The Disarming Act passed into a law, of course, by large majorities. It was in vain that some Irish members resisted; in vain Mr. Smith O’Brien moved that instead of meeting the discontent of Ireland with a new “Arms Bill,” the House should resolve itself into a committee “to consider the causes of the discontent with a view to the redress of grievances.” O’Brien, who was afterwards to play so conspicuous a part, was not yet a Repealer; he had been for twenty years one of the most industrious Members of Parliament, and was attached, on most questions, to the Whig party.
His speech, however, on this motion, showed that he regarded it as a last effort to obtain any approach to justice in a British Parliament; and that if they still resolutely adhered to the policy of coercion, and nothing but coercion, he would very shortly be found by O’Connell’s side. He pointed out the facts which justified discontent; – that the Union made Ireland poor, and kept her poor; – that it encouraged the absenteeism of landlords and so caused a great rental to be spent in England; – that nearly a million sterling of “surplus revenue,” over what was expended in the government of Ireland, was annually remitted from the Irish to the English exchequer; that Irish manufactures had ceased, and the profits on all the manufactured articles consumed in that island, came to England; that the tenantry had no permanent tenure or security that they would derive benefit by any improvements they might make; – that Ireland had but 105 members of Parliament, whereas her population and revenue together entitled her to 175; that the municipal laws of the two countries were not the same: – that the new “Poor Law” was a failure, and was increasing the wretchedness and hunger of the people; – and the right honourable gentleman (Sir R. Peel) had now declared his ultimatum; he declared that “conciliation had reached its limits; and that the Irish should have an Arms Bill, and nothing but an Arms Bill.” (Speech of July 4th, 1843.)
His facts were not disputed. Nobody in Parliament pretended to say that anything in this long catalogue was overstated; but the House refused the committee of inquiry; would discuss no grievances; and proceeded with their Arms Bill.
It may be said that these excessive precautions to keep arms out of the hands of the Irish people, testified the high esteem in which the military spirit of that people was held in England; and in that point of view the long series of Arms Acts may be regarded as a compliment. In truth the English had some occasion to know that the Irish make good soldiers. In this very month of July, 1843, for example, a British General fought the decisive battle of Meeanee, by which the Ameers of Scinde were crushed.
While the Bill for disarming Ireland was pending in London, far off on the banks of the Indus, Napier went into action with less than 3,000 troops against 25,000; only four hundred of his men being “British” soldiers; but those four hundred were a Tipperary regiment, – the 22nd, – and they did their work in such style as made the gray old warrior shout with delight: “Magnificent Tipperary!” In some distant latitude or longitude arms are thought to fit Irish hands; but not at home.
In the meantime, some additional regiments, mostly of English or Scotch troops, were landed in Ireland; and several war-steamers, with a fleet of gun-brigs, were sent to cruise around the coast. Barracks began to be fortified and loopholed; and police-stations were furnished with iron-grated windows. It was quite plain that the English Government intended, on the first pretext of provocation, to make a salutary slaughter.
The vast monster meetings continued, and with even intenser enthusiasm; but always with perfect peace and order. The speeches of O’Connell at these meetings, though not heard by a fourth of the multitudes, were carefully reported, and flew over all Ireland and England too, in hundreds of newspapers. So that probably no speeches ever delivered in the world had so wide an audience. The people began to neglect altogether the proceedings of Parliament, and felt that their cause was to be tried at home. More and more of the Irish Members of Parliament discontinued their attendance in London, and gathered around O’Connell. Many of those who still went to London were called on by their constituents to come home or resign.
Sir Edward Sugden was then Lord Chancellor of Ireland; and he began offensive operations on the British side by depriving of the Commission of the Peace all magistrates who joined the Repeal Association, or took the chair at a Repeal meeting. He had dismissed in this way about twenty, including O’Connell and Lord French, usually accompanying the announcement of the supersedeas with an insolent letter; when Smith O’Brien wrote to him that he had been a magistrate for many years, that he was not a Repealer, but could not consent to hold his commission on such humiliating terms.
Instantly his example was followed by many gentlemen; who flung their commissions in the Chancellor’s face, sometimes with letters as insulting as his own. And now O’Connell brought forward one of his grand schemes. It was to have all the dismissed magistrates appointed “arbitrators,” who should hold regular courts of arbitration in their respective districts, – all the people pledging themselves to make no resort to the Queen’s magistrates, but to settle all questions by the award of their “arbitrators.” This was put into operation in many places and worked very well.
In reply to questions in Parliament, as to what they were concentrating troops in Ireland for, Peel and Wellington had said they did not mean to make war or attack anybody, but only to maintain the peace of the country. Shortly after, there was a monster meeting in Kilkenny; the Trades of the city marched in procession with their banners; thirty or forty Temperance bands in military array, and playing Irish music; vast bodies of horsemen, amounting probably to twenty thousand ranked in dee}) masses around the outskirts of the meeting. Now I shall give you a specimen of the Agitator’s oratory. After having called for ” three cheers for the Queen” –
“I suppose you have heard,” he said, “of the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel having come down to Parliament one fine evening to declare they would prevent the Repeal of the Union even by civil war. We will not go to war with them; but let them not dare to go to war with us! The great Duke and the crafty Sir Robert have pulled in their horns a little; and said they did not mean to attack us. Very well; there is peace, then, for we will not attack them…
What is the next step? Tip comes Chancellor Sugden, what an ugly name the fellow has! Why, there is not one of you would call a decent-looking pig Sugden. This Chancellor issues a letter, striking us from the Commission of the Peace… The Commission of the Peace was also taken from Colonel Butler, from Lord French, from Sir Michael Dillon Bellew, and from Daniel O’Connell, and other vagabonds.
This Sugden, who took away the Commission of the Peace from us, is a lawyer, and has made an enormous fortune by the law; yet he does not understand the law; for he says it is unconstitutional to attend meetings, while he himself publishes an alleged speech of the Queen, and attributes to her the unconstitutional speech uttered by a Prime Minister. But they have sent over 30,000 men here, cavalry, infantry, artillery, and marines… Do you know what they are going to do? The Admiral is coming down the Grand Canal to examine all the turf-boats, and look into their potato-lockers to try if they have any hidden cannon on board… And a lieutenant of the navy has been sent by the fly-boat on the Royal Canal to find out what became of the army of 10,000 men that the Rev. Mr. O’Higgins had hid in his back parlour!”
The Kilkenny meeting, like all the other meetings, dispersed in perfect order and tranquillity; but O’Connell pledged them to come back to that spot whenever he might want them.
Undoubtedly this sort of procedure from week to week, and O’Connell’s ridicule and vituperation, poured out upon every one who opposed “the repeal,” was extremely provoking to the government and their party; yet no great progress was made. O’Connell, indeed, knew the law: he knew how far he could go with safety; and the people had full confidence that he would accomplish all he promised, “without the shedding of a drop of blood;” but all the while the enemy was in actual occupation and full possession of the whole country, its revenues and resources; and intended so to continue. Some of our friends about the Nation office began to ask themselves how long this was to go on. When all Ireland shall have paraded itself at monster meetings, they said, what then? What next?
Notwithstanding the very resolute countenance shown by the government, however, O’Connell still believed that they must yield at last, as they had done upon the Catholic Emancipation question; and, certainly, the impetus and volume which his movement was daily acquiring, would have seemed to make almost anything possible to him who wielded such a wondrous machine. He moved to tears, or convulsed with laughter, or excited to suppressed rage, hundreds of thousands of people every week; and his loud defiance to the Saxon made men’s hearts burn within them as they prayed that he would only give them the word.
One of his great meetings was at Baltinglass, in Wicklow county. The proprietor of most of the land thereabouts was Lord Wicklow: and his lordship had posted over his estate a placard exhorting, or almost commanding, his tenants to stay home at their work, and not to be flocking to a meeting “only to minister to the vanity of an individual.” They all disobeyed; and O’Connell, when he rose up to address them, opened a copy of the placard. He read it, and the hills re-echoed the laughter of a hundred and fifty thousand throats. “I know whom he means by an individual” he exclaimed. “He means me. Individual in his teeth! I’m no more an individual than Lord Wicklow’s mother!”
Lord Beaumont, an English Catholic peer, who owed his seat in the House to O’Connell, thought himself called on to denounce the Repeal agitation. “Do you know who this Beaumont is?” asked O’Connell, at his next meeting. “Why, the man’s name is Martin Bree, though he calls himself Stapleton. His grandfather married a Stapleton for her fortune, and then changed the name. He was a Stapleton when I emancipated him. I beg your pardon for having emancipated such a fellow.”
Sir Edward Sugden, as Lord Chancellor, had the control, over all lunatic asylums; and frequently visited those near Dublin. After he had dismissed about a dozen magistrates, and others were pouring in their resignations, and getting appointed arbitrators in consequence – and his act of vigour was manifestly and admittedly a failure, O’Connell, at one of the meetings of the Repeal Association in Dublin, said: –
“If these men are not mad, they give some signs of madness; and a most ludicrous instance of a thing of the kind occurred on Saturday last. The Lord Chancellor, in the intervals of making out writs of supersedeas, was fond of investigating the management of lunatic asylums, and made an appointment with the Surgeon-General to visit, without any previous intimation, an asylum kept by a Dr. Duncan in this city.
Somebody sent word to the asylum that a patient was to be sent there in a carriage that day who was a smart little man, that thought himself one of the Judges, or some great person of that sort. Sir Edward came there, and on knocking at the door, he was admitted and received by the keeper. He appeared to be very talkative, but the attendants humoured him and answered all his questions.
He asked if the Surgeon-General had arrived, and the keeper assured him he was not yet come, but would be there immediately. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘I will inspect some of the rooms until he arrives.’ ‘Oh! no, sir,’ said the keeper; ‘we could not permit that at all.’ ‘Then I will walk awhile in the garden,’ said his Lordship, ‘while I am waiting for him.’ ‘We can’t let you go there either, sir,’ said the keeper. ‘What?’ shouted Sir Edward, ‘don’t you know that I am Lord Chancellor?’ – ‘Sir,’ said the keeper, ‘we have four more Lord Chancellors here already’ (roars of laughter). He got into a great fury, and they were thinking of a strait waistcoat for him, when fortunately the Surgeon-General drove up. ‘Has the Lord Chancellor arrived yet?’ said he. ‘Yes, sir, we have him safe; but he is far the most outrageous patient we have’ (renewed laughter).”
Since that day the English Press has mocked at the whole Repeal movement; and in Parliament it was never mentioned, save with a jeer. In the Summer of 1843, they neither laughed nor jeered. Sir James Graham, earnestly appealing to the House to refuse O’Brien’s motion of inquiry, exclaimed: –
”Any hesitation now, any delay and irresolution, will multiply the danger a hundredfold (hear, hear). If Parliament expresses its sense in favour of the course pursued by Government, Ministers have every hope that with the confidence of the House, they will be enabled to triumph over all difficulties (cries of oh, oh, and loud cheers). I appeal, then, to both sides – not to one, but to both – I appeal to both sides, and say, if you falter now, if you hesitate now in repressing the rebellious spirit which is at work in the struggle of Repeal, the glory of the country is departed – the days of its power are numbered; and England, this all-conquering England, must be classed with those countries from whom power has dwindled away, and present the melancholy aspect of a falling nation (oh, oh, and cheers).”
To refuse a Committee of Inquiry was reasonable enough; because Parliament, and all the people – men, women, and children – already knew all. The sole and avowed idea of the Government was that to admit the idea of anything being wrong, would make the Repeal movement altogether irresistible. The various projects now brought forward in England showed the perplexity of that country. Lord John Russell made an elaborate speech for conciliation; but the meaning of it seemed to be merely that it was no wonder Ireland was unquiet, seeing he was out of power.
The grievance of Ireland, said he, in effect, is a Tory Ministry. Let her be ruled by us, Whigs, and all will be well. Lord Brougham also gave it as his opinion, that “you must purchase, not prosecute Repeal.” The Morning Chronicle (Whig organ), in quite a friendly spirit, said, “Let us have a perfect Union; let us know each other; let the Irish Judges come circuit in England; and let the English Judges occasionally take the same round in Ireland,” and so forth. “Is it absolutely certain,” asked the Westminster Review, “that we can beat this people? ” And the Naval and Military Gazette, a high military authority, thus expressed its apprehensions: –
“There are now stationed in Ireland 35,000 men of all arms, but widely scattered over the island. In the event of a rebellion and who can say that we are not on the eve of one? we feel great solicitude for the numerous small detachments of our gallant soldiers… It is time to be up and doing. We have heard that the order and regularity of movement displayed by the divisions which passed before Mr. O’Connell, in review order, en route to Donnybrook lately, surprised many veteran officers, and led them to think that some personal training, in private and in small parties, must be practised.
The ready obedience to the word of command, the silence while moving, and the general combinations, all prove organization to have gone a considerable length. In these trained bands, our soldiers, split up into detached parties, would find no ordinary opponents; and we therefore hope soon to learn that all small parties have been called in, and that our regiments in Ireland are kept together and complete. That day, we fear, is near, when ‘quite peaceably,’ every Repealer will come armed to a meeting to be held simultaneously as today and hour all over the island, and then try to cut off quite peaceably every detachment of her Majesty’s loyal army.”
What contributed to disquiet the British exceedingly, was, that great and excited Repeal meetings were held every week in American cities; meetings not only of Irish-born, citizens, but of natives also; and considerable funds were remitted from hence to O’Connell’s Repeal Exchequer.
“If something is not done (said Colonel Thomson in the Westminster) a fleet of steamboats from the United States will some fine morning be the Euthanasia of the Irish struggle.”
I might cite many extracts from the Press of France, exhibiting a powerful interest in what the French conceived to be an impending military struggle. Take one, from the Constitutionnel: –
“When Ireland is agitated – when, at the sound of the powerful voice of O’Connell, four hundred thousand Irish assemble together in their meetings, and pronounce, as if it were by a single man, the same cry and the same word, it is a grand spectacle, which fills the soul, and which, even at this distance, moves the very strongest feelings of the heart, for it is the spectacle of an entire people who demand justice – of a people who have been despoiled of everything, even of the means of sustenance, and yet who require with calm ness and with firmness the untrammelled exercise of their religion, and some of the privileges of their ancient nationality.”
Now, nobody, either in France or the United States, would have given himself the trouble to watch that movement with interest, if they had not all believed that O’Connell and the Irish people meant to fight. Neither in America nor in France had men learned to appreciate “the ethical experiment of moral force.” Clearly, also, the English expected a fight, and were preparing for it, and greatly preferred that mode of settling the difficulty (having a powerful army and navy ready) to O’Brien’s method, inquiry, discussion, and redress – seeing that they were wholly unprovided with arguments, and had no idea of giving redress.
It is also quite as clear that the Irish people then expected, and longed, and burned for battle; and never believed that O’Connell would adhere to his “peace policy” even in the last extremity. Still, as he rose in apparent confidence, and became more defiant in his tone, the people rallied more ardently around him; and thousands of quiet, resolute men flocked into the Repeal cause, who had hitherto held back from all the agitations, merely because they had always believed O’Connell insincere. They thought that the mighty movement which now surged up around him had whirled him into its own tempest at last; and that “the time was come.”
No speech he ever uttered roused such a stormy tumult of applause as when, at Mallow “monster meeting,” referring to the threats of coercion, and to an anxious Cabinet Council which had just been held, he said: –
“They spent Thursday in consulting whether they would deprive us of our rights, and I know not what the result of that council may be; but this I know, there was not an Irishman in this council. I may be told that the Duke of Wellington was there (oh, oh, and groans). Who calls him an Irishman (hisses and groans)? If a tiger’s cub was dropped in a fold, would it be a lamb (hear, and cheers)?
But perhaps I am wrong in anticipating, perhaps I am mistaken in warning you (no, no). But is there reason to caution you? The council sat for an entire day, and even then did not conclude its deliberations, but adjourned to the next day, while the business of the country was allowed to stand still (hear, hear, hear). What had they to deliberate about? The Repealers were peaceable, loyal, and attached – affectionately attached – to the Queen, and determined to stand between her and her enemies. If they assailed us tomorrow, and that we conquered them as conquer them we will one day (cheering) – the first use of that victory which we would make would be, to place the sceptre in the hands of her who has ever shown us favour, and whose conduct has ever been full of sympathy and emotion for our sufferings (hear, hear, and loud cheers).
Suppose, then, for a moment, that England found the act of Union to operate not for her benefit – if, instead of decreasing her debt, it added to her taxation and liabilities, and made her burthen more onerous – and if she felt herself entitled to call for a repeal of that act, I ask Peel and Wellington, and let them deny it if they dare, and if they did they would be the scorn and byeword of the world, would she not have the right to call for a repeal of that act (loud cheers)? And what are Irishmen that they should be denied the same privilege? Have we not the ordinary courage of Englishmen? Are we to be trampled underfoot? Oh, they shall never trample me at least (tremendous cheering, which lasted several minutes). I was wrong – they may trample me under foot (cries of no, no, they never shall) – I say they may trample me, but it will be my dead body they will trample on, not the living man.”
And a roar, two hundred thousand strong, rent the clouds. From that day, the meetings went on increasing, in numbers, in regularity of training, and in highly-wrought excitement; until at Tara, and at Mullaghmast, the Agitator shook with the passion of the scene, as the fiery eyes of three hundred thousand upturned faces seemed to crave the word.
If it be asked whether I now believe, looking calmly back over the gulf of many years, that O’Connell voice could indeed have made a revolution in Ireland, I answer, beyond all doubt, Yes. One word of his mouth, and there would not, in a month, have been one English epaulette in the island. He had that power; we shall see what he did with it.