Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Ireland and Catholicism
By Robert Southey (17741843)
From Collected Essays
NEVER was there a land in a state so disgraceful to its rulers, and its wealthy inhabitants. Never in any part of the world, or in any period of history, have four millions of men existed in circumstances so fearful and so humiliating to human nature. Having for seven centuries been subject to England, being now united to it, and lying almost within sight of it of a country where the arts and comforts of civilisation are carried to a higher pitch than they ever attained elsewhere, the great mass of the Irish people are at this moment, in their bodily condition, worse than slaves, and in their moral condition, worse than savages. Pestilence, perpetual warfare, bloody superstitions, and the difficulty of procuring food, keep down the number of men in other countries wherever they approach to the state of wild beasts. Government, and their geographical position, preserve the Irish from three of these evils; and against the fourth they are secured by the use of a root, of all others the most productive, and the most easily cultivated; and in this state of degradation they are enabled to increase and multiply, so as to be truly styled the great and growing majority. Meantime their whole education is confined to the mere forms and vulgarest fables of their false faith, the very dregs and fæces of the most corrupt Catholicism. They have no other intercourse with those who should, by their presence, and influence, and labours of love, be gradually improving and humanising them, than what is just sufficient to excite in them all rancorous and mutinous feelings; and the knowledge which they possess serves only to supply the means, and increase the power, of mischief. They are gifted with a quickness of feeling, and with all the elements of genius, perhaps in a degree above all other people; and yet these very endowments, which, if well cultivated, might produce such infinite blessings, serve only in their present miserable condition, to render them more sensible of wrong, more tenacious of resentment, and more eager for revenge.
For these people Catholic Emancipation can do nothing, a Catholic establishment might do much; but, though it would remove much misery, it would perpetuate so much evil, that it is no more to be thought of than Harringtons extraordinary proposal of selling Ireland to the Jews. This, however, is the ultimate object of those people who have any object at all, and this would readily be conceded by the majority of their advocates; a number, happily so inconsiderable, that there is no reason to be alarmed at their disposition. No opinion has been more loudly and insolently maintained by men who disguise their irreligion under the name of liberality, than that nations are to be suffered to enjoy their superstitions, however monstrous; that no attempt should be made to shake their faith and supplant it by a better; and that the established religion of every country ought to be that of the majority of its inhabitants. The ground of these political dogmas is a heartless and hopeless Pyrrhonism, and that desperate moral atheism, which, resolving all things into expediency, considers truth and falsehood as equally indifferent in themselves. Even upon their own grounds these reasoners might be confuted. For, were it admitted that truth is not to be attained, and that there is no resting-place for the heart and hopes of man, that which is false may still be proved to be so, the specific evils which originate in such falsehood can be demonstrated from history and experience, and it is our duty to prevent those consequences. Wherever the Roman Catholic superstition predominates, it offers only these alternatives. Unbelief, with scarce a decent covering of hypocrisy, and all the abominations of vice, as exhibited in Italy and France, among the higher ranks; or base, abject, degrading, destructive bigotry in all, as in Spain, Portugal, and the Catholic Low Countries. These are the effects which always have been, and always must be produced by a Roman Catholic establishment. Whatever good, therefore, might immediately be obtained by the complete restoration of Popery, would be more than counterbalanced by the subsequent evil.