AN English traveler, visiting Ireland in 1764, explained why the poor a were taking to crime:
What dread of justice or punishment can be expected from an Irish peasant in a state of wretchedness and extreme penury, in which, if the first man that met him were to knock him on the head and give him an everlasting relief from his distressed and penurious life, he might have reason to think it a friendly and meritorious action? … That many of them bear their … abject state with patience is to me a sufficient proof of the natural civility of their disposition.1
The landlords, who were almost all Protestants, were not the direct or most brutal oppressors of the peasants, who were almost all Catholics; usually the owners lived in England and did not see the blood on the rents exacted by the middlemen to whom they leased their land; it was the middlemen who drew every possible penny from the peasants, until these had to feed on potatoes and dress in rags.
In 1758, because disease was decimating cattle in England, Ireland was allowed for five years to export livestock to Britain. Many acres in Ireland-including common lands formerly used by the tenant farmers—were changed from tillage to grazing or pasturage; the rich were enriched, the poor were further impoverished. They added to their problems by marrying early—“upon the first capacity,” as Sir William Petty put it;2 presumably they hoped that children would soon earn their keep and then help pay the rent. So, despite a high death rate, the population of Ireland grew from 3,191,000 in 1754 to 4,753,000 in 1791.3
The industrial picture was brightening. Many Protestants and some Catholics had gone into the production of linens, woolens, cotton goods, silk, or glass. In the final quarter of the century, after Grattan had secured a moderation of British restrictions on Irish manufactures and commerce, a middle class developed which provided economic leverage for liberal politics and cultural growth. Dublin became one of the leading centers of education, music, drama, and architecture in the British Isles. Trinity College was becoming a university, and already had a long roster of distinguished graduates. If Ireland had kept her shining lights at home—Burke, Goldsmith, and Sheridan as well as Swift and Berkeley—she would have shone with the most brilliant nations of the age. After 1766 the lord lieutenant made Dublin his permanent home instead of paying brief visits once a year. Now majestic public buildings rose, and elegamt mansions. Dublin’s theaters rivaled London’s in the excellence of their productions; here Handel’sMessiahreceived its first performance and welcome (1742), and Thomas Sheridan staged many successful plays, some of them written by his wife.
Religion, of course, was the pervading issue in Ireland. Dissenters—i.e., Presbyterians, Independents (Puritans), and Baptists—were excluded from office and from Parliament by the Test Act which required reception of the Sacrament according to the Anglican rite as a precondition to eligibility. The Toleration Act of 1689 was not extended to Ireland. The Presbyterians of Ulster protested in vain against these disabilities; thousands of them emigrated to America, where many of them fought devotedly in the Revolutionary armies.
The population of Ireland was eighty per cent Catholic, but no Catholic could be elected to Parliament. Only a few Catholics owned land. Protestant tenants were given leases for their lives, Catholic tenants for no more than thirty-one years; and they had to pay two thirds of their profits as rent.4 No Catholic schools were allowed, but the authorities did not enforce the law forbidding the Irish to seek education abroad. Some Catholic students were admitted to Trinity College, but they could not receive a degree. Catholic worship was permitted, but there were no legal means of preparing Catholic priests; candidates for the priesthood, however, might go to seminaries on the Continent. Some of these students adopted the genial manners and liberal views of the hierarchy in France and Italy; returning to Ireland as priests, they were welcomed at the tables of educated Protestants, and helped to soften bigotry on both sides. By the time that Henry Grattan entered the Irish Parliament (1775) the movement for Catholic emancipation had won the support of thousands of Protestants in both England and Ireland.
In 1760 Ireland was governed by a lord lieutenant, or viceroy, appointed by and responsible to the king of England; and by a Parliament dominated in the House of Lords by Anglican bishops, and in the House of Commons by Anglican landowners and governmental placemen, or pensioners. Elections to Parliament were subject to the same system of “rotten” and “pocket” boroughs as in England; a few leading families, known as “the Undertakers,” owned the vote of their boroughs as they owned their homes.5
Catholic resistance to English rule was sporadic and ineffective. In 1763 bands of Catholics called “Whiteboys”—from the white shirts they wore over their clothes—roamed the countryside, tearing down enclosure fences, crippling cattle, and assaulting the collectors of taxes or tithes; the leaders were caught and hanged, and the rebellion collapsed. The movement for national liberation fared better. In 1776 most British troops were taken from Ireland for service in America; at the same time the Irish economy was depressed by cessation of trade with America; to guard against domestic revolt or foreign invasion the Protestants of Ireland formed an army called the Volunteers. These grew in number and power until, by 1780, they were a redoubtable force in politics. It was through support by these forty thousand armed men that Henry Flood and Henry Grattan won their legislative victories.
Both of them were officers in the Volunteers, and both were among the greatest orators in a country which could send Burke and Richard Sheridan to England and still have a store of eloquence left. Flood entered the Irish Parliament in 1759. He led a brave campaign to reduce venality in a House where half the members were indebted to the government. He was defeated by wholesale bribery, and surrendered (1775) by accepting the office of vice-treasurer at a salary of £ 3,500.
In that year Henry Grattan was elected to the Parliament by a Dublin constituency. He soon took Flood’s place as leader of the opposition. He announced an ambitious program: to secure relief to Irish Catholics, to free Dissenters from the Test Act, to end English restrictions on Irish trade, and to establish the independence of the Irish Parliament. He pursued these aims with an energy, devotion, and success that made him the idol of the nation, Catholic or Protestant. In 1778 he secured passage of a bill enabling Catholics to take leases of ninety-nine years, and to inherit land on the same conditions as Protestants. A year later, on his urging, the Test Act was repealed, and full civil rights were assured to Dissenters. He and Flood persuaded the Irish Parliament and the Viceroy that the continuance of British obstructions to Irish trade would lead to revolutionary violence. Lord North, then heading the British government, favored repeal of the restrictions; English manufacturers bombarded him with petitions against repeal; he yielded to them. The Irish began to boycott British goods. The Volunteers assembled before the Irish Parliament House with arms in their hands and cannon labeled “Free Trade or This.” The English manufacturers, hurt by the boycott, withdrew their opposition; the English ministry withdrew its veto; the Free Trade Act was passed (1779).
Grattan next pressed for the independence of the Irish Parliament. Early in 1780 he moved that only the king of England, with the consent of the Parliament of Ireland, could legislate for Ireland, and that Great Britain and Ireland were united only by the bond of a common sovereign. His motion was defeated. The Volunteers, meeting at Dungannon 25,000 strong (February, 1782), announced that if legislative independence were not granted, their loyalty to England would cease. In March Lord North’s aged ministry fell; Rockingham and Fox came into power. Meanwhile Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown (1781); France and Spain had joined America in war against England; Britain could not afford to face an Irish revolution at this time. On April 16, 1782, the Irish Parliament, led by Grattan, declared its legislative independence; a month later this was conceded by England. The Irish Parliament voted a grant of £ 100,000 to Grattan, who was a relatively poor man; he accepted half.
This, of course, was a victory for the Protestants of Ireland, not for the Catholics. When Grattan—strongly supported by the Anglican Bishop Frederick Hervey—went on to campaign for a measure of Catholic emancipation, the best he could do (in what historians call “Grattan’s Parliament”) was to win the franchise for propertied Catholics (1792); these few received the right to vote but not the right to be elected to Parliament, to municipal office, or to the judiciary. Grattan went to England, secured election to the British Parliament, and there continued his campaign. He died in 1820, nine years before that Parliament passed the Catholic Relief Act, which admitted Catholics to the Irish Parliament. Justice is not only blind, it limps.