The task which Mr. Grattan felt called upon to undertake, was not revolutionary, in the usually accepted sense of the term. He was a Monarchist and a Whig in general politics; but he was an Irishman, proud and fond of his country, and a sincere lover of the largest religious liberty. With the independence of the judiciary and the legislature, with freedom of commerce and of conscience, he would be well content to stand by the British connection. "The sea," he said, in his lofty figurative language, "protests against union--the ocean against separation." But still, within certain legal limits, his task was revolutionary, and was undertaken under all the discouragements incident to the early stages of great constitutional reforms.
Without awaiting the action of the English Parliament, in relation to free trade, a public-spirited citizen of Dublin, Alderman James Horan, demanded an entry at the custom house, for some parcels of Irish woollens, which he proposed exporting to Rotterdam, contrary to the prohibitory enactment, the 10th and 11th of William III. The commissioners of customs applied for instructions to the Castle, and the Castle to the Secretary of State, Franklin's friend, Lord Hillsborough. For the moment a collision similar to that which had taken place at Boston, on a not dissimilar issue, seemed imminent. A frigate was stationed off Howth, with instructions, it was said, to intercept the prohibited woollens, but Alderman Horan, by the advice of his friends, allowed his application to remain on the custom house files. It had served its purpose of bringing home practically to the people, the value of the principle involved in the demand for freedom of exports and imports. At the same time that this practical argument was discussed in every circle, Mr. Grattan moved in the House of Commons, in amendment to the supply bill, that, "At this time it is inexpedient to grant new taxes." The government divided the House, but to their mortification found only 47 supporters; for Grattan's amendment there were 170. A subsequent amendment against granting duties for the support of the loan fund, was also carried by 138 to 100.
These adverse votes were communicated with great trepidation, by the Lord Lieutenant, to the British administration. At length Lord North thought it essential to make some concessions, and with this view he brought in resolutions, declaring the trade with the British colonies in America and Africa, and the free export of glass and woollens, open to the Irish merchant. A week later, similar resolutions were passed in the Irish Commons, and in February, 1780, "a free trade" in the sense in which it had been demanded, was established by law, placing Ireland in most respects, as to foreign and colonial commerce, on an equality with England.
In February, the Viceroy again alarmed the British administration, with the reported movement for the repeal of "Poyning's law,"--the statute which required heads of bills to be transmitted to, and approved in England, before they could be legislated upon. He received in reply, the royal commands to resist by every means in his power, any attempted "change in the constitution," and he succeeded in eliciting from the House of Lords, an address, strongly condemnatory of "the misguided men," who sought to raise such "groundless jealousies," between the two kingdoms. But the Patriot Commoners were not to be so deterred. They declared the repeal of Poyning's act, and the 6th of George I., to be their ultimatum, and notices of motion to that effect were immediately placed on the journals of the House of Commons.
In the early days of April, Grattan, who, more than any of our orators, except perhaps Burke, was sensitive to the aspects of external nature, and imbued with the poetry of her works, retired from the city, to his uncle Dean Marlay's house, Cellbridge Abbey, formerly the residence of Swift's ill-fated Vannessa. "Along the banks of that river," he said, many years afterwards, "amid the groves and bowers of Swift and Vannessa, I grew convinced that I was right; arguments, unanswerable, came to my mind, and what I then presaged, confirmed me in my determination to persevere." With an enthusiasm intensified and restrained--but wonderful in the fire and grandeur of its utterance--he rose in his place, on the 19th of the month, to move that "the King, Lords, and Commons of Ireland, are the only power competent to enact laws to bind Ireland." He was supported by Hussey Burgh, Yelverton, and Forbes; Flood favoured postponement, and laid the foundation of his future estrangement from Grattan; Daly was also for delay; Fitzgibbon, afterwards Lord Clare, Provost Hutchinson, and John Foster, afterwards Lord Oriel, resisted the motion. The Castle party moved in amendment that "there being an equivalent resolution already on the journals of the House"--alluding to one of the resolutions against Stafford's tyranny in 1641--a new resolution was unnecessary. This amendment was carried by 136 to 79, thus affirming the formula of independence adopted in 1641, but depriving Grattan of the honour of putting it, in his own words, on the record. The substantial result, however, was the same; the 19th of April was truly what Grattan described it, "a great day for Ireland." "It is with the utmost concern," writes the Viceroy next day to Lord Hillsborough, "I must acquaint your Lordship that although so many gentlemen expressed their concern that the subject had been introduced, the sense of the House against the obligation of any statutes of the Parliament of Great Britain, within this kingdom, is represented to me to have been almost unanimous."
Ten days later, a motion of Mr. Yelverton's to repeal Poyning's law, as far as related to the Irish privy council's supervision of heads of bills, was negatived by 130 to 105.
During the remainder of the session the battle of independence was fought on the Mutiny Bill. The Viceroy and the Chief Secretary, playing the game of power, were resolved that the influence of the crown should not be diminished, so far as the military establishments were concerned. Two justices of the peace in Sligo and Mayo, having issued writs of habeas corpus in favour of deserters from the army, on the ground that neither the British Mutiny Act, nor any other British statute, was binding on Ireland, unless confirmed by an act of its own legislature, brought up anew the whole question. Lord North, who, with all his proverbial tact and good humour, in the House of Commons, always pursued the most arbitrary policy throughout the empire, proposed a perpetual Mutiny Bill for Ireland, instead of the Annual Bill, in force in England. It was introduced in the Irish House of Commons by Mr. Gervase Parker Bushe, and, by a vote of two to one, postponed for a fortnight. During the interval, the British authorities remained obdurate to argument and remonstrance. In vain, the majority of the Irish privy counsellors advised concession; in vain, Flood, who was consulted, pointed out the futility of attempting to force such a measure; it was forced, and, under the cry of loyalty, a draft bill was carried through both Houses, and remitted to England in June. Early in August it was returned; on the 12th it was read a first time; on the 16th, a second; and it was carried through Committee by 114 to 62. It was at this emergency the Volunteers performed the second act of their great drama of Ireland's liberation. A series of reviews were held, and significant addresses presented to Lord Camden (then on a visit to the country), Lord Charlemont, Mr. Flood, and Mr. Grattan. On the re-assembling of Parliament in August, when the bill was referred to, Mr. Grattan declared that he would resist it to the last; that if passed into law, he and his friends would secede, and would appeal to the people in "a formal instrument." A new series of corporation and county meetings was convened by the Patriot party, which warmly condemned the Perpetual Mutiny Act, and as warmly approved the repeal of Poyning's Act, and the 6th of George I.: questions which were all conceived to be intermixed together, and to flow from the assertion of a common principle. Parliament being prorogued in September, only threw the whole controversy back again into the furnace of popular agitation. The British Government tried a lavish distribution of titles and a change of Viceroys,--Lord Carlisle being substituted in December for Lord Buckingham--but the spirit abroad was too general and too earnest, to be quelled by the desertion of individuals, however numerous or influential. With Lord Carlisle, came, as Chief Secretary, Mr. Eden, afterwards Lord Auckland; he had been, with his chief, a peace commissioner to America, two years before, and had failed; he was an intriguing and accomplished man, but he proved himself as unequal as Heron or Rigby to combat the movement for Irish independence.
Parliament was not again called together till the month of October, 1781; the interval being busily occupied on both sides with endeavours to create and sustain a party. Soon after the meeting, Mr. Grattan, seconded by Mr. Flood, moved for a limitation of the Mutiny Bill, which was lost; a little later, Mr. Flood himself introduced a somewhat similar motion, which was also outvoted two to one; and again, during the session, Mr. Yelverton, having abandoned his promised motion against Poyning's law, on news of Lord Cornwallis's surrender reaching Dublin, Flood took it up, moved it, and was defeated. A further measure of relief for Roman Catholics, introduced by Mr. Gardiner, author of the act of 1778, and warmly supported by Grattan, was resisted by Flood in the one House, and Lord Charlemont in the other. It miscarried, and left another deposit of disagreement between the actual and the former leader of the Patriot party.
Still no open rupture had taken place between the two Patriot orators. When the convention of the volunteers was called at Dungannon for the 15th of February, 1782, they consulted at Charlemont House as to the resolutions to be passed. They were agreed on the constitutional question; Grattan, of his own generous free will, added the resolution in favour of emancipation. Two hundred and forty-two delegates, representing 143 corps, unanimously adopted the resolutions so drafted, as their own, and, from the old head-quarters of Hugh O'Neil, sent forth anew an unequivocal demand for civil and religious liberty. The example of Ulster soon spread through Ireland. A meeting of the Leinster volunteers, Mr. Flood in the chair, echoed it from Dublin; the Munster corps endorsed it unanimously at Cork; Lord Clanrickarde summoned together those of the western counties at Portumna--an historic spot, suggestive of striking associations. Strengthened by these demonstrations of public opinion, Mr. Grattan brought forward, on the 22nd of February, his motion declaratory of the rights of Ireland. An amendment in favour of a six months' postponement of the question was carried; but on the 16th of April, just two years from his first effort on the subject (the administration of Lord North having fallen in the meantime), the orator had the satisfaction of carrying his address declaratory of Irish legislative independence. It was on this occasion that he exclaimed: "I found Ireland on her knees; I watched over her with a paternal solicitude; I have traced her progress from injury to arms, and from arms to liberty. Spirit of Swift! Spirit of Molyneux! your genius has prevailed! Ireland is now a nation! in that new character I hail her! and bowing to her august presence, I say, Esto perpetua!"
Never was a new nation more nobly heralded into existence! Never was an old nation more reverently and tenderly lifted up and restored! The Houses adjourned to give England time to consider Ireland's ultimatum. Within a month it was accepted by the new British administration, and on the 27th of May, the new Whig Viceroy, the Duke of Portland, was authorized to announce from the throne the establishment of the judicial and legislative independence of Ireland.