Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

The Union

Before the swords of the English soldiers had been sheathed again, English statesmen began to discuss the project of a union between England and Ireland. There had been talk of such a union long ago, and for a short time during the rule of Cromwell, thirty Irish members had gone regularly to sit in the Reformed Parliament at Westminster. With the downfall of the Commonwealth, this custom ceased and Irish members sat in their own Parliament at Dublin.

In 1707, Scotland and England were united to the great advantage of the Scots, who were able to extend their trade in consequence. The English had not been very willing to adopt this measure but they were afraid of the hostile spirit of the Scottish Parliament. In the long run, they found that the union had not caused them any real loss. Even before 1707, the Irish Parliament had proposed that it should join the English Parliament and, when the Scottish union was effected, Ireland would gladly have made the same terms. During the eighteenth century many great writers seemed in favour of union, but the feeling of the Irish changed when their nation was at last relieved from the restrictions on trade and their Parliament was declared independent by the efforts of Grattan. The rulers of Ireland were chiefly country landowners, who had very great influence over the people of other classes of society. They would rapidly have lost this influence, if they had gone across to Westminster to sit in Parliament, for absentee landlords were never popular with the tenants. Though the new Irish Parliament had shown loyalty to England in giving men and money for wars abroad, they had a growing desire to encourage the prosperity of their own nation and could not believe that the English would ever do anything to stimulate Irish trade. The Protestants, on the whole, were far more hostile to the proposed union than the Catholics. The Catholics in Ireland had been persecuted since the conquest by William of Orange. A series of "penal" laws had been passed that gradually took from them all the privileges that freemen usually enjoy. It must be remembered that some of these laws had their origin in the Irish Parliament, where sat Protestant members who had every intention to keep the power they had gained by the victory of the Boyne. As no Catholic could ever become a member of Parliament or even vote at an election, the laws against Catholics had been made harsher year by year.

If the eldest son of a Catholic with landed property declared himself a Protestant, he was allowed to seize his own father's land. A Catholic might not accept land left to him by will and he could not buy it, whatever price he offered. A Protestant had the right of taking any horse he fancied from a Catholic's stable, provided he made the offer of 5, which was equal to about 30 at the present day, but might not be a fair price for the horse. A Protestant also had the legal right of taking possession of a Catholic farm, if the farmer was making too much profit over and above the rent.

William Pitt, the English statesman who was especially anxious to bring about this union of England and Ireland, held out the hope that the Catholics should be freed from an injustice which reduced them to the condition of slaves. On this account, he gained support from certain of the Catholics, though these were not powerful enough to change the general opinion of Ireland. Pitt's intention of helping the Catholics was, of course, strongly opposed by the Protestant nobility and gentry, who would have nothing to do with a scheme of Union. The Irish barristers were equally against it because it would almost ruin them to go to sit in an English Parliament, where they would be far removed from the pursuit of their calling in Dublin.

The rebellion of '98 won over a few Irishmen to the Union by causing property-owners to feel some insecurity and by arousing the patriotism of others who were afraid of a French invasion. Pitt thought it a very favourable time to take active steps to secure his object.

The Irish Parliament met in January, 1799. Leading members spoke against the Union and a violent discussion was carried on for two and twenty hours. When the votes were taken, the numbers were equal. Government stooped to base measures and bought the vote of one member and persuaded another to refrain from voting on the absurd pretence that he had resigned his seat. After another discussion the Government was defeated, but when the scheme was brought forward in the English Parliament hardly a disapproving voice was heard.

Government then set to work to secure a majority in favour of the Union by a shameful system of bribery. They paid money to members willing to resign their seats in favour of men who would support English wishes. Pensions and honours of every kind were offered lavishly, according to the value of a man's influence. Struggling barristers were promised high places in the legal profession, ambitious commoners were raised to the peerage, and men of rank offered still nobler titles. Bishoprics and baronetcies rewarded such Irish members as would change their views to assume new dignities. There had been three hundred members in the Parliament at Dublin and only one hundred Irish members were to take their seats at Westminster. Heavy compensation had to buy out the two hundred for whom Government had no use. Lord Ely received 45,000 for retiring from political life, and Lord Downshire 52,500. The English Government paid out the money readily, adding to the National Debt. The Press was corrupted so lavishly that it only published one side of the question at issue—the side supporting the English Government.

All through 1799 Castlereagh and Cornwallis, the chief Government officials, did their work for Pitt. Cornwallis was an honourable man by nature and hated the task, though he did it very thoroughly indeed. He stayed at the different country houses of the Irish nobility, and surely guest never had to make such efforts to win over the support of host. In the intervals, Cornwallis wrote peevish letters to his friends complaining of the life he was obliged to lead for Pitt's sake.

On the 15th of January, 1800, the Irish Parliament met for the last time in Dublin. During the debate a guard of cavalry paraded round the house in case of a disturbance. The crowd was kept in check by an army brought into the capital for this purpose. The Government knew well the discontent of the nation most affected by the Union. Members of Parliament had obtained petitions against it from twenty-six counties. Grattan rose from a sick-bed to utter a last protest. All was useless now that gold had bought men of hitherto unblemished character. The Bill was carried after a hard struggle, and the Speaker left the House amidst a strange hush that had fallen on the streets of Dublin. Members escorted him to his own house with bared heads, and a knot of onlookers went with them. But there was no riot, no demonstration. When the Speaker entered his house after bowing to the crowd, silence was still observed as, with reluctance, men parted from their national independence.

The Bill was passed in the English House of Lords by a majority of nearly three to one. The king gave his royal assent on the 1st of August, and the Act of Union came into force on the first day of 1901.

The two kingdoms of England and Ireland were henceforward to be one. This meant that Irish members came to sit in the English Parliament one hundred members in the House of Commons and thirty-two in the House of Lords. The Irish were to have the same laws of trade as the English, and the Irish Established Church was to be united to that of England.

The Great Seal of the English Chancellor was defaced, and a new Seal made as the Seal of the Empire. The English King, George III., dropped the title of King of France and introduced a change into his royal coat-of-arms. In London, Edinburgh, and Dublin the national standard was now raised, depicting the order of St. Patrick with the orders of St. Andrew and St. George. The Bank of Ireland bought the old building of the Irish Parliament in Dublin.