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The revolt of the American colonies against the oppressive legislation of the British Parliament, was the next circumstance that deeply affected the constitutional struggle, in which the Irish Parliament had so long been engaged. The similarity in the grievances of Ireland and the colonies, the close ties of kindred established between them, the extent of colonial commerce involved in the result, contributed to give the American Declaration of Independence more importance in men's eyes at Dublin, than anywhere else out of the colonies, except, perhaps, London.
The first mention made of American affairs to the Irish legislature, was in Lord Townsend's message in 1775, calling for the despatch of 4,000 men from the Irish establishment, to America, and offering to supply their place by as many foreign Protestant (German) troops. The demand was warmly debated. The proposition to receive the proffered foreign troops was rejected by a majority of thirty-eight, and the contingent for America passed on a division, upon Flood's plea that they would go out merely as "4,000 armed negotiators." This expression of the great parliamentary leader was often afterwards quoted to his prejudice, but we must remember, that, at the time it was employed, no one on either side of the contest had abandoned all hopes of accommodation, and that the significance of the phrase was rather pointed against Lord North than against the colonies. The 4,000 men went out, among them Lord Rawdon (afterwards Lord Moira), Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and many others, both officers and men, who were certainly no enemies of liberty, or the colonies.
Some slight relaxation of the commercial restrictions which operated so severely against Irish industry were made during the same year, but these were more than counterbalanced by the embargo on the export of provisions to America, imposed in February, 1776. This arbitrary measure--imposed by order in Council--was so near being censured by the Parliament then sitting, that the House was dissolved a month afterwards, and a new election ordered. To meet the new Parliament it was thought advisable to send over a new Viceroy, and accordingly Lord Buckinghamshire entered into office, with Sir Richard Heron as chief secretary.
In the last session of the late Parliament, a young protege of Lord Charlemont--he was only in his twenty-ninth year--had taken his seat for the borough of Charlemont. This was Henry Grattan, son of the Recorder of Dublin, and grandson of one of those Grattans who, according to Dean Swift, "could raise 10,000 men." The youth of Grattan had been neither joyous nor robust; in early manhood he had offended his father's conservatism; the profession of the law, to which he was bred, he found irksome and unsuited to his tastes; society, as then constituted, was repulsive to his over-sensitive spirit and high Spartan ideal of manly duty; no letters are sadder to read than the early correspondence of Grattan, till he had fairly found his inspiration in listening enraptured to the eloquent utterances of Chatham, or comparing political opinions with such a friend as Flood. At length he found a seat in the House of Commons, where, during his first session, he spoke on three or four occasions, briefly, modestly, and with good effect; there had been no sitting during 1776, nor before October of the following year; it was, therefore, in the sessions from '78 to '82 inclusive, that this young member raised himself to the head of the most eloquent men, in one of the most eloquent assemblies the world has ever seen.
The fact of Mr. Flood, after fourteen years of opposition, having accepted office under Lord Harcourt's administration, and defended the American expedition and the embargo, had greatly lessened the popularity of that eminent man. There was indeed, no lack of ability still left in the ranks of the opposition--for Burgh, Daly, and Yelverton were there; but for a supreme spirit like Grattan--whose burning tongue was ever fed from his heart of fire--there is always room in a free senate, how many soever able and accomplished men may surround him.
The fall of 1777 brought vital intelligence from America. General Burgoyne had surrendered at Saratoga, and France had decided to ally herself with the Americans. The effect in England and in Ireland was immense. When the Irish Houses met, Mr. Grattan moved an address to the King in favour of retrenchment, and against the pension list, and Mr. Daly moved and carried an address deploring the continuance of the American war, with a governmental amendment assuring his Majesty that he might still rely on the services of his faithful Commons. The second Catholic relief bill, authorizing Papists to loan money on mortgage, to lease lands for any period not exceeding 999 years--to inherit and bequeath real property, so limited, passed, not without some difficulty, into law. The debate had been protracted, by adjournment after adjournment, over the greatest part of three months; the main motion had been further complicated by an amendment repealing the Test Act in favour of Dissenters, which was, fortunately, engrafted on the measure. The vote in the Commons, in favour of the bill so amended, was 127 yeas to 89 nays, and in the Lords, 44 Contents to 28 Noncontents.
In the English House of Commons, Lord Nugent moved, in April, a series of resolutions raising the embargo on the Irish provision trade; abolishing, so far as Ireland was concerned, the most restrictive clauses of the Navigation Act, both as to exports and imports, with the exception of the article of tobacco. Upon this the manufacturing and shipping interest of England, taking the alarm, raised such a storm in the towns and cities that the ministry of the day were compelled to resist the proposed changes, with a few trifling exceptions. But Grattan had caught up, in the other island, the cry of "free trade," and the people echoed it after their orator, until the whole empire shook with the popular demand.
But what gave pith and power to the Irish demands was the enrolment and arming of a numerous volunteer force, rendered absolutely necessary by the defenceless state of the kingdom. Mr. Flood had long before proposed a national militia, but being in opposition and in the minority, he had failed. To him and to Mr. Perry, as much as to Lord Charlemont and Mr. Grattan, the militia bill of 1778, and the noble army of volunteers equipped under its provisions, owed their origin. Whether this force was to be a regular militia, subject to martial law, or composed of independent companies, was for some months a subject of great anxiety at the castle; but necessity at length precipitated a decision in favour of volunteer companies, to be supplied with arms by the state, but drilled and clothed at their own expense, with power to elect their own officers. The official announcement of this decision once made, the organization spread rapidly over the whole kingdom. The Ulster corps, first organized, chose as their commander the Earl of Charlemont, while those of Leinster elected the Duke of Leinster. Simultaneously, resolutions against the purchase of English goods and wares were passed at public meetings, and by several of the corporate bodies. Lists of the importers of such goods were obtained at the custom houses, and printed in handbills, to the alarm of the importers. Swift's sardonic maxim, "to burn everything coming from England, except the coals," began to circulate as a toast in all societies, and the consternation of the Castle, at this resurrection of the redoubtable Dean, was almost equal to the apprehension entertained of him while living.
While the Castle was temporizing with both the military and the manufacture movement, in a vague expectation to defeat both, the press, as is usual in such national crises, teemed with publications of great fervour and ability. Dr. Jebb, Mr. (afterwards Judge) Johnson, Mr. Pollock, Mr. Charles Sheridan, Father Arthur O'Leary, and Mr. Dobbs, M.P., were the chief workers in this department of patriotic duty. Cheered, instructed, restrained within due bounds by these writings and the reported debates of Parliament, the independent companies proceeded with their organization. In July, 1779, after all the resources of prevarication had been exhausted, arms were issued to the several recognized corps, and the Irish volunteers became in reality a national army for domestic protection and defence.
When this point was reached, Mr. Grattan and his friends took anxious council as to their future movements. Parliament was to meet on the 12th of October, and in that sweet autumnal month, Grattan, Burgh, and Daly, met upon the sea-shore, near Bray, in view of one of the loveliest landscapes on earth, to form their plan for the session. They agreed on an amendment to the address in answer to the royal speech, demanding in explicit terms "free export and import" for Irish commerce. When Parliament met, and the address and amendment were moved, it was found that Flood, Burgh, Hutchinson, and Gardiner, though all holding offices of honour and emolument under government, would vote for it. Flood suggested to substitute the simple term "free trade," and with this and one other verbal alteration suggested by Burgh, the amendment passed with a single dissenting voice.
The next day the Speaker, Mr. Perry, who was all along in the confidence of the movers of the amendment, Daly, Grattan, Burgh, Flood, Hutchinson, Ponsonby, Gardiner, and the whole House, went up with the amended address to the castle. The streets were lined with volunteers, commanded in person by the Duke of Leinster, who presented arms to the patriotic Commons as they passed. Most of the leading members wore the uniform of one or other of the national companies, and the people saw themselves at the same moment under the protection of a patriotic majority in the legislature, and a patriotic force in the field. No wonder their enthusiastic cheers rang through the corridors of the castle with a strangely jubilant and defiant emphasis. It was not simply the spectacle of a nation recovering its spirit, but recovering it with all military eclat and pageantry. It was the disarmed armed and triumphant--a revolution not only in national feeling, but in the external manifestation of that feeling. A change so profound stirred sentiments and purposes even deeper than itself, and suggested to the ardent imagination of Grattan the establishment of entire national independence, saving always the rights of the crown.
The next day, the Houses, not to be outdone in courtesy, voted their thanks to the volunteers for "their just and necessary exertions in defence of their country!"