I have sought to give somewhat like a correct idea of Daniel O’Connell; yet feel that an extract here and there from speeches is but a brick from Babylon. This orator was no maker of sentences; and when he attempted now and then to perorate, the thing was a failure. His power lay in his perfect knowledge of the people he addressed, their ways of life, wants and aspirations; and his intensely human sympathy with all. Thus it needed but a small joke from him to convulse a large meeting, because his lip and eye quivered with inexpressible fun. His pathos had no occasion for modulated periods, because when he told in simplest words some tale of sorrow and oppression (arid many a sorrow and oppression was close at hand to point the moral), – and when the deep music of his voice grew husky, and clenched hand and swelling chest revealed the wrath and pity that burned and melted within him, – the passions of mighty multitudes rose and swayed and sunk again beneath his hand, as tides heave beneath the moon.
Every day’s history gave him his theme and his illustrations.
From a Londonderry newspaper, I cut an advertisement, signed by one M’Mullin, “Emigration Agent,” which will show what was going on throughout Ireland in the Spring of this year, better than particular details could do: –
“NOTICE. – A favourable opportunity presents itself, in the course of the present month, for Quebec, to gentlemen residing in the counties of Londonderry, Donegal, Tyrone, or Fermanagh, who wish to send to the Canadas the overstock tenantry belonging to their estates – as a moderate rate of passage will be taken, and six months’ credit given for a lump sum to any gentleman requiring such accommodations.”
The mode in which the “overstock tenantry” are persuaded in Ireland to embark for America, is ejecting them, and pulling down their houses. And in 1843, and many years before and since, this process has been going on. so extensively and notoriously, that I shall have no further occasion to refer to it, until we arrive at what the British call the “Famine.”
This treatment of the peasantry, though continued ever since O’Neill and O’Donnell fell, early in the 17th century, seemed yet new and strange to the Irish peasant, and to him more intolerable than to any other in Europe, except the Highland Scots; – for the reason that, in the social polity of the Gael, no such thing as a “tenant” was known: every man being as free as his Chief, and by virtue of the clanship, owning as clear a title in the tribe-lands. Upon this ancient social system the new feudal tenures were forced in by English power; and the struggle between them lasts to this day. O’Connell, then, was sure of a sympathetic audience, when he thus addressed a vast meeting in Connaught: –
“When struggling for Catholic emancipation, they were only looking for the rights of a class, but they were at present struggling to bring back nine millions a year to their country, which would give comfort and riches to Protestant, Presbyterian, and Catholic (hear, hear). They were struggling to give Fixity of Tenure to the landholder, and safety to the landlord: and, oh! he would call upon the landlords of Ireland to unite with him in the attainment of a measure that would ultimately be of the greatest benefit to themselves, whilst it would put a stop to the horrible clearance system, with all its frightful crimes and evils upon one side, and the dreadful assassinations, on the other, which were prompted by deep despair and vengeance (hear, hear, hear).
He often heard the poor woman say, when about to be turned out of the cabin., that it was there she lighted the first fire in her own house, – it was there her children were born and brought up about her, – there her husband reposed after the hard toil of the day, – there where all her affections centred, because they called to her mind all the pleasing reminiscences of early life; but her tears were disregarded, her feelings scoffed at; and the tyrant mandate was heard to issue – ‘Pull down the house!’ (Very great sensation.) Yes, wholesale murders were committed, on the one side, by a slow but not less certain process; sudden individual assassinations were committed on the other; both bringing down upon the perpetrators the wrath of the Divine Being! With the blessing of heaven they would put an end to these crimes, and he called upon the good and virtuous to unite with him in the attainment of so holy a purpose.”
So, when he would suddenly ask: “Did you ever hear of the tithes?” he knew what long and bitter memories of blood and horror the question would call up.
“Did you ever hear of the Tithes? They call them Rent-charge now; do you like them any better since they have been newly christened?”
And when the murmur of execration had subsided:
“Well; repeal the Union, and you get rid of that curse: no widow woman’s stack-yard will ever more be plundered by the police and red-coats, to pay a clergyman whom she never saw, and whose ministration she would not attend. Repeal the Union, and every man will pay the pastor of his choice. I don’t want Protestants to pay our Catholic clergy; – why should we be compelled to pay theirs?”
Language, this, which generally seemed to his audience perfectly fair.
Whig newspapers and politicians in England (the Whigs being then in opposition) began now to suggest various conciliatory measures talked of the anomaly of the “Established Church” – and generally gave it to be understood, that if they were in power, they would know how to deal with the Repeal agitation. At every meeting, O’Connell turned these professions into ridicule. It was too late now, he said, to offer to buy up Repeal by concessions, or good measures. An Irish Parliament in College Green; this was his ultimatum.
He “once knew an omadhaun (idiot) in Kerry – where, by the bye, there were not many of them – who used to watch till the hen was out, and then slip to the nest and suck her eggs. One day he went to the nest and found some eggs – bored a hole in the end of one with his finger, and just as he turned the whole contents of it over his tongue, the chicken that was in it squeaked. ‘Ha! lad,’ said he, ‘you spoke late?’ He would say the same to Lord John Russell and the Whigs, when they talked of offering justice instead of Repeal: ‘Ha! lads, you spoke late.'”
Again, at another meeting, referring to the same matter: –
“It had also been said by another paper that he had always preferred the Whigs to the Tories; but let them always recollect that it had been a familiar jest of his, that Paddy supported the Whigs for the same reason that he stuffed his hat in a broken pane, – not to let in the light, but to keep out the cold (laughter).”
There was not the least fear, however, of either Whig or Tory killing Repeal by too much kindness. If the whole unbroken mass of grievances was necessary to keep up the agitation in full force, he was likely to be left in clear possession of it all. For example, when Mr. Ward, Whig member for Sheffield, on the first of August in this year, brought forward a motion directed against the Irish Church Establishment, the principal Whig leaders were absent; all the Ministers were absent except Lord Elliot; and nearly all the Members of Parliament rose and left the House. On motion of Mr. Escott, the House was “counted out,” and there was an end of the subject.
It was clear enough that the mind of England was made up. Any faltering – any admission, even that there was anything in Ireland to be complained of, and everything might follow. Repeal was to be crushed, said the Tories; was to be bought, said the Whigs. And still, as England grew more resolute on the one side, Ireland became more ardent on the other.
I have already mentioned Thomas Davis, and his circle of friends. Through the Nation, they had now the ear of the people almost as completely as O’Connell himself; and while they carefully reported and circulated all his speeches, they were at the same time infusing into the agitation a proud and defiant military spirit – by essays on Irish history, and national ballads, presenting, with the symmetry and polish of a cut gem, the most striking events and personages of our story; from Clontarf, where “King Brian smote down the Dane,” to Benburb, where Owen Roe O’Neill trampled the blue banner of the Covenanting army, and Limerick, from whose old towers and moats the sword of Sarsfield bore back King William.
In any account of the movement which then stirred the Irish people, it would be a blunder to omit this silent band of literary revolutionists with their exciting appeals to history, their popular essays, full of accurate knowledge, and instinct with genial fire, and their impassioned and hopeful songs. The enemy appreciated them well; and O’Connell feared them hardly less; for they threatened to precipitate a species of struggle for which he was by no means prepared. The Morning Post, one of the Ministerial organs, in July, described these young revolutionists in no complimentary terms, thus: –
“We have reason to believe that the younger part of the Irish agitators are a far more serious set of men than their fathers. They think more, and drink and joke a great deal less. They are full of the dark vices of Jacobinism. They worship revenge as a virtue. It suits the gloomy habit of their souls. They look forward to the slaughter of those they hate as the greatest enjoyment they could experience. Our correspondent tells us that the example of Belgium is much in the heads of these agitators, but that, in his opinion, if these people had their way, the upshot would be a Republic, and not a Monarchy.
We have every reason to believe that this opinion is a correct one. The young men of the movement are Jacobin Republicans. They are full of vanity and of bad passions, and they want to be themselves the government; and they have an enthusiasm, which, once brought into action, may perhaps almost convert dreams into realities, and make short work with our placid, patient, immovable lookers-on, who think they are discharging the functions of government.”
The presence, and vehement activity, and growing influence of these men namely, – Dillon, Barry, Doheny, MacNevin, Duffy, and, above all, Davis had the effect of urging and goading O’Connell forward. He could not ignore, nor combat, the spirit they were arousing in the masses; he saw and appreciated their power in kindling the fine enthusiasm of our cultivated youth; and felt himself obliged to raise his own tone in accord with them.
Yet he loved them not. Such men are dangerous; and he would have been much better content to have around him only his own humble dependants, expectant barristers, paid inspectors of Repeal Wardens, and poor Tom Steele, once a noble gentleman and soldier, then a ruined wreck, solemn sesquipedalian buffoon, and “Head Pacificator” to the Liberator.
We approach the end of the monster meetings. Neither England nor Ireland could bear this excitement much longer. The two grandest and most imposing of these parades were at Tara and Mullaghmast; both in the province of Leinster, within a short distance of Dublin; both conspicuous, the one in glory, the other in gloom, through past centuries, and haunted by ghosts of kings and chiefs.
On the great plain of Meath, not far from the Boyne river, rises a gentle eminence, in the midst of a luxuriant farming country. On and around its summit are still certain mouldering remains of earthen, mounds and moats, the ruins of the “House of Cormac” and the “Mound of the Hostages,” and the Stone of Destiny. It is Temora of the Kings. On Tuesday morning, the 15th of August, most of the population of Meath, with many thousands from the four counties round, were pouring along every road leading to the hill. Numerous bands, banners, and green boughs, enlivened their march, or divided their ordered squadrons.
Vehicles of all descriptions, from the handsome private chariot to the Irish jaunting-car, were continually arriving, and by the Wardens duly disposed around the hill. In Dublin, the “Liberator,” after a public breakfast, set forth at the head of a cortege, and his progress to Tara was a procession and a triumph. Under triumphal arches, and amidst a storm of music and acclamations, his carriage passed through the several little towns that lay in his way. At Tara the multitudes assembled were estimated in the Nation at 750,000; an exaggeration, certainly. But they were at least 350,000. Their numbers were not so impressive as their order and discipline; nor these so wonderful as the stifled enthusiasm that uplifted them above the earth. They came, indeed, with naked hands; but the Agitator knew well that if he had invited them they would have come still more gladly with extemporaneous pikes and spears, “or instruments serving for pikes and spears.”
He had been proclaiming from every hill-top in Ireland for six months that something was coming – that Repeal was “on the wild winds of heaven.” Expectation had grown intense, painful, almost intolerable. He knew it; and those who were close to him as he mounted the platform, noticed that his lip and hand visibly trembled, as he gazed over the boundless human ocean, and heard its thundering roar of welcome. He knew that every soul in that host demanded its enfranchisement at his hand.
O’Connell called this meeting “an august and triumphant meeting;” and as if conscious that he must at least seem to make another step in advance, he brought up at the next meeting of the Repeal Association, a detailed “plan for the renewed action of the Irish Parliament,” which, he said, it only needed the Queen’s writs to put in operation. The new House of Commons was to consist of three hundred members, quite fairly apportioned to the several constituencies; and in the meantime, he announced that he would invite three hundred gentlemen to assemble in Dublin early in December, who were to come from every part of Ireland, and virtually represent their respective localities.
This was the “Council of Three Hundred,” about which he had often talked before in a vague manner; but had evidently great difficulty in bringing to pass legally. For it would be a “Convention of Delegates,” – and such, an assembly, though legal enough in England, is illegal in Ireland. Conventions (like arms and ammunition) are held to be unsuitable to the Irish character. For, in fact, it had been a Convention which proclaimed the independence of Ireland in Dungannon; and the arms and ammunition of the Volunteer army had made it good, in 1782; good, for eighteen years.
The plan of this Council of three hundred was hailed with great joy by the Nation party. They felt that if boldly carried into effect, it must bring on the crisis one way or another. “The hour is approaching,” they wrote, “that will test the leaders of the people, and try the souls of the millions. The curtain has risen on the fifth act of the drama.”
Two weeks after, the London Parliament was prorogued; and the Queen’s speech (composed by Sir Robert Peel) was occupied almost entirely by two subjects, – the disturbances in Wales, and the Repeal Agitation in Ireland. There had been some rioting and bloodshed in Wales, in resistance to oppressive turnpike dues, and the like; – there was a quiet and legal expression of opinion in Ireland, unattended by the slightest outrage, demanding back the Parliament of the country. The Queen first dealt with Wales. She had taken measures, she said, for the repression of violence – and at the same time, directed an inquiry to be made into the circumstances which led to it.
As to Ireland, her Majesty said, there was discontent and disaffection, but uttered not a word about, any inquiry into the causes of that. “It had ever been her earnest desire,” her Majesty said, “to administer the government of that country in a spirit of strict justice and impartiality” and “she was firmly determined, under the blessing of Divine Providence,” to maintain the Union. The little principality of Wales was in open revolt; there ministers would institute inquiry. Ireland was quiet, and standing upon the law; there they would meet the case with horse, foot, and artillery: for we all knew that was what the Queen meant by “the blessing of Divine Providence.”
Again the Agitator mustered all Connaught at three great monster meetings – in Roscommon, Clifden, and Loughrea. Again he asked them if they were for the Repeal; and again the mountains and the sea-cliffs resounded with their acclaim. Yes; they were for the Repeal; they had said so before. What next?
Leinster, too, was summoned again to meet on the 1st of October, at Mullaghmast, in Kildare county, near the road from Dublin to Carlow, and close on the borders of the Wicklow highlands. Every device was used to make this the most imposing and effective of all the meetings. The spot was noted as the scene of a massacre of some chiefs of Offaly and Leix, with hundreds of their clansmen, in 1577, by the English of the Pale, who had invited them to a great feast, but had troops silently drawn around the banqueting-hall, who, at a signal, attacked the place and cut the throat of every wassailer. The hill of Mullaghmast, like that of Tara, is crowned by a Rath, or ancient earthen rampart, enclosing about three acres.
To this meeting it was supposed that additional importance would be given, if the members of the town corporations of Leinster should repair thither in their corporate robes. O’Connell took the chair in the scarlet cloak of Alderman. There had lately been invented a “national cap,” modelled after the form of an ancient Irish crown. One of these was prepared, splendidly embroidered, where with to crown O’Connell on the Rath of Mullaghmast; and it was with great ceremony placed on his head by John Hogan, the first of Irish sculptors. We read in the papers of the day how the Liberator’s face beamed with pleasure when Hogan placed the cap upon his head, saying – “Sir, I only regret that this cap is not of gold”
And again there was a vast assemblage: and, again the numerous bands discoursed Irish music, and the air was fanned by a thousand banners, and rent by the acclamations of hundreds of thousands of human beings; and again O’Connell assured them that England could not long resist, these demonstrations of their peaceful resolve that the Union was a nullity – that he had already arranged his plan for the new Irish Parliaments – and that this was the Repeal year.
In truth, it was time for England either to yield with good grace, or to find or make some law applicable to this novel “political offence,” or to provoke a fight and blow away Repeal with cannon. Many of the Protestants were joining O’Connell; and even, the troops in some Irish regiments had been known to throw up their caps with “Hurrah for Repeal!” It was high time to grapple with the “Sedition.”
Accordingly, the government was all this time watching for an occasion on which it could come to issue with the Agitation, where all advantages were on its side. The next week that occasion arose. A great metropolitan meeting was appointed to be held on the historic shore of Clontarf, – two miles from Dublin, along the Bay, – on Sunday, the 8th of October. The garrison of Dublin amounted then to about 4,000 men, besides the 1,000 police, with abundance of field artillery.
Late in the afternoon of Saturday, when it was already almost dusk, a Proclamation was posted on the walls of Dublin, signed by the Irish Secretary and Privy Councillors and the Commander of the Forces, forbidding the meeting; and charging all magistrates and officers, “and others whom it might concern, to be aiding and assisting in the execution of the Law, in preventing said meeting.”
“Let them not dare,” O’Connell had often said, “to attack us!” The challenge was now to be accepted. The curtain rises on the fifth act.