In 1843 there were more than a million men of fighting age on the soil of Ireland who supported O’Connell’s demand for Repeal with their voices, and waited for his word to support it with their hands. An English Cabinet Minister surveying the situation, observed that the growth of Irish Population was a menace. Hence, the Famine.
In 1845 the potato-blight appeared in Western Europe. Germany and the other Continental countries affected closed their ports to the export of foodstuffs until the respective Governments were satisfied that none of their people could be starved. The Young Irelanders demanded that the Ports of Ireland should be similarly closed. As this would have shortened England’s food supply and kept the Million Repealers of Military Age alive, the British Government refused. The Parliamentary Party of that era — which had consented to put Repeal on the shelf in return for a prodigious number of Commisionerships, sub-Commissionerships, Inspectorships, stipendiary magistracies, and so-forth — supported the Government’s refusal and proclaimed the Young Irelanders Factionists, Traitors, Infidels, and Enemies of Repeal.
Thus, between 1846 and 1850 the potential Repeal Army vanished, and England was kept supplied with cheap food from Ireland. In each year of the Legislative Famine Ireland raised on her soil food for the sustenance of from sixteen to twenty millions of people. Out of her population of 8,000,000, two millions were destroyed in the same period by hunger, hunger-fever, and emigration to escape hunger-fever.
The Young Irelanders who attempted resistance to the course of British policy had their newspapers suppressed, and their bodies transported to England’s Penal Settlements. Next, the Tenant League, founded by Gavan Duffy, Geo. Henry Moore, and Frederick Lucas, succeeded in electing a pledge-bound Parliamentary Party to the British Parliament, where the British Government at once bought it up.
Thereafter, the Reduction of Ireland proceeded swiftly and smoothly, with the help of the Encumbered Estates Act. Lord Sligo, for instance, wiped out 10,000 people who dwelt upon the soil then in his possession, and whose ancestors had dwelt there for a thousand years, and Mr. John George Adair, desiring to have good shooting and civilised surroundings, bought a countryside and left no living thing of the human species on it. The natives wept— “throwing themselves on the ground,” writes the Unionist “Derry Standard’s”. correspondent of the day — ‘‘…… they burst out into the old Irish wail — and their terrifying cries resounded along the mountain-side.” But Mr. Adair, or Lord Lucan or Lord Sligo, or Mr. Allan Pollock or Lord Leitrim suffered no other inconvenience. For it had been ground into the Irish peasant that it was no sin for the British Government to exterminate HIM, but it was damnation hereafter for him to conspire to exterminate the British Government, or even to shoot a John George Adair.
It was in this forlorn and seemingly broken-spirited land the Fenian Movement was founded by James Stephens, John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny — all three Young Irelanders who, in 1848, had urged the people to fight rather than let themselves be legally famished. It spread through the land, although the British Government mobilised all its sacred and profane artillery. When Fenianism attempted armed and open war with the British Empire, the British Empire was able to defeat it without calling the French, the Russians, the Japanese, the Servians, the Belgians, the Italians, the Ghoorkhas the Senegalese, and the Fiji Islanders to its aid, but the spirit of Fenianism, which was the spirit of Young Ireland, which was the spirit of Ancient Ireland, it could not defeat. Fenianism had recalled Irishmen to their manhood. It had exorcised the British Theology and convinced the better part of the Irish that to permit themselves to be destroyed without offering resistance was not a meek submission to Providence entitling them to heaven hereafter, but plain suicide — a sin against God.
The spread of this conviction led to the farmers of Tipperary when their landlords came to exterminate them, using guns at Ballycohey and elsewhere to exterminate their landlords, their landlords’ bailiffs, and their landlords’ police. A British Government alarmed at this practical Fenianism immediately did what it had refused to the appeals, arguments, pleas, and supplications of forty years of oratory and resolutions — passed a Land Act recognising the right of an Irish farmer to object to being extirpated off-hand. Within a dozen years thereafter the spirit of Fenianism had smashed Landlordism in Ireland into fragments, and the Irish farmer was free to live and eat of his own corn.
So long as the spirit of Fenianism diffused itself through the body politic, Ireland marched on a hundred paths of political, social, industrial, and educational effort to National Regeneration. When the body grew corrupt Ireland shrivelled in men’s minds from a spiritual force and a National entity to a fragment of Empire — an Area. Again, the Body Politic has healed and awakens to consciousness of that soul within it which the Political Atheist denies. No man will watch the body of O’Donovan Rossa pass to its tomb without remembering that the strength of an Empire was baffled when it sought to subdue this man whose spirit was the free spirit of the Irish Nation.