Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sect. IV.—: Legal Consequences of the Declaration of Irish Independence. - Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 1
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Sect. IV.—: Legal Consequences of the Declaration of Irish Independence. - 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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Legal Consequences of the Declaration of Irish Independence.
We may consider the act by which the Irish parliament asserted its independence as an echo of the declaration of independence by the American colonies. North America inspired the movement, the association of the Irish Volunteers gave Ireland the strength necessary to execute it. It would, however, be a mistaken view of the relations between England and Ireland to compare it to that of the colonies with the metropolitan state. Nothing is more common than to institute such a comparison. Ireland appears for centuries governed by force alone, and hence some have supposed that force was the only bond which united the country to England. To adopt such a view, is to mistake completely the nature of the contract existing between Ireland and England.
There is no doubt that after the conquest, and for a long period subsequent, Ireland was at the mercy of England, and might, if she had pleased, inflict on that country a government purely despotic, founded simply on the right of force and conquest. But the question is, not to know if such a course was possible, but if it was really adopted. Now it is clear that such was not the line of conduct pursued towards Ireland. Scarcely had England subdued the country, when she bestowed upon it free institutions, especially recognising the right of Ireland to have a parliament of her own, and to pay no taxes but those which should be voted by her parliament. Scarcely was England mistress of Magna Charta, when she extended its principles to Ireland; a conquered country obtained possession of these rights, not because she constituted an independent state, but because the people on which she depended had granted these franchises; she held her liberties from the very power which might have given chains if it had pleased.
Now, if we reflect on the circumstances which accompanied and followed the conquest, we shall see that this generosity of England was feudal. We have already seen under what circumstances and by what title the vassals and subjects of Henry II. established themselves in Ireland. These Anglo-Normans, for the most part noble by birth, preserved in Ireland all the privileges inherent to their rank; and the king no more thought of taking these away than the adventurers did of disputing with the king his quality of liege lord of Ireland.
After the conquest, therefore, it is important to regard England as not only engaged with the native Irish, and making them bow beneath the yoke of the conqueror; we must especially consider her in her relations with the conquerors that issued from her own bosom, all freemen, Anglo-Normans by race, in whose presence she stood, and whom she was obliged to treat like the inhabitants of every other province belonging to the crown. There were men in Ireland more or less degraded in the feudal scale, at the top of which the king was placed; but they were all, in the style of the period, free men, not conquered subjects.
In truth, for a long time the conquerors of Ireland did not occupy the entire country; for a long time the unsubjugated population of natives which surrounded the pale was treated by England as an enemy, and deprived of all the privileges granted by England to her children; and whilst this state of things endured, we may say that there were two Irelands in the country: one English, and conqueror, the other vanquished or rebellious;—the first sharing in the free institutions of England—the second, enduring all the servitude of conquest. But when the potent hand of Henry VIII. weighed upon the country, the two Irelands became one; those of English or Irish birth were equally subjects of the same empire; one and the same law existed for all—so that, from this time, the condition granted to the Anglo-Norman colonists became the common right of all Ireland. Henry VIII. was not very prodigal of rights and privileges; we cannot tell whether, in his plans of tyranny, he intended to raise the Irish to English liberty, or to depress his English subjects to the servitude of barbarous Ireland.
However that may be, the despot established a level in Ireland, and at a later period, the Englishman in this country could not invoke a single political right which did not equally belong to every Irishman. This principle of political liberty, due to the feudal character of the conquest, received a singular development in the religious wars of the sixteenth century.
When Protestant England entered into a contest with Catholic Ireland, the question of race was lost in that of creed; there was no debate about reducing the sons of old Erin to the yoke, the point was to stifle the hydra of superstition and popery which had found refuge in Ireland; and this was the reason why England, fanaticised by Scotland, rushed on Ireland. The English settlers, who at this time invaded the Irish soil, seized it, not only to possess the land, but “to plant and nurture the tree of true religion.”* Thus acted the Scotch settlers of James I., the fanatics of Cromwell, and the partisans of William III. Between 1615 and 1688, that is to say, in less than eighty years, Ireland was three times invaded under the pretext of religion, and the religious occupants remained there.
Thus, in the same way as England, in 1172, found herself in the presence of a feudal society whose rights she would not refuse to recognise; so, during the agitations of the sixteenth century, Protestant England beheld a Protestant society arise in Ireland, whose rights she was neither able nor willing to restrain.
In these times of enthusiasm, with which sometimes a singular spirit of universal levelling was singularly mingled, it was impossible that the notion of placing the Protestants of Ireland in an inferior condition to the Protestants of England could have entered the minds of Englishmen; every privilege granted to Englishmen, exclusive of their Protestant brethren in Ireland, would have been then regarded as an act of impiety and odious injustice.
There were then, it is true, terrible conflicts between England and Ireland; there is no doubt that there were then conquerors and conquered, and that England was still victorious. But the vanquished were not Irish, they were Catholics, some of English race, others of Irish descent. A religious party was beaten down, not a nation conquered. During nearly two centuries, the majority of the inhabitants of Ireland enjoyed neither rights nor political privileges, but this majority was not oppressed as a people, but only as a sect.
The moment in which the Papists of Ireland endured the most terrible tyranny, was precisely that in which England showed itself most liberal to the only Irish population which it then recognised, that is to say, the Protestants. Never did such a sympathy exist; as they had the same religious passion, they seemed also to have the same common interest; and Cromwell only gave expression to the existing public feelings when he did that which was not finally completed until after another century and a half, that is to say, united Ireland to England.*
It must be remarked, that this immense portion of the inhabitants of Ireland, which did not enjoy the privileges of the constitution, was not directly excluded by law; all Irishmen had alike the right of invoking its protection: their incapacity only arose from the repugnance of their consciences to an oath which the law made a condition of exercising nearly all rights, civil and political. Thus, on the day when Catholics and other dissenters obtained a dispensation from the oath, they had entered ipso facto on the enjoyment of all their privileges, the right to which they had never lost, though the exercise had been suspended; and thus they at once participated in the advantages of the free society which had not ceased to exist in Ireland.
From the preceding statement, we see how great is the mistake of those persons who believe that they can explain the respective situations of England and Ireland, by the nature of the relations which usually exist between a colony and the metropolitan country. Ireland has never been a colony but in name. The state of a colony implies a political and legislative dependence, a condition of inferiority to the parent state, which would not have been endured by the feudal Ireland of Henry II., nor the Protestant Ireland of Cromwell and William III.
Ireland is, besides, too near England to fulfil the conditions of an ordinary colony, which distance from the mother country protects in some sort, and which finds a certain independence in the very impossibility of the metropolitan country’s governing it perpetually. No conquered country close to the conquering can remain in the intermediate position that a colony holds between political independence and entire subjection. Ireland, placed under the English sceptre, must necessarily have been treated as an equal or as an enemy, as free or enslaved; we have seen that it could not be placed in a state of servitude; it consequently received, theoretically at least, the privileges of liberty. There is no doubt that England frequently outraged the liberties she had consecrated; she violated them every time she pleased, for though Ireland had a free government, England did not cease to be the stronger, and her interests frequently hurried her beyond her engagements and even her passions. It was thus that Henry VII., by Poyning’s law, subjected Irish acts of parliament to a sort of preliminary censorship: and at a later period, when England wished to annihilate Irish industry and trade by a single blow, she went so far as to assert that the laws of the English parliament were binding on Ireland.
But even whilst submitting, Ireland protested against such an abuse of strength, and England herself formally recognised her excesses when she declared, by her parliament in 1782, “that the English parliament had never the right to make laws for Ireland, nor to interfere with the independence of the Irish parliament.” Before England had recognised this principle, Ireland had herself proclaimed it; and it is worthy of remark, that in declaring herself free, Ireland acted not as a colony breaking its chains, but as a people asserting its rights. Far different from the American provinces, whose declaration of independence was a signal for war in England, never was Ireland more closely united to that country than on the day when her parliamentary independence was established, for that independence was the first condition of the social compact; the United States broke that compact by their emancipation, to which Ireland remained faithful by becoming free. Burke well described the event of 1782, when he called it the 1688 of Ireland.*
[*]This was the cant of the sixteenth century; its meaning is best developed in the following resolutions adopted by the puritans of Massachusetts, when about to seize on lands belonging to the Indians.
[*]In Cromwell’s plan of a parliament, (ad 1651,) Ireland was to be represented by thirty members.
[*]Plowden, vol. i. p. 521.