England and Ireland
In order to understand the disturbing questions about Ireland, which filled the latter part of Victoria's reign, we must look at the whole history of Ireland's connection with England.
The inhabitants of Ireland were Celts, like the early Britons, and until the twelfth century were independent of the rulers of their sister island. They became Christians before England did, and in literature and art they reached a high stage of civilization. But in industry and in government they lagged behind, largely because they remained organized by clans and tribes, and were ruled over by a number of petty Kings.
Henry II. was the first King of England to make himself "Lord of Ireland"; but, for long after this time, all that this title meant was the possession of a small district about Dublin, called "the Pale," and a very loose lordship over the Celtic chiefs and Kings who ruled the rest of the island. It was not until the time of the Tudors that the English "Lord of Ireland" became its King, ruling over the whole land, and forcing the English language and English customs upon it.
At the time of the Reformation, the English, after much hesitation, became Protestant, but the Irish remained Catholic. The hatred which was born of religious differences was thus added to that which was felt by a conquered race for the race which had conquered it. To these hatreds were later added those caused by robbing the Irish of much of their lands, and by great economic and political injustice.
When an Irish chieftain rebelled, or was accused of treason, the English government confiscated the land of his whole tribe, regardless of the rights of those who were not concerned in his guilt. The confiscated lands were then given out to English and Scottish colonists, who settled on them; or else they were granted to favorites of the crown, who drew the rents from the lands without living in Ireland. This policy began under Mary Tudor; it was continued under Elizabeth and James I.; and it was completed under Cromwell. Two-thirds of the fertile land of Ireland thus came to be owned by foreigners, who at the same time were usually Protestants.
The great mass of the Irish people became "tenant farmers," under these "absentee" landlords. They lived in miserable hovels, paid high rents, and were liable to be turned out of their farms at a moment's notice. The English statesman, Disraeli, once said that the Irish peasants were "the worst housed, worst fed, and worst clothed in Europe." For this condition of affairs, the rulers of England were chiefly responsible.
In addition to other injustices, the English Parliament passed laws, in the seventeenth century, which crushed Irish industry and commerce. Ireland was excluded from the benefits of the Navigation Acts, which built up England's commerce; and also the Irish were forbidden to send their cattle, sheep, and fresh meats, their butter and cheese to England for fear that they would injure the trade of the English landowners. Ireland, for a time, made great progress in wool-raising—for which her green pastures well fitted her—and also in manufacturing woolen goods. But, in the year 1699, the English Parliament checked these also; for it passed an act forbidding the export of Irish wool and wooden goods to any country except England, and there the import duties were made so heavy as practically to shut them out.
We must add to all this that the Irish Parliament, which sat at Dublin, was made up entirely of Protestants, who were usually of English or Scottish descent. For a long time it had little real power, and was almost completely under the control of the government of England. Also, the Irish Catholics, who made up seven-tenths of the population, had no vote, and (until 1720) were not even permitted to worship according to their own faith.
Is it any wonder, then, that the Irish came to cherish a bitter hatred for England, and that, in spite of all that England has since done to right Ireland's wrongs, that feeling is still strong and active?
The American Revolution gave the Irish their first opportunity for bettering their condition. While Great Britain was busied with her revolted colonies, and at war with France, the Irish raised a strong force and demanded that the Parliament at Dublin should be given full rights to legislate, and that the laws against Irish trade should be repealed. This was granted; and, also, a little later Catholics were given the right to vote.
But Irish manufacturers and trade were too thoroughly crushed to rise again for many years; and the legislative independence which was won as a result of the American Revolution was soon lost as a result of the French Revolution. The landing of French forces in Ireland, and the rising of the Irish rebellion in 1798, taught England the danger of an independent Irish Parliament. So an Act of Union was passed, by which (in 1801), Ireland lost its Parliament, and instead was given representatives in the Parliament of Great Britain, sitting at Westminster.
How Catholics, in 1829, through O'Connell's agitation, gained the right to sit in this Parliament, has already been told. We have also seen how great famine came upon Ireland in 1846, through a failure of the potato crop; and how, in spite of the repeal of the Corn Laws, this led several millions of people to emigrate, most of them coming to the United States. And in telling the story of Mr. Gladstone, we have also seen how he was led, in 1868, to disestablish the Protestant Episcopal Church in Ireland, and thus remove the worst of the religious grievances which still remained.
This, however, was only the beginning of what Mr. Gladstone did, or attempted to do, for Ireland. In 1870, he got Parliament to pass his first Irish Land Act, which was intended to better the condition of the Irish tenants. But the Act did not go far enough, and the landlords were able to rob the tenants of some of the expected benefits.
Then there was organized in Ireland a great Land League, with an Irish member of Parliament—Charles Stewart Parnell—at its head. This body demanded the "three F's"—fixity of tenure, or the right of the tenant to keep his land as long as he paid the rent for it; free sale, or the right to sell his interest in the land to whomever the tenant wanted; and fair rent, which would prevent the landlord from raising the rent whenever the tenant made improvements, or the landlord found somebody who would offer more money. Landlords and tenants who violated these principle were "boycotted," as it was called, from the name of Captain Boycott, the first victim. The Irish people would have nothing to do with a boycotted person, would not buy from him or sell to him, would not work for him or with him, would not even stay in a church which he entered. More violent punishments were used at times, and the just cause of Ireland was stained by the burning of barns and houses, the injuring of cattle, and occasional murders. Great Britain answered such crimes by suspending the right to trial by juries freely selected, and by other harsh acts. Then the Irish members in Parliament, in order to draw attention to Ireland's grievances, began a policy of "obstruction"—that is, opposing anything and everything which came up in Parliament, until Ireland's ill should be remedied.
All this had such effect that, in 1881, Mr. Gladstone was able to pass a second Irish Land Act, which practically granted the "three F's." But the troubles still continued, and even the arrest and sending to jail of Mr. Parnell and other Irish leaders did not help matters.
Finally it was seen that the Irish land question would never be settled until the Irish peasant became the owner of the land which he tilled. Accordingly, a new policy was adopted. In 1885, Parliament passed a law which set aside a sum of money, which should be loaned to the Irish peasants to assist them in buying their lands. By later laws, especially one which was passed in 1903, this sum was very greatly increased. The result is that more than one fourth of the land which formerly was rented now belongs to the occupants, who are replaying to the government, little by little, the money which they borrowed to purchase it. Thus the Irish land question is now in a fair way to be satisfactorily settled.
But, meanwhile, a much more troublesome question had arisen, which still remains unsolved. This is the question of "Home Rule" for Ireland, or the setting up again of a Parliament at Dublin, with full power over Irish affairs. Under the skilful leadership of Mr. Parnell, the Irish Party in Parliament became strong and united. It was seen that something must be done—either grant Home Rule, at least in part, or else pass very severe laws to put down the disorder and disturbance.
Mr. Gladstone believed, as he said, that "it is liberty alone which fits men for liberty." He favored giving Ireland a central council of its own to carry on the government, but to withhold for a time the grant of a Parliament. A majority of his Cabinet, however, opposed this plan because it went too far, and it was not introduced in Parliament.
The next year (1886), Mr. Gladstone declared that he had become converted entirely to the cause of Home Rule. A portion of the Liberal party thereupon deserted him, and formed a Liberal Unionist party which acted with the Conservatives. Mr. Gladstone now tried, with the assistance of the Irish Party and of the Liberals who remained faithful to him, to pass a bill giving Ireland a Parliament of its own. The measure was defeated in the House of Commons, however, and for a time Gladstone ceased to be Prime Minister. When his party was again victorious at the elections, and he became Prime Minister for the fourth time, in 1892, he made a second attempt to pass a Home Rule bill. This time he was successful in the House of Commons, but the bill was defeated in the House of Lords.
Mr. Parnell, meanwhile, had become a party to a divorce scandal, and this divided and greatly weakened the Irish party. His death shortly afterward did not have the effect of healing these divisions. Mr. Gladstone retired from political life in 1894, after sixty-one years of service in Parliament; and in 1898 he died, at the age of eighty-nine. This also weakened the cause of Ireland.
But the demand for Home Rule still continues. The Irish party, which is now once more reunited, declares that no government for Ireland will be satisfactory to them which does not include a Parliament able to make laws for Ireland, and also ministers for Ireland who shall be responsible to their own Parliament. The English liberals now favor a policy of "Home Rule by installments," or giving to Ireland, little by little, the right to manage it's own affairs. Time alone can tell whether the movement will continue until Ireland, like Canada, has a Parliament of its own; or whether, when the land question is fully settled, and further improvements have been made in local government, Ireland, like Scotland, will be proud to send her representatives to the central Parliament for the whole British Empire, and leave to it the right of making laws for Ireland which it now possesses.