John McCullagh October 10, 2003

The mid to late 1700s was among the darkest periods for the great majority of the Irish people, dispossessed, disenfranchised, barred from holding public office or filling most positions of employment because of their Catholic faith, landless and spoken of, and to, as inferior beings. The feelings engendered were exacerbated by living among others who were benefiting from the expanding Industrial Revolution of Britain. This prosperity was unashamedly built upon the ruthless exploitation of the resources (human as well as material) of the colonies. 

Britain had become the strongest and wealthiest nation of the world. Belfast and its hinterland enjoyed as yet peripheral benefits and had a growing merchant class and thriving linen trade. The English largely left this alone to develop since their garments trade was built on the far more successful cotton. The Irish merchant class was treated as inferior to the landlords and to the English. Yet towns were growing and the latter increasing in number, wealth and influence.

Many of their political representatives were radical, non-orthodox Protestants, usually descendents of people who had fled religious persecution in Britain or France, for example. The Government could confidently rely on the greater part of these not to find common cause with the rebellious but impecunious Irish Catholics. Still, a sizable fraction, inspired by the radicalism emanating from Europe and especially from the former American colonists who refused any more to accept taxation without representation, developed a radical, inclusive political philosophy that shortly was to reach its apotheosis in the United Irishmen movement.

The native Irish in these parts had, as early as Tudor times, been dispossessed of their lands, buildings, wealth, political power and influence, and even of the monastery and its worldly possessions. These were given to the fugitive English adventurer and later Crown favourite Nicholas Bagenal. He bequeathed them to his successors and granted favours and position to his own class and favourites. By the end of the eighteenth century the garrison town had grown and prospered – helped largely by the building of the Newry Canal and its trade with Dublin, Britain and beyond.

Newry sent two members to the inferior Parliament at Dublin. Its role was to rubber-stamp and then enforce decisions of the Imperial Parliament at London and had, as yet, no legislative powers. That was suddenly about to change.

Britain was almost constantly at war. Military commitments abroad left the home front exposed and England relied upon a loyal Protestant yeomanry militia known as the Volunteers to keep peace and order in Ireland and to counter any invasion from the sea.

The officers of the Volunteers were largely of the new merchant class and, aware of their military significance, soon began also to wield political muscle in the interests of their class. As a result, a reluctant Imperial Government in 1779 conceded free trade and three years later gave some limited legislative powers to Dublin.

It is unsurprising that Grattan’s ‘Patriot’ party had the support in such matters of Newry MP Isaac Corry, the son of a merchant who had held the Newry seat before him. Corry was Adjutant General of the Newry Volunteers. His support for Grattan was not to last long.

Even before it unearthed evidence of the extent of support in the country for the United Irishmen, the British Government had determined to abolish this upstart Parliament and to affect a union of Ireland with Britain. It found two willing and effective traitors in Dublin’s Lower House to do its dirty work for it, men whose personal ambition took precedence over principle and country. The inferior of these two was Isaac Corry. The other, Robert Stewart was more talented and ruthless, and almost immediately after he had turned Tory was rewarded with the title Viscount Castlereagh (by which he is still remembered and has had the North Down district – he represented Down, though from Dublin – the Road, the Holding Centre etc. named after him). He is also immortalised in the 19th century romantic poet’s words

I met Murder on the way –

He had a mask like Castlereagh

[from The Mask Of Anarchy, by Percy Bysshe Shelley]

something that better portrays his contribution to Irish dreams.

Castlereagh nevertheless was able and talented. Even after the Union he prospered in the deeper waters of British politics, unlike Corry. He rose eventually to Foreign Secretary at a time of Britain’s greatest peril, the Napoleonic Age. He was also chief negotiator at the peace conference that followed.

In the new century Isaac Corry quickly sank into the political oblivion that he so richly deserved.

… Seventeenth Century Census …

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