BRITISH GOVERNMENT, then, closed with Repeal; and one or the other, it was plain, must go down.
The British Empire, as it stands, looks vast and strong; but none know so well as the statesmen of that country how intrinsically feeble it is: and how entirely it depends for its existence upon prestige, that is, upon a superstitious belief in its power. England, in short, could by no means afford to part with her “sister island:” both in money and in credit the cost would be too much. In this same Repeal year, for example, there was an export of provisions from Ireland to England of the value of seventy-five million dollars1. And between surplus revenue remitted to England, and absentee rents spent in England, Mr. O’Connell’s frequent statement that £9,000,000 of Irish money was annually spent in England, is not over the truth. These were substantial advantages, not to be yielded up lightly.
In point of national prestige England could still less afford to repeal the Union, because all the world would know the concession had been wrung from her against her will. Both parties in England, Whigs and Tories, were of one mind upon this; and nothing can be more bitter than the language of all sections of the English Press, after it was once determined to crush the agitation by force. The Times said: –
“Repeal is not a matter to be argued on; it is a blow which despoils the Queen’s domestic territory – splinters her crown – undermines, and then crushes her throne – exposes her to insults and outrage from all quarters of the earth and ocean; a Repeal of the Union leaves England stripped of her vitality. Whatever might be the inconvenience or disadvantage, therefore, or even unwholesome restraint upon Ireland – although the Union secures the reverse of all these – but even were it gall to Ireland, England must guard her own life’s blood, and sternly tell the disaffected Irish: ‘you shall have me for a sister or a subjugatrix; that is my ultimatum.'”
And the Morning Chronicle, speaking of the Act of “Union,” said: –
“True, it was coarsely and badly done; but stand it must. A Cromwell’s violence, with Machiavelli’s perfidy, may have been at work; but the treaty, after all, is more than parchment.”
The first bolt launched, then was the Proclamation to prevent the meeting at Clontarf. I have mentioned that the Proclamation was posted in Dublin shortly before dusk on Saturday. But long before that time thousands of people from Meath, Kildare, and Dublin counties were already on their way to Clontarf. They all had confidence in O’Connell’s knowledge of law; and he had often told them (and it was true) that the meetings, and all the proceedings at them, were perfectly legal: and that a proclamation could not make them illegal. They would, therefore, have most certainly nocked to the rendezvous in the usual numbers, even if they had seen the Proclamation.
Readers may not fully understand the object of the Privy Council in keeping back their Proclamation to so late an hour on Saturday, seeing that the meeting had been many days announced; and they might as well have issued their command earlier in the week. Some may also be at a loss to understand why the Proclamation called not only upon all Magistrates and civil and military officers to assist in preventing the assembly; but also “all others whom it might concern.” They meant to take O’Connell by surprise – so that he might be unable to prevent the assembly entirely, or to organize it (if such were his policy) for defence – and thus they would create confusion and a pretext for an onslaught, or “salutary lesson.”
Besides, they had already made up their minds to arrest O’Connell and several others, and subject them to a State Prosecution; and the Crown lawyers were already hard at work getting up a case against him. It is quite possible that they intended (should O’Connell go to Clontarf in the midst of such confusion and excitement) to arrest him then and there; which would have been certainly resisted by the people; and so there would have been a riot; and everything would have been lawful then. As to the “others whom it might concern,” that meant the Orange Associations of Dublin, and everybody else who might take the invitation to himself. “Others whom it may concern! Why this is intended for, and addressed to, Tresham Gregg and his auditory!” [said O’Connell.] Thus the enemy had well provided for confusion, collision, and “a salutary lesson.”
O’Connell and the Committee, did, perhaps, the best thing possible in that exigency; except one. He issued another proclamation, and sent it off by parties of gentlemen known by the people and on whom they would rely, to turn back the crowds upon all the roads by which they were likely to come in. All that Saturday night their exertions were unremitting; and the good Father Tyrrell, whose parishioners, swarming in from Fingal, would have made a large part of thy meeting, by his exertions and fatigue that night fell sick, and died. The meeting was prevented. The troops were marched out, and drawn up on the beach and on the hill; the artillery was placed in a position to rake the place of meeting, and the cavalry ready to sweep it; but they met no enemy.
Within a week, O’Connell and eight others were held to bail to take their trial for “conspiracy and other misdemeanors.”
If I am asked what would have been the very best thing O’Connell could do on that day of Clontarf – I answer: To let the people of the country come to Clontarf, – to meet them there himself, as he had invited them, – but, the troops being almost all drawn out of the city, to keep the Dublin Repealers at home, and to give them a commission to take the Castle and all the barracks, and to break down the canal bridge and barricade the streets leading to Clontarf. The whole garrison and police were 5,000. The city had a population of 250,000.
The multitudes coming in from the country would, probably, have amounted to almost as many; and that handful of men between -! There would have been a horrible slaughter of the unarmed people without, if the troops would fire on them, – a very doubtful matter, – and O’Connell himself might have fallen. It were well for his fame if he had; and the deaths of five or ten thousand that day might have saved Ireland the slaughter, by famine, of a hundred times as many; a carnage of which I have yet to give the history.
The “Government,” as they called themselves, – but as I choose to call them, the enemy, – were very much delighted with the success, even so far as it was a success of their first blow. They had prevented the meeting, and that by a display of force. Next, they proceeded with great ostentation to prepare for the State Trials of the “Conspirators.”
O’Connell, on his side, laughed both at the “Clontarf War” and at the State Trials. He seemed well pleased with them both. The one proved how entirely under discipline were the virtuous, and sober, and loyal people, as he called them. The other would show how wisely he had steered the agitation through the rocks and shoals of Law. In this he would have been perfectly right, his legal position would have been impregnable, but for two circumstances. First, “Conspiracy,” in Ireland, means anything the Castle Judges wish: second, the Castle Sheriff was quite sure to pack a Castle jury; – so that whatever the Castle might desire, the jury would affirm on oath, “so help them God!” The Jury System in Ireland I shall have occasion more than once to expound hereafter.
For the next eight months, that is, until the end of May, 1844, the State Prosecution was the grand concern around which all public interest in Ireland concentrated itself. The prosecuted “Conspirators” were nine in number Daniel O’Connell; his son, John O’Connell, M.P., for Kilkenny; Charles Gavan Duffy, Editor of the Nation; the Rev. Mr. Tyrrell, of Lusk, county Dublin (he died while the prosecution was pending); the Rev. Mr. Tierney, of Clontibret, county Monaghan; Richard Barret, Editor of the Pilot, Dublin; Thomas Steele, “Head Pacificator of Ireland;” Thomas M. Ray, Secretary of the Repeal Association; and Dr. Gray, Editor of the Freeman’s Journal, Dublin. All these gentlemen were waited upon by the Inspector of Police, and requested to give bail for their appearance.
While the proceedings were pending, the agitation seemed to gather strength and acquire impetus. There was general indignation even among anti-Repealers at the transaction of Clontarf; and Lord Cloncurry made no scruple to term it “a projected massacre.” In every corner of the island there was new and multitudinous enrolment of Repealers; and large sums were forwarded to the Association under the title of “Proclamation Money.” Every Monday, as usual, O’Connell attended the weekly meeting of the Association, and treated the legal proceedings as a new and powerful agency placed in his hands for working out “the Repeal.” He poured ridicule on the Law-officers, the Ministers, the Lord Lieutenant, the Privy Council; and promised that he would put them all to shame, and come triumphantly out of the prosecution (which he did); and that he would thereafter hold the Clontarf meeting, and call together the Council of Three Hundred; – neither of which he ever did.
The specific charge in the indictment (which was the longest indictment ever seen in any court) was “conspiracy” (conspiracy hatched in public meetings!) to bring the laws and administration of the laws into contempt, and to excite hatred and dissension between various classes of her Majesty’s subjects; and the overt acts were O’ Council’s speeches; – the appointment of Repeal Arbitration Courts, in contempt and derogation of the regular tribunals held under royal commission; – and articles in the several newspapers whose editors were included in the prosecution.
All these “overt acts” continued to be transacted with even greater activity than ever. The open air monster meetings, indeed, ceased; as Clontarf was to have been the last of them, at all events, owing to the approach of winter; but in no other respect was there any change in the system of agitation. The new Hall, which had been built as a place of meeting for the Association, was just finished; and O’Connell, who had a peculiar taste in nomenclature, christened it “Conciliation Hall;” intending to indicate the necessity for uniting all classes and religions in Ireland, in a common struggle for the independence of their common country.
This “Conciliation Hall” was a large oblong building on Burgh Quay, next door to the Corn Exchange, the scene of O’Connell’s agitation for many years. The new Hall was not a beautiful building, externally, presenting to the street a front ornamented with pilasters, – the Harp and Irish Crown, cut in stone – and over all a balustrade. Internally, it was spacious, handsome, and convenient. On the 22d of October it was opened in great form and amidst high enthusiasm.
The chair was taken by John Augustus O’Neill, of Bunowen Castle, a Protestant gentleman, who had been early in life a cavalry officer and Member of Parliament for Hull, in England. Letters from Lord French, Sir Charles Wolesley, Sir Richard Musgrave, and Mr. Caleb Powell, one of the Members for Limerick county, were read and placed on the minutes, – all breathing vehement indignation against the “government,” and pledging the warmest support. But this first meeting in the New Hall was specially notable for the adhesion of Mr. Smith O’Brien. Nothing encouraged the people, nothing provoked and perplexed the enemy, so much as this. O’Brien was of the great and ancient house of Thomond, in Munster; his father was Sir. Edward O’Brien, an extensive proprietor in Clare county, and regarded as the chief of his clan. His eldest brother was Sir Lucius O’Brien, then a Baronet, but afterwards Lord Inchiquin.
The family had been Protestant for some generations; and Smith O’Brien, though always zealous in. promoting everything which might be useful to Ireland in Parliament, had remained attached to the Whig party, and was hardly expected to throw himself into the national cause so warmly, and at so dangerous a time. His Whig associates, not having been accustomed to meet with men of his stamp, confessed their surprise.
As Mr. O’Brien afterwards became a conspicuous figure in Irish politics, I here present the greater part of the letter in which, he sought admission into the national association: –
CAHERMOYLE, RATHKEALE, Oct. 20, 1843.
“DEAR SIR, – I beg to transmit herewith an order for £5, my first subscription to the treasury of the Loyal Repeal Association of Ireland.
As it is due to those who have hitherto honoured me with their confidence that I should state the reasons which induce me to take this step, I shall feel obliged if the Association will allow the following remarks to appear in the next report of their proceedings:
When the proposal to seek for a Repeal of the act of Union was first seriously entertained by a large portion of the Irish people, I used all the influence which I possessed to discountenance the attempt. I did not consider that the circumstances and prospects of Ireland then justified the agitation of this question. Catholic Emancipation had been recently achieved, and I sincerely believed that from that epoch a new course of policy would be adopted towards Ireland.
I persuaded myself that thenceforth the statesmen of Great Britain would spare no effort to repair the evils produced by centuries of misgovernment – that the Catholic and Protestant would be admitted to share, on equal terms, in all the advantages resulting from our constitutional form of government – that all traces of an ascendancy of race or creed would be effaced – that the institutions of Ireland would be gradually moulded so as to harmonize with the opinions of its inhabitants that in regard to political rights, legislation for both kingdoms would be based upon the principle of perfect equality – that an improvement in the social condition of our people would become an object of the deepest interest to the British Parliament – that the disadvantages resulting to Ireland from the loss of her legislature, and from the transfer of her public establishments to London, would be compensated by equivalents such as would enable every friend of the Union to point to numberless benefits as consequent upon that measure – and that in interest and feeling the two nations would be for ever identified as one people.
Fourteen years have elapsed since that event, and the experience of each succeeding year has tended to show the fallacy of these expectations, and to dissipate these hopes. I have elsewhere taken an opportunity of illustrating in detail the progress of misgovernment. Recapitulation is almost unnecessary. We have seen that the anti-Catholic prejudices of the English people are still as strong as when they brought these countries to the verge of a civil war by protracted resistance to Emancipation. The feelings of the Irish nation have been exasperated by every species of irritation and insult; political equality has been denied to us.
Every proposal tending to develop the sources of our industry, to raise the character and improve the condition of our population, has been discountenanced, distorted, or rejected. Ireland, instead of taking its place as an integral part of the great empire which the valour of her sons has contributed to win, has been treated as a dependent, tributary province; and at this moment, after forty-three years of nominal union, the affections of the two nations are so entirely alienated from each other, that England trusts for the maintenance of their connection, not to the attachment of the Irish people, but to the bayonets which menace our bosoms, and to the cannon which she has planted on all our strongholds.
For planted on all our strongholds myself, I have not been able to witness this course of events without feeling that the conduct of the British Parliament has fully justified the endeavour to obtain the restitution of our national legislature; but a strong sense of the difficulties which obstruct the accomplishment of that measure – a thankless apprehension of inconveniences which it might possibly cause to England – a lingering hope that a nobler or wiser spirit would still exhibit itself in the policy to be adopted towards Ireland – perhaps also personal considerations connected with my own education and individual position, have hitherto restrained me from engaging in pursuit of the remedy proposed by my fellow-countrymen for wrongs which, equally with them, I resent. I resolved, before I should throw myself into your ranks, to leave no effort untried to obtain redress by other means. Of our labours in Parliament, during the last session, you know the result.
We condescended to address to the government entreaties and expostulations, humiliating to ourselves and to the country whose interests we represent; – all was in vain. We made a last appeal to the British people; our warning – the friendly remonstrance of men averse to agitation, and for the most part favourable to the Union, – was treated with neglect, ridicule, or defiance. Still a hope remained on my mind that the government, alive to the evils to which Ireland is exposed from the continuance of national discontent, would call Parliament together in the Autumn, and submit some general system of conciliatory measures for its tranquillization. Lest I should be led to form a precipitate decision, I availed myself of the interval which followed the close of the session to examine whether, among the governments of central Europe, there are any so indifferent to the interests of their subjects as England has been to the welfare and happiness of our population.
After visiting Belgium, and all the principal capitals of Germany, I returned home impressed with the sad conviction that there is more human misery in one county in Ireland than throughout all the populous cities and districts which I had visited. On landing in England, I learn that the Ministry, instead of applying themselves to remove the causes of complaint, have resolved to deprive us even of the liberty of discontent, – that public meetings are to be suppressed, – and that state prosecutions are to be carried on against Mr. O’Connell and others, on some frivolous charges of sedition and conspiracy.
I should be unworthy to belong to a nation which may claim at least as a characteristic virtue that it exhibits increased fidelity in the hour of danger, if I were to delay any longer to dedicate myself to the cause of my country. Slowly, reluctantly convinced that Ireland has nothing to hope from the sagacity, the justice, or the generosity of the English Parliament, my reliance shall henceforth be placed upon our own native energy and patriotism.”
The example of a man so universally esteemed as O’Brien, of course induced many other Protestants to follow his example. The weekly contributions to the revenue of the Association became so great as to place in the hands of the Committee a large treasury to be used in spreading and organizing the movement; arbitration courts decided the people’s complaints with general acceptation: and great meetings in American cities sent, by every steamship, their words of sympathy and bills of exchange.
It is not very certain that the “Government” was at first resolutely bent on pressing their prosecution to extremity. Probably they rather hoped that the show of a determination to put down the agitation somehow would cool the ardour both of demagogues and people. Plainly it had no such effect; and it way, therefore, resolved to pursue the “Conspirators” to conviction and imprisonment, at any cost and by any means.
By what means they sought to secure this result – and how juries and verdicts are manufactured in Ireland – I shall narrate in the next chapter.
1 Official reports of the amount of this Export ceased to be kept after 1826. Up to that date, the food export from Ireland had been rapidly increasing; and the act which was passed, placing it on the footing of a coastal-trade, prevented accounts from being kept of it and thus concealed its amount. The estimate given above is perhaps too low; certainly not too high.