"At length, Mr Burke's invective [Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790] appeared; and this in due season produced Paine's reply, which he called The Rights of Man. This controversy, and the gigantic event which gave rise to it, changed, in an instant, the politics of Ireland."Edmund Burke, who opposed the ancien regime in America but supported it in Ireland, published his pamphlet 'Reflections on the Revolution in France' on November 1 1790. Thomas Paine replied with 'The Rights of Man', published on 13 March 1791. Edmund Burke wrote in a November 17 1796 letter to John Keogh:
"I can not conceive that a man can be a genuine Englishman without being a true Irishman… I think the same sentiments ought to be reciprocal on the part of Ireland, and, if possible, with much stronger reason."He wrote elsewhere:
"The closest connection between Great Britain and Ireland is essential to the well-being, I had almost said to the very being of the two kingdoms."Burke added:
"By separation Ireland would be the most completely undone country in the world, the most wretched, the most distracted and the most desolate part of the inhabitable globe."Conor Cruise O'Brien described Edmund Burke's letter of December 9 1796 to Reverend Thomas Hussey, as "Burke's political testament with regard to Ireland". Read the letter in full to Reverend Thomas Hussey, president of the Catholic seminary of Maynooth, here:
"This morning I received your letter of the 30th of November from Maynooth. I dictate my answer from my couch, on which I am obliged to lie for a good part of the day. I cannot conceal from you, much less can I conceal from myself, that in all probability I am not long for this world. Indeed, things are in such a situation, independently of the domestic wound, that I never could have less reason for regret in quitting the world than at this moment; and my end will be, by several, as little regretted.
I have no difficulty at all in communicating to you, or, if it were any use, to mankind at large, my sentiments and feelings. on the dismal state of things in Ireland; but I find it difficult indeed to give you the advice you are pleased to ask, as to your own conduct in your very critical situation.
You state, what has long been but too obvious, that it seems the unfortunate policy of the hour to put to the far largest portion of the king's subjects in Ireland the desperate alternative between a thankless acquiescence under grievous oppression, or a refuge in Jacobinism, with all its horrors and all its crimes. You prefer the former dismal part of the choice. There is no doubt but that you would have reason, if the election of one of these evils was at all a security against the other. But they are things very alliable, and as closely connected as cause and effect. That Jacobinism which is speculative in its origin, and which arises from wantonness and fulness of bread, may possibly be kept under by firmness and prudence. The very levity of character which produces it may extinguish it. But Jacobinism, which arises from penury and irritation, from scorned loyalty and rejected allegiance, has much deeper roots. They take their nourishment from the bottom of human nature, and the unalterable constitution of things, and not from humour and caprice, or the opinions of the day about privileges and liberties. These roots will be shot into the depths of hell, and will at last raise up their proud tops to heaven itself. This radical evil may baffle the attempts of heads much wiser than those are, who, in the petulance and riot of their drunken power, are neither ashamed nor afraid to insult and provoke those whom it is their duty, and ought to be their glory, to cherish and protect.
So then, the little wise men of the west, with every hazard of this evil, are resolved to persevere in the manly and well-timed resolution of a war against Popery. In the principle, and in all the proceedings, it is perfectly suited to their character. They begin this last series of their offensive operations by laying traps for the con-sciences of poor foot-soldiers. They call these wretches to their church (empty of a volunteer congregation), not by the bell, but by the whip. This ecclesiastic military discipline is happily taken up, in order to form an army of well-scourged Papists into a firm phalanx for the support of the Protestant religion. I wish them joy of this their valuable discovery in theology, politics, and the art military. Fashion governs the world, and it is the fashion in the great French empire of pure and perfect Protestantism, as well as in the little busy meddling province of servile imitators, that apes at a humble dis- tance the tone of its capital, to make a crusade against you poor Catholics. But whatever may be thought in Ireland of its share of a war against the Pope in that out-lying part of Europe, the zealous Protestant, Bonaparte, has given his late Holiness far more deadly blows, in the centre of his own power, and in the nearest seats of his influence, than the Irish Directory can arrogate to itself within its own jurisdiction, from the utmost efforts of its political and military skill. I have my doubts (they may perhaps arise from my ignorance) whether the glories of the night expeditions, in surprising the cabin fortresses in Louth and Meath, or whether the slaughter and expulsion of the Catholic weavers by another set of zealots in Armagh, or even the proud trophies of the late potato field in that county, are quite to be compared with the Protestant victories on the plains of Lombardy, or to the possession of the flat of Bologna, or to the approaching sack of Rome, where, even now, the Protestant commissaries give the law. In all this business Great Britain, to us merely secular politicians, makes no great figure; but let the glory of Great Britain shift for itself as it may. All is well, provided Popery is crushed.
This war against Popery furnishes me with a clue that leads me out of a maze of perplexed politics, which, without it, I could not in the least understand. I now can account for the whole. Lord Malmesbury is sent to prostrate the dignity of the English monarchy at Paris, that an Irish, Popish common soldier may be whipt in, to give an appearance of habitation, to a deserted Protestant Church in Ireland. Thus we balance the account - defeat and dishonour abroad; oppression at home. We sneak to the regicides, but we boldly trample on our poor fellow-citizens. But all is for the Protestant cause.
The same ruling principle explains the rest. We have abdicated the crown of Corsica, which had been newly soldered to the crown of Great Britain and to the crown of Ireland, lest the British diadem should look too like the Pope's triple crown. We have run away from the people of Corsica, and abandoned them without capitulation of any kind in favour of those of them who might be our friends; but then it was for their having capitulated with us for Popery, as a part of their constitution. We made amends for our sins by our repentance, and for our apostasy from Protestantism by a breach of faith with Popery. We have fled, overspread with dirt and ashes, but with hardly enough of sackcloth to cover our nakedness. We recollected that this island (together with its yews and its other salubrious productions) had given birth to the illustrious champion of the Protestant world, Bonaparte. It was therefore not fit (to use the favourite French expression) that the cradle of this religious hero should be polluted by the feet of the British renegade slaves who had stipulated to support Popery in that island, whilst his friends and fellow-missionaries are so gloriously employed in extirpating it in another. Our policy is growing every day into more and more consistency. We have showed our broad back to the Mediterranean; we have abandoned, too, the very hope of an alliance in Italy; we have relinquished the Levant to the Jacobins; we have considered our trade as nothing; our policy and our honour went along with it. But all these objects were well sacrificed to remove the very suspicion of giving any assistance to that abomination the Pope, in his insolent attempts to resist a truly Protestant power resolved to humble the Papal tiara, and to prevent his pardons and dispensations from being any longer the standing terror of the wise and virtuous Directory of Ireland; who cannot sit down with any tolerable comfort to an innocent little job, whilst his bulls are thundering through the world. I ought to suppose that the arrival of General Hoche is eagerly expected in Ireland; for he, too, is a most zealous Protestant, and he has given proof of it, by the studied cruelties and insults by which he put to death the old Bishop of Dol whom (but from the mortal fear I am in lest the suspicion of Popery should attach upon me) I should call a glorious martyr, and should class him amongst the most venerable prelates that have appeared in this century. It is to be feared, however, that the zealots will be disappointed in their pious hopes by the season of the year and the bad condition of the Jacobin navy, which may keep him this winter from giving his brother Protestants his kind assistance in accomplishing with you what the other friend of the cause, Bonaparte, is doing in Italy; and what the masters of these two pious men, the Protestant Directory of France, have so thoroughly accomplished in that, the most Popish, but unluckily, whilst Popish, the most cultivated, the most populous, and the most flourishing of all countries - the Austrian Netherlands.
When I consider the narrowness of the views, and the total want of human wisdom displayed in our western crusade against Popery, it is impossible to speak of it but with every mark of contempt and scorn. Yet one cannot help shuddering with horror when one contemplates the terrible consequences that are frequently the results of craft united with folly placed in an unnatural elevation. Such ever will be the issue of things when the mean vices attempt to mimic the grand passions. Great men will never do great mischief but for some great end. For this, they must be in a state of inflammation, and, in a manner, out of themselves. Among the nobler animals, whose blood is hot, the bite is never poisonous, except when the creature is mad; but in the cold-blooded reptile race, whose poison is exalted by the chemistry of their icy complexion, their venom is the result of their health, and of the perfection of their nature. Woe to the country in which such snakes, whose primum mobile is their belly, obtain wings, and from serpents become dragons. It is not that these people want natural talents, and even a good cultivation; on the contrary, they are the sharpest and most sagacious of mankind in the things to which they apply. But, having wasted their faculties upon base and unworthy objects, in anything of a higher order they are far below the common rate of two-legged animals.
I have nothing more to say just now upon the Directory in Ireland, which, indeed, is alone worth any mention at all. As to the half-dozen (or half-score as it may be) of gentlemen, who, under various names of authority, are sent from hence to be the subordinate agents of that low order of beings, I consider them as wholly out of the question. Their virtues or their vices, their ability or their weakness, are matters of no sort of consideration. You feel the thing very rightly. All the evils of Ireland originate within itself. That unwise body, the United Irishmen, have had the folly to represent those evils as owing to this country, when, in truth, its chief guilt is in its total neglect, its utter oblivion, its shameful indifference, and its entire ignorance of Ireland, and of everything that relates to it, and not in any oppressive disposition towards that unknown region.
No such disposition exists. English Government has farmed out Ireland, without the reservation of a pepper-corn rent in power or influence, public or individual, to the little narrow faction that domineers there. Through that alone they see, feel, hear, or understand, anything relative to that kingdom. Nor do they any way interfere, that I know of, except in giving their countenance, and the sanction of their names, to whatever is done by that junto.
Ireland has derived some advantage from its independence on the Parliament of this kingdom, or rather, it did derive advantage from the arrangements that were made at the time of the establishment of that independence. But human blessings are mixed, and I cannot but think that even, these great blessings were bought dearly enough when, along with the weight of the authority, they have totally lost all benefit from the superintendence of the British Parliament. Our pride of England is succeeded by fear. It is little less than a breach of order even to mention Ireland in the House of Commons of Great Britain. If the people of Ireland were to be flayed alive by the predominant faction, it would be the most critical of all attempts, so much as to discuss the subject in any public assembly upon this side of the water. If such a faction should hereafter happen, by its folly or its iniquity, or both, to. promote disturbances in Ireland, the force paid by this kingdom (supposing our own insufficient) would infallibly be employed to redress them. This would be right enough, and indeed our duty, if our public councils at the same time possessed and employed the means of inquiring into the merits of that cause, in which their blood and treasure were to be laid out. By a strange inversion of the order of things, not only the largest part of the natives of Ireland are thus annihilated, but the Parliament of Great Britain itself is rendered no better than an instrument in the hands of an Irish faction. This is ascendency with a witness! In what all this will end it is not impossible to conjecture, though the exact time of the accomplishment cannot be fixed with the same certainty as you may calculate an eclipse.
As to your particular conduct, it has undoubtedly been that of a good and faithful subject, and of a man of integrity and honour. You went to Ireland this last time, as you did the first time, at the express desire of the English minister of that department, and at the request of the Lord-lieutenant himself. You were fully aware of the difficulties that would attend your mission; and I was equally sensible of them. Yet you consented, and I advised, that you should obey the voice of what we considered an indispensable duty. We regarded, as the great evil of the time, the growth of Jacobinism, and we were very well assured that, from a variety of causes, no part of these countries was more favourable to the growth and progress of that evil than our unfortunate country. I considered it as a tolerably good omen that Government would do nothing further to foment and promote the Jacobin malady that they called upon you, a strenuous and steady Royalist, an enlightened and exemplary clergyman, a man of birth and respectable connexions in the country, a man well-informed and conversant in State affairs, and in the general politics of the several courts of Europe, and intimately and personally habituated in some of those courts. I regretted indeed that the ministry had declined to make any sort of use of the reiterated informations you had given them of the designs of their enemies, and had taken no notice of the noble and disinterested offers which, through me, were made for employing you to save Italy and Spain to the British alliance. But this being past, and Spain and Italy lost, I was in hopes that they were resolved to put themselves in the right at home, by calling upon you; that they would leave, on their part, no cause or pretext for Jacobinism, except in the seditious disposition of individuals; but I now see that, instead of profiting by your advice and services, they will not so much as take the least notice of your written representations, or permit you to have access to them, on the part of those whom it was your business to reconcile to Government as well as to conciliate Government towards them. Having rejected your services as a friend of Government, and in some sort in its employment, they will not even permit to you the natural expression of those sentiments which every man of sense and honesty must feel, and which every plain and sincere man must speak, upon this vile plan of abusing military discipline, and perverting it into an instrument of religious persecution. You remember with what indignation I heard of the scourging of the soldier at Carrick for adhering to his religious opinions. It was at the time when Lord Fitzwilliam went to take possession of a short-lived Government in Ireland.
He could not live long in power, because he was a true patriot, a true friend of both countries, a steady resister of Jacobinism in every part of the world. On this occasion he was not of my opinion. He thought, indeed, that the sufferer ought to be relieved and discharged, and I think he was so; but, as to punishment to be inflicted on the offenders, he thought more lenient measures, comprehended in a general plan to prevent such evils in future, would be the better course. My judgment, such as it was, had been that punishment ought to attach, so far as the laws permitted, upon every evil action of subordinate power, as it arose. That such acts ought at least to be marked with the displeasure of Government, because general remedies are uncertain in their operation when obtained; but that it is a matter of general uncertainty whether they can be obtained at all. For a time his appeared to be the better opinion. Even after he was cruelly torn from the embraces of the people of Ireland, when the militia and other troops were encamped (if I recollect right) at Loughlinstown, you yourself, with the knowledge and acquiescence of Government, publicly performed your function to the Catholics then in service. I believe, too, that all the Irish, who had composed the foreign corps taken into British pay, had their regular chaplains. But we see that things are returning fast to their old corrupted channels. There they will continue to flow.
If any material evil had been stated to have arisen from this liberty, that is, if sedition, mutiny, disobedience of any kind to command, had been taught in their chapels, there might have been a reason for not only forcing the soldiers into churches where better doctrines were taught, but for punishing the teachers of disobedience and sedition. But I have never heard of any such complaint. It is a part, therefore, of the systematic ill- treatment of Catholics. This system never will be abandoned, as long as it brings advantage to those who adopt it. If the country enjoys a momentary quiet, it is pleaded as an argument in favour of the good effect of wholesome rigours. If| on the contrary, the country grows more discontented, and if riots and disorders multiply, new arguments are furnished for giving a vigorous support to the authority of the Directory, on account of the rebellious disposition of the people. So long, therefore, as disorders in the country become pretexts for adding to the power and emolument of a junto, means will be found to keep one part of it, or other, in a perpetual state of confusion and disorder. This is the old traditionary policy of that sort of men. The discon- tents which, under them, break out amongst the people, become the tenure by which they hold their situation.
I do not deny that in these contests the people, how- ever oppressed, are frequently much to blame; whether provoked to their excesses or not, undoubtedly the law ought to look to nothing but the offence, and punish it. The redress of grievances is not less necessary than the punishment of disorders, but it is of another resort, in punishing, however, the law ought to be the only rule. If it is not of sufficient force; a force consistent with its general principles ought to be added to it. The first duty of a State is to provide for its own conservation. Until that point is secured it can preserve and protect nothing else. But, if possible, it has greater interest in acting according to strict law than even the subject himself. For, if the people see that the law is violated to crush them, they will certainly despise the law. They, or their party, will be easily led to violate it, whenever they can, by all the means in their power. Except in cases of direct war, whenever Government abandons law it proclaims anarchy. I am well aware (if I cared one farthing, for the few days I have to live, whether the vain breath of men blow hot or cold about me) that they who censure any oppressive proceeding of Government are exciting the people to sedition and revolt. If there be any oppression, it is very true, or if there be nothing more than the lapses which will happen to human infirmity at all times, and in the exercise of all power, such complaints would be wicked indeed. These lapses are exceptions implied, an allow- ance for which is a part of the understood covenant by which power is delegated by fallible men to other men that are not infallible; but, whenever a hostile spirit on the part of Government is shown, the question assumes another form. This is no casual error, no lapse, no sudden surprise; nor is it a question of civil or political liberty. What contemptible stuff it is to say that a man who is lashed to church against his conscience would not discover that the whip is painful, or that he had a conscience to be violated, unless I told him so I ^ Would not a penitent offender, confessing his offence and expiating it by his blood, when denied the consolation of religion at his last moments, feel it cus no injuty to himself; or that the rest of the world would feel so honible and impious an oppression with no indignation, unless I happened to say it ought to be reckoned amongst the most barbarous acts of our barbarous times? Would the people consider the being taken out of their beds, and transported from their fEunily and friends, to be an equitable, and legal, and ch^table pro- ceeding, unless I should say that it was a violation of justice and a dissolution, pro tanto, of the very compact of human society? If a House of Parliament, whose essence it is to be the guardian of the laws, and a spDr pathetic protector of the rights of the people, and eminently so of the most defenceless, should not only countenance but applaud this very violation of all law, and refuse even to examine into the grounds of the necessity upon the allegation of which the law was so violated, would this be taken for a tender solicitude for the welfare of the poor, and a true proof of the representative capacity of the House of Commons, unless I should happen to say (what I do say) that the House had not done its duty, either in preserving the sacred rules of law, or in justifying the woefid and humiliating privilege of necessity? They may indemnify and reward others. They might contrive, if I was within their grasp, to punish me, or, if they thought it worth their while, to stigmatise me by their censures; but who will indemnify them for the disgrace of such an act? Who will save them from the censures of posterity? What act of oblivion viU cover them from the wakeful memory, from the notices and issues of the grand remembrancer - the God within? Would it pass with the people who suffer from the abuse of lawful power, when at the same time they suffer from the use of law- less violence of factions amongst themselves, that Govern- ment had done its duty, and acted leniently in not animadverting on one of those acts of violence, if I did not tell them that the lenity with which Government passes by the crimes and oppressions of a favourite faction was itself an act of the most atrocious cruelty? If a Parliament should hear a declamation attributing the sufferings of those who are destroyed by these riotous proceedings to their misconduct, and then to make them self-felonious, and should in effect refuse an inquiry into the fact, is no inference to be drawn from thence, unless I tell men in high places that these proceedings, taken together, form not only an encouragement to the abuse of power, but to riot, sedition, and a rebellious spirit, which, sooner or later, will turn upon those, that encourage it?
I say little of the business of the potato field, because I am not acquainted with the particulars. If any persons were found in arms against the king, whether in a field of potatoes, or of flax, or of turnips, they ought to be attacked by a military power, and brought to condign punishment by course of law. If the county in which the rebellion was raised was not in a temper fit for the execution of justice, a law ought to be made, such as was made with regard to Scotland, in the suppression of the Rebellion of ‘45, to try the delinquents. There would be no difficulty in convicting men who were found "flagrante delicto". But I hear nothing of all this. No law, no trial, no punishment commensurate to rebellion, nor of a known proportion to any lesser delinquency, nor any discrimination of the more or the less guilty. Shall you and l. find fault with the proceedings of France, and be totally indifferent to the proceedings of Directories at home? You and I hate Jacobinism as we hate the gates of hell. Why? Because it is a system of oppression. What can make us in love with oppression because the syllables " Jacobin" are not put before the "ism" when the very same things are done under the *'ism" preceded by any other name in the Directory of Ireland?
I have told you, at a great length for a letter - very shortly for the subject and for my feelings on it - my sentiments of the scene in which you have been called to act. On being consulted, you advised the sufierers to quiet and submission; and, giving Government full credit for an attention to its duties, you held out, as an inducement to that submission, some sort of hope of redress. You tried what your reasons and your credit would do to effect it. In consequence of this piece of service to Government you have been excluded from all communication with the Castle; and perhaps you may thank yourself that you are not in Newgate. You have done a little more than, in your circumstances, I should have done. You are, indeed, very excusable from your motives; but it is very dangerous to hold out to an irritated people any hopes that we are not pretty sure of being able to realise. The doctrine of passive obedience, as a doctrine, it is unquestionably right to teach, but to go beyond that is a sort of deceit; and the people who are provoked by their oppressors do not readily forgive their friends, if, whilst the first persecute, the other appear to deceive them. These friends lose all power of being serviceable to that Government in whose favour they have taken an ill-considered step; therefore, my opinion is that, until the Castle shall show a greater disposition to listen to its true friends than hitherto it has done, it would not be right in you any further to obtrude your services. In the meantime, upon any new application from the Catholics, you ought to let them know, simply and candidly, how you stand.
The Duke of Portland sent you to Ireland, from a situation in this country of advantage and comfort to yourself, and no small utility to others. You explained to him, in the clearest manner, the conduct you were resolved to hold. I do not know that your writing to him will be of the smallest advantage. I rather think not; yet I am far from sure that you do not owe to him and yourself to represent to his Grace the matters which in substance you have stated to me.
If anything else should occur to me, I shall, as you ask it, communicate my thoughts to you. In the meantime, I shall be happy to hear from you as often as you find it convenient. You never can neglect the great object of which you are so justly fond; and let me beg of you not to let slip out of your mind the idea of the auxiliary studies and acquirements which I recommended to you, to add to the merely professional pursuits of your young clergy; and, above all, I hope that you will use the whole of your influence among the Catholics to persuade them to a greater indifference about the political objects which at present they have in view. It is not but that I am aware of their importance, or that I wish them to be abandoned; but that they would follow opportunities, and not attempt to force anything. I doubt whether the privileges they now seek, or have lately sought, are compassable. The struggle would, I am afraid, only lead to those very disorders which are made pretexts for further oppression of the oppressed. I wish the leading people amongst them would give the most systematic attention to prevent frequent conmmnication with their adversaries. There are a part of them proud, insulting, capricious, and tyrannical. These, of course, will keep at a distance. There are others of a seditious temper, who would make them at first the instruments, and in the end the victims, of their factious temper and purposes. Those that steer a middle course are truly respectable, but they are very few. Your friends ought to avoid all imitation of the vices of their proud lords. To many of these they are themselves sufficiently disposed. I should therefore recommend to the middle ranks of that description - in which I include not only all merchants, but all farmers and tradesmen - that they would change as much as possible those expensive modes of living, and that dissipation, to which our countrymen in general are so much addicted. It does not at all become men in a state of persecution. They ought to conform themselves to the circumstances of a people whom Government is resolved not to consider as upon a par with their fellow-subjects. Favour, they will have none. They must aim at other resources; and to make themselves independent in fact, before they aim at a nominal independence. Depend upon it, that, with half the privileges of the others, joined to a different system of manners, they would grow to a degree of importance, to which, without it, no privileges could raise them, much less any intrigues or factious practices. I know very well that such a discipline, among so numerous a people, is not easily introduced, but I am sure it is not impossible. If I had youth and strength, I would go myself over to Ireland to work on that plan; so certain I am that the well-being of all descriptions in the kingdom, as well as of themselves, depends upon a reformation amongst the Catholics. The work will be new, and slow in its operation, but it is certain in its effect. There is nothing which will not yield to perseverance and method. Adieu! my dear sir. You have fiill liberty to show this letter to all those (and they are but very few) who may be disposed to think well of my opinions. I did not care, so far as regards myself, whether it were read on the ‘Change; but with regard to you, more reserve may be proper; but of that you will be the best judge."