queen and infant Prince of Wales, much to the rage of the rebels, having been safely conveyed thither some short time previously. The revolutionary party affected to think the escape of the king an abdication, the theory being that, by not waiting to be beheaded he had forfeited the throne.

England and Scotland unmistakably declared for the revolution. Ireland as unquestionably—indeed, enthusiastically—declared for the king; any other course would be impossible to a people among whom ingratitude has been held infamous, and against whom want of chivalry or generosity has never been alleged. In proportion as the Catholic population expressed their sympathy with the king, the "colony" Protestants and Cromwellianite garrisons manifested their adhesion to the rebel cause, and began to flock from all sides into the strong places of Ulster, bringing with them their arms and ammunition. Tyrconnell, who had vainly endeavored to call in the government arms in their hands (as militia) now commissioned several of the Catholic nobility and gentry to raise regiments of more certain loyalty for the king's service. Of recruits there was no lack, but of the use of arms or knowledge of drill or discipline, these recruits knew absolutely nothing; and of arms, of equipments, or of war material—especially of cannon—Tyrconnell found himself almost entirely destitute. The malcontents, on the other hand, constituted that class which for at least forty years past had enjoyed by law the sole right to possess arms, and who had from childhood, of necessity, been trained to use them. The royalist force which the viceroy sent to occupy Derry (a Catholic regiment newly raised by Lord Antrim), incredible as it may appear, had for the greater part no better arms than clubs and skians. It is not greatly to be wondered at that the Protestant citizens—among whom, as well as throughout all the Protestant districts in Ireland, anonymous letters had been circulated, giving out an "intended popish massacre"[3] of all the Protestants on the 9th of December—feared to admit such a gathering within their walls. "The impression made by the report of the intended massacre, and the contempt naturally entertained for foes armed in so rude a fashion," were as a matter of fact the chief incentives to the "closing of the gates of Derry," which event we may set down as the formal inauguration of the rebellion in Ireland.


[1] She was his second wife, and had been married to him at the age of fifteen. By his first wife, Ann, daughter of Chancellor Hyde, he had two daughters, who were brought up Protestants by their mother. They were married, one, Mary, to Prince William of Orange; the other, Ann, to Prince George of Denmark.

[2] Four children, born to him by his second wife, all died young, and some years had now elapsed without the birth of any other.

[3] The old, old story, always available, always efficacious!