Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 6. Writings on Ireland

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

I. Edmund Burke

§ 6. Writings on Ireland

Ireland, indeed, though perhaps closer to Burke’s heart than any other country, fills a comparatively small part of his collected works, though, to a student of his mind and thought, not the least interesting part. He had studied Irish history, and knew from what a tissue of falsehoods the prevalent English view of the rebellion in 1641 and other episodes in that history was woven. He knew the working of the penal laws from within, and for the ancient church whose worship and creed were barred and penalised he had an understanding and sincere respect. None of his writings is less touched with the faults of Burke’s great qualities, occasional rhetorical parade, an extravagant sensibility, a tendency to factious exaggeration, than are the letters To a Peer of Ireland on the Penal Laws (1782), To Sir Hercules Langrishe (1792), and to others which Matthew Arnold collected and republished in 1881, including, with these, the Speech at the Guildhall, in Bristol (1780), when Burke closed his connection with that great mercantile constituency. No better and more triumphant apologia was ever written. Burke had his back to the wall and, in the end, declined the election. But he was fighting, also, with the consciousness that what he foretold had come true. America was lost. England had sown the wind and was reaping the whirlwind. And part of that harvest was Ireland. The refusal to grant those concessions, for supporting which Burke forfeited the confidence of his constituents (despite Two Letters (1778) in defence of his vote), had resulted in a practical revolution in Ireland and “a universal surrender of all that had been thought the peculiar, reserved, uncommunicable rights of England.… We were taught wisdom by humiliation.” And from the same source had flowed the other cause of complaint in Bristol, the repeal of the penal laws. When Burke turns from the justice of the policy of repeal to vindicate its expedience, his argument is summarised in an aposiopesis, “Gentlemen, America—.” He does not spare his critics nor disguise the humiliation of England any the more that he approves of the measures of justice which that humiliation has exacted from an unwilling country. And he is equally fearless in his defence of his conduct as regards the defeated bill for the relief of debtors, and the amendment of the “gross and cruel facts in our law.” The only purple patch in the speech is the brief panegyric upon Howard, the reformer of prisons. Otherwise, the style is as simple and nervous as the prose of Swift, but fired with a nobler passion and illumined by a wider vision of general principles.