Dawn of Legislative Independence for Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


IRELAND lay long in that heavy trance. The signal for her awakening came across the western ocean. "A voice from America," says Flood, "shouted 'Liberty;' and every hill and valley of this rejoicing island answered, 'Liberty!'

For two centuries the claim of the English parliament to control, direct, and bind the Irish legislature, had been the subject of bitter dispute. The claim was first formally asserted and imposed in the reign of Henry the Seventh, when a servile "parliament," gathered at Drogheda, in November, 1495, by lord deputy Poynings, among other acts of self-degradation, at the bidding of the English official, enacted that henceforth no law could be originated in the Irish legislature, or proceeded with, until the heads of it had first been sent to England, submitted to the king and council there, and returned with their approbation under seal. This was the celebrated "Poynings' Act," or "Poynings' Law," which readers of Grattan's "Life and Times" will find mentioned so frequently. It was imposed as a most secure chain—a ponderous curb—at a crisis when resistance was out of the question. It was, in moments of like weakness or distraction, submitted to; but ever and anon in flashes of spirit, the Irish parliaments repudiated the claim as illegal, unconstitutional, and unjust. On February 16, 1640, the Irish House of Commons submitted a set of queries to the judges, the nature of which may be inferred from the question—"Whether the subjects of this kingdom be a free people, and to be governed only by the common law of England and statues passed in this kingdom?" When the answers received were deemed insufficient, the House turned the questions into the form of resolutions, and proceeded to vote on them, one by one, affirming in every point the rights, the liberties, and the privileges of their constituents.

The confederation of Kilkenny still more explicitly and boldly enunciated and asserted the doctrine that Ireland was a distinct, free, sovereign, and independent nation, subject only to the triple crown of the three kingdoms. The Cromwellian rebellion tore down this, as it trampled upon so many other of the rights and liberties of all three kingdoms. The "restoration" came; but in the reign of the second Charles, the Dublin parliament was too busy in scrambling for retention of plunder and resistance of restitution, to utter an aspiration for liberty; it bowed the neck to "Poynings' Law." To the so-called "Catholic Parliament" of Ireland in James the Second's reign belongs the proud honor of making the next notable declaration of independence; among the first acts of this legislature being one declaring the complete and perfect freedom of the Irish parliament. "Though they were 'Papists,' " says Grattan, "these men were not slaves; they wrung a constitution from King James before they accompanied him to the field. " Once more, however, came successful rebellion to overthrow the sovereign and the parliament, and again the doctrine of national independence disappeared. The Irish legislature in the first years of the new régime sank into the abject condition of a mere committee of the English parliament.

Soon, however, the spirit of resistance began to appear. For a quarter of a century, the Protestant party had been so busy at the work of persecution—so deeply occupied in forging chains for their Catholic fellow-countrymen—that they never took thought of the political thraldom being imposed upon themselves by the English parliament. "The Irish Protestant," says Mr. Wyse, "had succeeded in excluding the Catholics from power, and for a moment held triumphant and exclusive possession of the conquest; but he was merely a locum tenens for a more powerful conqueror, a jackal for the lion, an Irish steward for an English master. The exclusive system was turned against him; he made the executive exclusively Protestant; the Whigs of George the First made it almost entirely English. His victory paved the way for another far easier and far more important. Popery fell, but Ireland fell with it."[1] In 1719, the question came to a direct issue. In a lawsuit between Hester Sherlock, appellant, and Maurice Annesley, respondent, relating to some property in the county Kildare, the Irish Court of Exchequer decided in favor of the respondent. On an appeal to the Irish House of Peers, this judgment was reversed. The respondent, Annesley, now appealed to the English House of Peers in England, which body annulled the decision of the Irish peers, and confirmed that of the Exchequer Court. The sheriff of Kildare, however, recognizing the decision of the Irish peers, and declining to recognize the jurisdiction of the English tribunal, refused to obey an order calling on him to put Annesley into possession of the estate. The Irish Court of Exchequer thereupon inflicted a fine upon the sheriff. The Irish peers removed the fine, and voted that the sheriff "had behaved with integrity and courage." This bold course evoked the following galling enactment by the English House:

"Whereas, . . . the lords of Ireland have of late, against law, assumed to themselves a power and jurisdiction to examine and amend the judgments and decrees of the courts of justice in Ireland; therefore, etc., it is declared and enacted, etc. . . . that the king's majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the lords spiritual and temporal and commons of Great Britain in parliament assembled, had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the people of the kingdom of Ireland. And it is further enacted and declared that the House of Lords of Ireland have not, nor of right ought to have, any jurisdiction to judge of, affirm, or reverse any judgment, etc., made in any court in the said kingdom."

Here was "Poynings' Law" re-enacted with savage explicitness; a heavy bit set between the jaws of the restive Irish legislature.

This rough and insulting assertion of subjugation stung the Protestants to the quick. They submitted; but soon there began to break forth from among them men who commenced to utter the words Country and Patriotism. These "rash" and "extreme" doctrinaires were long almost singular in their views. Wise men considered them insane when they "raved" of recovering the freedom of parliament. "Repeal Poynings' Law!—restore the heptarchy!" cried one philosopher. "Liberate the parliament!—a splendid phantom!" cried another. Nevertheless, the so-called doctrinaires grew in popularity.

Their leader was the Very Rev. Jonathan Swift, Protestant dean of St. Patrick's. His precursor was William Molyneux, member for the Dublin University, who, in 1691, published the first great argumentative vindication of Irish legislative independence—" The Case of Ireland Stated." Immediately on its appearance, the English parliament took alarm, and ordered the book to be "burned by the hands of the common hangman." Swift took up the doctrines and arguments of Molyneux, and made them all-prevalent among the masses of the people. But the "upper classes" thought them "visionary" and "impracticable;" nay, seditious and disloyal. Later on, in the middle of the century, Dr. Charles Lucas, a Dublin apothecary, became the leader of the anti-English party. Of course, he was set down as disaffected. A resolution of the servile Irish House of Commons declared him "an enemy to his country;" and he had to fly from Ireland for a time. His popularity, however, increased, and the popular suspicion and detestation of the English only required an opportunity to exhibit itself in overt acts. In 1759 a rumor broke out in Dublin that a legislative union (on the model of the Scotto-English amalgamation just accomplished) was in contemplation. "On December 3d the citizens rose en masse and surrounded the houses of parliament. They stopped the carriages of members, and obliged them to swear opposition to such a measure. Some of the Protestant bishops and the chancellor were roughly handled; a privy councilor was thrown into the river; the attorney-general was wounded and obliged to take refuge in the college; Lord Inchiquin was abused till he said his name was O'Brien, when the rage of the people was turned into acclamations. The speaker, Mr. Ponsonby, and the chief secretary, Mr. Rigby, had to appear in the porch of the House of Commons, solemnly to assure the citizens that no union was dreamed of, and if it was proposed that they would be the first to oppose it."[2]

'The union scheme had to be abandoned; and Lucas soon after returned from exile to wield increased power. The "seditious agitator," the solemnly declared "enemy of his country," was triumphantly returned to parliament by the citizens of Dublin, having as fellow-laborers, returned at the same time, Hussey Burgh and Henry Flood. Lucas did not live to enjoy many years his well-earned honors. In 1770 he was followed to the grave by every demonstration of national regret. "At his funeral the pall was borne by the Marquis of Kildare, Lord Charlemont, Mr. Flood, Mr. Hussey Burgh, Sir Lucius O'Brien, and Mr. Ponsonby." And the citizens of Dublin, to perpetuate the memory of the once banished "disloyalist," set up his marble statue in their civic forum, where it stands to this day.[3]

While the country was thus seething with discontent, chafing under the "Poyning" yoke, there rolled across the Atlantic the echoes of Bunker's Hill; Protestant dominancy paused in its work of persecution, and bowed in homage to the divine spirit of Liberty!


[1] "His. Cath. Association," page 27.

[2] M'Gee.

[3] Lucas was, politically, a thorough nationalist, but, religiously, a bigot. The Irish nation he conceived to be the Irish Protestants. The idea of admitting the Catholics—the mass of the population—within the constitution, found in him a rabid opponent. Yet the Catholics of Ireland, to their eternal honor, have ever condoned his rabid bigotry against themselves, remembering his labors for the principle of nationality.