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From the Speech on the State of Ireland (1866)

By John Bright (1811–1889)

I THINK I was told in 1849, as I stood in the burial ground at Skibbereen, that at least four hundred people who had died of famine were buried within the quarter of an acre of ground on which I was then looking. It is a country, too, from which there has been a greater emigration by sea within a given time than has been known at any time from any other country in the world. It is a country where there has been, for generations past, a general sense of wrong, out of which has grown a chronic state of insurrection; and at this very moment when I speak, the general safeguard of constitutional liberty is withdrawn, and we meet in this hall, and I speak here to-night, rather by the forbearance and permission of the Irish executive than under the protection of the common safeguards of the rights and liberties of the people of the United Kingdom.

I venture to say that this is a miserable and a humiliating picture to draw of this country. Bear in mind that I am not speaking of Poland suffering under the conquest of Russia. There is a gentleman, now a candidate for an Irish county, who is very great upon the wrongs of Poland; but I have found him always in the House of Commons taking sides with that great party which has systematically supported the wrongs of Ireland. I am not speaking of Hungary, or of Venice as she was under the rule of Austria, or of the Greeks under the dominion of the Turk; but I am speaking of Ireland—part of the United Kingdom—part of that which boasts itself to be the most civilized and the most Christian nation in the world. I took the liberty recently, at a meeting in Glasgow, to say that I believed it was impossible for a class to govern a great nation wisely and justly. Now, in Ireland there has been a field in which all the principles of the Tory party have had their complete experiment and development. You have had the country gentleman in all his power. You have had any number of Acts of Parliament which the ancient Parliament of Ireland or the Parliament of the United Kingdom could give him. You have had the Established Church supported by the law, even to the extent, not many years ago, of collecting its revenues by the aid of military force. In point of fact, I believe it would be impossible to imagine a state of things in which the Tory party should have a more entire and complete opportunity for their trial than they have had within the limits of this island. And yet what has happened? This, surely: that the kingdom has been continually weakened, that the harmony of the empire has been disturbed, and that the mischief has not been confined to the United Kingdom, but has spread to the colonies….

I am told—you can answer it if I am wrong—that it is not common in Ireland now to give leases to tenants, especially to Catholic tenants. If that be so, then the security for the property rests only upon the good feeling and favor of the owner of the land; for the laws, as we know, have been made by the land-owners, and many propositions for the advantage of the tenants have unfortunately been too little considered by Parliament. The result is that you have bad farming, bad dwelling-houses, bad temper, and everything bad connected with the occupation and cultivation of land in Ireland. One of the results—a result the most appalling—is this, that your population is fleeing your country and seeking refuge in a distant land. On this point I wish to refer to a letter which I received a few days ago from a most esteemed citizen of Dublin. He told me that he believed that a very large portion of what he called the poor, amongst Irishmen, sympathized with any scheme or any proposition that was adverse to the Imperial Government. He said further that the people here are rather in the country than of it, and that they are looking more to America than they are looking to England. I think there is a good deal in that. When we consider how many Irishmen have found a refuge in America, I do not know how we can wonder at that statement. You will recollect that when the ancient Hebrew prophet prayed in his captivity, he prayed with his window open towards Jerusalem. You know that the followers of Mohammed, when they pray, turn their faces towards Mecca. When the Irish peasant asks for food and freedom and blessing, his eye follows the setting sun, the aspirations of his heart reach beyond the wide Atlantic, and in spirit he grasps hands with the great Republic of the West. If this be so, I say then that the disease is not only serious, but it is desperate; but desperate as it is, I believe there is a certain remedy for it if the people and Parliament of the United Kingdom are willing to apply it….

I believe that at the root of a general discontent there is in all countries a general grievance and general suffering. The surface of society is not incessantly disturbed without a cause. I recollect in the poem of the greatest of Italian poets, he tells us that as he saw in vision the Stygian lake, and stood upon its banks, he observed the constant commotion upon the surface of the pool, and his good instructor and guide explained to him the cause of it:—

  • “This, too, for certain know, that underneath
  • The water dwells a multitude, whose sighs
  • Into these bubbles make the surface heave,
  • As thine eye tells thee wheresoe’er it turn.”
  • And I say that in Ireland, for generations back, the misery and the wrongs of the people have made their sign, and have found a voice in constant insurrection and disorder. I have said that Ireland is a country of many wrongs and of many sorrows. Her past lies almost in shadow. Her present is full of anxiety and peril. Her future depends on the power of her people to substitute equality and justice for supremacy, and a generous patriotism for the spirit of faction. In the effort now making in Great Britain to create a free representation of the people you have the deepest interest. The people never wish to suffer, and they never wish to inflict injustice. They have no sympathy with the wrong-doer, whether in Great Britain or in Ireland; and when they are fairly represented in the Imperial Parliament, as I hope they will one day be, they will speedily give an effective and final answer to that old question of the Parliament of Kilkenny—“How comes it to pass that the King has never been the richer for Ireland?”