The Irish Revolt

[The Outlook, May 17, 1916]

Sometimes when a great fire has been extinguished and all danger has apparently disappeared there breaks out a new flame, showing that unextinguished embers are still slumbering unseen. Such was the latest Irish revolt, a result of centuries of race and religious hostility and of monstrous, though not inexplicable, misrule. The Irish and the Anglo-Saxon are temperamentally hostile; that hostility has been aggravated by religious animosities between the Protestant Anglo-Saxons and the Irish Roman Catholics and by vicious and cruel rule and vicious and cruel revolts succeeding each other ever since the conquest of Ireland by the Anglo-Norman in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics which deluged Europe in blood in the sixteenth-century had as one of its incidents an Irish revolt against the rule of Charles I, accompanied by a massacre of non-resisting Protestants, with circumstances of incredible barbarity, and followed by the punitive campaign of Cromwell, as cruel as the revolt which it punished. That his were the ordered cruelties of an army, not the disorderly cruelties of a mob, is an aggravation, not an extenuation, of the crime. The only extenuation possible is that they were characteristic of an age which produced the massacre of St. Bartholomew in France and the bloody campaign of the Duke of Alva in the Netherlands. The subsequent attempt at revolt under the leadership of the Roman Catholic James II, with the aid of French forces, after his flight from England, was defeated in the Battle of the Boyne under William III, and was followed by a policy of persecution, not as barbaric as that of Cromwell, but not less unjust—the forfeiture of more than a million Irish acres, the deliberate discouragement of Irish industries, the appointment of English favorites to sinecures and pensions both in Church and State paid for out of Irish taxes levied on a bankrupt community. "The conquered people," in Swift's bitter words of contempt, "became 'hewers of wood and drawers of water' to their conquerors."

Such a policy may suppress revolt, but it can never break the spirit of a brave people. For the time being Ireland ceased to be a source of political danger to England. But the continued industrial oppressions of the Irish people under the Georges and the impotency of an Irish Parliament which had neither the will nor the power to represent the people, kept alive the spirit of discontent, and when the American and French Revolutions awakened again popular aspirations for liberty, the revolutionists of Ireland saw their opportunity. Expecting promised co-operation from an invading French force, as recently the Irish revolutionists expected co-operation from an invading German force, the standard of revolt was again set up. The French fleet was wrecked by a storm as the Spanish Armada had been wrecked two hundred years before, the Irish fell to fighting among themselves, and the unsupported revolt was speedily quelled.

But at this time England had at the head of her affairs a great statesman. Pitt introduced into the English Parliament a bill establishing absolute free trade between Ireland and England, which would have opened all English markets to Irish products. In spite of fierce opposition from English manufacturers and merchants, he carried this bill through the English Parliament, only to see it rejected by the Irish Parliament, an act of folly impossible to defend and difficult to explain. Ireland might well include in her liturgy, from our professed friends, good Lord, deliver us.

There have always been two parties in Ireland, one for union with England on something like equal terms, the other for independence. Ireland with a Parliament which represented only a corrupt oligarchy possessed in 1800 a pseudo independence. Pitt resolved on a policy which would look to a real union. He resolved to bring the Irish Parliament to an end and have Ireland represented in the English Parliament, as Scotland and Wales are represented. Two courses were open to him: to disband the Irish Parliament by force of arms, or to bribe it to commit suicide. He resolved on the latter course. Some of the members he bought with money, some with offices, some with peerages, some with promises which were never fulfilled. No historian questions the wholesale corruption, and no historian justifies it. The only apology is that furnished by John Richard Green in his "History of the English People:" "Base and shameless as were such means, Pitt may fairly plead that they were the only means by which the bill could have been passed." We cannot, however, doubt that this abolition of the Irish Parliament was itself a real boon to Ireland, By its demise that Parliament demonstrated its moral incapacity to govern, Whatever excuses can be offered for the policy of Mr. Pitt, forced upon him by the circumstances, none can be offered for the majority members of a legislative body which sold the rights of its constituents intrusted to its keeping and its own responsibilities to the Irish people for payments in offices, honors, and gold.

From the day of the Act of Union dates a radical though very gradual change in the policy of the English toward Ireland. It must always be a question whether this change was helped or hindered by the Irish irreconcilables. For, on the one hand, England changes her policies very gradually, and it is doubtful whether any of the Irish reforms which followed the Act of Union would have been granted if the grant had not been necessary to quiet a restless people whose discontent was at times a menace to English prosperity and always a menace to English repose. But, on the other hand, the characteristic refusal of the Irish leaders, with rare exceptions, to co-operate with those English liberals who were really desirous to substitute a policy of justice for one of repression, and their inability to comprehend the political difficulties which the liberals had to encounter from English traditionalism in their endeavor to induce the English people to do justly, have made the work of the English liberals exceedingly difficult.

The injustices under which Ireland had suffered for centuries may be classified for our purpose here under five heads: Industrial, Religious, Educational, Agrarian, and Political. The century which has followed the Act of Union has witnessed effective steps taken by the English Government for the correction of all these abuses.

England up to the American Revolution had governed all her colonies for her own benefit, not for theirs; Ireland furnished no exception. Her commerce had been discouraged, her manufactures paralyzed by legislation deliberately adopted for that purpose. It is always easier to kill business than to reanimate it, and Ireland has not yet recovered from injuries inflicted by centuries of injustice. Nevertheless, honest, persistent, and not wholly ineffective efforts have been made both by legislation and by private enterprise to rehabilitate her industries. All restrictions on industry and commerce with England have been repealed, and free trade has opened Engglish markets to Irish producers. Prominent among the private efforts are those made by Sir Horace Plunkett to improve agricultural methods and by Lord and Lady Aberdeen to encourage mechanical industries, especially in the homes.

Anti-Catholic legislation inherited from the bitter conflicts between the Roman and Protestant Churches in Queen Elizabeth's time had imposed on the Roman Catholics both in England and in Ireland intolerable disabilities. Whatever excuse the unscrupulous activities of authorized representatives of the Papacy in England may have furnished for the anti-Catholic legislation at a time when the authority of the English throne and the liberties of the English people were threatened, that excuse no longer existed. But abuses continue after the causes which have produced them cease. The Act of Union could probably never have secured the approval of the Roman Catholic population of Ireland if promises had not been made that it would be at once followed by an Act of Catholic Emancipation. The failure of the Government to fulfill these promises, due partly to the obstinacy of the King, justly aroused the indignation of the Irish, nor was it until nearly thirty years later that, despite Tory opposition, legislation was enacted which put Catholic and Protestant on an equality before the law.

There still remained another religious cause of irritation. An overwhelming majority of the Irish are Roman Catholics, and they were compelled to support by their taxes the Established Church of England, which rendered them no service and which they abhorred both because of its (to them) heretical doctrines and because it was the Church of the hated Englishman. It took another forty years for the slow-moving English mind to conclude that the cause of religion is not promoted by forcing a reluctant people to give it their support. But at length, in 1869, under the leadership of Mr. Gladstone, himself a devoted Anglican, this injustice was remedied by the disestablishment of the English Church in Ireland.

England has been very slow to recognize the need of universal education for a free people. That it made no provision for popular education in Ireland is not surprising, since it made none in England, but it was no small cause for Irish discontent that it forbade the Roman Catholics from providing for the education of their own children. Catholics could not be teachers without being guilty of felony; parents could not send their children abroad for education without forfeiture of their property and their citizenship. Such teaching as was given at all was given clandestinely. These penal laws have now all been abolished and a common-school system has been established providing for the education of children of all classes and open to children of all denominations in which no pupil is required to attend any religious exercise and all children are afforded an opportunity to attend such religious exercises as their parents or guardians desire.

Successive steps have been taken to redeem Ireland from the curse of absentee landlordism, which has been one chief cause of its poverty. There is here no space to narrate these successive steps in detail. By the individualistic and self-supporting American they have been often criticised as Socialistic. It is enough to say that by them the tenant is entitled to compensation for the improvements which he may make in a rented property, may appeal to a commission to determine what is a fair-rent for him to pay, and can borrow on advantageous terms from the Government the money to buy the land he cultivates at a price which the Government fixes; and this is accompanied by a provision for building laborers' cottages for such as are not able to build or buy for themselves.

The political problem still remains unsolved—of all English problems the most difficult and perplexing to the English statesman. That problem may be briefly stated thus: How to give to the Irish people the control of their own local affairs without endangering the integrity of the British Empire.

To the American this seems a comparatively simple problem. We have solved it by a Federal system allowing home rule to each State and reserving for the United States only those matters of a common concern. But in no one of our States does there exist any such condition as exists in Ireland. The animosity between the Roman Catholic Irish in the South and the Protestant Irish in the North is greater than the animosity in either section of the Irish to the English.

The Irish are not united in their desire for Home Rule. In 1703 the Irish begged for that legislative union which in 1800 was granted to Ireland, and it is very doubtful whether now anything more than a small minority of the Irish desire independence. It is certain that Mr. Bonar Law truly expressed the sentiment of the Orangemen of the North when he said that they would rather be governed by a foreign power than by an Irish Parliament. But the advocates of an Irish Parliament will not consider any proposal for a divided jurisdiction, and those who advocate independence will not consider any proposal for a limited jurisdiction. Nevertheless successive English statesmen have attempted to provide some form of Home Rule for Ireland which will be satisfactory to all factions. Gladstone tried it in 1886, and split his party in twain. He tried it again in 1893, met great opposition from enthusiastic Unionists in Ireland, and was defeated in the House of Lords. Mr. Asquith tried it again in 1912. It was this trial which provoked the hostility of the North of Ireland to such an extent that a volunteer army was raised to resist Irish Home Rule if the bill should become a law, and a million and a half of dollars were raised to support any relatives of volunteers who might be wounded or idled in the fighting which they believed was sure to come.

Various attempts at compromise were made between the Irish factions supporting and opposing this measure, which was, of course, far removed from independence, and no result had been reached when, on the first of August, the breaking out of the great European war postponed for both England and Ireland any further consideration of the so-called Irish question. But it was only postponed, and there is every reason to believe that the purpose of the Liberal party in England to provide some adequate measure of self-government for Ireland by an Irish Parliament is not weakened. We think ourselves justified, however, in saying that the Irish question is the most difficult and perplexing of all English political questions, since if England grants Home Rule it will have to face a revolution from the North of Ireland, and if it refuses Home Rule it will have to face a revolution from the South.

This brief history may help the impartial reader to form a judgment on the question whether the recent Irish revolt was justifiable. If cruel memories of past wrongs justify revolution, the executed leaders may be honored as martyrs. But memories of past wrongs do not make revolution right. Three conditions must concur to make it right to resort to so perilous and terrible a remedy: Present practical injustice, no hope of peaceable remedy, and a reasonable ground or the expectation that the revolution may be successful. These three conditions existed in our American Revolution. Our Declaration of Independence recited the practical injustices under which the colonists were suffering and the futile attempts they had made to secure a remedy by peaceful measures. The result of the Revolution demonstrated that their expectation of success was not unreasonable. None of these conditions existed in the case of Ireland. The Irish are not now suffering from intolerable injustice; the history of the past century demonstrates the reasonableness of the hope that the union with England effected in 1801 will eventually bring her both liberty and justice. Her appeals to the English people have not been made in vain. There was no reasonable ground to hope that the revolt attempted by the irreconcilables could succeed. They represented only a fraction of the Irish people, and probably only a minority of them, and if they could by any possibility have succeeded, the history of the past and the conditions of the present give no reason to hope that they could cope with the difficulties of the Irish situation as profitably for the Irish people as the present Imperial Government in which the Irish people are represented. The leaders in such a revolt are not entitled to American sympathy. While their Irish brethren were bravely fighting in the trenches for world liberty against a military barbarism which threatened civilization they joined hands with the enemies of that civilization. They have suffered no injustice in paying with their lives for an act as treacherous to the Irish people as it was to the English Government.

But history will, we believe, pronounce the English Government guilty of a double blunder. It knew the excitable temperament of the Irish people. It knew how much had recently occurred to inflame their easily inflamed passions. At a time when Ireland needed an experienced, sagacious, and strong statesman at the head of its affairs, the English Government appointed as Chief Secretary one whose chief distinction was his ability to write charming essays. Under his inefficient administration the revolt was allowed to assume perilous proportions. And the prompt and vigorous action which six weeks ago might have sufficed to prevent any attempted revolution will now have at least as one of its effects the creation of a public sympathy among the Irish people both at home and abroad for those whom we fear they will be lead to regard as martyred leaders in an episode which will constitute a new count in the Irishman's indictment against England.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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