Before relating the consequences which attended the spread of French revolutionary opinions in Ireland, it is necessary to exhibit the new and very important position assumed by the Roman Catholic population at that period.
The relief bills in 1774 and 1778, by throwing open to Catholics the ordinary means of acquiring property, whether moveable or immoveable, had enabled many of them to acquire fortunes, both in land and in trade. Of this class were the most efficient leaders in the formation of the Catholic Committee of 1790--John Keogh, Edward Byrne, and Richard McCormick. They were all men who had acquired fortunes, and who felt and cherished the independence of self-made men. They were not simply Catholic agitators claiming an equality of civil and religious rights with their Protestant fellow-countrymen; they were nationalists, in the broadest and most generous meaning of the term. They had contributed to the ranks and expenses of the Volunteers; they had swelled the chorus of Grattan's triumph, and borne their share of the cost in many a popular contest. The new generation of Protestant patriots--such men as the Hon. Simon Butler, Wolfe Tone, and Thomas Addis Emmet, were their intimate associates, shared their opinions, and regarded their exclusion from the pale of the constitution as a public calamity.
There was another and a smaller, but not less important class--the remnant of the ancient Catholic peerage and landed gentry, who, through four generations, had preferred civil death to religious apostasy. It was impossible not to revere the heroic constancy of that class, and the personal virtues of many among them. But they were, perhaps, constitutionally, too timid and too punctilious to conduct a popular movement to a successful issue. They had, after much persuasion, lent their presence to the Committee, but on some alarm, which at that time seems to have been premature, of the introduction of French revolutionary principles among their associates, they seceded in a mass. A formal remonstrance against what remained, pretending to act for the Catholic body, was signed by Lord Kenmare and sixty-seven others, who withdrew. As a corrective, it was inadequate; as a preventive, useless. It no doubt hastened in the end the evil it deprecated in the beginning; it separated the Catholic gentry from the Catholic democracy, and thrust the latter more and more towards those liberal Protestants, mainly men of the middle class like themselves, who began about this time to club together at Belfast and Dublin, under the attractive title of "United Irishmen." Whatever they were individually, the union of so many hereditary Catholic names had been of very great service to the committee. So long as they stood aloof, the committee could not venture to speak for all the Catholics; it could only speak for a part, though that part might be nine-tenths of the whole: this gave for a time a doubtful and hesitating appearance to their proceedings. So low was their political influence, in 1791, that they could not get a single member of Parliament to present their annual petition. When at last it was presented, it was laid on the table and never noticed afterwards. To their further embarrassment, Mr. McKenna and some others formed "the Catholic Society," with the nominal object of spreading a knowledge of Catholic principles, through the press, but covertly, to raise up a rival organization, under the control of the seceders. At this period John Keogh's talents for negotiation and diplomacy saved the Catholic body from another term of anarchical imbecility.
A deputation of twelve having waited this year on the Chief Secretary with a list of the existing penal laws, found no intention, at the Castle, of further concession. They were "dismissed without an answer." Under these circumstances, the Committee met at Allen's Court. "It was their determination," says Keogh, "to give up the cause as desperate, lest a perseverance in what they considered an idle pursuit might not only prove ineffectual, but draw down a train of persecution on the body." Keogh endeavoured to rally them; proposed a delegation to London, to be sent at the expense of the Committee; offered, at last, to go at his own charge, if they authorized him. This proposal was accepted, and Keogh went. "I arrived in London," he adds, "without any introduction from this country, without any support, any assistance, any instructions." He remained three months, converted Mr. Dundas, brought back with him the son of Burke as Secretary, and a promise of four concessions: 1st. The magistracy. 2nd. The grand juries. 3rd. The sheriffs of counties. 4th. The bar. It was in this interview that Keogh, after obtaining Mr. Dundas's express permission and promise not to be offended, said to him, according to Charles Butler's account, "Since you give me this permission, and your deliberate promise not to be offended, I beg leave to repeat, that there is one thing which you ought to know, but which you don't suspect: you, Mr. Dundas, know nothing of Ireland." Mr. Dundas, as may be supposed, was greatly surprised; but, with perfect good humour, told Mr. Keogh that he believed this was not the case; it was true that he never had been in Ireland, but he had conversed with many Irishmen. "I have drunk," he said, "many a good bottle of wine with Lord Hillsborough, Lord Clare, and the Beresfords." "Yes, sir," said Mr. Keogh, "I believe you have; and that you drank many a good bottle of wine with them before you went to war with America."
On the return of Keogh to Dublin, a numerous meeting was held to hear his report. At this meeting, the fair promises of the English ministers were contrasted with the hostility of the Castle. The necessity of a strong organization, to overcome the one and hasten the other, was felt by all: it was then decided to form the Committee into a Convention. By this plan, the Catholics in each county and borough were called on to choose, in a private manner, certain electors, who were to elect two or more delegates, to represent the town or county in the general meeting at Dublin, on the 3rd day of December following. A circular, signed by Edward Byrne, Chairman, and Richard McCormick, Secretary, explaining the plan and the mode of election, was issued on the 14th of January, and the Catholics everywhere prepared to obey it.
The corporations of Dublin and other cities, the grand juries of Derry, Donegal, Leitrim, Roscommon, Limerick, Cork, and other counties, at once pronounced most strongly against the proposed Convention. They declared it "unconstitutional," "alarming," "most dangerous;" they denounced it as a copy of the National Assembly of France; they declared that they would "resist it to the utmost of their power;" they pledged "their lives and fortunes" to suppress it. The only answer of the Catholics was the legal opinion of Butler and Burton, two eminent lawyers, Protestants and King's counsellors, that the measure was entirely legal. They proceeded with their selection of delegates, and on the appointed day the Convention met. From the place of meeting', this Convention was popularly called "the Back Lane Parliament." Above 200 members were present.
The Convention proceeded (Mr. Byrne in the chair) to declare itself the only body competent to speak for the Catholics of Ireland. They next discussed the substance of the proposed petition to the King. The debate on this subject, full of life and colour, has been preserved for us in the memoirs of Tone, who, although a Protestant, had been elected Secretary to the Catholic Committee. Great firmness was exhibited by Teeling of Antrim, Bellew of Galway, McDermott of Sligo, Devereux of Wexford, Sir Thomas French, and John Keogh. These gentlemen contended, and finally carried, without a division, though not without a two-days' debate, a petition, asking complete and unrestricted emancipation. With the addition of the Chairman and Secretary, they were appointed as deputies to proceed to London, there to place the Catholic ultimatum in the hands of King George.
The deputies, whether by design or accident, took Belfast on their way to England. This great manufacturing town, at the head of the staple industry of the north, had been in succession the head-quarters of the Volunteers, the Northern Whigs, and the United Irishmen. Belfast had demanded in vain, for nearly a generation, that its 20,000 inhabitants should no longer be disfranchised, while a dozen burgesses--creatures of Lord Donegal--controlled the representation. Community of disfranchisement had made the Belfastians liberal; the Catholic deputies were publicly received with bonfires and ringing of bells, their expenses were paid by the citizens, and their carriage drawn along in triumph, on the road to Port-Patrick.
Arrived at London, after much negotiation and delay with ministers, a day was fixed for their introduction to the King. It was Wednesday, the 2nd of January, 1793; they were presented by Edmund Burke and the Home Secretary to George III., who "received them very graciously;" they placed in his hands the petition of their co-religionists, and, after some compliments, withdrew. In a few days, they were assured their case would be recommended to the attention of Parliament in the next royal speech, and so, leaving one of their number behind as "charge d'affaires," they returned to Dublin highly elated.
The Viceroy, on their return, was all attention to the Catholics; the Secretary, who, a year before, would not listen to a petition, now laboured to fix a limit to concession. The demand of complete emancipation, was not maintained in this negotiation as firmly as in the December debates of "the Back Lane Parliament." The shock of the execution of the King of France; the efforts of the secret committee of the House of Lords to inculpate certain Catholic leaders in the United-Irish system, and as patrons of the Defenders; the telling argument, that to press all was to risk all,--these causes combined to induce the sub-committee to consent to less than the Convention had decided to insist upon. Negotiation was the strong ground of the government, and they kept it. Finally, the bill was introduced by the Chief Secretary, and warmly supported by Grattan, Curran, Ponsonby, Forbes, and Hutchinson, Provost of Trinity College. It was resisted in the Lower House by Mr. Speaker Foster, Mr. Ogle, and Dr. Duigenan, an apostate, who exhibited all the bitterness of his class; and in the Upper House, by the Chancellor, the son of an apostate, and the majority of the lords spiritual. On the 9th day of April, 1793, it became the law of Ireland. "By one comprehensive clause," says Tone, "all penalties, forfeitures, disabilities, and incapacities are removed; the property of the Catholic is completely discharged from the restraints and limitations of the penal laws, and their liberty, in a great measure, restored, by the restoration of the right of elective franchise, so long withheld, so ardently pursued. The right of self-defence is established by the restoration of the privilege to carry arms, subject to a restraint, which does not seem unreasonable, as excluding none but the very lowest orders. The unjust and unreasonable distinctions affecting Catholics, as to service on grand and petty juries, are done away; the army, navy, and all other offices and places of trust are opened to them, subject to exceptions hereafter mentioned. Catholics may be masters or fellows of any college hereafter to be founded, subject to two conditions, that such college be a member of the University, and that it be not founded exclusively for the education of Catholics. They may be members of any lay body corporate, except Trinity College, any law, statute, or bye-law of such corporation to the contrary notwithstanding. They may obtain degrees in the University of Dublin. These, and some lesser immunities and privileges, constitute the grant of the bill, the value of which will be best ascertained by referring to the petition."
It is true, Catholics were still excluded from the high offices of Lord Lieutenant, Lord Deputy, and Lord Chancellor. What was much more important, they were excluded from sitting in Parliament--from exercising legislative and judicial functions, Still the franchise, the juries, the professions, and the University, were important concessions. Their first fruits were Daniel O'Connell and Thomas Moore!
The Committee having met to return thanks to the parliamentary supporters of the bill, their own future operations came also under debate. Some members advised that they should add reform to their programme, as the remnant of the penal laws were not sufficient to interest and attract the people. Some would have gone much further than reform; some were well content to rest on their laurels. There were ultras, moderate men, and conservatives, even in the twelve. The latter were more numerous than Wolfe Tone liked or expected. That ardent revolutionist had, indeed, at bottom, a strong dislike of the Catholic religion; he united himself with that body because he needed a party; he remained with them because it gave him importance; but he chiefly valued the position as it enabled him to further an ulterior design--an Irish revolution and a republic on the French plan. The example of France had, however, grown by this time rather a terror than an attraction to more cautious men than Tone. Edward Byrne, Sir Thomas French, and other leading Catholics, were openly hostile to any imitation of it, and the dinner at Daly's, to celebrate the passage of the act, was strongly anti-Gallican in spirit and sentiment. Keogh, McCormick, and McNevin, however, joined the United Irishmen, and the two latter were placed on the Directory. Keogh withdrew, when, in 1795, that organization became a secret society.
The Bishops, who had cheered on, rather than participated in the late struggle, were well satisfied with the new measure. They were, by education and conviction, conservatives. Dr. Plunkett of Meath, Dr. Egan of Waterford, Dr. Troy of Dublin, and Dr. Moylan of Cork, were the most remarkable for influence and ability at this period. Dr. Butler of Cashel, and his opponent, Dr. Burke of Ossory, the head of the resolute old ultramontane minority, were both recently deceased. With the exception of Dr. James Butler, Bishop of Cloyne and Ross, who deserted his faith and order on becoming unexpectedly heir to an earldom, the Irish prelates of the reign of George III. were a most zealous and devoted body. Lord Dunboyne's fall was the only cause of a reproach within their own ranks. That unhappy prelate made, many years afterwards, a death-bed repentance, was reconciled to his church, and bequeathed a large part of his inherited wealth to sustain the new national college, the founding of which, ever since the outbreak of the French revolution, the far-seeing Burke was urging upon Pitt and all his Irish correspondents.
In 1794, the Irish Bishops, having applied for a "royal license" to establish academies and seminaries, were graciously received, and Lord Fitzwilliam's government the next session brought in the Act of Incorporation. It became law on the 5th of June, 1795, and the college was opened the following October with fifty students. Dr Hussey, afterwards Bishop of Waterford, the friend of Burke, who stood by his deathbed, was first President; some refugee French divines were appointed to professorships; and the Irish Parliament voted the very handsome sum of 8,000 pounds a year to the new foundation. Maynooth, whatever its after lot, was the creation in the first instance of the Irish Parliament. We have thus, in the third century after the reformation, after three great religious wars, after four confiscations, after the most ingenious, cruel, and unchristian methods of oppression and proselytism, had been tried and had failed, the grand spectacle of the Catholics of Ireland restored, if not fully, yet to the most precious of the civil and religious liberties of a people! So powerless against conscience is and ever must be coercion!