But when principles have been proved and objections answered, there are still some last words to say for some who stand apart—the men who held the breach. For, they do stand apart, not in error but in constancy; not in doubt of the truth but its incarnation; not average men of the multitude for whom human laws are made, who must have moral certainty of success, who must have the immediate allegiance of the people. For it is the distinguishing glory of our prophets and our soldiers of the forlorn hope, that the defeats of common men were for them but incentives to further battle; and when they held out against the prejudices of their time, they were not standing in some new conceit, but most often by prophetic insight fighting for a forgotten truth of yesterday, catching in their souls to light them forward, the hidden glory of to-morrow. They knew to be theirs by anticipation the general allegiance without which lesser men cannot proceed. They knew they stood for the Truth, against which nothing can prevail, and if they had to endure struggle, suffering and pain, they had the finer knowledge born of these things, a knowledge to which the best of men ever win—that if it is a good thing to live, it is a good thing also to die. Not that they despised life or lightly threw it away; for none better than they knew its grandeur, none more than they gloried in its beauty, none were so happily full as they of its music; but they knew, too, the value of this deep truth, with the final loss of which Earth must perish: the man who is afraid to die is not fit to live. And the knowledge for them stamped out Earth’s oldest fear, winning for life its highest ecstasy. Yes, and when one or more of them had to stand in the darkest generation and endure all penalties to the extreme penalty, they knew for all that they had had the best of life and did not count it a terrible thing if called by a little to anticipate death. They had still the finest appreciation of the finer attributes of comradeship and love; but it is part of the mystery of their happiness and success, that they were ready to go on to the end, not looking for the suffrage of the living nor the monuments of the dead. Yes, and when finally the re-awakened people by their better instincts, their discipline, patriotism and fervour, will have massed into armies, and marched to freedom, they will know in the greatest hour of triumph that the success of their conquering arms was made possible by those who held the breach.
When, happily, we can fall back on the eloquence of the world’s greatest orator, we turn with gratitude to the greatest tribute ever spoken to the memory of those men to whom the world owes most. Demosthenes, in the finest height of his finest oration, vindicates the men of every age and nation who fight the forlorn hope. He was arraigned by his rival, Æschines, for having counselled the Athenians to pursue a course that ended in defeat, and he replies thus: “If, then, the results had been foreknown to all—not even then should the Commonwealth have abandoned her design, if she had any regard for glory, or ancestry, or futurity. As it is, she appears to have failed in her enterprise, a thing to which all mankind are liable, if the Deity so wills it.” And he asks the Athenians: “Why, had we resigned without a struggle that which our ancestors encountered every danger to win, who would not have spit upon you?” And he asks them further to consider strangers, visiting their City, sunk in such degradation, “especially when in former times our country had never preferred an ignominious security to the battle for honour.” And he rises from the thought to this proud boast: “None could at any period of time persuade the Commonwealth to attach herself in secure subjection to the powerful and unjust; through every age has she persevered in a perilous struggle for precedency and honour and glory.” And he tells them, appealing to the memory of Themistocles, how they honoured most their ancestors who acted in such a spirit: “Yes; the Athenians of that day looked not for an orator or a general, who might help them to a pleasant servitude: they scorned to live if it could not be with freedom.” And he pays them, his listeners, a tribute: “What I declare is, that such principles are your own; I show that before my time such was the spirit of the Commonwealth.” From one eloquent height to another he proceeds, till, challenging Æschines for arraigning him, thus counselling the people, he rises to this great level: “But, never, never can you have done wrong, O Athenians, in undertaking the battle for the freedom and safety of all: I swear it by your forefathers—those that met the peril at Marathon, those that took the field at Platæa, those in the sea-fight at Salamis, and those at Artimesium, and many other brave men who repose in the public monuments, all of whom alike, as being worthy of the same honour, the country buried, Æschines, not only the successful and victorious.” We did not need this fine eloquence to assure us of the greatness of our O’Neills and our Tones, our O’Donnells and our Mitchels, but it so quickens the spirit and warms the blood to read it, it so touches—by the admiration won from ancient and modern times—an enduring principle of the human heart—the capacity to appreciate a great deed and rise over every physical defeat—that we know in the persistence of the spirit we shall come to a veritable triumph. Yes; and in such light we turn to read what Ruskin called the greatest inscription ever written, that which Herodotus tells us was raised over the Spartans, who fell at Thermopylæ, and which Mitchel’s biographer quotes as most fitting to epitomise Mitchel’s life: “Stranger, tell thou the Lacedemonians that we are lying here, having obeyed their words.” And the biographer of Mitchel is right in holding that he who reads into the significance of these brave lines, reads a message not of defeat but of victory.
Yes; and in paying a fitting tribute to those great men who are our exemplars, it would be fitting also, in conclusion, to remember ourselves as the inheritors of a great tradition; and it would well become us not only to show the splendour of the banner that is handed on to us, but to show that this banner we, too, are worthy to bear. For, how often it shall be victorious and how high it shall be planted, will depend on the conception we have of its supreme greatness, the knowledge that it can be fought for in all times and places, the conviction that we may, when least we expect, be challenged to deny it; and that by our bearing we may bring it new credit and glory or drag it low in repute. We do well, I say, to remember these things. For in our time it has grown the fashion to praise the men of former times but to deny their ideal of Independence; and we who live in that ideal, and in it breathe the old spirit, and preach it and fight for it and prophesy for it an ultimate and complete victory—we are young men, foolish and unpractical. And what should be our reply? A reply in keeping with the flag, its history and its destiny. Let them, who deride or pity us, see we despise or pity their standards, and let them know by our works—lest by our election they misunderstand—that we are not without ability in a freer time to contest with them the highest places—avoiding the boast, not for an affected sense of modesty but for a saving sense of humour. For in all the vanities of this time that make Life and Literature choke with absurdities, pretensions and humbug, let us have no new folly. Let us with the old high confidence blend the old high courtesy of the Gaedheal. Let us grow big with our cause. Shall we honour the flag we bear by a mean, apologetic front? No! Wherever it is down, lift it; wherever it is challenged, wave it; wherever it is high, salute it; wherever it is victorious, glorify and exult in it. At all times and forever be for it proud, passionate, persistent, jubilant, defiant; stirring hidden memories, kindling old fires, wakening the finer instincts of men, till all are one in the old spirit, the spirit that will not admit defeat, that has been voiced by thousands, that is noblest in Emmet’s one line, setting the time for his epitaph: “When my country”—not if—but “when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth.” It is no hypothesis; it is a certainty. There have been in every generation, and are in our own, men dull of apprehension and cold of heart, who could not believe this, but we believe it, we live in it: we know it. Yes, we know it, as Emmet knew it, and as it shall be seen to-morrow; and when the historian of to-morrow, seeing it accomplished, will write its history, he will not note the end with surprise. Rather will he marvel at the soul in constancy, rivalling the best traditions of undegenerate Greece and Rome, holding through disasters, persecutions, suffering, and not less through the seductions of milder but meaner times, seeing through all shining clearly the goal: he will record it all, and, still marvelling, come to the issue that dauntless spirit has reached, proud and happy; but he will write of that issue—Liberty; Inevitable: in two words to epitomise the history of a people that is without a parallel in the Annals of the World.