During the five years in which Lord Hardwicke was Viceroy of Ireland, the habeas corpus remained suspended, and the Insurrection Act continued in force. These were the years in which the power of Napoleon made the most astonishing strides; the years in which he remodelled the German Empire, placed on his head the iron crown of Lombardy, on his sister's that of Etruria, and on his brother's that of Holland; when the Consulate gave place to the Empire, and Dukedoms and Principalities were freely distributed among the marshals of the Grand Army. During all these years, Napoleon harassed England with menaces of invasion, and excited Ireland with corresponding hopes of intervention. The more far-seeing United Irishmen, however, had so little faith in these demonstrations that Emmet and McNevin emigrated to the United States, leaving behind them in the ranks of the French Army, those of their compatriots who, either from habit or preference, had become attached to a military life. It must however be borne in mind, for it is essential to the understanding of England's policy towards Ireland, in the first twelve or fourteen years after the Union, that the wild hope of a French invasion never forsook the hearts of a large portion of the Irish people, so long as Napoleon Buonaparte continued at the head of the government of France. During the whole of that period the British government were kept in constant apprehension for Ireland; under this feeling they kept up and increased the local militia; strengthened garrisons, and replenished magazines; constructed a chain of Martello towers round the entire coast, and maintained in full rigour the Insurrection Act. They refused, indeed, to the Munster magistrates in 1803, and subsequently, the power of summary convictions which they possessed in '98; but they sent special Commissions of their own into the suspected counties, who sentenced to death with as little remorse as if they had been so many hydrophobic dogs. Ten, twelve, and even twenty capital executions was no uncommon result of a single sitting of one of those murderous commissions, over which Lord Norbury presided; but it must be added that there were other judges, who observed not only the decencies of everyday life, but who interpreted the law in mercy as well as in justice. They were a minority, it is true, but there were some such, nevertheless.
The session of the Imperial Parliament of 1803-'4, was chiefly remarkable for its war speeches and war budget. In Ireland 50,000 men of the regular militia were under arms and under pay; 70,000 volunteers were enrolled, battalioned, and ready to be called out in case of emergency, to which it was proposed to add 25,000 sea-fencibles. General Fox, who it was alleged had neglected taking proper precaution at the time of Robert Emmet's emeute, was replaced by Lord Cathcart, as Commander-in-Chief. The public reports at least of this officer, were highly laudatory of the discipline and conduct of the Irish militia.
In May, 1804, Mr. Pitt returned to power, as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister, when the whole Pitt policy towards Ireland, France, and America, was of course resumed; a policy which continued to be acted on during the short remainder of the life of its celebrated author.
The year 1805 may be called the first year of the revival of public spirit and public opinion after the Union. In that year Grattan had allowed himself to be persuaded by Fox, into entering the Imperial Parliament, and his old friend Lord Fitzwilliam found a constituency for him, in his Yorkshire borough of Malton. About the same time, Pitt, or his colleagues, induced Plunkett to enter the same great assembly, providing him with a constituency at Midhurst, in Sussex. But they did not succeed--if they ever attempted--to match Plunkett with Grattan. Those great men were warm and close friends in the Imperial as they had been in the Irish Parliament; very dissimilar in their genius, they were both decided anti-Jacobins; both strenuous advocates of the Catholic claims, and both proud and fond of their original country. Grattan had more poetry, and Plunkett more science; but the heart of the man of colder exterior opened and swelled out, in one of the noblest tributes ever paid by one great orator to another, when Plunkett introduced in 1821, in the Imperial Parliament, his allusion to his illustrious friend, then recently deceased.
Preparatory to the meeting of Parliament in 1805, the members of the old Catholic Committee, who had not met for any such purpose for several years, assembled in Dublin, and prepared a petition which they authorized their chairman, Lord Fingall, to place in such hands as he might choose, for presentation in both Houses. His lordship on reaching London waited on Mr. Pitt, and entreated him to take charge of the petition; but he found that the Prime Minister had promised the King one thing and the Catholics another, and, therefore, declined acceding to his request. He then gave the petition into the charge of Lord Grenville and Mr. Fox, and by them the subject was brought accordingly before the Lords and Commons. This debate in the Commons was remarkable in many respects, but most of all for Grattan's debut. A lively curiosity to hear one of whom so much had been said in his own country, pervaded the whole House, as Grattan rose. His grotesque little figure, his eccentric action, and his strangely cadenced sentences rather surprised than attracted attention, but as he warmed with the march of ideas, men of both parties warmed to the genial and enlarged philosophy, embodied in the interfused rhetoric and logic of the orator; Pitt was seen to beat time with his hand to every curiously proportioned period, and at length both sides of the House broke into hearty acknowledgments of the genius of the new member for Malton. But as yet their cheers were not followed by their votes; the division against going into Committee was 336 to 124.
In sustaining Fox's motion, Sir John Cox Hippesley had suggested "the Veto" as a safeguard against the encroachments of Rome, which the Irish bishops would not be disposed to refuse. Archbishop Troy, and Dr. Moylan, Bishop of Cork, gave considerable praise to this speech, and partly at their request it was published in pamphlet form. This brought up directly a discussion among the Catholics, which lasted until 1810, was renewed in 1813, and not finally set at rest till the passage of the bill of 1829, without any such safeguard. Sir John C. Hippesley had modelled his proposal, he said, on the liberties of the Gallican Church. "Her privileges," he added, "depended on two prominent maxims: 1st. That the Pope had no authority to order or interfere in anything in which the civil rights of the kingdom were concerned. 2nd. That notwithstanding the Pope's supremacy was acknowledged in cases purely spiritual, yet, in other respects, his power was limited by the decrees of the ancient councils of the realm." The Irish Church, therefore, was to be similarly administered, to obviate the objections of the opponents of complete civil emancipation.
In February, 1806, on the death of Pitt, Mr. Fox came into power, with an uncertain majority and a powerful opposition. In April, the Duke of Bedford arrived, as Viceroy, at Dublin, and the Catholics presented, through Mr. Keogh, a mild address, expressive of their hopes that "the glorious development" of their emancipation would be reserved for the new government. The Duke returned an evasive answer in public, but privately, both at Dublin and London, the Catholics were assured that, as soon as the new Premier could convert the King--as soon as he was in a position to act--he would make their cause his own. No doubt Fox, who had great nobleness of soul, intended to do so; but on the 13th of September of the same year, he followed his great rival, Pitt, to the vaults of Westminster Abbey. A few months only had intervened between the death of the rivals.
Lords Grey and Grenville, during the next recess, having formed a new administration, instructed their Irish Secretary, Mr. Elliot, to put himself in communication with the Catholics, in relation to a measure making them eligible to naval and military offices. The Catholics accepted this proposal with pleasure, but at the opening of the session of 1807, in a deputation to the Irish government, again urged the question of complete emancipation. The bill in relation to the army and navy had, originally, the King's acquiescence; but early in March, after it had passed the Commons, George III. changed his mind--if the expression may be used of him --at that time. He declared he had not considered it at first so important as he afterwards found it; he intimated that it could not receive his sanction; he went farther --he required a written pledge from Lords Grey and Grenville never again to bring forward such a measure, "nor ever to propose anything connected with the Catholic question." This unconstitutional pledge they refused to give, hurried the bill into law, and resigned. Mr. Spencer Perceval was then sent for, and what was called "the No-Popery Cabinet," in which Mr. Canning and Lord Castlereagh were the principal Secretaries of State, was formed. Thus, for the second time in six years, had the Catholic question made and unmade cabinets.
The Catholics were a good deal dispirited in 1805, by the overwhelming majority by which their petition of that year was refused to be referred to a committee. In 1806, they contented themselves with simply addressing the Duke of Bedford, on his arrival at Dublin. In 1807, the "No-Popery Cabinet," by the result of the elections, was placed in possession of an immense majority--a fact which excluded all prospects of another change of government. But the Committee were too long accustomed to disappointments to despair even under these reverses. Early in the next session their petition was presented by Mr. Grattan in the Commons, and Lord Donoughmore in the Lords. The majority against going into committee was, in the Commons, 153; in the Lords, 87. Similar motions in the session of 1808, made by the same parties, were rejected by majorities somewhat reduced, and the question, on the whole, might be said to have recovered some of its former vantage ground, in despite of the bitter, pertinacious resistance of Mr. Perceval, in the one House, and the Duke of Portland, in the other.
The short-lived administration of Mr. Fox, though it was said to include "all the talents," had been full of nothing but disappointment to his Irish supporters. The Duke of Bedford was, indeed, a great improvement on Lord Hardwicke, and Mr. Ponsonby on Lord Redesdale, as Chancellor, and the liberation of the political prisoners confined since 1803 did honour to the new administration. But there the measures of justice so credulously expected, both as to persons and interests, ended. Curran, whose professional claims to advancement were far beyond those of dozens of men who had been, during the past ten years, lifted over his head, was neglected, and very naturally dissatisfied; Grattan, never well adapted for a courtier, could not obtain even minor appointments for his oldest and staunchest adherents; while the Catholics found their Whig friends, now that they were in office, as anxious to exact the hard conditions of the Veto as Castlereagh himself.
In truth, the Catholic body at this period, and for a few years subsequently, was deplorably disorganized. The young generation of Catholic lawyers who had grown up since the Relief Act of '93 threw the profession open to them, were men of another stamp from the old generation of Catholic merchants, who had grown up under the Relief Act of 1778. In the ten years before the Union, the Catholic middle class was headed by men of business; in the period we have now reached, their principal spokesmen came from "the Four Courts." John Keogh, the ablest, wisest and firmest of the former generation, was now passing into the decline of life, was frequently absent from the Committee, and when present, frequently overruled by younger and more ardent men. In 1808, his absence, from illness, was regretted by Mr. O'Connell in an eloquent speech addressed to the Committee on the necessity of united action and incessant petitions. "Had he been present," said the young barrister, "his powers of reasoning would have frightened away the captious objections" to that course, "and the Catholics of Ireland would again have to thank their old and useful servant for the preservation of their honour and the support of their interests." It was a strange anomaly, and one which continued for some years longer, that the statesmen of the Catholic body should be all Protestants. A more generous or tolerant spirit than Grattan's never existed; a clearer or more fearless intellect than Plunkett's was not to be found; nobler and more disinterested friends than Ponsonby, Curran, Burroughs and Wallace, no people ever had; but still they were friends from without; men of another religion, or of no particular religion, advising and guiding an eminently religious people in their struggle for religious liberty. This could not always last; it was not natural, it was not desirable that it should last, though some years more were to pass away before Catholic Emancipation was to be accomplished by the union, the energy and the strategy of the Catholics themselves.