Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sect. I.—: The Association. - Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 2
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Sect. I.—: The Association. - 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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For every nation, as for every individual, held in slavery, there are two possible moral states,—discouragement or hope, despondency or energy, submission or revolt. So long as the slave is not brutalised, he ardently aspires to break his chains; if he does not make the effort, it is because he is crushed by the weight of his fetters, and rendered incapable of effort; but from the day when his loosened bonds permit him to move, we may be assured that he struggles for freedom. The happiness of slaves has always appeared to me an odious lie and a cruel mockery. I esteem my fellow men too highly to believe in the happiness of the nation, or individual, that is tranquil in fetters.
Until 1775, Ireland was in the situation of the motionless slave beaten down or degraded; at this moment, “a voice from America shouted to liberty,” which stirred the captive in his chains, and the master in his tyranny. I have already described the circumstances of this popular awakening, and especially the great assembly of the volunteers in 1778, the first association that was formed in Ireland. The struggle in which the volunteers engaged, and which produced the parliamentary independence of 1782, was not, however, national; it was a quarrel between the Irish aristocracy and the English government. The Irish aristocracy, which, during a century, had been at the same time a slave and a tyrant, had habituated itself to tyranny without becoming accustomed to servitude, and, whilst continuing to oppress Ireland, it wished to throw off the yoke of England. Its triumph was at first brilliant; but it saw not that, in enfranchising itself, it set a pernicious example to its own subjects; it did not understand that, in employing them to fight its master, it taught them to turn their arms against itself. America instructed Protestant Ireland; that in its turn taught Catholic Ireland; besides, it was the time when revolutionary France proclaimed liberty to the world with a voice of thunder.
In 1792, the Irish people for the first time appeared on the stage in opposition to its two tyrants,—the Anglican faction established in Ireland, and England the support of that faction. This was the movement of the United Irishmen, the Catholics of the south, and the Presbyterians of the north, united more in their designs than their principle: more honest than rational in their alliance; it was the first truly national association, though still very imperfect; composed of the most heterogeneous elements, a medley of Puritan and of Popish passions, of Utopian philosophy and religious fanaticism, of American liberalism and French jacobinism; resting only on one common base, hatred of the English yoke, and desire for national independence,—a noble association, but ill defined, unsteady in its plans, vacillating in its progress, torn by a thousand intestine divisions, ready to make false estimates of its strength, and cherishing the illusions which terminated in the fatal insurrection of 1798.
Warned by this terrible effort for freedom, and arming itself against their rebellious subjects by the excesses which they had committed while wandering in the unknown, the two masters of Ireland forgot their mutual quarrel, and united, to separate no more. The Irish union of 1800 was far less a union between England and Ireland, than an alliance between the English party and the Protestant faction, which, being no longer able to govern Ireland, threw itself into the arms of the master whose detested yoke it had shaken off twenty years before, and abandoned all the instruments of power and persecution, on condition of being allowed to retain its tyranny as in times past.
Twenty years of silent oppression were the price of this reciprocal engagement. But, during the struggle between its masters, Ireland had conquered too many rights, and in its unfortunate efforts for deliverance it had gained too many useful lessons, to remain for ever passive and mute in slavery.
It was a second time in association that Ireland found the secret of its strength, and the hope of its freedom. About the year 1823, the Catholic Association was established in Dublin on a new plan, and according to new principles.1 The vounteers of 1782, the United Irishmen of 1792, were armed bodies ready to fight a battle, rather than associations formed by citizens for the defence of their rights. The first of these bodies, almost exclusively Protestant, could not represent Catholic Ireland; the second, in which persons of every religious denomination were mingled, had ended in terrifying everybody by its revolutionary tendencies and manifestos. The new association, established for the purpose of effecting progress without violence, agitation without war, resistance without revolution, attracted into its bosom all the instincts and all the desires of independence that Ireland still possessed.
When the government of a country is rooted in a nation, if popular storms are raised against it, we may be assured of seeing it supported by a part of the nation, more or less considerable. Thus, when the aristocracy is attacked in England, finding amongst the people ardent and numerous auxiliaries, it doubts if it does not govern according to the wishes of the greater number; there are, to be sure, still powerful oppositions, but these are only parties in the presence of a government which is, or seems to be, the true representative of the country. It is far different amongst a people subject to an antinational authority. Thus, in Ireland, where the aristocracy is the enemy of the people, nobody resists whilst the government is strong: but the moment when opposition is free to declare itself, the hostility is universal, and the governing power, abandoned on all sides, falls into complete isolation. The opposition is then the nation, and the government a party or a faction. Such an opposition in the present day is the great Irish association.
But how can the government maintain its influence over an entire nation leagued against it? The difficulty is great, and, to comprehend its full extent, it is necessary to know all the democratic elements in the national association of Ireland. I therefore deem it necessary in this place to explain its plan, and indicate its character.
I am not sure that I have exactly caught its spirit and purport, but, in case of error, I cannot have recourse to the secrets and mysteries of this association, for all its operations were transacted in the face of day, and thus open to the judgment of all.
A central committee sitting in Dublin, and composed of members whose mode of election varied according to circumstances, represents the association, and adopts the measures deemed useful to the common cause.2 This committee assembles regularly, examines the laws proposed to parliament, discusses them, censures the acts of power and its agents, adopts resolutions, publishes them,—in a word, acts like a real parliament, wanting only the regular power of making laws obligatory on all. The association has a journal, which publishes its acts and decrees.3
Like all established governments, the association receives a tribute in return for the protection it affords; the amount varies; it is levied in different forms, but it is always sure to be paid. In 1825, the tax paid by each member of the association (the Catholic rent) was a penny per month, a trifling sum, but sufficient to establish a contract of authority and obedience between those who received and those who paid. The association had collectors to receive the rent, which was the more regularly paid as it was voluntary. At present, the association does not send round collectors, the contributions are paid in the form of individual subscriptions; a mere change of form, rendered necessary by the laws with which government from time to time has assailed the association. Thus, for instance, at first the members of the central committeé were elected by the entire people; every barony sent to the capital of the county a certain number of electors, who named one or more deputies to represent the county in the central committee; so that the leaders of the association were in substance and form delegated by the country. This form of electors was practised in 1792, but was prohibited by an act of parliament (the Convention Act.) This, however, did not prevent the association, in 1811 and 1825, from employing the same mode in the choice of representatives. But the decision of a jury in 1811, and a new act of parliament in 1825, (called the Algerine Act,) having dissolved the committee of the association, and the association itself as illegal;4 it was necessary to have recourse to a different form of organisation: at present, the association has no chiefs regularly constituted. Every assembly of the association is a separate meeting, which everybody may attend, the chairman of which is chosen every time by the majority of votes, and in which every person has a right to declare his sentiments.
But whatever may be the form, the substance is always the same; the name of the association varies, but there is no alteration in the elements of which it is composed. In 1823, it was called the Catholic Association, not because Protestants were excluded,—on the contrary, a great number belonged to it,—but because then the great object was to obtain from England the emancipation of the Irish Catholics. When the association was dissolved by parliament in 1825, it was soon re-formed under another name; in 1837 and 1838, it was called the General Association of Ireland; whilst I write it has taken the name of the Precursors’ Society; and in a recent speech, O’Connell announces that it will soon be called the National Association.5 Under these various denominations it is always the same, that is to say, the real representative of the great body of the nation.
It is under this title that it commands Ireland, and is obeyed. At its summons, all the parishes of Ireland assemble; societies are formed in baronies and counties, in every place where the citizens are required to move: at the same day, and the same hour, all Ireland is up, occupied by the same object, influenced by the same passions, pursuing the same end. The purpose is to prepare a petition to parliament, but what would be the result if, instead of asking for petitions, the association demanded bayonets?
The association, formed by popular sympathies, has become every day more powerful by its victories. The famous election of Clare, emancipation in 1829, the revolt against tithes in 1831, the triumphs of the popular candidates at elections, are its undisputed works. Every one is more obedient in proportion as it gives proof of its strength and skill.
The association has made itself the patron of all the citizens; it stimulates and receives the complaints of every one who has a grievance against the public authority, against the ministers of the Church of England, and especially against magistrates belonging to the aristocracy. Since the association has covered the country with its shield, there is not in Ireland a poor peasant so weak or so isolated who has not the support of the entire body of the nation against the most rich and the most powerful oppression. Is the cupidity of any Protestant minister harsh and rigid in the collection of his tithes represented to this body,—the association stigmatises him with public censure; and the fate of those marked out in Ireland for public hatred is sufficiently known. Has the poor man who owed the tithe been thrown into prison for non-payment,—the association raises the funds necessary to obtain his liberty. Whoever resists the payment of tithe, receives from it a moral and physical support. Once, in 1837, it received with loud acclamations a man sufficiently rich to pay his tithes, but who allowed himself to be dragged to prison rather than obey the law.6
But it is especially at the approach of an election that the association displays its power. Its first care is bestowed on the registries, and it defrays the expenses of registration when the electors are poor; and it objects to orangemen who have been unduly registered. When the day of election arrives, it issues proclamations to the people, to teach them their duties and their rights; it declares the reforms necessary to the safety of the country, and the pledges that should be demanded from every candidate for their suffrages; it loudly proclaims the names of those who alone have a right to popular confidence, tells each locality the representative that it ought to elect, his singular merits, his rare talents, his uncommon virtues; and not less openly declares the vices, servility, and incapacity of his rival. When the election is over, the association celebrates its victories, if it has triumphed, and, in case of a reverse, palliates its defeat. But its electoral labours have not yet terminated; it publicly decrees praise to the citizens, formerly enemies, who have become friends in the late contest; and at the same time it mercilessly stigmatises unexpected desertions. It particularly applies itself to watch the conduct of the aristocracy: if a poor tenant is ejected for having voted against his landlord, the association comes to his aid, gives him an indemnity, and holds up the name of the landlord to general censure. It sometimes does more: at the Longford election in 1836, an unfortunate elector, who was in prison for debt, received from his landlord, who was also his creditor, the promise of being set at liberty if he would vote for the Tory candidate. The poor peasant, brought from his prison to the hustings, was, perhaps, about to yield to the seduction, when, at the moment he was about to vote, his wife exclaimed, “Remember your soul and liberty!” The poor peasant having voted according to his conscience, returned to prison. In a solemn sitting the association voted a silver medal to this heroic female, on which her noble address was inscribed, “Remember your soul and liberty!”
It is one of the peculiar characters of the association, that it not only keeps a watch upon the government, but exercises the functions of government itself. It founds schools and charitable establishments, levies taxes for their support, protects commerce, aids industry, and performs a thousand other acts;7 for as its powers are nowhere defined, its limits are not marked.
In truth, the association is a government within a government; a young and robust authority, springing up within the breast of an authority aged, feeble, and decrepit: a centralised national power which grinds to powder all the scattered and petty power of an antinational aristocracy. It is not exact to say, that the association annihilates the aristocratic government of Ireland; for how can the name of government be given to the domination of a faction which can only maintain itself by the aid of foreign and physical force?
In a country where legitimate and regular powers existed, the establishment of such an association, if it could be formed, would be the very organisation of anarchy. In Ireland this association may become the principle and means of a political revolution, but in the mean time it is the most powerful social element that exists in the country.
Before the Irish association was constituted, the Irish sincerely thought that no temporal power merited obedience and respect, because it believed all human authority wicked and tyrannical. The association, which, be it remembered, governs Ireland, while subjecting the country to its power, and granting it protection, has taught that authority may be beneficent.
It is to the association that the Irish people owes its abandonment of the traditions of savage independence, and the adoption of social and regular habits. What a strange circumstance! The association which leads Ireland is the most factious of all powers; a day does not pass without its stimulating the people to violate some law; it prescribes to them as a civil duty the refusal of tithes, which are demanded by the constitution; it devotes to public contempt and hatred the municipal corporations, which, nevertheless, are legally constituted bodies; it similarly assails the Anglican church, which is the principal institution of the country, and the aristocracy, the actual depository of the administrative authority; and, nevertheless, I repeat that the association gave the Irish people their first notions of right and legality. Before the association existed, and, consequently, before its counsels were heard, the people felt the same sentiments of hate against all that they are now recommended to hate; but the people were then blind and cruel in their resentments. The association did not change the inmost feelings of the popular mind; it left there all the hates which it deemed legitimate, and this has been the cause of its strength; it has enlightened those passions, it has taught the people not to stifle but to restrain them. The association has softened the popular propensities, and pointed out mild, peaceful, and strictly legal means to the popular passions, instead of the violent and criminal means to which the lower orders were accustomed to have recourse. It has taught the people to receive superior direction, and accept the empire of an authority entirely moral, in place of the gibbet, the only social power in which it formerly had faith. The association has not subjected the people to the rules of the law, but to a rule; and thus an element of order has arisen from disorder itself.
“I have been struck,” exclaimed a stout peasant, who could have annihilated his adversary with a blow, at the Waterford election.—“Why didn’t you return the blow,” said some one. “I thought that the association had forbidden it, or else——.” Just before the Clare election, the association forbade the use of whisky during the contest, and not a drop of intoxicating liquor was tasted by any of the people.8
The association has not the power to prevent Whiteboyism, which is connected with social rather than political causes; but though it does not destroy it limits the system, combats it openly, disavows it, and prevents political passions from taking its direction and seeking such an auxiliary.9
Before the association came into existence, twenty Irishmen could not get together without some quarrel or outrage arising from their meeting: at the voice of the association tens and hundreds of thousands assembled peaceably on the same spot, and with the perfect order of a disciplined army, without the least dispute, or the slightest excess; and by these solemn demonstrations of a tranquil but menacing force taught England what she ought to think of barbarous Ireland.
But what appears to me most grave and worthy of attention in the Irish association, is the deep democratic character in this government of a people by one central power emanating from the universal will, expressed or understood; collecting within itself all the national elements; omnipotent by popular assent; absolute in every one of its actions, though constantly subjected to the control of all; levelling all above it, summoning to its bar all the aristocratic powers of the nation; thus accustoming the people to social and political equality; a power fluctuating and varying, though perpetual, incessantly changing its name, form, and agents, though always the same; that is to say, a democracy organised in a country supposed to be governed by aristocratic institutions.
[1.]By O’Connell and Shiel.
[2.]The proceedings of the committee are not always recognised by the general body.
[4.]This was deemed an essential part of the measure of emancipation, which it was supposed would have passed at the same time.
[5.]This measure may, however, be abandoned; its relinquishment is very desirable.
[6.]It also honoured freeholders who voted against their landlords.
[7.][Note text has been omitted from the English translation. Please see the French version of the book for the content of this note.]
[8.][Note text has been omitted from the English translation. Please see the French version of the book for the content of this note.]
[9.][Note text has been omitted from the English translation. Please see the French version of the book for the content of this note.]