March, ’48, was a season of nervous tremor to the British Empire. The exciting news that came in every week from France, Germany, and Italy, intoxicated our people like wine; and the enemy knew that men’s minds were entirely turned away from what used to be called “moral” agitation, – which had indeed, been discovered to be extremely immoral. The structure of the British Parliament, and the delusive semblance of representation which Ireland possessed there, had been carefully calculated for the purposes of our enemy.
That was a field expressly laid out and surveyed to ensure our eternal defeat. At the very moment that Europe shook with the crashing downfall of the Orleans throne, the Irish Confederation was using all its efforts, in prosecution of the policy deliberately adopted, to procure the return of Thomas Francis Meagher as representative of his native city, Waterford. He was opposed by a Repealer of the O’Connellite school.
You may ask what was the difference between the constitutionally agitating Repeal Association, and the constitutionally agitating Confederation? Why should they oppose one another in Waterford? Understand this distinction: the policy of the Repeal Association was to put men into Parliament who would crave office for themselves and their constituents at the hands of the enemy’s government, professing all the while to be seeking for the Repeal. The Confederation was for returning men who would stand on terms of utter defiance towards the “Government,” and use their position only to expose and frustrate, as far as possible, all British legislation for Ireland. With reluctance I opposed in the United Irishman the return of my friend, Mr. Meagher. To explain both his position and mine, I shall extract from the article in the United Irishman: –
“If Ireland had one single chance in contending with her ancient enemy upon his own chosen ground, – if Ireland had any right to send representatives to a British Parliament, – if Irishmen, there were indeed members of an Imperial senate, and not captives dragged at the chariot wheels of an Imperial ovation in the enemy’s capital city, – if that Parliament were not a Lie, an imposture, an outrage, a game in which our part and lot must be disgrace and defeat forever, a shield and strong tower for its masters, but against us a two-edged sword, – if it were anything to Ireland besides a conduit of corruption, a workshop of coercion, a storehouse of starvation, a machinery of cheating, and a perpetual memento of slavery, – then we should congratulate the ‘electors’ of Waterford on this opportunity of doing honour to themselves, and conferring a trust on then most distinguished citizen.
Mr. Thomas F. Meagher has offered himself as their representative. We give an extract from his address:
“‘The grounds upon which I seek your trust are these: I shall not meddle with English affairs. I shall take no part in the strife of parties: all factions are alike to me. I shall go to the English’ House of Commons to insist upon the right of this country to be held, governed, and defended by its own citizens, and by them alone. Whilst I live, I shall never rest satisfied until the kingdom of Ireland has won a parliament, an army, and a navy of her own.
Of other things I shall not speak: petty ameliorations instalments of justice scraps of government patronage; if these things mingle in the burning hopes of the nation, the day for Ireland has not yet arrived, and I shall wait for other men and other times.
But if your thirst be, what I hope it is, for the pure and living waters, and if you think that my youth and strength, my glory here and hope hereafter, would inspire my efforts to realize your wishes, every personal objection to me will disappear. You will pledge your trust to my truth, and that obligation will, by its own holiness, compel me to fulfil it.’
They are noble sentiments; and if there be faith hi man, here is a man who will redeem his pledges. What glorious genius, indomitable courage, and passionate devotion to a sacred cause can do, we might expect to see done by Mr. Meagher.
Yet we pray for his defeat. If Mr. Meagher were in Parliament, men’s eyes would be attracted thither once more; some hope of ‘justice’ might again revive in this too easily deluded people. The nobler his genius, the more earnest his zeal, the more conspicuous his patriotism, just the more mischief would he do in propping up, through another session, perhaps through another famine, the miserable delusion of a ‘parliamentary party.'”
Mr. Meagher’s opponents were, first, one Pat. Costello, a placeman already, and one who desired to be a higher placeman, and to make as many as possible of his constituents placemen too – that is, hired servants of the enemy: second, Sir Henry Winston Barren, a Whig. A number of our principal Confederates went down to Waterford to conduct Meagher’s election, as they had gone to Galway before, to oppose Monahan’s. And again they were defeated more signally than in Galway. In rain the candidate, in vehement and impassioned language, appealed to the national spirit and patriotism of the people. The people ardently responded to his appeal. They would have given their blood for him; but they had no votes. The electoral body of Waterford was very limited, was in fact small enough to be reached and penetrated by the touch and the savour of official gold; and Barren was returned by a large majority.
Frankly, and at once, the Confederation accepted the only policy thereafter possible, and acknowledged the meaning of the European Revolutions. On the 15th of March, O’Brien moved an Address of Congratulation to the victorious French people; and ended his speech with these words: –
“It would be recollected that a short time ago he thought it his duty to deprecate all attempts to turn the attention of the people to military affairs, because it seemed to him that, in the then condition of the country, the only effect of leading the people’s mind to what was called ‘a guerilla warfare’ would be to encourage some of the misguided peasantry to the commission of murder (hear, hear). Therefore it was that he declared he should not be a party to giving such a recommendation; but the state of affairs was totally different now, and he had no hesitation in declaring that he thought the minds of intelligent young men should be turned to the consideration of such questions as: how strong places can be captured, and weak ones defended; – how supplies of food and ammunition can be cut off from an enemy; – and how they can be secured to a friendly force (loud cries of hear).
The time has also come when every lover of his country should come forward openly, and proclaim his willingness to be enrolled as a member of a national guard (hear and loud cheers). No man, however, should tender his name as a member of that national guard unless he was prepared to do two things – one, to preserve the state from anarchy; the other, to be ready to die for the defence of his country.”
Two days after this meeting was St. Patrick’s Day. A meeting of the citizens of Dublin was announced for that anniversary, to adopt a similar address, from Dublin to Paris, but was adjourned for two or three days to allow time for negotiations to unite all Repealers of the two parties in the demonstration. Lord Clarendon, doubtless under the advice of his privy-councillor of the World, thought it would be a good opportunity to strike terror by a military display. He pretended to apprehend that St. Patrick’s Day would be selected for the first day of Dublin barricades; and the troops were kept under arms – the cavalry with horses ready saddled in all the barracks, waiting for the moment to crush the first movement in the blood of our citizens.
The meeting, as I said, was adjourned; but there was no intention of abandoning it; O’Brien had offered, even in case of a Proclamation forbidding it, to attend and take the chair; and what he promised the enemy well knew he would perform. In a letter to Lord Clarendon, I felt myself wax-ranted in apprising him that the meeting would assuredly take place on the following Monday, whatever he might do or say to the contrary.
It was held, in a vacant space near the river, below the Custom House, and was multitudinous and enthusiastic. No parade of troops was attempted; but we knew that the public buildings, and some private houses, were filled with detachments under arms. These addresses, both from the Confederation and from the city, were to be presented in Paris to the President of the Provisional government, M. de Lamartine; and O’Brien, Meagher, and an intelligent tradesman of high character and independence of mind, named Hollywood, were appointed a deputation to Paris.
All this, it was evident, could not go on long. The Clubs were, in the meantime, rapidly arming themselves with rifles; and blacksmiths’ forges were prolific of pikeheads. We hoped, and the Government feared, that no armed collision would be made necessary until September, when the harvest would be all cut, and when the commissariat of the people’s war, the cause of the war, and the prize of the war, would be all bound up in a sheaf together. But the foe we had to deal with was no weak fool. The Government understood our views thoroughly, and resolved to precipitate the issue somehow or other. On the morning after that meeting of Dublin citizens, three of us, Smith O’Brien, Mr. Meagher, and myself, were politely waited on by a police magistrate, and requested to give bail that we would stand our trial on a charge of sedition.
The ground of prosecution in the two former cases was the language held at the meeting of the Irish Confederation (quoted above in part); – in my case, there were two distinct indictments, for two articles in the United Irishman. I was to have two trials, so that if one should fail another might happily succeed. Trials for sedition we regarded as child’s play, and showed that we so regarded them. O’Brien and Meagher proceeded to France and presented their address1.
On their return, O’Brien walked into the British Parliament, and found that august body engaged in discussing a Dew Bill “for the further security of her Majesty’s crown.” Ministers, in fact, had determined to meet the difficulty by a new “law,” the Treason-felony law, by which the writing and printing, or open and advised speaking, of incitements to insurrection in Ireland should be deemed “felony,” punishable by transportation. The Bill was introduced by the Whigs, and was warmly supported by the Tories; Sir Robert Peel declaring that, what Ireland needed, was to make her national aspirations not only a crime, but an ignominious crime; so as to put this species of offence on a footing with arson, or forgery, or waylaying with intent to murder.
O’Brien rose to address the House, and never, since first Parliament met in Westminster, was heard such a chorus of frantic and obscene outcries. Honourable members crowed like cocks, lowed like cows, and brayed like jackasses, according to the custom of the Honourable House; but O’Brien, quite unmoved, persisted until he obtained a hearing; and I wish that my limits permitted me to present the whole of that manly and noble speech, in which he took care to reiterate all his “treasons” and “seditions.” Take two or three extracts, with the interruptions, as recorded in the London papers of the time: –
“Charges have been brought against me as an individual, and against the party with whom I act (‘oh!’ and ironical cheers). I am here to answer those charges, both for myself and for the party with which I act; and I will say this with regard to my companions in the noble struggle in which we are engaged, – (loud laughter) – that, though I have had an opportunity of seeing the most distinguished men of all parties in this House, I never met a number of men, acting for a great political object, who appeared to me, at least, to be animated by such pure and disinterested motives – (loud laughter) – as those with whom it is my pride to act. Now, sir, with regard to myself. I have been called a traitor – (a tremendous burst of cheers followed this sentence, twice renewed before silence was restored). I do not profess disloyalty to the Queen of England – (ironical applause). But if it be treason to profess disloyalty to the House, and to the government of Ireland by the Parliament of Great Britain – if that be treason, I avow the treason – (‘oh!’ and great excitement). Nay, more, I say it shall be the study of my life to overthrow the dominion of this Parliament over Ireland – (hear, hear, and cries of ‘oh!’)
It has been stated I went to France for the purpose of enlisting French aid – (hear, hear) – that is to say, armed aid and succour for my countrymen in the struggle in which they are engaged. This is a misapprehension – (oh! oh! oh!). If I had gone to France asking for aid of an armed kind, believe me I should have come back accompanied by a tolerably large legion of troops – (some laughter, and ‘oh! oh!’). You may believe what I say. I only wish you had been in France – (a laugh). The language I have held in Ireland and in France to my countrymen has been this – that Irish freedom must be won by Irish courage and Irish firmness. I had no desire to impose upon my country one description of servitude in the place of another – (hear, hear) – for I believe that the liberty of Ireland, and its redemption from its present position, were they won by foreign bayonets, could only be retained by foreign bayonets; and it is not my desire or intention to place any country under foreign dominion.
I trust that the Repealers of Ireland will accept that aid which the Chartists are universally prepared to give them. Now, I avow the fact, – I know not whether it be illegal or not, – that I have been instrumental in asking my countrymen to arm (marks of surprise and sensation). I conceive that under the present circumstances of all nations, it is the duty of every man to obtain the possession and learn the use of arms. There is not a nation, I believe, in Europe which does not make it part of its duty to instruct its citizens in the use of arms; and I conceive that it is the peculiar duty of the Irish people to obtain the possession of arms at a time when you tell them you are prepared to crush their expression of opinion, not by argument, but by brute force (loud cries of ‘oh! oh!’ and expressions of disapprobation).”
The bill was passed into “Law,” of course, by immense majorities; and thereafter an Irish Repealer of the Union was to be a “felon.” O’Brien returned to Dublin. The deputies were received by a multitudinous and enthusiastic meeting in the Dublin Music Hall; and Meagher presented to the citizens of Dublin, with glowing words, a magnificent flag, the Irish Tri-color, of Green, White, and Orange, surmounted by a pikehead. Of all the Confederates, Meagher was the sole orator, in the highest sense of that term; and those who have only heard him, in America, where his addresses were but rhetorical exercitations, and where the central fire of a great passion was wanting to lift him into a sublime self-abandonment, can ill conceive the effect of his speeches there, poured forth, bright and burning, upon ten thousand hearts whose fuel was so prompt to kindle.
Events hurried on; every day bringing in more and more deplorable accounts of wide-spread starvation and extermination of tenantry; and Dublin, as well as all the other seaports, saw pale and haggard crowds of emigrants trooping to the quays, to take shipping for America. Be generous to these ill-fated refugees! Oh, ye happy Americans, despise them not! Driven, like noxious vermin, from their hearths and the graves of their forefathers, let the great heart of your country open to embrace them, – to warm them to vitality, and illumine their darkened souls with hope.
Our trials approached. They were to be before special juries, struck by the process I have before described. O’Brien and Meagher were first tried; and, as their “sedition” had been so open and avowed, – and as the Whig government was extremely reluctant to pack juries if they could help it, – the Crown officers left on each of the two juries one Repealer. It was enough. A true Repealer knew that no Irishman could commit any offence against a foreign Queen; and in each case the one Repealer stood out, refused to convict, though he should be starved to death; and the traversers, amidst cheering multitudes, were escorted triumphantly from the Four Courts to the Confederate Committee Rooms, where they addressed the people, and promised to repeat and improve: upon all their seditions.
The excitement of the country was intense. The defeat of the “Government” was celebrated all over the country by bonfires and illuminations, and the clubs became more diligent in arming themselves; but Mr. Monahan, the Attorney-General, foamed and raged. Not only the British empire and the cause of general civilization, but (what was more important) the great cause of Monahan against the world was in danger.
My two trials were still to take place. It was plain to the enemy that there must be no failure here. The United Irishman was, by this time, by far the most widely circulated paper in Ireland. It was read in all military and police barracks, – was clubbed for in all parishes, – and duly read on Sundays to eager crowds in all chapel yards. It was in vain our enemy attempted to frighten the agents who sold it. One of them, in Enniskillen, had written that the police of that town had come into his shop and threatened him. I had published his letter, and taunted the “Government” with trying to intimidate mere tradesmen, while they suffered the principal offender to go unpunished. They caused clubmen to be arrested and marched through the streets to gaol, on charges of practicing with rifles, or giving or receiving military instruction; – and I demanded to know why those humble men had been treated as common felons, while O’Brien, Meagher, and myself had been politely visited by a magistrate, and blandly requested to come and give bail.
The policy of the “Government” at this time, I would characterize, – if I had not set out with the determination of narrating facts only, and using no abusive epithets, – as mean beyond all description. Police magistrates were ordered to arrest parties of young men practicing at targets in the neighbourhood of country, towns, and march them in custody through the streets. Men in Dublin were seized upon and dragged to gaol on the charge of saying “halt” to the clubmen marching to a public meeting; – it was “training in military evolutions” under the Act; – and one young man was actually brought to trial and transported for seven years, on an indictment charging him, for that he had, in a private room in Dublin (not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved by the instigation of the devil), said to thirteen other young men, then and there ranged in line, these fatal words, “Right shoulders forward,” – contrary to the peace of our lady the Queen; and so forth.
On the 4th of May, at Thurles Quarter Sessions, in Tipperary, one Michael Gilfoyle was tried before the county judge (appointed by the Crown, of course), for having a pike in his possession, contrary to an act just passed prohibiting such articles. The “pike” was produced: it was a hay-fork with two prongs, such as is generally used in Ireland, but rather longer, stronger, and sharper in the prongs, than the police thought it prudent to let men turn hay withal. In fact, it was made upon a plan recommended by the United Irishman, as an improved kind of fork for saving the crop, – inasmuch as it would turn over, not only a truss of hay, but a policeman, bailiff, or dragoon.
Mr. Howley, the county judge, in passing sentence of one year’s imprisonment for this offence, took occasion to remark that the instrument was manifestly not intended for agricultural operations, but for civil war, and “was originated by the wicked advices of the United Irishman.” He further expressed a hope that, when the finding of his Thurles jury, (that a fork is a pike,) should come to the ears of the writers in that incendiary publication, “perhaps it would have the effect of checking their insane career.” In short, it was absolutely necessary to crush the incendiary publication, and that without delay.
The day arrived for striking the special juries for my two trials, on the charge of sedition; and I attended in the Crown office with my counsel. The Sheriff’s clerk brought in the box purporting to contain cards having the names of all the special jurors of the city of Dublin; from which forty-eight names were to be drawn. The Crown officer blandly asked us whether we were satisfied that the box contained all the names, – a question which had never been answered in that office otherwise than in the affirmative. The Crown lawyers, therefore, and officials were surprised when I answered “No: I am not satisfied: I admit nothing: juries are packed here: I must see all the cards.” The Queen’s lawyers strongly objected to this course, and urged the officer to proceed to draw the names.
After some time, he announced to me that such a question had never been raised before, – that he could not go out of the usual course, – that he would proceed with the business. Then I put on my hat, and said to Sir Colman O’Loghlen and Mr. O’Hagan, my counsel, “Come, then; – we cannot, even by our presence, countenance such a transaction as this: let us go; and they may make much of their jury.” We went away. The matter was immediately reported to the Judges, then sitting in the Queen’s Bench; and Judge Perrin (the same who had been so scandalized at the packing of juries before,) instantly ordered the officer to send for me, and count and compare the cards before me, though it should occupy all night. This was accordingly done. If there had been any villainy practiced in the Sheriff’s office, it had been rectified in the meantime.
The two juries were struck; and it was instantly evident that on each of them would be men who would never convict me of any offence whatever against a foreign sovereign. The juries, in fact, were more favourable than those which had failed to do the Queen’s business in the cases of O’Brien and Meagher; inasmuch as it was sure there would be two or three on each who desired the independence of their country. The enemy dared not go to trial with me before these juries. But what to do? Every week was heightening the spirit of the people, and increasing the number of pikes and rifles in the hands of the peasantry. The United Irishman had also forced the Nation to adopt the insurrectionary policy, and to publish plain instructions on pike-exercise, and the like, – or else go unread. Lord Clarendon was impatient; Birch, doubtless, was alarmed for “Law and Order;” and Monahan trembled for his due promotion. So they cut the matter short.
The scene at the Crown Office was on the 12th of May. The next day of the “Government” abandoned the two prosecutions for sedition; and, about 5 o’clock in the evening, certain members of the detective police beset my house; – one of them entered and arrested me on a charge of Felony under the New Act. There was no difficulty in finding overt acts; for every week’s United Irishman contained as much of that saving doctrine which they called treason, as its sixteen pages would hold.
The arrest did not surprise me. It would have been easy for me to keep out of the way, or fly the country; but I was resolved to try conclusions with the “Whig” government in the matter of juries; knowing that they must either pack their jury so stringently as never was jury in this world, or I would obtain such a victory as would soon make the island untenable to them. Do not forget the speeches of Lord John Russell and Mr. Macaulay, denouncing all jury-packing, which I quoted before. Both these men were now Ministers of the Queen.
For the next two weeks, awaiting the result of this trial, all things stood still in Ireland, except the Famine, and the “Addresses of Confidence” from landlords, and the typhus-fever, and the clearing of estates, and the wail of the Banshee.
1 These were mere addresses of congratulation and of sympathy. De Lamartine made a highly poetic but rather unmeaning reply to them. He afterwards, in his History, violently misrepresented them; being in fact a mere Anglo-Frenchman. Mr. O’Brien convicted him of these misrepresentations. I content myself here with pronouncing the two following sentences, poetic fictions: “Les Irlandais, unix anx Chartistes Anglais, se precipitaient sur le continent et cherchaient des complicites insurrectionnelles en France, a la fois parmi les demagogues au nom de la Iibert6, et parmi les chefs du parti Catholique au nom dn Catholicisme.” And again, “L’Angleterre n’attendait pasavec nioins de solicitude la reception que ferait bamartine aux insnrges Irlandais, partis de Dublin pour venir demander des encouragements el den armes a la Kepublique Francaise.” If the poor feeble Lamartine had confined himself all his life to poetry, – I mean that species of composition in metro which holds itself out for poetry, and is intended to be called poetry, – himself arid his France might have been spared the absurdities of that Provisional Government Let no nation make a confirmed and inveterate root its chief magistrate.