April 21 1812: Byron's Second Speech

On April 21, 1812, Lord Byron rose in the House of Lords to give a speech in favour of  the motion by Earl of Donoughmore debating the restrictions imposed on Roman Catholics in Great Britain. This was Byron' second speech in the House of Lords.  His speech is laced with literary allusions, biting criticism of the government, but it did not enhance his political career. The motion was defeated and Catholic Emancipation in Great Britain only came in 1829. Byron's speech [1] is reproduced below.
Lord BYRON rose and said :—

My Lords,—The question before the House has been so frequently, fully, and ably discussed,13 and never perhaps more ably than on this night, that it would be difficult to adduce new arguments for or against it. But with each discussion difficulties have been removed, objections have been canvassed and refuted, and some of the former opponents of Catholic Emancipation have at length conceded to the expediency of relieving the petitioners. In conceding thus much, however, a new objection is started; it is not the time, say they, or it is an improper time, or there is time enough yet. In some degree I concur with those who say it is not the time exactly; that time is past; better had it been for the country that the Catholics possessed at this moment their proportion of our privileges, that their nobles held their due weight in our councils, than that we should be assembled to discuss their claims. It had indeed been better—

“Non tempore tali Cogere concilium cum muros adsidet hostis.”1 [Virgil, Aeneid XI, 303-4: “It is not the time to hold a counsel, while the enemy is besieging our walls.”]

The enemy is without,15 and distress within. It is too late to cavil on doctrinal points, when we must unite in defence of things more important, than the mere ceremonies of religion. It is indeed singular, that we are called together to deliberate, not on the God we adore, for in that we are agreed; not about the King we obey, for to him we are loyal; but how far a difference in the ceremonials of worship, how far believing not too little, but too much (the worst that can be imputed to the Catholics), how far too much devotion to their God may incapacitate our fellow subjects from effectually serving their King.

Much has been said, within and without doors, of Church and State; and although those venerable words have been too often prostituted to the most despicable of party purposes, we cannot hear them too often: all, I presume, are the advocates of Church and State,— the Church of Christ, and the state of Great Britain; but not a state of exclusion and despotism; not an intolerant Church; not a Church militant, which renders itself liable to the very objection urged against the Romish communion, and in a greater degree, for the Catholic merely withholds its spiritual benediction (and even that is doubtful), but our Church, or rather our churchmen, not only refuse to the Catholic their spiritual grace, but all temporal blessings whatsoever. It was an observation of the great Lord Peterborough, made within these walls, or with the walls where the Lords then assembled, that he was for a “parliamentary king and a parliamentary constitution, but not a parliamentary God and a parliamentary religion.” The interval of a century has not weakened the force of the remark. It is indeed time that we should leave off these petty cavils on frivolous points, these Lillipution sophistries, whether our “eggs are best broken at the broad or narrow end.”

The opponents of the Catholics may be divided into two classes; those who assert that the Catholics have too much already, and those who allege that the lower orders, at least, have nothing more to require. We are told by the former, that the Catholics never will be contented: by the latter, that they are already too happy. The last paradox is sufficiently refuted by the present as by all past Petitions: it might as well be said, that the Negroes did not desire to be emancipated; but this is an unfortunate comparison, for you have already delivered them out of the house of bondage without any Petition on their part, but many from their task-masters to a contrary effect; and for myself, when I consider this, I pity the Catholic peasantry for not having the good fortune to be born black. But the Catholics are contented, or at least ought to be, as we are told; I shall, therefore, proceed to touch on a few of those circumstances which so marvellously contribute to their exceeding contentment. They are not allowed the free exercise of their religion in the regular army; the Catholic soldier cannot absent himself from the service of the Protestant clergyman; and unless he is quartered in Ireland, or in Spain, where can he find eligible opportunities of attending his own? The permission of Catholic chaplains to the Irish militia regiments was conceded as a special favour, and not till after years of remonstrance, although an Act, passed in 1793, established it as a right. But are the Catholics properly protected in Ireland? Can the Church purchase a rood of land whereon to erect a chapel? No! all the places of worship are built on leases of trust of sufferance from the laity, easily broken, and often betrayed. The moment any irregular wish, and casual caprice of the benevolent landlord meets with opposition, the doors are barred against the congregation. This has happened continually, but in no instance more glaringly than at the town of Newton Barry, in the county of Wexford. The Catholics enjoying no regular chapel, as a temporary expedient hired two barns; which, being thrown into one, served for public worship. At this time, there was quartered opposite to the spot an officer whose mind appears to have been deeply imbued with those prejudices which the Protestant Petitions now on the table prove to have been fortunately eradicated from the more rational portion of the people; and when the Catholics were assembled on the Sabbath as usual, in peace and good-will towards men, for the worship of their God and yours, they found the chapel door closed, and were told that if they did not immediately retire (and they were told this by a Yeoman officer and a magistrate), the Riot Act should be read, and the assembly dispersed at the point of the bayonet! This was complained of to the middle-man of government, the Secretary at the Castle in 1806, and the answer was (in lieu of redress), that he would cause a letter to be written to the colonel, to prevent, if possible, the recurrence of similar disturbances. Upon this fact no very great stress need be laid; but it tends to prove that while the Catholic Church has not power to purchase land for its chapels to stand upon, the laws for its protection are of no avail. In the mean time, the Catholics are at the mercy of every ”pelting petty officer,” whom may choose to play his “fantastic tricks before high heaven,”to insult his God, and injure his fellow-creatures.

Every schoolboy, any footboy (such have held commissions in our service), any footboy who can exchange his shoulder-knot for an epaulette, may perform all this and more against the Catholic by virtue of that very authority delegated to him by his sovereign for the express purpose of defending his fellow-subjects to the last drop of his blood, without discrimination or distinction between Catholic and Protestant.

Have the Irish Catholics the full benefit of trial by jury? They have not; they never can have until they are permitted to share the privilege of serving as sheriffs and under-sheriffs. Of this a striking example occurred at the last Enniskillen assizes. A yeoman was arraigned for the murder of a Catholic named Macvournagh; three respectable, uncontradicted witnesses, deposed that  they saw the prisoner load, take aim, fire at, and kill the said Macvournagh. This was properly commented on by the judge; but, to the astonishment of the bar, and indignation of the court, the Protestant jury acquitted the accused. So glaring was the partiality, that Mr. Justice Osborne felt it his duty to bind over the acquitted, but not absolved assassin, in large recognizances; thus for a time taking away his licence to kill Catholics. 

Are the very laws passed in their favour observed? They are rendered nugatory in trivial as in serious cases. By a late Act, Catholic chaplains are permitted in gaols; but in Fermanagh county the grand jury lately persisted in presenting a suspended clergyman for the office, thereby evading the statute, notwithstanding the most pressing remonstrances of a most respectable magistrate named Fletcher to the contrary. Such is law, such is justice, for the happy, free, contented Catholic!

It has been asked, in another place, Why do not the rich Catholics endow foundations for the education of the priesthood? Why do you not permit them to do so? Why are all such bequests subject to the interference, the vexatious, arbitrary, peculating interference of the Orange commissioners for charitable donations?

As to Maynooth college,20 in no instance, except at the time of its foundation, when a noble Lord, (Camden), at the head of the Irish administration,21 did appear to interest himself in its advancement, and during the government of a noble Duke, (Bedford), who, like his ancestors, has ever been the friend of freedom and mankind, and who has not so far adopted the selfish policy of the day as to exclude the Catholics from the number of his fellow-creatures; with these exceptions, in no instance has that institution been properly encouraged. There was indeed a time when the Catholic clergy were conciliated, while the Union was pending, that Union which could not be carried without them, while their assistance was requisite in procuring addresses from the Catholic counties; then they were cajoled and caressed, feared and flattered, and given to understand that “the Union would do everything”: but the moment it was passed, they were driven back with contempt into their former obscurity.

In the conduct pursued towards Maynooth college, every thing is done to irritate and perplex — every thing is done to efface the slightest impression of gratitude from the Catholic mind; the very hay made upon the lawn, the fat and tallow of the beef and mutton allowed, must be paid for and accounted upon oath. It is true, this economy in miniature cannot sufficiently be commended, particularly at a time when only the insect defaulters of the Treasury, your Hunts and your Chinnerys, when only those “gilded bugs” can escape the microscopic eye of ministers. But when you come forward, session after session, as your paltry pittance is wrung from you with wrangling and reluctance, to boast of your liberality, well might the Catholic exclaim, in the words of Prior –
“To John I owe some obligation,
But John unluckily thinks fit
To publish it to all the nation,
So John and I are more than quit.”

Some persons have compared the Catholics to the beggar in Gil Blas:27 who made them beggars? Who are enriched with the spoils of their ancestors? And cannot you relieve the beggar when your fathers have made him such? If you are disposed to relieve him at all, cannot you do it without flinging your farthings in his face? As a contrast, however, to this beggarly benevolence, let us look at the Protestant Charter Schools; to them you have lately granted 41,000l.: thus are they supported; and how are they recruited? Montesquieu observes on the English constitution, that the model may be found in Tacitus, where the historian describes the policy of the Germans, and adds, “This beautiful system was taken from the woods;”28 so in speaking of the charter schools, it may be observed, that this beautiful system was taken from the gipsies. These schools are recruited in the same manner as the Janissaries at the time of their enrolment under Amurath, and the gipsies of the present day, with stolen children, with children decoyed and kidnapped from their Catholic connections by their rich and powerful Protestant neighbours: this is notorious, and one instance may suffice to show in what manner:— The sister of a Mr. Carthy (a Catholic gentleman of very considerable property) died, leaving two girls, who were immediately marked out as proselytes, and conveyed to the charter school of Coolgreny; their uncle, on being apprised of the fact, which took place during his absence, applied for the restitution of his nieces, offering to settle an independence on these his relations; his request was refused, and not till after five years’ struggle, and the interference of very high authority, could this Catholic gentleman obtain back his nearest of kindred from a charity charter school. In this manner are proselytes obtained, and mingled with the offspring of such Protestants as may avail themselves of the institution. And how are they taught? A catechism is put into their hands, consisting of, I believe, forty-five pages, in which are three questions relative to the Protestant religion; one of these queries is. “Where was the Protestant religion before Luther?” Answer: “In the Gospel.” The remaining forty-four pages and a half regard the damnable idolatry of Papists!

Allow me to ask our spiritual pastors and master, is this training up a child in the way which he should go? Is this the religion of the Gospel before the time of Luther? That religion which preaches “Peace on earth, and glory to God”? Is it bringing up infants to be men or devils? Better would it be to send them any where than teach them such doctrines; better send them to those islands in the South Seas, where they might more humanely learn to become cannibals; it would be less disgusting that they were brought up to devour the dead, than persecute the living.  Schools do you call them? call them rather dunghills, where the viper of intolerance deposits her young, that when their teeth are cut and their poison is mature, they may issue forth, filthy and venomous, to sting the Catholic. But are these the doctrines of the Church of England, or of churchmen? No, the most enlightened churchmen are of a different opinion. What says Paley? “I perceive no reason why men of different religious persuasions should not sit upon the same bench, deliberate in the same council, or fight in the same ranks, as well as men of various religious opinions upon any controverted topic of natural history, philosophy, or ethics.” I know nothing of his orthodoxy, but who will deny that he was an ornament to the church, to human nature, to Christianity?

I shall not dwell upon the grievance of tithes, so severely felt by the peasantry; but it may be proper to observe, that there is an addition to the burden, a percentage to the gatherer, whose interest it thus becomes to rate them as highly as possible, and we know that in many large livings in Ireland the only resident Protestants are the tithe proctor and his family.

Amongst many causes of irritation, too numerous for recapitulation, there is one in the militia not to be passed over,— I mean the existence of Orange lodges amongst the privates; can the officers deny this? And if such lodges do exist, do they, can they tend to promote harmony amongst the man, who are thus individually separated in society, although mingled in the ranks? And is this general system of persecution to be permitted; or is it to be believed that with such a system the Catholics can or ought to be contented? If they are, they belie human nature; they are then, indeed, unworthy to be any thing but the slaves you have made them. The facts stated are from most respectable authority, or I should not have dared in this place, or any place, to hazard this avowal. If exaggerated, there are plenty as willing, as I believe them to be unable, to disprove them. Should it be objected that I never was in Ireland, I beg leave to observe, that it is as easy to know something of Ireland, without having been there, as it appears with some to have been born, bred, and cherished there, and yet remain ignorant of its best interests. But there are who assert that the Catholics have already been too much indulged. See (cry they) what has been done: we have given them one entire college; we allow them food and raiment, the full enjoyment of the element, and leave to fight for us as long as they have limbs and lives to offer; and yet they are never to be satisfied! – Generous and just declaimers! To this, and to this only, amount the whole of your arguments, when stript of their sophistry. Those personages remind me of a story of a certain drummer, who, being called upon in the course of duty to administer punishment to a friend tied to the halberts, was requested to flog high, he did – to flog low, he did – to flog in the middle, he did,— high, low, down the middle, and up again but all in vain; the patient continued his complaints with the most provoking pertinacity, until the drummer, exhausted and angry, flung down his scourge, exclaiming, “The devil burn you, there’s no pleasing you, flog where one will!” Thus it is, you have flogged the Catholic high, low, here, there, and every where, and then you wonder he is not pleased. It is true that time, experience, and that weariness which attends even the exercise of barbarity, have taught you to flog a little more gently; but still you continue to lay on the lash, and will so continue, till perhaps the rod may be wrested from your hands, and applied to the backs of yourselves and your posterity.

It was said by somebody in a former debate, (I forgot by whom, and am not very anxious to remember,) if the Catholics are emancipated, why not the Jews? If this sentiment was dictated by compassion for the Jews, it might deserve attention, but as a sneer against the Catholic, what is it but the language of Shylock transferred from his daughter’s marriage to Catholic emancipation – “Would any of the tribe of Barabbas Should have it rather than a Christian!” I presume a Catholic is a Christian, even in the opinion of him whose taste only can be called in question for this preference of the Jews. It is a remark often quoted of Dr. Johnson, (whom I take to be almost as good authority as the gentle apostle of intolerance, Dr. Duigenan,) that he who could entertain serious apprehensions of danger to the church in these times, would have “cried fire in the deluge.” This is more than a metaphor; for a remnant of these antediluvians appear actually to have come down to us, with fire in their mouths and water in their brains, to disturb and perplex mankind with their whimsical outcries. And as it is an infallible symptom of that distressing malady with which I conceive them to be afflicted (so any doctor will inform you Lordships), for the unhappy invalids to perceive a flame perpetually flashing before their eyes, particularly when their eyes are shut (as those of the persons to whom I allude have long been), it is impossible to convince these poor creatures that the fire against which they are perpetually warning us and themselves is nothing but an Ignis fatuus of their own drivelling imaginations. “What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug can scour that fancy thence?”34 – it is impossible, they are given over,— theirs is the true “Caput insanable tribus Anticyris.”[Horace, Ars Poetica, 300, inverted: “… his head, which the three Antcyrases would not be able to cure.”]These are your true Protestants. Like Bayle, who protested against all sects whatsoever, so do they protest against Catholic Petitions, Protestant Petitions, all redress, all that reason, humanity, policy, justice, and common sense can urge against the delusions of their absurd delirium. Theses  are the persons who reverse the fable of the mountain that brought forth a mouse; they are the mice who conceive themselves in labour with mountains.

To return to the Catholics: suppose the Irish were actually contented under their disabilities; suppose them capable of such a bull as not to desire deliverance, — ought we not to wish it for ourselves? Have we nothing to gain by their emancipation? What resources have been wasted? What talents have been lost by the selfish system of exclusion? You already know the value of Irish aid; at this moment the defence of England is intrusted to the Irish militia; at this moment, while the starving people are rising in the fierceness of despair, the Irish are faithful to their trust. But till equal energy is imparted throughout by the extension of freedom, you cannot enjoy the full benefit of the strength which you are glad to interpose between you and destruction. Ireland has done much, about will do more. At this moment the only triumph obtained through long years of continental disaster has been achieved by an Irish general: it is true he is not a Catholic; had he been so, we should have been deprived of his exertions: but I presume no one will assert that his religion would have impaired his talents or diminished his patriotism; though, in that case, he must have conquered in the ranks, for he never could have commanded an army. But he is fighting the battles of the Catholics abroad; his noble brother has this night advocated their cause,40 with an eloquence which I shall not depreciate by the humble tribute of my panegyric; whilst a third of his kindred, as unlike as unequal, has been combating against his Catholic brethren in Dublin, with circular letters, edicts, proclamations, arrests, and dispersions;— all the vexatious implements of petty warfare that could be wielded by the mercenary guerrillas of government, clad in the rusty armour of their obsolete statutes. Your lordships will doubtless divide new honours between the Saviour of Portugal, and the Disperser of Delegates.41 It is singular, indeed, to observe the difference between our foreign and domestic policy; if Catholic Spain, faithful Portugal, or the no less Catholic and faithful king of the one Sicily, (of which, by the way, you have lately deprived him,) stand in need of succour, away goes a fleet and an army, an ambassador and a subsidy, sometimes to fight pretty hardly, generally to negotiate very badly, and always to pay very dearly for our Popish allies. But let four millions of fellow-subjects pray for relief, who fight and pay and labour in your behalf, they must be treated as aliens; and although their “father’s house has many mansions.” There is no resting-place for them. Allow me to ask, are you not fighting for the emancipation of Ferdinand VII.,who certainly is a fool, and, consequently, in all probability a bigot? And have you more regard for a foreign sovereign than your own fellow-subjects, who are not fools, for they know your interest better than you know you own; who are not bigots, for they return you good for evil; but who are in worse durance than the prison of an usurper, inasmuch as the fetters of the mind are more galling than those of the body?

Upon the consequences of your not acceding to the claims of the Petitioners, I shall not expatiate; you know them, you will feel them, and your children’s children when you are passed away. Adieu to that Union so called, as “Lucas a non lucendo,”44 an Union from never uniting, which in its first operation gave a death-blow to the independence of Ireland, and in its last may be the cause of her eternal separation from this country. If it must be called an Union, it is the union of the shark with his prey; the spoiler swallows up his victim, and thus they become one and indivisible. Thus has great Britain swallowed up the Parliament, and constitution, and independence of Ireland, and refuses to disgorge even a single privilege, although for the relief of her swollen and distempered body politic.

And now, my Lords, before I sit down, will his Majesty’s ministers permit me to say a few words, not on their merits, for that would be superfluous, but on the degree of estimation in which they are held by the people of these realms? The esteem in which they are held has been boasted of in a triumphant tone on a late occasion within these walls, and a comparison instituted between their conduct and that of noble lords on this side of the house. What portion of popularity may have fallen to the share of my noble friends (if such I may presume to call them), I shall not pretend to ascertain; but that of his Majesty’s ministers it were vain to deny. It is, to be sure, a little like the wind, “no one knows whence it cometh or whither it goeth;” but they feel it, they enjoy it, they boast of it. Indeed, modest and unostentatious as they are, to what part of the kingdom, even the most remote, can they flee to avoid the triumph which pursues them? If they plunge into the midland counties, there will they be greeted by the manufacturers, with spurned petitions in their hands, and those halters round their necks recently voted in the behalf, imploring blessings on the heads of those who so simply, yet ingeniously, contrived to remove them from their miseries in this to a better world.46 If they journey on to   Scotland, from Glasgow to John o’Groat’s, every where will they receive similar marks of approbation. If they take a trip from Portpatrick to Donaghadee, there will they rush at once into the embraces of four Catholic millions, to whom their vote of this night is about to endear them for ever. When they return to the metropolis, if they can pass under Temple Bar without unpleasant sensations at the sight of the greedy niches over that ominous gateway, they cannot escape the acclamations of the livery, and the more tremulous, but not less sincere, applause, the blessings, “not loud, but deep,” of bankrupt merchants and doubting stock-holders. If they look to the army, what wreaths, not of laurel, but of nightshade, are preparing for the heroes of Walcheren!  It is true, there are few living deponents left to testify to their merits on that occasion; but a “cloud of witnesses”50 are gone above from that gallant army which they so generously and piously despatched, to recruit the “noble army of martyrs.”

What if in the course of this triumphal career (in which they will gather as many pebbles as Caligula’s army did on a similar triumph, the prototype of their own,) they do not perceive any of those memorials which a grateful people erect in honour of their benefactors; what although not even a sign-post will condescend to depose the Saracen’s head in favour of the likeness of the conquerors of Walcheren, they will not want a picture who can always have a caricature, or regret the omission of a statue who will so often see themselves exhalted into effigy. But their popularity is not limited to the narrow bounds of an island; there are other countries where their measures, and, above all, their conduct to the Catholics, must render them pre-eminently popular. If they are beloved here, in France they must be adored. There is no measure more repugnant to the designs and feelings of Bonaparte than Catholic Emancipation; no line of conduct more propitious to his projects than that which has been pursued, is pursuing, and, I fear, will be pursued towards Ireland. What is England without Ireland, and what is Ireland without the Catholics? It is on the basis of your tyranny Napoleon hopes to build his own. So grateful must oppression of the Catholics be to his mind, that doubtless (as he has lately permitted some renewal of intercourse) the next cartel will convey to this country cargoes of Sevres china and blue ribands, (things in great request, and of equal value at this moment,) blue ribands of the Legion of Honour for Dr. Duigenan and his ministerial disciples. Such is that well-earned popularity, the result of those extraordinary expeditions, so expensive to ourselves, and so useless to our allies; of those singular inquiries, so exculpatory to the accused, and so dissatisfactory to the people; of those paradoxical victories, so honourable, as we are told, to the British name, and so destructive to the best interests of the British nation: above all, such is the reward of the conduct pursued by ministers towards the Catholics.

I have to apologise to the House, who will, I trust, pardon one not often in the habit of intruding upon their indulgence, for so long attempting to engage their attention. My most decided opinion is, as my vote will be, in favour of the motion.

1. The speech above is taken from Pter Cochran's extremely interesting website which can be found here

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