Before relating the decisive events in the contest for Catholic Emancipation, which marked the reign of George IV. we may be permitted to cast a glance backward over the religious and secular state of Ireland, during the sixty years' reign of George III.
The relative position of the great religious denominations underwent a slow but important revolution during this long reign. In the last days of George II., a Chief-Justice was bold enough to declare that "the laws did not presume a Papist to exist in the kingdom;" but under the sway of his successor, though much against that successor's will, they advanced from one constitutional victory to another, till they stood, in the person of the Earl Marshal, on the very steps of the throne. In the towns and cities, the Catholic laity, once admitted to commerce and the professions, rose rapidly to wealth and honour. A Dublin Papist was at the head of the wine trade; another was the wealthiest grazier in the kingdom; a third, at Cork, was the largest provision merchant. With wealth came social ambition, and the heirs of these enfranchised merchants were by a natural consequence the judges and legislators of the next generation.
The ecclesiastical organization of Ireland, as described in 1800 by the bishops in answer to queries of the Chief Secretary, was simple and inexpensive. The four archbishops and twenty bishops, were sustained by having certain parishes attached to their cathedrals, in commendam: other Cathedraticum there seems to have been none. Armagh had then 350 parish priests, Tuam 206, Cashel 314, and Dublin 156: in all 1126. The number of curates or coadjutors was at least equal to that of the parish priests; while of regulars then returned the number did not exceed 450. This large body of religious--24 prelates, nearly 3,000 clergy--exclusive of female religious--were then, and have ever since been, sustained by the voluntary contributions of the laity, paid chiefly at the two great festivals of Christmas and Easter, or by customary offerings made at the close of the ceremonies of marriages, baptisms, and death. Though the income of some of the churches was considerable, in the great majority of cases the amount received barely sufficed to fulfil the injunction of St. Patrick to his disciples, that "the lamp should take but that wherewith it was fed."
The Presbyterian clergy, though in some respects more dependent on their congregations than the Catholics were, did not always, nor in all cases, depend on the voluntary principle for their maintenance. The Irish Supply Bill contained an annual item before the Union of 7,700 pounds for the Antrim Synod, and some other dissenting bodies. The Regium Donum was not, indeed, general; but that it might be made so, was one of the inducements held out to many of that clergy to secure their countenance for the Legislative Union.
The Established Church continued, of course, to monopolize University honours, and to enjoy its princely revenues and all political advantages. Trinity College continued annually to farm its 200,000 acres at a rental averaging 100,000 pounds sterling. Its wealth, and the uses to which it is put, are thus described by a recent writer: "Some of Trinity's senior fellows enjoy higher incomes than Cabinet ministers; many of her tutors have revenues above those of cardinals; and junior fellows, of a few days' standing, frequently decline some of her thirty-one church livings with benefices which would shame the poverty of scores of continental, not to say Irish, Catholic archbishops. Even eminent judges hold her professorships; some of her chairs are vacated for the Episcopal bench only; and majors and field officers would acquire increased pay by being promoted to the rank of head porter, first menial, in Trinity College. Apart from her princely fellowships and professorships, her seventy Foundation, and sixteen non-Foundation Scholarships, her thirty Sizarships, and her fourteen valuable Studentships, she has at her disposal an aggregate, by bequests, benefactions, and various endowments, of 117 permanent exhibitions, amounting to upwards of 2,000 pounds per annum." The splendour of the highest Protestant dignitaries may be inferred from what has been said formerly of the Bishop of Derry, of the Era of Independence. The state maintained by the chief bishop--Primate Robinson, who ruled Armagh from 1765 to 1795--is thus described by Mr. Cumberland in his Memoirs. "I accompanied him," says Cumberland, "on Sunday forenoon to his cathedral. We went in his chariot of six horses attended by three footmen behind, whilst my wife and daughters, with Sir William Robinson, the primate's elder brother, followed in my father's coach, which he lent me for the journey. At our approach the great western door was thrown open, and my friend (in person one of the finest men that could be seen) entered, like another Archbishop Laud, in high prelatical state, preceded by his officers and ministers of the church, conducting him in files to the robing chamber, and back again to the throne. It may well be conceived with what invidious eyes the barely tolerated Papists of the city of Saint Patrick must have looked on all this pageantry, and their feelings were no doubt those in some degree of all their co-religionists throughout the kingdom."
The Irish Establishment, during the reign of George III., numbered among its prelates and clergy many able and amiable men. At the period of the Union, the two most distinguished were Dr. O'Beirne, Bishop of Meath, an ex-priest, and Dr. Young, Bishop of Clonfert, a former fellow of Trinity College. As a Bible scholar, Dr. Young ranked deservedly high, but as a variously accomplished writer, Dr. O'Beirne was the first man of his order. His political papers, though occasionally disfigured with the bigotry natural to an apostate, are full of a vigorous sagacity; his contributions to general literature, such as his paper on Tanistry, in Vallency's Collectanea, show how much greater things still he was capable of. It is not a little striking that the most eminent bishop, as well as the most celebrated Anglican preacher of that age, in Ireland (Dean Kirwan), should both have been ordained as Catholic priests.
The national literature which we have noted a century earlier, as changing gradually its tongue, was now mainly, indeed we might almost say solely, expressed in English. It is true the songs of "Carolan the Blind," were sung in Gaelic by the Longford firesides, where the author of "the Deserted Village" listened to their exquisite melody, moulding his young ear to a sense of harmony full as exquisite; but the glory of the Gaelic muse was past. He, too, unpromising as was his exterior, was to be one of the bright harbingers of another great era of Hiberno-English literature. When, within two generations, out of the same exceedingly restricted class of educated Irishmen and women, we count the names of Goldsmith, Samuel Madden, Arthur Murphy, Henry Brooke, Charles Macklin, Sheridan, Burke, Edmund Malone, Maria Edgeworth, Lady Morgan, "Psyche" Tighe, and Thomas Moore, it is impossible not to entertain a very high opinion of the mental resources of that population, if only they were fairly wrought and kindly valued by the world.
One memorable incident of literary history--the Ossianic outbreak of 1760--aided powerfully though indirectly in the revival of the study of the ancient Celtic history of Scotland and Ireland. Something was done then, by the Royal Irish Academy, to meet that storm of Anglo-Norman incredulity and indignation; much more has been done since, to place the original records of the Three Kingdoms on a sound critical basis. The dogmatism of the unbelievers in the existence of a genuine body of ancient Celtic literature has been rebuked; and the folly of the theorists who, upon imaginary grounds, constructed pretentious systems, has been exposed. The exact originals of MacPherson's odes have not been found, after a century of research, and may be given up, as non-existent; but the better opinion seems now to be, by those who have studied the fragments of undoubted antiquity attributed to the son of the warrior Fion, that whatever the modern translator may have invented, he certainly did not invent Ossian.
To the stage, within the same range of time, Ireland gave some celebrated names: Quinn, Barry, Sheridan, Mrs. Woffington, Mrs. Jordan, and Miss O'Neill; and to painting, one pre-eminent name--the eccentric, honest, and original, James Barry.
But of all the arts, that in which the Irish of the Georgian era won the highest and most various triumphs was the art of Oratory, What is now usually spoken of as "the Irish School of Eloquence," may be considered to have taken its rise from the growth of the Patriot party in Parliament, in the last years of George II. Every contemporary account agrees in placing its first great name--Anthony Malone--on the same level with Chatham and Mansfield. There were great men before Malone, as before Agamemnon; such as Sir Toby Butler, Baron Rice, and Patrick Darcy; but he was the first of our later succession of masters. After him came Flood and John Hely Hutchinson; then Grattan and Curran; then Plunkett and Bushe; then O'Connell and Shiel. In England, at the same time, Burke, Barre, Sheridan, and Sir Phillip Francis, upheld the reputation of Irish oratory; a reputation generously acknowledged by all parties, as it was illustrated in the ranks of all. The Tories, within our own recollection, applauded as heartily the Irish wit and fervour of Canning, Croker, and North, as the Whigs did the exhibition of similar qualities in their Emancipation allies.
Nothing can be less correct, than to pronounce judgment on the Irish School, either of praise or blame, in sweeping general terms. Though a certain family resemblance may be traced among its great masters, no two of them will be found nearly alike. There are no echoes, no servile imitators, among them. In vigorous argumentation and severe simplicity, Plunkett resembled Flood, but the temperament of the two men--and Oratory is nearly as much a matter of temperament as of intellect--was widely different. Flood's movement was dramatic, while Plunkett's was mathematical. In structural arrangement, Shiel, occasionally--very occasionally--reminds us of Grattan; but if he has not the wonderful condensation of thought, neither has he the frequent antithetical abuses of that great orator. Burke and Sheridan are as distinguishable as any other two of their contemporaries; Curran stands alone; O'Connell never had a model, and never had an imitator who rose above mimicry. Every combination of powers, every description of excellence, and every variety of style and character, may be found among the masterpieces of this great school. Of their works many will live for ever. Most of Burke's, many of Grattan's, and one or two of Curran's have reached us in such preservation as promises immortality. Selections from Flood, Sheridan, Canning, Plunkett and O'Connell will survive; Shiel will be more fortunate for he was more artistic, and more watchful of his own fame. His exquisite finish will do, for him, what the higher efforts of men, more indifferent to the audience of posterity, will have forfeited for them.
It is to be observed, farther, that the inspiration of all these men was drawn from the very hearts of the people among whom they grew. With one or two exceptions, sons of humble peasants, of actors, of at most middle class men, they were true, through every change of personal position, to the general interests of the people--to the common weal. From generous thoughts and a lofty scorn of falsehood, fanaticism and tyranny, they took their inspiration; and as they were true to human nature, so will mankind, through successive ages, dwell fondly on their works and guard lovingly their tombs.