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The History of Ulster
Defeat of the Volunteers


The Volunteer National Convention—Their Deliberations led by Flood and the Bishop of Londonderry—Flood's Panegyric on the Volunteers—The Struggle between Parliament and the Volunteers ends in the Triumph of Parliament— Theobald Wolfe Tone and the Dissenters of the North—Religious Animosity— The Defenders and Peep o' Day Boys—The Society of Orangemen—Outrages in Armagh—The Battle of Diamond—The Spirit of Conciliation—Wolfe Tone visits Belfast at the Invitation of Samuel Neilson—The Catholic Delegates of the General Convention welcomed in Ulster by the Protestants — Petition presented to the King results in Measures for the Promotion of Concord.

"The concessions made in 1782", says Viscount Bryce, "mark the first stage in the evolution of modern Irish nationality, created, not as in other countries, by the possession of a separate language and literature, or by pride in a separate history, but by the unwise policy of England. Grattan and Flood, Ponsonby and Langrishe, did not look back to, nor feel themselves the successors of, such Irish leaders as Shane O'Neill or Sarsfield. It was to the English, not to the Irish Celts, that they were linked by social and literary as well as by religious ties. England kindled among them, her own colonists, the flame of Irish national feeling when, among the Catholic Celts, it was dying away to a feeble spark, kindled it in Ireland, with the same folly as English statesmen showed in their dealing with America, by crippling Irish industries and humiliating the Irish legislature." Bryce proceeds to prove that the Irish Parliament was far from perfect, hence the need of the Irish Volunteers, and, he adds, of the Society of United Irishmen.

The Volunteer National Convention was held in Dublin on the 10th of November, 1783, when Lord Charlemont was elected chairman. One of the most active members was the Earl of Bristol, who was also Bishop of Londonderry; he and Flood took the lead in the deliberations, and the plan of Parliamentary Reform drawn up by them was the one eventually adopted. The meetings of the Convention continued, and Flood left one held on the 29th to carry the Bill of the Convention to the House of Commons. Here, in reply to Yelverton, the Attorney-General, who opposed the Bill, Flood said in the course of his speech: "I have not introduced the Volunteers, but if the Volunteers are aspersed, I will defend their conduct against all the world. By whom were the commerce and the constitution of this country recovered?—by the Volunteers. Why did not the Rt. Hon. Gentleman make a declaration against them when they lined our streets, when Parliament passed through ranks of those virtuous armed citizens, to demand the rights of an insulted nation? Are they different men at this day, or is the Rt. Hon. Gentleman different? He was then one of their body— he is now their accuser. He who saw the streets lined, who rejoiced, who partook in their glory, is now their accuser. What has changed them since that time? Are they less wise, less brave, less ardent in their country's cause? or has their admirable conduct made him their enemy? May they not say: 'We have not changed, but you have changed'? He cannot now bear to hear of Volunteers—but I will ask him, and I will have a starling taught to holla in his ear, 'Who got you Free Trade? Who got you the Constitution? Who made you a nation?—the Volunteers!'" Flood concluded by asking: "What do some of the greatest men in England say, speaking of the Volunteers? ' That the history of mankind, the annals of the world do not furnish such another glorious example of patriotism and moderation'; and now will any man condemn them if they wish to crown themselves with never-fading glory, and finish their labours by rendering perfect that Constitution that their labours have acquired?"

A heated debate followed Flood's speech, the discussion being kept up until three o'clock on Sunday morning. It was recognized by all that it was a struggle between the Parliament and the Volunteers. In the end Flood's motion was rejected, Grattan giving it but feeble support. As soon as the result of the division was known, the Attorney-General moved "that it is now become necessary to declare, that this House will maintain its just rights and privileges against all encroachments whatsoever", which was carried by a large majority.

The gauntlet had been fairly thrown down by the Volunteers, and the consequences might have been most serious to the country had not some of the popular leaders exhibited more than ordinary prudence. Lord Charlemont exerted himself privately and publicly to prevent a collision; and at length, on Tuesday, the 2nd of December, he adjourned the Convention sine die. This sealed the fate of the Volunteers. Their prestige and influence were gone for ever. "From this time", says Dr. Madden, "the power of the Volunteers was broken. The Government resolved to let the institution die a natural death; at least, to aim no blow at it in public; but when it is known that Col. the Hon. Robert Stewart (father of Lord Castlereagh) was not only a member of the Convention—a delegate from the County Down—but a chairman of a sub-committee, and that he was the intimate friend of Lord Charlemont, the nature of the hostility that Government put in practice against the institution will be easily understood. While the Volunteers were parading before Lord Charlemont, or manifesting their patriotism in declarations of resistance to the Parliament, perfidy was stalking in their camp, and it rested not till it had trampled on the ashes of their institution."

The Volunteers through the country received the accounts of their delegates with indignant amazement. They beat to arms—they met—and resolved. But the binding principle was relaxed; doubt, suspicion, and alarm pervaded the ranks that had been firmly knit; their resolutions, though still warmed by the spirit of fiery eloquence, were but sounding words, unheeded by a Government which had planted securely the seeds of disunion, and did not fear the threats of men without leaders, without mutual confidence, without reliance on themselves. The Bishop of Derry became the idol of the Volunteers, but it was beyond his power to restore them to their commanding position. Flood retired in disgust to England, and on his return in the following year introduced another Reform Bill, only to be again defeated. The Bishop of Derry was a bad adviser, being too bold and unguarded, and the Government, amazed at an extraordinary reply which he gave to an address of the Bill of Rights Battalion (an Ulster corps), seriously considered the advisability of his arrest. His reply concluded with a memorable political aphorism: "Tyranny is not government, and allegiance is due only to protection". He was, however, neither prosecuted nor arrested. It would have been a rash as well as a useless step. The natural progress of events effected what severe measures would undoubtedly have retarded—the suppression of the Volunteers. Differences of opinion gained ground amongst them, yet the Volunteers continued their reviews, they passed their resolutions, they published their proceedings. But month by month, and year by year, their number diminished, their reviews became less striking, their exposition of political opinion was less regarded by the people or feared by the Government. An attempt was made by Flood, Napper Tandy, and others, by addressing circulars to High Sheriffs, to convene meetings with the object of holding another National Convention; but the High Sheriffs were threatened by the Government, and few of them had the hardihood to hold the meetings as suggested.

The Volunteers, deserted by most of their aristocratic leaders, now became a democratic association. In Belfast and Dublin they commenced openly to train people of all classes and sects in the use of arms, and the example was followed elsewhere; but the Government, reassured by the triumph of the Parliament, now took bolder measures. The standing army was raised to 15,000 men, and in February, 1785, a sum of £20,000 was voted to clothe the militia; these forces, however, were unpopular, and, the Volunteers having ceased to co-operate with the civil authorities for the preservation of the peace, the country soon became disturbed by scenes of tumult and violence, the more advanced section of the patriotic party, led by Wolfe Tone, and strong in the towns of Ulster, inclining to republicanism. Wolfe Tone himself declared that "the Dissenters of the North, and more especially of the town of Belfast, are, from the genius of their religion and from the superior diffusion of political information among them, sincere and enlightened Republicans".

Pitt hesitated for a time between repression and reform, but in the end Ireland fell under Pitt's displeasure, with the result that, until the French Revolution caused war again to threaten Great Britain, he left the Irish Government in the hands of a petty oligarchy whose policy was to augment its own power by every possible means.

In the autumn of 1788 the King's mind gave way. In Ireland the news of His Majesty's condition caused many to hope that the arbitrary oligarchy would be thrown out of power, and political excitement was intense. In anticipation of a general election, associations of electors were formed, bound not to vote for any candidate who refused to pledge himself to the test, which consisted of a percentage tax on the property of absentees, a settlement or commutation of tithes, restoration of sailcloth manufacture, protective duties, a limitation of the pension list, and reform in the representation of the people. The tithe question, however, did not affect the north, where, as Grattan remarked, "a moderate modus" was adopted; but in the south tithes, church-rates, and rack-rents had driven the famishing peasantry to madness. Disturbances began in the north between rival factions called "Peep o' Day Boys" and "Defenders". This originated among some rustic folk who appear to have been Evangelicals and Presbyterians; but, Catholics having sided with one of the parties, the quarrel quickly developed into a religious feud, and spread from the County Armagh, where it began, to the neighbouring districts of Tyrone and Down. Both sides belonged to the humblest members of the community. The Protestants commenced attacking the houses of the Catholics at an early hour of the morning, hence the title "Peep o' Day Boys". The faction was also known as the "Protestant Boys" and the "Wreckers", and it has been stated by Plowden and other historians that from this lowly source sprang the Society of Orangemen. Plowden says: "Personal animosity was artfully converted into religious rancour; and for the specious purpose of taking off the stigma of delinquency, the appellation of Peep-o'-Day Boys was exchanged into that of Orangemen". In a pamphlet published in 1797, entitled A View of the Present State of Ireland, attributed to Arthur O'Connor, the oath of the Orangemen is given in exaggerated terms to the effect that the members swore to use "utmost exertions to exterminate all the Catholics of the kingdom of Ireland". There is no evidence that such an oath was ever administered to members of the Orange Society, and no such oath is taken in the Orange lodges of to-day. Madden says that "efforts were made to infuse into the mind of the Protestant feelings of distrust to his Catholic fellow-countrymen. Popish plots and conspiracies were fabricated with a practical facility, which some influential authorities conceived it no degradation to stoop to; and alarming reports of these dark confederations were circulated with a restless assiduity".

It is strange that this subject cannot be referred to by historians in the cool, unbiased spirit which one would naturally deem to be most essential in a chronicler of events. In writing on the subject of intolerance there is no necessity to be intolerant. There were evidently faults on both sides, and lawlessness is a fruitful parent of crime.

The County Armagh was at this period (1791) the scene of terrible outrages. These outrages were usually committed by torchlight. A Protestant colony having been established at Forkhill, near Dundalk, the presence of the new colonists was resented, and they were treated with savage cruelty. The victims included the clergyman of the district, Edward Hudson, who was shot at, his horse being killed; and the schoolmaster, a Scottish Presbyterian, named Alexander Barclay, who, with his wife and her brother, aged thirteen, had their tongues cut out, and suffered other mutilations, from the effects of which Mrs. Barclay died. Only one of the perpetrators of this horrible crime, a man named Murphy, was caught. He was convicted and hanged at Forkhill.

Another instance of the religious animosity existing in the province was the so-called Battle of Diamond. The Orangemen in Armagh had attacked the Defenders, who made some feeble efforts to protect themselves, though possessed of but few arms. This resistance led to a skirmish near the village of Diamond, on the 21st of September, 1795. The result of the fight was that four or five Defenders were killed. Thomas Addis Emmet says: "The Defenders were speedily defeated with the loss of some few killed and left on the field of battle, besides the wounded, whom they carried away. . . . The Catholics after this, never attempted to make a stand, but the Orangemen commenced a persecution of the blackest dye. They would no longer permit a Catholic to exist in the country. They posted up on the cabins of these unfortunate victims this pithy notice: 'To Hell or Connaught'; and appointed a limited time in which the necessary removal of persons and property was to be made. If after the expiration of that period, the notice had not been complied with, the Orangemen assembled, destroyed the furniture, burned the habitations, and forced the ruined families to fly elsewhere for shelter." In this way, it is stated, seven thousand were driven from their homes.

But even in the midst of these feuds the spirit of conciliation was at work. On the 11th of February, 1791, a general committee of the Roman Catholics of Ireland met in Dublin to apply to Parliament for relief from their disabilities. The convention concurred with their Ulster allies in adopting resolutions asking for complete repeal of the penal code, and it was resolved to send an address to the King, who had for some time been completely restored to health. The committee appointed their own delegates. With the view of securing unanimity amongst all classes of Irishmen, Theobald Wolfe Tone, a young barrister, a Protestant, visited Belfast in October, 1791. Wolfe acted as secretary to the delegates, and he visited Belfast on the invitation of a Volunteer Club, composed of such men as Samuel Neilson, editor of the Northern Star newspaper; Robert Simms; and Thomas Russell.

The Catholic delegates, having been duly elected, held their first meeting in Taylor's Hall, Dublin, on the 2nd of December, 1792. One of their first measures was to frame the proposed petition to the King, and five delegates were chosen to present the address. On their way to London it was decided to make a detour through Belfast. Here the principal Protestants called upon the Dublin delegates to bid them welcome; and as the Catholic deputies were departing for Donaghadee, the Protestant populace took the horses from their carriages, and drew the vehicles through the streets, amidst scenes of great enthusiasm. The Catholics responded with much heartiness, and pledged themselves to maintain the fraternal union, which was the strength and honour of Ireland. The petition was presented to the King at St. James's on the 2nd of January, 1793, the King receiving the delegates most graciously; and the result was that when, on the 10th of the same month, the Irish Parliament assembled, the Viceroy (Lord Westmoreland) announced that he had it in particular command from His Majesty to recommend them to consider measures for the promotion of concord; and, as one, to give a serious consideration to the situation of his Catholic subjects.


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