‘Twixt Croghan-Kinshela and Hook Head, ‘twixt Carnsore and Mount Leinster, there is as good a mass of men as ever sustained a state by honest franchises, by peace, virtue, and intelligent industry; and as stout a mass as ever tramped through a stubborn battle. There is a county where we might seek more of stormy romance, and there is a county where prospers a shrewder economy, but no county in Ireland is fitter for freedom than Wexford.
They are a peculiar people—these Wexford men. Their blood is for the most part English and Welsh, though mixed with the Danish and Gaelic, yet they are Irish in thought and feeling. They are a Catholic people, yet on excellent terms with their Protestant landlords. Outrages are unknown, for though the rents are high enough, they are not unbearable by a people so industrious and skilled in farming.
Go to the fair and you will meet honest dealing, and a look that heeds no lordling’s frown—for the Wexford men have neither the base bend nor the baser craft of slaves. Go to the hustings, and you will see open and honest voting; no man shrinking or crying for concealment, or extorting a bribe under the name of “his expenses.” Go to their farms and you will see a snug homestead, kept clean, prettily sheltered (much what you’d see in Down); more green crops than even in Ulster; the National School and the Repeal Reading-room well filled, and every religious duty regarded.
Wexford is not all it might be, or all that, with more education and the life-hope of nationality, it will be—there is something to blame and something to lament, here a vice sustained, and there a misfortune lazily borne; yet, take it for all in all, it is the most prosperous, it is the pattern county of the South; and when we see it coming forward in a mass to renew its demand for native government, it is an omen that the spirit of the people outlives quarrels and jealousies, and that it has a rude vitality which will wear out its oppressors.
Nor are we indifferent to the memories of Wexford. It owes much of its peace and prosperity to the war it sustained. It rose in ’98 with little organisation against intolerable wrong; and though it was finally beaten by superior forces, it taught its aristocracy and the government a lesson not easily forgotten—a lesson that popular anger could strike hard as well as sigh deeply; and that it was better to conciliate than provoke those who even for an hour had felt their strength. The red rain made Wexford’s harvest grow. Theirs was no treacherous assassination—theirs no stupid riot—theirs no pale mutiny. They rose in mass and swept the country by sheer force.
Nor in their sinking fortunes is there anything to blush at. Scullabogue was not burned by the fighting men.
Yet nowhere did the copper sun of that July burn upon a more heart-piercing sight than a rebel camp. Scattered on a hill-top, or screened in a gap, were the grey-coated thousands, their memories mad at burned cabins, and military whips, and hanged friends; their hopes dimmed by partial defeat; their eyes lurid with care; their brows full of gloomy resignation. Some have short guns which the stern of a boat might bear, but which press through the shoulder of a marching man; and others have light fowling-pieces, with dandy locks—troublesome and dangerous toys. Most have pikes, stout weapons, too; and though some swell to hand-spikes, and others thin to knives, yet, for all that, fatal are they to dragoon or musketeer if they can meet him in a rush; but how shall they do so? The gunsmen have only a little powder in scraps of paper or bags, and their balls are few and rarely fit. They have no potatoes ripe, and they have no bread—their food is the worn cattle they have crowded there, and which the first skirmish may rend from them. There are women and children seeking shelter, seeking those they love; and there are leaders busier, feebler, less knowing, less resolved than the women and the children.
Great hearts! how faithful ye are! How ye bristled up when the foe came on, how ye set your teeth to die as his shells and round-shot fell steadily; and with how firm a cheer ye dashed at him, if he gave you any chance at all of a grapple! From the wild burst with which ye triumphed at Oulart Hill, down to the faint gasp wherewith the last of your last column died in the corn-fields of Meath, there is nothing to shame your valour, your faith, or your patriotism. You wanted arms, and you wanted leaders. Had you had them, you would have guarded a green flag in Dublin Castle a week after you beat Walpole. Isolated, unorganised, unofficered, half-armed, girt by a swarm of foes, you ceased to fight, but you neither betrayed nor repented. Your sons need not fear to speak of Ninety-eight.
You, people of Wexford, almost all Repealers, are the sons of the men of ’98; prosperous and many, will you only shout for Repeal, and line roads and tie boughs for a holiday? Or will you press your organisation, work at your education, and increase your political power, so that your leaders may know and act on the knowledge that, come what may, there is trust in Wexford?