The whole British Press, which never strikes so viciously at an enemy as when he is down and in chains, sent after me on my dark voyage one continuous shriek of execration and triumph that came to my ear even in my Bermuda prison. The “government” was to have no trouble, as they fondly flattered themselves, thenceforth. Ireland, once cleared of me, was to be manageable. There was to be no more jury-packing if possible, and conciliatory government was to commence with Habeas Corpus, Trial by Jury, and other Palladia, of the British Constitution.
But the enemy was somewhat too sanguine. The profound passion of wrath and shame, kindled throughout Ireland by the incidents of my pretended trial, could not sink down and allay itself so speedily as the ameliorative enemy hoped. At the next meeting of the Confederation, Meagher, in a most noble and intensely passionate speech which I have already cited, said: –
“We are no longer masters of our lives. They belong to our country, – to liberty, – to vengeance. Upon the walls of Newgate a fettered hand has inscribed this destiny. We shall be the martyrs or the rulers of a revolution. Once again they shall have to pack their jury-box; once again exhibit to the world the frauds and mockeries, the tricks and perjuries, upon which their power is based.”
Once again! Yes, indeed, and more than once, they were to pack their jury. True, they felt reluctant to do it; but the alternative was, – to pack juries, or give up Ireland. This, indeed, had become too apparent. The open and audacious proceedings which had taken place on my trial made it clear that the enemy would, without scruple, “exhibit to the world frauds and mockeries, tricks and perjuries” – but that they could not bear to think of exhibiting to the world the spectacle of Ireland wrested out of the clutches of England.
The fierce enthusiasm of our Confederates was redoubled after my removal. They hoped, at least, that if they were restrained from action then, it was to some good end, with some sure and well-defined purpose; and, there were many thousands of men then in Ireland, who longed and burned, for that end and that purpose, to earn an honourable death. How the British system disappointed them even of an honourable death, remains still to be told. A man can die in Ireland of hunger, or of famine-typhus, or of a broken heart, or of delirium tremens; but to die for your country, – the death dulce et decorum, – to die on a fair field, fighting for freedom and honour, – to die the death even of a defeated soldier, as Hofer died; or so much as to mount the gallows like Robert Emmet, to pay the penalty of a glorious “treason,” – even this was an euthanasia which British policy could no longer afford to an Irish Nationalist.
Yet with all odds against them, with the Irish gentry thoroughly corrupted or frightened out of their senses, and with the “government” enemy obviously bent on treating our national aspiration as an ignominious crime, worthy to be ranked only with the offences of burglars or pickpockets, – still there were men resolved to dare the worst and uttermost for but one chance of rousing that down-trodden people to one manful effort of resistance against so base and cruel a tyranny.
The Irish Confederation reconstituted its Council, and set itself more diligently than ever to the task of inducing the people to procure arms, with a view to a final struggle in the harvest. And as it was clear that there was nothing the enemy dreaded so much as a bold and honest newspaper which would expose their plots of slaughter and turn their liberal professions inside out, it was before all things necessary to establish a newspaper to take the place of the United Irishman.
It was a breach as deadly and imminent as ever yawned in a beleaguered wall; but men were found prompt to stand in it. Within two weeks after my trial, the Irish Tribune was issued, edited by O’Doherty, Williams, and Antisell. In two weeks more, on the 24th of June, came forth another and perhaps the ablest of our revolutionary organs, – the Irish Felon. Its editor and proprietor was John Martin; a quiet country gentleman of the county Down, who had Been for years connected with all national movements in Ireland, – the Repeal Association, the Irish Confederation, – but who had never been roused to the pitch of desperate resistance till he saw the bold and dashing atrocity of the enemy on the occasion of my pretended “trial.” He came calmly to the conviction that the nation must now at last set its back to the wall; and that if no other would lead in this, he would. From the opening article, signed with Martin’s name, I extract a paragraph or two, as sufficient indication of his position and purpose: –
“At the time when John Mitchel lay in Newgate prison, expecting what fate Lord Clarendon’s ‘loaded dice’ might bring, I stated it as my opinion that if the Irish people permitted the English Ministry to consummate his legal murder, the national cause would be ruined for this generation. The transportation of a man as a felon, for uttering sentiments held and professed by at least five-sixths of his countrymen, seemed to me so violent and so insulting a national wrong, that submission to it must be taken to signify incurable slavishness. The English Government, the proclaimed enemy of our nationality, had deliberately selected John Mitchel to wreak their vengeance upon him as representative of the Irish nation. By indicting him for ‘felony’ they virtually indicted five-sixths of the Irish people for ‘felony.’
By sentencing him to fourteen years’ transportation to a penal settlement, they pronounced five-sixths of the Irish people guilty of a crime worthy of such punishment; and they declare that every individual of the six millions of Irish Repealers who escapes a similar doom, escapes it not through right and law, but through the mercy or at the discretion of the English Minister. The audacity of our tyrants must be acknowledged. They occupy our country with military force, in our despite, making barracks of our very marts and colleges, as if to defy and to challenge any manly pride that might linger among our youth. They pervert our police force into an organization of street bullies, as if to drive all peace-loving, industrious citizens into the ranks of disaffection.
They insult the poor dupes of ‘legal and constitutional’ agitation, and rudely open then eyes to the real nature of foreign rule, by such an outrage on public decency and justice as this ‘trial,’ aggravated as it must be by the official meanness, brutality, hypocrisy, and perjury, requisite for effecting their object. They took measures to provoke the active hostility of all Irishmen who loved justice, or respected religion. They defied and challenged all parties of the Irish people; and I did think that such a challenge could not honourably or prudently be refused, and that the abject submission of the Irish people in that matter might destroy the national cause for this generation.
I must frankly say that I still disapprove of the policy pursued by the Repeal leaders on that occasion. But I believe that their motives, whether mistaken or not, were honourable; and I am satisfied that there is a strong and growing spirit of resistance among Repealers of all parties, as well as a spreading disaffection to the foreign tyranny among those Irishmen who have not yet pronounced for Ireland. And, on the whole, I perceive sufficient reasons for expecting the success of the national cause.
That I do not now exile myself, is a proof that I hope to witness the overthrow, and assist in the overthrow, of that most abominable tyranny the world now groans under, – the British imperial system.
To gain permission for the Irish people to care for their own lives, their own happiness and dignity, – to abolish the political conditions which compel the classes of our people to hate and to murder each other, and which compel the Irish people to hate the very name of the English, – to end the reign of fraud, perjury, corruption, and ‘government’ butchery, and to make law, order, and peace possible in Ireland, – The Irish Felon takes its place among the combatants in the holy war now waging in this island against foreign tyranny. In conducting it, my weapons shall be – the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God!”
Reilly was an ardent fellow-labourer with Martin; and James Finton Lalor, of Kildare county, came up to Dublin and threw himself into the work. Lalor was the most powerful political writer that our cause had yet called forth, if I except Davis only. These two journals established themselves in Trinity Street; one in my office, and the other next door to it: so that instead of one regular avowed organ of insurrection, the enemy had to deal with two. Mr. Duffy, also, in the Nation, became now as urgent and vehement in exciting the people to resistance as I had been, or as the Tribune or Felon themselves.
For five weeks thereafter truth and manhood, that is, “treason-felony,” were openly taught and enforced; but six weeks would have been too much. The police were ordered to forcibly stop the sale of papers by vendors in the streets; and warrants were issued for the arrest of all the Editors, – Martin, Duffy, O’Doherty, and Williams. The country was beginning to bristle with pikes; men were praying for the whitening of the harvest; and it was plain that, before the reign of “Law and Order” should begin, other terrible examples must be made; other juries must be packed; then, after that, a Whig “government” would surely begin to deal with Ireland in a conciliatory spirit!
Throughout all these scenes, the horrible famine was raging as it had never raged before; – and the police and military, both in towns and in the country, were busily employed in the service of ejecting tenants, – pulling down their houses, – searching out and seizing hidden weapons, – and escorting convoys of grain and provisions to the seaside, as through an enemy’s country. Yet rumours began to grow and spread (much exaggerated rumours, as I fear,) of a very general arming amongst the peasantry and the Clubmen of the towns; and the police had but small success in their searches for arms; for in fact these were carefully built into stone walls, or carried to the graveyards, with a mourning funeral escort, and buried in coffins, shrouded in well-oiled flannel, “in hope of a happy resurrection.”
The enemy thought it wisest not to wait for the harvest; and resolved to bring matters to a head at once. Accordingly, they asked Parliament to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act in Ireland, so as to enable them to seize upon any person or number of persons whom they might think dangerous, and throw them into prison without any charge against them. Parliament passed the Bill at once; and in truth it is an ordinary procedure for Ireland. It may occur as a curious reflection, that, whereas, the British Constitution, that wonder and envy of surrounding nations, is said to hold out as its bulwark and palladium, those two immortal lights of Britons, – Trial by Jury, and the Habeas Corpus Act, – the same Constitution has never been able to maintain itself in Ireland, save by subverting Trial by Jury, and suspending the Habeas Corpus Act.
Instantly numerous warrants were placed in the hands of the omnipresent police; and in every town and village in Ireland sudden arrests were made. The enemy had taken care to inform themselves who were the leading and active Confederates all over the island, – the Presidents and Secretaries of Clubs, and zealous organizers of drilling and pike-exercise. These were seized from day to clay, sometimes with circumstances of brutality, (which was useful to the enemy in “striking terror,”) and thrust into dungeons, or paraded before their fellow-citizens in chains. Martin and the other editors were in Newgate prison, awaiting transportation as felons. Warrants were out against O’Brien and Meagher.
Well, the time had come at last. If Ireland had one blow to strike, now was her day. Queen Victoria would not wait till the Autumn should place in the people’s hands the ample commissariat of their war; and decreed that if they would fight, they should, at least, fight fasting. O’Brien was at the house of a friend in Wexford county, when he heard of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus, and that a warrant had issued for his own arrest. He was quickly joined by Dillon and Meagher. Doheny and MacManus, with some others, betook themselves to the Tipperary hills, and “pat themselves upon the country.”
O’Gorman hurried to Limerick and Clare, to see what preparation existed there for the struggle, and to give it a direction. Reilly and Smith ranged over Kilkenny and Tipperary, eagerly seeking for insurrectionary fuel ready to be kindled; sometimes in communication with O’Brien and his party, at other times alone. To O’Brien, on account of his character, his services, and his value to the cause, the leadership seemed to be assigned by common consent.
It comes very easy to men who sat at home in those days, and did and attempted! to do nothing, to criticize the proceedings of O’Brien and those brave men who sought in his company for an honourable chance of throwing their lives away. But it must be obvious, from the narrative of the three years’ previous famine, what a hopeless sort of material for spirited national resistance was then to be found in the rural districts of Ireland. Bands of exterminated peasants, trooping to the already too full poorhouses; straggling columns of hunted wretches, with their old people, wives, and little ones, wending their way to Cork or Waterford, to take shipping for America; the people not yet ejected, frightened and desponding; with no interest in the lands they tilled, no property in the house above their heads, no food, no arms, with the slavish habits bred by long ages of oppression ground into their souls, and that momentary proud flush of passionate hope kindled by O’Connell’s agitation, long since dimmed and darkened by bitter hunger and hardship, – Ah! how could the storm-voice of Demosthenes, and the burning song of Tyrtasus rouse such a people as this! A whole Pentecost of fiery tongues, if they descended upon such a dull material, would fall extinguished in smoke and stench like a lamp blown out.
So one might well anticipate: and so it would assuredly be amongst any other peasantry on earth, who had been so long subjected to similar treatment. But there is in the Irish nature a wonderful spring and an intense vitality: insomuch that I believe, even now, the chances of a successful insurrection in ’48 to have been by no means desperate. At any rate, O’Brien and his comrades were resolute to give the people a chance; knowing full well that though they should be mown down in myriads by shot and steel, it would be a better lot than poorhouses and famine-graves.
It is needful, here, to speak of the Irish priesthood and the part which they took in that last agony of our country. Hitherto I have not had occasion to say much of the Catholic Church, though it makes so potent an element in Irish life, for the reason that in all vehement popular movements it always follows the people, and never leads: unless the movement be strong and sweeping enough to command and coerce the clergy, the clergy keep aloof from it altogether. Instinctively, the Church adheres to what is established, opposes violent action, sympathizes only with success. Thus, in O’Connell’s Repeal Agitation, several bishops held themselves neutral; and hundreds of priests, as was well known, were zealous Repealers against their will; only because the popular passion was too strong for them to resist. About’ the time of my imprisonment, and before the “government” had shown themselves thoroughly resolved to put forth all their resources both of force and fraud to crush us, many of the Catholic clergy had come over to the “Young Ireland” party, which then promised to be strong enough to command the services of the Church.
Some of them, I am happy to acknowledge, being more Irishmen than Romans, did from the first fully sympathize with the national aspirations of their island, – did profoundly feel her wrongs, and burn to redress or avenge them. When the final scene opened, however, and the whole might of the empire was gathering itself to crush us, the clergy, as a body, were found on the side of the enemy. They hoped more for their Church in a union with monarchical and aristocratic England than in an Ireland revolutionized and republican; and having taken their part, they certainly did the enemy’s business well.
It is plain, then, against what desperate odds O’Brien and his friends took the field. The utter failure to make, I do not say a revolution, but even insurrection, cannot be understood without explaining all these elements of the problem which had arisen to be solved.
On the 24th of July, O’Brien and Meagher came to the small town of Callan; inarched to the Market-house; found it occupied by a party of the 8th Hussars.
“At the moment we entered, they were busy cleaning their bridles, saddles, carbines, sword-belts, and other accoutrements. Seeing the crowd approach the Market-house, some of them were for starting off, at first, and leaving the position in the hands of the ‘enemy.’
I told them there was no necessity for their leaving the building; that no advantage would be taken of them; that their anna were just as safe there as they would be in Dublin Castle; perhaps more so.
‘We know that, sir,’ replied the young corporal, ‘we know well you wouldn’t take an unfair advantage of the poor soldiers; at any rate you wouldn’t do it to the Irish-Hussars.’
‘Three cheers,’ I cried out, going to the door, and calling upon the people, ‘three cheers, boys, for the 8th Royal Irish Hussars!”
The Hussars would probably have loved them much better if they had at once taken the arms and horses of the first troops they encountered, and proceeded to the next town.
A day or two afterwards, at Carrick-on-Suir: –
“A torrent of human beings, rushing through lanes and narrow streets; surging and boiling against the white basements that hemmed it in; whirling in dizzy circles, and tossing up its dark waves, with sounds of wrath, vengeance, and defiance; clenched hands, darting high above the black and broken surface, and waving to and fro, with the wildest confusion, in the air; eyes, red with rage and desperation, starting and flashing upwards through the billows of the flood; long tresses of hair – disordered, drenched, and tangled – streaming in the roaring wind of voices, and, as in a shipwreck, rising and falling with the foam; wild, half-stifled, passionate, frantic prayers of hope; invocations, in sobs, and thrilling wailings, and piercing cries, to the God of heaven. His Saints, and the Virgin Mary; challenges to the foe; curses on the Red Flag; scornful, exulting, delirious defiance of Death; all wild as the Winter gusts at sea, yet as black and fearful too; this is what I then beheld – these the sounds I heard – such the dream which passed before me!
It was the REVOLUTION, if we had accepted it.
Why it was not accepted, I fear, I cannot with sufficient accuracy explain.”
The explanation is various. With what passionate enthusiasm soever this devoted baud was at first welcomed, whether in city or country, the Catholic clergy (for which may God forgive them!) if they had recommended but a few hours before any decisive action, took care to cool it off, arid succeeded in frightening the simple people. Then the people themselves were unprovided generally with arms and food; there was neither chest nor commissariat. Then, O’Brien resolutely refused to supply this want by the only resource in his power; refused to commence a struggle which he felt to be for man’s dearest rights by attacking and plundering the estates and mansions of the gentry, – who, however, were then generally fortified and barricaded in their own houses, to hold the country for the enemy.
For several days he went from place to place, attended by his friends, followed sometimes by two or three hundred people, half-armed, always expecting to meet a party with a warrant for his arrest, in which case it would be war, both defensive and offensive, to the last extremity. All around him were country mansions of nobles and gentlemen who had openly avowed themselves (in their “Addresses of Confidence”) for the English, and against their own people, and who had publicly branded him as a rebel, and offered their lives and fortunes for the work of crushing him: and he, an outlaw, with arms in his hands, and a force gathering around him burning to begin the work – would not molest a single enemy, nor even exact contributions from them to feed his followers and hold them together.
All this was resolved and done from the purest and most conscientious motives, undoubtedly; but it would have been much purer and more conscientious to make the people dip their hands deep at once in British blood, and beckon the nation to arms by the light of the blazing castles of Tipperary’s exterminating landlords.
Another day we find them at the village of Killenaule. O’Brien and his few followers being then, quartered in. the place, news was brought that a party of dragoons was approaching. A primitive barricade was hastily thrown up across the village street, made of carts and rubbish: and Dillon commanded at the barricade. Mr. O’Brien’s order was absolute – to let the dragoons pass on unless they carried a warrant to arrest some of the party. The officer rode up, and demanded passage.
Dillon replied that he commanded there for O’Brien; and, if the officer would give his word of honour that he had no warrants for arrest, he might pass. As the officer imperiously demanded passage, Stephens suddenly raised his rifle and covered him: his finger was on the trigger: one moment, and Ireland was in insurrection. But Dillon sternly ordered him to lower his rifle, and, having removed some carts, he himself led the officer’s horse through the barricade, as a sign to the people that the soldiers were not to be molested. The dragoons went on their way. O’Brien was not yet at war; and the villager of Killenaule wondered what it meant.
All this while, from day to day, crowds of stout men, many of them armed, flocked to O’Brien’s company; but they uniformly melted off, as usual, partly compelled by want of provisions, partly under the influence of the clergy. The last time he had any considerable party together was at Ballingarry, where forty-five armed police had barricaded themselves in a strong stone house, under the command of a certain Captain Trant, who certainly had the long-expected warrant to arrest O’Brien, but who was afraid to execute it until after the arrival of some further reinforcements. O’Brien went to one of the front windows and called on Captain Trant to surrender. Trant demanded half an hour to consider, and got it.
During this half hour, some of the crowd had thrown a few stones through the windows; and Captain Trant, seeing that the people could not be controlled much longer by O’Brien, gave orders to fire. O’Brien rushed between the people and the window, climbed upon the window, and once more called on the police to surrender. At the first volley from the house two men fell dead, and others were wounded; and the crowd on that side fell back, leaving O’Brien almost alone in the garden before the house. [For a garden there certainly was; though whether the celebrated “cabbage” grew there, I shall not certainly avouch.]
At the other side, Stephens and MacManus had been collecting some straw and piling it against the door, with the intention of burning the place and forcing the police out. But when O’Brien learned what they were about, he peremptorily forbade them to set fire to it. Why, I have never learned; but MacManus has since assured me that he almost kneeled to O’Brien for permission to go and fire his pistol into that straw; in vain. In the meantime, some priests made their appearance, and exhorted the people to go home and leave O’Brien to his fate: then, shortly after, sixty additional police inarched up and relieved Captain Trant. “His friends, then,” says Mr. Doheny,” pressed Mr. O’Brien to retreat, which he refused. By long and passionate entreaty, they induced him to mount the police officer’s horse and retire.”
Through all these scenes, O’Brien preserved the same calm and impassive demeanour, exposing himself ever foremost where there was danger, as he was always wont to do: but mere bravery is only one, and a quite minor one, of the qualities which fit a man to kindle an insurrection under such discouraging circumstances. Nor is it very clear that a Garibaldi could have gained victory, though he might have made, at least, a fight. Of course, the British were in high delight; and their Press, with its usual delicate irony, named O’Brien the “hero of the cabbage garden.”
In fact, there was no insurrection. The people in those two or three counties did not believe that O’Brien meant to fight; and nothing would now persuade them of that but some desperate enterprise. Yet they were all ready and willing; and, indeed, are at all times ready and willing to fight against English dominion. The English ought to be grateful to O’Brien, that his extreme punctilio about not striking the first blow, and his tender regard for human life, suffered the passion of the people to cool, and enabled the enemy to draw their toils around him. If he had at once raised the green banner, with the Lamh Laidhir20 on its folds, proclaimed Tenant-right, disarmed all the neighbouring police-stations, and precipitated himself upon some garrison town, all Munster, Leinster, Connaught, and the half of Ulster, would have been in resistless insurrection within one week. The enemy might have overpowered a population, unarmed and half-starved, like ours; but at least the Last Conquest (Perhaps) would not have been consummated without one stalwart blow.
20 The strong hand; the cognizance of the O’Briens.