(The Irish Felon, No. 3)

When Mr. Duffy expected arrest some weeks ago he drew up his profession of principles, “The Creed of the Nation.” Under influence of similar feelings, and considerations, though not exactly the same nor excited by circumstances exactly alike, I hasten to put my own principles upon record.

Until yesterday I did not expect to have done this for some weeks to come. The statement, or confession of faith that follows, I could have wished for time to make more correct and complete. It is ill-framed, ill-connected, and wants completeness.

But even such as it stands, I do firmly believe that it carries the fortunes of Ireland; and even such as it stands, I now send it forth to its fate to conquer or be conquered. It may be master of Ireland and make her a Queen; it may lie in the dust and perish with her people.

Here then is the confession and faith of a FELON. Years ago I perceived that the English conquest consisted of two parts combined into one whole – the conquest of our liberties, the conquest of our lands.

I saw clearly that the re-conquest of our liberties would be incomplete and worthless without the re-conquest of our lands – would not necessarily involve or produce that of our lands and could not, on its own means, be possibly achieved; while the re-conquest of our lands would involve the other, would at least be complete in first and adequate to its own purpose; and could possibly, if not easily, be achieved.

The lands were owned by the conquering race, or by traitors to the conquered race. They were occupied by the native people or by settlers who had mingled and merged. I selected as the mode of re-conquest, to refuse payment of rent and resist process of ejectment.

In that mode I determined to effect the re-conquest and staked on it all my hopes here and hereafter – my hopes of an effective life and an eternal epitaph.

I was biding my time when the potato failure hurried a crisis. The landlords and English government took instant advantage of this famine, and the small occupiers began to quit in thousands. I saw that Ireland was to be won at once or lost for ever. I felt her slipping from under my feet with all her hopes, and all my own – her lights quenching, her arm withering.

It almost seemed to me as if the Young Ireland party, the quarrel, the secession, the Confederation, had all been specially pre-ordained and produced in order to aid me. My faith in the men who formed the Council of that body was then unbounded. My faith in them still is as firm as ever, though somewhat more measured.

In the paper I published last week, and in a private correspondence that ensued with some of its members, I proposed that they should merge the Repeal question with a mightier project – that of wrestling this island from English rule altogether in the only mode in which it could possibly be achieved.

I endeavoured to show them they were only keeping up a feeble and ineffectual fire from a foolish distance upon the English government, which stands out of reach and beyond our power; and urged them to wheel their batteries around and bend them on the English garrison of landlords who stand here within our hands, scattered, isolated, and helpless, girdled round by the might of a people.

Except two or three of them, all refused at the time, and have persisted in refusing until now. They wanted an alliance with the landowners. They chose to consider them as Irishmen, and imagined they could induce them to hoist the green flag. They wished to preserve an Aristocracy. They desired not a democratic but a merely national revolution.

Who imputes blame to them for this? Whoever does so will not have me to join him. I have no feeling but one of respect for the motives that caused reluctance and delay. That delay, however, I consider as matter of deep regret. Had the Confederation, in the May or June of ’47, thrown heart and mind and means and might into the movement I pointed out, they would have made it successful, and settled for once and forever all quarrels and questions between us and England.

I repeat my expression of strong regret that they should not have adopted this course, instead of persisting in a protracted and abortive effort, at a most dangerous conjuncture, to form an alliance of bargain and barter with our hereditary and inveterate enemies, between whom and the people of this island there will never be a peace except the peace of death or of desolation. Regrets, however are useless now.

The opinions I then stated, and which I yet stand firm to, are these: –

  1. That in order to save their own lives, the occupying tenants of the soil of Ireland ought, next autumn, to refuse all rent and arrears of rent then due, beyond and except the value of the overplus of harvest produce remaining in their hands after having deducted and reserved a due and full provision for their own subsistence during the ensuing twelve months.
  2. That they ought to refuse and resist being made beggars, landless and houseless, under the English law of ejectment.
  3. That they ought further, on principle, to refuse ALL rent to the present usurping proprietors until the people, the true proprietors (or lords paramount in legal parlance) have in national congress or convention, decided what rents they are to pay, and to whom they are to pay them.
  4. And that the people on grounds of policy and economy, ought to decide (as a general rule, admitting of reservations) that those rents shall be paid to themselves, the people, for public purposes, and for behoof and benefit of them, the entire general people.

These are the principles, as clearly and fully stated as limit of time will allow, which I advise Ireland to adopt at once, and at once to arm for. Should the people accept and adhere to them, the English government will then have to choose whether to surrender the Irish landlords, or to support them with the armed power of the empire.

If it refuse to incur the odium and expense, and to peril the safety of England in a social war of extermination, then the landlords are nobody, the people are lords of the land, a mighty social revolution is accomplished, and the foundations of a national revolution surely laid.

If it should on the other hand determine to come to the rescue and relief of its garrison – elect to force their rents, and enforce their rights by infantry, cavalry, and cannon, and attempt to lift and carry the whole harvest of Ireland – a somewhat heavy undertaking which might become a hot one too – then I, at least, for one, am prepared to bow with humble resignation to the dispensations of Providence. Welcome be the will of God.

We must only try to keep our harvest, to offer a peaceful passive resistance to barricade the island, to break up the roads, to break down the bridges – and should need be, and occasions offer surely we may venture to try the steel. Other approved modes of moral force might gradually be added to these, as we become trained to the system: and all combined, I imagine, and well worked, might possibly task the strength and break the heart of the empire.

Into artistic details, I need not, and do not choose, to enter for the present.

It has been said to me that such a war, on the principles I propose, would be looked upon with detestation by Europe. I assert the contrary: I say such a war would propagate itself throughout Europe. Mark the words of this prophecy – The principle I propound goes to the foundations of Europe, and sooner or later will cause Europe to outrise.

Mankind will yet be masters of the earth. The right of the people to make the laws – this produced the first great modern earthquake, whose latest shocks even now are heaving the heart of the world. The right of the people to own the land – this will produce the next.

Train your hands and your sons’ hands, gentlemen of earth, for you and they will yet to have use them. I want to put Ireland foremost, in the van of the world, at the head of the nations, to set her aloft in the blaze of the sun, and to make her for ages the lode star of history.

Will she take the path I point out – the path to be free and famed and feared and followed – the path that goes sunward? Or, onward to the end of time will wretched Ireland ever come limping and lagging hindmost? Events must answer that. It is a question I almost fear to look full in the face.

The soul of this island seems to sink where that of another country would soar. The people sank and surrendered to the famine instead of growing savage as any other people would have done.

I am reminded that there are few persons now who trouble themselves about the “conquest”: and there may be many, I know there are some – who assent to the two first of the four principles I have stated, and are willing to accept them as the grounds of an armed movement, but who object to the last two of them.

I am advised to summon the land-tenants of Ireland to stand up in battle-array for an armed struggle in defence of their rights of life and subsistence, without asserting any greater or more comprehensive right. I distinctly refuse to do so. I refuse to narrow the case and claim of the island into any such petty dimensions, or to found it on the rogue’s or the beggar’s plea, the plea of necessity.

Not as a starving bandit, or desperate beggar who demands, to save life, what does not belong to him, do I wish Ireland to stand up, but as a decrowned Queen who claims back her own with an armed hand. I attest and urge the plea of utter and desperate necessity to fortify her claim, but not to found it.

I rest it on no temporary or passing conditions but on principles that are permanent and imperishable, and universal; available to all times and to all countries, as well as to our own – I pierce through the upper stratum of occasional and shifting circumstance, to bottom and base on the rock below.

I put the question in its eternal form – the form in which how often soever suppressed for a season, it can never be finally subdued, but will remain and return, outliving and outlasting the corruption and cowardice of generations. I view it as ages will view it – not through the mists of a famine but by the living lights of the firmament.

You may possibly be induced to reject it in the form I propose, and accept in the other. If so you will accept the question and use it as a weapon against England, in a shape and under conditions which deprive it of half its strength. You will take and work it fettered and handcuffed not otherwise. To take it in its might, you must take it in its magnitude.

I propose you should take Samson into your service. You assent but insist that his locks should be shorn. You moreover diminish and degrade down from a national into a mere class question. In the form offered it would carry independence, in the form accepted it will not even carry Repeal, in the minimum of meaning. You fling away Repeal, when you fling away the only mode of achieving it.

For by force of arms alone can it ever be achieved; and never on the Repeal-question will you see men stand in array of battle against England.

I trouble myself as little as anyone does about the “conquest” as taken abstractedly, as an affair that took place long ages ago. But that “conquest” is still in existence with all its laws, rights, claims, relations and results. The landlords holds his lands by right and title of conquest, and uses his powers as only a conqueror may. The tenant holds under the law of conquest – vae victis.

Public policy must be founded on public principle; and the question of ethics must be settled before the question of economy can be taken up or touched. If the Irish landlord’s title be valid and good, no considerations of policy or economy could make a refusal to pay rent appear anything better than robbery.

What founds and forms the rights of property in land? I have never read in the direction of that question. I have all my life been destitute of books. But from the first chapter of Blackstone’s second book, the only page I ever read on the subject, I know that jurists are unanimously agreed in considering “first occupancy” to be the only true original foundation on the right of property and possession of land.

Now I am prepared to prove that “occupancy” wants every character and quality that could give it moral efficacy as a foundation of right. I am prepared to prove this when “occupancy” has first been defined. If no definition can be given, I am relieved from the necessity of showing any claim founded on occupancy to be weak and worthless.

Refusing, therefore, at once to accept or recognise this feeble and fictitious title of occupancy, which was merely invented by theorists, and which, in actual fact was never pleaded, I proceed at once to put my own principles in order and array.

To any plain understanding the right of private property is very simple. It is the right of man to possess, enjoy, and transfer, the substance and use of whatever he has himself CREATED. This title is good against the world; and it is the sole and only title by which a valid right of absolute private property can possibly vest.

But no man can plead any such title to a right of property in the substance of the soil.

The earth together with all it spontaneously produces is the free and common property of all mankind, of natural right, and by the grant of God; and, all men being equal, no man, therefore; has a right to appropriate exclusively to himself any part or portion thereof, except with the common consent and agreement of all other men.

The sole original right of property which I acknowledge to be morally valid is this right of common consent and agreement. Every other I hold to be fabricated and fictitious, null, void and of no effect.

In the original and natural state of mankind, existing in independent families, each man must, in respect of actual fact, either take and hold (ASSUME OCCUPANCY as well as maintain possession of) his land by right and virtue of such consent and agreement as aforesaid, with all those who might be in a position to dispute and oppose his doing so; or he must take and maintain possession by force.

The fictitious right of occupancy invented by jurists to cover and account for a state of settlement otherwise unaccountable and indefensible on moral principles – this right would be utterly worthless, and could seldom accrue; for except in such a case as that of a single individual thrown on a desert island, the question of right would generally arise, and require to be settled before any colourable “title by occupancy” could be established, or even actual occupation be effected.

And then – what constitutes occupancy? What length of possession gives “title by occupancy”?

When independent families have united into separate tribes, and tribes swelled into nations, the same law obtains; each tribe or nation has but either one or other of two available rights to stand upon – they must take and maintain territorial possession by consent and agreement with all other tribes and nations; or they must take and hold by the tenure of chivalry, in the right of their might.

In either of these two modes – that of conquest, or that of common agreement – have the distribution and settlement of the lands of every country been made. Occupancy, indeed and forsooth! Messrs. BLACKSTONE, TITIUS, LOCKE and Co. Occupancy against the Goth -Occupancy before the trampling hoofs of ATTILA – occupancy to stop HOUSTON or TAYLOR.

In every country the condition and character of the people tell whether it was by conquest, or common agreement, that the existing settlement and law of landed property were established.

When it is made by agreement there will be equality of distribution; which equality of distribution will remain permanent within certain limits. For under natural laws, landed property has rather a tendency to divide than to accumulate.

When the independent families who form the natural population of a country compose and organise into a regular community, the imperfect compact or agreement by which each man holds his land must necessarily assume the more perfect shape of a positive and precise grant from the people, just as all his other rights must be defined and ascertained – and just as all other vague rules of agreement must organise into laws.

That grant must necessarily assume and establish the general and common right of all the people, as joint and co-equal proprietors of all the land; for such grant will be of itself an act of exercising and proceeding upon that right.

That grant, and all other grants must also, of necessity, without any express words, reserve the general right of the people to revise, alter, and amend the mode and condition of settlement then made – and to modify or withdraw all grants made upon, or in pursuance of, that mode and condition of settlement. For no generation of living men can bind a generation that is yet unborn, or can sell or squander the rights of man; and each generation of men has but a life interest in the world.

But no generation continues the same for one hour together. Its identity is in perpetual flux. From whence it follows that, practically: –

Any condition of settlement established, and all grants made thereupon, may, at any time thenceforth, be questioned, reconsidered, revised, altered, or amended.

And in order, therefore, to render the settlement a permanent one, it would be requisite to make it such as would give the majority and mass of the people a permanent interest in its maintenance.

But that object could not be accomplished by granting away the whole of the land to one man, or to eight thousand men, in absolute irresponsible ownership forever, without condition of payment, or any other condition whatever. This would be a settlement beyond the authority and right of any generation to make.

Those deriving under it, could only be considered as holding forcible possession which any succeeding generation would have the clear right of ousting. And the people would either rise against such settlement, and trample it down – or sink under it like slaves.

Putting together and proceeding on the principles now stated, it will appear that if those principles be sound no man can legitimately claim possession or occupation of any portion of land or any right of property herein, except by grant from the people, at the will of the people, as tenant to the people, and on terms and conditions made or sanctioned by the people; and that every right except the right so created and vested by granny from the people, is nothing more or better than the right of the robber who holds forcible possession of what does not lawfully belong to him.

The present proprietors of Ireland do not hold or claim by grant from the people, not even – except in Ulster – by any species of imperfect assent or agreement of the people.

They got and keep their lands in the robber’s right – the right of conquest – in despite, defiance, and contempt of the people. Eight thousand men are owners of this island – claiming the right of enslaving, starving and exterminating eight millions.

We talk of asserting free government, and of ridding ourselves of foreign dominion – while lo! Eight thousand men are lords of our lives – of us and ours, blood and breath, happiness and misery, body and soul. Such is the state of things in every country where the settlement of the land has been effected by conquest.

In Ulster the state of things is somewhat different, much to the advantage of the people, but not so much as it ought to have been. Ulster was not merely conquered, but colonised – the native race being expelled, as in the United States of America – and the settlement that prevails was made by a sort of consent and agreement among the conquering race.

No length of time or possession can sanction claims acquired by robbery, or convert them into valid rights. The people are still rightful owners, though not in possession. “Nullum tempus occurrit Deo – nullum tempus occurrit populo.”

In many countries besides this, the lands were acquired, and long held by right of force or conquest. But in most of them the settlement and laws of conquest have been abrogated, amended, or modified to a greater or lesser extent. In some, an outrise of the people has trampled them down – in some the natural laws have triumphed over them – in some a despotic monarch or minister has abolished or altered them.

In Ireland alone they remain unchanged, unmitigated, and unmollified, in all their original ferocity and cruelty, and the people of Ireland must now abolish them, or be themselves abolished, and this is now the more urgent business.