My Life in Two Hemispheres/Chapter 12



Important National Meeting in Belfast—Significant letter from Fintan Lalor proposing a new policy—Doheny visits and describes Lalor—Effect of Lalor's letter on the Confederates—O'Brien's apprehensions—Mitchel objects to the introduction of these opinions into the Confederation—O'Brien authorised to draw up a Report on the best means of repealing the Union—Mitchel's criticism of it—Lalor summons a meeting of farmers, but is defeated by William Connor, the "Farmers' Friend"—Mitchel adopts Lalor's principles, but refuses to apply them immediately—Lalor scoffs at delay, and Mitchel finally declares the new opinions ought to be taught in the Confederacy—My Report on the ways and means of establishing an Irish Parliament considered by the Council—Opinion of the Confederate leaders—Its influence down to the present day—Evidence of Mr. Parnell—Mitchel quits the Nation—His parting letter to me—Foundation of the United Irishman—Public controversy in the Confederation—All the leaders declare against Mitchel's policy, and the meeting condemns it by a decisive majority—He and Reilly retire from the Confederation.

All proposals designed to arrest the famine or to stimulate the people in the last extremity of national disaster to protect themselves had totally failed; and there was nothing in reserve in which to place solid confidence. O'Brien was still persuaded that the gentry who were disgusted by the wanton waste of national resources and the driftless measures of the Administration would declare themselves for self-government in decisive numbers if their fear of the democracy could be allayed. But his hopes were not largely shared by the Confederates. The need was deadly, and help of any sort was far away. John Martin had a rooted confidence in his friends and neighbours, the Ulster Presbyterians, and procured a public meeting in Belfast to receive a deputation from the Irish Confederation, which in tranquil times would have been regarded as a signal success. Several influential merchants, a multitude of Protestant artisans, and Orangemen in considerable numbers, attended, and the young orators were courteously and even generously received in a place where five years before the appearance of O'Connell had threatened civil war. It was a hopeful sign for the future, but the need could not wait for any future. The people could be saved if we got control of our own resources, and we were in a state of national disaster when ends that seemed remote or impossible were sometimes accomplished in a day by a divine frenzy of impatience. We had pledged our lives to the deliverance of Ireland, but the conditions of the problem were constantly changing, and it had become necessary to inquire anew how the thing was to be done. The people could be saved if Ireland had the control of her own interests, and if we could not obtain that control the outlook was tragic. I mooted to some of my colleagues the necessity of carefully considering the plans that were floating in our minds and reducing them to writing that we might test their feasibility.

The desire for such a skeleton map of our route was stimulated by an altogether unexpected event. I received a letter of singular originality and vigour from a correspondent personally unknown to me broaching such a plan, which wanted nothing but feasibility to be acceptable. The writer was James Fintan Lalor, son of Patrick Lalor, of Tinnakill, well known at that time as the author, or at any rate the chief promotor, of the Anti-Tithe movement, which had spread over the entire island a few years earlier. James Lalor was entirely unknown in politics, but he announced himself with a voice of assured confidence and authority. The Repeal movement conducted by O'Connell, he declared, was base and dishonest to the core, and if the Confederation was to be only an honest and respectable copy of the Association it would never accomplish its purpose. There was neither strength nor even a disposition in the country to carry Repeal, but it might be carried even in its most perfect form of national independence if it were associated with another question.

"A mightier question," he added, "is in the land one beside which Repeal dwarfs down into a petty parish question; one on which Ireland may not alone try her own right but try the right of the world; on which you would be not merely an asserter of old principles, often asserted, and better asserted before her, an humble and feeble imitator and follower of other countries—but an original inventor, propounder, and propagandist, in the van of the earth, and heading the nations; on which her success or her failure alike would never be forgotten by man, but would make her for ever the lodestar of history; on which Ulster would be not * on her flank' but at her side, and on which, better and best of all, she need not plead in humble petitions her beggarly wrongs and how beggarly she bore them, nor plead any right save the right of her might."

He regarded no other question as of any value.

"Repeal," he said, "may perish with all who support it sooner than I will consent to be fettered on this question, or to connect myself with any organised body that would ban or merge, in favour of Repeal or any other measure, that greatest of all our rights on this side of heaven—God's grant to Adam and his poor children for ever, when He sent them from Eden in His wrath and bid them go work for their bread. Why should I name it?"

On the method of accomplishing this stupendous purpose he was not specific, but he laid down general principles, which would clear the field of impediments to any adequate method.

The pledges which many of the Young Irelanders, especially Mitchel, had given to employ only legal means he treated with scorn.

"As regards the use of none but legal means, any means and all means might be made illegal by Act of Parliament; and such pledge, therefore, is passive obedience. As to the pledge of abstaining from the use of any but moral force, I am quite willing to take such pledge, if, and provided, the English Government agree to take it also; but ' if not, not.' Let England pledge not to argue the question by the prison, the convict-ship, or the halter; and I will readily pledge not to argue it in any form of physical logic. But dogs tied and stones loose is no bargain. Let the stones be given up; or unmuzzle the wolf-dog. There is one at this moment in every cabin throughout the land, nearly fit already to be untied—and he will be savager by and by. For Repeal, indeed, he will never bite, but only bay; but there is another matter to settle between us and England."

He demeaned himself to the end of this memorable letter like the Sibyl proffering the inestimable books to a people to whom they brought the only chance of salvation.

"Is there any apology required for addressing you in this manner? I don't know. Perhaps I have no right—though I have been a Seceder since I ceased to be a child. I owe to you some gratitude. You have given me a country. Before your time I was an alien and an exile, though living in my own land. I hope you won't make me one again."

There was nothing that repelled me in this startling programme. If by the method proposed, or by any other method, the people could be saved, and the sceptre of authority replaced in the hands of Ireland, it would be thrice welcome. I circulated the letter among my colleagues, and invited Lalor, instead of addressing himself to my private ear, to broach his theory in the Nation, and let the country judge of it. In our unhappy case his proposal was, good or bad, not in proportion to its natural equity (there were already too many acknowledged equities which could not be enforced), but in proportion to its power of getting itself accomplished. He accepted my counsel, and addressed himself first to the landlords. He painted in glowing colours the position they might attain in Ireland if they resolved to do solid justice to the tiller of the soil.

"Ireland is yours for ages yet, on the condition that you will be Irishmen—in name, in faith, in fact. Refuse it, and you commit yourselves, in the position of paupers, to the mercy of English Ministers and English members; you throw your very existence on English support, which England soon may find too costly to afford; you lie at the feet of events; you lie in the way of a people and the movement of events and the march of a people shall be over you."

And he warned them of the perils which he undoubtedly believed would attend their refusal. A section of them, he assumed, had already practically refused.

"And so, it seems, you have doomed a people to extinction, and decreed to abolish Ireland? The undertaking is a large one. Are you sure your strength will bear you through it? Or are you sure your strength will not be tested? The settlement you have made requires nothing to give it efficacy, except the assent or acquiescence of eight millions of people. Will they assent or acquiesce? Will Ireland at last perish like a lamb and let her blood sink in the ground, or will she turn as turns the baited lion? Your path of safety as well as of honour is now the public highway. No bye-way of your own will carry you through the perils that beset, and the greater perils that are before you."

In another letter he addressed himself to the people, and describing the means by which he believed they might secure their national rights, he did not advise insurrection in which they could not hold their own against the army of occupation.

"The only martial population Ireland possessed, the small farmers and farm labourers, would never wield a weapon in favour of Repeal. They were quite sick of what was called 'bloodless agitation,' which was not bloodless to them. To secure Repeal in the only form in which it could be carried, Independence, there was but one way to link it, like a railway carriage to an engine, to some other question strong enough to carry both itself and Repeal.

"But there was another class of means and mode of force which might be employed, he would call it Moral Insurrection, because its action would be defensive, not aggressive. It was based on the principle that every nation of men is owner of itself, and can never of right be bound to submit to be governed by another people, and that a nation was entitled to assert this principle by refusing obedience to usurped authority, and maintaining and defending such refusal. But how was it to shape its disobedience so that it might be successful? It must select one law for disobedience, because it was impossible successfully to refuse obedience to the entire code of the dominant country; this one law must be essential to Government, must form no part of the Moral Code, and must be easily resisted and hard to enforce. Could any such law be named in a country where there were no direct taxes? The one impost that could be refused he indicated as rent, and this was a contest for which an army would be found in the agricultural population. He entreated the Confederates to fall back on this measure. 'By one move alone you can meet and match—and by that same move you will checkmate England.'"

Doheny, who lived in a neighbouring county, visited Lalor, and found the dogmatic, domineering tribune a deformed man, lame, deaf, near-sighted; and when his emotion was vivid almost inaudible from passion. "I could not be persuaded," he wrote to me, "that I had before me, in the poor, distorted, ill-favoured, hunchbacked creature, the bold propounder of the singular doctrines in the Nation letters." But his intellectual thews and sinews were in excellent condition, and it was by them he must be judged.

The letters made a profound impression on the Confederates generally, and especially on Father Kenyon and Mitchel. Mitchel was much perplexed; the theory of moral insurrection looked feasible and was abstractly just in a country where the people were perishing of hunger among food which they had created, but it flatly contradicted the doctrines he had been preaching since he came into public life. He had outrun and amazed his comrades by the declaration that he would feel it his public duty to arrest and hand over to justice any one whom he discovered mooting the question of physical force in the popular organisation. And later he had discriminated his opinion from Meagher's, who would not repudiate a resort to arms in all contingencies, by declaring that for his part he did not intend to employ force for the deliverance of Ireland in the present, the future, or the paulo-post future. He had much confidence in O'Brien's power to draw a section of the gentry into our ranks, and he declared that to introduce Lalor's doctrine into the Confederation would be as manifest a violation of good faith as were John O'Connell's sectarian harangues in Conciliation Hall. He wrote to O'Brien in this sense, admitting that he was attracted by these new opinions, but determined to resist their introduction into the Confederation:—

"I received your letter," he wrote to O'Brien, "re-enclosing those of Mr. Kenyon, Lalor, and Trenwith. And I need hardly repeat what I mentioned to you before, that my views of those gentlemen's doctrines entirely agree with yours, so far as the practical interference of the Confederation is concerned. And to that effect I have expressed myself in my replies to all three. As to the abstract justice of the case indeed, and the ultimate settlement of the tenure question, which should be kept steadily in view, my doctrine is nearly identical with Lalor's. And if Ireland were now sui juris, I should give all the help I could to any fair movement to realise and give effect to those doctrines. And in the meantime I hold it to be no more than bare honesty on my part, and on the part of those who think with me, to say what we think on those points. … I also have full confidence in the principle of the Confederation, and mean to work steadily in accordance with it. The expostulations of my correspondents have not at all converted me; on the contrary, I hope yet to convert them—at least, two of them—not from their theories, but from their scheme of practically carrying them out; and I hope to see Lalor and Father Kenyon (neither of whom we can afford to lose) working cordially with us yet."[1]

In O'Brien's opinion these doctrines, whether just or unjust, would dissipate all hopes of winning any section of the gentry, and I gathered from the tone of his private correspondence that it would be a comfort to him if he could retire with honour from a contest growing hopeless. In reply I insisted that there was no course for any of us but an onward one. We had broken with O'Connell for abandoning the cause, and under the circumstances could we follow his example? But we might make our course clear and hopeful by having that done on which we had already agreed in conversation, by formulating the plan on which we relied for restoring the Irish Parliament. When O'Brien came to town, the question was formally raised, and the Council directed that a Report on this subject should be prepared. It was not to deal with the famine, but exclusively with the question of how the end to which we were pledged of restoring the Irish Parliament might be accomplished.

The task was entrusted to O'Brien. His Spartan integrity and veracity made it certain that he would rely on no placebo, but specify the exact truth of facts and principles. After a couple of weeks he sent me the rough draft of his projet. It was less satisfactory than I had expected, and Mitchel wrote to him:—

"As to your Report on the means by which the Union may be repealed Duffy and I have read it together: and we both think such a document ought to be more specific. Indeed, I begin to be sorry we promised such a programme of Repeal at all, because revolutions of that kind never transact themselves according to programme. Your idea in drawing up this seems to have been that the only thing specific we can point out is the mode of bringing up the public mind to a state of preparedness, and keeping it there, so as to be eager to seize any opportunity. But Duffy says what he had in his mind when he promised (in the Organisation Report) a Report on this subject was that we should have some rational answer to give to practical but timid people who ask how we meant to repeal the Union. Now, I think, if such an answer be attempted at all, it must develop not one sole plan followed out to the end, but three or four of the possible and probable series of events which may eventually lead to the result. It must show (for one way) how a Parliamentary campaign conducted honestly and boldly might bring the state of public business in Parliament to such a position that Repeal would be the only solution,[2] for another way, how systematic passive opposition to and contempt of law might be carried out through a thousand details so as to virtually supersede English dominion here, and make the mere Repealing statute an immaterial formality (this, I may observe, is my way)—and for a third way, how, in the event of a European war, a strong National party in Ireland could grasp the occasion to do the whole work instantly, with perhaps half a dozen other contingencies and their possible use. It should also show how, and to what extent, all these methods of operation might be combined. I think such a paper could be drawn up so as neither to be dangerous in point of law nor futile from vagueness, and might really shed some light on the dubious road we have to travel. It is not very clear to me that it is wise to attempt such a thing, but certainly we do not like this Report as an exposition of Confederate policy. If we could avoid the necessity of furnishing a scheme of repealing the Union altogether, it might be best of all. Such a document at best would be little other than a mark for criticism to the sneering enemy."

At the same time I wrote to O'Brien:—

"Your Report would make a useful lecture, but my notion of the document required is one which would be as exact and comprehensive as one of Napoleon's plans of a campaign, sent to a particular general to light it out. And even if we did not publish it I hold it to be essential to have such a document drawn up, after mature consideration and discussion. … Men never get even their own ideas clearly before them till they have written them out. What is best to do, perhaps, is to discuss our policy thoroughly when you come to town, and then to draw up the document for our future guidance. … Lalor proposes one plan. We must answer that, not by a series of plans, but, if possible, by one other and more practical measure. If there be no such answer we are ploughing the sea; but assuredly there is."

In the end the Council committed the task of preparing the Report to me, and, when it was produced some weeks later, I must speak of it somewhat in detail, as that document not only signally influenced the course of the Confederation, but influenced in a notable manner the public policy of Ireland from that period to this.

Lalor grew impatient of the hesitation which the Confederates who agreed with him continued to exhibit, and he summoned a public meeting of farmers to consider their position. Unfortunately he altogether wanted the physical gifts which control a multitude, and he was encountered by William Connor, then known as the Farmers' Friend, who scorned his abstract theories and insisted that all that was wanted was valuation of rents and perpetuity of tenure. The farmers leaned to what they regarded as the more practical proposal, and Lalor received the first of many painful lessons how little his southern peasants realised the vision he had conceived of savage wolf-dogs ready to be unmuzzled.

But in the meantime his opinions were gathering force among men of ardent disposition. Mitchel wrote to him that he fully adopted his principles except in the method and time of applying them.[3] On these points he used the arguments which he had promised O'Brien to employ. But Lalor scoffed at delay and compromise. If his opinions were good they were good at that time and place. And he pricked Mitchel with the contemptuous criticism which, to a man of his nature, was hardest to bear.

"The question of time (Lalor wrote to him), is everything. I want a prepared, organised, orderly, and resistless revolution. You would only have an unprepared, disorderly, and vile jacquerie. You plead against locking the stable door until the horse has been stolen, or is about to be stolen. But the lock and key have yet to be forged. You won't help to forge them. But you may possibly overtake us and help to see the door locked by others. Good. … Ireland was ready to strip for battle, and none flinched but the fire-eaters."

At length Lalor, aided by Kenyon, prevailed, and Mitchel declared that the Confederation and the Nation ought to pronounce for the new opinions. In one day he changed the practice and policy of his life as completely as a man does who substitutes a military uniform for the vest and paletot of a civilian, and his recent promise to O'Brien not to intrude Lalor's opinions on the Confederation was soon abandoned. His change of policy was ill received by his comrades. The Council of the Confederation were still as opposed as he himself had been some weeks earlier to breaking faith with their supporters, and as regards the Nation I placed a distinct limit on the extent to which it could be introduced there. I was content that Lalor or Mitchel or Kenyon should advocate their opinions in letters bearing their own signatures, but in leading articles or literary criticism they would make me and others, who did not agree with them, morally responsible for them, and this I could not permit. In this personal narrative my share in the transaction must be made plain and intelligible. My opposition to Lalor's policy was based not on moral but strictly on political grounds. I believed it had not the slightest chance of success. His angry peasants straining to break their chains were creatures of the imagination. The actual peasants had endured the pangs of famine with scarcely a spurt of resistance. They had been taught by O'Connell that armed resistance to authority was justifiable under no circumstances; while they were perishing in every county in the island they were still taught that submission was their duty, and they submitted and died. Pauper alms carried to their homes, pauper works, which even to their eyes were worthless, further demoralised them, till the spirit of manhood was almost extinct. Mitchel had never been in Munster or seen the peasants on whom we were bid to rely, and his sincere patriotism and courage were not fortified by practical capacity or the inestimable faculty of knowing what can be accomplished. In all his public career, which from this time till his death, more than thirty years later, was conducted in the sunshine, it will be impossible to find one practical suggestion of any value. Of eloquence and enthusiasm he had much, but of the capacity which measures the sure road to success in any enterprise not a scintilla.

If we made this experiment which he approved, at what a prodigious cost we must make it? Not only O'Brien's hope of winning the gentry must be abandoned; that was little; but O'Brien himself and the cultivated classes represented by Ferguson and O'Loghlen, who governed themselves by judgment and conscience, and whose aim was to revive the entire Irish nation, would certainly leave us. We should have broken faith with our friends of every degree, and the lesson of integrity and veracity, which we had taught as guiding maxims to the new generation would have lost their meaning. Without the men of mind, success in reviving the Irish nation was entirely impossible; without that class no successful revolution had ever been made. In America, in France, in Greece, and in Belgium men, trained to think, stood at the head of the revolution, and brought it brains and guidance. A rising of peasants, or of an urban populace, was like a fire made of brambles and shavings; it speedily burnt itself out. And the case was not one which admitted of compromise; if the policy did not lead to success it led to speedy and certain ruin. But if we did not accept Lalor's dazzling theory, what were we to do? I insisted that in rejecting it we were bound to substitute a better one for it, and as the plan which I had been directed to draw up was now ready, I proposed to submit it to the Council of the Confederation. A meeting was summoned, and members at a distance warned of the vital importance of the occasion and urged to attend.

Dillon, O'Hagan, and I had long conferences with Mitchel. We were persuaded he was going to destroy himself and probably the public cause, and as we had a sincere affection for him we spared no pains to bring him to reason. But he would not yield. If he could not preach Lalor's theories in the journal and in the Confederation he would establish a weekly paper in Cork or Belfast, where he would be free to pursue his policy to the end. John Martin came much to me on the same business and as a general peacemaker.[4] But as he did not agree with the new policy, and only argued in the name of what he called free opinion that Mitchel ought to be allowed to have his way, he wasted his time. To allow him to have his way was to permit the people to be taught with my sanction that the sure road to liberty was the refusal to pay poor rate, for he had modified Lalor's proposal to refuse the payment of rent (the income of the landlords) into the prodigious absurdity of a refusal to pay poor rate destined for the support of the suffering poor. During these negotiations Mitchel tried my spirit sorely by writing for the Nation opinions which he knew I would not sanction. In one article he defended the perpetual slavery of the negro, and in another objected peremptorily to the emancipation of the Jews. He had learned these opinions from Thomas Carlyle, but they made a strangely unsuitable equipment for a spokesman of Irish liberty. I struck these professions out of the article, but it was manifestly impossible to go on together, and we agreed to separate. It was in these terms Mitchel took leave of me after nearly three years' association:—

"I do not blame you in the slightest particular; and, moreover, I am quite certain I could not have worked in subordination to any other man alive near so long as I have done with you. And lastly, that I give you credit in all that is past for acting on good and disinterested motives, with the utmost sincerity, and also with uniform kindness to me personally."

All the public proceedings which ensued, down to the defeat and dispersion of the Young Irelanders, followed in quick succession to the differences which had thus arisen between Mitchel and me. From that time we pushed, each of us to the best of his ability, the policy on which he relied. The reader who follows out this narrative will be in a position to judge for himself. But the weights and scales of his criteria ought to be accurate. I aimed to be a statesman, and I may be justly reproached for having fallen short of that ideal; but it would be strangely unjust to reproach me with not being a demagogue, a career which was odious and impossible to me. In the private letters of the period, where the Confederates expressed their most secret convictions, the new departure was treated with scorn. "The peasantry of Munster," said Meagher, "know as little of Mitchel as of Mahomet," and to O'Brien he wrote:—

"I feel—in my soul I believe—that an unconstitutional mode of action would not in present circumstances succeed. I am convinced that the only mode we can adopt, the only policy which we can successfully conduct, is the constitutional policy advised by Duffy. And yet, when I see the tyrannical spirit of the upper classes, the Government, the Parliament, when I mark the glee with which they hail the coercion measure now in force; when I find the most peaceful districts in Ireland proclaimed, and have in our very streets and towns the most insolent display of artillery and police and dragoons; when I see all this, and observe that, moreover, there is not the least change of spirit among the gentry—no generous national sentiment stirring among them—but on the contrary a vile thankfulness to that country for its 'protection,' which last year cuffed and spat upon them; when I see all this, my heart sinks under a weight of bitter thoughts, and I am almost driven to the conclusion that it would be better to risk all, to make a desperate effort, and fix at once the fate of Ireland."

Pigot, to the same correspondent, declared that Mitchel's policy was insurrection, without its courage or its resources. O'Gorman said he would prefer quitting the Confederation rather than be held responsible for this perilous folly. "I am now inclined," he added, "to desire a public discussion. I would not suffer myself long to rest under the imputation of holding opinions so dangerous." How little our objection to the new policy arose from undue sympathy with the class it threatened may be estimated from the terms in which I wrote to O'Brien:—

"If you or any one else can induce the gentry to make common cause with the people we all may be saved; if not, if they go on maintaining English dominion, which robs us now of our daily bread (in addition to its old hereditary sins), neither God nor man will tolerate them.[5]

Up to this time there had never been any jealousy or intrigue in the party; the young men had faced danger together gallantly, and loved each other for the memory of the dangers they had passed. They had feasted and rollicked together, and the camaraderie was perfect. In ordinary circumstances one could have confidently spoken for them all; but here were propositions more offensive to good sense and honour than the Peace Resolutions, and which were equally impossible to accept. It was a painful task for intrepid, high-spirited young men to tell the people that a daring proposal was mere folly. As it was dangerous as well as daring a cynical reader may assume that their motive is not difficult to surmise; but oh, cynical reader, six months had not elapsed, as we shall see, till every one of these young men was staking his life in the Irish quarrel.

When Mitchel retired from the Nation he established the United Irishman in Dublin. The new journal indicated its policy by a motto from Wolfe Tone, announcing that if the men of property would not help the cause, recourse would be had to a worthier class—the men of no property. Its bold and defiant tone attracted wide attention. Mitchel adopted Lalor's theory, with an exception, indeed, which amazed those who were familiar with its genesis; there was not the slightest allusion to the existence of the author from whom it was derived. After a time it became known that Mitchel had invited Lalor's assistance in his journal, and that Lalor had refused to act with him. He was indignant that Mitchel had announced, as if it were his own, the policy borrowed from him. Whilst the United Irishman existed the name of James Lalor was never mentioned in it; on the contrary, the new proposals were habitually spoken of as "my policy," "the policy of me, J. M.," to the wrath and rage of the solitary recluse at Tinakill. But Lalor's bitterest complaint was not that Mitchel had appropriated his plan, but that he had rendered it futile and ridiculous by applying it to a wrong purpose. Had these two men been able to work together cordially and sincerely they might have produced memorable good. Lalor was a profound and original thinker, gifted with a masculine eloquence, pervaded by a sense of reality singularly persuasive. He had announced principles which, though they did not furnish a present remedy for the devouring famine, were worthy of being conscientiously investigated. But to interpret them to the industrious classes, who are taught chiefly through the ear, was a task for which he was altogether unfit. Deaf, near-sighted, husky, and almost inaudible, his only tribune was the newspaper. Mitchel, on the contrary, had a handsome presence and pleasing manners. His style was less vigorous than Lalor's, but it was more graceful and cultured, and with practice he became a ready and fluent speaker. He had told Lalor at the outset that he accepted his opinions. Had he told the same to the people, and frankly advocated the doctrine of the master like a loyal and affectionate neophyte, the result would have been widely different, for in practical affairs Lalor had singularly sound judgment—to ignore the master, and to set up for himself with a totally inadequate capital of practical sense, was a fatal mistake.

On the day fixed for considering my Report on the Ways and Means of obtaining an Independent Irish Parliament the leaders of the Confederation were in their places.

The problem referred to me was not how to abate the famine, but by what method, if any, the Irish Parliament could be re-established, and the control of their own affairs restored to the Irish people. Could the thing be done at all, and, if so, how and when? No short cut or coup de théâtre was expected, but such a deliberate survey of the route as might have preceded the first Repeal meeting.

The Report[6] had a wide field to cover, but I will endeavour to extract its essence in a few paragraphs.

Since the death of O'Connell there was no authority in Ireland recognised by the whole nation and able to counsel it successfully; but to a national movement which would succeed, such an authority was indispensable. I was persuaded it might be re-created; not in the old shape, but in a shape as effectual. A small number of able and honest men, who devoted their lives to the purpose, might constitute the nucleus from which such a power would grow. They would win authority in the most legitimate way by deserving it. The first condition of success was that they should be governed not only by fixed principles but by a scheme of policy carefully framed and deliberately worked out to the end. The sudden explosion of an outraged people has sometimes given liberty to a nation; but mere turbulence or agitation, with no definite scheme of action, never. The Repeal Association was a disastrous example in later times; it was like a great steam power which turned no machinery.

The first agent we wanted was a Parliamentary Party. It need not be a large party, but it must include men trained in political science, and familiar with the past and present of Ireland, and who would devote themselves to the task till it was accomplished. The House of Commons is a platform which all Europe looks upon, and the Irish Party must teach all Europe to understand the iniquity of English government in Ireland in the way they understood the case of Italy or of Poland. This course would not only revive the sympathy of foreign nations, but win that of just Englishmen; and, still better, would gain the trust of the Irish people by effectual work done on their behalf. In an assembly so divided as the British Parliament, against party leaders so weak as those who governed England in our time, such a league would be formidable. A score of Irish members of adequate capacity and character might rule the House. No previous failure counted for anything against this project, because there never had been such an Irish Party in the British Parliament. For it must be distinctly understood that it was not by consent of Parliament, but in spite of it, not by its grace and favour, but because of its utter impotence against the right, vigorously asserted, that we would succeed. This Irish Party must be kept pure and above suspicion by a pledge never to ask or accept favours for themselves or others from any Government, and must exhibit no preference between Whig and Tory. Whoever could help Ireland were their friends. Such a Party encamped within the walls of Parliament, would, in the language of a high Conservative authority, be "more formidable than armed insurrection."

For success it was altogether indispensable that they should be the authentic representatives of the Irish nation, and their main business would be to increase and fortify national opinion at home, from which their authority would spring. The Confederates at home must labour to secure the election to the corporations and boards of guardians of men of trust, intelligence, and perseverance. These representative bodies might act as local Parliaments, and supply as far as possible by counsel and guidance the present want of a Legislature. Ireland had never since '82 put forth systematically the power that lies in the awakened public spirit of a nation to help itself. That power might be developed as effectively in great industrial and commercial efforts, or in conquering natural impediments to prosperity, as in war. So it was in Holland, so it was in Canada, so it was in some of the States of America. Such a public spirit would have saved us from famine in 1847; it might lay the basis of a new social system in 1848. The power of the organisation should be also constantly directed against foreign institutions. The numerous commissions of foreigners who pretended to transact Irish business should not only be incessantly watched and controlled, but as many of them as possible superseded by voluntary boards composed of Irishmen.

If these powers were wisely used, hurting no Irish interest, some of the grand juries would be won to the same views as they had been in '43. Ulster would probably follow, for with the North nationality was only a question of time and securities.

When the representatives in Parliament had made the case of Ireland plain to all men, and when the organisation at home had been so successful as to raise these representatives, however few in number, to the undeniable position of the spokesmen of a nation, it would be their right and duty (as it was demonstrably within their power) to stop the entire business of the House of Commons till the Constitution of Ireland was restored. But this was a measure which, to be successful, must be taken on behalf of a nation. It must have the authority of an outraged nation to justify it, and raise it above the tactics of mere party strife, and the strength of a banded nation to maintain it if it were violently suppressed. For from such a position there seemed but two outlets that of concession to Ireland, or the forcible ejection of the Irish representatives from the House of Commons. If the former, our end is attained; if the latter, let the rejected members fall back upon the banded and organised people whom they represent.

In a crisis like this a great Council of the Nation, consisting of all the elected representatives of the people in Parliament or in local institutions, must be summoned. Such a Council would naturally demand the restoration of the Irish Parliament. A like demand was conceded without parley in 1782, and it still must be conceded whenever it became undeniably a national demand. But if not, the people would again have an authority created by themselves, and they would adopt any measure which it counselled. The English Minister would probably capitulate, as Peel capitulated to Canada in 1842. If not, a nation of seven millions united in a single purpose, and guided by trusted counsellors, would know how to enforce their will.

Under the present circumstances of the country this was our policy to win an independent Parliament for Ireland. If there were any shorter road open to a people so divided and broken as ours, I did not know it. For to create not merely a vague desire, but a confident trust, in our ways and means was a necessary preliminary to success. We must choose our path once for all, and if it was not the right path, remember that every step was a step astray.

The Council occupied themselves with this report for several days, the opposition to it being represented by Mitchel and Reilly. It is enough now to say that every man of note on the Council accepted the report as adequately representing their opinions.[7] Mitchel proposed as a substitute for it what was in effect Lalor's scheme of moral insurrection, though he did not give it Lalor's name. Half a century has since elapsed, during which Ireland has been deeply distressed and discontented, but no province, county, parish, townland, or single farmhouse has tried the plan on which Lalor and Mitchel relied. On the other hand, whatever has been gained for the people, the first recognition of Tenant Right by the House of Commons won by the Tenant League of 1852, and the Fixed Rent and Fixed Tenure won twenty years later by the party organised by Mr. Parnell, were won on the fundamental principles of that report. Into the first Parliamentary Party of independent opposition I carried these principles, and the second party, as its leader frankly declared, borrowed them from the leaders of 1852.[8]

Before my Report passed entirely through Committee O'Brien was of opinion that it had become necessary to carry the question before a public meeting of the Confederation, which must make a choice between the principles on which it was founded and the new opinions which it was proposed to teach it. A day was accordingly fixed, when the question was fairly and frankly debated.

O'Brien opened the debate with moderation and dignity. He repudiated Mr. Mitchel's policy in the first place, because it would be fatal to the interests of the people it proposed to serve.

"At the outset it was destructive of the poor; for, if the poor rate was not paid, how could they be fed? To use the Confederation for preaching this policy would be to make it the instrument of increasing the deaths by starvation by hundreds of thousands. The people were advised to procure arms; but under English law it was an offence punishable with two years' imprisonment to possess arms in a proclaimed district; and there were six counties already proclaimed. It would be proper for those who gave this advice to try the experiment themselves, and not leave it to be made by helpless, uneducated men, for if the advice were acted upon the end would inevitably be a massacre. And let it be remembered that to preach this policy in the Confederation would break faith with their own members. The Confederates, in answer to opponents, had repeatedly and solemnly denied, in the face of God and their country, by speeches and by specific resolutions, that it was their intention to have recourse to insurrection. If Mr. Mitchel thought that a different policy ought to be now adopted by the country, it was open to him to invite those who agreed with him to form an association for this purpose, but it was not open to him to use the Confederation, which had obtained support by professing constitutional doctrines for a directly adverse object.

"How, indeed, could the organisation exist at all with opinions so conflicting? If he and his friend, Mr. Ross, of Bladensburg, who formed a connecting-link between North and South, were sent to Newry as a deputation to convince the friends of order in Ulster that they would forfeit none of the interests they held dear by joining the Confederation, were they to be told at the same time by Mr. Mitchel that there could be no combination of classes, and that they must prepare for guerilla warfare?

"Between these courses of action the Confederates must choose, for they were totally incompatible with each other. Their decision would determine whether he and others could continue to be members. He concluded by moving a series of ten resolutions, of which this was the keynote:— ' That this Confederation was established to attain an Irish Parliament by the combination of classes and by the force of opinion, exercised in constitutional operations; and that no means of a contrary character can be recommended or promoted through its organisation while its present fundamental rules remain unaltered.'

"John Pigot seconded the motion, because he believed the good faith of the body was pledged to such a disavowal.

"Mr. Mitchel's reply was far from being an answer to this serious impeachment. The rules of the Confederation, he said, no doubt declared that the members were to attain their ends by 'force of opinion' among other agencies; but what did opinion mean? Must it be always legal, always peaceful? They were told, indeed, it was opinion and sympathy, and other metaphysical entities, that rescued Italy, and scared Austria back from Ferrara without a blow. Yes, but it was opinion with the helmet of a National Guard on his head, and a long sword by his side; it was opinion standing, match in hand, at the breech of a gun charged to the muzzle. … To Mr. O'Brien's objection, that to admit his doctrine would be to break faith with certain Confederates, he replied that, by adopting the proposed resolution, the meeting would break faith with him and others who never would have consented to be limited to constitutional action. He had no faith in a Parliamentary Party. After describing the repeated attempts to obtain a combination of classes, which had all failed, he concluded by moving an amendment declaring that the Confederation did not feel called upon to promote, or condemn, doctrines promulgated by its members in letters or speeches, because one of the fundamental rules specified that no member should be bound by any proceeding of that character to which he had not given his special assent."

The controversy is fully epitomised in another work[9]; here it will be only necessary to recall the carte and tierce of debate; the points where weapons clash or a palpable hit is made.

Michael Doheny, afterwards one of the founders of the Fenian societies in America, ' who certainly did not want pluck or sympathy with daring enterprise, repudiated the new policy, because it lacked all possibility of success. Let the people resist the collection of rates armed with muskets and pitchforks, and they would lay their bodies on their fields, or if they had a momentary success deliver them to the gibbet. The peasantry had not arms, but if they had, why conceal the fact that the majority of them would use them not for the Confederation but against it?

P. J. Smyth, who afterwards rescued Mitchel from his jailors in Tasmania, scoffed at his proposal. They were asked to rely on a single class, and that one the lowest of all—on men directly under the influences which impelled the mobs of Limerick and Kilkenny and Belfast to assail the Confederates. How could even this class be reached? With the upper and middle classes in hostility, as well as the priesthood, it would be impossible by speaking or writing to induce a single parish in Ireland to rise in insurrection.

D'Arcy M'Gee opposed the new policy, not because it was treason against the law, but because it was treason against common sense. Opinion, they were told, to be successful, must be armed, if so it was very successful in Ireland. They were ruled by opinion represented by Sir Edward Blakeney with the bâton of Commander-in-Chief in his hand. But not such was the opinion which had conquered the world. What was the fashion of Paul's sword or Peter's cuirass? In what sort of armour did Leo confront Attila? With how many legions did St. Augustine convert Africa to the faith? Mr. Mitchel denied that he was for immediate insurrection, but what did that denial mean? If the Lord Lieutenant proclaimed a district and ordered the arms to be given up, if they were not given up the police and military would be called out. Mr. Mitchel says, in such a case, the people must sell their lives as dearly as they can. This was immediate collision. Were the men so incited to resist to be left to their fate? Surely not; they must be supported, and this was immediate insurrection. The union of classes was denounced as absurd and impossible, but in our history the one problem which had engaged the constant meditation of Irish patriots was to combine classes, not to divide them. "To combine classes Roger O'Moore embraced Preston of Gormanstown on the summit of Knocklofty in 1641—to combine classes Sarsfield rode from Limerick town to Galway Garrison to bring back Tyrconnell—to combine classes Henry Grattan sent the resolution in favour of Catholic Emancipation to the Convention of Dungannon—to combine classes Wolfe Tone, a Protestant, became secretary to the Catholics of Ireland—to combine classes O'Connell drank 'the glorious, pious, and immortal memory of William the Third' to combine classes Thomas Davis thought, laboured, and lived."[10]

Michael Crean, an intelligent artisan, much respected in the Confederation, inquired how the arms on which we were invited to rely were to be procured. Were men to be told to buy guns who could not buy a loaf to save their lives?

Mr. Ross, of Bladensburgh, illustrated from recent foreign history the peril of preaching hostility to classes in a national struggle. Austria stimulated the Polish peasantry of Gallicia into butchering the Polish nobles, and then trod both into a common ruin.

T. D. Reilly briefly supported the amendment. He was not going to begin an insurrection as soon as suggested, but he was determined to found rifle clubs.

The meeting consisted almost entirely of young men or men under forty, students, artisans, tradesmen, and professionals. But they had been trained in respect of fair play and common sense, and they rejected the amendment by a decisive majority.[11] Mitchel retired from the Confederation, accompanied by Reilly alone, and for a time the controversy left him the most disabled and discredited politician in Ireland. He had pluck, men said, and rhetorical power, but not a tittle of the supreme faculty which estimates forces accurately, and encounters difficulties successfully, called in its most modest form good sense.

The controversy furnishes a more effectual test of the character of the Confederates than the conflict with O'Connell, or perhaps any other transaction in their career. It is so easy and so pleasant to declare for measures which look daring, and so painful to say "No" to what is described as the only remedy for a manifest wrong, but they had the courage to be simply just.

  1. Cahirmoyle Correspondence in the possession of Mr. O'Brien's son and successor.
  2. This was the method I had insisted on—C. G. D. "Cahirmoyle Correspondence."
  3. "I see no reason to prevent me from mentioning that, in about a month from the date and delivery of my paper, I received a letter from John Mitchel stating that, on perusal and consideration of its contents, he had fully adopted my views, and that he meant to act on them as soon as occasion should fit and serve." J. F. Lalor to the Confederate Club. June, '48.
  4. At the same time Martin wrote to O'Brien:—

    "I do not see how Mitchel can remain in Dublin. He will not dream of starting a paper in opposition to Duffy that is, a weekly paper. There is talk of getting a daily paper established as a shareholding concern with him for editor, and that he should be entirely uncontrolled save by the interference of a committee at the end of each year, to dismiss him if thought advisable. But he won't conduct any paper except one which shall be his own property. Therefore he must go to Belfast or Cork, and there try to establish a new weekly Mitchelite paper. I wish he were fairly smarted in this new undertaking. It may give new life to the National cause. … Mitchel and Duffy are still the most cordial friends."

  5. These letters are extracted from the Cahirmoyle Correspondence.
  6. Report on the Ways and Means of Attaining an Independent Irish Parliament. Dublin: Printed for the Irish Confederation by James Charles, 61, Mary Street. 1848.
  7. Jan. 17th: Special adjourned meeting of Council. Mr. Duffy's Report; several clauses adopted.

    Jan. 21st: Further adjourned meeting. Mr. Mitchel moved that the principal paragraph be omitted. Ayes—Mitchel, Reilly, P. J. Barry, James Cantwell, Philip Gray, and Byrne. Noes—Meagher, O'Gorman, Pigot, Dillon, John Williams, Doheny, Dr. West, M. R. O'Farrell, Michael Crean, Hollywood, Taaffe, Condon, M'Dermott, Dangan, and the mover.—Minute Book of the Irish Confederation.

  8. "Mr. Asquith: Do you remember the passing of the Ballot Act in 1872?

    "Mr. Parnell: Yes. The passing of the Ballot Act in 1872 was the first public event which more intimately directed my attention to politics. I thought that, arising out of the passage of that Act, the political situation in Ireland was capable of very great change. I had some knowledge —— not very deep knowledge—of Irish history, and had read about the Independent Opposition movement of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy and the late Mr. Frederick Lucas in 1852, and whenever I thought about politics I always thought that that would be an ideal movement for the benefit of Ireland. Their idea was an independent party reflecting the opinions of the masses of the people; acting independently in the House of Commons, free from the influence of either English political party; pledged not to take office, or form any combination with any English political party until the wants of Ireland had been attended to. The passing of the Ballot Act rendered this possible in my judgment, because for the first time it enabled the Irish electors to vote free from the coercion of the Irish landlords."—Vol. vii. Official Report of the Parnell Commission.

    Mr. Parnell was examined on April 30, 1889.

  9. "Four Years of Irish History."
  10. It is worth noting that Lalor was far from agreeing with Mitchel on the conduct of the Confederation with respect to the Nationalist gentry. Speaking of the reluctance of the Young Irelanders to give up all hope of aid from them, he afterwards (in July, '48) wrote: "Who imputes blame to them for this? Whoever does will not find me to join him. I have no feeling but one of respect for the motive which caused their reluctance and delay."
  11. The numbers were 317 to 188.