The Felons Track (2)
THOMAS DAVIS, HIS EARLY LABOURS. — THE “NATION” NEWSPAPER. — PROGRESS OF THE ASSOCIATION. — CLONTARF MEETING. — THE STATE TRIALS. — THE YOUNG IRELAND PARTY. — SMITH O’BRIEN. — FEDERALISM. — THE BEQUEST ACT.
Even before this great occasion, gifted spirits were insensibly moulding the character and destiny of the Association. The hurried but firm step of a pale student of Trinity College might be daily seen pacing the unfrequented flagways that led to the Corn Exchange. His penetrating glance, half shrouded by its own shyness, his face averted from the crowd, and his mind turned within, he would come, and sit, and hear, and suppress the emotions that swelled his proud young heart as he caught glimpses of a bright future for his country. He had the richest store of practical knowledge, an imagination fruitful as a sunny clime: faith, hope and courage boundless as immortal love. That he could realise all things which came within the scope of his own fond yearnings, he had no doubt. But most of the men with whom he took his place were stinted in acquirements, and not over-gifted in intellect, and had no conception or ambition beyond admiring or applauding the behests of one predominant and controlling will. With the passionate aspirations of the young student they felt no kindred sympathies. In their hands, political action, for whatever end, sank into a traffic or parade. Even with such materials he determined to work out his country’s redemption, though already satisfied that before such a thing were possible, their habits, feelings, passions and hearts should be entirely changed. In order to do this, it was necessary he should stoop to the level of their conceptions and capacities. Thus for many weary months, with his energies, as it were, chained down to a cold stone, toiled and strove Thomas Davis. His influence first began to be felt as chairman of a sub-committee on the registers. This position afforded him an opportunity of entering into correspondence with the leading politicians of the party, and whenever he saw in any man’s replies evidence of depth, capacity or earnestness, he at once entered into friendly and unreserved communication, exhorting him in language full of passionate entreaty. In these, his early efforts, John Dillon shared his labours, his ambition and his heart.
About this time Mr. Stanton, proprietor of the Morning Register, committed to the two young graduates the writing of his journal. His preference was not so much owing to their character as politicians as it was to their pre-eminence in literary attainments. The press of Dublin had then sunk to the lowest level. Newspaper literature had even fallen, too. It was divided into three sections, each of which was the whining slave of one or other of the great predominating factions of the country. The Register was generally regarded as ranking among the mercenaries of the Castle. But no sooner did it fall into the hands of the college friends than all Dublin was startled by the originality, vigour and brilliancy of its articles. When the Whigs were about retiring they determined on a gross and scandalous abuse of power for the purpose of rewarding an unscrupulous partisan, even though it involved an affront to one of their oldest and ablest friends, the then Irish Chancellor. That man was Lord Plunket, who had served the Whigs so faithfully, honourably and fearlessly. He was commanded to retire in order to make room for Sir John Campbell, who was thereby to be qualified for the English peerage.
The stipendiaried journals of the Castle exhausted their adulation, and had received their last reward for upholding the appointment. The Tory press, hungry for the spoil which it maddened the others to lose, paid back the compliments by intense vituperation. The slang of party warfare was bandied in the usual fashion, without thought or a care beyond the interest of party. The Register, to everybody’s astonishment, took up the one cause not represented, namely, that of the country. Davis denounced the appointment as an insult to that country, and with a bold hand vindicated the superiority of its Bar, without any reference to party, above the adventurers whom each faction placed over it in turn.
Soon after he and his friend ceased to write for that paper; but not until satisfied by the experiment that a journal devoted to Ireland, guided by truth, and sustained with earnest ability, would supersede the whole jaundiced literature of the metropolis, and create a new era in the progress of the country’s civilisation and ambition. They immediately busied themselves to establish such an organ. Charles Gavan Duffy, late editor of the Belfast Vindicator, entered into the spirit of the enterprise, and after an evening’s ramble in the Park, during which the terms and the principles of the paper and the spirit in which it should be conducted were canvassed, the publication of the Nation was determined on. Mr. Duffy was convicted for having written a libel in the Vindicator, and his friends earnestly advised him to compromise the matter with a view of bringing more powerful energies to the same task in a wider field.
The first number of the new journal appeared on the 12th of October, 1842. It had been announced under auspices calculated to ensure its success, but its unexpected ability, the ground it broke in the national policy, and the vast intellectual resources it developed eclipsed the prestige under which it was deemed necessary to usher it into existence. It was at once a proof of greater powers than the country had yet witnessed, and a prophecy of a different fate from what she hoped for. The aims, the logic, the very language of factious diplomacy were eschewed. It seemed as if a light had streamed down from heaven, fresh from God, to give the people hope, comfort and assurance. The genius of Davis seized the opportunity as though he were His deputed messenger in the great work of regeneration. For the first time men awoke to the consciousness of what they were or might be. Harnessed to the triumphant car of one gigantic intellect, they had forgotten the dignity of their own nature, and were astonished to find how transcendant its resources and sufficient its strength. The publication of the Nation was really an epoch which marked a wonderful change, and from that day forth self-reliance and self-respect began to take the place of grateful but stultified obedience and blind trust.
The change became more marked as the publication proceeded. In speech, article, song and essay, the spell of Davis’s extraordinary genius and embracing love was felt. Historic memories, forgotten stories, fragments of tradition, the cromlech on the mountain and the fossil in the bog supplied him substance and spirit wherewith to mould and animate nationality. Native art, valour, virtue and glory seemed to grow under his pen. All that had a tendency to elevate and ennoble, he rescued from the past to infuse into the future. His songs, so soft and tender, and yet so redolent of manliness and hope, inspired the ambition to compose a minstrelsy as wild and vigorous as themselves. They were read and learned and sung with an avidity and pride heretofore unknown.
The monster meetings were long a design of Thomas Davis, John Dillon and the present writer. One great object with them was to train the country people to military movements and a martial tread. This object it would be unsafe to announce, and it was to be effected through other agencies than drill. The people should necessarily come to such rendezvous in baronial, parochial or town processions, and under the guidance of local leaders. Order is a law of nature; and, without much trouble on the part of those leaders, it would establish itself. The present writer left Dublin early in the spring of 1843 to carry this design into effect. Sir Robert Peel, then Prime Minister of England, alluding to the fact in the House of Commons, said that the first Monster Meeting was purposely held on the anniversary of the very day, the 22nd of May, destined for the rising of ’98. Sir Robert was wrong in his inference, though it was a natural and nearly justifiable one; for at that Cashel meeting were offered unmistakable evidences of the tendency of the agitation. Upwards of £1,100 were handed to Mr. O’Connell. Each parish came in procession, headed by a band and commanded by some local leader; and those who took part in the public procession marched in excellent order for upwards of eight miles. A military and magisterial meeting had been previously held in the barracks of Cashel to consider whether the people should not be routed at the point of the bayonet. But though the committee were fully aware of this consultation, they decided unanimously that the meeting should go on. The meeting itself passed the strongest resolutions, and adopted a petition to the Legislature, consisting of a single line, something to this effect: “You have robbed us of our Parliament by fraud and blood; pray restore it, or ——.” And finally, Mr. O’Connell said at the dinner that evening, alluding to an armed strife; “Give me Tipperary for half a day.” This simple wish, enunciated in accents familiar to that great ruler of men, elicited a cheer, a shout, a wild burst of enthusiasm, so long and loud as almost to suggest the idea that it would be seconded by naked steel and a deadly blow. One would think it had a significant meaning, and yet there was no wrathful ban. Not one pronounced that terrible anathema against shedding a single drop of blood, which afterwards became the canon of peaceful men. Nay, if memory be not very treacherous, amidst that roar was loudly distinguishable the voice of him who on an after day, yet to be spoken of, cursed from God’s altar those who wished to realise his simulated aspirations and in the endeavour had forfeited their lives. A doggerel ballad had been written for the occasion by Thomas Davis, to the air of the “Gallant Tipperary,” over which himself and his friends afterwards indulged in many a hearty laugh. One verse runs as follows:—
Step together left, right, left, right,
We carry no gun,
Yet devil a one
But knows how to march in Tipperary O!
By twelves and sixteens on we go,
Rank’d four deep in close order O!
For order’s the way
To carry the day,
March steadily, men of Tipperary O!
It is here introduced as a proof and a justification of what has been stated in reference to one great object of the projectors of the monster meetings. Possibly it will be said that this is an admission of the truth of a charge frequently urged by Mr. O’Connell against the Nation and its writers, namely, that they having intentions of which he knew nothing, had committed him to breaches of the law, of which he was not only not guilty but not cognisant, but which by a perversion of judgment were given in proof against him at the celebrated State Trials. It is quite true that they did entertain the intentions which he afterwards so vehemently repudiated. But they never once concealed them. In the Association, and where Mr. O’Connell was committed with them, they abstained from giving them utterance; but they did so because they felt bound to act in accordance with the resolution of that body. And with respect to the proceedings of the Cashel meeting and the more wonderful and significant meetings that followed, they always submitted to him and had his entire sanction for every act done at and every line written for these meetings. In fact, if he were in any way mistaken as to them, they were still more grievously deceived as to him. All their acts and speeches were in the direction of their intentions; all his acts and speeches were in the same direction, and went further. In truth, they believed that he fully concurred in the sentiments which they cared not to conceal, but which he had the cunning or caution not to avow. One justification of this belief has been already given; another and a more pregnant one was the Mallow defiance which the greatest poet and the greatest sculptor of our time and nation have immortalised. In reference to proofs not published, however conclusive, this history shall be silent.
Succeeding events shall be briefly glanced at only. Some of them have already attained a place in history; and the scope of my narrative only embraces the facts, incidents and tendencies which led to an armed crisis and governed its explosion. Meeting followed meeting in rapid succession, and each was marked by some signal manifestation of a healthier, holier and more resolute national purpose. Numbers, calmness, order, obedience, bespoke an advanced discipline, and prefigured future victory. The crowds that attended the Halls of the Association no longer consisted of idle brawlers; they were listening, thoughtful mechanics, conscious of the toil and danger that lay before them, and braced for the encounter. Dignitaries of the church and the ablest men among the second order of the clergy appeared on the platform, and added sanctity and dignity to the proceedings. Members of Corporations through the country, and private gentlemen of rank brought to the imposing confederacy the weight of their office, rank and name. The existing Government in a splenetic attempt to crush it, had dismissed certain magistrates for having their names enrolled on its books. This new aggression gave a fresh impetus to its progress. Men who had previously looked on it with doubt or fear, now embraced it as the only safeguard for the remaining liberties of the island. The parliamentary committee which had been instituted by Mr. O’Brien, had exhausted every source of information within the reach of industry in developing the resources and capacities of the country. The committee of the Association counted within its members one hundred lawyers who preferred the fortunes of Ireland to professional or political advancement. Many of these and others who were not of the party brought to the popular tribune rare endowments, the most generous passions, and the noblest eloquence. Poetry, fresh, vigorous and full of heart, shed her harmonising and ennobling influence upon the whole, and imparted to patriotism the last pre-requisite of success. Amidst this grand movement stood Mr. O’Connell, erect, alone, its centre and its heart. He was not its guide, but its god, until he slept within a prison, and came forth less than man.
During this period two events occurred deserving particular notice—the only facts upon which Mr. O’Connell’s supremacy was questioned, or his advice audibly condemned. These were, first, his refusal of French contributions and French sympathy, of which M. Ledru Rollin, since so celebrated, was to be the bearer; and secondly, his acceptance of contributions from America under protest, against the “infamous institution” of slavery. He rejected the first with indignant scorn, because it was the offering of “republicans,” and spoke of the latter with contempt, as “smelling of blood.”
These two acts alienated from his cause the only foreigners in the world who were willing to espouse it. His wisdom was questioned and condemned. It was urged upon him that he should not intermeddle with foreign institutions or with the political predilections of individuals. Enough for Ireland, he was told, to find that Frenchmen and Americans were ready to do battle in her cause, and it ill became her to spurn their advances with indignity and a sneer. The argument failed, his hatred of slavery and republicanism out-weighed all other considerations.
I have fixed upon the State Trials as an epoch in this history, marking a distinct phase in the character of the Repeal Association. The proceedings of that extraordinary inquest are familiar to most men. It is not my intention to refer to them, except as a sort of pivot upon which public sentiment veered. When they were commenced there was untold wealth in the coffers of the Association. There was still a greater store of public purpose in the country. Threats, hot and violent, had been uttered. Pledges had been made which could only be violated in shame and death. A challenge had been given from which it would be baseness to shrink. The world looked on in wonder and awe. Each successive act was more and more gigantic; each resolution bolder. When the meeting at Clontarf was projected, the heart of the nation beat quick and hotly. Yet no man was surprised; none condemned. The associations of the spot suggested a perilous future. Still the hazards it prefigured created no alarm; the directions of a sub-committee respecting the military order of the processions towards the place of meeting was but the expression of the public hope that lay at every heart.
While the bustle of preparation was at its height; while the flushed capital was dizzy with wild excitement, a proclamation appeared on the walls—’twas nearly evening’s dusk—forbidding the proposed demonstration. For that proclamation there was no law; scarcely any object. It could not render the meeting illegal. It would not entitle the chief magistrate to disperse it; for if it were proved to be constitutional, he would be answerable before the laws of his country. It was simply a warning utterly inefficient for good or ill in any trial that may follow. In this state of things, a responsibility of the greatest magnitude devolved on the Association, or its committee. They were hastily summoned or came together spontaneously. Alarm, surprise, disappointment, chagrin, swayed their hurried consultation. The decision was weak, and it was fatal. It was only carried by a small majority, but in that majority was the great spirit of the confederacy. Never after did he stand on equal terms with his adversary. He was driven before him amidst broken hopes, and broken promises—his challenge, a boast unfulfilled, his prestige withered.
What the issue might have been if the decision were different, it would be rash to conjecture. It might have been carnage; it might have been a triumph. The historian has nothing to do with conjecture. But in this case was involved a mighty question, palpable, self-created and conclusive. The wisest forethought may fail to arrive at a sound conclusion as to the result of holding the meeting. The risk existed, no doubt, that some ill-disposed or hired villains, or even rash enthusiasts may provoke the troops, and thus afford a pretext for carnage. But opposed to that were the dictates of prudence, honour and fear on the part of those in command of the army; and it seemed a more probable result that either the meeting would be allowed to proceed, or it would be illegally dispersed in the usual way by reading the Riot Act. Even if the weight of conjecture were the other way, the consequences should be risked rather than falsify the national pledge. To recede was cowardice; not the vulgar cowardice arising from personal weakness, but the moral cowardice which shrinks from an imperious obligation, because it is perilous. The meeting should be held; every possible precaution should be taken to prevent an armed conflict. If Power, drunk with its own advantage, risked an outrage, the people should be taught to yield; but only to yield with the purpose of entering a court of law, as prosecutors and avengers. Even if worse consequences ensued after every effort to prevent them had been exhausted, the issue should be left to God. Recriminations, painfully petty in their nature, followed. The Government were charged with a premeditated design to commit wide and indiscriminate slaughter, and the weakness, in which were shrouded deep national shame and guilt, was made matter of indecent boast. The Government, aware of the unexpected advantage, followed up the blow. Mr. O’Connell took shelter in the sacredness of the Hall, which, he imagined, he had guarded against the encroachments of arbitrary power, and thither they followed him. Having abandoned a position where he could act on the offensive, he was forced to contend against the aggressive attacks of Government flushed with its first success.
The trial that followed already occupies a large space in history. Its effects were immediate and disastrous. The personnel of the accused assumed the nation’s place. Exhortations full of intense eloquence were addressed to the people from which the question of the country’s deliverance was entirely excluded. Technicalities of law absorbed the attention which was due to Liberty. A demurrer, a motion in abatement, or in arrest of judgment, was canvassed with a deeper interest by the people of the provinces than by even the distinguished Bar, which were arrayed on either side. Mr. O’Connell’s infallibility in law engaged the anxious solicitude, the pride, the passions of Ireland. Yet throughout that long trial the question which would test it was not mooted. The indictment was a subtle net-work, which excluded such argument. The objections to the indictment also were objections of form merely, and the final issue upon which the judgment was reversed was not even remotely connected with the main enquiry, whether or not the charge of conspiracy was sustainable in point of constitutional law. During the progress of the trial, a fraud, a swindle, a petty theft, was perpetrated by the officers of government, which more than one man, high in office, had a hand in suborning. This fact had supreme influence on the decision of the House of Lords. But the plain truth is, the judgment was reversed as an essential move in a great party game.
Ireland triumphed. Her triumph was a just and a great one.
But her exultation was on a fallacious basis. She believed Mr. O’Connell’s infallibility was re-established. No one cared, or perhaps dared to correct the error. In itself it seemed little worthy of notice, yet it had its share of evil influence. First, it diverted men’s minds from the one question; secondly, it left behind it the demoralising effect inseparable from untruth. Were it even what the public eagerness chose to shape it, its relative value, weighed against the triumph of courage and virtue, would be contemptible.
Mr. O’Connell himself did not seem to share in the nation’s pride. His spirit was broken. He anticipated the glad wishes of the metropolis, and walked home from the penitentiary clouded and gloomy. It was evident something within him had died. However, he went back the next day, and left the prison the second time in the midst of public rejoicings never surpassed on any occasion in his life. His addresses on that day, and subsequently while in town, were not such as they were wont to be; and he soon retired to his wild mountain home to invigorate a mind and body, borne down by gigantic labours, fearful responsibilities, some alarms, and perhaps a chilling sense of defeat and weakness. His health was soon restored, but his political vigour never. The first time his voice was heard from that retreat, it was to recommend a compromise; and, for the first time, his advice was openly opposed. Charles Duffy answered his letter, which recommended to fall back on Federalism—a question in the mouths of many, but in the brain of none—respectfully and firmly remonstrating against such a course. In a great many circles, Mr. Duffy could not be looked at with more wonder if he had recommended to cut off Mr. O’Connell’s head.
Hitherto, this condensed retrospect has been almost exclusively confined to the name and fortunes of O’Connell. It is time now to revert to other actors in the scene. Even before the trial, elements of antagonism had begun to manifest themselves. With the party since called “Young Ireland,” every consideration was subordinate to the great question of national deliverance. They laboured incessantly to elevate the morals, the literature, the taste, passions, genius, intellect and heart of the country to the sublime eminence of a free destiny. Far the foremost man in urging and encouraging this glorious endeavour was Thomas Davis. From sources the most extraordinary, and the least known, there welled forth abundant and seductive inspiration. He struck living fire from inert wayside stones. To him the meanest rill, the rugged mountain, the barren waste, the rudest fragment of barbaric history, spoke the language of elevation, harmony and hope. The circle, of which he was the beloved centre, was composed of men equally sincere, resolute and hopeful; there was not one of them undistinguished. Some of them had now the first literary distinction. The character of each was remarkable for some distinctive and bold feature of originality. I, of course, exclude myself from this description. I know not to what circumstance I owe the happiness of their trust and friendship. My habits, my education, my former political connections, disqualified me for such association. Since first I took my place among them, seven or eight years have now rolled by. They have been years of severest trial, years of suffering and sorrow, years of passion and prejudice and calumny, years of rude and bitter conflict, years of suspicion and acrimony, and finally of defeat and shame; still, in that eventful course of time, to me at least, there has occurred no moment wherein I would exchange the faintest memory of our mutual trust, unreserved enjoyment and glad hope for the hoarse approval of an unthinking world. There was no subject we did not discuss together; revolution, literature, religion, history, the arts, the sciences—every topic, and never yet was there spoken among us one reproachful word, never felt one distrustful sentiment. Our confidence in one another was precisely that of each in himself; our love of one another deeper than brotherly. When we met, which was at least weekly, and felt alone, shut in from the rude intrusion of the world, how we used to people the future with beauty and happiness and love. Little did we dream that those for whom we toiled, and thought, and wove such visions of glory, would shun and scorn, and curse us. But had that bitter cup, which afterwards we were forced to empty to the dregs, been then presented to us, there was not one of us who would not have drunk it to the last drop; drunk it willingly and cheerfully, without further hope or purpose than our own deep conviction that we owed the sacrifice to truth.
Those who took immediate part in the proceedings of our circle before the State Trials, were Thomas Davis, John Dillon, Thomas MacNevin, Michael Joseph Barry, Charles Duffy, David Cangley, John O’Hagan, Denis F. MacCarthy, Denny Lane, Richard Dalton Williams, with one or two others whose names I cannot mention. To this list was afterwards added Thomas Francis Meagher, Richard O’Gorman, John Mitchel, Thomas Devin Reilly, and Thomas Darcy M’Gee. I do not include several distinguished men who lived in the provinces with whom we communicated, and from whom we received sympathy and sustainment; and I omit others who took a leading part, in deference to the position they are now placed in.
With the first section above named, originated the idea of publishing the Library of Ireland. It was proposed, discussed, and determined on one evening, at the house of Thomas MacNevin, while some one sat at the piano, playing the lovely Irish airs, of which the soft strains of Davis suggested the conception to William Elliot Hudson. The music was as true to the Celtic genius as the lays of Davis to its character and hopes; and amidst the entrancing seductiveness of their association, was born the generous resolution of rescuing the country’s literature from the darkness in which it had long lain. The Library of Ireland was proposed as a beginning, and so diffident did its promoters feel, that they deemed it indispensable to engage the recognised genius of William Carleton, whose name and abilities they pledged to the public, as an assurance for the undertaking. Mr. Carleton promptly undertook his share of the task, and James Duffy, the enterprising bookseller, assumed all the risk and responsibility of the enterprise.
John Mitchel, then known to few, and appreciated only by Thomas Davis, was by him associated with those who were willing to engage in the new and difficult labour. He pledged himself for him, and selected his subject. Most nobly was that pledge redeemed; but its fulfilment dawned on the fresh grave of him who made it. Other men, and first in order, as well as eminent in ability, was Thomas MacNevin, who has also sunk into a too early grave, more than realised the most sanguine hopes of an exulting country. Death first interrupted this new current of life, even in its day of most sparkling promise. Disunion haunted the petty jealousies of little and narrow minds; famine, pestilence and defeat have done the rest. The labourers are dead, exiled, immured in dungeons, or scattered over the face of the earth as fugitives; and how far they had capacity to fulfil their inspiring promise, can never be tested more. A few, however, remained, and amid greater gloom, and nearer to utter death, they stand out redeeming beacons to the future.
I have not mentioned the name of Mr. O’Brien, as associated with us at this early stage. He joined the Association in a time of great excitement. The Nation hailed the accession with the fondest joy. The consistency of his politics, the purity of his intentions, and the unvarying rectitude of his life gave abundant assurance, not alone that he was deeply sincere, but that his purpose could only be changed by death. But to those who looked beyond the expediency of the hour, those who had cherished fervently the passionate aspirations for true liberty his name and character became an augury of success: nor would they intrude for any consideration on the attitude of lofty dignity he assumed.
It has already been stated that elements of antagonism between Mr. O’Connell and the Young Ireland Party had at this time (the period of the State Trials) manifested themselves. It will be remembered that this period embraced a space of nine months, from the date of Mr. O’Connell’s being held to bail in September, 1843, to that of his sentence the 30th of May, 1844. As the events of this or the previous year do not, properly speaking, range within the historical scope of my narrative, I have excluded chronological and historical order. My object has been to group together the great features of the confederacy without other reference than that of pointing out their moral influence, operating through a long space of time. Thus I have referred to the Parliamentary Committee instituted by Mr. O’Brien among incidents which belong to an anterior period, because the vigour of these incidents, which left moral seeds in their track, continued to co-exist and blend with the powerful agencies of that Committee. As I now approach the period when the differences with Mr. O’Connell, which hitherto developed themselves in the distinctive characteristics of the respective opinions of both parties rather than in any direct collision, became tangible, it is necessary to observe strict historical and chronological accuracy.
Before proceeding to details of succeeding events, a brief recapitulation of important facts, with the dates of their occurrences, become necessary. A few others, not heretofore alluded to, must needs be added.
The date of the imprisonment is the 30th of May, 1844: that of the release the 6th of September in the same year.
In the intermediate period the amount received in the Repeal treasury during four weeks was, £12,379 14s. 9d.
About the close of August was passed the Charitable Bequest Act, against the indignant remonstrances of the priesthood and Catholic population of Ireland. This Bill was obnoxious in all it’s provisions, but the enactment which was received with most scorn was the clause that annulled a Catholic charitable bequest, unless it had been duly made six months at least before the decease of the testator. The prohibition was attributed to an insulting assumption that the Catholic clergymen abused their influence over dying penitents, for sacerdotal or religious, if not for personal aggrandisement, and the impeachment was repelled with bitter execrations. Others objected to the Bill on grounds involving more alarming considerations. They regarded it as the first infringement on the liberty of the Catholic Church—the first criminal attempt to fetter her free action and sow dissent among her prelates and priests. The Repeal Association offered, from the beginning, its undivided, unqualified and indeed vehement opposition. But amidst the storm and rage of the nation, it became the law, and three Roman Catholic prelates of the highest reputation undertook the duty of its administration.
One party there was who regretted the Bill still more deeply, but in a different point of view. At the head of these was Thomas Davis. He regarded it as an instrument of dissension and weakness, cunningly adapted to that end by Sir Robert Peel, and he deplored the diversion of the public mind and energy from the grand national object. Mr. O’Brien, to a certain extent, shared this feeling, but never obtruded the opinion or ventured to check the Association, while Mr. Davis confined his efforts to passionate warnings addressed through the columns of the Nation.
This question is introduced here because it was important and fatal in its consequences. A still more important one taken in the same light must interrupt its discussion for a moment: Mr. O’Connell’s Federal letter, already referred to. The leading sentiments of that letter are subjoined. It is dated the 2nd of October, 1844.
After stating what Simple Repeal and what Federalism respectively meant, he proceeded to contrast their value.
“The Simple Repealers are of the opinion that the reconstructed Irish Parliament should have precisely the same power and authority which the former Irish Parliament had.
“The Federalists, on the contrary, appear to me to require more for the people of Ireland than the Simple Repealers do; for besides the local parliament in Ireland having full and perfect authority, the Federalists require that there should be, for questions of imperial concern, colonial, naval and military, and of foreign alliance and policy, a Congressional or Federal Parliament, in which Ireland should have her fair share and proportion of representatives and power.
“It is but just and right to confess that in this respect the Federalists would give Ireland more weight and importance in imperial concerns than she could acquire by means of the plan of Simple Repealers.
“For my own part, I will own that since I have come to contemplate the specific differences such as they are, between Simple Repeal and Federalism, I do at present feel a preference for the Federative plan, as tending more to the utility of Ireland and the maintenance of the connection with England than the plan of Simple Repeal.
“The Federalists cannot but perceive that there has been upon my part a pause in the agitation for Repeal since the period of our release from unjust imprisonment.”
I have only extracted from Mr. O’Connell’s most elaborate letter, his distinctly expressed preference for Federalism, and the single reason upon which the preference is founded. The remainder consists for the most part of a sort of logical equation, balancing the component elements of both plans, from which is deduced the above conclusion.
Charles Duffy’s answer, dated October the 18th, was triumphant and conclusive, at least in Mr. O’Connell’s own mind, for he did not afterwards repeat the same sentiments. But a blow had been given the Association from which it never recovered. The newspaper press, taken under three distinct heads, first the blind and heedless echoers of Mr. O’Connell’s doctrines, secondly the Whig organs in Ireland, and thirdly the papers in the English interest, gave way to unrestrained exultation. The wisdom, the prudence, the holiness of the “great Liberator,” were extolled as unmatched in the annals of statesmanship. A few whose self-interest constrained their subserviency, shrugged wisely and said nothing, while several provincial journals stoutly maintained the undoubted and enduring supremacy of the great national aim over every weak expedient.
Whatever hopes may be entertained by Mr. O’Connell, his suggestions met with no sustainment and no response, save the empty echoes of an adulating press. Among the great party to whom he appealed, not one voice was heard to suggest a practical step in the direction intimated. The project fell, if indeed it were ever seriously entertained, leaving no memory and no regret. The first place Mr. O’Connell afterwards appeared in a public capacity, was at the Limerick banquet, given on’ the 20th of November. His speech on that occasion contained scarcely a reference to Federalism, and both his sentiments and those of the other speakers, including John, Archbishop of Tuam, as well as the Toasts and Mottoes, were distinguished for loftiness of tone, unflinching purpose and highest enthusiasm. But other elements were at work furtively sapping that purpose and dimming that enthusiasm.
Prominent among these was the spirit of religious dissension already under discussion, to which it is now time to recur.
At and after the period when the Roman Catholic prelates accepted the functions of administering a law insulting and obnoxious to the Catholics generally, much angry controversy prevailed. A report was rife that the Government not alone succeeded in deluding the Irish Bishops, but had accredited a minister plenipotentiary, whose mission was to conciliate the Court of Rome to a “Concordat” with England. A rescript said to be received by the Most Reverend Doctor Crolly, the Primate, was adduced to prove not alone the existence of the intrigue, but its partial success. The rescript contained an admonition to restrain the intemperate violence of political priests, and an advice to confine themselves more generally to the sacred functions of their holy office. The English press magnified the advice into a command, and exulted over the failure of the Repeal movement whose extinction they augured from the withdrawal of the Catholic priesthood.
Mr. O’Connell, alarmed at the import of a command so fatal, pronounced the rescript “uncanonical.” This led to greater dissensions and bitterer recriminations. The prelates who condemned the Bequest Act, denounced those who accepted the task of administering it. One of the body thus writes:—
“The resolution [referring to one passed at a meeting of the prelates, which was pronounced by the ministerial press a vote of unanimous approval of the bishops’ acceptance of the office of Commissioners] did not meet the approval of all the Bishops, neither could it convey to any one of the Episcopal Commissioners the most distant notion that in accepting the office he did not oppose the views and wishes of many of his Episcopal brethren. When the resolution was moved, there were six of the protesting Bishops absent, and a moment was not allowed to pass after it was seconded, when it was denounced in the strongest manner by two of the Bishops present. They solemnly declared before the assembled prelates that, in the event of any prelate accepting the odious office, they would never willingly hold any communication with him in his capacity as Commissioner.”
But, while disunion reigned at the council board of the Catholic Hierarchy, the Government plied their task of seducing, dividing and misrepresenting bishops, priests, people and nation. Out of all the elements of disunion, distraction and disaster over which they in turn gloated, the British newspapers, with wonderful accord, predicted and boasted of the complete overthrow of the Repeal Party. It was amidst these circumstances of gloom and evil augury the year 1844, a year within which range the most startling, extraordinary and trying events of Ireland’s recent history, came to a close.
Before I conclude this chapter, I must revert to a fact which, although unimportant in relation to the view of the question under consideration, deserves to be remembered in connection with future events. The date I cannot fix, as it was confined to the private circle of the Association Committee, and no record of it remains. Immediately after the close of the State trials, as well as I can remember, Mr. O’Connell proposed the dissolution of the Association, with a view of establishing a new body, from which should be excluded all the “illegal” attributes and accidents of the old. The suggestion was resisted by Mr. O’Brien, and all those understood to belong to what was called the Young Ireland Party. They protested against such a course as false, craven and fatal, and Mr. O’Connell at once yielded to their vehement remonstrances.
 Doctor Cantwell to Mr. O’Connell. Given in the Nation, Vol. III., No. 119.