Ireland and the politics of bigotry – Part Two

William of Orange allied himself to two popes: Pope Innocent XI (1676/89) and Pope Alexander VIII (1689/91). These two Popes were more than happy to support William III in his fight against the Catholic James II, and he was equally happy to support them in their war against France’s Louis XIV. [part 1]

The Alliance between King Billy and the Pope

In fact part of the cost of William’s army and equipment was paid for by Pope Innocent XI under the treaty of Augsburg. And when William won his victory at the battle of the Boyne it was the Catholics all over Europe who celebrated: a Te Deum was sung in St Peter’s in Rome, in the Catholic capitals of Madrid and Brussels, and in the Catholic Cathedral of Vienna.

Indeed the whole of Catholic Europe, except France, rejoiced in William of Orange’s Boyne victory. For the struggle between King Billy and James II was not in reality a battle between Protestantism and Catholicism; only the mugs who slaughtered each other on the battlefield believed that. The Battle of the Boyne was part of the grand strategy of the papacy to defeat Louis XIV.

The fighting in Ireland was only another chapter in the struggle between Louis XIV and the Pope. The Catholic King James II took Louis’ side against the Pope and Louis provided him with 7,000 French soldiers to strengthen his army in Ireland. William of Orange took the Pope’s side and allied himself to the Catholic King of Spain, among others, in the fight to curtail France’s power. After the Boyne he continued to fight on the Pope’s side until the war against France ended with the Treaty of Ryswick. Yet to this very day the Orange Order promotes the myth that their great Protestant hero, King Billy, fought to “overthrow the Pope and popery at the Boyne”. Utter nonsense.

It gets worse: although the Presbyterians had been his most loyal supporters, William of Orange agreed to laws passed by England’s parliament under which the Presbyterians were persecuted. Under William’s rule both Catholics and Presbyterians were banned from practising their religions. The Anglican Church, to which Catholics and Presbyterians were forced to pay tithes, became the official and only Church permitted to worship legally in Ireland.

In 1704 the Test Act was introduced. Presbyterians were banned from holding office in Law, Army, Navy, Customs, Excise and Municipal Employment. This law was enforced all over Ireland. Presbyterian ministers were jailed for three months if caught preaching a sermon; they were not allowed to perform marriage sermons and were fined £100 (an enormous sum in those days) for celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

In 1713 another law was passed by which Presbyterian Schoolmasters could be imprisoned for teaching, and Presbyterians and Catholics were forbidden from marrying Anglicans or holding prayer meetings. These laws were approved by William of Orange. It is ironic to think that before the Battle of the Boyne James II had passed an act of parliament in Dublin granting freedom of religious worship to all, only to have the Protestant William of Orange replace it with legislation which oppressed both Catholics and Presbyterians alike.

Thus, the Presbyterians, who were the very backbone of William’s protestant support in Ireland, were stabbed in the back by their hero King Billy. Since his only real concern was to keep his backside firmly seated on the English throne, any loyalty due to his Presbyterian supporters was quickly forgotten. Religion, when all is said and done, is a very useful card in the political power game played by the ruling classes.

Absentee Landlords

The laws by which Ireland was now governed were formed to favour rich landlords and the (Anglican) Church of Ireland. In the first eighty years of the 18th century many of the richer land-owning Catholic families changed their religion to protect their land from confiscation, and many of the Catholic clergy did likewise in order to protect their positions.

6,000 rich landlords rented their estates to middlemen for a guaranteed annual sum. While these wealthy landowners moved to Dublin, London and Paris to live a life of luxury, their agents and middlemen squeezed the Irish tenant farmers for all they were worth. There was no security of tenure for the tenant farmer; if he had a lease then he would be forced each year to bid against others for the land he had rented, thus forcing the rents to increase far above what the land was worth.

If the tenant had no lease, his position was even worse. He and his family could be evicted without notice, on the whim of the landlord. Many tenant farmers were forced into the humiliating position of allowing their wives and daughters to be summoned to the landlord’s bed at his behest. Catholic, Presbyterian and Anglican landlords all behaved in the same shameful manner. And Catholic and Presbyterian tenant farmers suffered the same oppression.

Common suffering at the hands of their feudal landlords made many Irish Catholics and Protestants realise they had more in common with each other than they had with their religious leaders or the Crown. Angered by the humiliation and poverty inflicted on them, they began to unite. They operated ‘hedge schools’, where children were educated in isolated farmlands, behind hedges where they were hidden from view.

Then the agrarian uprisings began. Beginning in Munster, resistance groups called Whiteboys were formed. These consisted of both Catholics and Protestants, who extracted vengeance on landlords who evicted poor tenants. Similar groups, called Oakboys, consisting almost entirely of Protestants, were formed in Derry, Fermanagh and Armagh. The government and the landlords did everything to defeat these groups, but despite shootings and hangings, transportation and imprisonment, the resistance continued.

All this seething anger and resentment was bound to culminate in rebellion, and it did so at the end of the century.

The Orange Order

There were two significant developments in the last decade of the 18th century. One was the creation of the Orange Order; the other was the formation of The Society of United Irishmen. In 1784 there arose in Ulster an extreme Anglican Protestant organisation whose purpose was to drive Catholic tenant farmers out of the most fertile farmland in Ulster. The organisation was called The Peep of Day Boys because of the practise of raiding Catholic farmhouses at daybreak. Catholic farmers were warned to abandon their homes under threat of death.

In response the Catholics formed a group called The Defenders to beat off their attackers. The struggle continued sporadically for a few years until the Anglicans, always better armed than their adversaries, succeeded in their aim. To this day all the best farmland in Eastern Ulster is Protestant-owned, while the poorer, low-yielding hill-top farms are worked by Catholics. It should be emphasised that The Peep of Day Boys was an Anglican Organisation and evolving from this The Orange Order was formed in 1795.

It is commonly believed that the Orange Order was a type of farmer’s union for the protection of the poorer tenant farmers. This is a misconception. For several years no Presbyterians were allowed to join the Orange Order. That only changed when the ruling classes saw in it the very weapon they needed to divide and rule the Irish working class.

The Orange Order was set up originally by Anglicans, the Church of the landlords and aristocrats which oppressed both Catholics and Presbyterians. It was founded on ignoble principles to further the interests of the rich landlords and aristocrats and to keep the poor in their place. It became the bastion of big businessmen and rich merchants who later encouraged Presbyterians to join, fooling them into thinking it was in their own interests to do so.

It was also used as a counter measure to the Society of United Irishmen which was endeavouring to unite both Catholics and Protestants in a campaign for an independent republic of Ireland. In later years, when workers tried to fight for their rights to a better standard of living the Orange Order was used as an army of bully-boys to smash the unions. In 1912, British labour leader Ramsay MacDonald wrote:

“In Belfast you get labour conditions the like of which you get in no other town, no other city of equal commercial prosperity from John O’Groats to Lands End or from the Atlantic to the North Sea. It is maintained by an exceedingly simple device… whenever there is an attempt to root out sweating in Belfast the Orange big drum is beaten…”.

The United Irishmen

It was Abraham Lincoln who said: You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. There were many Irish Protestants who acknowledged that Irish Catholics had been unjustly persecuted for centuries and who believed that the best hope for all Irish people lay in forming an independent republic in which all were free to practise whatever religion they wished, or practise no religion at all.

Foremost among these was a young Irish Protestant lawyer from Dublin named Theobald Wolfe Tone. When Tone published An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland in 1791 he was invited to Belfast to discuss his views with the Liberals there. On October 14th they formed the Belfast Society of United Irishmen. The following month a Dublin branch was formed by James Napper Tandy.

These began as debating societies complaining about the Penal Code which oppressed both Catholics and Presbyterians, and the tariff restrictions which put Belfast businessmen at a disadvantage to their English competitors. Tone’s ultimate ambition was to establish a free and independent Ireland and he knew that he could not achieve this without the help of the working class, as we see from his famous utterance: “…we will free ourselves by the aid of that large and respectable class of the community – the men of no property.”

Inspired by Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man the movement became more revolutionary, working with similar movements in England and Scotland, and seeking help from France. The government got wind of what was going on and banned further meetings of the United Irishmen. Wolfe Tone was exiled to America from whence he sailed to France to continue his plans of rebellion, and sought aid from Napoleon.

An uprising was planned in 1798 but ended in disaster. It failed for several reasons. The Society had been infiltrated by informers who kept the Government fully aware of what was happening; owing to stormy weather the French help was too little and too late; many of the middle-class leaders of the rebellion were arrested on the eve of the rebellion; and some chickened out at the thought of the noose going around their necks.

As a result the rebellion was mostly leaderless and piecemeal in its actions and was doomed to defeat. It did have some success initially; in Wexford several Catholic priests fought bravely alongside the rebels with remarkable success, winning a few battles before they were surrounded and defeated at Vinegar Hill. Astonishingly, the Catholic bishops condemned the rebels for trying to overthrow the authorities. It was the view of the Catholic Church at that time that loyalty to Protestant England was the best strategy for increasing the influence of Catholicism in Ireland (England had already granted the Catholics their own seminary at Maynooth).

The ruling class in Ireland and England were horrified by the thought of Protestants and Catholics uniting together. The Anglican Archbishop of Armagh wrote: “The worst of this is that it stands to unite Protestant and Papist, and whenever that happens, goodbye to the English interest (rule) in Ireland forever.”

An example had to be made of The United Irishmen: Wolfe Tone was captured and sentenced to death, but he committed suicide rather than give his enemies the pleasure of hanging him; 30 Presbyterian clergymen were either hanged, imprisoned or exiled, homes were burned to the ground; men were hanged indiscriminately or flayed to death, and the sadistic practise of pitch-capping was used whereby a cloth bundle containing tar was fixed to the prisoner’s head and set alight so that the molten tar ran down his face and body. When no tar was available gunpowder was rubbed into the man’s hair, which was then set alight.

Most of this barbarity was perpetrated by the local militia and yeomanry, many of whom were Catholics, commanded by Protestant magistrates who were the toadies of the rich landowners. It is fair to say that the Scottish and English soldiers who were sent to restore order were appalled by what they saw. Glasgow-born General Sir John Moore, on witnessing this horrifying cruelty, commented “If I were an Irishman I would be a rebel too.”

In 1802 there was one last doomed attempt by the United Irishmen, led by 25-year-old Robert Emmet, to capture Dublin Castle and spark off a rebellion. The attempt failed and Emmet was sentenced to death. His speech at the trial has echoed down the generations as a rallying call to those of all nationalities who fight for their country’s freedom: “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and only then, let my epitaph be written.”

Thus ended the United Irishmen’s courageous attempt, carried out against all odds, to rid themselves of English imperial rule and create a better and more egalitarian country for Irish Catholics and Protestants alike. It must go down as one of the noblest and most praiseworthy chapters in the history of the Irish people.

Orange Propaganda

The English ruling classes were in a state of panic. They had just been kicked out of their American colonies, and now there was a revolution in France. The French peasantry and citizenry had overthrown their aristocratic masters and taken over the running of their own country. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the French army commanded by some little upstart general called Napoleon was knocking seven bells out of every other army on the continent of Europe. There was a very real danger that the revolution would spread to England and that would be game over for the English aristocracy. This outcome would be all the more likely if the Irish Catholics and Protestants were to successfully unite and kick the English out of Ireland. An independent Republic of Ireland would soon lead to the English workers declaring a Republic of England. It was absolutely vital for them to stop Ireland from gaining its independence.

The Act of Union, 1801, had already removed the Irish parliament from Dublin to London. The next step was to prevent the Irish Catholics and Protestants from ever uniting forces again by building an unbreakable barrier of bigotry between them. This was done by a combination of bribery and propaganda. First, the Presbyterian clergymen had to be persuaded to stop agitating for an independent Ireland. No problem – give them money! Each Presbyterian minister was given an annual allowance of £75, a lot of money in those days, on condition that he became a loyal Unionist. Soon the Presbyterian clergy were the staunchest advocates of the Unionist cause.

Next, the Belfast businessmen, hell-bent on independence, had to be placated. This was done by removing trade restrictions, tariffs and custom duties which had made it extremely difficult for Irish business to compete with England. When the Belfast businessmen started to get rich they too began to see that it was in their own interest to defend the Union.

It now remained to win over the Presbyterian working class to the Unionist cause. This was achieved by relentless, unceasing and blatantly false propaganda. Although the Society of United Irishmen was a Protestant concept, and mainly Protestant led, it was now being branded as a Catholic plot to gain dominance in Ireland. From every pulpit the Presbyterian clergy denounced the United Irishmen and all they stood for. They warned Protestants of the horrors that awaited them if they ever came under Catholic rule. Powerful preachers such as the reverends Thomas Drew and Hugh (roaring) Hannah terrified them with tales of the torture and agonising death by fire that was in store for them if the Catholics took over.

The reason why preachers like Drew and Hannah were so convincing is because they genuinely believed that what they were saying was true. They believed it because the dreaded Spanish Inquisition, although very much a spent force, was still in existence (it officially came to an end in 1834). In all the long history of man’s inhumanity to man there is no more horrifying chapter than that of The Holy Office of the Inquisition, to give it its official title; an almost five-hundred-year-long reign of terror from which no man or woman, not even the most rich and powerful, was safe. Torture, garrotting, burning at the stake or being buried alive was the inevitable fate of anyone who fell foul of the Inquisition. Not even corpses were immune. Dead bodies were often dug up, tried and burned.

It was only too easy to implant mental images of these horrors in the minds of the Protestant community in Ireland, so it is no surprise that when the Anglican Orange Order opened its membership to all non-Catholics the Presbyterian businessmen and workers joined up en masse. Thus was history turned upside-down. William of Orange, who had so treacherously betrayed the Presbyterians of Ulster and driven many thousands of them to emigrate to America because of persecution under his government, was now remembered as their hero and saviour from Catholic tyranny. The Ulster Presbyterians, once the most determined group fighting for separation from England, were now the most strident advocates of the Union. You’ve got to hand it to the British ruling classes; they are past masters when it comes to manipulating the hearts and minds of the people.

Part 3 >>