Rarely in history has a nation been so oppressed as the Irish. Through repeated victories by English armies over native revolts, a code of laws had been set up that chained the Irish in body and soul. Their soil had been confiscated until only a handful of Catholic landowners remained, and nearly all of it was held by Protestants who treated their agricultural laborers as slaves. “The poor people in Ireland,” said Chesterfield, “are used worse than Negroes by their lords and masters.”51 It was “not unusual in Ireland,” said Lecky, “for great landed proprietors to have regular prisons in their houses for the summary punishment of the lower orders.”52 Many of the landlords lived in England, and spent there (Swift estimated) a third of the rents paid by Irish tenants.53 The tenants—racked by rents paid to the landlord, by tithes paid to the Established Church which they hated, and by dues paid to their own priests—lived in mud hovels with leaky roofs, went half naked, and were often on the edge of starvation; Swift thought “the Irish tenants live worse than English beggars.”54 Those landlords who remained in Ireland, and the deputies of the absentees, drugged themselves against the barbarism and hostility of their surroundings with carousals of food and drink, extravagant hospitality, quarreling and dueling, and gambling for high stakes.
Having full power over Ireland, the British Parliament stifled any Irish industry that competed with England. We have seen elsewhere how an act of 1699 destroyed the nascent wool manufactures by forbidding the export of Irish woolens to any country whatever. In like manner such foreign commerce as Ireland had preserved amid political turmoil and military devastation was mercilessly throttled by English laws. Irish exports were saddled with export duties that cut them off from nearly all markets but England.55 Many Irish had lived by raising cattle and exporting them to England; laws of 1665 and 1680 forbade the English importation of Irish cattle, sheep, or swine, of beef, mutton, bacon, or pork, even of butter or cheese. Ireland had exported her products to the English colonies; an act of 1663 required that, with a few exceptions, no European articles could be imported into English colonies except from England in English ships manned by Englishmen. The Irish merchant marine died. Said Swift: “The conveniency of ports and harbors, which nature bestowed so liberally on this kingdom, is of no more use to us than a beautiful prospect to a man shut up in a dungeon.”56
Protestants as well as Catholics were harassed by England’s legislation for her Irish subjects; and in one famous instance they joined the Catholics in overruling the British government. The export of money as rent to absentee landlords had by 1722 created a shortage of metal currency in Ireland. Walpole offered to relieve this by an issue of copper coins. The plan was reasonable, but was spotted with the usual corruption: the Duchess of Kendal was granted a patent to mint the new coinage; she sold it to William Wood, ironmaster, for £10,000; and to raise this sum plus his profit Wood proposed to coin £100,800 in halfpennies or farthings. As the total metal currency of Ireland was then only £400,000, the Irish protested that coppers would have to be used in payments as well as making change; that foreign accounts, including the rents of absentee landlords, would have to be paid in silver or bank notes; that the cheaper coins would drive the better ones into hoarding or export; and that soon Ireland would have nothing but troublesome coppers as its currency. To meet these complaints the British government agreed to reduce the new issue to £40,000, and it presented a report from Isaac Newton, master of the Mint, that Wood’s halfpennies were quite as good in metallic content as the patent required, and much better than the coins inherited from earlier reigns.
At this juncture Jonathan Swift, Anglican dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, entered the argument by publishing a succession of letters under the pseudonym M. B. Drapier. With all the vehemence of his spirit and the resources of his invective, he attacked the new currency as an attempt to defraud the Irish people. He alleged that the coins sent to Newton for testing were specially minted, and that the vast majority of Wood’s halfpennies were worth far less than their face value; and, indeed, some economists confirmed his claim by calculating that Ireland would sustain a loss of £60,480 by the issue as first proposed.57 In the fourth letter Swift advanced to a powerful indictment of all English rule in Ireland, and laid down the principle that “all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery.”58 The Irish, including the majority of Protestants among them, responded eagerly to this bold note; ballads urging resistance to England were sung in the streets; and the English government, which had for centuries defied an entire people, now found itself in retreat before a single pen. It offered a reward of three hundred pounds for the apprehension of the author, but though hundreds knew that this was the gloomy Dean, no one dared take action against him. Nor would any Irishman face the anger of the people by accepting the new coins. Walpole acknowledged defeat, canceled the issue, and allowed Wood £ 24,000 compensation for his futile expenses and his vanished gains.
The structure of Irish politics made impossible any resistance to English domination except by mob action or individual violence. Since no one could hold office except by adherence to the Church of England, the Irish Parliament, after 1692, was composed entirely of Protestants,59 and was now wholly subservient to England. In 1719 the English Parliament reaffirmed its paramount right to legislate for Ireland. Laws that in England protected parliamentary or individual liberty, like the Habeas Corpus Act and the Bill of Rights, were not extended to Ireland; the relative freedom of the press enjoyed in England had no existence in Ireland. The two parliaments resembled each other only in the corruption of their electors and their members. They differed again in the dominant influence of Anglican bishops in the Irish House of Lords.
The Established Church in Ireland included about a seventh of the population among its adherents, but it was supported by tithes taken from the peasantry, nearly all of whom were Catholics. A small proportion of the people followed the Presbyterian or other Dissenting creeds, and received a measure of toleration, short of eligibility to office. Catholics were excluded not only from office but from all the learned professions except medicine, and from nearly every avenue to higher education, wealth, or influence.60They were forbidden to purchase land, or to invest in mortgages on land, or to hold any long or valuable lease. They could not serve as jurors, except where Protestants were not available. They could not teach in schools; they could not vote for municipal or national offices; they could not validly marry a Protestant.61 Their religious worship was permitted, if celebrated by a priest who had registered with the government and had taken the Oath of Abjuration disclaiming allegiance to the Stuart line; other priests were liable to imprisonment, but this law was seldom enforced after 1725; in 1732a committee of the Irish Parliament reported that there were 1,445 priests in Ireland, 229 Catholic churches, 549 Catholic schools. After 1753 the zeal of the English abated, and the condition of the Catholics in Ireland improved.
The disorder of religious life shared with the poverty of the people and the hopelessness of social advancement in demoralizing Irish life. The ablest and bravest Catholics—who would have raised the level of Irish capacity, morality, and intelligence—emigrated to France or Spain or America. Many Irishmen sank into beggary or crime as an escape from starvation. Robber gangs hid in the countryside, smugglers and wreckers lurked near the shores, and some property owners kept as many as eighty bravos to do their bidding regardless of the law. Thousands of cattle and sheep were slaughtered by roving bands, apparently as acts of Catholic revenge upon Protestant landlords. It was difficult for a people to respect the laws passed by an Irish Parliament that often spoke of the Catholics—three quarters of the population—as “the common enemy.”
There were some brighter elements in Irish life. The cheerful, easygoing, laughter-loving temper of the people survived through all their hardships; and their superstitions and legends surrounded their lives with magic and poetry without leading them to such violence as marked the witchcraft persecutions in Scotland and Germany. The Anglican clergy in Ireland included some fine scholars (e.g., Bishop Ussher of Armagh), a prominent philosopher (George Berkeley, bishop of Cloyne), and the greatest writer of English in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift, dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Dublin Society, founded in 1731, labored to improve technology in agriculture and industry, to stimulate invention, and to encourage art. There were many cases of individual Protestants helping indigent Catholics, and of magistrates applying leniently the Draconian regulations of the penal code.
But by and large the Irish scene was one of the most shameful in history. A degrading poverty, a chaotic lawlessness, a nomadic pauperism, 34,000 beggars, countless thieves, an upper class living in drunken extravagance amid a starving peasantry, every crop failure bringing widespread starvation—“the old and sick,” said Swift, “dying and rotting by cold and famine and filth and vermin”62—this terrible picture must find a place in our conception of man. After the long and bitter frost of 1739 came the desperate famine of 1740–41, in which, by one estimate, twenty per cent of the population perished, leaving many deserted villages. In the county of Kerry the number of taxpayers fell from 14,346 in 1733 to 9,372 in 1744. Berkeley calculated that “the nation probably will not recover this loss in a century.”63 He was wrong. Patiently the women bore children to replace the dead. Religious ardor declined among the Protestants as education spread; it increased among the Catholics as their religion identified itself with the struggle of the nation for freedom. The high birth rate favored by the Catholic Church, as her secret weapon against all opposition, soon countervailed the depredations of famine, pestilence, and war; by 1750 the population of Ireland had risen from approximately 2,000,000 in 1700 to some 2,370,000. In the long run the faith and fertility of the oppressed overcame the arms and greed of the conquerors.