Page images

time of the Volunteers; but the antipathies of centuries were far from being completely removed. For that reason, when, in the Volunteer convention, called together in 1784, for the purpose of bringing about a parliamentary reform, the delegates from Belfast, obedient to the early liberality and enlightened instructions of their constituents, supported the equal admission of Catholics to the rights of free men, they were left almost alone. The plan of representation proposed by that assembly, was founded on the exclusive privileges of protestants; and because its base was so narrow (the prejudices of the times not perhap* admitting of its being enlarged) it was easily defeated; for the people felt no interest in that from which they were to derive no benefit. The French revolution, however, paved the way for the entire accomplishment of what the volunteer institution had begun. A catholic country had, by its conduct, contradicted the frequently repeated dogma, that catholics are unfit for liberty; and the waning glory of the British constitution, seemed to fade before the regenerated government of France. These things sunk deep into the minds of the dissenters, who likewise saw another lesson of liberality enforced by their new teachers: that no religious opinions should be punished by civil disfranchisement. The catholics on their part, perhaps, derived some instruction from the same event. If there was any truth in the imputation of their being unfit for freedom, which is much more than problematical, it must be confessed that this striking example quickly changed their opinions and feelings; and that as the French revolution reconciled the protestant reformer to his catholic countrymen, so it ripened the catholics for liberty.


Another circumstance seemed also to draw nearer together the catholics and dissenters, and to excite in them a common admiration of that revolution; an identity of opinions and interests on the subject of tythes, which had for many years been a topic of violent discussion at home, and were recently abolished in France. No where perhaps on earth, were tythes more unpopular, or considered by the people as a greater grievance than in Ireland. They went to the support of an established clergy that preached a religion which was adopted by only one-tenth of the nation, and which was not merely disbelieved, but considered as heresy, by three-fourths of those that were forced to pay them. They had been the frequent subject of partial insurrection, and were always the fertile source of general discontent} to that the French reformers, by abolishing them, exceedingly encreased the numbers, and awoke the energy of their Irish admirers. Accordingly, the approbation of that revolution wa3 very early, as well as extensive in Ireland; and the impulse it Communicated to the public mind has given direction to all that country's subsequent political proceedings. , ,

The example of France, in not permitting civil disqualification to result from any profession of religious belief, impressed itself most powerfully on the minds of many protestants. They felt not only the justice, but the wisdom of liberality, and became convinced that a similar measure, with an entire oblivion of all religious feuds and jealousies, was necessary to the peace and prosperity of Ireland. Some of them, considering more maturely the arguments respecting the admission of catfholics to the rights of citizenship, which had been fruitlessly urged in 1784t during the exertions for amending the parliamentary representation, and deriving instruction from the defeat of that measure to which they were ardent friends, wished to array the members of that religion also in support of reform, by giving them an interest in its success. If it were combined with caT tholic emancipation, and that its other protestant advocates could be induced to forego their sectarial prejudices, the chance ia favour of both objects would be infinitely increased by the union. Reform would be again raised from the neglect intu which it had fallen since its rejection by parliament, and would derive additional consequence from a fresh reinforcement ofpo

£ pular pular support. The catholics would count among their friends* those whose hostility had hitherto appeared to be the chief ob« stacle to their relief; and the two sects being engaged in pursuit of the same object, their former distrust and animosities would vanish before their common interest.

The first step towards the accomplishment of this plan, was naturally taken by the dissenters in the north, whose habit of public discussion, ardent love of liberty, and greater independence on government, emboldened them to begin. They felt also that, as their forefathers had been pre-eminently instrumental in oppressing the catholics, justice as well as policy, required them to make the earliest advances towards conciliation and union. Before that time, the violent prejudices, vaunted superiority* and repulsive arrogance of the protestants in general, had placed such a gulph of separation between the followers of the two religions, that the catholics the most enlightened and attached to liberty, despaired of effecting any thing in conjunction with their countrymen; and^however reluctantly, were forced to purchase occasional mitigations of the penal code by dependency on the court and humble solicitations at the Castle. But it is unquestionable, that when that body saw itself likely to be supported by a considerable portion of the protestants, it manifested a perfect willingness to make common cause. The spirit of religious liberty having made great progress in the province of Ulster, it was intended at a public celebration of the French revolution, on the 14-th July, 1791, at Belfast, the political capital of the north, to introduce a collateral resolution in favour of admitting the Catholics to the rights of citizenship; which was however withdrawn, from an apprehension that the minds jof those present were not yet fully prepared for the measure. It was shortly afterwards received and adopted by the first Belfast volunteer company, a remnant of the old volunteers.

That resolution drew from the catholics of Elphin and Jamestown, town, others, expressive of their thanks, which were forwarded to Belfast; and this at the time almost unheeded event, was the first foundation of an union which in its progress seemed destined to strike a tremendous blow against British connexion.

More energetic measures remained still to be adopted. Clubs were long used in Great Britain and Ireland for the accomplishment of political objects. At this very time, the parliamentary opposition, with its adherent^, was associated under the name of the Whig Club; the most public spirited citizens of Dublin, had formed themselves into a society called the Whigs of the Capital; and other similar institutions existed in the country-parts of the kingdom, particularly at Belfast: all professing to revive the decaying principles of whiggism. To the French, however, is the world indebted for completely demonstrating die political efficacy of clubs; and the proof they were thea giving pointed out the advantage of employing an instrument which promised so much benefit, and which seemed peculiarly calculated for overcoming those antipathies that opposed the progress of reform ih Ireland. The Clubs already established seemed by the ancient principles of the party from which they were named, as well' as by the prejudices of many of their members, rather to exclude religious toleration. In consequence, therefore, of an agreement between some popular characters in the North and some of the most enterprising Cathodes of Dublin, together with a few members even of die established church, whom the progressive spirit of the times had liberalized, societies were to be instituted for uniting together the great object* of Parliamentary Reform and Catholic Emancipation,

Accordingly one was constituted in Belfast, in October, 1791; in the November following, another in Dublin and shortly after many others throughout the North, all under the attractive title of United Irishmen. In their declaration they stated, as their "heavy grievance," that they had "no national E 2 *' government

government, but were ruled by Englishmen and the servants "of Englishmen;" and, as its "effectual remedy," they pledged themselves " to endeavour by all due means, to procure a com"plete and radical reform of the representation of the people "in parliament, including Irishmen of every religious persua.♦« sion."

i' •' .i '■ ;"«i

The Press too, that most important engine in popular-proceedings, it was determined to employ in this cause. These was, therefore, established by some of the most active and zear Ious in Belfast, a newspaper, called the Northern Star, which began with the commencement of 1792, and during the whole of its existence was undeviatingly devoted to the principles and views of the United Irishmen,, A pamphlet written in the preceding September, by Theobald Wolfe Tone, under the signature of a Northern Whig, was likewise made extremely conducive to the same purpose. Its scope was to shew to the protestant friends of reform that they could never hope for success, unless by embodying with their measure a repeal of the popery laws, and thu? giving to the mass of population an interest in its favour. The eloquent and forcible dcvelopement of this principle though proceeding from an unknown, and at that time, perfectly unconnected individual, did not fail to excite the attention and approbation of those, who were occupied in endeavouring to give jt effect. They bestowed on the author their most confidential friendship, and employed his work as a powerful instrument for spreading their opinions. Ten thousand copies of it were struck off in Belfast, and circulated with unceasing industry and perseverance throughout the province of Ulster, while a cheap edition of it was selling in Dublin; and its effects were proportioned to the abilities of the writer,

Such were the measures adopted by a few men, of inconsiderable rank, and of no peculiar importance in society, to subvert the exclusive principles, both constitutional and religious, which


« PreviousContinue »