I did not know what “Repeal of the Union” was when I heard all the grown-up people around me shouting out “Repeal! Repeal!” It is no harm now to let my young readers know what Repeal meant when I was a boy in Ireland.
Before I was a boy—before you or I were in the world at all—Ireland had a Parliament of her own. Ireland’s representatives met in the Parliament House in College Green, Dublin. Or, more correctly speaking, the English breed of people living in Ireland held Parliament in College Green. The real old Irish people, who remained true to the old cause and the old faith, had no voice in that Parliament; they had not even a voice in electing a member to it. Things were so arranged by the English that only an Englishman, or an Irishman who became a turn-coat, and changed his nature and his religion, could have anything to say or do with that Parliament. Yet, when the Englishmen, the Sassenachs and the Protestants, who came into possession of Ireland, came to find out that England would rob them of their rights, too, as well as she would rob the Catholics, they kicked against the robbery, and in the year 1782 they made a show of resistance, and got England to take her hands off them for awhile. But up to the year 1800 England had intrigued and bribed so much, that she bought over a majority of the members, and they voted that our Irish Parliament would be abolished; that they would not meet in Dublin any more, but that they would have a united parliament for Great Britain and Ireland in London. The act by which that was done was called the Act of Union, and it was to repeal that act that the movement for the “Repeal of the Union,” was started.
Daniel O’Connell, of Kerry, was the head man of that movement. He was a great man at moving the Irish people, and carrying them with him. Many of the people thought he meant to fight, too, in the long run, for at some of his monster meetings, speaking to tens of thousands of people, he’d cry out “Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not! Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.” But he never seriously meant fight. If he did he would, in a quiet way, or in some way, have made some preparation for it. Those same remarks hold good as regards the later Irish movement of Charles S. Parnell. A great many people said he meant to fight when he’d cry out that he’d “never take off his coat to the work he was at, if there was not some other work behind it.” But he never seriously meant fight either. If he did, he would, in a quiet way, or in some way, have made some preparation for it.
But England became alarmed at O’Connell’s movement, and she put him and hundreds of men in prison in connection with it, just as she became alarmed at Parnell’s movement in the heyday of its vigor, and put him and hundreds of men to prison in connection with it. England gives great allowance to Irishmen in showing themselves great and patriotic in constitutional and parliamentary agitation, but when it goes a little too far beyond her liking, she is very quick at stopping it.
I recollect when O’Connell was put to prison, and when he was released from prison. I recollect the night the bonfires were blazing on the hills throughout the country in celebration of the release of the prisoners, and the song that was afterward sung about it, a verse of which is this:
“The year ’44, on the 30th of May,
Our brave liberator, these words he did say:
‘The time is but short that I have for to stay,
When the locks of my prison shall open.
You’ll find me as true—that the laws I’ll obey,
And I’ll always be so, till I’m laid in the clay.
For Peace is the thing that will carry the sway,
And bring parliament back to old Erin.’”
“He’s fined and confined,” said one of the ushers of Beamish’s school, in my hearing, to his scholars, as I was playing ball outside the schoolhouse gate, the evening the news of Dan O’Connell’s being found “guilty” came into Ross. And these scholars seemed to receive the news with glee. They belonged to the English crowd in Ireland. Four or five of them were boys named Hickson, sons of one of the Lansdowne agents in Kerry. Twenty years after, I met a few of them at the races of Inch Strand, west of Castlemaine.
And what a lively time there was in Ireland those days of the O’Connell movement! And how delightfully the birds used to sing! There were more birds and more people there then than there are now. Nine millions in 1845; four and a half millions in 1895. And those English savages rejoice over the manner in which they destroy us. They thank God we are gone, “gone with a vengeance,” they say. What a pity we haven’t the spirit to return the vengeance. But we are taught to do good to those that hate us, to bless those that curse us, and to pray for those who persecute and calumniate us. I can’t do it; I won’t try to do it; I won’t be making a hypocrite of myself in the eyes of the Lord; I could sooner bring myself to pray for the devil first.
I have written that neither O’Connell nor Parnell meant fight, because neither of them made any preparation for fight. While all of us talk much of fight, and glorify in song and story those who fought and fell, is it possible that something degenerate has grown into us, that always keeps us from coming to the point when the crisis is at hand! There is no doubt that we fight bravely the battles of all the nations of the earth. But then, we are made to do it. We join their armies, and we are shot down if we don’t do it. There is no power, no discipline, to compel us to fight for Ireland, and it is surprising the facility with which the leaders of Irish physical-force organizations of the present day can lead their forces into the fields of moral force, to obtain for their country a freedom that they swore they were to fight for. ’Tis desertion of that kind that made Parnellism; ’tis base desertion of that kind that leaves heroic Irishmen dead and dying in the dungeons of England to-day. I’m getting vexed. I’ll stop.
Why do I make these remarks? I don’t know. I have been talking of O’Connell and I have been thinking of John O’Donovan, the great Irish scholar, and what he said to me one time about O’Connell. In a letter he wrote to me, about the year 1856, he says: “There were no two men of the age who despised the Irish name and the Irish character more than did Daniel O’Connell, and the late Dr. Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin. Dr. Miley, in whose hands O’Connell died, told me this at this table, and I firmly believe it.”
John O’Donovan was intimately acquainted with Father Meehan, the author of the History of the Confederation of Kilkenny and other historical works. I met Father Meehan at John O’Donovan’s house one night in 1859. I was after being released from Cork jail, and we had some talk at table about the Phœnix movement. John O’Donovan thought I was somewhat over-sanguine. “The bishops won’t let the people fight,” said he. Dr. Meehan never said a word. I’ll now go back to my story.
I told you I shook hands with O’Connell when he was coming from the great meeting in Skibbereen, in the year 1843. I remember the morning the Ross men were going to that meeting. Some of them had white wands. I see Dan Hart having one of those wands, regulating the men into line of march. Those wandmen were the peace-police of the procession. Paddy Donovan-Rossa was prominent in command, giving out new Repeal buttons. Some years after, he was in New York with his wife and his six sons—all dead now: all belonging to him dead now, I may say. Meeting him here in the year 1863, I said to him—“Uncle Paddy, I remember you, the time you had all the Repeal buttons in Ross to free Ireland.” I was sorry for saying it, for the tears ran down his cheeks. The movement I myself was connected with ended no better, and we are in no position to say anything hurtful to O’Connellites. We all turned out to be O’Connellites, or Parnellites, which is much the same; all putting our trust in England to free Ireland for us—“without striking a blow.” No, there were not ten men of the whole Fenian movement, and the whole I. R. B. movement in America, that did not turn in to the Parnell movement. That is how England feels strong to-day, and that is how she feels she can treat with contempt all the resolutions passed by Irishmen in Ireland and America, about the release of the Irish political prisoners that she holds in her English prisons. No society of Irishmen exists now that she is afraid of. She has everything in her own hands. And, until England is made afraid, she will do nothing for Ireland, or give nothing to Irishmen.
The Repeal movement, the Father Mathew movement, the Young Ireland movement, and the English-made famine movement, ran into one another, from the year 1840 to the year 1848. I was in the whole of them—not much as a man, but a great deal as a little boy. I remember on Sundays, how I’d sit for hours in the workshop of Mick Hurley, the carpenter, at the lower side of the Pound Square, listening to Patrick (Daniel) Keohane reading the Nation newspaper for the men who were members of the Club. He was the best scholar in our school; he was in the first class, and he was learning navigation. And he did go to sea after that, and sailed his own ship for years. When last I saw him he kept shop, or kept store, as we here call it, in that part of the town where the Courceys and Crokers and Moloneys lived. And he is there yet. Won’t he be surprised, if he reads what I am writing, to know that he had a hand in making a “bad boy” of me, listening to him reading the Nation newspaper fifty odd years ago! It is very possible it was through his reading I first heard of the death of Thomas Davis. It was in 1845 Thomas Davis died, and Patrick Keohane and I were in Ross then. It was the first of the years that are called the “famine” years; years that will require from me the whole of the next chapter.