A Tragic History
There have been few nations in history that have suffered as much as the Irish from the various effects of institutional oppression. From the medieval period until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Ireland’s people had been enmeshed in a complicated web of laws, codes, and edicts from her powerful neighbor, all of which had the net effect of binding the country in a condition of permanent vassalage.
In the eighteenth century, nearly all of the land was owned by Protestant landlords (most of whom lived in England) who treated their tenant farmers little better than slaves.
The hovels of these tenants were usually wretched mud huts or shacks, within which the occupants perilously clung to life this side of starvation. Irish industry was hamstrung or ruined by acts of Parliament that condescended to permit no competition from its neighbor; and the island’s relative isolation from the rest of Europe meant that English domination could elicit little more than sympathy from the nations of the continent. Edicts of 1665 and 1680 had prohibited the importation into England of Irish meat or dairy products (i.e., beef, sheep, hogs, etc.).
When the Irish attempted to sell their products to the English colonies, that too was prohibited: an act of 1663 required that all imports to British colonies had to come from English ships manned by English crews. This act doomed the Irish merchant marine. A nation that seemed naturally predisposed to maritime commerce (as, for example, Iceland) was now left with no option but to eke out a miserable existence on the soil.
To be fair, some of these English policies harmed Irish Protestants as much as Catholics, but over time, the stratification of ruler and ruled became ever more sectionally pronounced.
Even faith became a matter of subjugation. Tithes were required to be paid to the despised Protestant Church, in addition to the regular obligations of rent and work. Under the so-called “Test Act”, submission to the Church of England was required for membership in Parliament. Jonathan Swift, the noted author, stated that “the Irish tenants live worse than English beggars.” It is unsurprising that, in these conditions, solace was sought in the hazy joys of drink, or the extravagances of gambling.
Politics provided no relief. No one was eligible for office who did not adhere to the Church of England; after 1692, the Irish Parliament was entirely Protestant. Even this seemed to matter little, for in 1719 the British Parliament in London arrogated for itself the right to legislate directly on behalf of Ireland. Catholics were excluded by law from all offices, as well as from all the learned professions.
Avenues to higher education were effectively blocked. Catholics could not serve as jurors, could not teach in schools, could not vote in municipal or national elections, and even were forbidden by law from marrying a Protestant. This was an apartheid system as brutal and as naked as any in history.
Such bleak conditions made periodic revolts inevitable. The landscape was fired by insurrections during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: all were crushed, and the status quo reaffirmed. By 1800 Ireland had a total population of about 4,550,000, and of this 70% was Catholic. The vote had come to Catholics in 1793, but laws barring them from higher offices remained. Until 1793, the entire country’s land was owned by Protestants (either Irish or British); after this year, these restrictions had been gradually relaxed.
But as often happens in history, the gradual relaxation of oppressive control raised expectations that were soon dashed. It became clear that the leader of these reforms, Henry Grattan (1746-1820), could only do so much; he failed in his effort to win the right of Irish Catholics to sit in the Irish Parliament.
Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) fought valiantly for social and political reform through his “Society of United Irishmen”, created in 1791. He achieved little success. Seeking the support of England’s revolutionary neighbor, he somehow convinced the French government to cobble together an expedition to frighten the British; this ended in disaster, and he died in an English prison in 1798.
The statesmanship of William Pitt offered some hope of reform. To his credit, he saw the need for reform, and for a limited measure of self-rule for the island (albeit under British terms). However, he was banked and checked on all sides by an entrenched establishment that was not mentally able to conceive of Irish independence. George III refused to lend his support to Pitt. The status quo stood, and Pitt resigned from office.
An armed revolt then brought an incendiary young man to the forefront of history. Robert Emmet, born in Dublin in 1778 as the youngest son of a doctor, became a nationalist as a student in Trinity College. When he found out that graduation from the College was conditioned on the orthodoxy of a student’s political views, he had his name removed from the list of prospective graduates. He then joined the United Irishmen.
Gathering arms, he and some of his comrades then conceived the idea to stage an armed revolt that might lead to a general insurrection. The plan was to attack Dublin Castle, the center and symbol of British administrative control over the country. Already we see the precursor here to the 1916 Easter uprising.
His plans were betrayed; but he proceeded anyway with about two hundred men, and marched on the Castle. En route, the chief justice of Ireland, Lord Kilwarden, was slain by an irate mob that trailed Emmet’s group. The project collapsed, Emmet fled, and he was soon captured.
At his trial for treason, he delivered one of the most eloquent and moving perorations ever delivered in the history of that troubled island. Knowing his execution to be a certainty, he told the jury:
I have but one request to make at my departure from the world. It is the charity of its silence. Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dares now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, and my memory in oblivion, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.
Who, on reading these words, can fail to feel bodily imbued by a passionate sense of ardor? Has any more noble, and yet defiant, spiritual invocation to liberation ever been made?
Read More: Horace’s Prophecy