Irish Volunteers

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE first effort of the "patriot party," as for some years past they had been called, was to limit the duration of parliaments (at this time elected for the life of the king), so that the constituents might oftener have an opportunity—even by such cumbrous and wretchedly ineffective means as the existing electoral system provided—of judging the conduct of their members. In 1760, Lucas and his fellow-nationalists succeeded in carrying resolutions for "heads of a bill," limiting the parliaments to seven years. In accordance with "Poynings' Law," the "heads" were transmitted to London for sanction, but were never heard of more. In 1763, they were again carried in the Irish house, again sent to London, again canceled there. Irish popular feeling now began to be excited. Again, a third time, the "Septennial Bill" was carried through the Irish Parliament, again sent to London, and again ignominiously vetoed there. But now the infatuation of England had overleaped itself. A spirit was aroused in Ireland before which the government quailed.

A fourth time, amid ominous demonstrations of popular determination, the thrice-rejected "heads of a bill" were sent across. This time they were returned approved; but the seven years were altered to eight years, a paltry and miserable assertion of mastery, even while yielding under fear. But the impartial student will note that by some malign fatality it happens that even up to the present hour every concession granted by England to Irish demands was invariably refused till passion was inflamed, and has been conceded only on compulsion. The concession that, had it been made cheerfully and graciously at first, might have elicited good will and gratitude, has always been denied as long as it durst for safety be withheld, and been granted only when some home or foreign difficulty rendered Irish discontent full of danger.

Concessions thus made are taken without thanks, and only give strength and determination to further demands. The patriot party followed up their first decisive victory by campaigns upon the pension list, the dependence of the judges, the voting of supply, etc.; the result being continuous, violent, and bitter conflict between the parliament and the viceroy; popular feeling rising and intensifying, gaining strength and force every hour.

Meanwhile America, on issues almost identical, had taken the field, and, aided by France, was holding England in deadly struggle. Toward the close of the year 1779, while Ireland as well as England was denuded of troops, government sent warning that some French or American privateers might be expected on the Irish coast, but confessing that no regular troops could be spared for local defense. The people of Belfast were the first to make a significant answer to this warning by enrolling volunteers corps. The movement spread rapidly throughout the island, and in a short time the government with dismay beheld the patriot party in parliament surrounded by a volunteer army filled with patriotic ardor and enthusiasm. Every additional battalion of volunteers enrolled added to the moral power wielded by those leaders, whose utterances grew in boldness amid the flashing swords and bayonets of a citizen army one hundred thousand strong. The nation by this time had become unanimous in its resolution to be free; a corrupt or timid group of courtiers or placemen alone making a sullen and half-hearted fight against the now all-powerful nationalists. Under the healing influence of this sentiment of patriotism, the gaping wounds of a century began to close. The Catholic slave, though still outside the pale of the constitution, forgot his griefs and his wrongs for the moment, and gave all his energies in aid of the national movement. He bought the musket which law denied to himself the right to bear, and placing it in the hand of his Protestant fellow-countryman, bade him go forward in the glorious work of liberating their common fatherland.

Free trade became now the great object of endeavor. The trade of Ireland at this time had been almost extinguished by repressive enactments passed by the English parliament in London, or by its shadow in Dublin in by-gone years. Immediately on the accession of William the Third, the English lords and commons addressed the king, praying his majesty to declare to his Irish subjects that "the growth and increase of the wollen manufacture hath long been, and will ever be looked upon with great jealousy," and threatening very plainly that they might otherwise have to enact "very strict laws totally to abolish the same."[1] William answered them, promising to do "all that in him lay" to "discourage the woollen manufacture there." 'Twere long to trace and to recapitulate the multifarious laws passed to crush manufacture and commerce of all kinds in Ireland in accordance with the above-cited address and royal promise. Englishmen in our day are constantly reproaching Ireland with absence of manufactures and commerce, and inviting this country to "wake up" and compete with England in the markets of the world. This may be malignant sarcasm, or it may be the ignorance of defective information. When one country has been by law forbidden to engage in manufactures or commerce until the other has protected and nursed her own into vigor and maturity, and has secured possession of the world's markets, the invitation to the long-restricted and now crippled country to "compete" on the basis of free trade, is as much of a mockery as to call for a race between a trained athlete and a half-crippled captive, who has, moreover, been forcibly and foully detained till the other has neared the winning post.

To liberate Irish trade from such restraints was now the resolve of the patriot party in the Irish parliament. On October 12, 1779, they carried an address to the viceroy, declaring that "by free trade alone" could the nation be saved from impending ruin. Again England ungraciously and sourly complied, and once more clogged her compliance with embittering addenda. These concessions, which the secretary of state was assuring the Irish parliament were freely bestowed by English generosity, were no sooner made public in England than Mr. Pitt had to send circular letters to the manufacturing towns, assuring them "that nothing effectual had been granted in Ireland."

But the Irish leaders were now about to crown their liberating efforts by a work which would henceforth place the destinies of Irish trade beyond the power of English jealousy, and beneath the protecting aegis of a free and independent native legislature. On April 19, 1780, Grattan moved that resolution which is the sum and substance in its simple completeness of the Irish national constitutional doctrine: "That no power on earth, save that of the king, lords, and commons of Ireland, has a right to make laws to bind this kingdom."

The motion was unsuccessful; but this was the commencement of the great struggle; and over the vital issue now raised—complete legislative independence—the government fought with an unscrupulous energy. Throughout two years the contest was pursued with unintermitting severity, when suddenly Europe was electrified by the intelligence that the British armies had capitulated to the "rebel colonists," and the "star-spangled banner" appeared on the western horizon, proclaiming the birth of a new power destined to be the terror of tyrants, the hope of the oppressed, all over the world.

It was England's day of humiliation and dismay. By clutching at the right of oppression in her hour of fancied strength, she had lost America. It was not clear that through the same course she was not about to drive Ireland also from the demand for legislative independence into the choice of complete separation.

The Ulster volunteers now decided to hold a national convention of delegates from every citizen régiment in the province. On the day fixed—Friday, February 15, 1782—and at the appointed place of meeting—the Protestant church of Dungannon, county Tyrone, the convention assembled; and there, amid a scene the most glorious witnessed in Ireland for years, the delegates of the citizen army solemnly swore allegiance to the charter of national liberty, denouncing as "unconstitutional, illegal, and a grievance," "the claim of any body of men, other than the king, lords, and commons of Ireland to make laws to bind this kingdom." The Dungannon resolutions were enthusiastically ratified and reasserted by the several volunteer corps, the municipal corporations, and public meetings, all over the island; and soon, outside the circle of corrupt and servile castle placemen, no voice durst be raised against the demand for liberty.

A conciliatory, that is, a temporizing, ministry, now came into power in London, and in their choice of lord lieutenant for Ireland—the Duke of Portland—they found a very suitable man, apparently, for their designs or experiments. But the duke "on his arrival found the nation in a state in which neither procrastination nor evasion was any longer practicable." He reported to England the danger of resistance and the advisability of temporizing, that is, of yielding as little as possible, but yielding all if necessary. Accordingly, a message was delivered by the king to the British parliament, setting forth "that mistrusts and jealousies had arisen in Ireland, and that it was highly necessary to take the same into immediate consideration in order to a final adjustment." Meanwhile the viceroy in Dublin was plausibly endeavoring to wheedle Grattan and the other patriot leaders into procrastination, or, failing this, to tone down, to "moderate," the terms of the popular demand. Happily Grattan was sternly firm. He would not consent to even a day's postponement of the question, and he refused to alter a jot of the national ultimatum. An eyewitness has described for us the great scene of April 16, 1782:

"Whoever has individually experienced the sensation of ardent expectation, trembling suspense, burning impatience, and determined resolution, and can suppose all those sensations possessing an entire nation, may form some, but yet an inadequate, idea of the feelings of the Irish people on April 16, 1782, which was the day peremptorily fixed by Mr. Grattan for moving that declaration of rights which was the proximate cause of Ireland's short-lived prosperity, and the remote one of its final overthrow and annexation. So high were the minds of the public wound up on the eve of that momentous day, that the volunteers flew to their arms without having an enemy to encounter, and, almost breathless with impatience, inquired eagerly after the probability of events, which the close of the same day must certainly determine.

Portrait of Henry Grattan

Early on April 16, 1782, the great street before the house of parliament was thronged by a multitude of people of every class and description, though many hours must elapse before the house would meet, or business be proceeded with. The parliament had been summoned to attend this momentous question by an unusual and special call of the house, and by four o'clock a full meeting took place. The body of the House of Commons was crowded with its members, a great proportion of the peerage attended as auditors, and the capacious gallery which surrounded the interior magnificent dome of the house contained above four hundred ladies of the highest distinction, who partook of the same national fire which had enlightened their parents, their husbands, and their relatives, and by the sympathetic influence of their presence and zeal they communicated an instinctive chivalrous impulse to eloquence and patriotism.

"A calm but deep solicitude was apparent on almost every countenance when Mr. Grattan entered, accompanied by Mr. Brownlow and several others, the determined and important advocates for the declaration of Irish independence. Mr. Grattan's preceding exertions and anxiety had manifestly injured his health; his tottering; frame seemed barely sufficient to sustain his. laboring mind, replete with the unprecedented importance and responsibility of the measure he was about to bring forward."[2]

"For a short time," continues Sir Jonah Barrington, "a profound silence ensued." It was, expected that Grattan would rise; but, to the mortification and confusion of the government leaders, he kept his seat, putting on them the responsibility of opening the proceedings and of fixing their attitude before being allowed to "feel their way," as they greatly desired to do. The secretary of state, resigning himself to the worst, thought it better to declare for concession. He announced that "his majesty, being concerned to find that discontents and jealousies were prevailing among his loyal subjects in Ireland upon matters of great weight and importance, recommended to the house to take the same into their most serious consideration, in order to effect such a final adjustment as might give satisfaction to both kingdoms." The secretary, however, added that he was not officially authorized to say more than to deliver the message.

After an interval of embarrassing silence and curiosity, Mr. George Ponsonby rose, and moved a weak and procrastinating reply, "thanking the king for his goodness and condescension." But it would not do. The national determination was not to be trifled with. At length, after a solemn pause, Grattan, slowly rising from his seat, commenced "the most luminous, brilliant, and effective oration ever delivered in the Irish parliament;" a speech which, "rising in its. progress, applied equally to the sense, the pride, and the spirit of the nation." "Amid an universal cry of approbation," he concluded by moving as an amendment to Mr. Ponsonby's inconsequential motion, the ever-memorable declaration of Irish independence:

"That the kingdom of Ireland is a distinct kingdom, with a parliament of her own, the sole legislature thereof; that there is no body of men competent to make laws to bind the nation, but, the king, lords, and commons of Ireland, nor any parliament which hath any authority or power of any sort whatever in this country, save only the parliament of Ireland; to assure his majesty that we humbly conceive that in this right the very essence of our liberty exists, a right which we, on the part of all the people of Ireland, do claim as their birthright, and which we cannot yield but with our lives."

Grattan's amendment was seconded by Mr. Brownlow, member for Armagh County, in point of wealth and reputation one of the first country gentlemen in Ireland. "The whole house," says Barrington, "in a moment caught the patriotic flame. All further debate ceased; the speaker put the question on Mr. Grattan's amendment; an unanimous shout of 'ay' burst from every quarter of the house. He repeated the question. The applause redoubled. A moment of tumultous exultation followed; and after centuries of oppression, Ireland at length declared herself an independent nation."

Word of the event no sooner reached the impatient crowd outside the building than a cry of joy and triumph burst forth all over the city. "The news soon spread through the nation, and the rejoicings of the people were beyond all description; every city, town, and village in Ireland blazed with the emblems of exultation, and resounded with the shouts of triumph."

"Never was a new nation more nobly heralded into existence. Never was an old nation more reverently and tenderly lifted up and restored. The houses adjourned to give England time to consider Ireland's ultimatum. Within a month it was accepted by the new British administration." The "visionary" and "impracticable" idea had become an accomplished fact. The "splendid phantom" had become a glorious reality. The heptarchy had not been restored; yet Ireland had won complete legislative independence!


[1] "English Lords' Journal," 1698, pages 314, 315.

[2] Sir Jonah Barrington's "Rise and Fall of the Irish Nation."