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The order of this work has now brought us to the year 1798 -the year '98 !-a sound that is still so full of terrible associations to every Irishman's imagination. During the agitated period which followed the transactions of 1782, Ireland had seen the newly-acquired spirit of her people, inflamed by disappointment, by suffering, and by ignorance, discharging itself in bursts of individual or local turbulence, which were not much felt beyond the particular persons, or the immediate spot. But the hour, of which these were the prophetic signs, and of which so many warning and unheeded voices foretold the approach, at length arrived, bringing with it scenes of civil strife that struck dismay into every fibre of the community, sending thousands to the grave, thousands into exile, and involving many a virtuous and respected family in calamity and shame.
In adverting to the events of this disastrous era, it would be an easy task to recapitulate its horrors, or, according to the once popular method, to rail at the memory of its victims; but it is time for invective and resentment to cease; or, if such a feeling will irresistibly intrude, it is time at least to control and suppress it. Fifty years have now passed over the heads or the graves of the parties to that melancholy conflict, and their children may now see prospects of prosperity opening upon their country, not perhaps of the kind, or to the extent to which in her more ambitious days she looked, but assuredly a more rational description
than could have been attained by violence; and such as, when realized, as they promise soon to be, will compensate for past reverses, or at all events console. At such a moinent, in approaching this fatal year, we may dismiss every sentiment of personal asperity, or posthumous reproach ; without wishing to disturb the remorse of those upon either side who may be repenting, or to revive the anguish of the many that have suffered, we may now contemplate it as the period of an awful historical event; and allude to the mutual passions and mistakes of those who acted or perished in it, with the forbearance that should not be refused to the unfortunate and the dead.
It has been seen, in the preceding pages, that the system by which Ireland was governed had excited general dissatisfaction, and that, in the year 1789, several of the most able and distinguished persons in the Irish Parliament formed themselves into a body, for the avowed design of opposing the measures of the Administration, and of conferring upon their country, if their exertions could enable them, all the practical benefits of a free constitution. While they were scarcely yet engaged in this arduous struggle, the French Revolution burst upon the world—not, as it has since been witnessed, presenting images of blood and disorder, but coming as the messenger of harmony and freedom to the afflicted nations. This character of peace and innocence it did not long retain, or was not allowed to retain ; but, in the progress of its resistless career, its crimes seemed for a while almost justified by the grandeur of their results, and by the imposing principles which they were committed to establish. It soon appeared how popular talent, combined with popular force, could level all the old decrepit opinions against which they had confederated, and Europe was fixed with mingled wonder and dismay upon the awful spectacle of a self-emancipated people seated upon the throne, from which they had hurled the descendant of their former idols as an hereditary usurper.
The effects of this great event, and of the doctrines by which
it was defended, were immense. Every day some long-respected maxim was tried and condemned, and a treatise sent forth to justify the decision. The passions were excited by addressing the reason--by bold and naked appeals to the primitive and undeniable principles of human rights, without allowing for the numberless accidents of human condition by which those rights must inevitably be modified and restrained. Philosophy no longer remained to meditate in the shade; she was now to be seen directing the movements of the camp, or marching at the head of triumphal processions, or presiding at civic feasts and regenerating clubs. In all this there was absurdity; but there was enthusiasm. The enthusiasm spread with contagious fury. Every nation of Europe, every petty state became animated by a new-born vigour and unaccustomed pretensions; and, as if awaking from a long slumber, imagined that they had discovered in the old social. bonds the shackles that enslaved them. “The democratic principal in Europe was getting on and on like a mist at the heels of the countryman, small at first and lowly, but soon ascending to the hills, and overcasting the hemisphere."* This principle made its way to England, where the better genius of the constitution prevailed against its allurements: it passed on to Ireland, where it was welcomed with open arms by a people who had been long since ripe for every desperate experiment.
During the twenty years which preceded the French Revolution, the progress of intelligence in Ireland had been unprecedeutod; a
The readers of Milton will not fail to recognise this image, and to observe the use which men of genius can make of their predecessors.
circumstance which is to be in part attributed to the general diffusion of knowledge at the same period throughout the European community, but still more to the extraordinary excitement which her own domestic struggle had given to the Irish mind. In Ireland almost the whole of this accession of intellect was expended upon political inquiries, the most natural subjects of investigation in a country whose actual condition was so far below her most obvious claims; and this peculiar attention to local politics seems to have been the reason that her contributions to general science and literature have not been commensurate with the genius and increased acquirements of her people. It has already been shown how much of this new energy was exerted upon the Parliament for the reformation of the old penal system, which it was evident the nation had deterinined no longer to endure; but the Parliament was inexorable; and, by thus unnaturally opposing, instead of conducting, and sometimes indulging, sometimes controlling the public sentiment, left it at the mercy of all whose resentment or ambition might induce them to take advantage of its exasperation.
Of such there were many in Ireland. There were several men of speculative and enterprising minds, who, looking upon the obstinate defence of abuses at home, and the facility with which they had been banished from a neighbouring country, became convinced that a Revolution would now be as attainable as a Reform, and that there was a fund of strength and indignation in the Irish people, which, if skilfully directed, would vanquish every obstacle. There is no intention here of passing any unthinking panegyric upon those who were thus meditating a conspiracy against the State--upon the merits of such fatal appeals to chance and violence, no friend to law and humanity can hesitate a moment --but it is due to historical truth to state, that, in the present instance, they were not a band of factious demagogues, of desperate minds and ruined fortunes, who were looking to a Revolution as a scene of confusion and depredation. In the formation of
such a confederacy there could, indeed, have been no scrupulous selection of persons. Several, no doubt, entered into the association from private motives; some from ambition-some from vanity--some from revenge; but there were many whose mental attainments, and personal virtues, and enthusiastic fidelity to the cause they had espoused, extorted the admiration and sympathy of those who were the least disposed to justify their conduct, or deplore their fate.
As early as the year 1791 the future leaders of the projected designs were taking measures for organizing the public force, by producing a general union of sentiment among the various classes upon whose co-operation they were to depend. As yet neither their plans nor objects were distinct and defined; but without any formal avowal of those objects to each other, and perhaps without being fully apprized themselves of their own final determinations, they took as effectual advantage of every public accident as if the whole had been previously digested and resolved. About this period several of the friends to constitutional monarchy, among whom appeared some of the most respected and exalted characters in the country, united in forming political societies, * for the purpose of collecting together all the rational supporters of freedom, and, by affording a legal and public channel of expression to the popular sentiment, of preventing the adoption of secret and more formidable combinations. Many of the persons, who were afterwards the most active promoters of more violent proceedings, became members of these societies, of which the avowed object was a simple
* The principal of these was the Whig Club, which was formed under the auspices of the late Lord Charlemont.
The example was soon followed by the establishment of societies of United Irishmen at Belfast and Dublin, and finally in every part of the king. dom. It would be inconsistent with the limits of this work to trace minutely the progress of these societies; but it should be observed, that several who were leading members of the United Irishmen, when their designs had become revolutionary, were unconnected with them at an earlier period. It is also necessary to remark, that, though many of those who took an active part in their proceedings at every period of their existence would originally have been satisfied with a reform, there were exceptions. See the fole lowing note.-0.