Letter to the Editor of the Irish Felon, June 24th, 1848
DEAR SIR, – In assenting to aid in the formation and conduct of a journal intended to fill the place and take up the mission of The United Irishmen, I think it desirable to make a short statement of the principles and conditions, public and personal on which alone I would desire to be accepted as a partner in this undertaking. I think there is none of them to which you will object or demur, and that I may already consider them as articles of agreement.
There are some of them which may possibly strike you at first as admitting question, or requiring to be qualified; but I am convinced you will find our views to be essentially the same, although perhaps put into a different dialect and a different form of expression.
And in the first place and prior to everything else I feel bound to state that I join you on the clear understanding that I am engaging, not in a mercantile concern, nor in any private speculation or enterprise whatever, but in a political confederacy for a great public purpose. Money must not be admitted among our objects or motives; and no money must be made by those, or any of those concerned in the conduct of this journal.
You and I, and each and all of us must determine to leave this office as poor as we enter it. This condition is more important than may appear on first view; and I believe it absolutely requisite to make, and insist on it as a principle of action. You may not, and indeed cannot be aware of all its necessity, nor of many of the motives and grounds on which I desire to have it entered as an article of agreement between ourselves, and between us and the public. In a letter intended for publication (if you see fit) I do not for the present think proper to give any full statement; but in private I feel assured that I shall be able to satisfy your mand on the matter.
To establish an ordinary newspaper, on the common motive of vesting a capital to advantage, is doubtless quite legitimate. But to found such a journal as the Felon, on the views which you and I entertain, for the mere purpose, in whole or in part, of making a fortune or making a farthing, would be a felon’s crime indeed, deserving no hero’s doom, lamented death or honoured exile, but death on the scaffold, amid the scoff and scorn of the world.
For years we have seen men in Ireland alternately trading on the government and trading on the country, and making money by both; and you do not imagine, perhaps, to what degree the public mind has been affected with a feeling of suspicion by the circumstance – a feeling depended, extended and justified, by all we see or know of ourselves.
For, indeed, the craving to get money – the niggard reluctance to give money – the coward fear of losing or laying out money – is the bad and coarse point that is not apparent in the character of all ranks and classes of our people; and I often fear it argues and utter absence of all heroism from our national temperament, and of all the romantic passions, whether public or private.
In other countries men marry for love; in Ireland they marry for money. Elsewhere they serve their country for their country’s thanks or their country’s tears – here they do it for their country’s money. At this very time, when Ireland, to all appearance, is stripping for her last struggle on this side of ages, there are, I am convinced, many persons among the middle classes who refuse to fall into the national march, or countenance the national movement, merely from the hope – in most cases vain as it is vile – of obtaining some petty government place; or from the fear of losing some beggarly employment or emolument; and I know myself in this country many and many a sturdy and comfortable farmer who refuses to furnish himself with a pike, merely and solely because it would cost him two shillings.
For ourselves – I say nothing of others – let us aim at better rewards than mere money rewards. Better and higher rewards has Ireland in her hands. If we succeed, we shall obtain these; and if we do not succeed, we shall deserve none. In cases like this, the greatest crime that man can commit is the crime of failure. I an convinced it has become essential to our fame and our effectiveness – to the success of our cause and the character of our country, to keep clear and secure ourselves from the suspicion, that our only object may benothing more than a long and lucrative agitation.
The Confederation pledged its members to accept no office or place of profit from an English government. That pledge was efficient, perhaps, for its own professed purposes, but not for others – for an “agitation” has places and profits of its own to bestow. Let them say of us whatever they will – let them call us felons, and treat us as such, but let them not, at least, have the power to call us swindlers. We may be famous; let us not become infamous.
For the proprietors of this paper, let their capital be replaced, but nothing more. For the conductors and contributors, let their entire expenses be defrayed, if you will, on the most liberal estimate, but nothing more. If any surplus remains, large or little, it is required in support and aid of our general objects, and to that purpose I am clearly of opinion it ought to be devoted. It is perfectly plain to me that a newspaper cannot of itself achieve these objects, any more than a battery can carry a camp or a fortress.
A public journal is indeed, indispensable; but it is chiefly in order to cover and protect other operations, and those operations must be paid for. For they will not pay for themselves. A public fund is wanted – a large one is wanted – it is wanted immediately; and we have no present mode of forming one, except of throwing into it the whole surplus profits of the Felon.
But some of us may have families – we may perish in this enterprise – and what of them? Leave them to God and to Ireland; or if you fear to trust either, then stay at home and let others do the work.
For these and other still more important reasons, needless to be stated as yet, I certainly could have wished that this journal had been established on a subscribed capital, and the effective ownership vested in a joint-stock company, of say eight hundred or a thousand proprietors. What is there to hinder that this arrangement should be made even now? It would contain securities, and create powers, which no other could offer or pretend to.
There are, indeed, some practical difficulties in the way, but they might easily, I think, be overcome. Whether any such arrangement be adopted or not, I believe, however, that I am fully warranted in desiring – and I think our own true interest and honour concur in demanding that – the Felon office shall not be a commercial establishment, but organised and animated as a great political association.
And, for my part, I enter it with the hope and determination to make it an armed post, a fortress for freedom to be, perhaps, taken and retaken again, and yet again; but never to surrender, nor stoop its flag, till that flag shall float over a liberated nation.
Without agreement as to our objects we can not agree on the course we should follow. It is requisite the paper should have but one purpose; and the public should understand what that purpose is. Mine is to not repeal the Union, or restore Eighty-Two. This is not the year ’82 this is the year ’48. For repeal I never went into “Agitation” and will not got into insurrection. On that question I refuse to arm, or to act in any mode; and the country refuses.
O’Connell made no mistake when he pronounced it not worth the price of one drop of blood; and for myself, I regret it was not left in the hands of Conciliation Hall, whose lawful property it was and is. Moral force and Repeal, the means and the purpose, were just fitted to each other – Arcades ambo, balmy Arcadians both.
When the means were limited, it was only proper and necessary to limit the purpose. When the means were enlarged, that purpose ought to have been enlarged also. Repeal, in its vulgar meaning, I look on as utterly impracticable by any mode of action whatever; and the constitution of ’82 was absurd, worthless, and worse than worthless.
The English government will never concede or surrender to any species of moral force whatsoever; and the country-peasantry will never arm and fight for it – neither will I. If I am to stake life and fame it must assuredly be for something better and greater, more likely to last, more likely to succeed, and better worth success. And a strong passion, a higher purpose, a nobler and more needful enterprise is fermenting the hearts of the people.
A mightier question moves Ireland today than that of merely repealing the Act of Union. Not the constitution that Wolfe Tone died to abolish, but the constitution that Tone died to obtain – independence; full and absolute independence for this island, and for every man within this island. Into no movement that would leave an enemy’s garrison in possession of all our lands, masters of our liberties, our lives, and all our means of life and happiness – into no so much movement will a single man of the greycoats enter with an armed hand, whatever the town population may do.
On a wider fighting field, with stronger positions and greater resources than are afforded by the paltry question of Repeal, must we close for our final struggle with England, or sink and surrender.
Ireland her own – Ireland her own, and all therein, from the sod to the sky. The soil of Ireland for the people of Ireland, to have and hold from God alone who gave it – to have and to hold to them and their heirs for ever, without suit or service, faith or fealty, rent or render, to without any power under Heaven. From a worse bondage than the bondage of any foreign government – from a dominion more grievous and grinding than the dominion of England in its worst days – from the cruellest tyranny that ever yet held its vulture clutch on the body and soul of a country – from the robber rights and robber rule that have turned us into slaves and beggars in the land which God gave us for ours – Deliverance, oh Lord, Deliverance or death – Deliverance, or this island a desert.
This is the one prayer, and terrible need, and real passion of Ireland today, as it has been for ages. Now, at last it begins to shape into defined and desperate purpose; and into it all meaner and smaller purposes must settle and merge. It might have been kept in abeyance, and away from the sight of the sun – aye, even till this old native race had been finally conquered out and extinguished, sub silentio, without noise or notice.
But once propounded and proclaimed as a principle, not in the dust of remote country districts, but loudly and proudly in the tribunes of the capital, it must now be accepted and declared as the first and main Article of Association in the National Covenant of organised defence and armed resistance; as the principle to take ground, and stand, and fight upon.
When a greater and more ennobling enterprise is on foot, every inferior and feebler project or proceeding will soon be left in the hands of old women, of dastards, imposters, swindlers and imbeciles. All the strength and manhood of the island – all the courage, energies, and ambition – all the passion, heroism and chivalry – all the strong men and the strong minds – all those things that make revolutions will quickly desert it, and throw themselves into that great movement, throng into the larger and loftier undertaking, and flock round the banner that flies nearest the sky.
There go the young, the gallant, the gifted, and the daring; and there, too, go the wise. For wisdom knows that in national action littleness is more fatal than the wildest rashness; the greatness of object is essential to greatness of effort, strength and success; that a revolution ought never to take its stand on low or narrow ground, but seize on the broadest and highest ground it can lay hands on; and that a petty enterprise seldom succeeds. Had America aimed or declared for less than independence, she would, probably, have failed, and been a fettered slave today.
Not to repeal the Union, then, but the conquest – not to disturb or dismantle the empire, but to abolish it totally forever – not to fall back on ’82, but act up to ’48 – not to resume or restore an old constitution, but found a new nation and raise up a free people, and strong as well as free, and secure as well as strong, based on a peasantry rooted like rocks in the soil of the land – this is my object, as I hope it is yours; and this, you may be assured, is the easier as it is the nobler and the more pressing enterprise.
For Repeal, all the moral means at our disposal have in turns been used, abused and abandoned. All the military means it can command will fail as utterly. Compare the two questions. Repeal would require a national organization; a central representative authority, formally elected; a regular army, a regulated war of concentrated action and combined movement.
What shall we have them? Where is your National Council of Three Hundred? Where is your National Council of Three Hundred Thousand? On Repeal, Ireland, of necessity, should resolve and act by the kingdom, all together, linked and led; and if beaten in the kingdom there would be nothing to fall back upon.
She could not possibly act by parishes. To club and arm would not be enough, or rather it would be nothing; and for Repeal alone Ireland will neither club nor arm. The towns only will do so. A Repeal-war would probably be the fight and defeat of a single field-day; or if protracted, it would be a mere game of chess – and England, be assured, would beat you in the game of chess.
On the other question all circumstances differ, as I could easily show you. But I have gone into this portion of the subject prematurely and unawares, and here I stop – being reluctant, besides, to trespass too long on the time of her Majesty’s legal and military advisers.
The principle I state, and mean to stand upon is this, that the entire ownership of Ireland, moral and material, up to the sun and down to the centre, is vested of right in the people of Ireland; that they, and none but they are the land-owners and law-makers of this island; that all laws are null and void not made by them, and all titles to land invalid not conferred or confirmed by them; and that this full right of ownership may and ought to be asserted and enforced by any and all means which God has put in the power of man.
In other, if not plainer words, I hold and maintain that the entire soil of a country belongs of right to the entire people of that country, and is the rightful property, not of any one class, but of the nation at large, in full effective possession, to let to whom they will, on whatever tenures, terms, rents, services and conditions they will; one condition, however being unavoidable and essential, the condition that the tenant shall bear full, true and undivided fealty and allegiance to the nation, and the laws of the nation, whose land he holds, and own no allegiance whatsoever to any prince, power or people, or any obligation of obedience or respect to their will, orders or laws.
I hold further, and firmly believe, that the enjoyment by the people of this right of first ownership in the soil, is essential to the vigour and vitality of all other rights; to their validity, their efficacy, and value; to their secure possession and safe exercise. For let no people deceive themselves, or be deceived by the words and colours, and phrases, and form of a mock freedom, by constitutions and charters, and articles and franchises.
These things are paper and parchment, waste and worthless. Let laws and institutions say what they will, this fact will be stronger than all laws, and prevail against them – the fact that those who own your lands will make your laws, and command your liberties and your lives. But this is tyranny and slavery; tyranny in its widest scope and worst shape; slavery of body and soul, from the cradle to the coffin – slavery with all its horrors, and with none of its physical comforts and security; even as it is in Ireland, where the whole community is made up of tyrants, slaves, and slave-drivers.
A people whose lands and lives are thus in the keeping and custody of others, instead of in their own, are not in a position of common safety. The Irish famine of ’46 is example and proof. The corn crops were sufficient to feed the island. But the landlords would have their rents, in spite of famine and defiance of fever.
They took the whole harvest and left hunger to those who raised it. Had the people of Ireland been the landlords of Ireland, not a human creature would have died of hunger, nor the failure of the potato been considered a matter of any consequence.
This principle, then, that the property and possession of land, as well as the powers of legislation, belong of right to people who live in the land and under the law – do you assent to it in its full integrity, and to the present necessity of enforcing it? Your reason may assent, yet your feelings refuse and revolt – or those of others at least may do so. Mercy is for the merciful; and you may think it pity to oust and abolish the present noble race of land-owners, who have ever been pitiful and compassionate themselves.
What! Is your sympathy for a class so great, and your sympathy for a whole people so small. For those same land-owners are now treading out the very life and existence of an entire people, and trampling down the liberties and hopes of this island for ever. It is a mere question between a people and a class – between a people of eight millions and a class of eight thousand.
They or we must quit this island. It is a people to be saved or lost – it is the island to be kept or surrendered. They have served us with a general writ of ejectment. Wherefore, I say, let them get a notice to quit at once; or we shall oust possession under the law of nature.
There are men who claim protection for them, and for all their tyrannous rights and powers, being as “one class of the Irish people.” I deny the claim. They form no class of the Irish people, or any other people. Strangers they are in this land they call theirs – strangers here and strangers everywhere, owning no country and owned by none; rejecting Ireland, and rejected by England; tyrants to this island, and slaves to another; here they stand hating and hated – their hand ever against us, as ours against them, an outcast and ruffianly horde, alone in this world, and alone in its history, a class by themselves.
They do not now, and never did belong to this island. Tyrants and traitors have they ever been to us and ours since first they set foot on our soil. Their crime it is and not England’s that Ireland stands where she does today – or rather it is our own that have borne them so long.
Were they a class of the Irish people the Union could be repealed without a life lost. Had they been a class of the Irish people that Union would have never been. But for them we would now be free, prosperous and happy. Until they be removed no people can ever take root, grow up and flourish here. The question between them and us must sooner or later have been brought to a deadly issue.
For heaven’s sake, and for Ireland’s let us settle it now, and not leave it to our children to settle. Indeed it must be settled now – for it is plain to any ordinary sight that they or we are doomed. A cry has gone up to heaven for the living and the dead – to save the living, and avenge the dead.
There are, however, many landlords, perhaps, and certainly a few, not fairly chargeable with the crimes of their orders; and you may think it hard they should lose their lands. But recollect the principle I assert would make Ireland, in fact as she is of right, mistress and queen of all those lands; that she, poor lady, had ever a soft heart and grateful disposition; and that she may, if she please, in reward of allegiance, confer new titles or confirm the old. Let us crown her a queen; and then – let her do with her lands as a queen may do.
In the case of any existing interest, of what nature soever, I feel assured that no question but one would need to be answered. Does the owner of that interest assent to swear allegiance to the people of Ireland, and to hold in fee from the Irish nation? If he assent he may be assured he will suffer no loss. No eventual or permanent loss I mean; for some temporary loss he must assuredly suffer.
But such loss would be incidental and inevitable to any armed insurrection whatever, no matter on what principle the right of resistance be resorted to. If he refuses, then I say – away with him – out of this land with him – himself and all his robber rights, and all the things himself and his rights have brought into our island – blood and tears, and famine, and the fever that goes with famine.
Between the relative merits and importance of the two rights, the people’s right to the land, and their right to legislation, I do not mean or wish to institute any comparison. I am far, indeed, from desirous to put the two rights in competition or contrast, for I consider each alike as the natural complement of the other, necessary to its theoretical completeness and practical efficacy.
But considering them for a moment as distinct, I do mean to assert this – that the land question contains, and the legislative question does not contain, the materials from which victory is manufactured; and that, therefore, if we be truly in earnest, and determined on success, it is on the former question, and not on the latter, we must take our stand, fling out our banner, and hurl down to England our gage of battle. Victory follows that banner alone – that, and no other.
This island is ours, and have it we will, if the leaders be but true to the people, and the people be true to themselves.
The rights of property may be pleaded. No one has a higher respect for the real rights of property than I have; but I do not class among them the robber’s right, by which the lands of this country are now held in fee from the British crown. I acknowledge no right of property in a small class which goes to abrogate the rights of a numerous people. I acknowledge no right of property in eight thousand persons, be they noble or ignoble, which takes away all rights of property, security, independence, and existence itself, from a population of eight millions, and stands in bar to all the political rights of the island, and all the social rights of its inhabitants.
I acknowledge no right of property which takes the food of millions, and gives them a famine – which denies to the peasant the right of a home, and concedes, in exchange, the right of a workhouse. I deny and challenge all such rights, howsoever founded or enforced. I challenge them, as founded only on the code of the brigand, and enforced only by the sanction of the hangman.
Against them I assert the true and indefeasible right of property – the right of our people to live in it in comfort, security, and independence, and to live in it by their own labour, on their own land, as God and nature meant them to do. Against them I shall array, if I can, all the forces that yet remain in this island. And against them I am determined to make war, – and to their destruction or my own.
These are my principles and views. I shall have other opportunities to develop and defend them. I have some few other requisitions to make, but I choose to defer them for other reasons besides want of time and space. Our first business, before we can advance a step, is to fix our own footing and make good our position. That once done, this contest must, if possible, be brought to a speedy close.