After two years’ frightful famine, – and when it was already apparent that the next famine, of 1847-48, would be even more desolating, – it may be imagined that Dublin city would show some effects or symptoms of such a national calamity. Singular to relate, that city had never before been so gay and luxurious; splendid equipages had never before so crowded the streets; and the theatres and concert-rooms had never been filled with such brilliant throngs.
In truth, the rural gentry resorted in greater numbers to the metropolis at this time; some to avoid the sight and sound of the misery that surrounded their country-seats, and which British laws almost expressly enacted they should not relieve; – some to get out of reach of an exasperated and houseless peasantry. Any stranger, arriving in those days, guided by judicious friends only through fashionable streets and squares, introduced only to proper circles, would have said that Dublin must be the prosperous capital of some wealthy and happy country.
The band of friends, known to the outside world as “Young Ireland,” now all scattered, exiled, or dead, at that time, over and above all the ordinary appliances of pleasure offered by a great city, met weekly at the house of one or the other; and there were nights and suppers of the gods, when the reckless gayety of Irish temperament bore fullest sway. Like the Florentines in plague-time, they would at least live while it was yet day; and that fiery life, if it must soon burn out, should burn brightly to the last.
And here, I desire to say, once for all, that I have never heard or read of, neither do I expect to hear or to read of any political party so thoroughly pure and disinterested, with aspirations so lofty and effort and endeavour so single-hearted, as this same “Young Ireland.” Those nights, winged with genial wit and cordial friendship, fade now, purple-hued, in the distance, and a veil of blackness is drawn over them; but I avow myself much more proud of my association with that genial and generous brotherhood, than if I were a member even of the Atlantic Telegraph Company!
The new Poor Law was now on all hands admitted to be a failure; – that is, a failure as to its ostensible purpose. For its real purpose, reducing the body of the people to “able-bodied pauperism,” – it had been no failure at all, but a complete success. Nearly ten millions sterling had now been expended under the several relief acts; – expended, mostly, in salaries to officials; the rest laid out in useless work, or in providing rations for a short time, to induce small farmers to give up their land; which was the condition of such relief. Instead of ten millions in three years, if twenty millions had been advanced in the first year, and expended on useful labour (that being the sum which had been devoted promptly to turning wild the West India negroes,) the whole famine-slaughter might have been averted, and the whole advance would have been easily repaid to the Treasury1.
Long before the Government commissioners had proclaimed their law a failure, the writers in the Nation had been endeavouring to turn the minds of the people towards the only real remedy for all their evils, – that is, a combined movement to prevent the export of provisions, and to resist process of ejectment. This involved a denial of rent and refusal of rates; involved, in other words, a root and branch revolution, socially and politically.
Such revolutionary ideas could only be justified by a desperate necessity, and by the unnatural and fatal sort of connection between Irish landlords and Irish tenants. The peasantry of England, of Scotland, and of Ireland, stand in three several relations towards the lords of their soil. In England they are simply the emancipated serfs and villains of the feudal system: never knew any other form of social polity, nor any other lords of the soil, since the Norman conquest. As England, however, prosecuted her conquests by degrees in the other two kingdoms, she found the free Celtic system of clanship; and, as rebellion after rebellion was crushed, her statesmen insisted upon regarding the chiefs of clans as feudal lords, and their clansmen as their vassals or tenants.
In Scotland, the chiefs gladly assented to this view of the case; and the Mac Callum More became, nothing loath, Duke of Argyle, and owner of the territory which had been the tribe-lands of his clan. Owing mainly to the fact that estates in Scotland were not so tempting a prey as the rich tracts of Ireland, – and partly owing also to the Scottish people having generally become Protestants on the change of religion, – there was but little change in the ruling families; and the Scottish clansmen, now become “tenantry,” paid their duties to the heads of their own kindred as before. So it has happened that, to this day, there is no alienation of feeling, or distinction of race, to exasperate the lot of the poor cultivators of the soil.
In Ireland, wherever the chiefs turned Protestant, and chose to accept “grants” of their tribe-lands at the hands of British kings (as the De Burghs and O’Briens), much the same state of things took place for a while. But Ireland never submitted to English dominion as Scotland has done; and there were continual “rebellions” (so the English termed our national resistance,) followed by extensive confiscations.
Many hundreds of great estates in Ireland have thus been confiscated twice and three times; and the new proprietors were Englishmen, and, in a portion of Ulster, Scotchmen. These, of course, had no common interest or sympathy with the people, whom they considered, and called, “the Irish Enemy.” Still, while Ireland had her own Parliament, and the landlords resided at home, the state of affairs was tolerable; but when the Act of “Union,” in 1800, concentrated the pride and splendour of the empire at London, and made England the great field of ambition and distinction, most of our grandees resided out of Ireland, kept agents and bailiffs there, wrung the utmost farthing out of the defenceless people, and spent it elsewhere.
Now, it never would have entered the mind of any rational or just man, at this late date, to call in question the title to long ago confiscated estates; nor, supposing those titles proved bad, would it have been possible to find the right owners. But when the system was found to work so fatally – when hundreds of thousands of people were lying down and perishing in the midst of abundance and superabundance which their own hands had created, – I maintain that Society itself stood dissolved. That form of Society was not only a failure, but an intolerable oppression; and cried aloud to be cut up by the roots and swept away.
Those who thought thus, had reconciled their minds to the needful means, – that is, a revolution as fundamental as the French Revolution, and to the wars and horrors incident to that. The horrors of war, they knew, were by no means so terrible as the horrors of peace which their own eyes had seen; they were ashamed to see their kinsmen patiently submitting to be starved to death, and longed to see blood flow, if it were only to show that blood still flowed in Irish veins.
The enemy began to take genuine alarm at these violent doctrines, – especially as they found that the people were taking them to heart; and already, in Clare County, mobs were stopping the transport of grain towards the seaports. If rents should cease to be levied, it was clear that not only would England lose her five millions sterling per annum of absentee rents, but mortgagees, fundholders, insurance companies, and the like, would lose dividends, interest, bonus, and profits.
There was then in England a gentleman who was in the habit of writing able but sanguinary exhortations to Ministers, with the signature “S.G.O.” His addresses appeared in the Times, and were believed to influence considerably the counsels of Government. In November, ’47, this “S.G.O.” raised the alarm, and called for prompt coercion in Ireland. Here is one sentence from a letter of his reverence – for S. G. O. was a clergyman: –
“Lord John may safely believe me, when I say that the prosperity, nay, almost the very existence, of many insurance societies, the positive salvation from utter rain of many, very many mortgagees, depends on some instant steps to make life ordinarily secure in Ireland, of course, I only mean life in that class of it in which individuals effect insurances and give mortgages.”
In short his reverence meant high-life. Lord Clarendon, – as Parliament was not then sitting, – issued an Admonitory Address, wherein he announced that: –
“The constabulary will be increased in all disturbed districts (whereby an additional burden will be thrown upon the rates), military detachments will be stationed wherever necessary, and efficient patrols maintained; liberal rewards will be given for information,” etc.
In the meantime, large forces were concentrated at points where the spirit of resistance showed itself; for a sample of which I take a paragraph from a Tipperary paper: –
In the meantime, large forces were concentrated at points where the spirit of resistance showed itself; for a sample of which I take a paragraph from a Tipperary paper: –
“A large military force, under the civil authority, has seized upon the produce of such farms in Boytonrath, as owed rent and arrears to the late landlord, Mr. Roe, and the same will be removed to Dublin, and sold there, if not redeemed within fourteen days. There are two hundred soldiers and their officers garrisoned in the mansion-house at Rockwell.” – Tipperary Free Press.
Whereupon, in the Nation, I urged the people to begin calculating whether ten times the whole British army would be enough to act as bailiffs and drivers, everywhere at once; or whether, if they did, the proceeds of the distress might answer expectation. In fact, it was obvious that if the enemy should be forced to employ their forces in this way all over the island, – to lift and carry the whole harvest of Ireland, and that over roads broken up, and bridges broken down to obstruct them, and with the daily risk of meeting bands of able-bodied paupers to dispute their passage, – the service would soon have been wholly demoralized, and after three months of such employment, the remnant of the army might have been destroyed.
Parliament was called hastily together. Her Majesty told the Houses, “that there were atrocious crimes in Ireland, – a spirit of insubordination, an organised resistance to legal rights;” and of course, that she required “additional powers” for the protection of life, – that is, high-life.
The meaning of this was a new Coercion Bill. It was curried without delay, and with unusual unanimity; and it is instructive here to note the difference between a Whig in power and a Whig out. When Sir Robert Peel had proposed his Coercion Bill, the year before, it had been vehemently opposed by Lord John Russell and Lord Grey. It was time to have done with coercion, they had said; Ireland had been “misgoverned;” there had been too many Arms Acts and Curfew Acts; it was “justice” that was wanted now, and they, the Whigs, were the men to dispense it.
Earl Grey, speaking of the last Coercion Bill (it was brought in by the other party,) said emphatically (see debate in the Lords, March 23d, 1846), “that measures of severity had been tried long enough;” and repeated, with abhorrence, the list of coercive measures passed since 1800, all without effect; how, in 1800, the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended, the Act for the Suppression of the Rebellion being still in force; how they were continued in 1801; continued again in 1804; how the Insurrection Act was passed in 1807, which gave the Lord Lieutenant full and legal power to place any district under Martial Law, to suspend trial by jury, and make it a transportable offence to be out of doors from sunset to sunrise; how this act remained in force till 1810; – how it was renewed in 1814 – continued in ’15, ’16, ’17 – revived in ’22, and continued through ’23, ’24, and ’25; – how another Insurrection Act was needed in 1833, was renewed in ’34, and expired but five years ago.
“And again,” continued this Whig, “again in 1846, we are called on to renew it!” Horrible! – revolting to a Liberal out of place! “We must look farther,” continued Earl Grey – vociferating from the Opposition bench – “we must look to the root of the evil; the state of the law and the habits of the people, in respect to the occupation of land, are almost at the roots of the disorder; – it was undeniable that the clearance system prevailed to a great extent in Ireland; and that such things could take place, he cared not how large a population might be suffered to grow up in a particular district, was a disgrace to a civilized country.”
And Lord John Russell, in the Commons, said: “if they were to deal with the question of the crimes, they were bound to consider also whether there were not measures that might be introduced which would reach the causes of those crimes:” – and he horrified the House by an account he gave them of “a whole village, containing 270 persons, razed to the ground, and the entire of that large number of individuals sent adrift on the high-road, to sleep under the hedges, without even being permitted the privilege of boiling their potatoes: or obtaining shelter among the walls of the houses.” Disgusting! – to a Whig statesman in Opposition!
Now these very same men had had the entire control and government of Ireland for a year and a half. Not a single measure had been proposed by them in that time to reach “the causes of those crimes;” not a single security had been given “in respect of the occupation of land;” not one check to that terrible “clearance system,” which was “a disgrace to a civilized country.”
On the contrary, every measure was carefully calculated to accelerate the clearance system; and the government had helped that system ruthlessly by the employment of their troops and police. They had literally swept the people off the land by myriads upon myriads; and now, when their relief acts were admittedly a failure, and when multitudes of homeless peasants, transformed into paupers, were at length making the landed men and mortgagees, and Jews, and insurance officers tremble for their gains, – the Liberal Whig Ministry had nothing to propose but more jails, more handcuffs, more transportation.
The new Coercion Bill was in every respect like the rest of the series; in Ireland, these Bills are all as much like one another as one policeman’s carbine is like another. Disturbed districts were to be proclaimed by the Lord Lieutenant. He might proclaim a whole county, or the whole thirty-two counties. Once proclaimed, everybody in that district was to be within doors, (whether he had a house or not,) from dark till morning. Any one found not at home, to be arrested or transported. If arms were found about any man’s premises, and he could not prove that they were put there without his knowledge, – arrest, imprisonment, transportation.
All the arms in the district to be brought in, on proclamation to that effect, and piled in the police-offices. The Lord Lieutenant to quarter on the district as many additional police, inspectors, detectives, and sub-inspectors, as he might think fit; – offer such rewards to informers as he might think fit; and charge all the expense upon the tenantry, to be levied by rates, – no part of these rates to be charged to the landlords; – Constabulary to collect them at the point of the bayonet; – and these rates to be in addition to poor-rates, cess, tithes, rent, and imperial taxes.
The story is now brought down to the point at which the “Irish Confederation,” – the only body in Ireland which gave the enemy the slightest apprehension, – became divided. And here it is needful that I speak somewhat more particularly of myself. I had been one of the founders of that Confederation, and had for two years written nearly all the political articles in the Nation. I had watched the progress of the Famine-policy of the Government, and could see nothing in it but a machinery, deliberately devised and skilfully worked, for the entire subjugation of the island, – the slaughter of a portion of its people, and the pauperization of the rest.
Therefore, I had come to the conclusion that the whole system ought to be met with resistance at every point; and the means for this would be extremely simple; namely, a combination amongst the people to obstruct and render impossible the transport and shipment of Irish provisions; to refuse all aid in its removal; to destroy the highways; to prevent every one, by intimidation, from daring to bid for grain or cattle if brought to auction under “distress” (a method of obstruction which had put an end to church tithes before); – in short, to offer a passive resistance universally; but occasionally, when opportunity served, to try the steel. To recommend such a course would be extremely hazardous, and was besides in advance of the revolutionary progress made up to that time by Mr. Duffy, proprietor of the Nation. Therefore, in the beginning of December, I announced that I would write in the Nation no more. My friend, Devin Reilly, abandoned it also on the same day.
We still remained connected with the Confederation; and in the Clubs and Committee made no scruple to promulgate our views, and to recommend that the people should be advised not to give up their arms, but on the contrary provide more, especially pikes, for any contingency; seeing they might well be assured the Government sought to disarm them for the same reason that a highway robber disarms his victim.
‘Mr. Smith O’Brien earnestly remonstrated against this course. It would amount almost to a declaration of war; and he urged that the country was not “prepared” for war. Moreover, he honestly believed that the rents were justly due; and that the poor-rates, though a grievous blunder, were really a machinery for relief, not for slaughter. He came hastily up to Dublin, and introduced resolutions into the Confederation, disavowing certain letters written by Reilly and by myself, condemning our sentiments, and protesting against the club organization being made the medium of promulgating them.
I maintained that no law of the Confederation was violated by what we had done; that there was no use in an Irish Confederation at all, unless it was prepared in so deadly an emergency to advise the general arming of the people, and to make them look for redress of their wrongs to this one agency, – the edge of the sword; – that if they were not prepared to fight pitched battles with the Queen’s troops, they were as well prepared as they ever would be; – that if they were mowed down by shot and sabre, they would die a better death than was usual at that period; – for no carnage could be so hideous as the British Famine.
There was a two days’ debate on O’Brien’s Resolutions, John Martin occupying the chair. It was conducted with perfect courtesy and mutual respect, and it ended in the adoption of the resolutions, by no very great’ majority. The weight and authority which O’Brien’s character deservedly gave him, influenced many: others were moved by the same considerations which acted upon him; and if I had not felt myself to be most exclusively and extremely right, I might have well doubted my position when Dillon, Meagher, and O’Gorman successively rose up and spoke, and voted for the Resolutions. The other side was maintained by Eugene O’Reilly, who has since been Colonel of a Turkish cavalry regiment in the Russian war, and by Devin Reilly, now in his grave at Washington.
We, therefore, and some two hundred other Confederates who voted with us, retired from the meetings of the Confederation; and I resigned my place on the Committee, and my office of Inspector of Clubs for the province of Ulster. Revolution, then, was ruled out; and I was cut off from the Confederation, as I had been from the Repeal Association before, and on the same question – physical force. This division took place on the 5th of February, 1848. – Three weeks after, Louis Philippe fled from before the face of an outraged people; and the tocsin was sounded for a Revolution all over Europe.
On the 12th of February appeared the first number of the United Irishman, a weekly paper established and owned by me. For contributors, I had not only Reilly, but Father Kenyon, a good Tipperary priest, and one of the most accomplished scholars in Ireland; – John Martin, and James Clarence Mangan; – Catholics, Protestants, and Pagans, but all resolute Revolutionists.
The British Government had watched all these proceedings in the Confederation with some interest. They feared nothing in the world but pikes and rifles, and knew that so long as the Confederates confined themselves to “constitutional” operations, British dominion was safe. The first number of the United Irishman startled them a little; especially when they learned that the press, working night and day, could not keep pace with the demand; and that single copies were freely purchased at five times their cost. Lord Stanley [Earl Derby] brought up the first number into the House of Lords; and I may be pardoned for extracting a passage from his lordship’s speech. After reading large extracts, he continues: –
“This paper was published at 5d, but, as I am informed, when the first number appeared, so much was it sought after, that, on its first appearance, it was eagerly bought in the streets of Dublin at 1s, 6d and 2s a number. With the people of Ireland, my lords, this language will tell – (hear) – and I say it is not safe for you to disregard it. These men are honest; they are not the kind of men who make their patriotism the means of barter for place or pension. They are not to be bought off by the government of the day for a colonial place, or by a snug situation in the customs or excise. (Hear, hear. ) No; they honestly repudiate this course; they are rebels at heart; and they are rebels avowed, who are in earnest in what they say and propose to do. My lords, this is not a fit subject, at all events, for contempt. My belief is, that these men are dangerous; – my belief is, that they are traitors in intent already, and if occasion offers, that they will be traitors in fact.”
In calling us “rebels,” his lordship was right; but traitors we were not.
1 Of these ten millions, about three have been repaid. In the case of the twenty millions for turning negroes wild, there was no expectation of repayment at all.