The Felons Track (1)



The appearance of this narrative will surprise no one. For apology, if any be needed, the writer may trust to his own share in the transactions with which it deals; and still more so perhaps to the misrepresentation to which, during their progress, he had been personally subjected. But personal vindication imparts neither interest nor importance to history, while it necessarily detracts from its dignity and good faith. Besides, time with the disastrous events marking its more recent course, have silenced the voice of calumny; and the writer undertakes his task with no personal feeling to gratify or even to consult. The character of others, now unable to be heard, is far dearer to him than his own: and while he aspires to justify, before the world, their singular career, distinguished throughout by generous and lofty passions, surpassing intellect and measureless love of their country and countrymen—a career so brilliant and instructive even in the last hours of gloom—he will endeavour to infuse into the history of their struggles and their fate, that generous tenderness toward others, that spirit of self-sacrifice and supreme love of truth, which were among their noblest characteristics.

The undertaking suggests but one painful consideration—the impossibility of treating the subject fully and fairly without investigating facts far anterior to the late struggle, but coincident in their effect with its progress and development, and stamping their pernicious and fatal influence upon the spirit and conduct that led to a final overthrow. This will necessarily involve an inquiry into the late conduct and teaching of Mr. O’Connell, which the writer would most willingly avoid. Mr. O’Connell’s name and character fill a mighty space in history. They are the most cherished recollections in his country’s memory; and she clings to them with loving pride in this her hour of utter desolation. The hand that traces these recollections would be the last to aim a blow at the object of her sacred affections; and if in obedience to a more binding obligation, Mr. O’Connell’s policy be questioned and condemned, his influencing motive shall be unchallenged and unarraigned. What his final purpose was, and how he had determined to effect it, had his life been spared, and his course left unimpeded, now rest with him in his grave. It is for others to write his history and vindicate his career. By me even his mistakes shall be treated with forbearance.

A brief reference to the struggle for Catholic Emancipation becomes here imperative. That struggle has had no equal in history—nor for its moral grandeur, nor for its triumph—but for the singular difficulties which the position of the Irish Catholic imposed on those who engaged in it. It is an error to call it emancipation. It was neither the first nor the last, nor even the most important in the train of concessions, which are entitled to the name of emancipation. The pains and penalties of the “penal laws” had been long abolished, and that barbarous code had been compressed into cold and stolid exclusiveness. But the vices which a long and unrelenting slavery had burned into the character of the country, remained. The lie of law, which assumed the non-existence of the Catholic had infused itself into his nature, and while it was erased from the statute book, it was legible on his heart. That terrible necessity of denying his feelings, his property, his religion and his very being, had stamped its degrading influence on his nature. In a moral sense the law had become a truth—there was no people. The Catholic gentry, giddy by their recent elevation, had only changed for that semblance of liberty their old stern spirit of resistance and revenge. Their new concessions hung gracefully around them, but they were like grafts on an ash stock—their growth was downward, and they wanted the stature and dignity of the native tree. Such were the means at Mr. O’Connell’s disposal. His enemies on the other hand were false, powerful, dexterous and unscrupulous. His efforts necessarily partook of the character both of the weapons he was obliged to wield and the foes he struck down. As he advanced to eminence and strength, means, the most crafty and cruel, were taken to overthrow him, every one of which he foiled by a sagacity infinitely above that of his oppressors. So successful had he been in deceiving the champions of intolerance, that of all the great qualities displayed in that wonderful struggle, that which was most prized was the cunning of evasion. It left behind it an enduring and destructive influence. Dissimulation in political action began to be regarded as a public virtue, and long afterwards, when men sought to assert the dignity of truth, their candour was charged against them as a heinous crime. It will be seen hereafter how fatally this fact operated against their efforts.

The very character of Emancipation has assumed an exaggerated and false guise. The joy of the nation was boundless—its gratitude immeasurable. In the shout that hailed the deliverer, earlier deliverers were forgotten. No one remembered the men whose stupendous exertions wrung from the reluctant spirit of a far darker time the right of living, of worship, of enjoying property, and exercising the franchise. All these, and more, which were once, and not very remotely, denied to the Catholics had been before this accorded to them. Yet the interest and importance of winning access to Parliament, to the higher ranks of the army, and, perhaps a stray seat at the Privy Council, acquired the name of Emancipation, and Mr. O’Connell monopolised its entire renown. He was styled the “Liberator,” and his achievement designated as “striking the fetters from the limbs of the slave, and liberating the altar.” In truth, the import of Emancipation was so exaggerated, and its history so warped, that even now at a distance of more than twenty years, both the act and the actors are so misunderstood that it requires no little daring to approach a question involving the sensibilities, prejudices and passions of an entire generation.

A truer appreciation might have given Mr. O’Connell a different and higher destiny. Not alone the boundless exultation of the Catholic but the mortified pride of the baffled Protestant also stamped its influence on his fortunes, prospects and career. In proportion as he was to the former an object of adulation and pride did the latter hoard up in his heart for him enduring envy and insatiable hate. Another circumstance, too, which Mr. O’Connell did not create and could not in the beginning control, contributed to mar his future glory. This was the pecuniary compensation which the emancipated Catholics kneeled to present him. It is far from being intended here to disparage the offering or decry its acceptance. On the contrary, if this were the proper place, both would be vindicated with zealous pride. But the effect of the continued collection, on Mr. O’Connell’s conduct and efficiency was baneful in the extreme. And it was among the most prominent circumstances in shaping his career.

Mr. O’Connell entered the House of Commons under auspices more flattering and encouraging than ever smiled on the advent to that assembly of any other man. In whatever light he was regarded, he was far the foremost personage of his time. How his subsequent career might justify the hushed awe with which a proud senate received him if he had devoted himself to the broad and comprehensive questions of imperial jurisprudence, for which he seemed so eminently fitted, it would be idle now to conjecture. Certain it is that no act of his after life, varied and wonderful as it was, realised the promise of that glad and glorious morning.

Lord Anglesea, who had been removed from the viceroyalty for suspected treachery to the cause of intolerance, was restored to his office, by more distinguished converts, and was received by the people with tumultuous acclaim. His popularity was short-lived. The present Chief Justice, Doherty, was then Attorney-General. He incurred the wrath of Mr. O’Connell in consequence of treachery which he had exhibited in conducting a trial at Clonmel. This led to a fierce encounter in the House of Commons—the first great trial of Mr. O’Connell’s powers—in which Doherty’s friends claimed for their champion a decisive victory. However unjust may be that judgment, Mr. O’Connell’s admirers were compelled to admit that he failed in his impeachment and principally in consequence of a letter written by Mr. Shiel, then second to no other Irishman. Mr. Shiel had been associated with the Attorney-General in the prosecution at Clonmel, and his letter boldly justified the conduct which the great popular tribune vehemently and indignantly impugned. This was quite unexpected, and greatly affected Mr. O’Connell’s cause. But whether Mr. Doherty failed or succeeded, he was rewarded, and almost avowedly, by the Chief Justiceship of the Common Pleas. The appointment was a direct insult to Mr. O’Connell, and scarcely a less direct insult to the Irish bar, and the Irish nation. Mr. Doherty was regarded as a man of great forensic ability, but no legal attainments. He had scarcely acquired any practice, and no distinction whatever: so that his elevation to a post he was so inadequate to fill gave universal dissatisfaction, and was read as evidence that the Government of Ireland was subservient to an unscrupulous and audacious faction.

Soon after the date of this appointment the first Repeal Association was established by Mr. O’Connell. His motives were at once bitterly assailed. By some he was charged with being influenced by personal mortification. By some his conduct was attributed to a love of turbulence and money. By some it was said he only intended the agitation as a threat, by means of which he could enforce a wiser, more liberal, and just administration of the law and government in Ireland. Few, if any, believed him to be in earnest and sincere. But the condition of the country and the principles of Mr. O’Connell’s early life would suggest higher motives; and the perseverance and intensity of feeling and purpose, with which he urged the deliverance of his country in after times, proves that he was a stranger to the sordid considerations which envy or fear coupled with his first labours in that direction. Certain it is that, whatever were his motives, it could be no tempting ambition that determined him to transfer the exercise of his abilities to the tribune of angry agitation from that more legitimate and loftier arena which, with unsurpassed energy, he had won.

The agitation succeeded rapidly. The Government became at once intolerant and impotent. They proclaimed down the agitation; but this only imparted to it activity, energy and strength. The Government gave way to a furious storm which had been long gathering elsewhere. The great Reform Ministry succeeded with Earl Grey at its head; and in the struggle for Imperial parliamentary Reform, Ireland and her independence were forgotten.

During the intellectual conflict that followed, Mr. O’Connell asserted his pre-eminence, and won a lofty name. He made far the most successful speech on the question of Reform. It not only exceeded the ablest orations of the British leaders, but was, perhaps, the most triumphant he himself had ever delivered. But his position soon changed. From being the unanswerable champion of the ministerial majority in the House of Commons, he took the lead of a small opposition which resisted the Government on the Irish Bill. Although the minister was the exponent and stern advocate of the widest liberality, in applying the reform to England, he undertook to defend, on the very opposite principle, the niggard liberty he was prepared in the same measure to extend to Ireland. In this unnatural and unexpected turn of affairs, Mr. O’Connell took a proud and bold stand, against the Government, and for his country. The ministry succeeded, but he had more than ever acquired the confidence and unbounded gratitude of his countrymen. Thenceforward, he was their acknowledged chief, and his words expressed not more his own than the public will.

His remonstrances were vehement and angry, but they were vain. The ministry disregarded the claims of justice, as well as the voice of the orator. The quarrel became personal and vindictive to so great an extent, that Mr. O’Connell’s support would almost ensure the defeat of any measure at the hands of the English Whig faction.

While this was his position in the House of Commons, he was preparing the elements of an organisation which was destined to embrace the whole island. He started the first great Repeal Association, which was at once attended with marvellous success. Forty-four members of Parliament were under its control if not in its ranks. A discussion of the merits of Repeal was forced in the House of Commons by the intemperate zeal of the member for Cork.[3] The motion was resisted by the whole weight and influence of the Ministry. But in a resolution proposed as an amendment, both Houses concurred in acknowledging that Ireland’s complaint was founded in justice, and in solemnly pledging themselves to the practical redress of her grievances. The resolution was carried to the foot of the throne, and there received the sanction of royalty.

But that resolution remained and remains unfulfilled. The ministry which proposed it, redeemed their promise by an Algerine measure of coercion, which Mr. O’Connell denounced as “base, bloody and brutal.” His opposition, and their own recreancy of principle, tended rapidly to their overthrow. Lord Stanley, in hatred to Mr. O’Connell and his country, abandoned the Government, which he charged with truckling to the great demagogue’s will. The country, on the other hand, withdrew its confidence from them on the ground that they truckled to their hereditary foes, and allowed the principles of the Tories to influence Parliament in the name and through the agency of the Whigs. Division and weakness followed; and the result was a break-up of the administration, which was remodelled, with Lord Melbourne for its chief, on the understanding that more liberal views should govern its future course. An alliance was entered into with Mr. O’Connell, whose support the Prime Minister openly claimed and as openly boasted of. Then was formed what was known as the “Litchfield House Compact.” This compact, if such the understanding that existed can be called, was based upon the assurance that the most liberal measures of justice should be extended to Ireland, and that in the administrative department, the Government should apply itself diligently to the reform and purifying of all public functions and functionaries. What was the nature or extent of Mr. O’Connell’s engagement, I do not pretend to know. But whether he pledged himself to abandon for ever the struggle for independence, or only to place it in abeyance for a season to facilitate the action of the Government in reference to their good intentions and favourable promises, he so far fulfilled his engagement as to dissolve the Association.

That Association was composed of various and very conflicting elements. The motives which influenced many of its leaders were equally varied. Many joined it merely because Mr. O’Connell was its founder and its guide. Many among the middle ranks of society had acquired a sort of interest in agitation they could not easily surrender. It had gained them local distinction, and gratified a morbid vanity. Profuse votes of thanks were their incentive and reward. To correspond with Mr. Ray, or perhaps the Liberator, consummated their ambition, and for aught beyond that they felt no concern. Others there were, corrupt by nature and cunning in design, whose political exertions had personal advancement for their sole aim; and others still who never believed Mr. O’Connell sincere, but joined the Association and shouted their approval, because too contemptible and feeble to acquire distinction except through the echo of his voice or under shelter of his fame. To the false and the sordid and the indifferent, the dissolution of the confederacy was a welcome event: but the people, yet uncorrupted, looked on passively with agonised hearts.

Physical contagion generally begins at the bases of society, and trails its way slowly to the upper ranks, occasionally dealing doom to some hard hearts that mocked, it may be, its first uncared-for victims. But moral corruption begins with the highest, and embraces the whole circle of society in its descent. So it was in this instance. Members of Parliament who had solemnly pledged themselves to the disenthrallment of their country, accepted the wages, and entered into the service of the Government who had one and all vowed they would prevent the fulfilment of the hustings pledge, even at the risk of a civil war. Among them was Mr. O’Connell’s son, who had taken that pledge before the assembled people of Meath, his son-in-law, Mr. Fitzsimon, who had sworn it to the freeholders of the metropolitan county, Mr. Carew O’Dwyer who, in virtue of the same pledge, obtained the unanimous suffrage of Drogheda, and several others. Many relatives and friends of Mr. O’Connell obtained rewards adequate to their services. Agents who had been successful against Whig candidates now retired into Whig places. The corporate towns were made over to the Whigs, who held out the understanding that the sons, nephews and kindred of the leading and deserving citizens would be provided for in the departments suited to their different capacities, and varying from the post of tide-waiter, to that of stipendiary magistrate. Fierce was the struggle which followed, and sore the disappointment, and many a scalding tear of baffled ambition watered the way to the aspirant’s ruin.

This is not said for the purpose of disparaging the legitimate ambition of those who sought advancement in the altered circumstances and sentiments of the time. But the effect of such a state of things on the morality of the nation was incalculably injurious. The most solemn resolution was openly violated, and that by the very men who were foremost in recommending the national vow. Nor would its tendency be less fatal, assuming that Mr. O’Connell was correct in supposing that the experiment would be vain, and that its failure could not fail to supply new and more urgent reasons for the nation’s independence. The compact, if even entered into with that view, would shake all faith in public men; because it would only change the parties with whom a false obligation was contracted, leaving the obligation itself and its violation exactly where they were.

Mr. O’Connell’s support was doomed to be as fatal to the Whigs as his opposition. He unhappily assisted them during his period to carry one measure, against which they had recorded several solemn decisions in Parliament, namely, the Tithe Bill, without an appropriation clause, which was a direct falsification of their own resolution, whereby they defeated Sir Robert Peel’s short-lived administration, in 1835. And what was still more lamentable, he supported them in renewing in a modified form the very Coercion Act for the introduction of which he designated them as “base, bloody and brutal.”

But other elements were secretly sapping the influences for which he made these sacrifices. The storm of disaffection, a long while gathering among open foes and disappointed retainers, was about to burst on the devoted heads of the Whigs. With their accustomed fickleness and treachery of character they prepared to sacrifice, for the sake of power, the man whom they conciliated and deceived in the same hope of retaining it. If he foresaw that this would be the result of his experiment, never was augury more fully realised. Whatever may be the exact engagements of the Whigs, he was able to allege that not one was fulfilled, while he was in a position to prove that he more than kept his own: unless indeed, it could be assumed that for the few places obtained by his friends, and others, some of them honourable men, he surrendered the lofty and nearly impregnable position he occupied in 1834, and which, in one sense at least, he never afterwards attained.

From whatever cause, his influence over the Whigs visibly declined, and his counsels no longer swayed their Irish policy. Once more they relied on the false expedient of yielding to their enemies and allowing them to wield the power, while they were themselves content with the spoils of the country. Again the quarrel with Mr. O’Connell became bitter and personal, and again had he recourse to Repeal.

From the time of the first Repeal Association to that of the Precursor Society several other associations or societies were established, which have left behind them scarcely the memory of their very names—that of the second association alone excepted. Yet each had an ample treasury, and was composed of the same or nearly the same elements, and the same members. There is many an honest man and many a fool, whose boast it is that they contributed a pound to each of them, and had their respective cards.

At last the late Repeal Association was formed. Its birth was received with sneers. Mr. O’Connell’s sincerity was questioned, and his motives canvassed with vindictive vigilance. The warmest Nationalists looked on with doubt and coldness. Not one man of rank, outside the members of the defunct society, joined its ranks. The routine of business, the receipt of money, the resolutions, the speeches, were exactly identical with those of its predecessors. The Government seemed neither to dread it nor care for it. It lingered on, unsustained by the country and despised by its enslavers. The contributions of the members did not suffice to pay half the ordinary expenses of its machinery. Debts accumulated, and the revenue did not increase. While the body was thus situated, Mr. O’Connell had recourse to an expedient at once singular and decisive. It was to build Conciliation Hall. The Association was at the time seriously in debt, and he proposed to multiply that debt four-fold by engaging in this costly undertaking.

While persons who affected to be in his confidence were amazed at this step, the Government regarded it as an evidence of purpose which it was indispensable at once to check. They saw that their opponents had formerly menaced and coerced in vain, and they determined to proscribe. Accordingly the newly appointed viceroy, Lord Ebrington, being waited on by the Dublin Corporation with some address of congratulation, delivered them a lecture on the disloyalty of the Corn Exchange, and announced his purpose never to employ in the service of the Government any one who frequented that pestilent locality. The corporation returned abashed to their council-rooms to record the viceregal threat. But from end to end of the land rose one shout of indignant defiance. Suspicion, doubt and hesitation gave way to the taunt involved in the insolent challenge. The ranks of the Association were filled, and its treasury replenished; and the viceroy soon discovered how little was to be gained by a vulgar appeal to the meanest passion when it was addressed to the Irish people.


[3] Mr. Feargus O’Connor, afterwards leader of the English Chartists.—Ed