Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI.: SUMMARY OF THE PRECEDING CHAPTERS.—ILLUSIONS OF THE IRISH ARISTOCRACY. - Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 2
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CHAPTER VI.: SUMMARY OF THE PRECEDING CHAPTERS.—ILLUSIONS OF THE IRISH ARISTOCRACY. - Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 2 
Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, ed. W.C. Taylor (London: Richard Bentley, 1839). Vol. 2.
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SUMMARY OF THE PRECEDING CHAPTERS.—ILLUSIONS OF THE IRISH ARISTOCRACY.
We have seen how a political cause and a religious principle have corrupted the aristocracy and its institutions in Ireland.
The Irish aristocracy, for the most part, does not govern at all, and when it governs, it governs badly. It wants the first condition necessary to the existence of a beneficent government, which is, to feel sympathy instead of contempt for its subjects. It is detested when absent; it is cursed when present; it possesses all the land in a country where the people have nothing but the land for their support, and immense revenues of which it never returns one farthing to the wretches from whom those revenues are raised. It possesses immense civil powers, and it makes such use of these powers, that neither government nor subjects recognise any proceeding but force, the one to impose the law, and the other to evade it. It has great religious privileges, which it has so strangely abused, that it has rendered its creed hateful among a thousand other objects of hate. Here are vices so great and enormous, that it may be said to possess nothing of aristocracy but the name.
But there is in this aristocracy something more surprising and extraordinary than its vices; I mean the delusions by which it imposes on itself, the faith that it has in the holiness of its rights and the legitimacy of its titles, the indignation which it displays when the least of its privileges is disputed.
I will grant, if they wish, that after the conquest of Ireland, there were great obstacles to the fusion of the English conquerors with the natives; I will concede, if required, that after the reformation, the English, having become Protestants, felt a legitimate repugnance to unite themselves closely with Irish Catholics; I will go further, and taking into account the genius of the age and of revolutions, I will concede that the Protestant conquerors laboured sincerely for the conversion of the Irish to Protestantism, and that they practised, from pure conscientious motives, a persecution which is often attributed to interest. These premises being established, I will easily give up the consequences. I will, without difficulty, acknowledge that the great English lord who possesses estates both in England and Ireland, ought to prefer a residence in England to one in Ireland. I will go still further, and concede that he who is a proprietor in poor Ireland only, is so near happy England that he is strongly tempted to dwell in it. I can readily conceive his abandoning Ireland, such as it is in our days, a prey to a thousand intestine commotions, and devoured by a thousand evils which he found in the land at his birth: I will also admit, that being far from his estate and his tenants, it must be difficult for him to know the sufferings which it is his duty to alleviate: nay, I will go so far as to concede, that the landlord who is kept at home in Ireland by mediocrity of fortune or any other cause, is less culpable in his oppression of a population that he despises and detests, in consequence of traditions received from his ancestors, than an oppressor would be who was exempt from these prejudices.
But what I cannot conceive is, that after two or three ages of useless persecutions to convert Ireland to the reformed faith, the Irish aristocracy does not clearly see that Ireland is destined to remain Catholic, and that persecution, exercised in vain, must have rooted in the hearts of the people the most profound hatred of their persecutors; further, what I cannot conceive is, that the great English or Irish landlord, who is merely a proprietor in Ireland, should pretend there to all the powers of aristocracy, should believe that he has a right to command his tenants to vote according to his pleasure, and when he sees them give an independent suffrage, should exclaim with profound grief, that the sacred bonds between landlord and tenant are broken;—it is impossible for me to comprehend how one man who does not reside on his estates, where he is wholly unknown,—or another who announces his presence only by rigour and exaction—the Irish justice of peace who resides habitually in London, but who comes on an occasional trip to sit on the bench of magistrates, and who, after having received his rents, will not depart without pronouncing sentence upon some Irish malefactors,—this justice of peace, whose decrees excite no feeling among the people but hatred and indignation, whose incapacity is so great that he could not administer the law without the aid of the central power, and whose authority is so feeble that without British artillery he would not be obeyed,—this minister of the Anglican church, to whom the poor pay taxes, and from whom the poor receive nothing,—who has come to Ireland as a missionary, and is nothing more than an annuitant, and who, finding himself surrounded in Ireland by hatred and peril, goes to expend the five or six hundred a year derived from his Irish benefice at Bath or Cheltenham,—it is, I say, impossible for me to conceive how such persons, proprietors, magistrates, or clergymen, who do nothing for the people, should claim the privileges of an actually governing aristocracy—should, after having abandoned the people to themselves, be surprised to see them ignorant and famishing—should, after having treated the peasants as slaves, be astonished to find them vile and degraded,—and, after having been the voluntary or involuntary cause of these evils, should wonder at being hated. What passes my powers of understanding is, that, after having degraded their country to a degree of wretchedness unknown to any other people, at a time when England surpassed in prosperity all the nations of the world, these lords of the soil are indignant, because they do not enjoy in Ireland the popularity which the aristocracy possesses in England,—that, deprived of all conditions of existence, this nominal aristocracy should declare itself legitimate, regard its rights as sacred, and its titles as inviolable; should rigorously claim the honour and respect with difficulty obtained by an enlightened, just, and beneficent aristocracy, and should raise the cry of impiety when the least of its privileges is attacked.
I am mistaken: these passions of the Irish aristocracy ought not to surprise me—they are natural;—does not he who is born a proprietor of slaves believe in the sanctity of slavery?
How Ireland, aided by the liberties she received or acquired, has resisted oppression.
The Irish, brought under the yoke, had received from their masters too many means of defence not to resist oppression. Let the political organisation of Ireland, from the time of the conquest to the present day, be investigated, and there will be found in it all the forms, and nearly all the principles, of a free government.
Doubtless there was more than one error in this liberal organisation, in the very midst of which might be heard the clank of the fetters of servitude; yet would it be quite just to assert, that in all the constitutional laws given to Ireland, there was nothing but odious hypocrisy on the part of the legislator? Assuredly not. We have already seen that these institutions were honest at least to the English Protestants settled in Ireland, who obtained from England rights which she could not refuse them; and it was a great advantage to the Irish, bowed beneath the yoke, to have in the midst of them a society of freemen; for it is one of the sublime characters of liberty that it cannot be seen without being loved, and that, in order to be desired, it needs only to be known.
Let us add, in strict justice, that the Protestants, who doubtless at first desired their free constitution for themselves alone, could scarcely venture to refuse it entirely to the people entrusted to their charge, and that they conferred on this people certain political guarantees at the very time that they cruelly persecuted them on account of their religious belief. There was more good faith than is usually imagined in this assemblage of written laws and real oppression.
It is a phenomenon worthy of observation, that at the very height of his tyranny, an Englishman never departs from certain free principles inherent in his manners, habits, and even prejudices, which the logic of self-interest cannot always destroy. He enacts penal laws against the Irish Catholic, of unparalleled iniquity; but he deems that, in attacking Catholicism, he attacks absolute power, and that, while persecuting popery, he defends the sacred cause of liberty. Be well assured, then, that the same law which strikes the Catholic will respect the man, and that the citizen will preserve the rights of which the dissenter is deprived. The laws of the English Protestant place the Irish Catholic in a condition of social inferiority; but this is because an Englishman does not recognise an intimate connexion between liberty and equality. Social inequality appears to him the natural state of things; he sees it established in his own country; but he does not believe it just to deprive those over whom he is placed of their liberty, accustomed as he is to exercise his own rights against those who possess a greater extent of privileges. Though he places himself in superiority over millions of Irishmen, he still leaves them considerable liberties: at the moment that he subjects franchise, eligibility, civil magistracy, &c., to an oath which the conscience of the Irish Catholics rejects, he does not deprive them of those general rights which education has taught him to regard as not less necessary to existence than the air he breathes, and the ground he treads.
Turn to the press; from the time that it became free in England, it has not ceased to be so in Ireland. Swift published his most virulent pamphlets against the tyrants of Ireland at the period when that tyranny was most terrible.1 In 1797, amid the symptoms of approaching civil war, journals bitterly opposed to England appeared every morning; and a Protestant historian, the Rev. Mr. Gordon, who approves of the penal laws, is indignant at the thought of violating the sacred principle of the liberty of the press.2
Under the penal laws, the Catholics of Ireland could not assemble in their chapels to worship God according to their conscience; but they were free to hold public assemblies, and discuss the rigours to which they were subjected. The exercise of this right, nevertheless, depended on the chief magistrate of the county, the sheriff, or, in case of his refusal, on a certain number of justices of the peace; but neither the sheriff, the representative of the central power, nor the justices of the peace, who belonged to the aristocracy, ever deemed it their duty to prohibit a meeting, because it was convoked for purposes hostile to their interests and their political passions. The rare examples of impediments offered to this right of holding meetings are considered as scandalous abuses, and stigmatised as acts of gross oppression.3
In 1792, at the moment when French democracy convulsed the world, Catholic Ireland was moved. Wearied of suffering in silence, the Irish people resolved to carry their sense of their wrongs and their desire for redress to the foot of the throne. In order that their wants should be clearly established, a general assembly was formed, in Dublin, of delegates from all the counties in Ireland; so that at the very moment when the constitutional parliament of Ireland, composed of lords and commons, held its sittings, and made laws for the country, another assembly, a kind of second parliament, was established in the same city, discussed all political questions, deliberated, adopted resolutions, published them, and was in fact the only national parliament.
What should the government do under such circumstances? Should it command a squadron of dragoons and a piece of artillery to disperse so dangerous an assembly? No: this assembly, though dangerous, was not illegal; before forming it, those by whom it was convoked, investigated their right, and eminent lawyers declared that such a meeting was not contrary to the laws of the kingdom. And this was enough in a country distracted by party; those who bad the law on their side tranquilly confided in their right, and though this right disquieted the government, it was respected.4
Who would believe it? At no period in Ireland has the principle of responsibility in the agents of power been set aside; and we find it remaining in full force in the midst of the most destructive troubles and revolutions. During the terrible crisis of 1798, a sheriff, grossly abusing his authority, caused a school-master, named Wright, to be ignominiously flogged in Clonmell;5 when the revolutionary tempest was passed, the sufferer brought his action in the ordinary courts of justice, and the sheriff’s culpability having been recognised by the jury, he was condemned to pay five hundred pounds damages, and the costs of suit.6
The principle of a jury has never been contested in Ireland. Strafford, the greatest of tyrants, did not attempt to confiscate lands as forfeitures to the crown, without having recourse to the verdict of a jury, which he was not always able to obtain.7
In the breast of an English judge, notwithstanding political and religious prejudices, there are traditions of independence and respect for right, which are generally more powerful than his passions. Let us glance at the admirable scene in which Lord Kilwarden, chief justice of the King’s Bench in Dublin, disputed with the government the custody of a political criminal condemned to death. In 1798, Wolf Tone, the leader and creator of the united Irishmen, was taken in Lough Swilly, on board a French fleet conveying an army to invade Ireland: his crime was flagrant; he was taken with arms in his hand; he was bringing a foreign enemy into Ireland with the avowed object of breaking the English yoke, and proclaiming the country an independent republic. Dragged before a court-martial, he was condemned to death, and, according to the rapid forms of military justice, was about to be executed on the spot. The remainder of the impressive narrative will be best told in the words of Tone’s son and biographer.
“On the next day, 12th November, the scene in the court of King’s Bench was awful and impressive in the highest degree. As soon as it opened, Curran advanced, leading the aged father of Tone, who produced his affidavit that his son had been brought before a bench of officers calling itself a court-martial, and sentenced to death.”
“I do not pretend,” said Curran, “that Mr. Tone is not guilty of the charges of which he is accused. I presume the officers were honourable men. But it is stated in this affidavit, as a solemn fact, that Mr. Tone had no commission under his Majesty; and therefore no court-martial could have cognizance of any crime imputed to him, whilst the Court of King’s Bench sat in the capacity of the great criminal court of the land. In time when war was raging, when man was opposed to man in the field, courts-martial might be endured; but every law authority is with me, whilst I stand upon this sacred and immutable principle of the constitution, that martial law and civil law are incompatible, and the former must cease with the existence of the latter. This is not, however, the time for arguing this momentous question. My client must appear in this court. He is cast for death this very day. He may be ordered for execution whilst I address you. I call on the court to support the law, and move for a habeas corpus, to be directed to the provost-marshal of the barracks of Dublin, and Major Sandys, to bring up the body of Tone.”
—“Have a writ instantly prepared.”
—“My client may die, whilst the writ is preparing.”
—“Mr. Sheriff, proceed to the barracks, and acquaint the provost-marshal that a writ is preparing to suspend Mr. Tone’s execution, and see that he be not executed.”
The court awaited, in a state of the utmost agitation and suspense, the return of the sheriff. He speedily appeared, and said, “My lord, I have been to the barracks in pursuance of your order. The provost-marshal says he must obey Major Sandys; Major Sandys says he must obey Lord Cornwallis.”
Mr. Curran announced, at the same time, that Mr. Tone, the father, was just returned after serving the habeas corpus, and that General Craig would not obey it. The chief justice exclaimed, “Mr. Sheriff, take the body of Tone into custody; take the provost-marshal and Major Sandys into custody, and show the order of the court to General Craig.”
The general impression was now, that the prisoner would be led out to execution in defiance of the court. This apprehension was legible in the countenance of Lord Kilwarden: a man who, in the worst of times, preserved a religious respect for the laws; and who, besides, I may add, felt every personal feeling of pity and respect for the prisoner, whom he had formerly contributed to shield from the vengeance of government on an occasion almost as perilous. His agitation, according to the expression of an eye-witness, was “magnificent.”
The sheriff returned at length with the fatal news. He had been refused admittance into the barracks; but was informed that Mr. Tone, who had wounded himself dangerously the night before, was not in a condition to be removed. A French emigrant surgeon, who had closed the wound, was called in, and declared there was no saying, for four days, whether it was mortal. His head was to be kept in one position, and a sentinel was set over him to prevent his speaking. Removal would kill him at once. The chief justice instantly ordered a rule for suspending the execution.”
Can any one say that all liberty is extinguished in a country where a judge, in spite of his passions, addresses such language to the agents of the executive power?
In times nearer our own, has not England been disquieted by storms gathering in Ireland, menaced by the political and religious associations formed in that country; and have we not seen the right to associate constantly respected?
Parliament, on certain occasions, has suppressed this or that association, but it has never attacked the principle of right to associate. When the Whiteboys covered Ireland with their terrible confederation, a law was passed, defining their association, and inflicting upon it the severest penalties: in the same way the parliament treated all the societies that succeeded the Whiteboys; and when the association, without being actually criminal, appeared dangerous, parliament was contented with enjoining its dissolution. But never has the English government been seen, under the pretext that criminal associations might be formed, attacking in its principle the right of subjects to associate, interdicting the use, through real or pretended fear, of the abuse, or, what is still worse, pretending to regulate the right by making its exercise depend on official authorisation, as if the imposition of a necessity for authorisation was not a virtual denial of the right.
But what is the use of liberty, if it does not prevent tyranny? Be assured that it is still of the highest use: though it does not prevent oppression, it fixes its limits; it is a weapon in the hands of the feeble, and if you see a people unhappy, though in possession of liberty, you may well believe that without such liberty it would be more unhappy still.
There is one circumstance which is too often forgotten. The miseries endured by a free people are known, because freedom publishes them: whilst in the countries of pure despotism, nothing is known of the sufferings of the people, for the tyrant conceals them with the more care, as they are the more frightful.
We should reject the most authentic evidence of history, were we not to recognise how much English domination in Ireland has been fettered and controlled by the free institutions given to that country. Perhaps there will be some persons who, seeing the English embarrassed in their persecutions by the rights given to the oppressed, will be of opinion that the persecutors were ill advised to create such obstacles for themselves. It is sad, I grant, for the friends of despotism to encounter liberties even amongst an enslaved people; there is doubtless cause for their surprise and chagrin. For my part, I deem this voluntary or instinctive sentiment noble, which disposes the oppressor to give his victim guarantees beforehand, and thus affix limits to his own tyranny.
These free forms, not useless for the present, will also be the source of safety for the future. The Great Charter, it is true, did not prevent the Tudors from establishing despotism in England; but when at length the English people, wearied of their despots, aspired to deliver themselves, they found all the resources of a free government ready prepared to their hands. It is thus that under the yoke of tyranny everything may be made ready for liberty, in the same way as it may happen that under a mild and free government everything may be prepared for servitude.
The jury, the press, the right of associating, responsibility of the agents of government, and the habeas corpus, are found in Ireland amid many arbitrary and oppressive acts; but is it not to these rights, always preserved, that Ireland is indebted for her daily conquest of the rights which are still wanting?
Ireland is doubtless very miserable, but she is farther advanced than is generally supposed in constitutional knowledge. There are many political questions still doubtful to many in France, which in Ireland would embarrass nobody. Never, for instance, in that country, would a person have a notion of demanding a political right without claiming a guarantee. Other countries more fortunate are less enlightened. Ireland resembles some invaded country, which, after a dreadful national struggle, has succeeded in expelling the strangers from its soil: it has learned all the arts of war and victory, but the land is covered with devastation and ruin: it is independent, but it is poor.
The poverty of Ireland did not vanish as its liberties were consolidated and increased. On the contrary, it would seem that, as the Irishman acquired political rights, his social misery was increased in the same proportion. It is certain that Irishmen have never been so free as at the present moment, and it is equally certain that they have never been so miserable.
It is a terrible truth, the proofs of which are abundant, that Irish landlords have never been so severe to the tenants and labourers on their estates as they are at the present moment. This is easily explained: when the Irish peasants were placed by law in an inferior condition, the rich treated them nearly as a master does his slaves, whom he oppresses sufficiently to let them feel the yoke, but to whom he allows so much liberty as will enable them to enrich him by their toil. But this calculation, formerly made by the Irish landlord, is at present overcome by passion. Since his power has been contested, and the slave presents himself as a free man, the desire of again abasing him prevails over the interest of profiting by him. The small farmer, formerly deprived of political rights, is now an elector; he has been recently allowed to send Catholics to parliament; he votes at elections against his landlord; it is his right; but on his side, the landlord has a right to eject the tenant from his farm, and of this right he makes the most rigorous use.8
We do not now see two or three Protestants assemble in vestry to tax the Catholic population for the support of a form of worship which, as it only interests them, they should maintain themselves; but these two or three Protestants, the chief landed proprietors of the parish, wishing to lighten the burden which must henceforth fall upon them, eject Catholic tenants, and put Protestants in their place, who may support with them the expenses of public worship.
We have seen that there is a war between the rich and the poor, the governors and the governed; now, the more strength the poor acquire, the greater are the fear and irritation of the rich. Oppressive laws are abolished, but the oppressor still remains; and in his rage for being despoiled, after having been so long the spoiler, he makes a terrible use of the powers which he derives from common rights. The situation of the rich is quite extraordinary,—no longer making the laws with whose administration they are charged; and this is one of the causes of their continually increasing rigour. Every new law conceived in a spirit more tolerant towards the Catholics, and more liberal towards the poor, appears to them an attack upon their authority as well as upon their creed, and therefore they make a more rigid use of the powers which they still retain. This disposition explains how it is that, with more liberty, the poor Irishman suffers perhaps more persecution; and how, whilst the country becomes richer, the cultivator becomes poorer. The land produces twice as much as it did fifty years ago, and the agriculturist is twice as miserable. Are we to conclude that the present condition of the Irish is worse than what it was fifty years ago? No. The miseries they experience are those which war brings in its train; they suffer, because they are in actual combat; but the struggle displays their strength, and I cannot bestow much pity on the slave wounded in the action that establishes his freedom.
And if, after having escaped political oppression, Ireland ever succeeds in rescuing itself from social misery, is it not to its liberties that it will primarily owe its success? Who can dispute the benefits which Ireland derives at this moment from the freedom of the press alone? What but the press has brought into open day the vices of its social and political condition,—the press, whose voice, powerful even to deceive, is so strong when it is the organ of justice and of truth? Is it not the press that has unveiled in the Irish government and the Irish aristocracy excesses and iniquities which could only be perpetrated in darkness, but which its brilliant light has doomed to perish? Every day it reveals the evils of Ireland, which were not less unknown to England than the rest of the world; every day its merciless publicity proclaims them; and after having displayed in the eyes of the master the hideous wounds of the slave, it demands a reckoning for the still more hideous wounds of the freeman; and now that they are exposed, they must be cured. How is this to be done? I know not; but the attempt must be made, for their enormity demands a remedy.
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