The second period of the era of independence may be said to embrace the nine years extending from the dissolution of the last Volunteer Convention, at the end of 1784, to the passage of the Catholic Relief Bill of 1793. They were years of continued interest and excitement, both in the popular and parliamentary affairs of the country; but the events are, with the exception of the last named, of a more secondary order than those of the previous period.
The session of 1785 was first occupied with debates relating to what might be called the cross-channel trade between England and Ireland. The question of trade brought with it, necessarily, the question of revenue; of the duties levied in both kingdoms; of the conflict of their commercial laws, and the necessity of their assimilation; of the appropriations to be borne by each, to the general expense of the army and navy; of the exclusive right of the English East India Company to the Indian trade;--in short, the whole of the fiscal and commercial relations of the two countries were now to be examined and adjusted, as their constitutional relations had been in previous years.
The first plan came from the Castle, through Mr. Thomas Orde, then Chief Secretary, afterwards Lord Bolton. It consisted of eleven propositions, embracing every division of the subject. They had been arrived at by consultation with Mr. Joshua Pim, a most worthy Quaker merchant, the founder of an equally worthy family; Mr. Grattan, Mr. Foster, and others. They were passed as resolutions in Ireland, and sent by Mr. Orde to England to see whether they would be adopted there also, the second Pitt, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave his concurrence, but when he introduced to the English Parliament his resolutions--twenty in number--it was found that in several important respects they differed from the Irish propositions. On being taken up and presented to the Irish Parliament, in August, the administration found they could command, in a full House, only a majority of sixteen for their introduction, and so the whole arrangement was abandoned. No definite commercial treaty between the two kingdoms was entered into until the Union, and there can be little doubt that the miscarriage of the Convention of 1785 was one of the determining causes of that Union.
The next session was chiefly remarkable for an unsuccessful attempt to reduce the Pension List. In this debate, Curran, who had entered the House in 1783, particularly distinguished himself. A fierce exchange of personalities with Mr. Fitzgibbon led to a duel between them, in which, fortunately, neither was wounded, but their public hostility was transferred to the arena of the courts, where some of the choicest morceaux of genuine Irish wit were uttered by Curran, at the expense of his rival, first as Attorney-General, and subsequently as Chancellor.
The session of 1787 was introduced by a speech from the throne, in which the usual paragraph in favour of the Protestant Charter Schools was followed by another advising the establishment of a general system of schools. This raised the entire question of education, one of the most difficult to deal with in the whole range of Irish politics. On the 10th of April, Mr. Orde--destined to be the author of just, but short-lived projects--introduced his plan of what might be called national education. He proposed to establish four great provincial academies, a second university in some north-western county, to reform the twenty-two diocesan schools, so richly endowed under the 28th Henry VIII., and to affiliate on Trinity College two principal preparatory schools, north and south. In 1784, and again in this very year, the humane John Howard had reported of the Irish Charter Schools, then half a century established, that they were "a disgrace to all society." Sir J. Fitzpatrick, the Inspector of Prisons, confirmed the general impression of Howard: he found the children in these schools "puny, filthy, ill clothed, without linen, indecent to look upon." A series of resolutions was introduced by Mr. Orde, as the basis of better legislation in the next session; but it is to be regretted that the proposed reform never went farther than the introduction and adoption of these resolutions.
The session of 1788 was signalized by a great domestic and a great imperial discussion--the Tithe question, and the Regency question.
The Tithe question had slumbered within the walls of Parliament since the days of Swift, though not in the lonely lodges of the secret agrarian societies. Very recent outbreaks of the old agrarian combinations against both excessive rents and excessive tithes, in the Leinster as well as in southern counties, had called general attention to the subject, when Grattan, in 1787, moved that, if it should appear, by the commencement of the following session, that tranquillity had been restored in the disturbed districts, the House would take into consideration the subject of tithes. Accordingly, very early in the next ensuing session, he moved for a committee on the subject, in a three hours' speech, which ranks among the very highest efforts of his own or any other age. He was seconded by Lord Kingsborough, one of the most liberal men of his order, and sustained by Curran and Brownlow; he was opposed by Attorney-General Fitzgibbon, and by Messrs. Hobart, Browne, and Parsons. The vote was, for the Committee of Inquiry, 49; against it, 121. A second attempt, a little later in the session, was equally unsuccessful, except for the moral effect produced out of doors by another of those speeches, which it is impossible to read even at this day, without falling into the attitude, and assuming the intonation, and feeling the heartfelt inspiration of the orator.
The Regency question was precipitated upon both Parliaments by the mental disorder, which, for the second or third time, attacked George III., in 1788. The question was, whether the Prince of Wales should reign with as full powers as if his father were actually deceased; whether there should be restrictions or no restrictions. Mr. Pitt and his colleagues contended successfully for restrictions in England, while Mr. Fox and the opposition took the contrary position. The English Houses and people went with Pitt, but the Irish Parliament went for an unconditional regency. They resolved to offer the crown of Ireland to him they considered de facto their Sovereign, as freely as they had rendered their allegiance to the incapable king; but the Lord Lieutenant--the Marquis of Buckingham--declined to transmit their over-zealous address, and by the time their joint delegation of both Houses reached London, George III. had recovered! They received the most gracious reception at Carlton House, but they incurred the implacable enmity of William Pitt, and created a second determining cause in his mind in favour of an early legislative union.
The prospect of the accession of the Prince to power, wrought a wonderful and a salutary change, though temporary, in the Irish Commons. In the session of 1789, Mr Grattan carried, by 105 to 85, a two months', in amendment to a twelve-months' supply bill. Before the two months expired he brought in his police bill, his pension bill, and his bill to prevent officers of the revenue from voting at elections, but ere these reforms could be passed into law, the old King recovered, the necessary majority was reversed, and the measures, of course, defeated or delayed till better times. The triumph of the oligarchy was in proportion to their fright. The House having passed a vote of censure on Lord Buckingham, the Viceroy, for refusing to transmit their address to the Regent, a threat was now held out that every one who had voted for the censure, holding an office of honour or emolument in Ireland, would be made "the victim of his vote." In reply to this threat, a "Round Robin" was signed by the Duke of Leinster, the Archbishop of Tuam, eighteen peers, all the leading Whig commoners--the Ponsonbys, Langrishes, Grattan, Connolly, Curran, O'Neil, Day, Charles Francis Sheridan, Bowes Daly, George Ogle, etc., etc.--declaring that they would regard any such proscription as an attack on the independence of Parliament, and would jointly oppose any administration who should resort to such proscription. But the bold and domineering spirit of Fitzgibbon--the leader of the Castle party, then, and long afterwards--did not shrink before even so formidable a phalanx. The Duke of Leinster was dismissed from the honorary office of Master of the Rolls; the Earl of Shannon, from the Vice-Treasurership; William Ponsonby from the office of Postmaster-General; Charles Francis Sheridan, from that of Secretary at War, and ten or twelve other prominent members of the Irish administration lost places and pensions to the value of 20,000 pounds a year, for their over-zeal for the Prince of Wales. At the same time, Mr. Fitzgibbon was appointed Lord Chancellor, a vacancy having opportunely occurred, by the death of Lord Lifford, in the very midst of the prescriptive crisis. This elevation transferred him to the Upper House, where, for the remaining years of the Parliament, he continued to dogmatize and domineer, as he had done in the Commons, often rebuked, but never abashed. Indeed, the milder manners of the patrician body were ill suited to resist this ermined demagogue, whose motto through life was audacity, again audacity, and always audacity. The names of Wolfe, Toler, Corry, Coote, Beresford, and Cooke, are also found among the promotions to legal and administrative office; names familiar to the last generation as the pillars of the oligarchical faction, before and after the Union. To swamp the opposition peers, the Earls of Antrim, Tyrone, and Hillsborough were made Marquises of Antrim, Waterford, and Downshire; the Viscounts Glenawley, Enniskillen, Erne, and Carysfort, were created Earls of Annesley, Enniskillen, Erne, and Carysfort. Then Judge Scott became Viscount Clonmel; then the Lordships of Loftus, Londonderry, Kilmaine, Cloncurry, Mountjoy, Glentworth, and Caledon, were founded for as many convenient Commoners, who either paid for their patents, in boroughs, or in hard cash. It was the very reign and carnival of corruption, over which presided the invulnerable Chancellor--a true "King of Misrule." In reference to this appalling spectacle, well might Grattan exclaim--"In a free country the path of public treachery leads to the block; but in a nation governed like a province, to the helm!" But the thunders of the orator fell, and were quenched in the wide spreading waters of corruption.
The Whig Club--an out-of-door auxiliary of the opposition --was a creation of this year. It numbered the chief signers of the "Round Robin," and gained many adherents. It exercised very considerable influence in the general election of 1790, and for the few following years, until it fell to pieces in the presence of the more ardent politics which preceded the storm of 1798.
Backed though he was by Mr. Pitt, both as his relative and principal, the Marquis of Buckingham was compelled to resign the government, and to steal away from Dublin, under cover of night, like an absconding debtor. The Chancellor and the Speaker--Fitzgibbon and Foster, Irishmen at least by birth and name--were sworn in as Justices, until the arrival of the Earl of Westmoreland, in the ensuing January.
The last two Viceroys of the decade thus closed, form a marked contrast worthy of particular portraiture. The Duke of Rutland, a dashing profligate, was sent over, it was thought, to ruin public liberty by undermining private virtue, a task in which he found a willing helpmate in his beautiful but dissipated Duchess. During his three years' reign were sown the seeds of that reckless private expenditure, and general corruption of manners, which drove so many bankrupt lords and gentlemen into the market overt, where Lord Castlereagh and Secretary Cooke, a dozen years later, priced the value of their parliamentary cattle. Lord Rutland died of dissipation at little over thirty, and was succeeded by the Marquis of Buckingham (formerly Lord Temple), the founder of the Irish Order of Chivalry, a person of the greatest pretensions, as a reformer of abuses and an enemy of government by corruption. Yet with all his affected superiority to the base arts of his predecessor, the Marquis's system was still more opposite to every idea of just government than the Duke's. The one outraged public morals, the other pensioned and ennobled the betrayers of public trusts; the one naturalized the gaming-table and the keeping of mistresses as customs of Irish society; the other sold or allowed the highest offices and honours of the state--from a weighership in the butter market to an earl's coronet--to be put up at auction, and knocked down to the highest bidder. How cheering in contrast with the shameful honours, flaunted abroad in those shameful days, are even the negative virtues of the Whig patricians, and how splendid the heroic constancy of Charlemont, Grattan, Curran, and their devoted minority of honest legislators!
With Lord Westmoreland was associated, as Chief Secretary, Mr. Hobart, formerly in the army, a man of gay, convivial habits, very accomplished, and, politically, very unprincipled. These gentlemen, both favourites of Pitt, adopted the counsellors, and continued the policy of the late Viceroy. In pursuance of this policy, a dissolution took place, and the general election of 1790 was ordered. We have already exhibited the influences which controlled the choice of members of the House of Commons. Of the one hundred and five great proprietors, who owned two-thirds of the seats, perhaps a fourth might be found in the ranks of the Whig club. The only other hope for the national party was in the boroughs, which possessed a class of freemen, engaged in trade, too numerous to be bought, or too public spirited to be dictated to. Both influences combined might hope to return a powerful minority, and, on this occasion (1790) they certainly did so. Grattan and Lord Henry Fitzgerald were elected for Dublin, over the Lord Mayor and one of the Aldermen, backed by the whole power of the Castle; Curran, Ponsonby, Brownlow, Forbes, and nearly all "the victims of their vote" were re-elected. To these old familiar names were now added others destined to equal, if not still wider fame--Arthur Wellesley, member for Trim; Arthur O'Conor, member for Phillipstown; Jonah Barrington, member for Tuam; and Robert Stewart, one of the members for the County Down, then only in his twenty-second year, and, next to Lord Edward Fitzgerald, lately elected for Athy, the most extreme reformer among the new members. Arthur O'Conor, on the other hand, commenced his career with the Court by moving the address in answer to the speech from the throne!
The new Parliament, which met in July, 1790, unanimously re-elected Mr. Foster, Speaker; passed a very loyal address, and, after a fortnight's sitting, was prorogued till the following January. The session of '91 was marked by no event of importance, the highest opposition vote seems to have been from 80 to 90, and the ministerial majority never less than 50. The sale of Peerages, the East India trade, the Responsibility (for money warrants) Bill, the Barren Lands Bill, and the Pension Bill, were the chief topics. A committee to inquire into the best means of encouraging breweries, and discouraging the use of spirituous liquors, was also granted, and some curious facts elicited. Nothing memorable was done, but much that was memorable was said--for the great orator had still a free press, and a home audience to instruct and elevate. The truth is, the barrenness of these two sessions was due to the general prosperity of the country, more even than to the dexterous management of Major Hobart and the Cabinet balls of Lord Westmoreland. There was, moreover, hanging over the minds of men the electric pressure of the wonderful events with which France shook the Continent, and made the Islands tremble. There was hasty hope, or idle exultation, or pious fear, or panic terror, in the hearts of the leading spectators of that awful drama, according to the prejudices or principles they maintained. Over all the three kingdoms there was a preternatural calm, resembling that physical stillness which in other latitude precedes the eruption of volcanoes.