The “Repeal Year,” then, had only advanced as far as the month of April. O’Connell was collecting the suffrages of an unarmed people by millions for the restoration of Irish nationhood; England had already announced, through the mouth of her Premier and her commander-in-chief, that though all Ireland should demand Repeal, England’s will was to keep her as a province.
We are to see what were the resources and relative strength of the two islands for the struggle which seemed impending. On the Irish side was O’Connell, with his miraculous power over the vast Catholic population of Ireland, which he wielded absolutely at his will. No country had ever seen so potent a popular leader.
When he began his career; the Catholics of Ireland were a degraded race. After the defeat of the Stuarts, the capitulation of Limerick, and the breach of the Treaty concluded at that city, by imposing a code of penal laws upon Catholics, they had sunk into a state of abject submission and impotence under the operation of those laws, from which it seemed impossible ever to arise.
Denied the privilege of bearing arms – forbidden education – prohibited to exercise trade or commerce in any corporate town – excluded from all professions, – disqualified from holding a lease of land for a longer term than thirty-one years – and forbidden to own a horse of more than five pounds value, it was no wonder they had become impoverished in spirit as well as in means.
The immense increase in their numbers towards the end of the last century; the success of the American Revolution, and the disasters of the British arms in the Netherlands, had made it necessary to conciliate them by a relaxation of that infamous code; and when O’Connell first undertook their cause, they had been relieved from most of those restrictions; but were still excluded from Parliament, the Corporations, and the Judicial Bench.
At first he had devoted himself to their service in his own profession of the law. He was the great Catholic barrister. If any tyrannical scheme of the Orange Corporation of Dublin was to be exposed and baffled; if, in any prosecution of a Catholic newspaper, the Orange Judges were to be bearded on the Bench, and the Orange Jurors shamed in their jury-box, O’Connell was the champion to whom the labour and the honour fell.
It would be long to tell the series of legal battles he fought in the Four Courts and at County assizes. His tone and manner were always defiant and contemptuous. If he knew the Judges were predetermined, and the jury well and truly packed, he condescended to argue no points of law; but launched out into denunciation of the whole system of law and government in Ireland; informed the jurors that they knew they were packed; charged the Judges with having advised and urged on the prosecution which they pretended to try; in short, set his client and his client’s case at one side as a minor and collateral affair; took all Ireland for his client; and often made Judges, Sheriffs, and juries feel that they were the real criminals on trials.
It is easy to understand that this conduct, if it did not save his clients, inspirited his people. All Ireland was proud of him, and felt that he had been sent as their deliverer. At length he renounced the general practice of law (which brought him in £8,000 per annum) and became a professional agitator.
He established the Catholic Association, expressly to promote the emancipation of the Catholics from all remaining penal laws; and finding that his agitation produced small impression in England, he at length suddenly left Dublin on the eve of an election for Clare county; travelled day and night to Ennis; announced himself, though a proscribed Catholic, as a candidate against Mr Vesey Fitzgerald; and easily carried the election.
He then went to London, proceeded to the House of Commons, and demanded to take his seat without the oaths which excluded Catholics. Of course he was refused; and a new writ was issued for a new election in Clare. He returned to Ireland, resolved to be returned again for the same county; but, before the new election, Parliament was dissolved; and Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington announced their Bill for emancipation of the Catholics – expressly, as the Duke avowed, to avert civil war.
Undoubtedly this was a daring achievement and a noble triumph: and O’Connell thought the same system of agitation might at any time coerce the British Government to yield all the rest. Catholic Emancipation, however, it must be remembered, was a measure for the consolidation of the “British Empire;” it opened high official position to the wealthier Catholics and educated Catholic gentlemen; and thus separated their interest from that of the peasantry. But it was of the peasantry mainly that the government had any apprehension; and British Ministers felt that Catholic Emancipation would place this peasantry more completely in their power than ever.
Besides, Emancipation had a strong party in its favour both amongst Irish Protestants and in England: and in yielding to it England made no sacrifice, except of her ancient grudge. To her it was positive gain. O’Connell did not bethink him that, when his agitation should be directly aimed at the “integrity of the empire,” and the supremacy of the British in Ireland, it would be a different matter.
Such, however, had been his achievements. The door of Parliament once opened, he made brilliant use of his privilege. At the next election he looked round the island to see where he could strike the most telling blow at the “Ascendancy.” He pitched on Waterford. That county had been hitherto under the complete control of the great Orange family of Beresford, to which belongs the Marquis of Waterford.
They were of the wealthiest and haughtiest of the British landlord garrison of Ireland, and predominated over the people like Pachas. O’Connell at once entered the lists against the nominee of the Beresford, to the astonishment both of friends and foes. To the Catholic electors of Waterford themselves it seemed an act of almost godlike audacity; the long nightmare of oppression still lay upon their breasts; but his voice rung amongst them, and the proud defiance of an Irish Catholic flung down to the mighty house of Waterford, awoke them from their dreaming. By an overwhelming majority he trampled on the pride of Beresford; and old men embraced him with tears of joy, and women would have spread their hair beneath his feet.
This Emancipation was carried in 1829. Thence till the “Repeal Year,” the people had greatly multiplied in numbers, and improved in education and spirit.
Hitherto I have spoken of all movements in Ireland as created, moved, and appropriated by this giant O’Connell. It was so; there was no man equal to him, and none second to him. His most effective aid during the Emancipation struggle was Richard Lalor Shiel, another Catholic barrister, and a man of great genius and accomplishments: but Shiel desisted from agitation after that was won.
Up to the time of the Ministerial declaration against repeal in April, very few members of Parliament were actual members of the Association; but among them was Henry Grattan, member for Meath, who brought to its ranks an illustrious name, if nothing else of great value. O’Brien still stood aloof. The working staff of the Association in Dublin consisted of obscure people, generally very humble servants of O’Connell.
But within this same Association there was a certain smaller Association, composed of very different men. Its head and heart was Thomas Davis, a young Protestant lawyer of Cork county, who had been previously known only as a scholar and antiquarian; a zealous member of the Royal Irish Academy, and of the Archaeological Society.
In the autumn of ’42, he and his friend John B. Dillon (then a Roscommon lawyer and afterwards a New York lawyer) had projected the publication of a weekly literary and political journal of the highest class, to sustain the cause of Irish nationhood, to give it a historic and literary interest which would win and inspire the youth of the country, and above all, to conciliate the Protestants, by stripping the agitation of a certain suspicion of sectarianism, which, though disavowed by O’Connell, was naturally connected with it by reason of the antecedents of its chief.
Mr Duffy, the editor of a provincial newspaper in Belfast, happened to be then in Dublin, on the occasion of a State prosecution against his journal, and Davis and Dillon proposed that he should undertake the ostensible editorship of the new paper; of which, however, Davis was to be the principal writer. So commenced the Nation newspaper; and for the three years it was, next to O’Connell, the strongest power in Ireland on the national side.
Its editor, Mr Duffy, had good literary talent, great ambition, abundant vanity, but defective education. He had been connected with the Press from his boyhood, had most excellent ideas about the arrangement and organization of a newspaper, and great zeal and earnestness in the cause of repeal.
Dillon was a man of higher mark and greater acquirement: but both these were indolent; and in fact Davis took upon them the burden of the labour. Writing was a small part of his duty. He was indefatigable in searching out efficient recruits amongst the young men of his acquaintance, kindling their ambition, and filling them with the same generous spirit of mutual forgiveness for the past, and a common hope for the future, by which he designed to obliterate the religious feuds of ages and raise up a new Irish nation.
Whatever was done, throughout the whole movement, to win Protestant support, was the work of Davis. His genius, his perfect unselfishness, his accomplishments, his cordial manner, his high and chivalrous character, and the dash and impetus of his writings, soon brought around him a gifted circle of young Irishmen of all religions and of none, who afterwards received the nick-name of “Young Ireland.” Their head-quarters was the Nation office; and their bond of union was their proud attachment to their friend.
O’Connell knew well, and could count, this small circle of literary privateer repealers; he felt that he was receiving, for the present, a powerful support from them – the Nation being by far the ablest organ of the movement; but he knew also that they were outside of his influence, and did not implicitly believe his confident promises that repeal would be yielded to “agitation” – nor believe that he believed it; that they were continually seeking, by their writings, to arouse a military spirit among the people; and had most diligently promoted the formation of temperance bands with military uniforms, the practice of marching to monster meetings in ranks and squadrons, with banners, and the like; showing plainly, that while they helped the Repeal Association, they fully expected that the liberties of the country must be fought for at last.
O’Connell, therefore, suspected and disliked them; but could not well quarrel with them. Apparently, they worked in perfect harmony; and during all this “Repeal Year” few were aware how certainly that alliance must end. Personally, they sought no notoriety; and the Nation was as careful to swell O’Connell’s praise, and make him the sole figure to which all eyes should turn, as any of his own creatures could be. O’Connell accepted their services to convert the “gentry,” and the Protestants – they could not dispense with O’Connell, to stir and wield the multitudinous people.
Here, then, was the array and whole force at one side.
When Ministers came down to Parliament, and pledged themselves to maintain the Union, even by civil war, they had on their side these following powers and agencies:
First. – A million and a half of Protestants, most of them English or Scottish by descent; and bound to England by having been for ages maintained in a position of superiority over the Catholics. Five hundred thousand of these were Presbyterians, nearly all in the northern province of Ulster. The rest belonged to the Established Church; and in the hands of these last was almost all the landed property of the island. This gave them the power of life and death over the tenantry.
Second. – A regular army of between thirty and forty thousand men, disposed in barracks and fortresses, at the principal strategic positions in the island.
Third. – Another regular force of eleven thousand armed and drilled police, cantoned in small police-barracks all over the country, in parties of from four to twelve. These were all picked men, well paid, partly by assessment on the counties, and partly by the treasury. A portion of them were mounted and trained to act as cavalry; and they had a complete code of signal, for communicating from station to station, by day and by night; with blue lights, red lights, and other apparatus. To this service was also attached a numerous corps of detective police, whose functions will be mentioned more fully hereafter.
Fourth. – A Revenue Police, and Coast-guard Service, with a large fleet of armed revenue cruisers.
Fifth. – The Church Establishment – which is, in truth, nothing but an apanage of the aristocracy, supplying lucrative situations to many younger sons. Catholics and Presbyterians are both obliged to pay for the support of this Church – not now by tithes, but in a way much more effectual, and impossible to resist or evade; namely, by a tithe rent-charge, payable in the first instance by the proprietor, and then levied by distraining on the tenant. This system, together with the land laws, placed all the peasantry in the power of their landlords – that is of the government.
Sixth. – The Presbyterian Church must also be counted amongst the forces of the government. During the insurrection of 1798 the northern insurgents had been Presbyterians, all at that time zealous republicans. After the “Union” the English government had taken the precaution to make a large grant for payment of the Presbyterian clergymen; after which, that body of divines was counted on as part of the general police of the island.
Seventh. – A Poor Law had been forced upon the country a few years before. The island was now studded with Union Workhorses, built like fortresses, and in each Union was a gang of well-paid officers, all humble servants of the government.
Eighth. – The system of making all education penal had been discontinued, but very carefully. There was now “National Education,” under the management of a board of Commissioners appointed by government, the Chairman of which board was Dr Whately, Archbishop of Dublin – an Englishman. He took charge of preparing and revising the school-books which were to be used; and he took care to keep out of them any, even the remotest, allusion to the history of the country, and even such extracts from well-known authors as illustrate or celebrate the virtue of patriotism in any country. The 3,000 national schoolteachers, paid by the government, were 3,000 more servants for the government; and the system required in the schools was, as we see, carefully calculated to crush every spark of national feeling.
Ninth. – The only investment of their small savings which industrious people could make was in the Savings Banks (land being unpurchaseable in small lots); and the Savings Banks are government institutions. The law requires them to invest the money deposited with them in the public funds; and so every depositor, feeling that his little all is in the power of the English government, is to that extent interested in maintaining its credit and stability.
Tenth. – The Sheriffs are nominees of the Crown; and the Sheriffs arrange the Juries. In England, every corporate city elects its own Sheriff; but in the “Municipal Reform Bill” for Ireland this power was reserved to the Crown. It is in the city of Dublin that State prosecutions are usually tried; and the Sheriff of Dublin is always a creature of the government. The use of this is too obvious.
Eleventh. – And best of all – for even the other ten arrangements, though you may think they give England a tolerably strong grasp of the little island, could not have been relied upon without this – a system of Disarming Acts. I have mentioned that on the same day the Ministers declared in the Queen’s name that the Union must at all hazards be maintained, Lord Eliot introduced a new “Arms Bill” for Ireland.
Ever since the Union it had been thought necessary by the British Government to have stringent laws in force to prevent “improper persons” from possessing arms – that is, persons supposed to be disaffected – that is, the great majority of the population. I shall not detail the long series of acts for this purpose, with their continual amendments; but simply describe the provisions of this new one, which Lord Eliot recommended in the House of Commons, by the remark: “That it was substantially similar to what had been the law in Ireland for half a century,”(June 15th,) and again, (June 26th,) “He would ask the noble lord to compare it with the bill of 1838, and to point out the difference. In fact, this was milder.” This mild act, then, provided: that no man could keep arms of any sort, without first having a certificate from two householders, “rated to the poor” at above £20, and then producing that certificate to the Justice at Sessions (said Justices being all appointed by the Crown, and all “sure” men); and then – if the Justices permitted the applicant to keep arms at all – they were to be registered and branded by the police. After that they could not be removed, sold, or inherited, without new registry.
And every conversation respecting these arms in which a man should not tell truly whatever he might be asked by any policeman, subjected the delinquent to penalties. To have a pike or spear, “or instrument serving for a pike or spear,” was an offence punishable by transportation for seven years. Domiciliary visits by the police might be ordered by any magistrate “on suspicion;” whereupon any man’s house might be broken into by day or night, and his very bed searched for concealed arms.
Blacksmiths were required to take out licenses, similar to those for keeping arms, and under the same penalties; in order that the workers in so dangerous a metal as iron might be known and approved persons. And to crown the code, if any weapon should be found in any house, or out-house, or stack-yard, the occupier was to be convicted, unless he could prove that it was there without his knowledge.
Such had been “substantially the law of Ireland for half a century.” The idea of arms had come to be associated in the people’s minds with handcuffs, jails, petty sessions, and transportation; a good device for killing the manly spirit of a nation.
There is, however, one precedent for the Arms Bill in history. The Israelites were forty years under the dominion of the Philistines; and we read in 1st Samuel, c. 13:
“Now there was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines said, Lest the Hebrews make them swords and spears.”
Review, now, those eleven arms of British power; and say whether it was an easy enterprise to tear Ireland out of their iron grip.