From 1793 to 1829—for thirty-six years—the Irish Catholics struggled for Emancipation. That Emancipation was but admission to the Bench, the Inner Bar, and Parliament. It was won by self-denial, genius, vast and sustained labours, and, lastly, by the sacrifice of the forty-shilling freeholders—the poor veterans of the war—and by submission to insulting oaths; yet it was cheaply bought. Not so cheaply, perchance, as if won by the sword; for on it were expended more treasures, more griefs, more intellect, more passion, more of all which makes life welcome, than had been needed for war; still it was cheaply bought, and Ireland has glorified herself, and will through ages triumph in the victory of ’29.
Yet what was Emancipation compared to Repeal?
The one put a silken badge on a few members of one profession; the other would give to all professions and all trades the rank and riches which resident proprietors, domestic legislation, and flourishing commerce infallibly create.
Emancipation made it possible for Catholics to sit on the judgment seat; but it left a foreign administration, which has excluded them, save in two or three cases, where over-topping eminence made the acceptance of a Judgeship no promotion; and it left the local Judges—those with whom the people have to deal—as partial, ignorant, bigoted as ever; while Repeal would give us an Irish code and Irish-hearted Judges in every Court, from the Chancery to the Petty Sessions.
Emancipation dignified a dozen Catholics with a senatorial name in a foreign and hostile Legislature. Repeal would give us a Senate, a Militia, an Administration, all our own.
The Penal Code, as it existed since 1793, insulted the faith of the Catholics, restrained their liberties, and violated the public Treaty of Limerick. The Union has destroyed our manufactures, prohibits our flag, prevents our commerce, drains our rental, crushes our genius, makes our taxation a tribute, our representation a shadow, our name a by-word. It were nobler to strive for Repeal than to get Emancipation.
Four years ago the form of Repeal agitation began—two years ago, its reality. Have we not cause to be proud of the labours of these two years? If life be counted, not by the rising of suns, or the idle turning of machinery, but by the growth of the will, and the progress of thoughts and passions in the soul, we Irishmen have spent an age since we raised our first cry for liberty. Consider what we were then, and what we have done since. We had a People unorganised—disgusted with a Whig alliance—beaten in a dishonourable struggle to sustain a faction—ignorant of each other’s will—without books, without song, without leaders (save one), without purposes, without strength, without hope. The Corn Exchange was the faint copy of the Catholic Association, with a few enthusiasts, a few loungers, and a few correspondents. Opposite to us was the great Conservative party, with a majority exceeding our whole representation, united, flushed, led by the craftiest of living statesmen, and the ablest of living generals. Oh, how disheartening it was then, when, day by day, we found prophecy and exhortation, lay and labour, flung idly before a distracted People! May we never pass through that icy ordeal again!
How different now! The People are united under the greatest system of organisation ever attempted in any country. They send in, by their Collectors, Wardens, and Inspectors, to the central office of Ireland, the contributions needed to carry on the Registration of Voters, the public meetings, the publications, the law expenses, and the organisation of the Association; and that in turn carries on registries, holds meetings, opens reading-rooms, sends newspapers, and books, and political instructions, back through the same channel; so that the Central Committee knows the state of every parish, and every parish receives the teaching and obeys the will of the Central Committee.
The Whig Alliance has melted, like ice before the sun, and the strong souls of our people will never again serve the purposes of a faction.
The Conservative party, without union and without principle, is breaking up. Its English section is dividing into the tools of expediency and the pioneers of a New Generation—its Irish section into Castle Hacks and National Conservatives.
Meantime, how much have the Irish people gained and done? They have received and grown rich under torrents of thought. Song and sermon and music, speech and pamphlet, novel and history, essay and map and picture, have made the dull thoughtful and the thoughtful studious, and will make the studious wise and powerful. They have begun a system of self-teaching in their reading-rooms. If they carry it we shall, before two years, have in every parish men able to manufacture, to trade, and to farm—men acquainted with all that Ireland was, is, and should be—men able to serve The Irish Nation in peace and war.
In the teeth, too, of the Government we held our meetings. They are not for this time, but they were right well in their own time. They showed our physical force to the Continent, to ourselves, to America, to our rulers. They showed that the people would come and go rapidly, silently, and at bidding, in numbers enough to recruit a dozen armies. These are literal facts. Any one monster meeting could have offered little resistance in the open country to a regular army, but it contained the materials—the numbers, intelligence, and obedience—of a conquering host. Whenever the impression of their power grows faint we shall revive them again.
The toleration of these meetings was the result of fear; the prosecution of their chiefs sprung from greater fear. That prosecution was begun audaciously, was carried on meanly and with virulence, and ended with a charge and a verdict which disgraced the law. An illegal imprisonment afforded glorious proof that the people could refrain from violence under the worst temptation; that their leaders were firm; and, better than all, that had these leaders been shot, not prisoned, their successors were ready. Such an imprisonment served Ireland more than an acquittal, for it tried her more; and then came the day of triumph, when the reluctant constitution liberated our chiefs and branded our oppressors.
This is a history of two years never surpassed in importance and honour. This is a history which our sons shall pant over and envy. This is a history which pledges us to perseverance. This is a history which guarantees success.
Energy, patience, generosity, skill, tolerance, enthusiasm created and decked the agitation. The world attended us with its thoughts and prayers. The graceful genius of Italy and the profound intellect of Germany paused to wish us well. The fiery heart of France tolerated our unarmed effort, and proffered its aid. America sent us money, thought, love—she made herself a part of Ireland in her passions and her organisation. From London to the wildest settlement which throbs in the tropics or shivers nigh the Pole, the empire of our misruler was shaken by our effort. To all earth we proclaimed our wrongs. To man and God we made oath that we would never cease to strive till an Irish nation stood supreme on this island. The genius which roused and organised us, the energy which laboured, the wisdom that taught, the manhood which rose up, the patience which obeyed, the faith which swore, and the valour that strained for action, are here still, experienced, recruited, resolute.
The future shall realise the promise of the past.