The Repeal year had conducted not to a Parliament in College Green, but to a Penitentiary at Richmond. Yet the people believed in O’Connell’s power, wisdom, and truth. From his prison his prison sent weekly messages to the Repeal Association (which continued to meet as usual), announcing that the independence of the country was never so certain; – that he rejoiced to be imprisoned for Ireland: – above all, that he implored the people to be peaceful and patient. Peaceful and patient they were; and the Wardens and clergy laboured more zealously than ever to keep up the agitation and swell its funds. Corporations, bishops, “dismissed magistrates,” and mayors of cities, thronged the courts and gardens of the prison, bringing their addresses of confidence and assurances of co-operation.
Very considerable indignation had been excited, even amongst the Protestants, by the means which had been used to snatch this conviction. The agitation had rather gained than lost: and many gentlemen who had held back till now, sent in their names and subscriptions. O’Brien was a constant attendant at the Association; and by his boldness and purity of character, and his extensive knowledge of public affairs, gave it both impetus and steadiness.
Yet O’Connell and his friends were in a prison, sentenced to an incarceration of one year; and it would be vain to deny that there was humiliation in the fact. True, the jury had been notoriously packed; the trial had been but a sham; and the sentence would probably be reversed by the House of Lords. Still, there was Ireland, represented by her chosen men, suffering the penalties of crime in a gaol. The island was still fully and effectively occupied by troops, us a hostile country; and all its resources were in clear possession of the enemy. Many began to doubt whether the “Moral-Force principle” of O’Connell would be found sufficient.
In an elegant tent, with a green flag flying over it, O’Connell, with his green Mullaghmast cap on, received the deputations, and made them gracious answers, not without a seasoning of merry jest. Through the trees, and amongst parterres of flowers, one might see the “martyrs” and their friends sauntering about; the tall form of Mr. Steele, the “Head Pacificator,” strode alone and apart; pretending to read “Kane’s Industrial Resources of Ireland.” John O’Connell, with a smile ready for all comers, but an air somewhat pre-occupied, as if intent on weighty business, remained generally near to his father.
He was then about thirty-two years of age, small of stature, but rather corpulent, and extremely unlike in every respect to the “Liberator.” He was then member of Parliament for Kilkenny. Duffy might have been seen on a rustic bench, surrounded by certain young poets, his pale face illuminated with a glow that looked very like the light of enthusiasm, and almost of genius; and he seemed to be rather too nervously anxious that the “Nation party” should be forward and conspicuous at this crisis of the cause.
Davis was still making the columns of the Nation flash with proud hope and defiance; but did not affect to conceal a certain despondency. “No,” he said; “O’Connell will run no more risks. Even when this judgment shall be set aside, and he will come out in triumph, he will content himself with ‘imposing demonstrations.’ He will not call the Clontarf meeting again he will not summon the Council of Three Hundred; and from the day of his release the cause will be going back and going down. What care the government,” he exclaimed, with bitterness, “how many thousands of people may meet peacefully and legally, or in what trappings they dress themselves, or to what tunes they march, or what banners they may flaunt, – while there are fifty thousand bayonets in all our garrisons, besides the Orange Yeomanry!” In truth, the Repeal Agitation, as a living and formidable power, was over from the day of imprisonment; and I shall not dwell on the details of it any farther.
The judgment of the Irish Court of Queen’s Bench was brought up to the British House of Peers on a Writ of Error; and on the 2nd and 4th of September, the opinions of nine English Judges were delivered, and the decision pronounced. Eight of the Judges gave their opinion that the jury was a good jury, the verdict good, and the judgment good. It appeared, however, that Mr. Justice Coleridge dissented. Lord Lyndhurst, the Lord Chancellor, then delivered his decision; he agreed with the majority of the judges, and thought the judgment should stand, packing of the jury being immaterial. He was followed by Lord Brougham, – and nobody could doubt what would be the decision of that learned person; – the jury was a good enough jury; some of the counts in the indictment might be bad; but, bad or good, the judgment of the Irish court was to stand; and O’Connell was to remain in prison.
Lord Denman, Chief Justice of England, then arose. I have already mentioned that the whole Irish question was regarded in the British Parliament solely with reference to its affording a chance for turning out the Tory ministry, and conducting the Whigs into power and place. We have seen, accordingly, the virtuous indignation of Lord John Russell, and of Mr. Macaulay, against the packing of the juries. It seems an atrocious charge to make upon Judges and Law-lords – that they could be influenced by any other considerations than the plain law and justice of the case. But the mere matter of fact, is, that the majority of the English Judges were of the Tory party.
Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst was a violent Tory, and moreover, an avowed enemy to Ireland. Lord Brougham was at that time a Tory, and also a personal foe to O’Connell, having been often stung by the vicious taunts and ridicule of that gentleman. But Lord Denman, Lord Cottenham, and Lord Campbell were Whigs; and Denman, Cottenham, and Campbell gave it as their opinion that the jury had been unfair and fraudulent – that no fair trial had taken place – and, therefore, that the judgment against the Repeal Conspirators should be reversed.
Some circumstances attending this transaction deserve to be stated. After the delivery of the opinions of the Law-lords, the Chancellor put the question, “Is it your lordships’ pleasure that the judgment be reversed?” – and several lay-lords, who knew no more of law than of anything else, shouted in chorus to Lord Brougham, “Not Content.” This was too much: Lord Wharncliffe, President of the Council, himself rebuked the indecency; and even Lord Brougham declared that it was better not to go out of the usual course, even for the sake of doing justice in so important a case; as it would diminish the respect and coincidence of mankind towards that most illustrious tribunal. The noisy lay-lords, therefore, took their hats and went out; and the votes only of the law-lords were taken. Lyndhurst and Brougham were for sustaining the judgment; and three others against it. The Chancellor, therefore, announced – “the judgment is reversed.”
The State Trials, then, were at an end. It has been beside my present purpose to detail the complicated incidents of that procedure – the motion for a new trial, the motion for amendment in the postea, and so forth, – which served to protract the affair, month after month. Proof of the “overt acts,” also, has been omitted, criminal trial at all; – It was a de facto government making use of its courts of justice and officials, of its executive power to try and convict a whole people for the crime of demanding their independence.
Thus considered, it was deemed by all high-spirited Irishmen, as an outrage and public affront before the world; and the reversal of the judgment by Whig law-lords in London, and consequent liberation of the prisoners, was by no means regarded as atoning the outrage or wiping out the insult. We tried hard, indeed, to feel triumphant: it needed no trouble to feel indignant and humiliated. The Nation exclaims: –
“What – what – what! is the decision of the Queen’s Bench of Ireland reversed? So they have kept us for three months from our freedom without law, or right, or justice? Out upon their constitution!
And was the Trial by Jury made a ‘mockery, a delusion, and a snare,’ for this opening of the prison-gates? Were the names omitted, the list fraudulent, and did all the attendant circumstances of a Government conspiracy take place only that the unwilling hands which closed the doors of Richmond prison should open them to-day?
And so the ‘convicted conspirators,’ the ‘hoary criminal,’ and his ‘suffering dupes,’ were robbed of their liberty by the Government of England! With hot, indecent haste with furious hurry they drove them from the Court-house to the Gaol. The men who stood convicted appealed to a higher, and, as it appears, a luckier court, from the inferior tribunal; yet, contrary to all the dictates of true justice, they were forced to endure the punishment without their crime being proved.
The Government were warned not to inflict this wrong. They were warned to abide the issue of the appeal to stay their vengeance to balk their appetite for punishment. Yet that sleek tyrant at their head would not have it so. He would have O’Connell in the prison. He would wreak malignant vengeance on his ‘difficulty’; he did so. He inflicted three months’ false imprisonment.”
Yes, it was true; the “sleek tyrant” had clone it; and we might make the most and say our worst of it. He had shown that ho dared inflict three months’ false imprisonment: and the very appeal to a British House of Lords, from an Irish law Court, was felt to be degradation, because it was an attornment to the jurisdiction of the enemy.
Before quitting the subject, one or two matters deserve commemoration. The British Government, by openly and ostentatiously striking off from the jury panel all Catholics without exception, and all Protestants of moderate and liberal opinions, made proclamation that they knew the great mass of the people to be averse to them and their rule, – avowed that they accounted that small remainder, out of whom they selected their jurors, to be the only “good and lawful men.” This, to be sure, amounted to an admission that nine-tenths of Irishmen desired the freedom of their country; – but then it also amounted to a declaration that England meant to hold the country, whether Irishmen would or not.
One other noteworthy matter: after the verdict, but before the sentence, it was well known that the traversers would bring the whole matter up to the House of Lords by Writ of Error; but it was also known that Ministers would insist upon imprisonment, pending the Writ of Error, and that the Judges would refuse all bail; for the sole policy of “government” seemed to be that O’Connell must see the inside of a gaol, guilty or not guilty, law or no law.
Accordingly it was conceived by certain Whig statesmen in London (then out of place, as aforesaid, and eager to “make capital” by their friendship for Ireland), that a Bill might be introduced into Parliament, authorizing bail to be received in criminal cases, pending a Writ of Error, in order that persons might not suffer imprisonment as criminals, who might turn out to be innocent. Lord Campbell introduced the Bill. On the second of May, he moved that it should be referred to a committee. Lord Lyndhurst, the Chancellor, opposed it on the part of the government. He said not a word against the fairness and justice of the measure; but boldly founded his opposition on the ground that it was brought in to answer a particular case. Lord Brougham, of course, opposed it too; and was so foolish as to say that –
“Though approving of the general principles of the measure, he had at the first stated that it was most objectionable to introduce a measure so important pending the proceedings now going on in Dublin.”
Lord Clanricarde observed that the opposition of their Lordships to the measure amounted to this: that if it were passed they might be unable wrongly to imprison six or seven gentlemen then in Dublin. Without so much as a division, the motion was negatived; and, on the 30th of the same month of May, O’Connell and his friends were carried to prison.
It was easy to expose and denounce all these proceedings: and they were triumphantly denounced in prose and verse. But the more thoroughly they were exposed and dwelt upon, and the more ostentatious and audacious they were, just the more stinging and deadly was the insult to our people. It was a kind of and amount of outrage which if endure, without battle, virtue has gone out of them. Under that insult I do not pretend to deny that our national honour still lies a-bleeding.
But in Dublin there was the show of high rejoicing; and the Prisoners were escorted from the Penitentiary, through the city, by a vast and orderly procession, to O’Connell’s house in Merrion Square. In deep and ordered ranks, the “Trades” of Dublin marched, preceded by bands; and innumerable banners fanned the air; and splendid carriages, with four horses and with six, conveyed committees, attorneys for the traversers, aldermen, and other notabilities.
The procession marched through College Green; and just as O’Connell’s carriage came in front of the Irish Parliament House (the most superb building in Dublin), the carriage stopped; the whole procession stopped; and there was a deep silence as O’Connell rose to his full height, and pointing with his finger to the portico, turned slowly around and gazed into the faces of the people, without a word. Again and again, he stretched forth his arm and pointed; and a succession of pealing cheers rent the air and “shook the banners like a storm,” until, say the reporters, “Echo herself was hoarse.”
All the country, friends and enemies, Ireland and England, were now looking eagerly and earnestly for O’Connell’s first movement, as an indication of his future course. Never, at any moment in his life, did he hold the people so wholly in his hand. During the imprisonment, both clergy and Repeal Wardens had laboured diligently in extending and confirming the organization; and the poor people proved their faith and trust by sending greater and greater contributions to the Repeal Treasury. They kept the “peace” as their Liberator bade them; and the land was never so free from crime – lest they should “give strength to the enemy.”
I am proud of my people; and have always regarded with profound admiration the steady faith, patient zeal, self-denial, and disciplined enthusiasm they displayed for these two years. To many thousands of those peasants the struggle had been more severe than any war; for they were expected to set at naught potent landlords, who had over them and their children power of life and death, with troops of insolent bailiffs, and ejecting attorneys, and the omnipresent police: and they did set them at naught. Every vote they gave at an election might cost them house and home, land and life. They were naturally ardent, impulsive, and impatient; but their attitude was calm and steadfast.
They were an essentially military people; but the great “Liberator” told them that “no political amelioration was worth one drop of human blood.” They did not believe the formula, and in assenting to it often winked their eyes; yet steadily and trustfully, this one good time, they sought to liberate their country peacefully, legally, under the, advice of counsel. They loyally obeyed that man, and would obey no other. And when he walked in triumph out of his prison, at one word from his mouth they would have marched upon Dublin from all the five ends of Ireland, and made short work with police and military barracks.
But what shall I say of him? He knew that millions of his countrymen were hanging upon his lips and secretly praying that he would bring this long agony to the arbitrament of manhood: – and his soul sank within him. For years he had been promising them freedom or his head upon the block: he had taken the starving peasant’s mite, and “the priceless trust of youth;” and, now, let me not say he betrayed, but he disappointed that trust. Let there be such excuses for him as the nature of the case admits; he was old; the disease of which he died (softening the brain) had already begun to work upon his energies: the thought of bloodshed was horrible to him; for he was haunted by the ghost of D’Esterre, whom he had slain in the pride of life. Yet, after all, what a poor comfort, what a poor excuse is all this!
Almost the first thing he proposed after his release, in a secret conclave of the Repeal Association, was the dissolution of the Association, in order to construct on a little more legal and safe basis. He knew that the Association now contained thousands who eagerly demanded some decisive step in advance; and though he constantly flattered Smith O’Brien in public, yet he already feared that man’s well-known inflexibility of character, and knew that he had not thrown himself into the cause without stern purpose.
The proposal to disband was combated, and was given up. He occupied his weekly speeches with collateral issues upon parliamentary questions which were often arising, – the “Bequests Act,” the “Colleges’ Bill,” the Papal Rescript negotiation, and the like; – all matters which would have been of moment in any self-governing nation, but were of next to no account in the circumstances; or he poured forth his fiery floods of eloquence in denunciation, not of the British Government, but of American Slavery, with which he had nothing on earth to do.
Very shortly after his release, he went so far as to declare in a published letter (2nd October,) that he preferred Federalism to Repeal – that is, a local Parliament for local purposes: but here again he was met. Duffy published a letter, very respectfully but firmly declaring that the cause we were all enlisted in was the national independence of Ireland. Prom other quarters also came symptoms of discontent; and at the next meeting of the Association he exclaimed: “Federalism! – I would not give that for Federalism;” and he snapped his fingers. And still his entreaties for “peace, law, and order,” became more nervously anxious, day by day; and he often declared that his. “Head Pacificator” was now the most important person in the Association.
He said no more of his plan for a Council of Three Hundred, or adjourned it to a distant contingency. He praised too much, as many thought, the sublime integrity and justice of the three Whig law-lords who had voted for reversing the judgment against him. But the most significant change in his behaviour was in the querulous captiousness he showed towards the Nation and those connected with it. He had much to say in deprecation of rash young men; and hinted that the youngsters in question were no better than infidels.
All these symptoms of retreating from his position, these good words to British Whiggery, and censure on “rash young men,” appearing from week to week, fell upon the highly wrought excitement of the people with the effect of a repeated shower-bath; and the patient perceptibly cooled. The Association all this time was becoming more powerful for good than ever. O’Brien had instituted a “Parliamentary Committee,” and worked on it continually himself; which, at all events, furnished the nation with careful and authentic memoirs on all Irish questions and interests, filled with accurate statistical details.
Many Protestant gentlemen, also, of high rank, joined the Association in ’44 and ’45 – being evidently unconscious how certainly and speedily that body was going to destruction. The meetings were constant and crowded; and to a casual observer the agitation was as formidable and active as ever. “Our position,” said the Nation, “is as good as the Duke’s at Torres Vedras.” Perhaps; but then the enemy was inside our position, not outside; which makes a great difference. In short, the British government set its back to the wall, loaded and primed, and let the Repealers talk.
The history of Ireland must now be sought elsewhere than in the Repeal Association; and I have next to mention the movements on the other side. The situation was uneasy, was intolerable, and had to be brought to an end somehow or other.