HC Deb 14 April 1826 vol 15 cc227-36
Mr. John Smith

rose to present a petition from the Catholics of Ireland, assembled at an aggregate meeting, praying for a grant of money for the Education of Catholics in Ireland in their own way. The petition was signed by several thousands of persons, and, he believed, expressed the sentiments of the great body of Irish Catholics. He requested the attention of the House while he stated the object of the petition. The petitioners complained that the education of the poor in Ireland had not been sufficiently attended to since the Reformation. Before that time they had been supplied with the means of education out of the funds of the Church; and since that time some of them had been educated by means of contributions from the Catholics themselves. They complained of the conduct of the Education Commission with respect to the Catholics, but in that complaint he could hardly agree with them. That Commission had recommended, that the Protestant and Catholic children should be educated together, and the petitioners claimed, that where the Catholic children were the majority, the master should be a Catholic; and where they were the minority, that a Catholic usher should be appointed. They insisted that no books should be read by the Catholic children, except such as were approved by the Catholic bishops of Ireland; and they complained, that the House had advanced money to certain Education societies, whose real object was, not the education of the Irish poor, but their conversion to Protestantism. The House ought to be thoroughly informed as to that fact, before they voted any more of the public money in this way. That there were some societies whose real object, under pretence of education, was proselytism, he fully believed; and he was not sure that even the Kildare-street Society was wholly exempt from that imputation. Although he himself was fully convinced of the importance of teaching children to read the Scriptures, yet nothing could be more illiberal and intolerable than to compel the Catholics to read books which they did not like. He requested the attention of the House to the manner in which these things were managed in foreign countries, especially in France, where, by an edict of Louis 18th, it was directed, that in all the primary schools, no Jewish child should be compelled to read any books, except such as had been approved of by the Jewish Consistory. Although he regretted the extent to which the Catholics carried their objections to the reading of the Scriptures, yet, on the principle of toleration, he was of opinion, that they should receive education in the manner they themselves liked. In pursuing that part of the subject, he begged leave to refer to it in support of his argument. There were, as hon. gentlemen well knew, persons employed by various societies in this country, to effect, as far as possible, the conversion of the unenlightened inhabitants of the East and West Indies, and other remote parts of the world, to our religion. What course did those missionaries pursue? They began, not by putting the Holy Scriptures into the hands of the ignorant people, but by endeavouring to civilize them, by teaching them to plant corn, to rear poultry, the use of domestic animals, &c. and having thus acquired their confidence by acts of kindness and beneficence, then did they attempt to direct their minds to the great subject of religion. He would, therefore, say, if we would convert the Irish nation, we must change our course altogether. What was the opinion which the Irish Catholic entertained of the Protestant clergy? Did he estimate them by the rates which he paid for their support, or by comparing their wealth with the poverty of the Catholic clergy? Every circumstance conspired, and none more than the conduct of those enthusiasts who roamed about the country, to convince the Catholics, that the destruction of their religion was the object which the supporters of the Established Church had in view. Among other circumstances referred to by the petitioners, in order to prove that part of the case, was the examination of a very active and worthy gentleman, captain Gordon, by the commissioners of Education. He was asked—"Is the object of your mission Proselytism? —No. What then is your object?—To teach veritable Christianity." And then the captain went on to state his opinion, that the Catholic religion was any thing but Christianity. The cause of religion was more injured than benefitted by the conduct of such individuals. He con- sidered it highly injudicious to vote one shilling of the public money to any society for the promotion of education, unless Proselytism were left entirely out of the question. Nothing of that nature could be effected by force, nor should any thing of that nature be attempted. The petitioners prayed, that the House would divide that portion of the supplies for the year awarded for the purposes of education among the several religious sects, in such manner and proportions as should appear meet. With respect to those proportions, a return on the table shewed that the number of children of all classes, in the various schools in Ireland, was 569,075; that of these 421,415 were Catholics, and of this latter number only 31,058 received any public assistance; the remaining 390,000 being educated at the expense of their own parents and other Catholics. And yet these were the people who, we were told, were hostile to education and to religious instruction. He should therefore call upon the House to assist in the education of the Irish poor, but at the same time to suffer Catholic parents to educate their children as they thought right. Reason told us, that he who had moral feeling—he who was embued with the principles of Christianity—he who was impressed with the belief of a future state —was protected against the approach of a crime. His argument thus came home to the feelings of every hon. gentleman, and he should conclude, by reference to facts, that, in addition to the considerations of policy and justice, we were called upon, on the score of gratitude, to attend to the prayers of the Irish Catholics. Those facts were—that in a very early period of our history, a great portion of the education which the people of this country received, was owing to Irish interference, and it was not too much to assert, that the light of the Gospel first shed its rays on England, reflected from the Irish shores. The hon. gentleman concluded, by strenuously recommending the petition to the attention of the House.

Mr. Butterworth

said, that, as friends of the government, of the state, and of the protestant religion, which was strictly interwoven with the constitution, they were bound to refuse the prayer of this petition. The people of Ireland were not disinclined to reject the Bible. The priests alone prevented its reception. But for them, education would go on well in that country. They prevented the spreading of truth and of morality: they encouraged disorder and opposition to the laws, and the disturbance of the public peace of Ireland. Why should they want the benevolence of parliament? If they earnestly desired the good of the people, according to their own account they were well able to effect it. They boasted that the Catholic Association could raise 1,000l. a week for projects of sedition and designs against the state. If they possessed proper feelings of benevolence, they would far more readily contribute that much for the education of their poor. The priests had had the control in that country for ages. What had they done? Compare Scotland and Ireland in point of education; what a contrast! The modes of education were different. In Scotland the Scriptures were the basis of education, and they inculcated the highest sense of morality, of justice, of obedience to the laws, and of respect for one another. It was not a fit thing for parliament to vote money to be laid out in educating the people in a system which put them in hostility to the religion of the state. He declared openly, and he wished others to do the same, his zeal for proselytism. What, then, were they to be frightened at the sound of a word? It was proselytism from ignorance and vice, to morality and knowledge. What should hinder a good man from being anxious for such a change? He repeated his conviction, that money ought not to be granted for educating people in a religion hostile to the state. The Reformation was glorious in this respect—that it gave back the Scriptures to the laity. He had great faith in it, because many great men suffered death for its sake, and he could not believe that they died in error. If they were friends to that Reformation, if they were foes to immorality, fraud, delusion, tyranny, and superstition, they would refuse the prayer of this petition.

Mr. W, Smith

said, there was not an hon. member in that House whose religious opinions differed more widely from those of the Roman Catholics, than his own. Still, he thought that the state ought to suffer every class of persons to educate their children as they thought proper. What be wanted was, to see education, of some sort or other, diffused all over Ireland; and he would infinitely prefer seeing the Irish poor educated in the principles of the Catholic religion, even though we could never hope for their conversion to Protestantism, than that they should remain in that state of ignorance, which, he feared, would be their fate, if the present system was persisted in. The situation of Ireland was a disgrace to this country, under whose mismanagements she has been for so many centuries. He had learned, from authorities that could not be doubted, that the Irish were naturally a kind, brave, loyal, generous, and humane people; but, when he read the newspapers of the present time, and found that they detailed burnings, murders, and other most horrible outrages, he asked himself, by what means that melancholy change had been brought about? He had made, from the newspapers, a small collection of such outrages that had happened within these few months in Ireland, as would wring every humane heart. The grief and sorrow were theirs, but the blame rested with us; for if we had done our duty towards that unhappy county, it would not have been possible that those disorders, which were of every day occurrence, should continue to be perpetrated there, and indeed here, by the lower classes of her people. He would much rather that education should go forward; for there was no evidence that the moral virtues belonged exclusively to the professors of Protestantism. The English government had been guilty of the greatest injustice in taking away the whole of the revenues of the Catholic church in Ireland, and not applying any portion of them to the education of the people. If they had been so applied, Ireland would now present a very different aspect, whether the religion taught was Protestant or Catholic. But those revenues were not applied to this most useful purpose. They were devoted to the maintenance of Protestant ascendancy; to the keeping up of one party, and the keeping down of another. He wished this country to pay proper attention to the means of educating the Irish poor, without troubling themselves about their religion; and, as a Protestant, he would say, that a system of liberality would much sooner subdue the prejudices, animosities, and jealousies, by which that country was agitated, than any attempt to keep the people down by a contrary mode. It had been said, that Catholicism was the mother of infidelity; now, infidelity had not been produced in Ireland by Catholicism, but by endea- vouring to force the people to become Protestants. The hon. member who spoke last had alluded to the French revolution, and had said, that France owed her ruin to the infidelity produced by popery; but what could the hon. member mean by the expression? That country had never been in such a flourishing condition as she now was. If a comparison was instituted between her and the other countries of Europe, he believed she would take the lead of most of them. The term ruin was as little applicable to her as to any country with which he was acquainted. He hoped the petition would be allowed to be brought up. He did not agree in all the sentiments which it expressed, but it deserved the serious attention of the House.

Mr. Carus Wilson

concurred in some respects with the sentiments of the hon mover, and differed in others. He was willing to allow that every possible means ought to be adopted for diffusing the blessings of education among the Irish poor, and that any education, whether Catholic or otherwise, was better than none. But with respect to the question, whether the Scriptures should or should not be introduced into those mixed schools, he felt himself bound to say, that any system of education, which had for its basis the exclusion of the holy Scriptures, should meet with his most decided opposition. The Scriptures were the birthright of every one, and he could not consent to their exclusion.

Mr. G. Bankes

concurred in so much of what had fallen from the hon. member for Dover, that it was almost useless for him to say any thing upon the subject. There was no foundation for saying that there was no religion taught in the English schools. He had himself attended one for nearly eleven years, and he could not, on recollection, point out one of them in which the Scriptures did not form some part of the system of education. The masters of those schools were members of the established church, and distinguished for their piety. The system could not be presumed to have been altered since that time.

Colonel Trench

said, he felt the necessity of education to the Irish poor as much as any one. There was a strong appetite for it, he was happy to say, among them; but there were two great enemies which opposed its diffusion, the priests, and those enthusiasts, who, by their mistaken zeal, compelled them to pursue a course, of which they would otherwise have been ashamed. He knew this to be the fact from experience, and that those who went about endeavouring to make converts did more mischief, and retarded the improvement of the people and of the country; more than either priests or bishops, or foreign influence. The endeavour of government ought to be to do away with all distinctions, to heal animosities, and to remove the causes of discord. He believed, that if that mischievous society, which had agitated the people of Ireland by its intemperate zeal had not existed, the population of the country would long ere now have been firmly united, and have adopted those maxims of our holy religion, which all parties professed, as a common creed. At the present moment, such was the zeal with which the Bible was sought after, that the priests were unable to prevent it from circulating extensively among the people. He regarded the measure now suggested as the most injudicious that could possibly be proposed. It would afford him great pleasure to see the children of both persuasions educated together, instead of being brought up at enmity with each other. An endeavour should be made to establish a sort of neutral ground, in which both Catholics and Protestants might meet in harmony.

Mr. Maurice Fitzgerald

said, that the hon, member for Dover had favoured them with a sermon against popery, with which the petition had nothing to do. It only prayed for a portion of the public money for the purposes of educating the people. He could not therefore conceive why the hon. member should have travelled so far out of his way. The Catholic clergy required to be met by a spirit of conciliation, and if they had only the regular clergy to deal with, he had no doubt harmony would have prevailed; but a set of sectarians had crept in, and introduced such a spirit of rancour and animosity, as to prejudice the people against the Bible and those who taught its unrestricted perusal. They conceived that these persons were desirous of detaching them from their ancient faith. And was it not natural that the clergy should be roused by such attempts. The hon. member for Dover had contrasted the conduct of the Irish clergy with those of other countries, and particularly with that of Scotland? But what was the difference between the two? The Scottish clergy had been endowed with the means of imparting the blessings of religion, while the latter were left to their own unassisted efforts. Nay, that very clergy, be it remembered, who had been attacked with such unsparing severity, had had their property confiscated over and over again. It had even been a matter of penalty, and that at no very distant period, to practise their religion at all. Yet, notwithstanding their small means, they had done more for the cause of education than those who had profited by the liberality of parliament. They deserved none of the denunciations of the hon. member. They had done all that lay in their power, and more than most would have done in their situation. He must, however, allow the hon. member credit for candour. Though he did not belong to the proselytising societies which agitated Ireland, he had confessed his approval of, their exertions; and had stated, that if he lived in that country, he would aid their endeavours. To this part of his speech, he should merely reply by stating, that in saying so much, he was not only attacking the petition, but the report of the commissioners of Education. It was the opinion of almost every one, that no attempt at proselytising should be made; and he was quite sure that if such a course had been pursued, the utmost unanimity would have prevailed.

Mr. J. Smith

said, that all the petitioners asked for, was a right which every class of people ought to enjoy; namely, the right to put such books as they pleased into the hands of their children, for the purpose of educating them.

Mr. Butterworth

vindicated himself from the attack made upon him by the hon. member for Cambridge. He denied that the conduct of the societies to which the hon. and gallant member had alluded, were in any respect injudicious or mischievous. As long as the great mass of the people of Ireland were allowed to remain in ignorance, the Roman Catholics were quiet, for ignorance best suited their purposes; but the moment it was attempted to give education to them, the priests rose up to oppose it, and in their efforts to follow up that opposition, they were the cause of all the mischiefs that occurred ! in Ireland. They intruded themselves into Bible meetings to which they were not invited, and were the occasion of much disturbance, on some occasions; attended with no little danger to the pro- motors of such meetings. He could give one instance in which at a public Bible meeting at Carlow, the priests attended supported by an immense mob, from whose violence some of the friends of the Bible society were obliged to fly with their lives: some escaped by getting over walls. [Cries of no! no!]. He said, yes, yes. He was not at all surprised at the attack made on him by the right hon. member for Kerry. He was prepared for an acrimonious reply from that right hon. gentleman, as he had before experienced similar treatment from him. As to the insinuation of the right hon. gentleman respecting the hostility of the sectarians to episcopacy, he would leave the hon. member for Norwich to answer it, as he (Mr. Butterworth) was a member of the established church, and sincerely attached to it from conviction.

Sir J. Newport

said, it was not his intention to have offered any observation on the petition before the House, but after what had fallen from the last speaker, he could not remain silent. The hon. member had alluded to a Bible meeting which was held in Carlow. Now, he would assert, that the circumstances mentioned by the hon. member connected with that meeting were wholly without foundation; and he was enabled to contradict them on most excellent authority— that of colonel Rochford, who presided at the meeting on the occasion. That most respectable gentleman, who was deservedly respected by all parties, had stated in his evidence before the committee on the state of Ireland, that the accounts given of the proceedings at that meeting, and which the hon. member had just repeated, were misrepresentations of the real facts. The whole originated in an alarm which was unaccountably raised in the room. A rush to the doors was the consequence, but there was not the least truth in the imputation made on the Catholics. Such was the testimony of a most respectable witness, who had been selected by both parties to act as chairman. It was false to say that the Catholic church absolutely refused the Bible to its members. Such was not one of its tenets. They merely objected to placing the Bible without note or comment in the hands of young persons and in that view they were borne out by some of the most dignified members of the church of England, who opposed the indiscriminate reading of the Bible, without the church catechism. He pro- tested against the constant practice adopted by some members, of imputing to persons doctrines, which they who knew best denied. If the House were to dictate to the Catholics the education which they were to receive, their proposition would not be attended to, and consequently their efforts would tend to no good. Even without the assistance of parliament, education had been extended to a great portion of the Catholic peasantry, through the exertion of the priests. Doctor Doyle, among others, had established several schools.

Ordered to lie on the table.