Address delivered in Mechanics’ Hall, Boston, Massachusetts, on St. Patrick’s Day, 1890. Taken from the 1891 book The Life of John Boyle O’Reilly by James Jeffrey Roche.

There might be a doubt of the success of the Irish national cause if it were wholly sentimental, or if its expressions were irregular, fitful, or spasmodic. The causes or movements that have the elements of assured success, accordingly, belong to the history of the human race and not to a mere handful of people from a remote corner of the earth, and must be tested by three supreme tests: the test of right principle, the test of endurance, and the test of growth.

The principle underlying the Irish movement is the unquestionable one of a nation’s right to its own country and laws, to develop its own resources, to tell its own story to the world in its own way, and not in the way of another country; to have a full and fair chance for expressing its national genius. ‘The noblest principle is the public good,’ said the Latin poet, and this proposition has the agreement of all good men. It is true of all Ireland’s struggles; she has fought not only for improvement of rule, but for her very life. Her people have not merely been condemned to subjection, but to extermination.

The second test is of endurance. What need to prove this for Ireland’s history? Her fight has not varied in over 700 years; 600 years ago, or 400 years ago, or 300 years, or 100 years ago the condition of Ireland would be almost similar to that of the present time. At any of these periods the country would be found in open or latent rebellion against foreign oppression; its chief men either in arms, or in prison, or in exile; but defeat in Ireland never meant despair. Every generation renewed the fight as if it were beginning for the first time. Every twenty years for centuries there has been a systematic and definite new order of rebellion in Ireland. Each generation of young men willingly following in the footsteps of those who went before them, whether they led to prison or to death. The crew that pulls a long race and a losing one—is the strongest crew. This willing sacrifice has actually changed the meanings of accepted terms.

Irishmen have established a recognized code of moral right, as against statute laws and arbitrary governments which all the world recognizes; which even England recognizes, which is constantly putting their enemy in the wrong; and putting your enemy in the wrong in the sight of men is the worst kind of defeat, against which neither individual nor nation can long persist. Ireland has made a principle of pacific opposition and rejection of bad law. The Irish, perhaps, has, of all nations, with the hottest and most passionate blood, harnessed and controlled the national heart and the quick hand to strike, and changed material defeat into moral victory. They have taught themselves and the world the secret of winning by submission. ‘They have made the cell a national shrine,’ says the greatest of Englishmen,—Mr. Gladstone. ‘They have made the cell a national shrine, and the prison garb the dress of the highest honour.’ They have won by the noblest means,—not by destroying, but by converting their enemies. They have won with a minority,—which is the supremest test of power.

‘I will put down this national movement in Ireland,’ said Secretary Forster, a few years ago, ‘if you give me power to imprison all men whom I consider dangerous.’

They gave him the power and he exercised it,—poor Buckshot Forster,—and he learned the tremendous lesson that in Ireland imprisonment for patriotism was not a punishment but an honour. With what weapon must that country be struck where the palace is a temple of infamy, and the prison a shrine of national honour?

As to the growth or expansion of the Irish national movement, one hundred years ago there were scarcely 4,000,000 of Irish people in the world; 200,000 or 300,000 of those were in this country, mainly in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania; another 100,000 on the continent of Europe serving in the various armies, and the remainder were all in Ireland, shut up as in a prison; behind them six centuries of war and defeat, and inexpressible suffering; behind them immediately, one hundred years of such local tyranny by a class ruling and robbing in the name of law and religion, as no other civilized country had ever experienced. Then came a burst of despair; of hopeless agony. In the year 1798, the brave people dashed their naked hands against the enemy’s sabers and bayonets; and the last years of the last century went down on Ireland in the blood of the people, the smoke of their homes, and the suppression of their national parliament. There never was such desolation in any country since the Assyrians desolated Judea, as overwhelmed Ireland at the close of the last century. After the rebellion of 1798, all law but the law of the pistol, the sword, and the scaffold was abolished. The Irish Parliament was swept away. The whole population, except the Protestants, were disfranchised, disorganized,—friendless, voiceless, helpless. The Act of Union, which abolished the Parliament of Ireland, went into effect on the first day of the first year of this present century. On that dark day an Irish poet wrote a mournful poem on his country:

‘Thou art chained to the wheel of the foe—by links which the world shall not sever;
With thy tyrant thro’ storm and thro’ calm shalt thou go, and thy sentence is bondage forever.
In the nations thy place is left void—thou art lost in the lists of the free—
Even realms by the plague and the earthquake destroyed may revive—but no hope is for thee!’

The Irish Parliament was abolished on the pretence that the country could be governed more peaceably, and led to greater prosperity under British rule. But three years after the Union, a Coercion Act was applied to Ireland. Robert Emmet and his brave compatriots were hanged in Dublin, and for those eighty-nine years coercion has ruled Ireland for every year except twenty-two separated years.

There has never been a period of longer than six years without a coercion law. The longest period was from 1850 to 1855. Those coercion laws have been enforced by the bayonet and two standing armies, 14,000 constabulary, and an average of 50,000 soldiers; for their support the Irish people are taxed, while even the material contracts for this support are controlled by English houses. Throughout all this period the double injury has been done of misrepresenting and defaming the people. England has told the outer world that the Irish farmers were poor because they would not improve their farms. Why should they improve farms that did not belong to them, and where every improvement raised the rent higher? The English Tories said they had been compelled to coerce the Irish, because they would quarrel among themselves on account of religion; that the Catholic hated the Protestant and would destroy him, or tyrannize over him if he had the power. But this division of the Irish was a skilfully and deliberately framed device of the English. A Catholic did not hate a Protestant because he was a Protestant, but because he was a political oppressor. The law was so framed that political power was limited by religion. To seduce or coerce the people from the Catholic religion, the whole Catholic population was deprived of all rights, and practically made slaves.

This injustice has been changed; but only formally. At the present time Ireland, with 4,000,000 Catholics, has only 700 Catholic magistrates; and with only 1,000,000 of Protestants, has 3,500 Protestant magistrates. And the Catholics who are magistrates are selected because they hate the people and the people hate them; for religion has nothing to do with the Irish question. The best answer to this slur on the good name of the people lies in the fact that in every movement, since Protestantism first went to Ireland, in every movement against English authority and tyranny, among the most trusted leaders, the bravest spirits, the most revered martyrs to the national cause, have been Protestant Irishmen. Nearly all the names that are venerated as heroes and martyrs in the long list of Irish nationality are the names of Protestants. Indeed, they outnumber the names of Catholics. Robert Emmet, Henry Grattan, Wolfe Tone, the Presbyterian who organized the rebellion of ’98; the Sheares brothers, Bagenal Harvey, Lord Edward Fitzgerald; these in ’98 and 1803 down to John Mitchel and John Martin in 1848; from them again to the present leader of the Irish national movement, a Protestant also, Charles Stewart Parnell.

Since the first year of the century the pressure on Ireland which was intended to destroy or banish the people, has never been let up; there have been repeated rebellions and movements of national protest, and at present the country is bowed under a condition of lawlessness in the name of law, which is an outrage on the nineteenth century. Many of the leading members of Parliament, and the most beloved public men in the nation, are or have been recently in prison, and are there subjected to skilfully devised and degrading torture. Trial by jury is abolished; arrest by warrant is abolished. The entire country is under the control of paid magistrates, appointed by the government; magistrates called ‘removables,’ because to make them the unscrupulous tools of their employers, they can be removed at any time. And yet Irishmen can face their antagonists to-day with a greater confidence than ever before, and ask, What have you gained by your merciless oppression since the Union went into effect in 1801 or since Robert Emmet was hanged in 1803? Ireland now says to her foe: ‘You are now face to face, not with 4,000,000 helpless and friendless people shut up by your fleets in Ireland, but you are opposed by at least 40,000,000 of people with Irish blood and sympathy, most of whom are potential elements in the great countries which hold in their hands the future destinies of the British Empire. There are nearly 5,000,000 people in Ireland ; there are at least 4,000,000 Irish and their descendants in Great Britain; in London alone, it is said, that there are 1,000,000 Irish people; in the United States, during the last forty years alone, 4,000,000 people have come from Ireland, and these were almost wholly people in their young manhood and womanhood. The natural increase from such a starting-point alone, leaving out the millions who had come to this country from its earliest settlement, would give probably, at a safe estimate, 20,000,000 of the American population of direct Irish blood.

Wherever the English flag has gone around the world in its domain of conquest,—and it is said that the sun never sets on the English dominions,—be sure that accompanying that flag have gone the numerous and unified Irish hearts, who carry with them the opposition that they learned at home. And the Irish and English in the colonies and in the United States do not continue enemies; as soon as they settle down in the new countries, the Irish convert their old enemies into friends.

But not only in numbers has the Irish movement grown, but in expansion of principle. In the early days of this century, the national fight resolved itself into a question of Catholic enfranchisement carried in 1829; then of tenant right, and after generations had spent their energies and lives in trying to make headway against the selfishness and ignorance of the Irish landlord party, the answer was given to Ireland by Sir Robert Peel in 1862, when he said, ‘The Land Act of 1860 has effected the final settlement of the Irish land question.’ And Lord Palmerston, in 1865, completed this expression by declaring that ‘Tenant right was landlord wrong.’ In this land agitation both English parties were against Ireland. Indeed, the Tory landlords had made their Liberal opponents the worst enemies of Ireland, for up to 1870 the most extreme measures of Irish land reform had been introduced by the Tories. For instance, Lord Stanley’s Bill in 1865, Mr. Napier’s Bill in 1852, and the Tory Bill in 1867.

But observe the moral teaching which Ireland has done on this question. In 1870, Mr. Gladstone introduced his famous Land Bill, the three principles of which were: First, the extension of Ulster tenant right throughout Ireland; second, to render landlords liable for compensation to an evicted tenant; third, to facilitate the establishment of peasant proprietary; and. this bill, five years after Lord Palmerston’s statement that ‘tenant right was landlord wrong,’ was passed in the House of Commons by the extraordinary vote of 442 to 11.

Froude says of this Land Act of 1870, ‘It was the best measure, perhaps the only good measure, which has passed for Ireland for 200 years.’

The importance of this measure is not confined to Ireland. It is for all constitutional governments the first instance, perhaps, in which, the statute law has been directly subordinated to the law of God; the first instance in which the right of private property in land was restrained by the national and individual rights of the people. That law sounded the doom of landed aristocracy in every country of the earth. It cried ‘halt!’ to the landlord’s power to evict a whole nation by a law made in that nation’s own name.

Then came the movement for the Repeal of the Union, under O’Connell. Contrast the present movement in Ireland, or rather, throughout the world in favour of Ireland, with this movement of less than half a century ago. No two leaders could be more unlike than O’Connell and Parnell, though there are some points of resemblance! O’Connell was a great parliamentary tactician; so is Parnell. O’Connell considered that he was responsible, not to the British, but to the Irish people for his conduct and mode of warfare; so does Parnell. O’Connell never approached Parliament in humility and fear; he came boldly to demand justice for his country; so does Parnell. In three other characteristics the two men resemble each other. Strength of will, courage, and backbone. But here the resemblance ends between the men and their times and their movements. It was O’Connell who inspired the Irish people; it is the Irish people who inspire Parnell. O’Connell always took the initiative and allowed little scope to the energies of his followers. Parnell lets the people take the initiative and he utilizes all the energies of the Irish party. O’Connell did and thought everything for himself and for the people. Parnell does very little except to quietly direct. O’Connell created public opinion; Parnell represents it. O’Connell raised the storm; Parnell guides it. O’Connell had only four lieutenants; Shiel and his own three sons, Morris, John, and Morgan. Parnell has surrounded himself, or rather has been surrounded, by the representatives of the country; with eighty-five members of Parliament, who take rank among the boldest, ablest, and most sagacious national leaders who have ever been known in the history of civilization. What reformer or national leader ever fought with nobler aides beside him than Healey, Sexton, O’Connell, Justin McCarthy, John Dillon, William O’Brien, and that great outsider, that incomparable free lance, who is too large, and too free, and too wise to put himself into any harness, even the harness of the parliamentary service of Ireland,—Michael Davitt, the father of the Land League?

Wendell Phillips said that Daniel O’Connell taught the world the meaning and method of agitation. But Parnell has done more than O’Connell had the opportunity of doing, because the Ireland of our time is essentially different from the Ireland of forty or fifty years ago. Parnell has moved and united not only the five millions in Ireland, but he has added to these the moral support of the thirty-five millions of their exiled kindred.

Less than a dozen years ago, when he appeared in the public life of his country, a young and unknown member of Parliament, Ireland was sunk in the depths of social and political oppression. Her people had fled for two generations, and were still flying from their unhappy country, as the clouds fly, across the sea. ‘They are going with a vengeance!’ cried the London Times. Ten years ago this young man’s voice arrested the attention of the people within the island; he came, as it were, to the hill-tops by the sea, and stretched out his hands to the flying clouds, and appealed to them, and the clouds stayed their course. The eyes of the exiles returned at the call, and their hearts and their hands were opened to the need of their motherland. They sent back their moral sympathies and support to help their struggling brethren to meet the organized and material strength of their enemy. They became representatives, in the various lands in which their homes lay, of the special quality of strength which Ireland is proving to the world she possesses. This strength may be said to be the exact opposite to that of England.

The strength of England is, and always has been, material force; organization; concentration; weight of stroke; selfishness of purpose. Her power has marched through the centuries and the nations like a mail-clad battalion, plowing its way, repellent, unsympathetic, defying criticism, bound on the seizure of its prey, disregarding the opinions of mankind.

The power that Ireland has exerted through her banished millions, is immaterial, diffused, intellectual, spiritual; the very opposite to that of England. But it is the power of the steam, as compared to the power of the water. So far the nations represent opposites: One concussion; the other conversion. One a threat; the other an argument. One repels; the other attracts. One makes enemies; the other makes friends. One wastes its own strength in every effort; the other increases its power with every exertion. Ireland appeals through her scattered children and their descendants to the consciences of men. They make mankind a jury to whom they are constantly appealing for a verdict against the lawless and cruel and piratical rule of England in Ireland. Against the deep injury done to an ancient and proud nation that had done its full share in the glory of civilization, until it was interrupted, ruined, and misrepresented by this robber invasion.

The rapidity with which the Irish movement spreads may be estimated by this extraordinary fact: that twelve years ago, Mr. Parnell, who is now one of the leading national figures among the governments of the world, was utterly unknown. Ten years ago, there was no Irish national party in the British House of Commons, except a nondescript and diluted nationalism represented by Whig landlords. It is only ten years ago since to that world dictionary, that is made up of words and names that belong to all men and tongues, names and words that represent ideas like ‘Bunker Hill,’ and ‘93’; like ‘Robespierre,’ and the ‘Marseillaise’; like the perjurer ‘Titus Oates,’ and the traitor ‘Arnold,’ was added the name of ‘Capt. Boycott.’ But no name of honour or infamy has ever carried the Irish cause further, or in more directions, or has ever, in a word, done more good to the Irish national movement than the name of the detestable creature, who was the agent and the victim of a still more detestable and cowardly conspiracy, ‘Richard Pigott,’ and the London Times. In view of their story, all minds that are free from prejudice are willing to agree that the government that can only rule by such means, with such tools, at the end of the nineteenth century, after leaving a record in Ireland from the first year of that century to the present, of coercion and oppression, of murder and lawlessness and eviction, and of the burning of homes, of the ruin of a whole population,—the government that must depend on such infamous agents as the London Times, and Houston the Orangeman, and Le Caron the spy, and Pigott the perjurer, is condemned out of its own mouth. All this diabolical machinery was set in motion on the day Parliament was to vote on the coercion act for Ireland; and by this means that dreadful act was passed. Surely, this government is an evil in the sight of man and God. A danger to all truly civilized governments. A corrupter of social and political life. And so we claim that though coercion still rules in Ireland, the cause of Home Rule shall be won in the end. The consummation may be delayed a few weeks or months, but the inevitable must soon appear. The sunburst is reddening the sky in the east.

A few years ago an old ship was set afloat on the Niagara River, ten miles above the great falls. The crowd that watched it on the bank cheered when they saw the current carry it out to the centre and down toward the rapids. One man calculated the rapidity of the stream. ‘It goes four miles an hour,’ he said; ‘in two hours and a half she will go over the falls.’

So they took to their horses and carriages and trains, and went to the falls to see her go over. They saw the powerful rapids take the ship and wheel her round, and almost dash her to pieces, as the Home Rule victories in Scotland whirled and confounded the Tories; they saw a great rock split her keel, as the victories in Wales split the Tories; they saw her leaping down toward the last hundred yards of the fatal course and thrown on her beam ends by a bowlder as big as the Home Rule victory in Kensington, London, last week; but just when the last plunge was coming and the world was preparing to cheer, the doomed vessel was caught between two rocks on the very verge of the falls. And there she hung for three days, with a rock—like the Joseph Chamberlain—holding her back, but breaking into her side at the same time; till, at last, the mad flood leaped into her and over her, and ship and rock together were rolled over and dashed to splinters in the river under the falls.

And so St. Patrick’s Day, 1890, marks the high-water of the Irish national tide. Around the world to-night, like a bugle call, shrills the confident congratulations of the Irish race. They have reason to be happy, and confident, and hopeful. The good will of the world is with Ireland, and the Baal-time fires of St. Patrick are as cosmopolitan as the drum-beat of Great Britain. She is taking the rivets out of Toryism everywhere, and God is saving Ireland.