Irish National Independence

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


IF mankind needed at so late a period of the world's age as the close of the eighteenth century, any experiment to prove the substantial benefits of national freedom, the progress of Ireland during this brief but bright and glorious era of independence would suffice to establish the fact forever. Happily, when referring to the events of that time, we treat of no remote period of history. Living men remember it. Irishmen of this generation have listened at their parent's knee to reminiscences and relations, facts and particulars, that mark it as the day of Ireland's true, real, and visible prosperity. Statistics—invulnerable—irrefragable—full of eloquence—momentous in their meaning—attest the same truth. Manufacture, trade, and commerce developed to a greater extent in ten years of native rule than they had done in the previous hundred under English mastery, and in a much greater proportion than they have developed in the sixty-seven years of subsequent "union" legislation.

Ireland's freedom and prosperity did not mean England's injury, nor England's pause in the like onward march. The history of the period we are now treating of disposes of more than one fallacy used by the advocates of Irish national extinction. It proves that Ireland's right does not involve England's wrong. Never before were the two countries more free from jealousy, rivalry, or hostility. Never before was discontent banished from Ireland—as never since has disaffection been absent.

Lust of dominion—sheer covetousness of mastery—has in all ages been the source and origin of the most wanton invasions and most wicked subjugations. Not even among Englishmen themselves does any writer now hesitate to characterize as nefarious, treacherous, and abominable, the scheme by which England invaded and overthrew in 1800 the happily established freedom of Ireland.[1]

Scarcely had the rusty chain of "Poynings' Act" been wrenched off than the English minister began to consider how a stronger one might be forged and bound on the liberated Irish nation. The king's voice characterized the happy and amicable settlement just concluded as "final." The British minister and the British parliament in the most solemn manner declared the same; and surely nothing but morbid suspiciousness could discover fair ground for crediting that England would play Ireland false upon that promise—that she would seize the earliest opportunity of not merely breaking that "final adjustment," and shackling the Irish parliament anew, but of destroying it utterly and forever. Yet there were men among the Irish patriots who did not hesitate to express such suspicions at the moment, and foremost among these was Flood. He pressed for further and more specific and formal renunciation. Grattan, on the other hand, violently resisted this, as an ungenerous effort to put England "on her knees"—to humiliate her—to plainly treat her as a suspected blackleg. On this issue the two patriot leaders violently, acrimoniously, and irreconcilably quarreled; Flood and his following contending that England would surely betray Ireland on the "final adjustment," and Grattan, with the bulk of the national party, vehemently refusing to put such ungenerous insult and indignity on England as to suppose her capable of such conduct.

Alas! At that very moment—as the now published correspondence of the English statesmen engaged in the transaction discloses—the British ministers were discussing, devising, and directing preparations for accomplishing, by the most iniquitous means, that crime against Ireland of which Grattan considered it ungenerous and wicked to express even a suspicion.

It was with good reason the national party, soon after the accomplishment of legislative independence, directed their energies to the question of parliamentary reform. The legislative body, which in a moment of great public excitement and enthusiasm, had been made for a moment to reflect correctly the national will, was after all returned by an antique electoral system which was a gross farce on representation. Boroughs and seats were at the time openly and literally owned by particular families or persons, the voting "constituency" sometimes not being more than a dozen in number. As a matter of fact, less than a hundred persons owned seats or boroughs capable of making a majority in the commons.

The patriot party naturally and wisely judged that with such a parliament the retention of freedom would be precarious, and the representation of the national will uncertain; so the question of parliamentary reform came to be agitated with a vehemence second only to that of parliamentary independence in the then recent campaign. By this time, however, the British minister had equally detected that while with such a parliament he might accomplish his treacherous designs, with a parliament really amenable to the people, he never could. Concealing the real motive and the remote object, the government, through its myriad devious channels of influence, as well as openly and avowedly, resisted the demand for reform. Apart from the government, the "vested interests" of the existing system were able to make a protracted fight. Ere long both these sections were leagued together, and they hopelessly outnumbered the popular party.

The government now began to feel itself strong, and it accordingly commenced the work of deliberately destroying the parliament of Ireland. Those whom it could influence, purchase, or corrupt, were one by one removed or bought in market overt. Those who were true to honor and duty, it insolently threatened, insulted, and assailed. The popular demands were treated with defiance and contumely by the minister and his co-conspirators. Soon a malign opportunity presented itself for putting Ireland utterly, hopelessly, helplessly into their hands—the sheep committed to the grasp of the wolf for security and protection!


[1] English readers as yet uninformed on the subject, and disposed to receive with hesitation the statements of Irish writers as to the infamous means resorted to by the English government to overthrow the Irish constitution in 1800, may be referred to the Castlereagh Papers and the Cornwallis Correspondence—the private letters of the chief agents in the scheme. Mr. Massey, chairman of committees in the English House of Commons, published a few years ago, a volume which exposes and characterizes that nefarious transaction in language which might be deemed too strong if used by an Irishman feeling the wrong and suffering from it.