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The Irish Government page 2

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Some of the offenders were prosecuted. Bills against them were sent up to the grand jury of the city of Dublin. But as this body was influenced by a strong orange animus, the bills were thrown out. Mr. Plunket then proceeded by ex-officio informations, which raised a tremendous outcry against the government, as having violated the constitution, and a resolution to that effect was moved by Mr. Brownlow in the house of commons. It turned out, however, that his predecessor, Mr. Saurin, one of his most vehement accusers, who alleged that the course was altogether unprecedented, had himself established the precedent ten or twelve years before. Forgetting this fact, he denounced the conduct of Mr. Plunket as " the most flagrant violation of constitutional principle that had ever been attempted." The trial in the Court of Queen's Bench, which commenced on February 3rd, 1823, produced the greatest possible excitement. The ordinary occupations of life appeared to be laid aside in the agitating expectation of the event. As soon as the doors were opened, one tremendous rush of the waiting multitude filled in an instant the galleries, and every avenue of the court. The result of the trial was, that the jury disagreed, the traverses were let out on bail, the attorney-general threatening to prosecute again; but the proceedings were never revived.

But in the midst of all this strife and turmoil the work of real amelioration steadily proceeded. The tithe proctor system was a great and galling grievance to protestants as well as Roman catholics, but especially to the latter, who constituted the mass of the tillers of the soil. Such an odious impost tended to discourage cultivation, and throw the land into pasture. The Tithe Commutation Act was therefore passed, in order to enable the tenant to pay a yearly sum, instead of having the tenth of his crop carried away in kind, or its equivalent levied, according to the valuation of the minister's proctor. It was proposed to make the act compulsory upon all rectors, but this was so vehemently resisted by the church party, that it was left optional. If the measure had been compulsory, the anti- tithe war, which afterwards occurred, accompanied by violence and bloodshed, would have been avoided. It was, however, carried into operation to a large extent, and with the most satisfactory results. Within a few months after the enactment, more than one thousand applications had been made from parishes to carry its requirements into effect. In 1824, on the motion of Mr. Hume for an inquiry into the condition of the Irish church establishment, with a view to its reduction, Mr. Leslie Foster furnished statistics, from which it appeared that the proportion of Roman catholics to protestants was four to one. In Ulster, at that time, the Roman catholic population was little more than half the number of protestants.

The year 1824 is memorable in Ireland for the establishment of the Catholic Association. The catholic question had lain dormant since the union. Ireland remained in a state of political stupor. There was a "catholic committee," indeed, under the direction of a gentleman of property, Mr. John Keogh, of Mount Jerome, near Dublin. But his voice was feeble, and seldom heard. The councils of the -Roman catholics were much distracted. Many of the bishops, and most of the gentry, recommended prudence and patience as the best policy. Liberal statesmen in England were willing to make concessions, but the conscientious scruples of George III. had presented an insuperable barrier in the way of civil equality. There was an annual motion on the subject - first by Grattan, then by Plunket, and lastly by Burdett; but it attracted very little attention, till the formidable power of the Catholic Association excited general alarm for the stability of our institutions. Adverting to the past history of Ireland - her geographical position, her social state in respect to the tenure of property, and the numbers of the respective religious denominations of her people - the ablest conservative statesmen considered that it would be extremely difficult to reconcile the perfect equality of civil privilege, or rather the bona fide practical application of that principle with those objects on the inviolable maintenance of which the friends and opponents of catholic emancipation were completely agreed - namely, the legislative union, and the established church. There was the danger of abolishing tests, which had been established for the express purpose of giving to the legislature a protestant character - tests which had been established not upon vague constitutional theories, but after practical experience of the evils which had been inflicted and the dangers which had been incurred by the struggles for ascendancy at periods not remote from the present. There was the danger that the removal of civil disabilities might materially alter the relations in which the Roman catholic religion stood to the state. Sir Robert Peel, in his "Memoirs," states those difficulties at great length, and in all their force. He fully admits that " the protestant interest " had an especial claim upon his devotion and his faithful service, from the part which he had uniformly taken on the catholic question, from the confidence reposed in him on that account, and from his position in parliament, as the representative of the university of Oxford. He thus shows in what manner, and under what constraining sense of duty, he responded to that claim: "And if the duty which that acknowledged claim imposed upon me were this - that in a crisis of extreme difficulty I should calmly contemplate and compare the dangers with which the protestant interest was threatened from different quarters - that I should advise a course which I believe to be the least unsafe - that having advised and adopted, I should resolutely adhere to it - that I should disregard every selfish consideration - that I should prefer obloquy and reproach to the aggravation of existing evils, by concealing my real opinion, and by maintaining the false show of personal consistency - if this were the duty imposed upon me, I fearlessly assert that it was most faithfully and scrupulously discharged."

The crisis of extreme difficulty to which Sir Robert Peel referred in this passage was occasioned by the dangerous power acquired by the Catholic Association, which had originated in the following manner. Early in the year 1823, Mr. O'Connell proposed to his brother barrister, Mr. Sheil, and a party of friends who were dining with Mr. O'Mara, at Glancullen, the plan of an association for the management of the catholic cause. At an aggregate meeting of the Roman catholics, which took place in April, a resolution with the same design was carried, and on Monday, the 12th of May, the first meeting of the Catholic Association was held in Dempsey's rooms, in Sackville Street. Subsequently it met at the house of a Roman catholic bookseller, named Coyne, and before a month had passed, it was in active working order. From these small beginnings, it became, in the course of the year, one of the most extensive, compact, and powerful popular organisations the world had ever seen. Its influence ramified into every parish in Ireland. It found a place and work for almost every member of the Roman catholic body; the peer, the lawyer, the merchant, the country gentleman, the peasant, and, above all, the priest, had each his task assigned him: getting up petitions, forming deputations to the government and to parliament, conducting electioneering business, watching over the administration of justice, collecting "the catholic rent," preparing resolutions, and making speeches at the meetings of the association, which were held every Monday at the Corn Exchange, when everything in the remotest degree connected with the interests of Roman catholics or of Ireland was the subject of animating and exciting discussion, conducted in the form of popular harangues, by barristers, priests, merchants, and others. Voluminous correspondence was read by the secretary, large sums of rent were handed in, fresh members were enrolled, and speeches were made to a crowd of excited and applauding people, generally composed of Dublin operatives and idlers. But as the proceedings were fully reported in the public journals, the audience may be said to have been the Irish nation. And over all, " the voice of O'Connell, like some mighty minster bell, was heard through Ireland, and the empire, and the world." Mr. Wyse, the historian of the association, says: " It guided the people, and thus raised itself in raising the people. In the short space of two years, what had long defied the anxious exertions of all preceding bodies was tranquilly accomplished. The 'three hands,' the three classes, were found in one, the penal statute was the force which clasped them. The entire country formed but one association." The declared objects of the association were - " 1st, to forward petitions to parliament; 2nd, to afford relief to catholics assailed by orange lodges; 3rd, to encourage and support a liberal and independent press, as well in Dublin as in London - such a press as might report faithfully the arguments of their friends, and refute the calumnies of their enemies; 4th, to procure cheap publications for the various schools in the country; 5th, to afford aid to Irish catholics in America; and, 6th, to afford aid to the English catholics." Such were the ostensible objects of the association, but it aimed at a great deal more than is here expressed. It was formed on a plan different from all other associations in Ireland. It proposed to redress all grievances, local or general, affecting the people. It undertook as many questions as ever engaged the attention of a legislature. "They undertook," said the attorney-general Plunket, " the great question of parliamentary reform; they undertook the repeal of the union; they undertook the regulation of church property; they undertook the administration of justice. They intended not merely to consider the administration of justice, in the common acceptance of the term; but they determined on the visitation of every court, from that of the highest authority down to the court of conscience. They did not stop here. They were not content with an interference with courts; they were resolutely bent on interfering with the adjudication of every cause which affected the catholics, whom they styled 'the people of Ireland.' "

The association had become so formidable, and was yet so carefully kept within the bounds of law by " counsellor O'Connell," in whose legal skill the Roman catholics of all classes had unbounded confidence, that the government resolved to procure an act of parliament for its suppression. Accordingly, on the 11th of February, 1825, a bill was brought into the house of commons by the Irish chief secretary, Mr. Goulburn, under the title of Unlawful Societies in Ireland Bill. The plural form caused a great deal of debating. The government declared they wished to include the Orange Society, as well as the Catholic Association. But the opposition had no faith in this declaration, and Mr. Brougham stated that they would put down the Catholic Association with one hand, and pat the Orange Society on the back with the other. The debates on the subject were very animated, and touched upon constitutional questions of the widest interest to the public. The argument against the association was conducted by Goulburn, Plunket, Peel, Canning, and North. It was based upon the following considerations: - The association was really and bona fide acting as a representative body, as such enacting rules, issuing orders, and levying contributions, which were raised by the priests under penalty of ecclesiastical censure. The amount of the impost was the least part of the evil. It was the establishment of such a thing that constituted the danger, leading the people to look up to other authorities than those recognised by the constitution, and teaching them to place confidence in a rival power, created and sustained by themselves. The association was, besides, regarded by the government as a great centre of sedition, whence flowed through the press a perennial stream of turbulent matter into every parish in the kingdom. The Roman catholic congregations were everywhere harangued from the altars by priests and minor members of the association - men devoid of caution and education, and uncontrolled by public opinion. The objects of the association were continually changing; no man could tell what they would be to-morrow, but, however dangerous they might be, the masses would implicitly follow their leaders. Looking at the means, power, and influence it possessed, and the vast authority with which it was armed, who could seriously think of giving stability and power to its existence? "Self- elected, self-controlled, self-assembled, self-adjourned, acknowledging no superior, tolerating no equal, interfering in all stages with the administration of justice, denouncing individuals publicly before trial, re-judging and condemning those whom it has absolved, menacing the independent press with punishment, and openly announcing its intention to corrupt that part of it which it cannot intimidate, and for these and other purposes levying contributions on the whole people of Ireland - is this an association which, from its mere form and attributes, independent of any religious opinion, the legislature can tolerate?" Ireland was sharing the general prosperity, but the malignity of this association retarded and endangered that; prosperity by disturbing tranquillity, weakening public confidence, setting neighbour against neighbour and class against class, diverting the minds of the people from profitable occupations, discouraging agriculture, manufactures, commerce, and all the arts of peace - frightening from the Irish shores the enterprise and capital of England, from which the tide of wealth had been setting in so strongly.

The Irish attorney-general said he did not deny that if a set of gentlemen thought fit to unite for those purposes, it was in their power to do so; but then came the question as to the means which they employ, and those means he denied to be constitutional. "They have," he said, "associated with them the catholic clergy, the catholic nobility, many of the catholic gentry, and all the surviving delegates of 1791. They have established committees in every district, who keep up an extensive correspondence through the country. This association, consisting originally of a few members, has now increased to 3,000. They proceeded to establish a Roman catholic rent; and in every single parish, of the 2,500 parishes into which Ireland is divided, they appointed twelve Roman catholic collectors, which make an army of 30,000. Having this their army of collectors, they brought to their assistance 2,500 priests, and the whole ecclesiastical body. And thus provided, they go about levying contributions on the peasantry."

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