The Irish Confederation still awaits its historian. Three of its leaders have left narratives of its brief and momentous career, but, of the three, Doheny alone participated in the Insurrection that dug the political grave of Young Ireland. In “The Felon’s Track,” written hot on his escape from the stricken land, he tells the story vividly and passionately. It has morals deducible for all manner of Irishmen, and one for those English statesmen who comfort themselves with the illusion that Irish Nationalism, like Jacobitism, is a platonic sentiment. The man who, roused from his bed at midnight by tapping fingers on his window and a voice whispering that insurrection was afoot, rose and rode away in the darkness to join himself to its desperate fortunes was no young man ardent for adventure. Michael Doheny, when he left his home and his career to engage in the fatal enterprise, was a sober middle-aged barrister, a man of weight and fortune into which he had built himself by the hard toil of twenty years. His social anchorages were deep-cast—and no mere sentiment provokes such a man to throw aside the hard-won harvest of his life and risk the rebel’s or the felon’s fate.
In the leadership of the Young Ireland party Michael Doheny was, save Smith O’Brien, the oldest man and, like O’Brien, his counsels while courageous were always restrained. There was little other likeness between the men. Doheny sprang from the poorest class of the Irish farmers. At Brookfield, near Fethard in Tipperary, where he was born in May, 1805, he followed the plough on his father’s little holding, earning literally his bread in the sweat of his brow, and educating himself how he could, for his people were too poor to pay for his schooling. His indomitable perseverance and his thirst for knowledge overcame the formidable obstacles of fortune, and at thirty years of age the poor peasant boy had become a barrister of reputation for ability and fearlessness. He returned to his native county to become the most popular and trusted of its “counsellors”—the advocate who did not fear to face and beard Influence and Ascendancy in its courts. The city of Cashel had had much of its property alienated and long enjoyed by local magnates whom none were willing to offend. Doheny fought and defeated them and regained the purloined estates for the people. He was made Legal Adviser to the Borough of Cashel and when later the pestilence fell upon the place, and even the men employed to carry the sick to hospital lost courage and fled, Doheny showed the same manly example of citizenship and duty which years later forced him “on the Felon’s path,” by carrying in his strong arms to shelter and relief the deserted victims of the plague. Davis who marked his character, and knew that on such men a free and self-respecting Ireland must be rebuilt induced him to enter the Repeal movement of 1842, and in its councils he swayed the influence of a strong, sincere, able and incorruptible man until the Association fell into the toils of the English Whigs. Then he quitted it and formally adhered to the Young Irelanders. To them he was invaluable for his eloquence—less brilliant and polished than that of Meagher, but more effective in its appeal to the heart of the peasantry whom Doheny knew better than any of his colleagues. On a platform he triumphed, but with the pen he was often ineffective. His admiration and reverence for Davis misled him into laboriously imitating Davis’s style, and the result was what it must always be when one man attempts to express his ideas not in his own way but as he thinks a greater man would express them. Much that would have been impressive and lucid as Doheny becomes unimpressive and clouded as Doheny-Davis. In a few of his verses and “The Felon’s Track” Doheny the writer will survive. As a man who gave up all to help his country and served her like a gallant son, his memory must be honoured while Ireland has virtue.
The Irish Confederation, on whose council Doheny sat, was noble in conception, true in policy and able and honest in its membership. Never in the leadership of the modern Nationalist movement has there been the peer in genius and character of the men who founded and inspired that brilliant and short-lived organisation. In its career it went nearer to bridging the differences of class and creed in Ireland than any previous organisation since the Volunteers at Dungannon proclaimed themselves Irishmen and hailed their oppressed Catholic countrymen fellow-citizens. But the Confederation was not yet six months old when it was called on to face a situation in Ireland as terrible as that which confronted Irishmen when Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill lay dead and Cromwell marched at the head of his iron legions to the conquest of a distracted country. The failure of the potato-crop which menaced Ireland with serious loss at the birth of the Confederation in January, 1847, threatened the destruction of the people by the middle of 1847. The Relief measures provided by the English Whig Government set up a system under which places, large and small, were provided for some thousands of persons of political influence. Their tenure of employment depending upon the ministry, they used that influence to the end of sustaining the ministry, while the unfortunate small farmers who had hitherto kept on the right side of the line between poverty and pauperism were forced to the wrong side. Of all the measures passed under the guise of relieving “the famine-stricken Irish” the most infamous was that measure which provided that no farmer should be accorded relief if, the produce of his farm having gone to discharge his rents, rates and taxes, he hungered and yet strove to hold his farm. Before he was permitted to receive any help from the public funds he was required to surrender his land and become a pauper. Thus under pretext of relieving famine, pauperism was propagated.
Be it remembered that all this time there was no famine in Ireland. The potato-crop, indeed, had failed as it had failed in Great Britain, France, Germany and other countries at the same period, but the corn crop was fat and abundant. Each year of the so-called famine, food to maintain double the whole population was raised from the Irish soil. It was exported to England to feed the English people. Nobody starved in Germany. The German governments ordered the ports to be closed to the export of food until the danger had passed. The Irish Confederation demanded the same measure. “Close the Irish ports,” it called to the British Government, “and no man can die of hunger in Ireland.” The British Government, instead, flung the ports wide open. The great principle of Free Trade required that the Irish should export their food freely. Relief ships from foreign countries laden with the food subscribed by charitable people to succour the starving Irish met occasionally ships sailing out of the Irish ports laden with food reaped by the starving Irish. On the quays of Galway the unhappy people wailed as they saw their harvests borne away from them, and were admonished by the butt-ends of British muskets, the British Government meantime passing Relief measures which provided employment for hordes of English officials and Irish understrappers, and pauper-relief for those who surrendered their manhood and their property—the cost of this relief, like the cost of the passage of the Act of Union, being debited to Ireland—a generous loan in fact.
No doubt a union of the whole Irish people would have rendered all this impossible. The Irish Confederation worked hard to bring about this essential union. Directly and indirectly it achieved for a moment a semblance of national unity. The Irish Council, composed largely of the resident landlords—who mostly endeavoured to alleviate the distress—came into being, reasoned with the Government and, when the Government ignored reason, fell to pieces. George Henry Moore, a young sporting landlord and a Tory (afterwards, as a result, to become a Nationalist leader), conceived the design of getting all the Irish members of the British Parliament to act together against the existing British Government or any British Government which did not deal honestly and effectively with the crisis. With the Marquis of Sligo, a nobleman who did his duty to his tenantry during the Famine, Moore travelled around Ireland and secured between sixty and seventy Irish members of Parliament and forty-five Irish peers to subscribe to his independence programme. They met in Dublin, resolved boldly, departed for London cheered by the nation, and crumbled there at the Premier’s frown. When the Tory Lord George Bentinck proposed that instead of pauperising the Irish by a vote of four or five millions for relief there should be a vote of sixteen millions for railway construction, the Premier, Lord John Russell, threatened the Irish members with his displeasure if they supported Bentinck, and the majority of them thereupon opposed the proposal of reproductive work for the people in lieu of pauper relief.
It was in these circumstances Mitchel put forward his policy in the Confederation of arming the people and bidding them hold their harvests. The Confederation rejected the policy, still hoping to effect a national union. Through such a union alone, it declared, could national independence be achieved. Doheny strongly opposed Mitchel on this ground. Mitchel’s reply was simple. He had been and was ready to follow the aristocrats of Ireland if they would lead. They would not lead, and meanwhile the people perished. Therefore he would urge the people to save themselves. The policy of the Confederation in normal times would have been nationally sound. The circumstances had become abnormal, and Mitchel’s policy was suited to the abnormal circumstances. His conviction that the British Government was deliberately using the potato-crop failure for the purpose of reducing the Irish population—which then was equal to more than half the population of England and a menace to that country, as one of its statesmen incautiously admitted—was a conviction not shared by the bulk of his colleagues. They shrank from it as men will shrink from a conclusion that horrifies the human nature in them. Mitchel went outside the Confederation to preach his policy, and he might have preached it without result had not the French Revolution turned men’s minds to the contemplation of arms and armed opinion. The arrest, indictment and conviction of Mitchel, Doheny has described graphically. The reasons that prevailed against attempting Mitchel’s rescue, Doheny cogently states. There is no reason to doubt that an attempt to rescue Mitchel would have been a failure in its object. But there are occasions when it is wiser to attempt the impossible than to acquiesce. The unchallenged removal of Mitchel in chains from Ireland had a moral effect on the country that was worth 20,000 additional troops to the Government.
Thereafter, the Confederation vacillated in its policy and finally permitted itself, in its desire for Unity as the potent weapon, to be extinguished in favour of an Irish League which was to combine O’Connellites and Young Irelanders. The Irish League met once, and died. The Confederation had been hoodwinked. Doheny who opposed the amalgamation, retired to Cashel, severing his connection with the former Confederation. He was, therefore, free in honour to have taken no part in the insurrection, since it was begun by men from whom he had withdrawn. But when the voice in the night whispered through his window that his former colleagues had crossed the Rubicon, Doheny, like the man he was, rose and rode forth to make the fatal passage and stand or fall with them.
From this point, Doheny’s narrative may be supplemented and corrected by information that was not at the time he wrote available to him. Meagher, Leyne, M’Gee, O’Mahony and MacManus, have left in newspaper articles and in MS. accounts of what happened in the light of which Doheny’s narrative must be read.
On Thursday, July 20th, 1848, the British Government issued a proclamation ordering the people of Ireland to surrender their arms. Thomas Francis Meagher, who was at the time in Waterford, issued a counter-proclamation to the people of that city bidding them to hold them fast. He then hurried to Dublin to consult with his colleagues and he arrived in the metropolis the next day. There had been a strong division of opinion in the Confederate clubs as to how the Government proclamation should be treated, the general feeling of the rank-and-file inclining to open resistance. The leaders counselled a waiting policy until the harvest had been gathered, the arms to be concealed meanwhile. This counsel prevailed against the remonstrance of one of the Dublin leaders that if heaven rained down loaded rifles they would wait for angels to pull the triggers. If the insurrection could have been postponed until the harvest the counsel would have been sound. The Young Ireland leaders forgot, however, that the Government had one powerful weapon in reserve with which it might force their hands—the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. On July 21st Meagher and his comrades and the Dublin leaders discussed and arranged the outline of a contingent insurrectionary plan for the autumn. O’Brien left for Wexford and O’Gorman for Limerick to organise those counties. The next morning the news reached those who remained in Dublin that the Habeas Corpus Act had been suspended, and that a warrant was on its way to Ireland for the arrest of Smith O’Brien. The choice left was to fight, to become fugitives, or to surrender. Dillon, M’Gee, Reilly, P.J. Smyth and Meagher decided hurriedly on the first course. They rejected the proposal to begin the fight in Dublin, as they believed it would be hopeless with the resources at their disposal to contend against a disciplined garrison of 11,000 men in a city a large proportion of whose population was hostile. Kilkenny was regarded as a stronghold of the Confederation, and Dillon suggested it should be the objective. Dillon and Meagher quitted Dublin to seek O’Brien; Reilly and Smyth started for Tipperary, and M’Gee for Scotland where it was hoped the Glasgow Irish could be induced to rise, seize some of the Clyde steamers and effect a landing in Sligo or Mayo which might rouse Connacht and western Ulster to the assistance of the South.
Dillon and Meagher left Dublin on the night of the 22nd of July by the mailcoach for Enniscorthy. Neither had the slightest hope of a successful insurrection, but they felt that honour and its future survival demanded that a nation must reply to the command of a foreign power to gag its mouth and throw down its arms by drawing the sword. They found Smith O’Brien at Enniscorthy and he joined in their views. Father Parle and the people of Enniscorthy undertook to defend O’Brien by force of arms if any attempt were made to arrest him there, and agreed that if he went into Kilkenny and Tipperary and succeeded in arousing those counties Wexford would take up arms. O’Brien and his colleagues moved towards Kilkenny through Graiguenamanagh where the people received them with enthusiasm, and they arrived in what they hoped to make again the provisional capital of Ireland in the evening of the 23rd of July.
The considerations in favour of beginning the insurrection in Kilkenny were sound. It was the one Irish city of importance inaccessible to British naval power, it offered a convenient rallying-centre for the counties of Tipperary, Waterford, and Wexford upon which the Young Ireland leaders relied, the country around it was well-adapted for defensive fighting against superior forces, and it had an historic appeal to the Irish imagination. The arrival of the insurgent leaders was hailed with joy by the people, and there was no doubt of the readiness of the populace to fight. But an examination of the military resources of the place showed that the British forces consisted of 1,000 troops in a strongly-defended position, while amongst the Irish there were but 200 armed men and the gunsmiths’ shops in the city could not arm a hundred more. The decision not to strike the first blow at Kilkenny in the circumstances was inevitable. It was agreed to make for Carrick-on-Suir, another Young Ireland town, seize the place and march at the head of the elated Tipperarymen on Kilkenny. On Monday, July 24th, O’Brien, Meagher and Dillon left for Carrick-on-Suir, and on the way they were received with enthusiasm at Callan, where the 8th Hussars—mainly composed of Irishmen—manifested sympathy with the insurrectionary propaganda. Near Carrick they were joined by John O’Mahony, a landed proprietor of the neighbourhood, afterwards to become famous as the founder of Fenianism. By descent, education and character a leader of men, O’Mahony had thousands of followers among the people ready to rally to any venture for Ireland at his call. “His square, broad frame,” wrote Meagher, “his frank, gay, fearless look; the warm forcible headlong earnestness of his manner; the quickness and elasticity of his movements; the rapid glances of his clear full eye; the proud bearing of his head; everything about him struck us with a brilliant and exciting effect, as he threw himself from his saddle and, tossing the bridle on his arm, hastened to meet and welcome us. At a glance we recognised in him a true leader for the generous, passionate, intrepid peasantry of the South.” O’Mahony strongly advised them to begin the insurrection that night in Carrick, and he left to collect the peasantry. O’Brien and his comrades proceeded to the town where the people received them with frenzied enthusiasm, calling out to be led immediately to the fray. “A torrent of human beings rushing through lanes and narrow streets”—such is Meagher’s description of the scene—”surging and boiling against the white basements … wild, half-stifled, passionate, frantic prayers of hope … curses on the red flag: scornful delirious defiances of death…. It was the Revolution if we had accepted it.” But it was not accepted. The local leaders were unworthy of the people. They persuaded O’Brien to go elsewhere. It was a cardinal and egregious mistake which he regretted within twenty-four hours. Had he brushed the quavering local leaders aside and given the word to the imploring people of Carrick the insurrection of 1848 would have become respectable. O’Mahony’s followers to the number of 12,000 were on the march to Carrick when the news reached them of O’Brien’s departure. Disheartened they broke up and returned to their homes.
Doheny’s account of what happened after the fatal retreat from Carrick needs to be amplified in connection with the final error of O’Brien’s leadership. At the Council of War on the 28th of July O’Brien rejected the proposal to seize for the use of his followers all things needful, paying for them with drafts on the future Irish Government, and he declined the other practical proposal to offer farms rent-free to all who fought for Ireland. Neither would he assent to the suggestion that he and the other leaders should go into hiding until the harvest was reaped. Willing to fight and ready to die, he would not consent to conduct a revolution on revolutionary lines. The departure of Doheny and others—save Devin Reilly, who urged the abandonment of the insurrection as hopeless—was in pursuance of their plan to await the gathering of the harvest.
O’Brien’s attitude at the Council of War destroyed the last hope of the insurrection. He expected to get men to fight under his standard while he essayed no adequate provision for their support in the field, and interdicted them from interference with private property to supply them with the necessaries of the campaign. No nobler and braver man has appeared in modern Irish history than William Smith O’Brien, but at the head of an insurrectionary movement he was incompetent. There was none of his lieutenants who, in his position, could not have made the insurrection to some extent formidable.
That it could have been successful, few will believe. Mitchel and Meagher agreed that 1848 would not have been the year of Liberation. But the former held very justly that the insurrection if it grew to respectable dimensions might have forced terms from England. The attitude of France at the time was a factor in the situation. The pro-Irish minister, Ledru-Rollin, had been checked by the pro-English minister, Lamartine, but General Cavaignac and Louis Napoleon were, for divergent reasons, inclined to help Ireland against England, and assurances had been given that if an Irish insurrection gained considerable initial successes the French Government would exert influence on England. A successful blow at Carrick and a subsequent seizure of Kilkenny and proclamation of Irish independence from that city was possible, and if realised would have probably led to the counties of Waterford and Tipperary rising en masse. How far the insurrection would have spread outside those counties is problematical, but in the year 1848 they were counties which presented difficulties to regular troops and advantages to insurgent forces. According to M’Gee, Sligo was willing to rise if the South made a good beginning and the Bishop of Derry, Dr. Maginn, sent a message to Gavan Duty that he was willing to join in the insurrection at the head of his priests once the harvest was reaped. Doheny’s criticism of the action of some of the Tipperary priests is justified. But of others it is to be remembered that they were not in sympathy with Young Ireland, that they were not bound to support an insurrection undertaken irrespective of them, and that they could not be expected to take the initiative. There were at least two priests in Tipperary prepared to lead their parishioners to the insurgent standard if O’Brien struck at any point a successful blow. O’Brien’s indecision was the real cause why the insurrection died in its birth.
If courage and devotion could have saved Ireland in 1848, O’Brien and his comrades would have saved the land. No braver gentlemen could any nation produce. They asked their countrymen to take no risks they did not take themselves in the forefront. But courage and devotion alone can never make an insurrection into a revolution. 1848 was a failure—in one sense—because there was no second Mitchel in Ireland when the first Mitchel was hurried off on a British gunboat.
But 1848 was not a failure in the true sense of failure. For years the Irish people had submitted to any and every imposition of foreign tyranny, taught to believe that forcible resistance to outrage on their national liberties was in itself immoral. The sneer of the satirist that the Irish were:—
“A nation of abortive men
Who shoot the tongue and wield the pen,”
seemed to have grown a reality. Young Ireland evoked the fighting tradition of the nation once again. Without 1848 the spirit that freed the Irish Catholic from being tributary to another Church and regained the land for the farmers would have slept for a century—perhaps for ever.
Driven from his country, Doheny with the companion of his fugitive wanderings, James Stephens, and the chivalrous O’Mahony, founded the Fenian brotherhood in the United States. Once more before his sudden death in April, 1862, he saw Ireland—on the occasion of the MacManus Funeral.
Let me, said a wise man, always be surrounded by men of sanguine temperament. Defeat and exile could not dim the faith of Doheny in his country. The fugitive who had wrecked his fortunes in Ireland’s cause and witnessed a failure which English statesmen believed ended for ever the dream of Irish independent nationhood, set his foot in exile only to begin anew to plan Ireland Independent. So long as the sanguine heart that carried Michael Doheny undaunted along the Felon’s Track beats in the breast of his country the Irish Nation will be indestructible.