The Irish Parliament House in the 18th century, now the Bank of Ireland
The Irish Parliament House in the 18th century, now the Bank of Ireland

[Ed. Though the author, AD Innes, notes some of the failings of the British in Ireland, he also seems convinced of the basic positive influence of England - not a view held by all historians, particularly Irish ones! Compare this early 20th century view - written, it should be pointed out, well before Irish independence - with later attitudes]

The eighteenth century had still some years to run when the destinies of the British Empire were committed to the guidance of William Pitt the Younger. But at this point a new era was dawning, an era of convulsion and revolution, political, social, and intellectual. The characteristic move­ments associated with the century had run their course, and if "The Eighteenth Century" is a somewhat inaccurate title for a chapter reviewing aspects of the period which have been left apart for continuous treatment, it is still more nearly appropriate than any other. Of these deferred subjects the first place is claimed by Ireland, which at the end of the period had acquired a greater political prominence than it had known since the six­teenth century, and had begun to assert as it had never done before a political nationality.

The triumph of the Revolution of 1688 had meant in Ireland com­plete ascendency of one-fifth of the population over the rest, and at the same time the subordination of that ruling Protestant minority to England, or, after the union of England and Scotland, to Great Britain. The Protestant alone had political rights, a voice in the parliament, a hand in the administration, a right to bear arms, to practise his religion freely, to educate his children in his own faith, to accumulate landed property. Even the inheritance of land was denied to the Roman Catholic whose brother was a Protestant. The political disabilities of the Romanist were partly shared by the Protestant dissenter.

The Protestant ascendency was bound up with the Hanoverian succession. Protestant loyalty therefore was assured; and the Protestants could not have ventured upon any serious protest against the political subjection to the authority on the other side of St. George's Channel, even if their political aspirations had been active enough to make them desire to do so. Not only did they differ in faith from the great bulk of the population, but they were also to a large extent aliens, descendants of Scots or English who had dispossessed the old proprietors. Their very existence depended, or seemed to depend, upon an ascendency which could only be maintained by the sanction of force, and that sanction would disappear if they quarrelled with the English government.

Economic hardships
But Protestants as well as Catholics suffered from the economic conditions. Virtually the only industries permitted by the English com­mercial laws were the cultivation of the soil and the linen manufacture even the export of wool was prohibited. And if the Protestants had the administration and the legislature to themselves, the powers of the latter were exceedingly limited. A bill could be initiated only by the Privy Council, and before it was passed by the Irish parliament it had to be submitted to the English Privy Council, which might simply suppress it Any amendments or alterations inserted by that body became substantive parts of the bill, which was then presented for acceptance or rejection as it stood by the Irish parliament. During the reign of George I a Declaratory Act was passed in the British parliament which asserted the right of that body to legislate for Ireland on its own account without reference to the Irish parliament at all.

Still, during the first half of the century, Ireland lay almost inert, in a helpless bondage, although Jonathan Swift denounced the whole system with scathing satire. There was no organised effort on the part of the depressed majority to claim the rights of citizenship, or on the part of the dominant minority to assert an equality of citizenship with English and Scots. It was not till George III was already seated on the throne that the revival of political aspirations and political activity began to make itself decisively felt.

Oppression of the Peasantry
At no time in their history have the Irish people been possessed with the spirit of legality which is so notable a characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon; and one at least of the causes for this is to be found in the fact that the law has been for them at all times something imposed upon them from outside by an alien conqueror, not, as with the Anglo-Saxon, a system evolved by natural development out of their own racial institutions. The Anglo-Saxon appeals to the law instinctively for protection from tyranny; to the Irishmen the law presented itself as sanctioning and supporting tyranny. If he suffered he did not appeal to that law for protection, but set the law itself at defiance and became a law unto himself, which is an attitude altogether unintelligible to the mind of the Anglo-Saxon, for whom, as for the Romans, the great imperial race of the ancient world, the sanctity of the law dominates all other considerations. In the eighteenth century the rural population found themselves oppressed by the law; and the first breaking up of their inertia took the form of fighting the law; not of seeking its amendment, which appeared to be a hopeless endeavour.

The Irish peasant felt the pinch of oppression in the relations between landlord and tenant which were founded in the Protestant ascendency and aggravated by absenteeism. The peasant began to fight the law by the formation of secret societies which exercised a counter-tyranny through the cruel outrages commonly resorted to by weakness which recognises no law. These societies, "Whiteboys" and others, were exclusively agrarian and at least to begin with, were neither religious nor political. If most of the landed proprietors were Protestant, there were districts also where there were many Protestants among the tenantry, so that the antagonism of classes was not exclusively an antagonism of religions.

Irish Nationalism awakens
At the same time the political instincts of the dominant class were awakening. What may be called a national party, a body which was discontented with the subordination of Ireland to Great Britain, a body which claimed that the legislature should do something more than register the decrees of the parliament at Westminster and of the British Privy Council, was coming into being. Its first demands were that money bills should originate in the Irish parliament itself, and that the principle of Septennial parliaments recognised in England should be applied also to Ireland. A third demand was for a Habeas Corpus Act, hitherto denied to Ireland, though acknowledged as a fundamental condition of the liberty of the subject in England. And behind these demands there were two more upon which the governing class were by no means agreed - one that the Catholics should no longer be treated as political pariahs, and the other for what in England was called Economic Reform. For the abuses of the electoral system in England were intensified in Ireland and in Scotland also; pensions and places were government instruments of corruption; and an immense number of constituencies were controlled by a few persons known as "Undertakers," who obviously were peculiarly exposed to these corrupting influences.

These demands became active about the time of the accession of George III, and they were invigorated by the development of the constitutional issue between the British parliament and the American colonies. Still the British parliament would have nothing to say to a Septennial Act or a Habeas Corpus Act, while the Irish parliament made a point of rejecting the money bills sent over by the Privy Council from England.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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