My Life in Two Hemispheres/Chapter 5

CHAPTER V


THE SPRINGTIDE OF NATIONALITY


O'Connell in 1842—Davis, Dillon, and the early recruits—The Corporation debate and its consequences—Junction of the Catholic Bishops — County meetings summoned which become monster meetings—Peel's menace of Civil War—O'Connell's answer—He places the resistance on the basis of national force—Samuel Ferguson's remonstrance with Peel—O'Callaghan analyses the English army—An unfit instrument for oppressing Ireland—The Times warns Peel of his mistaken policy — Increase and growth of the monster meetings—The Government deprive Lord Ffrench of his Commission of the Peace for attending a Repeal Meeting—Effect of this stroke on the magistracy—Effect on the Bar—Sympathetic meetings in the United States countenanced by the President and eminent statesmen—Appeal from America to France to help Ireland—Important meeting in Paris addressed by Ledru Rollin, Marast, and others—Movement of the Irish Whigs headed by Smith O'Brien—Eight days' debate in the House of Commons—Manifesto of Lord John Russell in the Edinburgh Review — O'Connell's new policy—The Mallow Defiance—The Nation and the army—The Quartermaster-General's department—Sir Charles Trevelyan's description of Ireland in 1843—The education and discipline of the people—The Library of Ireland—The 'Eighty-two Club.


I have written the story of the Repeal movement,[1] and it would be unpardonable to repeat it here; but to preserve the perspective of this personal narrative it is necessary to cast a glance from time to time at the public transactions of the period. In the autumn of '42, when Davis, Dillon, and a few of their associates joined the Repeal Association, the National movement was torpid and lethargic. The enthusiasm of the young recruits kindled the first genuine fire, and the effect produced on Burgh quay was repeated in many places, and with increased force, by the success of the Nation. O'Connell worked with an energy which was a marvel in one to whom time and familiarity with the facts must have tempered indignation against the wrongs he assailed. At this date he had nearly reached his 70th year, but his vigorous frame showed no symptoms of decay. He was as erect, alert, and vigilant as at forty. He spoke at every meeting of the Association for an hour or more, and his voice was as resonant and expressive as of old. His ordinary speech was homely and colloquial, and would often have been bald but that his position clothed his words with authority. Flashes of passion and gleams of wrath came at times to light up his narrative or exhortation, and a happy anecdote or homely proverb to put his audience in good humour. When there was need of the heavier artillery of controversy it was still forthcoming. He stated a case with a clearness and precision which seemed to amount to a demonstration, and he smashed a fallacy with sudden strokes, as with Thor's hammer. His trusted lieutenant was his son John, a feeble, conceited young man, who believed he had inherited with his name the splendid endowments of his father. And from an early date his father was possessed with the hopeless project of making John his successor in the popular tribunate.

The year '43 saw a marvellous change in public opinion. The case on which Ireland relied for repealing the Union was stated by O'Connell before the Dublin Corporation with singular lucidity and force. From that time a tide began to flow which increased in volume from week to week. The bulk of the Catholic Episcopacy joined the Association from which they had hitherto held aloof. The Repeal rent increased prodigiously, exceeding the weekly amount received by the Catholic Association on the eve of the Catholic Relief Act. Men of station and importance declared themselves Repealers. County meetings were summoned to be held in succession in every county in the island, and the people attended in such unexpected force that they became known as monster meetings. At some of them the assemblage was so great it was estimated that so many men were not engaged on both sides in all the battles extending over centuries fought on Irish soil since the Norman Conquest. It was said a new soul had come into Ireland with the Nation, and it made itself felt in every fibre of the national character.

The Irish gentry became alarmed, and insisted that the Government should declare their intention to arrest this dangerous movement. Their old suspicions against Peel the Emancipator revived, and nothing would content them but a plain and emphatic menace to the Repealers. Peel answered their expectations. He assured Parliament that there was no power with which the Constitution armed the Executive which would not be employed to resist Repeal, even at the painful cost of Civil War. To the inquiry, whether he held with one of his predecessors, that if all classes in Ireland united in the demand for Repeal it must be conceded, he replied brusquely, he did not.

The determination to put down opinion by force, and to resist the repeal of an Act of Parliament by Civil War, was so indefensible that it was promptly repudiated by the Whig Opposition, and has never been repeated by any English Minister under similar circumstances. Irish gentlemen, even among his warmest supporters, felt insulted by the declaration, that their opinion would count for nothing in deciding an international question to which they were a party. O'Connell answered Peel with contemptuous defiance: "I belong," he said, "to a nation of eight millions, and there is besides a million of Irishmen in England. If Sir Robert Peel has the audacity to cause a contest to take place between the two countries we will put him in the wrong, for we will begin no rebellion, but I tell him from this place that he dare not begin that strife against Ireland."

Samuel Ferguson afterwards wrote in the Dublin University Magazine: "If the Conservative gentry of Ireland thought fit to invite their friends and tenants to meet them at a new Dungannon there is no power in Britain which could prevent the severance of the two islands. And there can be no more fatal delusion than to suppose that Irish gentlemen, because they do not profess the Roman Catholic religion, are insensible to contemptuous language against their country, or that they are disposed to rest satisfied under any social inferiority whatever to the rest of the United Kingdom."

A letter from John Cornelius O'Callaghan, one of the staff of the Nation, was ordered on the motion of Mr. John O'Connell to be inserted on the minutes of the Association, recording the fundamental fact that the army which was to be employed to put down the Irish people consisted of fifty-one thousand Englishmen and forty-one thousand Irishmen, and might prove an unsuitable instrument for such a service. O'Connell might have said on this cardinal occasion, and was expected to say, that he was pursuing a peaceful end by peaceful means, which force could not touch; but he chose to meet menace by defiance, and by doing so he placed the contest once for all on the basis of force. There was ample justification in the state of Ireland for such a policy if he were determined to pursue it to the end, and to make the preparation which such a resolution required. If he were not so determined he was entering on a path which must lead in the end to humiliation and defeat. O'Connell's declaration was echoed throughout the island, and men for the first time were driven to estimate the price at which political liberty might have to be bought, and to consider whether or not they were ready to pay the price.

The English Press sustained Peel with a unanimity that recalled the national support which George III. obtained in trampling on the liberty of the American colonies. But there was one exception seriously embarrassing to Ministers. The Times warned Peel he was pursuing a false route. "A people"—this was the emphatic language of warning employed—"a people labouring under unexampled distress send in their £600 a week to a Repeal Fund, contributed generally in the inverse ratio of their means. The rabble of Repealers is joined by respectable and well-intentioned persons, and an insignificant faction has become a powerful party. In all this there is neither Whiggery nor Radicalism, nor pursuit of Roman Catholic as opposed to Protestant interests: it aims at being, and almost threatens to become, a national movement. The people of the United Kingdom" the powerful journal added—"were firmly persuaded that it was better to conciliate by repealing bad laws than to pour troops into Ireland for the purpose of enforcing them, when they could no longer be executed except at the bayonet point." The Leeds Mercury, a principal organ of the Dissenters, echoed this counsel. The Northern Star, on the part of the working men, whom it represented at that time as authentically as the Times represented the middle class, declared that they would not resist Repeal, but aid it in every way; and that the English aristocracy would have to crush two nations instead of one.

From this time everything was changed. The pace of the movement, so languid at the outset, assumed the stride of a revolution. The monster meetings grew in force, the language became fiercer and more confident. The Government were besought by the Irish landlords to interpose, and they tardily consented; but every stroke they struck proved a coup manquè. An English lawyer, who was Lord Chancellor in Ireland, removed Lord Ffrench and his sons from the Commission of the Peace for attending a Repeal Meeting, and immediately a number of the most respectable magistrates in Ireland, Repealers and non-Repealers, answered this challenge by flinging their commissions at his feet. Twenty members of the Irish Bar joined the Association in a day to express their reprobation of the Chancellor's law. The flame spread from Ireland to the Irish race abroad. Immense meetings, continuing from day to day for more than a week, were held in New York and Philadelphia; large sums were subscribed towards the Repeal Fund; and men of high political importance, including the President of the United States, Mr. Seward, afterwards Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State; General Cass; and Horace Greely, the darling of the people, sanctioned the movement. Irish merchants of great opulence declared that they were ready to help Ireland in her peaceful struggle, and if an arbitrary Government forced her over the frontiers of legality to follow her unto new fields.

If Ireland were invaded by England, the loss of Canada, it was declared, would be the certain penalty. An address was sent to the Democrats of France, asking the generous people who had helped America in her struggle with England to help Ireland. Paris responded by a meeting sanctioned by Lamartine and Victor Hugo, and addressed by Ledru Rollin, Marast, and others, who before five years sat in the Provisional Government of a French Republic, proffering sympathy and aid in the struggle in which Irish Nationalists were engaged, whether it took a civil or military form.[2] The Nation from the beginning had preached the duty and need of a foreign policy for Ireland, and here was a signal foreign policy. Strength comes to the strong, and help to the successful. Every fibre of the Irish nation was moved to sympathy, the more liberal Irish Whigs who afterwards became Federalists, brought the case of Ireland before the House of Commons, and demanded if the wrongs they specified were not redressed how could they justify themselves in resisting a repeal of the Union? The leader on this occasion was Smith O'Brien, who had hitherto no relations with the National Party. His speech was weighty with facts, made poignant by fairness and moderation. Ireland, he insisted, was made poor, and kept poor, by exceptional treatment. She was overtaxed in violation of the terms of the Union. The public establishments she formerly possessed had been gradually transferred to London. There did not exist a single naval dockyard in a country rich in safe and capacious harbours, and the navy estimates for the current year which amounted to six and a half millions, only proposed the expenditure in Ireland of ten thousand pounds. In a country where four-fifths of the population were Catholics all the great officers were habitually Protestants. Belgium and Canada had revolted chiefly against the unjust distribution of patronage, but nearly all the heads of departments in Ireland were Englishmen. The Established Church and the land code disclosed other wrongs, and the Poor Law was framed and administered in complete contempt of Irish opinion. The debate lasted for eight nights, and produced a profound impression in Ireland, but a majority of the House of Commons were of opinion that there was no need for inquiry. The movement of opinion did not rest here. The Irish peers who were Whigs held a consultation, and demanded reforms and concessions to placate the country. Even the English Whigs were moved; a party manifesto—revised by Lord John Russell, was published in the Edinburgh Review, proposing to extend the franchise, reform the land code, subsidise religious education in Ireland, and assemble the British Parliament in Dublin once in three years.

O'Connell's speeches grew in intensity as the movement spread. At Mallow, in the county Cork, he made a declaration which became known as the Mallow Defiance, the purpose of which did not seem to admit of misconception:—

"Do you know (he said) I never felt such a loathing for speechifying as I do at present. The time is coming when we must be doing. Gentlemen, you may learn the alternative to live as slaves or die as freemen. But, gentlemen, as long as they leave us a rag of the Constitution we will stand on it. We will violate no law, we will assail no enemy; but you are much mistaken if you think others will not assail you. [A Voice: We are ready to meet them.] To be sure you are. Do you think I suppose you to be cowards or fools?"

Later he added—

"Are we to be trampled under foot? Oh! they shall never trample me, at least (no, no). I say they may trample me, but it will be my dead body they will trample on, not the living man."

To Europe and America, and to the great bulk of the people of Ireland, this declaration seemed to be the signal of pending revolution. The Repeal Association ordered a statue of the leader in white marble with the Mallow Defiance engraved on the pedestal, in eternal memory of a great wrong adequately encountered. By some of us, at least, the idea was not taken up with levity or insouciance. Contending with a people so much stronger in numbers, resources, and organisation, complaint and remonstrance (it may well seem) were the only weapons Ireland could employ, but the system was a painfully tedious and wasteful one. Agitation for twenty or thirty years for some single concession was like the economy of ancient Egypt, where the labour of an entire generation was expended to raise a pyramid. And the agitators came out of the contest like soldiers from a long campaign, unfit for any other work and indifferent to the ordinary means and methods by which a people become prosperous. If the conflict could be brought to a close by a fierce encounter in arms it was not too high a price to pay for permanent peace. Letters from soldiers to the Nation were not unfrequent. One sergeant, a man of considerable ability and experience, kept me acquainted with the sentiments of those whom he named " Irishmen with red coats but green hearts." The captain of his company was peculiarly offensive, and directed that no one should presume to bring into his barracks a paper so offensive to loyal feeling as the Nation. Similar reports came from other military depots, and I was much perplexed how to deal with the difficulty when a fortunate incident enabled me to turn the tables on the military censors. The following paragraph, when printed in the Nation, was read, I am assured, with shouts of laughter and exultation in all the barracks in Munster and Leinster:—

"On Saturday last, when our office was surrounded by a multitude of persons, the orderly of Lord Cardigan's regiment rode up to the door—to the great terror of the well-disposed, who thought he was sent to arrest the Editor—and delivered a large official-looking letter, marked 'On Her Majesty's Service '—remember that, red coats, on Her Majesty's Service—which, on examination, was found to be as follows:—


"'Quartermaster-General's Office,
"'Dublin Castle, Oct. 21, 1843.

"'Memorandum. The Editor of the Nation is requested to supply the Quartermaster-General's department with the Nation newspaper, which he will be so good as to send to this office, Lower Castle-yard, as soon as published, until further orders. By Order,

"'J. M. Napier.

"'The Editor of the Nation.'


"We put this communication on record as a precedent and an example for the army in Ireland. A journal which has the sanction of Dublin Castle, and the Quartermaster-General's department (not to speak of Lord Cardigan's orderly), cannot be bad; and we expect no paltry subaltern will have the insolence to prohibit the NATION in his quarters for the future."

The national movement had now reached its zenith, and there was a fevered and impatient pause for the result. Sir Charles Trevelyan, an experienced Indian officer, who visited Ireland at this time on a semi-official tour of inspection, describes the condition of the public mind. He had set out on his journey regal-ding the demand for Repeal as a gigantic piece of blarney, but he found among the people intense desire and a genuine belief on the subject. They had taken up universally O' Council's doctrine that they must not be the aggressors. "We don't mean to go to war with the Government, but if the Government goes to war with us then the boys will rise." The methods and agencies of guerilla warfare were constantly in their mouths. They declared there was no want of arms in the country, and if the people were of one mind they could turn every agricultural implement into a weapon. They counted on the sympathy of the army, where nearly all the soldiers were Irishmen and every Irishman a Repealer. They denied that the Presbyterians of the North would fight against them at the bidding of their greedy and oppressive landlords. They counted upon assistance from foreign countries, and assistance in the shape of a diversion from Wales and the manufacturing districts of England. A remark invariably made was that though the affair might begin in Ireland it would not end in Ireland. The people, animated with those sentiments, he found, to his amazement, not only singularly sober, but advancing in industry, good order, and respect for the laws. Faction fights had ceased, and shillelaghs were rarely to be seen, except when they were used for firewood. When the time came for showing colours he believed the men of property who figured on Repeal platforms would side with the Government to save their estates. But he regarded it as beyond doubt that a more influential class, the Catholic clergy, had gone into the movement in the same spirit as the people. There was another estate in the Repeal organisation of the existence of which the people of England were imperfectly instructed—the young men of the capital. As far as the differences in the circumstances of the countries admitted, they answered to the "jeunes gens de Paris." They were public-spirited, enthusiastic men, possessed, as it seemed to him, of that crude information on political subjects which induced several of the Whig and Conservative leaders to be Radicals in their youth. They supplied all the good writing, the history, the poetry, and the political philosophy, such as it was, of the party. Though O'Connell was the origin and author of all this mischief, the Whig traveller regarded him as the chief reliance for the preservation of peace. He at any rate never intended fighting. [3]

The movement of the Forties was distinguished from all that preceded it by a passionate attempt to elevate and educate our people. The work of the Association was supplemented by the subtler work of the Press. The young men who gathered round the Nation bore the same relation to O'Connell as the heads of the permanent staff of the public service bear to the Cabinet. They projected much of the work announced from the platform, executed a liberal proportion of the agenda authorised in committee, and constantly brought the supreme stimulus of imagination to the cause. Under their inspiration the monster meetings were held on historic sites, rich in inspiring memories; bands were formed, banners were lifted above the multitude, and the people began to muster and march in ordered ranks. Historic books and pictures became common, and there soon might be found in every district of the country groups of students reared in the new ideas.

I proposed to my friends a simple device for feeding this flame which had a decisive success. We announced a series of monthly shilling volumes of Irish history, poetry, biography, and literature, bearing the title of the Irish Library. The first volume published was Thomas MacNevin's "History of the Volunteers of 1782," which was received with cordial welcome. The second was my "Ballad Poetry of Ireland."

I had a passion for ballad poetry from the time I read "Robin Hood's Garland," secreted in a lexicon at school, and longed for Irish ballads of the same scope and spirit. In Belfast I began to collect native poems from forgotten periodicals and books which had perished early, without any other aim in the first instance than personal enjoyment. But as the collection grew, new hopes and views arose, and now I was able to draw from that storehouse the first collection of Irish ballads ever published. Up to that time "Irish ballad" had only a grotesque meaning; even Sam Lover, who aimed to be a national lyrist, had written a burlesque essay on Irish ballads, selecting his illustrations from Zozimus, or some other bard of the Liberties. It was a keen delight, as well as a profound surprise, to sympathetic readers to find that Ireland had produced Anglo-Irish and Celtic ballads which might be classed without exaggeration with the ballads of Scotland and Germany.[4] The volume was received with enthusiasm, went into a second and third edition as fast as they could be printed, and into a sixth edition within the year,[5] and since has not only run into more than fifty editions, circulating, the publishers affirmed, more copies than any book published in Ireland since the Union, but has become in time the foundation of a large library of ballad poetry framed in the same spirit. It was in this little volume that the bulk of Irish readers became acquainted for the first time with Ferguson's "Willy Gilliland," Banim's "Soggarth Aroon," Lady Dufferin's "Irish Emigrant," Gerald Griffin's "Orange and Green," Furlong's "Drunkard," Mangan's "Kathleen ni Houlahan," and the Ulster ballad of "Willy Reilly," and many others, which have since become as familiar to Irish readers as the "Shan Van Vocht." The third volume projected was a "Life of Wolfe Tone," by Thomas Davis, but a calamity as unforeseen as an earthquake ruined that project, and many other noble works from the same hand.[6] A little later a social club, with a costly uniform of green and gold was founded, named after the era of Independence, the 'Eighty-two Club, to draw into the national movement men who would never cross the threshold of Conciliation Hall. One of the earliest recruits was Lord Cloncurry, a Privy Councillor and a quondam state prisoner. He had lived from early manhood the perturbed life of an Irish patriot, under conditions not a little discouraging. His father had been a Catholic, and changed his religion at a convenient moment to found a family; and he had probably been a Protestant patriot till the conflict over the Union provided a favourable opportunity of exchanging his party for a peerage. But this peer's eldest son, Valentine Lawless, broke with those conditions, became the friend of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Arthur O'Connor, and Thomas Addis Emmet, and conspired with them for the deliverance of Ireland. In later times he had fierce conflicts with O'Connell, but never abated his steady devotion to Ireland. The young men aimed to bring him into the 'Eighty-two Club, and in the end succeeded. This was a time never to be recalled without pride and triumph. The work of a generation was accomplished in a few years, and, if fortune had been kind, would have been crowned with signal success. It was a time of incessant labour and responsibility, richly repaid by the conviction that we were assisting in the resurrection of our country.

  1. "Young Ireland."
  2. One of the results of this entente cordiale has hitherto escaped notice. We learn from Lord Aberdeen's "Life of Sir William Napier" that the Government at this time (1843) consulted that officer and others, with a view to fortifying the Channel Islands against a French invasion.
  3. Sir Charles Trevelyan was brother-in-law of Macaulay, and father of Sir George Trevelyan, the statesman and gifted man of letters.
  4. How little the idea of Irish ballads, such as they really were, had become known even to cultivated Irish men and women is curiously illustrated by a note from Mrs. Jameson. I had made her acquaintance in London, and afterwards wrote to inquire if among her verses there were any Anglo-Irish ballads. " I never wrote any ballads," she replied; "I wish I had—or could; but what do you mean by Anglo-Irish ballads, for I do not understand exactly what style of ballad would come under that category? I might otherwise help you to some—not of my own, certainly. I regret to hear that you are leaving town immediately, but should I visit Ireland within the next few months, which is probable, I shall hope to find you somewhere."
  5. Davis wrote to Smith O'Brien, "The 'Ballad Poetry' has reached a third edition, and cannot be printed fast enough for the sale. It is every way good. Not an Irish Conservative of education but will read it, and be brought nearer to Ireland by it. That is a propagandism worth a thousand harangues such as you ask me to make." Davis's friend, D. O. Madden, author of "Ireland and its Rulers," "Memoirs of Fox and Pitt," &c., wrote to him at the same time, " The 'Ballad Poetry of Ireland' is admirable. It is all to nothing the best edited collection I ever saw. The introduction is a choice specimen of writing; it merits what the Spectator said of it and what more could be desired? It reflects immense credit on Duffy." "Life of Thomas Davis."
  6. At this time there were, it was computed, more books published in Ireland than in Scotland—a quite unprecedented circumstance and they were all coloured more or less with the new opinions. Irish art, long slumbering, seemed to have risen anew, like an awakened angel, radiant and strong. Ireland had produced great artists, but they were mostly absentees. At this time John Hogan, a sculptor of fertile and original genius, and F. W. Burton, a painter of the same calibre, were making a generous experiment to live by their art at home—an experiment full of interest to men who believed that Ireland, if she were free, would rear merchants like the Medici, and nobles like the Colonna, to foster native art. Constant efforts were made to inspire the wealthy with this ambition, and a movement was commenced to create Schools of Design in Dublin and Cork a project accomplished in later days. Dublin had eminent men of science, but no recognised Irish school. Hamilton, Graves, Lloyd, Robinson, Stokes, and Kane were known wherever science was cultivated, but known as Englishmen. There were now few Irish gentlemen who did not sympathise with the desire of the Young Irelanders that these eminent men would do for their country what Adam Smith, Hume, and Robertson, and in later times Dugald Stewart and Brown, had done for Scotland. The Dublin Review, always Catholic, had now become a skilful guide to Irish students in history and fiction; the Dublin University Magazine, always intensely Protestant, shook off a corps of third-rate English contributors enlisted by Lever, and replaced them by Carleton, Mangan, Ferguson, Le Fanu, M. J. Barry, and other Irishmen. "Turlogh O'Brien" was issuing monthly from the same house, with generous and graphic pictures of the struggle under James and Tyrconnell; and Lever, who had left the country, sent from the Continent a story which might have been published as a feuilleton in the Nation. And a new and more methodic edition of Dr. Madden's "United Irishmen" was issued a book which is a marvel of patient research and loving enthusiasm. " Four Years of Irish History," bk. i., chap. iii.