5. Grattan’s Parliament
“Dynasties and thrones are not half so important as workshops, farms and factories. Rather we may say that dynasties and thrones, and even provisional governments, are good for anything exactly in proportion as they secure fair play, justice and freedom to those who labour.”
– John Mitchell, 1848
We now come to the period of the Volunteers. In this year, 1778, the people of Belfast, alarmed by rumours of intended descents of French privateers, sent to the Irish Secretary of State at Dublin Castle asking for a military force to protect their town. But the English Army had long been drafted off to the United States – then rebel American colonies of England – and Ireland was practically denuded of troops. Dublin Castle answered Belfast in the famous letter which stated that the only force available for the North would be “a troop or two of horse, or part of a company of invalids”.
On receipt of this news the people began arming themselves and publicly organising Volunteer corps throughout the country. In a short time Ireland possessed an army of some 80,000 citizen soldiers, equipped with all the appurtenances of war; drilled, organised, and in every way equal to any force at the command of a regular Government. All the expenses of the embodiment of this Volunteer army were paid by subscriptions of private individuals. As soon as the first alarm of foreign invasion had passed, the Volunteers turned their attention to home affairs and began formulating certain demands for reform – demands which the Government was not strong enough to resist. Eventually, after a few years" agitation on the Volunteer side, met by intrigue on the part of the Government, the ‘patriot’ party, led by Grattan and Flood, and supported by the moral (?) pressure of a Volunteer review outside the walls of the Parliament House, succeeded in obtaining from the legislature a temporary abandonment of the claim set up by the English Parliament to force laws upon the assembly at College Green. This and the concession of Free Trade (enabling Irish merchants to trade on equal terms with their English rivals ) inaugurated what is known in Irish History as Grattan's Parliament. At the present day our political agitators never tire of telling us with the most painful iteration that the period covered by Grattan’s Parliament was a period of unexampled prosperity for Ireland, and that, therefore, we may expect a renewal of this same happy state with a return of our ‘native legislature’ as they somewhat facetiously style that abortive product of political intrigue – Home Rule.
We might, if we choose, make a point against our political historians by pointing out that prosperity such as they speak of is purely capitalistic prosperity – that is to say, prosperity gauged merely by the volume of wealth produced, and entirely ignoring the manner in which the wealth is distributed amongst the workers who produce it. Thus in a previous chapter we quoted a manifesto issued by the Munster Peasantry in 1786 in which – four years after Grattan’s Parliament had been established – they called upon the legislature to help them, and resolved if such help was not forthcoming – and it was not forthcoming – to “resist our oppressors until they are glutted with our blood”, an expression which would seem to indicate that the ‘prosperity’ of Grattan’s Parliament had not penetrated far into Munster. In the year 1794 a pamphlet published at 7 Capel Street, Dublin, stated that the average wage of a day labourer in the County Meath reached only 6d. per day in Summer, and 4d. per day in Winter; and in the pages of the Dublin Journal, a ministerial organ, and the Dublin Evening Post, a supporter of Grattan’s Party, for the month of April, 1796, there is to be found an advertisement of a charity sermon to be preached in the Parish Chapel, Meath Street, Dublin, in which advertisement there occurs the statement that in three streets of the Parish of St. Catherine’s “no less than 2,000 souls had been found in a starving condition”. Evidently ‘prosperity’ had not much meaning to the people of St. Catherine’s.
But this is not the ground we mean at present to take up. We will rather admit, for the purpose of our argument, that the Home Rule capitalistic definition of ‘prosperity’ is the correct one, and that Ireland was prosperous under Grattan’s Parliament, but we must emphatically deny that such prosperity was in any but an infinitesimal degree produced by Parliament. Here again the Socialist philosophy of history provides the key to the problem – points to the economic development as the true solution. The sudden advance of trade in the period in question was almost solely due to the introduction of mechanical power, and the consequent cheapening of manufactured goods. It was the era of the Industrial Revolution when the domestic industries we had inherited from the Middle Ages were finally replaced by the factory system of modern times. The warping frame, invented by Arkwright in 1769; the spinning jenny, patented by Hargreaves in 1770; Crampton's mechanical mule, introduced in 1779; and the application in 1778 of the steam-engine to blast-furnaces, all combined to cheapen the cost of production, and so to lower the price of goods in the various industries affected. This brought into the field fresh hosts of customers, and so gave an immense impetus to trade in general in Great Britain as well as in Ireland. Between 1782 and 1804 the cotton trade more than trebled its total output; between 1783 and 1796 the linen trade increased nearly threefold; in the eight years between 1788 and 1796 the iron trade doubled in volume. The latter trade did not long survive this burst of prosperity. The invention of smelting by coal instead of wood in 1750, and the application of steam to blast-furnaces, already spoken of, placed the Irish manufacturer at an enormous disadvantage in dealing with his English rival, but in the halycon days of brisk trade – between 1780 and 1800. – this was not very acutely felt. But, when trade once more assumed its normal aspect of keen competition, Irish manufacturers, without a native coal supply, and almost entirely dependent on imported English coal, found it impossible to compete with their trade rivals in the sister country who, with abundant supplies of coal at their own door, found it very easy, before the days of railways, to undersell and ruin the unfortunate Irish. The same fate, and for the same reason, befell the other important Irish trades. The period marked politically by Grattan’s Parliament was a period of commercial inflation due to the introduction of mechanical improvements into the staple industries of the country. As long as such machinery was worked by hand, Ireland could hold her place on the markets, but with this application of steam to the service of industry, which began on a small scale in 1785, and the introduction of the power-loom, which first came into general use about 1813, the immense natural advantage of an indigenous coal supply finally settled the contest in favour of English manufacturers.
A native Parliament might have hindered the subsequent decay, as an alien Parliament may have hastened it; but in either case, under capitalistic conditions, the process itself was as inevitable as the economic evolution of which it was one of the most significant signs. How little Parliament had to do with it may be gauged by comparing the positions of Ireland and Scotland. In the year 1799, Mr. Foster in the Irish Parliament stated that the production of linen was twice as great in Ireland as in Scotland. The actual figures given were for the year 1796 – 23,000,000 yards for Scotland as against 46,705,319 for Ireland. This discrepancy in favour of Ireland he attributed to the native Parliament. But by the year 1830, according to McCulloch’s Commercial Dictionary, the one port of Dundee in Scotland exported more linen than all Ireland. Both countries had been deprived of self-government. Why had Scottish manufacture advanced whilst that of Ireland had decayed? Because Scotland possessed a native coal supply, and every facility for industrial pursuits which Ireland lacked.
The ‘prosperity’ of Ireland under Grattan’s Parliament was almost as little due to that Parliament as the dust caused by the revolutions of the coach-wheel was due to the presence of the fly who, sitting on the coach, viewed the dust, and fancied himself the author thereof. And, therefore, true prosperity cannot be brought to Ireland except by measures somewhat more drastic than that Parliament ever imagined.