“We are desirous of possessing the good opinion of the virtuous and humane. We are peculiarly desirous of furnishing you with the true state of our motives and objects; the better to enable you to judge of our conduct with accuracy and determine the merits of the controversy with impartiality and precision.”
These sentences are taken from the “Address to the People of Ireland”, by the Continental Congress of America, adopted July, 1775. They fit the other side at present. The Irish People are now the pleaders and appellants. Americans are the virtuous and humane.
In the same Address, Congress was pleased to say to the People of Ireland:
“Your parliament had done us no wrong. You had ever been friendly to the rights of mankind; and we acknowledge with pleasure and gratitude that your nation has produced patriots who have nobly distinguished themselves in the cause of humanity and America.”
Ireland, at that time, had a Parliament, and national existence; and her voice counted for something among civilized nations. And Americans, at that time, would have been very unwilling that the civilized world should form its ideas of their rights, wrongs, and resistance from the British Press; but their eventual success set them quite above that apprehension; for the civilized world “sympathizes” with success.
Ireland, on the contrary, having been, since that day, twice broken, conquered and utterly ruined, it may seem that the English have a patent-right in our history, as well as in everything else of ours, and must not be interrupted or controverted.
Yet there are some circumstances which perplex an inquirer who derives his information from the English periodical press. That an island which is said to be an integral part of the richest empire on the globe – and the most fertile portion of that empire; – with British Constitution, Habeas Corpus, Members of Parliament, and Trial by Jury – should in five years lose two and a half millions of its people (more than one-fourth) by hunger, and fever the consequence of hunger, and flight beyond sea to escape from hunger, – while that empire of which it is said to be a part, was all the while advancing in wealth, prosperity, and comfort, at a faster pace than ever before, – is a matter that seems to ask elucidation.
In the year 1841, Ireland, a country precisely half the size of the State of Georgia, had a population of 8,175,124. The natural rate of increase of population in Ireland, through all her former troubles, would have given upwards of nine millions in 1851; but in 1851 the Census Commissioners find in Ireland but 6,515,794 living souls. (Thom‘s Official Directory.)
Another thing, which to a spectator must appear anomalous, is that during each of those five years of “famine,” from ’46 to ’51 – that famine-struck land produced more than double the needful sustenance for all her own people; and of the best and choicest kind.
Governor Wise, of Virginia, was in Brazil while the ends of the earth were resounding with the cry of Irish starvation; and was surprised to see unloaded at Rio abundance of the best quality of packed beef from Ireland. That the people who were dying of hunger did, in each year of their agony, produce Irish ground, of what and other grain, and of cattle and poultry, more than double the amount that they could all by any gluttony devour, is a fact that must be not only asserted, but proved beyond doubt.
That with one hundred and five members in the Parliament of the “United Kingdom,” the Irish people (supposing them to suffer any grievance or injustice) could get no redress; that with the British Constitution, Habeas Corpus, and Trial by Jury, as aforesaid, most Irishmen you meet with in America tell you there is no Law or Justice to be had in Ireland; – that to the benevolent exertions on a vast scale, which English periodicals assure us were made by the Imperial Government to rescue the perishing Irish from their sufferings, that people, though “warm-hearted” to a proverb, respond not only with ingratitude, but with imprecations, – that even now, when the country is, we are assured, prosperous and wealthy, there is still an eager, multitudinous emigration, to fly from such prosperity, – that ail this time, be the island hungry or well fed, prosperous or insolvent, more than one-half of Queen Victoria’s army consists of Irishmen, of all ranks and creeds, who fight as zealously for their Queen (or at least for their pay), in Russia, India, and China, as any other of her troops; – all these phenomena together, present a case not paralleled in any other country or any other age.
A plain narrative of events may throw some light on it. My authorities shall be principally the Parliamentary Reports, as given in the newspapers of the time; Official Returns and Blue Books, as abstracted in the Government Statistical Directories; Speeches of O’Connell and O’Brien, as well as of Palmerston and Russell; Pamphlets and Memoirs which shall be cited hereafter; and my own personal knowledge.
So much by way of preface and programme.
The spring of the year One thousand eight hundred and forty-three opened brightly on Ireland. For years the seasons had been favourable and abundant; and although there had been, as usual, much ejectment and extermination of tenants, and the ordinary and normal amount of distress and hunger; although of the greater products there were greater exports to England, and a larger resort of landlords to England to spend the improved rentals; although every winter was a winter of misery which in any other land of white men would be intolerable; – still there had been no desolating and sweeping “famine” for twenty years.
O’Connell was at the height of his popularity and power. He had wrung from a hostile English ministry Catholic Emancipation, and was now representative in Parliament for the county of Cork, the greatest county in Ireland. He had, further, forced from England a measure of municipal reform, which opened the city corporations to Catholics; and had been, himself, first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin.
The people believed he could do anything; and he almost believed it himself. In the beginning of this year he announced that it was the “Repeal year;” asked for three millions of enrolled Repealers in the Repeal Association; and confidently promised, and fully believed, that no English administration would venture to resist that great measure so enforced.
The more thoroughly to arouse the people, he declined to go over to London to take his seat in Parliament (many other members following his example), and resolved to hold multitudinous meetings in every corner of the island.
First, he moved in the Dublin Corporation a resolution, for the adoption of a petition to Parliament, demanding a Repeal of the Union with England – that is to say, demanding back the Irish Parliament which had been extinguished in 1800; so that Ireland should once more have her own House of Peers and House of Commons; the Sovereign of England to be also Sovereign of Ireland.
His speech was masterly, and covered the whole case. He cited the ablest jurists to show that the so-called Union was in law a nullity; reminded his audience of what was at any rate notorious and never denied – that supposing the two Parliaments competent to pass such an Act, it had been obtained by fraud and open bribery; an open market of bribery, of which the accounts are extant: £1,275,000 paid to proprietors for the purchase of nomination boroughs, at £15,000 per borough (which seats were immediately filled by English officers and clerks); – more than one million sterling expended on mere bribes; the tariff being quite familiar, £8,000 for an Union vote, or an office worth £2,000 a year, if the member did not like to touch the ready money; twenty peerages, ten bishoprics, one chief-justiceship, six puisne judgeships; not to count regiments and ships given to officers in the army and navy; all dispensed as direct payment for their votes.
He reminded them that the right of holding public meetings to protest against all this was taken away during the time the Union was in agitation; that county meetings convened by High-sheriffs of counties, as in Tipperary and Queen’s county, were dispersed by troops; that martial law was in force and the Habeas Corpus suspended; that, in 1800, the number of soldiers concentrated in that island (half the size of Georgia) was 129,000, as “good lookers-on;” – that, notwithstanding all intimidation, seven hundred thousand persons had petitioned against the measure; and, notwithstanding all enticements, only three thousand had petitioned for it, most of those being government officials and prisoners in the gaols.
If he had stopped here, most persons would think it enough: that was a deed which at the earliest possible moment must be undone and punished.
But he did not stop here: he went into all the details of ruined trade and manufactures since the Union – immensely increased drains in the shape of absentee rents and surplus taxation – frauds in subjecting Ireland to a charge for the English national debt, and even charging to Ireland’s special account the very moneys expended in bribes and military expenses for carrying the Union, which he said was about as fair as “making Ireland pay for the knife with which Lord Castlereagh cut his throat;” – injustice in giving Ireland but 100 members in the House of Commons while her population and revenue entitled her to 175; and above all, the injustice of fixing the qualification of electors of these members much higher in Ireland, the poorer country, than in England.
This is a sketch only of the case for Repeal of the Union; – the necessity for some remedy or other was only too apparent in the poverty and wretchedness which moved and scandalized all Europe – in the increasing beggary, notwithstanding the new Poor Law, – a measure which had been forced on the country against its will, and was totally unsuited for it.
The petition for Repeal was adopted by a vote of forty-one to fifteen in the Dublin Corporation; and a similar petition shortly after by the Corporation of Cork. Hitherto the English press, and the Irish press in the English interest, looked on with affected or real indifference and contempt.
The spring opened; and O’Connell left Dublin for the provinces. Then began the series of vast open-air meetings, to which the peasantry, accompanied by their priests, Repeal Wardens, and “Temperance bands,” flocked in numbers varying from 50,000 to 250,000 – (I take the reduced and disparaging estimate of enemies; but the Repeal newspapers put up the Tara meeting at 400,000).
Of course the orator always addressed these multitudes; but though his voice was the most powerful of his day, he could not be heard by a tenth of them. Neither did they come to hear; they were all well indoctrinated by local Repeal Wardens; had their minds made up, and came to convince their leader that they were with him, and would be ready at any time when called upon.
But all was to be peaceable. They were to demand their rights imperatively; they were, he assured them, tall men and strong; at every monster meeting he had around him, as he often said, the materials of a greater army than both the armies combined that fought at Waterloo. But, he said –
“But take heed not to misconceive me. Is it by force or violence, bloodshed or turbulence that I shall achieve this victory, dear above all earthly considerations to my heart? No! Perish the though for ever. I will do it by legal, peaceable, and constitutional means alone, – by the electricity of public opinion, by the moral combination of good men, and by the enrolment of four million of Repealers. I am a disciple of that sect of politicians who believe that the greatest of all sublunary blessings is too dearly purchased at the expense of a single drop of human blood.”
Many persons did not understand this sort of language; and, what is worse, did not believe him sincere in using it. The prevailing impression was that while the Repeal Association was a peaceful body, contemplating only “constitutional agitation,” yet the parade of such immense masses of physical force had an ulterior meaning, and indicated that if the British Parliament remained absolutely insensible to the reasonable demands of the people, the Association must be dissolved; and the next question would be how best and soonest to exterminate the British forces.
I say of my own knowledge that many who were close to O’Connell expected all along that the English Parliament and government never would yield; and these would have taken small interest in the movement if it was never to go beyond speeches and cheers.
Meanwhile, nothing could be more peaceful, orderly, and good-humoured than the meetings. Father Mathew’s temperance reformation had lately been working its wonders; and all the people were sober and quiet. Repeal Wardens everywhere organized an “O’Connell Police,” with wands, and any person of the whole immense multitude who was even noisy was instantly and quietly removed.
The government, indeed, soon took alarm, or affected to do so, for the peace of the country; and they sent large forces of armed constabulary to bivouac on the ground; but there never was the slightest excuse for interference.
The movement of the people, throughout this whole summer, was profound and sweeping: it carried along with it irresistibly the Catholic clergy, though in many cases against their will: but they were of the people, bound up with the people, dependent on the people, and found it their best policy to move not only with the people, but at their head.
The Catholic Bishops and Archbishops gave in their adhesion, and began to take the chair at meetings; the French and German Press began to notice the struggle, and eagerly watch how England would deal with it.
At last, on April 27th, Mr Lane Fox, a Tory member of Parliament, gave notice, “That it is the duty of her Majesty’s Government to take immediate steps to put an end to the agitation for Repeal” – and on the same day Lord Eliot, Chief Secretary for Ireland, gave notice of a Bill “for the regulation of arms in Ireland.” At the same moment the funds fell one and a half per cent.
The first threat of coercion brought important accessions to the ranks of the Repealers; and the monster meetings became now more monstrous than ever; but, if possible, even gayer and more good-humoured. O’Connell appeared in the Repeal Association on the Monday after Mr Lane Fox’s notice of motion; and on the proceedings being interrupted for a moment by the braying of a donkey on Burgh-quay, he said gently: “Maybe that’s Lane Fox:” whereupon the braying was in turn drowned by roars of laughter.
Mr Lane Fox wrote a newspaper later to O’Connell, inquiring when he would be in his place in Parliament, that the motion to put down Repeal might be proceeded with. O’Connell replied by a card, recommending the friends of that gentleman “to obtain for him that protection which the court in matter of lunacy is enabled to give,” etc. At another meeting he exclaimed: –
“That man is one of the legislators for Ireland; and though I went to Parliament as the representative of 700,000 Irishmen in the county of Cork, the individual who can talk such nonsense is equal to me there. If I had no other reason for looking for a repeal of the Union than that Mr Lane Fox is a legislator for Ireland, I never cheered my beagles upon a drag with one half the voice that I would hunt this foolish fox.”
His sarcasm was bitter, his reasoning irrefragable, his array multitudinous in its peaceful might; but in the meantime Lord Eliot was preparing his Arms Bill (an invention which I shall presently describe); and on the ninth of May, the Duke of Wellington in the Lords, and Sir Robert Peel in the Commons, declared that all the resources of the empire should be exerted to preserve the Union; and Sir Robert Peel added, quoting Lord Althorp, that, deprecating civil war as he did, he should hold civil war preferable to the “dismemberment of the Empire.”
Mr Bernal [Osborne] instantly asked Sir Robert, as he cited Lord Althorp’s words, “whether he would abide by another declaration of that noble lord, namely, that if all the members for Ireland should be in favour of Repeal, he would consider it his duty to grant it.” And Sir Robert Peel replied – “I do not recollect that Lord Althorp ever made any such declaration; but if he did, I am not prepared to abide by it.”
At this point issue was joined. The majority of the Irish nation desired to undo the union with England; but England declared if all Ireland demanded that measure, England would rather drown the demand in blood.
In the next chapter, I shall endeavour to give an idea of the personnel of the Repeal Association, and of its enemies.