1. Ireland in 1714-82
When George I came to the throne there was no "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland." The King of Great Britain was King of Ireland also, but the two realms were separate and distinct, for the Union set up by Oliver Cromwell with fire and sword ended when Charles II was restored. But Ireland, though thus separate from England, was under English rule, and English rule in Ireland was English rule at its worst.
Ireland had been for centuries the bane of English statesmen. The Irish, mainly Roman Catholic in religion and Celtic in blood, had little in common with English Protestants of Teutonic race. There were, indeed, Protestants in the north—in Presbyterian Ulster—and Englishmen in the east, especially in what used to be called "the English Pale." But few of the Protestants belonged to the Episcopal Church. And the English were often Roman Catholic, and not always too friendly to English rule.
Ireland was too near England to be safely left to her own devices. Yet Roman Catholics had been too often rebels to be readily trusted with a share in the government, even under English control. And Protestant Dissenters could hardly be allowed in Ireland rights that were refused to them in England.
So the Episcopal Church was made the Established Church in Ireland, and Protestant and Catholic alike had to pay tithes to its clergy. Roman Catholics might not sit in the Irish Parliament, or elect its members, or hold any public office. They were forbidden, too, to do many other things, such as buying land, or owning a valuable horse, or carrying arms, though these harsh rules were never fully enforced. Protestant Dissenters, also, were shut out of Parliament and the public service.
Thus, besides the bitter memories of the past, the cruel suppression of insurrections under Elizabeth and James I, the cruel "plantations" of English and Scots in the years that followed, the broken clauses of William III's Treaty of Limerick, most Irishmen had the present grievance of being excluded from all share in the government of their own country.
Nor was this all, for even those who might choose and sit in Parliament had little real power. The Irish revenues of the Crown made it almost independent in Ireland of grants from Parliament. It was hampered there by no Triennial or Septennial Act, no annual Mutiny Act, no Habeas Corpus Act, such as safe-guarded liberty in England. Moreover, no law could be even proposed in the Irish Parliament unless first approved by the King-in-Council, i.e. practically, by the Cabinet. Yet the English Parliament could make a law which bound all Irishmen, though they had never even seen it. Further, the Irish Parliament itself was more unrepresentative, more controlled by great landowners, more open to bribery by the Government, than even the Parliament of Great Britain.
Lastly, the English Parliament used its powers to injure all Irishmen—Catholic and Protestant alike—by harsh restrictions on Irish trade. Irish competition was dreaded by English farmers and merchants, and therefore also by the Whig statesmen, who relied on these classes for taxes to pay the cost of their great wars. Irish taxes, too, belonged to the king, and a prosperous Ireland, with large revenues, might make him more independent of the English Parliament than any sound Whig could wish.
So the woollen and cotton and glass industries of Ireland were crushed; her agriculture was checked; her direct trade with the colonies was destroyed. Only her linen manufacture still flourished. And meanwhile the Irish peasants were in a miserable condition. Their landlords, often living in England on the profits of their estates, left them to the mercy of brutal agents, who extorted the highest rents such tenants could be forced to pay. The peasants themselves, idle and thriftless, brought up large families of children in wretched "cabins" or huts, and generation after generation lived in constant half-starvation, with the certainty of death from hunger if the potato crop—their chief food supply—should ever fail.
So Ireland was always poor and always discontented. And, if the harshest laws could not always be enforced, the chief result was to add to misery a spirit of lawlessness. The agents of the landlords, the bailiffs of the law courts, the tithe-collectors of the clergy, were often ducked and beaten. And when, presently, cattle-grazing became so profitable that farmers turned peasants out of their holdings to get their ground for pasture, and enclosed the common lands, the "Whiteboy" outrages began. Bands of men, wearing white shirts over their clothes, went about at night pulling down enclosures, wounding cattle, and beating, if not killing, unpopular landlords and tithe-gatherers. But this only provoked the English Government to fresh severities, and placed fresh difficulties in the way of those English statesmen who really wished, if only they could, to do Ireland justice.
2. "Grattan's Parliament" and the Union
The War of American Independence, however, seemed to give Ireland some chance of doing justice to herself. England had to withdraw her troops, and so could neither defend the Irish nor keep them in awe. A large force of Volunteers, therefore, guarded the island. But eighty thousand Irishmen in arms might fight as easily against as for an English Government that had no soldiers of its own in Ireland. So when the Volunteers, under Henry Grattan, demanded that the Irish Parliament should be independent of the English Privy Council, and the English Parliament should never make laws for Ireland, the demand was granted. For eighteen years, therefore, Ireland had a "free" Parliament, whose acts needed only the king's assent to make them law.
But it was still a Protestant Parliament, chosen by Protestants, to rule a country mainly Catholic. Also it was still corrupt and unreformed, and therefore in no way really representative even of the Protestant minority. So, while the Catholics demanded religious equality, Presbyterian Ulster demanded also Parliamentary reform. Pitt granted Catholics the vote, with certain other privileges, but withheld the right to sit in Parliament. He tried to give Ireland equal commercial rights with England, but was defeated, partly by the jealousy of English merchants.
When the war with France began, however, Irish discontent became a serious danger. The French Revolution itself was a tempting example to Irishmen, who had seen ten years before what the mere hint of force might win from England. Presently Catholic and Protestant joined in the "Society of United Irishmen" to secure Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary Reform. And then the United Irishmen began to think of calling in French help, even of throwing off the English yoke altogether.
France was only too ready, for an invasion of Ireland was a favorite scheme with all her rulers. Faced by this danger, Pitt felt ever more inclined to recognize Catholic claims, and in 1795 sent over as Lord-Lieutenant a man most favourable to them, Lord Fitzwilliam. Unhappily, Fitzwilliam went to fast. He promised more than the Government was prepared to grant. He was therefore recalled. And his recall convinced the Roman Catholics that Pitt was no true friend.
A time of horror followed. Protestant "Peep of the Day Boys" and Catholic "Defenders" rivalled each other in brutal outrages. The Irish Government, fearing alike invasion and insurrection, had no troops to deal with either. Hence it relied on local forces—yeomanry and militia—lacking all true military discipline, but filled to overflowing with the brutal fury of religious hatred. Irish Protestants "kept in order" their miserable Catholic countrymen by torture and outrage. Irish Catholics, too, committed many atrocities, but they were soon rendered powerless by the seizure of their leaders. Their most formidable rising was crushed in June, 1798, at Vinegar Hill. Their French allies came too late and were easily defeated. And their few moments of triumph only gave an appearance of just vengeance to the renewed Protestant brutalities with which the rebellion ended.
The struggle left Ireland more miserable than ever; her poverty yet greater; her religious quarrels yet more bitter. And the problem of her government was almost hopeless. To leave the Catholic majority under a native Protestant Parliament, and to place the Protestant minority under a Catholic Parliament, seemed equally impossible. Pitt saw but one remedy—the inclusion of the island in a "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland" with a single Parliament at Westminster, where Irish Roman Catholics might sit, but where they would be restrained by the Protestant members for Great Britain. And with this must go equal trading privileges for all subjects of the United Kingdom, and State support in Ireland for Roman Catholic priests and Dissenting ministers as well as for the clergy of the Established Church.
Irish opinion, however, both in and out of Parliament was largely hostile to the scheme. Pitt soon found that he could carry it only by making Roman Catholics understand that it would bring them emancipation, and bribing the men who controlled the Irish Parliament to pack it with members who would vote for his Bill. His intentions were excellent, but his actions showed a fatal weakness. Catholic Emancipation was an essential part of his own plan; yet he went no farther than to say that without the Union it was impossible. Bribery and corruption he abhorred; yet under pressure of necessity he employed them on the largest scale.
So in January, 1801, a Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland met for the first time at Westminster. The Union was accomplished. The English and Irish Churches also were united, and Irish bishops, as well as Irish lay peers and Irish commoners, sat in the new assembly. Irishmen, too, enjoyed all the commercial rights of Englishmen. And the completeness of the Union was symbolized by a new national flag—the "Union Jack"—which combined the cross of St. Patrick with the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George.
Yet from the first the Union was a failure. For Pitt had failed to carry Catholic Emancipation. A treacherous colleague betrayed his plan to the King. George was easily persuaded that to allow emancipation would be to break his Coronation Oath to maintain the Protestant religion. He threatened to regard as his personal enemy any one who proposed it. Therefore, to prove his own good faith, Pitt resigned. But his resignation did not help the Catholics, and when he returned to office George's health was so bad that he felt bound to promise never to raise the question in his lifetime.
So the Union seemed to have been made by deceit as well as bribery. All the religious grievances of the Irish remained. Roman Catholics were still shut out from the public service. Roman Catholics and Dissenters alike had still to support the Established Church. And tithes and rackrents, low wages, scarcity of work, and a scanty and uncertain food supply still oppressed the wretched peasants. In return, violence and outrage never wholly ceased. And, above the petty wranglings over tithes and rents, a constant cry went up for two things—Catholic Emancipation and the Repeal of the Union.
3. Troubled Times: 1800–67
For twenty years, however, Ireland was distracted by the quarrels of her leaders, while England refused emancipation except under conditions which Irishmen would not accept. But the formation of the "Catholic Association" in 1823 opened a new epoch. It was the creation of Daniel O'Connell, an eloquent Irish barrister. It soon included nearly all Irish Roman Catholics. And since it bound its members to commit no outrages it freed the movement for emancipation from the damaging taint of association with crime.
The society was presently suppressed by the Government, but it had done its work. The English ministers realized the urgency of the question. The House of Commons was ready to accept emancipation even while the Lords rejected it. And, though—unlike some of their predecessors— Wellington and Peel were hostile, an event which happened in 1829 changed their attitude.
The Catholic Association, now revived, secured the election of O'Connell as Member for County Clare. This was perfectly legal, for the law did not forbid the election of a Roman Catholic. It did, however, require all members on entering Parliament to take an oath which no Roman Catholic could accept. Yet Wellington believed that to exclude O'Connell would mean civil war, for he could see no limit to the power of the Association over Irishmen.
So Catholic Emancipation was granted at last. But it was granted too late, and too plainly only from fear of violence, to make the Irish grateful. Grievances enough remained, moreover, quite apart from the Union, to keep them discontented. And every English Government had a twofold puzzle of the utmost difficulty—how to redress grievances with the least possible damage to landlords and tithe-owners, and how to suppress disorder and outrage with the least possible appearance of harshness or tyranny.
Meanwhile in Parliament O'Connell and his "tail" of followers tormented every ministry that was not strong enough to do without their votes. But the Whigs began reform by making landlords, who were generally English Churchmen, pay the tithes instead of tenants. And O'Connell, opposing violence, gradually lost influence over his more eager followers, and was finally discredited by his trial for treasonable language, even though he was acquitted.
But in 1845 the potato famine thrust Ireland once again into the foreground of English politics. Half the Irish people depended on the potato crop, and when it failed hundreds and thousands—men, women, and children—died of starvation, or of the fever that famine brings. Every eatable plant—almost every animal—was eagerly devoured, yet still the people starved. The Government did its best. First it employed men to make roads, that they might have money to buy food. Then it gave cooked food in place of wages. It bought corn and sent it to Ireland to be sold at reasonable prices.
But, even with the help of private charity, it could not prevent—it could only lessen—suffering. It seemed, indeed, in some ways to do harm rather than good: perpetual famine was threatened when men neglected ploughing and sowing, because they preferred labouring on the public works. And, when all was over, appalling damage was seen to have been done. The population had been increasing enormously for many years: a fourth, or more, had now suddenly vanished. Many had died of starvation. Many others had emigrated to Canada or Australia, or, in far greater numbers, to the United States.
The exiles in America, remembering ancient grudges against England at home, became a danger to her in their new country. They stirred up trouble in Ireland, and in America they fostered every dispute with England and opposed every attempt at friendship with her. And meanwhile at home Irish landlords caused fresh distress by turning out their tenants to form large estates, and leaving them to find other land, or emigrate, or starve, as best they might.
Yet, when in 1848 all Europe was shaken with insurrections, the only rising in Ireland was a petty movement, easily suppressed by the police after a "scuffle in a cabbage garden," and the next great Irish trouble did not come for twenty years. By that time the end of the American Civil War had left thousands of Irish-Americans trained to fight, and taught to hate England, free to plan attacks upon her. So the "Fenian Brotherhood" was formed, and the youth of Ireland joined it in thousands. Attempts at a rising in Ireland itself, however, were utter failures. In England the rescue of Fenian prisoners from the police at Manchester and a vain attempt to blow up Clerkenwell Prison, so as to let other prisoners escape, were the greatest achievements. And, as in these two cases many innocent people were killed or injured, public opinion only turned the more against the Irish.
4. The Home Rule Movement
Gladstone, however, gave new hope to Ireland. First he "disestablished and disendowed" the Church of Ireland; that is, he deprived it of State support and of much of its wealth. This removed one great grievance. Then he protected against landlords the interests of tenants who took the trouble to improve their land. Later, he created a Land Court to reduce all rents that seemed unfairly high.
But these measures did not satisfy the Irish. In Parliament their Members still clamoured for Home Rule—that is, for a separate Parliament in Dublin. And, led by the famous Charles Stewart Parnell, they tried to make themselves so objectionable at Westminster that the ministers would be thankful to get rid of them. For, by obstruction, i.e. a deliberate wasting of the time of Parliament, they tried to make government impossible till their demands should be conceded.
And in Ireland itself an attempt was made to remove the landlords altogether, and give the peasants ownership of the land they tilled. Harsh landlords, who turned out tenants really unable and not merely unwilling to pay, were justly detested. But the Irish leaders aimed at destroying all landlords, good and bad. They formed a Land League. They forbade the payment of rent. They caused every man taking a farm from which the tenant had been "evicted" to be "boycotted," or cut off from all dealings with his neighbours, who were forced to refuse to supply or work for him. And in certain districts there were constant outrages and occasional murders.
Gladstone suppressed the League and imprisoned its leaders. The outrages only multiplied. Then he released the prisoners on their promising to stop the outrages and permit the payment of rent. But this "making terms with criminals" caused some of his colleagues to resign in disgust. And, before it could be seen how it would answer, the "Phœnix Park murders" drove the Government to coercion again.
Lord Frederick Cavendish and Mr. Burke, the new Chief Secretary for Ireland and his Under-Secretary, were stabbed in broad daylight in Dublin by members of a secret society. Thereupon a severe Crimes Act, to crush disorder in Ireland, was carried through Parliament, after furious scenes in the House of Commons. The Fenians attempted in revenge to blow up various public buildings in Great Britain, regardless of the probable death of numberless innocent persons. But this only made it harder than ever for English friends of Ireland to support the Irish cause.
Yet at last a great English statesman took up the policy of Home Rule. The Irish problem had baffled every Government. In Ireland concession and coercion had alike failed. In England the Irish Members had made themselves an intolerable nuisance, and could always turn the scale against any Government that had not an enormous majority in the Commons. So, as the one possible chance of making Ireland peaceful and loyal, and restoring order in the Parliament at Westminster, Gladstone introduced a Bill to establish a Parliament once more in Dublin.
But the measure was thrown out. Many of Gladstone's own followers opposed it. Presbyterian Ulster threatened civil war. And on a General Election the "Gladstonian Liberals" were utterly defeated, and the Conservative party came into power. So, instead of Home Rule, there was another Coercion Act to stop disorder in Ireland, and new rules for business in Parliament to stop "obstruction" at Westminster, and another Irish Land Act, well meant, but satisfactory to no one.
And though once again, at the age of eighty-three, Gladstone brought in a Home Rule Bill, it also was defeated. He pleaded for it in the full conviction that it alone would remedy Irish wrongs, and with the eagerness of a man conscious that his own time was short. But the Commons passed it only by a small majority; the Lords rejected it by more than ten to one; Gladstone's own successor in the leadership of the Liberal party declared that while English opinion remained clearly hostile Home Rule must be dropped; and the Unionist statesmen who presently ruled the country for ten years made the maintenance of the Union the very foundation of their policy.
Yet English feeling towards Ireland had grown more kindly. The reality of her grievances was now admitted. Millions were drawn from the English taxpayer by Conservative as well as Liberal Governments to improve her land system. Great efforts were made to develop her resources and to help the work of those reforming Irishmen who realized how much of her misfortune was due to her own sons. And at last—when the Liberals had returned to power, and Mr. Asquith had succeeded Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman as their leader—an English Prime Minister once again announced his intention to carry a measure of Home Rule.