Mary Frances Cusack (“The Nun of Kenmare”), in An Illustrated History of Ireland, 400AD to 1800 (1868),
on Edmund Burke

[Note: Available at [Available at Gutenberg Project - online; accessed 30.08.2017. References are here connected with the corresponding notes by means of a link to the heading of the Notes section only.]

Chapter XXXV
Each century of Irish history would require a volume of its own, if the lives of its eminent men were recorded as they should be; but the eighteenth century may boast of a host of noble Irishmen, whose fame is known even to those who are most indifferent to the history of that country. It was in this century that Burke, coming forth from the Quaker school of Ballitore, his mind strengthened by its calm discipline, his intellect cultivated by its gifted master, preached political wisdom to the Saxons, who were politically wise as far as they followed his teaching, and politically unfortunate when they failed to do so. His public career demands the most careful consideration from every statesman who may have any higher object in view than the mere fact of having a seat in the cabinet; nor should it be of less interest or value to those whose intellectual capacities are such as to enable them to grasp any higher subject than the plot of a sensational novel. It was in this century also that Moore began to write his world-famed songs, to amaze the learned by his descriptions of a country which he had never seen, and to fling out those poetical hand grenades, those pasquinades and squibs, whose rich humour and keenly-pointed satire had so much influence on the politics of the day. It was in this century that Sheridan, who was the first to introduce Moore to London society, distinguished himself at once as dramatist, orator, and statesman, and left in his life and death a terrible lesson to his nation of the miseries and degradations consequent on indulgence in their besetting sin. It was in this century that Steele, the bosom friend of Addison, and his literary equal, contributed largely to the success and popularity of the Spectator, the Guardian, and the Tatler, though, as usual, English literature takes the credit to itself of what has been accomplished for it by Irish writers. [559]

Burke is, however, unquestionably both the prominent man of his age and of his nation in that age; and happily we have abundant material for forming a correct estimate of his character and his works. Burke was born in Dublin, on the 1st of January, 1730. His father was an attorney in good business, and of course a Protestant, as at that period none, except those who professed the religion of a small minority, were permitted to govern the vast majority, or to avail themselves of any kind of temporal advancement. The mother of the future statesman was a Miss Nagle, of Mallow, a descendant of whose family became afterwards very famous as the foundress of a religious order. [560] The family estate was at Castletown-Roche, in the vicinity of Doneraile; this property descended to Garrett, Edmund’s elder brother. A famous school had been founded by a member of the Society of Friends at Ballitore, and thither young Burke and his brother were sent for their education The boys arrived there on the 26th May, 1741. A warm friendship soon sprang up between Edmund and Richard Shackleton, the son of his master, a friendship which only terminated with death. We have happily the most ample details of Burke’s school-days in the Annals of Ballitore, a work of more than ordinary interest written by Mrs. Leadbeater, the daughter of Burke’s special friend. His native talent was soon developed under the care of his excellent master, and there can be little doubt that the tolerant ideas of his after life were learned, or at least cultivated, at the Quaker school.

One instance of the early development of his talent for humour, and another of his keen sense of injustice, must find record here. The entrance of the judges to the county town of Athy was a spectacle which had naturally special attraction for the boys. All were permitted to go, but on condition that each of the senior pupils should write a description of what he had seen in Latin verse. Burke’s task was soon accomplished—not so that of another hapless youth, whose ideas and Latinity were probably on a par. When he had implored the help of his more gifted companion, Edmund determined at least that he should contribute an idea for his theme, but for all reply as to what he had noticed in particular on the festal occasion, he only answered, “A fat piper in a brown coat.” However Burke’s ideas of “the sublime” may have predominated, his idea of the ludicrous was at this time uppermost; and in a few moments a poem was composed, the first line of which only has been preserved—

Piper erat fattus, qui brownum tegmen habebat.”

“He loved humour,” writes Mrs. Leadbeater, [561] “and my father was very witty. The two friends sharpened their intellect and sported their wit till peals of laughter in the schoolroom often caused the reverend and grave master to implore them, with suppressed smiles, to desist, or he should have to turn them out, as their example might be followed, where folly and uproar would take the place of humour and wisdom.”

His hatred of oppression and injustice was also manifested about this time. A poor man was compelled to pull down his cabin, because the surveyor of roads considered that it stood too near the highway. The boy watched him performing his melancholy task, and declared that, if he were in authority, such scenes should never be enacted. How well he kept his word, and how true he was in manhood to the good and holy impulses of his youth, his future career amply manifests.

Burke entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1744; Goldsmith entered college the following year, and Flood was a fellow-commoner; but these distinguished men knew little of each other in early life, and none of them were in any way remarkable during their academic career. In 1753 Burke arrived in London, and occupied himself in legal studies and the pursuit of literature. His colloquial gifts and his attractive manner won all hearts, while his mental superiority commanded the respect of the learned. Even Johnson, who was too proud to praise others, much as he loved flattery himself, was fain to give his most earnest word of commendation to the young Irishman, and even admitted that he envied Burke for being “continually the same,” though he could not refrain from having a fling at him for not being a “good listener”—a deadly sin in the estimation of one who seldom wished to hear any other voice but his own. Burke, sir, he exclaimed to the obsequious Boswell—Burke is such a man, that if you met him for the first time in the street, and conversed with him for not five minutes, he’d talk to you in such a manner, that, when you parted, you would say that is an extraordinary man. [562]

Some essays in imitation of Dr. Charles Lucas, and a translation of part of the second Georgic of Virgil, which, in finish of style, is, at least, not inferior to Dryden, were among the earliest efforts of his gifted pen; and, no doubt, these and other literary occupations gave him a faculty of expressing thought in cultivated language, which was still further developed by constant intercourse with Johnson, ever ready for argument, and his club, who were all equally desirous to listen when either spoke. His Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, unfortunately better known in the present day by its title than by its contents, at once attracted immense attention, and brought considerable pecuniary help to the author. But the constant pressure of intellectual labour soon began to tell upon a constitution always delicate. His health gave way entirely, and he appeared likely to sink into a state of physical debility, entirely incompatible with any mental exertion. He applied for advice to Dr. Nugent; the skilful physician saw at once that something more was required than medicine or advice. It was one of those cases of suffering to which the most refined and cultivated minds are especially subjected—one of those instances which prove, perhaps, more than any others, that poor humanity has fallen low indeed. The master-mind was there, the brilliant gems of thought, the acute power of reasoning, that exquisitely delicate sense of feeling, which has never yet been accurately defined, and which probably never can be—which waits for some unseen mystic sympathy to touch it, and decide whether the chord shall be in minor or major key—which produces a tone of thought, now sublime, and now brimming over with coruscations of wit from almost the same incidents; and yet all those faculties of the soul, though not destroyed, are held in abeyance, because the body casts the dull shadow of its own inability and degradation over the spirit—because the spirit is still allied to the flesh, and must suffer with it.

There was something more than perfect rest required in such a case. Rest would, indeed, recruit the body, worn out by the mind’s overaction, but the mind also needed some healing process. Some gentle hand should soothe the overstrained chords of thought, and touch them just sufficiently to stimulate their action with gentlest suasion, while it carefully avoided all that might irritate or weary. And such help and healing was found for Burke, or, haply, from bodily debility, mental weakness might have developed itself into mental malady; and the irritability of weakness, to which cultivated minds are often most subjected, might have ended, even for a time, if not wisely treated, in the violence of lunacy. It was natural that the doctor’s daughter should assist in the doctor’s work; and, perhaps, not less natural that the patient should be fascinated by her. In a short time the cure was perfected, and Burke obtained the greatest earthly blessing for which any man can crave—a devoted wife, a loving companion, a wise adviser, and, above all, a sympathizing friend, to whom all which interested her husband, either in public or private, was her interest as much as, and, if possible, even more than his. Burke’s public career certainly opened with happy auspices. He was introduced by the Earl of Charlemont to Mr. Hamilton in 1759, and in 1761 he returned to Ireland in the capacity of private secretary to that gentleman. Mr. Hamilton has acquired, as is well known, the appellation of “single speech,” and it is thought he employed Burke to compose his oration; it is probable that he required his assistance in more important ways. But the connexion was soon dissolved, not without some angry words on both sides. Hamilton taunted Burke with having taken him out of a garret, which was not true, for Burke’s social position was scarcely inferior to his own; Burke replied with ready wit that he regretted having descended to know him.

In the year 1765, when Lord Grenville was driven from office by the “American Question,” the Marquis of Rockingham succeeded him, appointed Burke his private secretary, and had him returned for the English borough of Wendover. His political career commenced at this period. Then, as now, Reform, Ireland, and America were the subjects of the day; and when one considers and compares the politics of the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, the progress of parliamentary intellectual development is not very encouraging. The speeches of honorable members, with some few very honorable exceptions, seem to run in the same groove, with the same utter incapacity of realizing a new idea, or a broad and cosmopolitan policy. There were men then, as there are men now, who talked of toleration in one breath, and proclaimed their wooden determination to enforce class ascendency of creed and of station in the next. There were men who would tax fresh air, and give unfortunate wretches poisonous drinks on the cheapest terms. There were men whose foreign policy consisted in wringing all that could be wrung out of dependencies, and then, when the danger was pointed out, when it was shown that those dependencies were not only likely to resist, but were in a position to resist—to a position in which neither shooting nor flogging could silence, if it did not convince—they hid their heads, with ostrich-like fatuity, in the blinding sands of their own ignorance, and declared there could be no danger, for they could not discern it.

I have said that there were three great political questions which occupied the attention of statesmen at that day. I shall briefly glance at each, as they form a most important standpoint in our national history, and are subjects of the first interest to Irishmen and to Irish history; and as Burke’s maiden speech in the House of Commons was made in favour of conciliating America, I shall treat that question first. The facts are brief and significant but by no means as thoroughly known or as well considered as they should be, when we remember their all-important results—results which as yet are by no means fully developed. [563] The actual contest between the English nation and her American colonies commenced soon after the accession of George III.; but, as early as the middle of the eighteenth century, Thomas Pownal, Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Massachusetts, South Carolina, and New Jersey came to England, and published a work on the administration of the colonies. He seems even then to have had a clear view of the whole case. There is an old proverb about the last grain of rice breaking the back of the camel, but we must remember that the load was made up of many preceding grains. The Stamp Act and Tea Duty were unquestionably the last links of an attempted chain of slavery with which England ventured to fetter the noblest of her colonies, but there were many preceding links. Pownal’s work affords evidence of the existence of many. The crown, he said, in theory considered the lands and plantations of the colonists its own, and attempted a far greater control over the personal liberty of the subject than it dared to claim in England. The people, on the other hand, felt that they had by no means forfeited the rights of Englishmen because they had left England; and that, if they submitted to its laws, they should at least have some share in making them. A series of petty collisions, which kept up a state of constant irritation, prepared the way for the final declaration, which, flung aside the bonds of allegiance, and freed the people from the galling chains by which that allegiance was sought to be maintained. A wise policy at home might have averted the fatal disruption for a time, but it is doubtful that it could have been averted for many years, even if the utter incapacity of an obstinate sovereign, and the childish vindictiveness of a minister, had not precipitated the conclusion.

The master intellect of Burke at once grasped the whole question, and his innate sense of justice suggested the remedy. Unfortunately for England, but happily for America, Burke was beyond his age in breadth of policy and in height of honour. Englishmen of the nineteenth century have very freely abused Englishmen of the eighteenth century for their conduct on this occasion; and more than one writer has set down the whole question as one in which “right” was on the side of England, but he argues that there are circumstances under which right should be sacrificed to policy. I cannot agree with this very able writer. [564] The question was not one of right, but of justice; and the English nation, in the reign of George III., failed to see that to do justice was both morally and politically the wisest course. The question of right too often develops itself into the question of might. A man easily persuades himself that he has a right to do what he has the power and the inclination to do; and when his inclination and his opportunities are on the same side, his moral consciousness becomes too frequently blinded, and the question of justice is altogether overlooked.

It was in vain that Burke thundered forth denunciations of the childish policy of the Treasury benches, and asked men to look to first principles, who could hardly be made comprehend what first principles were. He altogether abandoned the question of right, in which men had so puzzled themselves as almost to lose sight of the question of policy. The King would tax the colony, because his nature was obstinate, and what he had determined to do he would do. To such natures reasoning is much like hammering on iron—it only hardens the metal. The minister would tax the colony because the King wished it; and he had neither the strength of mind nor the conscientiousness to resist his sovereign. The Lords stood on their dignity, and would impose the tax if only to show their power. The people considered the whole affair one of pounds shillings, and pence, and could not at all see why they should not wring out the last farthing from a distant colony—could not be taught to discern that the sacrifice of a few pounds at the present moment, might result in the acquisition of a few millions at a future day.

Burke addressed himself directly to the point on all these questions. He laid aside the much-abused question of right; he did not even attempt to show that right and justice should not be separated, and that men who had no share in the government of a country, could not be expected in common justice to assist in the support of that country. He had to address those who could only understand reasons which appealed to their self-interest, and he lowered himself to his audience. The question he said was, “not whether you have a right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not your interest to make them happy. It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do, but what humanity, reason, and justice, tell me I ought to do.”

The common idea about the separation of the States from England, is simply that they resisted a stamp duty and a tax on tea; the fact is, as I have before hinted, that this was simply the last drop in the cup. Previous to this period, the American colonies were simply considered as objects of English aggrandizement. They were treated as states who only existed for the purpose of benefiting England. The case was in fact parallel to the case of Ireland, and the results would probably have been similar, had Ireland been a little nearer to America, or a little further from England. For many years the trade of America had been kept under the most vexatious restrictions. The iron found there must be sent to England to be manufactured; the ships fitted out there must be at least partly built in England; no saw-mills could be erected, no colony could trade directly with another colony, nor with any nation except England. This selfish, miserable policy met with a well-deserved fate. Even Pitt exclaimed indignantly, in the House of Commons: “We are told that America is obstinate—that America is almost in open rebellion. I rejoice that she has resisted. Three millions of people, so dead to all sentiments of liberty as voluntarily to become slaves, would have been fit instruments to enslave their fellow-subjects.”

In 1765 an agitation was commenced in Philadelphia, by Mr. Charles Thompson, an Irishman, who, after ten years devoted to the cause of his adopted country, was appointed the Secretary of Congress. It has been well remarked, that the Irish, and especially the Irish Catholics, were, of the three nationalities, the most devoted to forwarding the Revolution; and we cannot wonder that it was so, since the Government which had driven them from their native land, ceased not to persecute them in the land of their exile. [565] The first naval engagement was fought under the command of Jeremiah O’Brien, an Irishman. [566] John Barry, also an Irishman, took the command of one of the first American-built ships of war. The first Continental Regiment was composed almost exclusively of Irish-born officers and men, and was the first Rifle Regiment ever organized in the world. Thompson, its first, and Hand, its second colonel, were natives of Ireland. At the siege of Boston the regiment was particularly dreaded by the British.

In 1764 Franklin came to England [567] for the second time, and was examined before the House of Commons on the subject of the Stamp Act. He was treated with a contemptuous indifference, which he never forgot; but he kept his court suit, not without an object; and in 1783, when he signed the treaty of peace, which compelled England to grant humbly what she had refused haughtily, he wore the self-same attire. Well might the immortal Washington say to Governor Trumbull: “There was a day, sir, when this step from our then acknowledged parent state, would have been accepted with gratitude; but that day is irrevocably past.”

In 1774, Burke was called upon by the citizens of Bristol to represent them in Parliament, and he presented a petition from them to the House in favour of American independence; but, with the singular inconsistency of their nation, they refused to re-elect him in 1780, because he advocated Catholic Emancipation.

The same principle of justice which made Burke take the side of America against England, or rather made him see that it would be the real advantage of England to conciliate America, made him also take the side of liberty on the Catholic question. The short-sighted and narrow-minded politicians who resisted the reasonable demands of a colony until it was too late to yield, were enabled, unfortunately, to resist more effectually the just demands of several millions of their own people.

It is unquestionably one of the strangest of mental phenomena, that persons who make liberty of conscience their boast and their watchword, should be the first to violate their own principles, and should be utterly unable to see the conclusion of their own favourite premises. If liberty of conscience mean anything, it must surely mean perfect freedom of religious belief for all; and such freedom is certainly incompatible with the slightest restraint, with the most trifling penalty for difference of opinion on such subjects. Again, Burke had recourse to the argumentum ad hominum, the only argument which those with whom he had to deal seemed capable of comprehending.

“After the suppression of the great rebellion of Tyrconnel by William of Orange,” writes Mr. Morley, [568] “ascendency began in all its vileness and completeness. The Revolution brought about in Ireland just the reverse of what it effected in England. Here it delivered the body of the nation from the attempted supremacy of a small sect; there it made a small sect supreme over the body of the nation.” This is in fact an epitome of Irish history since the so-called Reformation in England, and this was the state of affairs which Burke was called to combat. On all grounds the more powerful party was entirely against him. The merchants of Manchester and Bristol, for whose supposed benefit Irish trade had been ruined, wished to keep up the ascendency, conceiving it to be the surest way of replenishing their coffers. The majority of Irish landlords, who looked always to their own immediate interest, and had none of the far-sighted policy which would enable them to see that the prosperity of the tenant would, in the end, most effectively secure the prosperity of the landlord, were also in favour of ascendency, which promised to satisfy their land hunger, and their miserable greed of gain. The Protestant Church was in favour of ascendency: why should it not be, since its ministers could only derive support from a people who hated them alike for their creed and their oppressions, at the point of the sword and by the “brotherly agency of the tithe-procter,” who, if he did not assist in spreading the Gospel, at least took care that its so-called ministers should lack no luxury which could be wrung from a starving and indignant people? [569]

There were but two acts of common justice required on the part of England to make Ireland prosperous and free. It is glorious to say, that Burke was the first to see this, and inaugurate the reign of concession; it is pitiful, it is utterly contemptible, to be obliged to add, that what was then inaugurated is not yet fully accomplished. Burke demanded for Ireland political and religious freedom. Slowly some small concessions of both have been made when England has feared to refuse them. Had the grant been made once for all with manly generosity, some painful chapters of Irish history might have been omitted from this volume—some moments, let us hope, of honest shame might have been spared to those true-hearted Englishmen who deplore the fatuity and the folly of their countrymen. In 1782 the Irish Volunteers obtained from the fears of England what had been vainly asked from her justice. Burke’s one idea of good government may be summed up in the words, “Be just, and fear not.” In his famous Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe, written in 1792, upon the question of admitting the Catholics to the elective franchise, he asks: “Is your government likely to be more secure by continuing causes of grounded discontent to two-thirds of its subjects? Will the constitution be made more solid by depriving this large part of the people of all concern or share in the representation?”

His Indian policy was equally just. “Our dealings with India,” says an English writer, “originally and until Burke’s time, so far from being marked with virtue and wisdom, were stained with every vice which can lower and deprave human character. How long will it take only to extirpate these traditions from the recollections of the natives? The more effectually their understandings are awakened by English efforts, the more vividly will they recognize, and the more bitterly resent, the iniquities of our first connexion with them.” The Indian policy of England and her Irish policy might be written with advantage in parallel columns. It would, at least, have the advantage of showing Irishmen that they had been by no means worse governed than other dependencies of that professedly law and justice loving nation.

I have treated, briefly indeed, and by no means as I should wish, of two of the questions of the day, and of Burke’s policy thereon; of the third question a few words only can be said. Burke’s idea of Reform consisted in amending the administration of the constitution, rather than in amending the constitution itself. Unquestionably a bad constitution well administered, may be incomparably more beneficial to the subject than a good constitution administered corruptly. Burke’s great leading principle was: Be just—and can a man have a nobler end? To suppress an insurrection cruelly, to tax a people unjustly, or to extort money from a nation on false pretences, was to him deeply abhorrent. His first object was to secure the incorruptibility of ministers and of members of parliament. When the post of royal scullion could be confided to a member of parliament, and a favourable vote secured by appointing a representative of the people to the lucrative post of turnspit in the king’s kitchen, administration was hopelessly corrupt. There were useless treasurers for useless offices. Burke gave the example of what he taught; and having fixed the Paymaster’s salary at four thousand pounds a year, was himself the first person to accept the diminished income.

He has been accused of forsaking his liberal principles in his latter days, simply and solely from his denunciations of the terrible excesses of the French Revolution. Such reprobation was rather a proof that he understood the difference between liberty and licentiousness, and that his accusers had neither the intellect nor the true nobility to discriminate between the frantic deeds of men, whose bad passions, long indulged, had led them on to commit the crimes of demons, and those noble but long-suffering patriots, who endured until endurance became a fault, and only resisted for the benefit of mankind as well as for their own.

So much space has been given to Burke, that it only remains to add a few brief words of the other brilliant stars, who fled across the Channel in the vain pursuit of English patronage—in the vain hope of finding in a free country the liberty to ascend higher than the rulers of that free country permitted in their own.


[559] Writers.—As a general rule, when Irishmen succeed either in literature, politics, or war, the credit of their performances is usually debited to the English; when they fail, we hear terrible clamours of Irish incapacity. Thackeray commences his “English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century” with Swift, and ends them with Goldsmith! I do not suppose he had any intention of defrauding the Celtic race; he simply followed the usual course. Irishmen are, perhaps, themselves most to blame, for much of this is caused by their suicidal deference to a dominant race.

[560] Order.—The Presentation Order was founded by Miss Nano Nagle, of Cork.

[561] Leadbeater.—Annals of Ballitore, vol. i. p. 50, second edition, 1862. I shall refer to this interesting work again.

[562] Man.—The exact words are: “If a man were to go by chance at the same time with Burke, under a shed to shun a shower, he would say: ‘This is an extraordinary man.’”—Boswell’s Johnson, vol. iv. p. 245. Foster’s version is as above.

[563] Developed.—Since this sentence was penned, I find, with great satisfaction, that a similar view has been taken by a recent writer. See Secularia; or, Surveys on the Main Stream of History, by S. Lucas, p. 250. He opens a chapter on the revolt of the American States thus: “The relations of Great Britain to its colonies, past and present, are an important part of the history of the world; and the form which these relations may hereafter take, will be no small element in the political future. Even our Professors of History ... abstain from noticing their system of government, or the predisposing motives to their subsequent revolt..” The italics are our own. Neglect of the study of Irish history is, I believe, also, one of the causes why Irish grievances are not remedied by the English Government. But grievances may get settled in a way not always satisfactory to the neglecters of them, while they are waiting their leisure to investigate their cause.

[564] Writer.—Morley. Edmund Burke, an Historical Study: Macmillan and Co., 1867. A masterly work, and one which every statesman, and every thinker would do well to peruse carefully. He says: “The question to be asked by every statesman, and by every citizen, with reference to a measure that is recommended to him as the enforcement of a public right, is whether the right is one which it is to the public advantage to enforce.”—p. 146.

[565] Exile.—Maguire’s Irish in America, p. 355: “It would seem as if they instinctively arrayed themselves in hostility to the British power; a fact to be explained alike by their love of liberty, and their vivid remembrance of recent or past misgovernment.” The italics are our own. The penal laws were enacted with the utmost rigour against Catholics in the colonies, and the only place of refuge was Maryland, founded by the Catholic Lord Baltimore. Here there was liberty of conscience for all, but here only. The sects who had fled to America to obtain “freedom to worship God,” soon manifested their determination that no one should have liberty of conscience except themselves, and gave the lie to their own principles, by persecuting each other for the most trifling differences of opinion on religious questions, in the cruelest manner. Cutting off ears, whipping, and maiming were in constant practice. See Maguire’s Irish in America, p. 349; Lucas’ Secularia, pp. 220-246.

[566] Irishman.—See Cooper’s Naval History.

[567] England.—He wrote to Thompson, from London, saying that he could effect nothing: “The sun of liberty is set; we must now light up the candles of industry.” The Secretary replied, with Celtic vehemence: “Be assured we shall light up torches of a very different kind.” When the Catholics of the United States sent up their celebrated Address to Washington, in 1790, he alludes in one part of his reply to the immense assistance obtained from them in effecting the Revolution: “I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their revolution and the establishment of their government, or the important assistance they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic religion is professed.”

[568] Morley.—Edmund Burke, an Historical Study, p. 181.

[569] People.—Chesterfield said, in 1764, that the poor people in Ireland were used “worse than negroes.” “Aristocracy,” said Adam Smith, “was not founded in the natural and respectable distinctions of birth and fortune, but in the most odious of all distinctions, those of religious and political prejudices—distinctions which, more than any other, animate both the insolence of the oppressors, and the hatred and indignation of the oppressed.”—Morley’s Edmund Burke, p. 183.

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