In February, 1847, and amidst the deepest gloom and horror of the Famine, O’Connell, old, sick, and heavy-laden, left Ireland, and left it forever. Physicians in London recommended a journey to the South of Europe; and O’Connell himself desired to see the Pope before he died, and to breathe out his soul at Rome in the choicest odour of sanctity. By slow and painful stages he proceeded only as far as Genoa, and there died on the 15th of May.
For those who were not close witnesses of Irish politics in that day – who did not see how vast this giant figure loomed in Ireland and in England for a generation and a half – it is not easy to understand the strong emotion caused by his death, both in friends and enemies. Yet, for a whole year before, he had sunk low, indeed. His power had departed from him; and in presence of the terrible apparition of his perishing country, he had seemed to shrink and wither.
Nothing can be conceived more helpless than his speeches in Conciliation Hall, and his appeals to the British Parliament during that time: yet, as I said before, he never begged alms for Ireland: he never fell so low as that; and I find that the last sentences of the very last letter he ever penned to the Association still proclaim the true doctrine: –
“It will not be until after the deaths of hundreds of thousands, that the regret will arise that more was not done to save a sinking nation.
How different would the scene be if we had our own Parliament – taking care of our own people – of our own resources. But, alas! alas! it is scarcely permitted to think of these, the only sure preventatives of misery, and the only sure instruments of Irish prosperity.”
Let me do O’Connell justice; bitter and virulent as may have been the hatred he bore to me in his last days of public life. To no Irishman can that wonderful life fail to be impressive, – from the day when, a fiery and thoughtful boy, he sought the cloisters of St. Omers for the education which penal laws denied him in his own land, on through the manifold struggles and victories of his earlier career, as he broke and flung off, with a kind of haughty impatience, link after link of the social and political chain that six hundred years of steady British policy had woven around every limb and muscle of his country, – down to that supreme moment of the blackness of darkness for himself and for Ireland, when he laid down his burden and closed his eyes among the palaces of the superb city, throned on her blue bay.
Beyond a doubt, his death was hastened by the misery of seeing his proud hopes dashed to the earth, and his well-beloved people perishing; for there dwelt in that brawny frame tenderness and pity soft as woman’s. To the last he laboured on the “Relief Committees” of Dublin, and thought every hour lost unless employed in rescuing some of the doomed. The last time I saw him, he was in the Belief Committee Booms, in Dame Street, sitting, closely muffled, in a chair, as I entered and found myself opposite to him and close by. Many months had gone by since we had spoken; and he had never mentioned me or any of my friends in that time without bitter reproaches. To my lowly inclination, I received in reply a chilling, stately bow, but no word.
Beaders already know my estimate of his public character and labours. He had used all his art and eloquence to emasculate a bold and chivalrous nation; and the very gratitude, love, and admiration which his early services had Avon, enabled him so to pervert the ideas of right and wrong in Ireland, that they believed him when he told them that Constitutional “Agitation” was Moral Force – that bloodshed was immoral – that to set at naught and defy the London “laws,” was a crime – that, to cheer and parade, and pay Repeal subscriptions, is to do one’s duty – and that a people patient and quiet under wrong and insult is a virtuous and noble people, and the finest peasantry in the universe. He had helped the disarming policy of the English by his continual denunciations of arms, and had thereby degraded the manhood of his nation to such a point that to rouse them to resistance in their own cause was impossible, although still eager to fight for a shilling a day.
To him, and to his teachings, then, without scruple, I ascribe our utter failure to make, I do not say a revolution, but so much as an insurrection, two years after, when all the nations were in revolt, from Sicily to Prussia, and when a successful uprising in Ireland would have certainly destroyed the British Empire, and every monarchy in Europe along with it. O’Connell was, therefore, next to the British Government, the worst enemy that Ireland ever had, – or rather the most fatal friend. For the rest, no character of which I have heard or read was ever of so wide a compass; so capable at once of the highest virtues and the lowest vices – of the deepest pathos and the broadest humour – of the noblest generosity and most spiteful malignity. Like Virgil’s oak-tree, his roots stretched down towards Tartarus, as far as his head soared towards the heavens; and I warn the reader, that whoso adventures to measure O’Connell must use a long rule, must apply a mighty standard, and raise himself up, by a ladder or otherwise, much above his own natural stature.
The clan O’Connell was an ancient sept in Kerry: –
“O’Connell of the battalions of Munster,
Mighty are his mustering forces;
A Fenian armed warrior, frequent in the fight,
Commands the hosts of Hy Cuilein.”
So the O’Connells of the twelfth century are described in the ancient topographical poem of O’Heerin. They did not keep a “Head Pacificator,” nor would they have understood the modern O’Connell’s method of using his mustering forces, in carrying out the “ethical experiment” of moral force. So much the better for them; the experiment proved a failure.
In the very same glens of Kerry, the clan O’Connell have dwelt for a thousand years; and a fragment of the ancient domain, which somehow escaped confiscation, remains in the family till this day. Many of the O’Connells had left Ireland in the time of the penal laws, and had taken service in Austria and in France. Count Daniel O’Connell was a General in the French service at the period of the great Revolution; wherein, like most of the Irish officers, he proved himself a staunch royalist.
His cousin Daniel, of Irish fame, was always a monarchist also; and I have heard him say that he never could forget the shudder of horror that came upon him, when a student of St. Omers, because a young Irishman of the Mountain party displayed with triumph a handkerchief, which he had dipped in the blood of Louis, as it flowed fresh in the Place de la Concorde. In the Irish Rebellion of 1798, also, he had enrolled himself, not in the insurgent force, but in the lawyer’s corps, to put the insurgents down; and never spoke of the gallant rebels of that era without execration.
O’Connell’s body rests in Ireland; but without his heart. He gave orders that the heart should be removed from his body and sent to Rome. The funeral was a great and mournful procession through the streets of Dublin; and it will show how wide was the alienation which divided him from his former confederates, that when O’Brien signified a wish to attend the obsequies, a public letter from John O’Connell sullenly forbade him.
So long as John O’Connell continued to administer the dilapidated “agitation,” his mode of persuading his followers to support him in any given measure, was, to threaten that he would raise his father’s bones, and carry them away to the land where his heart is treasured.
In the year 1847, great and successful exertions were used to make sure that the next year should be a year of famine too. This was effected mainly by holding out the prospect of “out-door relief” – to obtain which tenants must abandon their lands and leave them untilled. A paragraph from a letter of Rev. Mr. Fitzpatrick, Parish Priest of Skibbereen, contains within it an epitome of the history of that year. It was published in the Freeman, March 12: –
“The ground continues unsown and uncultivated. There is a mutual distrust between the landlord and the tenant. The landlord would wish, if possible, to get up his land; and the unfortunate tenant is anxious to stick to it as long as he can. A good many, however, are giving it up, and preparing for America; and these are the substantial farmers who have still a little means left.”
A gentleman travelling from Borris-in-Ossory to Kilkenny, one bright Spring morning, counts at both sides of the road, in a distance of twenty-four miles, “nine men and four ploughs” occupied in the fields; but sees multitudes of wan laborers, “beyond the power of computation by a mail-car passenger,” labouring to destroy the road he was travelling upon. It was a “public work.” – (Dublin Evening Mail.)
In the same month of March – “The land,” says the Mayo Constitution, “is one vast waste: a soul is not to be seen working on the holdings of the poor farmers throughout the country; and those who have had the prudence to plough or dig the ground are in fear of throwing in the seed.”
When the new “Out-door Relief” Act began to be applied, with its memorable Quarter-acre Clause, all this process went on with wonderful velocity, and millions of people were soon left landless and homeless. That they should be left landless and homeless was strictly in accordance with British policy; but then there was danger of the millions of outcasts becoming robbers and murderers. Accordingly, the next point was to clear the country of them, and diminish the poor-rates, by emigration.
This is a matter somewhat interesting to Americans, so that I must give a clear account of it. If one should narrate how the cause of his country was stricken down in open battle, and blasted to pieces with shot and shell, there might be a certain mournful pride in dwelling upon the gallant resistance, as in the case of our Irish wars against Cromwell, against King William the Third, and against the power of Britain in ’98; – but to describe how the spirit of a country has been broken and subdued by beggarly famine; – how her national aspirations have been, not choked in her own blood, nobly shed on the field, but strangled by red tape; – how her life and soul have been ameliorated and civilized out of her; – how she died of political economy, and was buried under tons of official stationery; – this is a dreary task, which I wish some one else had undertaken.
As it has been commenced, however, let the world hear the end. There began to be an eager desire in England to got rid of the Celts by emigration; for though they were perishing fast of hunger and typhus, they were not perishing fast enough. It was inculcated by the English Press that the temperament and disposition of the Irish people fitted them peculiarly for some remote country in the East, or in the West, – in fact, for any country but their own; – that Providence had committed some mistake in causing them to be born in Ireland. As usual, the Times was foremost in finding out this singular freak of nature! Says the Times (Feb. 22d, 1847): –
“Remove Irishmen to the banks of the Ganges, or the Indus – to Delhi, Benares, or Trincomalee, – and they would be far more in their element there than in the country to which an inexorable fate has confined them.”
Again, a Mr. Murray, a Scotch banker, writes a pamphlet upon the proper measures for Ireland. “The surplus population of Ireland,” says Mr. Murray, “have been trained precisely for those pursuits which the unoccupied regions of North America require.” Which might appear strange to anybody but a respectable banker; – a population expressly trained, and that precisely, to suit any country except their own!
But these are comparatively private and individual suggestions. In April of this year, however, six Peers and twelve Commoners, who called themselves Irish, but who included amongst them such “Irishmen” as Dr. Whateley and Mr. Godley, laid a scheme before Lord John Russell for the transportation of one million and a half of Irishmen to Canada, at a cost of nine millions sterling, to be charged on “Irish property,” and to be paid by an income-tax.
Again, within the same year, a few months later, a “Select Committee,” (and a very select one,) of the House of Lord’s brings up a Report “On Colonization from Ireland.” Their lordships report that all former committees on the state of Ireland (with one exception) had agreed at least on this point, that it was necessary to remove the “excess of labour.” They say: –
“They have taken evidence respecting the state of Ireland, of the British North American colonies (including Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland), the West Indian islands, New South Wales, Port Philip, South Australia, Van Diemen’s Land, and New Zealand. On some of these points it will be found that their inquiries have little more than commenced; on others, that those inquiries have been carried somewhat nearer to completion; but in no case can it be considered that the subject is as yet exhausted.”
Far from it, indeed! In a later passage of the Report they say: –
“The committee are fully aware that they have as yet examined into many points but superficially, and that some, as, for example, the state of the British possessions in Southern Africa and in the territory of Natal, have not yet been considered at all. Neither have they obtained adequate information respecting what we sincerely hope may hereafter be considered as the prospering settlement of New Zealand. The important discoveries of Sir T. Mitchell in Australia have also been but slightly noticed.”
Observe that any inquiry into the state of Ireland naturally called their Lordships to a consideration of very distant latitudes and longitudes. They could not conceive how Ireland was to be effectually ameliorated, without a full investigation of Nova Zembla, Terra del Fuego, and the Terra Australis Incognita.
Their Lordships further declare that the emigration which they recommend must be “voluntary,” and also that “there was a deep and pervading anxiety for emigration exhibited by the people themselves.”
A deep and pervading anxiety to fly, to escape any whither! From whom? Men pursued by wild beasts will show a pervading anxiety to go anywhere out of reach. If a country be made too hot to hold its inhabitants, they will be willing even to throw themselves into the sea. If men clear estates, and chase the human surplus from pillar to post, in such sort that out-door relief becomes the national way of living, you may be sure there will be a deep and pervading anxiety to get away: and then the exterminators may form themselves into a “committee” (select), and say to the public, “help us, you, to indulge the wish of our poor brethren: you perceive they want to be off. God forbid we should ship them away, save with their cordial concurrence!”
Remember all this while that there are from four to five millions of acres of improvable waste lands in Ireland; and that, even from the land in cultivation, Ireland was exporting food enough, every year, to sustain eight millions of people in England.
Their Lordships speak of one exception to the uniform testimony of Parliamentary Committees. I have already mentioned that Report of a Committee of the Commons, brought up in 1836, wherein their select Lordships say they find with surprise the following sentiments:
“It may be doubted whether the country does contain a sufficient quantity of labour to develop its resources; and while the empire is loaded with taxation to defray the charges of its wars, it appears most politic to use its internal resources for improving the condition of its population, by which the revenue of the exchequer must be increased, rather than encourage emigration, by which the revenue would suffer diminution, or than leave the labouring classes in their present state, by which poverty, crime, and the charges of government must be inevitably extended.”
The same anomalous Report had expressed the strongest opinion against Poor Laws, especially in the form of “out-door relief,” had reported, in short, directly against the whole system of British policy in Ireland. You may have a curiosity to know who were the members of so perverse a committee. They were twenty-four Irishmen to nine Englishmen; so no wonder they fell into so cursed a mistake. Among the Irish names, I find men of all parties; – Col. Conolly and Mr. O’Connell, Mr. Lefroy and Mr. Smith O’Brien, Lord Castlereagh and Feargus O’Connor: even Whigs, – Mr. Wyse, Mr. Shiel, and The O’Conor Don. This explains the Report, and explains further why the Imperial Parliament took care, afterwards, in all inquiries into Irish affairs, to employ Englishmen, on whom they could depend.
None of these vast public schemes of emigration were adopted by Parliament in their full extent, though aid was from time to time given to minor projects for that end: and landlords continued very busy all this year and the next, shipping off their “surplus tenantry,” by their own private resources, thinking it cheaper than to maintain them by rates. The Irish Press, and especially the Nation, took up each of the schemes as it was propounded, and vehemently denounced it as part of the plan to clear our island of its own people, and confirm England in the peaceable possession of her farm.
There has been now, I think, laid before the reader a complete sketch, at least in outline, of the British Famine policy: – expectation of Government spoon-feeding at the point of police bayonets; shaking the farmers loose from their lands; employing them for a time on strictly useless public works; then disgorging them, in crowds of one hundred thousand at a time, to beg, or rob, or perish; then “out-door relief,” administered in quantities altogether infinitesimal in proportion to the need; then that universal ejectment, the quarter-acre law; then the corruption of the middle class, by holding out the prize of ten thousand new government situations; then the vagrancy act, to make criminals of all houseless wanderers; then the “voluntary” emigration schemes; then the omnipresent police, hanging like a cloud over the houses of all “suspected persons,” that is, all persons who still kept a house over their heads; then the quarantine regulations and increased fare for deck passengers to England, thus debarring the doomed race from all escape at that side, and leaving them the sole alternative, America or the grave; – this, I believe, gives something like a map or plan of the field, as laid out and surveyed for the Last Conquest.
What had become of the Repeal and our Parliament in College Green? Alas! Alas! the proud national aspirations that had stirred our people three years before had sunk into a dismal and despairing cry for food, or an impotent litany of execration upon our enemies. Yet the Repeal of the Union, – a Parliament in College Green, – this was still as ever the sole and single remedy for all our evils; and so it was still proclaimed by the Irish Confederation and by Smith O’Brien to the very last. For this the Repeal Members were taunted viciously, in Parliament, with complaining of everything, but having nothing to propose: – “nothing but what they knew the House would not adopt,” said Mr. Roebuck. Indeed, they had nothing to propose but Repeal.
This same Roebuck, making a speech in Parliament during this year, in presence of Mr. O’Brien, reproached the Irish Members (falsely) with only asking alms, but suggesting no practical measures of manful self-help. “I pledge my faith,” said the orator, “for the people of England, that they will give their immediate assent to any proposition which has a fair and honourable regard to the real interests of Ireland.” There was one loud cry of “hear!” “Ah!” continued the speaker, “the honourable member opposite, the honourable member for Limerick, says hear; and I know exactly what he means: he is going to propose Repeal: I see it in his eye” Whereupon there was “laughter” and “renewed laughter1.”
The Irish landlords were in dire perplexity. Many of them were good and just men; but the vast majority were fully identified in interest with the British government, and desired nothing so much as to destroy the population. They would not consent to Tenant-Right; they dared not trust themselves in Ireland without a British army. They may have felt, indeed, that they were themselves both injured and insulted by the whole system of English legislation; but they would submit to anything rather than fraternize with the injured Catholic Celts.
A few landlords and other gentlemen met and formed an “Irish Council;” but these were soon frightened into private life again by certain revolutionary proposals of some members, and especially by the very name of Tenant-Right. At last, about the end of this year, seeing that another season’s famine was approaching, and knowing that violent counsels began to prevail amongst the extreme section of the national party, the landlords, in guilty and cowardly rage and fear, called on Parliament for a new Coercion Act.
From this moment, all hope that the landed gentry would stand on the side of Ireland against England, utterly vanished.
In my next chapter, I shall have to tell how this deadly alliance between the landlords and the Government brought Irish affairs – to a crisis, how it broke up the “Confederation” – led to an attempt at insurrection – and a series of State trials – and the end of the hopeless struggle against British civilization for that time.
Before going further, however, I shall mention: –
First, that by a careful census of the agricultural produce of Ireland for this year, 1847, made by Captain Larcom, as a Government Commissioner, the total value of that produce was £44,958,120 sterling; which would have amply sustained double the entire people of the island2. This return is given in detail, and agrees generally with another estimate of the same, prepared by John Martin, of Loughorn, in the County Down, – a gentleman whose name will be mentioned again in this narrative.
Second: that at least 500,000 human beings perished this year of famine, and of famine-typhus3 and 200,000 more fled beyond the sea to escape famine and fever.
Third: that the loans for relief given to the Public Works and Public Commissariat departments, to be laid out as they should think proper, and to be repaid by rates on Irish property, went in the first place to maintain ten thousand greedy officials; and that the greater part of these funds never reached the people at all, or reached them in such a way as to ruin and exterminate them.
A kind of sacred wrath took possession of a few Irishmen at this period. They could endure the horrible scene no longer, and resolved to cross the path of the British car of conquest, though it should crush them to atoms.
1 Debate of March 8th.
2 I do not possess this Return, as ordered by Parliament to be printed, but take an abstract of it given at the time in the London Standard. In Thorn’s Official Almanac and Directory, Government has taken care to suppress the statement of the gross amount.
3 The deaths by famine of the year before I set down at 300,000. There is no possibility of ascertaining the numbers; and when the Government Commissioners pretend to do so, they intend deception.