Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sect. II.—: Second Effect of American Independence on Ireland, (1778 to 1779.) The Irish Volunteers. - Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 1
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Sect. II.—: Second Effect of American Independence on Ireland, (1778 to 1779.) The Irish Volunteers. - Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 1 
Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, ed. W.C. Taylor (London: Richard Bentley, 1839). Vol. 1.
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Second Effect of American Independence on Ireland, (1778 to 1779.) The Irish Volunteers.
The war between England and her colonies not only exercised a moral influence on Ireland, but produced results in that country which may almost be called physical.
On account of America, England was at war with France, Spain, and Holland, as well as the United States; it was necessary to withdraw a part of the English army from Ireland to send it to America.
The Irish coasts were daily menaced with hostile invasion; Ireland demanded aid, but was told to defend herself the best way she could.* England at the moment was stunned by the number of embarrassments pressing on her from a distance and close at hand.
These embarrassments of England added to the strength of Ireland, already encouraged by her success in having obtained the first concession. Besides this movement, Ireland was greatly irritated at being refused the commercial and maritime liberties which she claimed. Associations were formed to refuse the use of English manufactures,† in order that the English, who resisted the commercial advantages of Ireland, should be deprived of them themselves.
In this state of things, the viceroy declared that in consequence of the failure of the public revenue, the laws for raising a militia could not be executed.‡ Immediately, by a universal and spontaneous movement, Ireland was covered with a volunteer militia, self-armed, self-regimented, self-organised, which elected its own chiefs, and formed its own rules of discipline, without the government taking any share, direct or indirect, either in its formation or superintendence. The commercial association was transformed into a military association.
The government appears to have acted imprudently in allowing the formation and organisation of these “independent companies;” but how could it have opposed them? Doubtless it had the rigorous right, but it had not the inclination; it was, above all things, necessary to avert an invasion, which was imminent, and to conjure away this peril, which was a peril of death.
It is very unfortunate for tyrannical governments to have sometimes imperious need of the people; when once this recourse has taken place, the delusion is dissipated: the people discovers that it is strong, and the tyrant weak. It cannot defend the government without learning the art of defending itself against the government.
The English government felt the necessity of throwing itself into the arms of Ireland, and entrusting the country with the care of its own preservation. The viceroy distributed sixteen thousand swords and muskets to the volunteers. An imposing force was soon on foot; forty thousand men organised themselves in the twinkling of an eye at their own expense, and without any other impulse than national feeling. Ireland was, without doubt, saved for the moment from hostile invasion, but from that day she also learned the secret of her strength against England.
These armed bodies, having no other discipline than that which they imposed on themselves, and refusing all royal regulations, proclaimed themselves sovereign, in so far as they refused to derive their rights as armed citizens from any power but their own.
They then discussed affairs of state, and regarded themselves as the true representatives of the nation; they formed a kind of military parliament, and Ireland no longer presented a petition to England, save at the point of the bayonet. They asked why the rights of the citizens should be limited to bearing arms, and why they should not have the right of debating on public affairs. They assembled on fixed days; each corps named representatives; assemblies elected by the majority of citizens passed resolutions, approved or blamed the conduct of the government, recommended such and such measures, censured severely the acts of parliament which appeared injurious to the country. In truth, the parliamentary power was in the popular masses, and the masses were armed. A memorable circumstance prevented the disorders with which such a state of things was rife; it was that the rich, the landlords, the chief men of the country in commerce, amongst the citizens and amongst the nobility, were at the head of the volunteer battalions; they at first entered them from the feeling of nationality which pervaded Ireland on the menace of a foreign invasion; and afterwards, when the volunteer companies organised themselves into political deliberative assemblies, these noblemen and gentlemen remained at their posts from prudential motives. They saw the march of events with terror; they comprehended all the peril of a deliberative army, but they knew how much more dangerous it would become if the chiefs withdrew from the direction.
The volunteers taught England that there was such a thing as formidable Ireland, with which she would have to reckon. Composed for the most part of Protestants, they taught England and Ireland itself, that with most of the Protestants the prejudices against the Catholics were weakened; since the delegates from one hundred and forty-three of these companies, who met at Dungannon, on the 15th of February 1782, to demand in the name of their armed constituencies free trade and an independent parliament, adopted also the following resolutions:—
“Resolved, (with two dissenting voices only, to this and the following resolution,) that we hold the right of private judgment in matters of religion to be equally sacred in others as ourselves.
“Resolved, therefore, that as men and as Irishmen, as Christians and as Protestants, we rejoice in the relaxation of the penal law against our Roman Catholic fellow-subjects, and that we conceive the measure to be fraught with the happiest consequences to the union and prosperity of the inhabitants of Ireland.”
It is from this day that the origin of the party of liberal Protestants in Ireland must be dated. Until then, Protestants had only been patriots so far as they wished that Ireland should not be subject to England; but these patriots, so impatient of the English yoke, were satisfied that the Catholics should endure theirs. But now they began to invoke liberty, not only for themselves but for their fellow-citizens.
It is true that they only claimed, with a timid voice, the cessation of the persecutions against the Catholics; but they demonstrated their injustice in demanding their cessation; and the population which groaned under the penal laws had henceforth auxiliaries in the ranks of its oppressors.
The volunteers, their acts, the impulse which gave public opinion in Ireland, and their moral effect on England, produced the independence of the Irish parliament.
[*]The people of Belfast, alarmed at their unprotected state, petitioned the government for a garrison, and received as an answer, that half a troop of dismounted cavalry, and half a company of invalids, constituted all the force that could be spared.—Tr.
[†]One of these associations had the humorous motto, “Burn everything that is imported from England except coals.”
[‡]His Majesty’s ministers were obliged not only to pay the Irish troops on service abroad from the British exchequer, but also to remit fifty thousand pounds to Ireland to complete the sum necessary for the payment of the few troops who had been left in that kingdom.”