The Felons Track (4)
IMPRISONMENT OF O’BRIEN FOR CONTEMPT OF THE BRITISH COMMONS. — CONDUCT OF THE ASSOCIATION. — DEPUTATION FROM THE ’82 CLUB.—MR. O’CONNELL RETURNS TO IRELAND. — DISCUSSIONS IN THE COMMITTEE.
Before proceeding to detail the circumstances which led to the celebrated secession, it is essential to dispose of an episode in the struggle, which, more than any other, stamped its impress on the acts and feelings of that unfortunate period; I allude to the imprisonment, by the House of Commons, of William Smith O’Brien. There is no act of his life upon which there has been so much acrimonious criticism; none on account of which he has been subjected to so much intemperate misrepresentation. And yet, perhaps, his great career, fruitful in good actions, never furnished a purer or more unselfish example of sound judgment as well as intrepidity and devotion. The history of his incarceration ranges over a great portion of the time which has been already passed, and enters largely into the leading events, hereafter to be related. A clear understanding of the whole—of Mr. O’Brien’s influencing motives and his tenacity of principle—would be impossible without a distinct recital of the circumstances out of which his purpose first grew, and which, to the end, controlled his resolution.
In the spring of 1845, the committee of the Association passed a vote to the effect that the Parliamentary representatives, who were members of that body, should withdraw from the British Parliament. It was proposed by Mr. Davis and received Mr. O’Connell’s entire approval. Though at first sneered at, it had a stunning effect. The supercilious British Commons, who would have answered the just remonstrance of the Irish Repealers with a jeer, shrank from the consequences of legislating for the country in the absence of the men, whose efforts, if present, they would not hesitate to scoff at. The disturbing influence of the resolution became at once perceptible, and the earliest means were taken to bring the question to an issue. Mr. Hume, a parsimonious economist, of niggard principle and grovelling sentiment, undertook the office of coercing the Irish. He gave notice of a motion for a call of the House. This man, a mean utilitarian, had been rejected by the country of his birth and the country of his adoption, and found refuge in an Irish constituency, that returned him without solicitation and without expense. He repaid them and the country by a vulgar jest, and now assumed the responsibility of their public prosecutor.
The Association heard his threat with calm indignation and resolved at once to defy him. The great importance of the position in which it was placed suggested the necessity of a deliberate consideration; first, of the constitutional question at stake and, secondly, of the steps proper to vindicate its own dignity and resolution. As on all such occasions, a sub-committee was appointed to whom the question was referred. Mr. O’Connell had to some extent formed an opinion favourable to the object of the Association. He stated that he had considered the question in a two-fold point of view.
First, “Whether the controlling power of the English House of Commons over its members, which admittedly it possessed before the Act of Union, was extended to the Irish portion of the members by that Act, there being no express provision creating it?”
And secondly, “Whether even if the House possessed the power, it was competent to enforce it, or, in other words, whether the Speaker’s warrant would receive Ireland?”
To report on these two questions, thus framed, the following gentlemen were elected as a sub-committee: James O’Hea, Sir Colman O’Loghlen, Robert Mullen, James O’Dowd and myself. Of that committee, each approached his task with that instinctive bias, inseparable from ardent minds, excited by a darling hope. They read the precedents, the cases, the arguments and judgments applicable to their enquiry with the aid of such a hope, and still they came to the reluctant decision that the ground taken against the authority of the British Parliament was not maintainable. With regard to the first branch they were unanimous. With regard to the second, Sir Colman O’Loghlen alone entertained some doubts. As chairman of the committee, I drew up a brief report, embodying our opinion. One reason alone we thought conclusive, namely, that the formidable jurisdiction claimed by the House of Commons was indispensable to the unimpeded fulfilment of its functions, as a coordinate branch of the supreme power and controlling authority of the State. In its very danger and extravagance consisted its supremacy; for it showed that it was only admitted from its overruling and overmastering necessity. And as the Parliament was recognised in Ireland in all things else we thought it would be absurd to deny it functions indispensable to its vitality.
On handing in the report, I mentioned the doubts entertained by Sir Colman O’Loghlen. Mr. O’Connell suggested that the report should be deferred until he could consult Sir Colman. The suggestion was agreed to, and time given for reconsideration. Mr. O’Connell himself examined the question, he said, with great attention. He was assisted by Mr. Clements in his researches, and at the end of the fortnight he came down to the committee with a report of his own, distinctly and emphatically contradicting ours, upon both branches of the case. He delivered it to the chairman (Mr. S. O’Brien), with exultation, as a great constitutional discovery of unspeakable importance to the liberties of Ireland. The committee received it in the same spirit. I ventured to question the soundness of his opinion, and maintain my own, it was considered a daring thing to do in those times; but the question seemed to me so clear that I could not abandon my views without treachery to my conviction. The discussion was very short, and ended in personality, wherein he insinuated something about unworthy motives. No scene of my life made the same impression on me. I felt keenly his reproaches, but still more keenly the impolicy and imprudence of the step into which the country was precipitated. I requested that the question should be again postponed, and the opinion of some eminent men outside the Association taken. I was overruled, and even laughed at—it was “doubting Mr. O’Connell.” Mr. O’Connell said, “I’ll test this question ‘meo periculo.'” The resolution passed amid cheers, and was recorded next day amid the louder and more vehement cheers of the Association. The country re-echoed the boast, and the House of Commons was, by a formal and solemn vote of the entire nation, set at defiance. The conflict was pre-arranged, even to its minute details. Mr. O’Brien was to proceed to London, where disobedience would be more marked and decisive; and Mr. John O’Connell was to remain in Ireland, where he could take advantage of an additional obstacle to the exercise of its authority to the House. So the matter stood when Mr. Hume, through what motive it is not easy to see, neglected or abandoned his notice. The country regarded this as a confession of weakness by the House, and gloried in a new triumph achieved by the genius of Mr. O’Connell. He himself thought he had found a great and solid basis for future action, and hinted at the prospect of being able to raise upon it a parliamentary structure, having imprescriptible and indefeasible authority, and only requiring the sanction of the crown.
A short time after the withdrawal of Mr. Hume’s motion, the question was again raised in another form. The chairman of the Committee of Selection for Railways addressed a circular, among others, to Messrs. S. O’Brien and John O’Connell, requiring their attendance at the selection of special Railway Committees. The correspondent of the Freeman’s Journal, thus writes in forwarding their replies:—
London, Monday, June 30.
“The authority of the British Senate over Irish representatives is now fairly placed at issue. By my letter of yesterday evening, you were apprised of the determination of Smith O’Brien and John O’Connell, to refuse to comply with the summons of the parliamentary selection committee.
“The course I suggested as that which it was probable would be adopted, has been since finally resolved upon, and in part carried into execution. John O’Connell, for the purpose of taking the chances of a judgment in the Irish court, will not forward his answer till he shall have reached Ireland. Smith O’Brien delivered his reply to the clerk of the House of Commons this day, at one o’clock.”
Here follows Mr. O’Brien’s letter:—
OXFORD AND CAMBRIDGE CLUB, PALL-MALL.
“June 30, 1845.
“Sir.—I had the honour of receiving on Saturday afternoon a letter dated 28th June, and signed ‘Henry Creed,’ to the following effect: ‘I am directed by the committee of selection to inform you that your name is on the list for which members will be selected to serve on the railway committees, which will commence their sittings in the week beginning Monday, the 14th July, during which week it will be necessary for you to be in attendance, for the purpose of serving, if requested, on a railway committee.’
“I trust that the committee of selection will not think that I am prompted by any feeling of disrespect towards them, or towards the House of Commons, when I inform them that it is my intention not to serve on any committees except such as may be appointed with reference to the affairs of Ireland.
“I accepted a seat in the House of Commons, in the hope of being thereby enabled to assist in improving the condition of the land of my birth. So long as I continued to believe that I could serve Ireland effectually in the House of Commons, I shrank from none of the labours which are connected with the varied functions of that assembly. During twelve years I attended Parliament with an assiduity of which I might feel disposed to boast, if the time so consumed by the House and by myself had been productive of results useful to my native country.
“Experience and observation at length forced upon my mind the conviction that the British Parliament is incompetent through want of knowledge, if not, through want of inclination, to legislate wisely for Ireland, and that our national interests can be protected and fostered only through the instrumentality of an Irish legislature.
“Since this conviction has established itself in my mind I have felt persuaded that the labours of the Irish members, though of little avail in the British Parliament, might, if applied in Ireland with prudence and energy, be effectual in obtaining for the Irish people their national rights.
“I have reason to believe that in this opinion a very large majority of my constituents concur. To them alone I hold myself responsible for the performance of my parliamentary duty. If they had disapproved of my continued absence from the House of Commons, I should have felt it my duty to have withdrawn from the representation of the county of Limerick; but I have the satisfaction of thinking that I not only consult the interests, but also comply with the wishes of my constituents in declining to engage in the struggles of English party, or to involve myself in the details of English legislation.
“While such have been the general impressions under which I have absented myself during nearly two years from the House of Commons, I yet do not feel myself at liberty to forego whatever power of resistance to the progress of pernicious legislation my office of representative may confer upon me. Upon the present occasion, I have come to London for the purpose of endeavouring to induce the House of Commons, or rather the Government, who appear to command the opinions of a large majority of the House, to modify some of the Irish measures now before Parliament in such a manner as to render them beneficial, instead of injurious, to Ireland.
“Desiring that none but the representatives of the Irish nation should legislate for Ireland, we have no wish to intermeddle with the affairs of England, or Scotland, except in so far as they may be connected with the interest of Ireland or with the general policy of the empire.
“In obedience to this principle I have abstained from voting on English and Scotch questions of a local nature, and the same motive now induces me to decline attendance on committees on any private bills, except such as relate to Ireland.
“I am prepared to abide with cheerfulness the personal consequences which may result from the course of conduct which I feel it my duty to adopt.
“I speak with great diffidence upon any question of a legal kind, but I am supported by very high professional authority when I suggest to the committee that no power was delegated to the House of Commons by the Act of Union, or by subsequent statutes, to compel to attendance Irish members on the deliberations of the British Parliament. Neither do I find that any authority has been given by statutory enactment to the House (except in the case of election petitions) to enforce the attendance of members upon committees.
“I refrain, however, from arguing legal questions which may be raised before another tribunal, in case it should become necessary and advisable to appeal from the decision of the House of Commons to the courts of judicature, and conclude by assuring the committee that I take the course which I propose to adopt, not from any desire to defy the just authority of the House of Commons, but in obedience to my sense of the duty which I owe to my constituents and my country.
“I have the honour to be, your obedient servant,
“WILLIAM S. O’BRIEN.
“To the Chairman of the Committee of Selection.”
Mr. O’Connell’s letter bears date on the next day, as announced in the correspondent’s notice, because it was intended it should not be delivered until the honourable gentleman was beyond the pale of English jurisdiction.
“BRITISH HOTEL, JERMYN STREET,
8 a.m., July 1st.
“Sir.—I have to acknowledge the receipt of a notification by order of your committee, to the effect that my attendance in Parliament will be required during the week beginning Monday, 14th July, for the purpose of serving, if chosen, on a parliamentary committee.
“With every respect to you, Sir, and the gentlemen of your committee, I absolutely decline attending.
“I, like some others, came to London the first time this session about a fortnight ago to remonstrate against and endeavour to resist the plan of infidel education which the Government are forcing upon Ireland. We had not, nor for some years have had, the slightest hope of obtaining any measure of good from a foreign parliament; but we came against our better judgment, that it might not be said we had not gone all lengths to endeavour to deter the Government from a scheme so redolent of political corruption, social profligacy and religious infidelity.
“We came armed with multitudinous petitions of the people, and the strong, unanimous and most decided protest from our revered prelacy and clergy.
“We were of course mocked at, derided and refused; but, what is of infinitely more consequence, the voice of our prelates and of the faithful people of Ireland have been treated with utter contempt—even Irish Catholics (yielding to the unwholesome influences around them) joining in the contemptuous refusal.
“Under these circumstances, Sir, I certainly will not suffer that portion of the people of Ireland who have entrusted their representation to my charge to be further mocked at and insulted in my person. I go to where I can best discharge my duty to them and to Ireland—in Ireland. There struggling, with doubtless as little ability, but with more energy and, if possible, more whole-hearted devotion than ever, to put an end to the present degradation of my country and obtain for her that which can alone ensure protection to her interests, relief to her many wants, and peace, freedom and happiness to her long oppressed and long enduring people,
“I have the honour to be, Sir,
“Your obedient servant,
“To the Chairman of the Committee of Selection.”
These documents were entered on the minutes of the Association, and remained on its records with the original resolution. But no more was done in the matter until the beginning of April, 1846.
Mr. O’Connell and his son were in London, and Mr. O’Brien remained in Ireland. They had been all summoned to attend on committees. When Mr. O’Brien reached London, he found that the Messrs. O’Connell, without any previous communication with him or with the Association, and without reference to the solemn resolution, to the contrary, of that body, were acting on committees. This deeply disappointed and mortified him, and he at once resolved to remain faithful, at all risks, and though he stood alone, to the obligation which he had contracted with the sanction and approval of his country. Whatever may be the temper and resolution of the House of Commons, had it been resisted by the unbroken strength of the Association, it felt confident of its power to crush Mr. O’Brien alone, separate from, nay, abandoned by, the great leader of the Irish people. It must be acknowledged that the course pursued by the Commons was considerate and moderate. A principle involving their liberty of action was in issue; to vindicate it was indispensable; but finding themselves only opposed by a single man, of all those who had provoked the encounter, they proceeded with caution and forbearance. They forewarned, counselled and remonstrated during the time that intervened; and several members of the House, including Mr. O’Connell, urged Mr. O’Brien to give way. He refused, determinedly, and it may be supposed not the less sternly, when he found, among those who advised him to falsify his solemn promise, the man upon whose authority and through whose influence he had made it. The result was, his arrest and imprisonment, for disobedience to the House. Circumstances more trying never beset the fortitude of a great man. Personal liberty was his slightest loss. The sneers of his enemies, the pity of his personal, and the desertion of his political, friends poisoned the very air of the miserable cell to which he was consigned, and what completed his agony was a notion that he had been abandoned by his country.
During the early part of his imprisonment, a motion was made questioning the authority of the House. In the course of the discussion, Sir Thomas Wilde, then Attorney-General, dared any constitutional lawyer to impugn the jurisdiction assumed by the House. Every member felt that the challenge was offered to Mr. O’Connell, who replied as follows:—
“I am sure that the House will give credit to my assurance that I should not rise to advocate the cause of my honourable friend, if I thought he had had the slightest intention of being disrespectful towards the House. It has not been his intention to be guilty of any contempt towards it: he thought he was entitled to make the exception to which he adheres. He has acted from a strong sense of duty, and I am sorry to see it is a sense of duty he is not likely to give up.”
I add to this an extract from his speech delivered at the Corn Exchange, when, in spite of the most earnest remonstrance, the Association offered its defiance in solemn form to the British Parliament.
“Mr. O’Connell rose amid loud cheers, and said:—Our usual course of proceeding in this hall is to commence with handing in money, and then to go on with business of inferior importance, the business of making speeches (hear! hear! and laughter); but among the passing events of the day, there is one of such signal importance, that I am sure you will readily admit that I am right when I claim for it, on the present occasion, a right of precedence over any donation or subscription, no matter from what quarter they may come. The matter I allude to is a menace held out for the intimidation (as it is supposed) of the Irish members who are given to understand that there is about to be a call of the House, and that it is intended that the Speaker’s warrant shall issue to compel them to go over to London. Now, sir, I think it right to apprise the Association and the country that, having considered this question attentively, I have made up my mind that the Speaker has no constitutional authority whatever to issue any such warrant.”
But what pained Mr. O’Brien the deepest was the apparent coldness, apathy or cowardice of the Irish people. Among them, and them only, he calculated an enthusiastic sustainment. But those who felt the deepest in his regard were constrained by the responsibility of coming to an open rupture with Mr. O’Connell, at a time when union in the ranks of the Association was indispensable to even partial success. A vote was proposed to the committee, approving of Mr. O’Brien’s act, and pledging the Association to an identification with the principle by which his conduct was governed. That vote was resisted by the whole of Mr. O’Connell’s family, and personal friends and by all the pensioners and employes of the body. It was carried, nevertheless. But a motion to consult Mr. O’Connell as to its legality was passed, and the resolution was transmitted to him accordingly. His reply was an urgent remonstrance against the resolution on the ground of illegality. Meantime, representations were made that a certain party in the Association, intolerant of Mr. O’Connell’s sway, were using that occasion to undermine his authority and overthrow his power. The great responsibility of causing disunion determined the supporters of the resolution to compromise with its opponents, and it was finally shaped thus:—
“Resolved, That having learned with deep regret, that by a resolution of the House of Commons the country has been deprived of the eminent services of Mr. William Smith O’Brien, and that illustrious member of this Association himself committed to prison, we cannot allow this opportunity to pass without conveying to him the assurance of our undiminished confidence in his integrity, patriotism and personal courage, and our admiration for the high sense of duty and purity of purpose which prompted him to risk his personal liberty in assertion of a principle which he believed to be inherent in the constitution of his country.”
It was again, in its modified form, transmitted to Mr. O’Connell, and returned with his disapprobation. Captain Broderick read a letter from him, to that effect, at a meeting of the committee, suddenly summoned on Monday, the 4th of May, a few hours only previous to the public meeting of the Association, deprecating the passing of the resolution in any form. The present writer was the proposer of the resolution, and, feeling that he had already made too great a compromise, he refused to accede to this last request of Mr. O’Connell. The resolution was proposed and adopted with acclamation, and a letter was read from Mr. O’Connell, by Mr. Ray, in which he stated that the resolution did not go far enough.
In the provinces, the timid policy of the Association was decried with bitterness, and the men who struggled, against great odds, to identify the whole island with Mr. O’Brien, and pledge it to sustain him to the last, were subjected to the most virulent denunciations. Because the compromised resolution was moved, seconded, and spoken to by them, the whole country regarded them as the betrayers of their own avowed chief, and the violence with which they were attacked was unmeasured and unscrupulous.
They made no reply. No unjust aspersions from a people in ignorance of the resistance offered to them, and the motives that influenced them, could induce them to explain the position they had taken. But when they saw while they were subjected to the storm that Mr. O’Connell’s friends, on the authority of his published letter, took credit for neutrality, they resolved once more to test the question in a body, whose proceedings were of a more private character, and where the most marked difference of opinion could lead to no fatal result—the Eighty-Two Club. Mr. O’Connell was the president of this club, and Mr. O’Brien one of its vice-presidents. A meeting was called. The attendance was unusually large. Men who had never before, and have never since, appeared at its meetings, were present. The question proposed was that an address be presented to Mr. O’Brien, in which his principles and his conduct would be fully recognised, approved of and adopted. This led to a discussion that lasted two days, but the motion was carried in the end by a majority of two to one. One man, and one only, unconnected with Mr. O’Connell, either by personal friendship or personal obligations, voted against the resolution. That man is Sir Colman O’Loghlen. His name is mentioned, because he was the only member of the minority whose motives could be regarded as unquestionable. For the rest, the minority was composed of Mr. O’Connell’s sons and relatives, with Mr. Ray and Mr. Crean, officers of the Association, and one or two members whom he had caused to be returned to Parliament, amounting to twelve. A committee was appointed to prepare the address and resolutions, which were written by John Mitchel, and adopted by the committee without the change of a word. They also determined that the address should be adopted in its integrity by the club, or not at all. When it was proposed, objection was again taken to its principle, on the ground that it would commit the club, and involve it in a hopeless conflict with the House of Commons which of itself, it was averred, would be a misdemeanour at common law. The proposition was eminently absurd in common sense, as well as law, but it was sustained by the practised ingenuity and great skill of Mr. O’Hea, who, to do him justice, seemed deeply to feel the hopelessness and shamefulness of the task that was assigned him. But no other argument could prevail, and this appeal to the fears or selfishness of its wealthiest members was had recourse to in consequence of the utter poverty of reason and argument, which could otherwise be presented against the principle of the address. But such an obligation led to a novel difficulty and bitterer conflict. A discussion involving principles of the greatest moment narrowed into a technical disquisition of abstract law. Mr. O’Hea was driven from his position by the unanimous and unqualified opinion of every barrister present, and even by his own silence, when dared to allow the address to pass in the negative, and assume the responsibility of its rejection on the avowed ground of his legal opinion, as expressed to the meeting. The address was adopted by a greater majority than that which had confirmed the principle on the previous day, and a deputation was appointed to present it to Mr. O’Brien in his prison.
The members of that deputation, who proceeded to fulfil their mission, were William Bryan, of Raheny Lodge; John Mitchel, Richard O’Gorman, Thomas Francis Meagher and the present writer. They were accompanied by Terence Bellew MacManus and John Pigot, who joined them in London. They waited on Mr. O’Connell, as the president of the club, produced the address and requested he would proceed with them to present it. He admitted, without question, that as it was adopted by so very large and influential a majority, he was bound to do so. But he added that Mr. O’Brien refused to receive a visit from him, owing to the part he had taken, and further said, if Mr. O’Brien expressed a wish to see him, that he would accompany us. The deputation on their way to the House of Commons consulted for a moment, and, as well as I remember, Doctor Gray and some others were present: the result was a determination to present the address without Mr. O’Connell, feeling that an explanation between him and Mr. O’Brien, could not fail to lead to unpleasant recriminations, if not to more serious differences. The address and answer were as follows:—
“TO WILLIAM SMITH O’BRIEN, ESQ.
“RESPECTED VICE-PRESIDENT AND BROTHER.
“Heartily approving of the course you have taken in refusing to devote to the concerns of another people any of the time which your own constituents and countrymen feel to be of so much value to them, we, your brethren of the ’82 Club, take this occasion of recording our increased confidence in, and esteem for you, personally and politically, and our determination to sustain and stand by you in asserting the right of Ireland to the undistracted labours of our own representatives in Parliament.
“We, sir, like yourself, have long since ‘abandoned for ever all hope of obtaining wise and beneficial legislation for Ireland from the Imperial Parliament’; nor would such legislation, even if attainable, satisfy our aspirations. We are confederated together in the ’82 Club upon the plain ground that no body of men ought to have power to make laws binding this kingdom, save the Monarch, Lords, and Commons of Ireland. From that principle we shall never depart, and with God’s help it shall soon find recognition by a parliament of our own.
“Upon the mode in which the House of Commons has thought fit to exercise the privilege it asserts in the present instance—upon the personal discourtesy which has marked all the late proceedings in your regard, we shall make but one comment, that every insult to you is felt as an insult to us and to the people of Ireland.
“It would be idle and out of place to offer condolence to you, confined in an English prison for such an offence. We congratulate you that you have made yourself the champion of your country’s rights, and submitted to ignominy for a cause which you and we know shall one day triumph.
“COLMAN M. O’LOGHLEN, Vice-President, Chairman.
“May 9th, 1846.”
“BROTHERS OF THE ’82 CLUB.—I receive this address with pride and satisfaction.
“I recognise in the ’82 Club a brotherhood of patriots, who have volunteered to take the foremost place in contending for the liberties of Ireland, and who may vie, in regard of ability, integrity and sincerity of purpose, with any political association, consisting of equal numbers, which has ever been united in voluntary confederation.
“The unqualified approval accorded to my conduct by such a body justifies me in entertaining a sentiment of honourable pride, which I am not ashamed to avow.
“Nor shall I attempt to disguise the satisfaction with which I receive this address.
“If you had approached me with language of condolence, I could scarcely have dissembled my grief and disappointment; but you have justly felt that such language would be unsuited to the occasion, and unworthy both of yourselves and of me.
“On the contrary, you congratulate me upon being subjected to reproach and indignity for having aspired to vindicate the rights of my native land; you deem, as I deem, that to suffer for Ireland is a privilege rather than a penalty.
“In acknowledging your address, I shall not dwell upon the many important considerations which are involved in my present contest with the House of Commons. I cannot but think, indeed, that the constitutional questions at issue are of the highest moment, not alone to the Irish people, but also to each member of the legislature, and to every parliamentary elector in the United Kingdom. Upon the present occasion, however, I am contented to waive all reference to collateral issues, and to justify my conduct upon the simple ground upon which it has received your approval—namely, that until a domestic legislature shall be obtained for Ireland, my own country demands my undivided exertions.
“Be assured that those exertions will not be withheld so long as life and liberty remain to me, until Ireland shall again fiat the Declaration of 1782: ‘That no body of men is entitled to make laws to bind the Irish nation save only the Monarch, the Lords, and the Commons of Ireland.'”
On my way home I was invited to address a public meeting of Repealers in Liverpool. I accepted the invitation, and in the course of my observations, emphatically repudiated all compromise on the subject of my country’s deliverance. I disclaimed the idea that any concessions, any equalization with England in political franchises, any amelioration of our political or social condition, could ever be accepted by Ireland in compromise of her inalienable independence. When I arrived in Dublin, I attended the Association, and, happening to read a letter from the Rev. Mr. Walshe, of Clonmel, couched in the warmest terms of admiration of Mr. O’Brien’s purity and heroism, the cowardice or jealousy of a certain party in the Hall found expression through its proper organs, and I was called to order in the name of the law. A violation of law to praise William Smith O’Brien! The chairman decided it was. To such decision I scorned to submit, and I read the letter to the end, amidst the most enthusiastic cheers of the audience. I was proceeding to read another letter from another clergyman of the same town, written in a very different spirit, when I was besought to withhold it, and entreated not to read it. I complied. It is but fair to add here that on the Saturday previous, an article was published in the Nation, some expressions of which Mr. O’Connell considered personally insulting.
Whether Mr. O’Connell was influenced by one or all of these occurrences, cannot be affirmed here. But he proceeded to Ireland in the course of the week, and suddenly called a meeting of the Committee of the Association, before which he arraigned us of discourtesy to him in London, found fault with the meeting at Liverpool, accused the Nation of attacking him, and, finally, expressed his unequivocal disapprobation of my resistance to the order of the chairman in the Hall. The deputation explained their conduct in London, and the motives that governed them, with which he appeared to be satisfied. All connection with the proceeding in Liverpool with which he took offence, was disclaimed, and, finally, Mr. Duffy satisfied him that no offence was meant him in the Nation, and that the passage of which he complained had no reference to him.
The discussion was a long and, to some extent, an angry one. It ended, however, as we thought, amicably. Mr. O’Connell had proposed at the outset two objects, namely, to express a solemn condemnation of the proceedings in Liverpool, and to expel the Nation from the Association. The rule of the Association was to send to every locality, at the expense of the body, whatever papers the subscribers of a certain sum desired. There were then three other weekly papers in Dublin, The Register, the Freeman, and the Old Irelander. The Nation had a circulation nearly equal to that of all the others. Its expulsion from the Association would at once deprive it of all the circulation it had through its agency, thus involving a very serious pecuniary loss to Mr. Duffy.
The two positions were abandoned, and the Committee separated on amicable terms. Another subject of importance was under discussion. This was, what suitable mark of national respect should be offered to Mr. O’Brien; and it was proposed that the committee should re-assemble on the following day (Sunday), at two o’clock. At the second meeting the disagreeable topics of the former evening were revived and discussed in a more acrimonious spirit and tone. The Committee was differently composed, most of the treasurers connected with the Committee being present, and most of the professional men, who attended on Saturday, being absent, Mr. O’Connell saw his advantage, or those under whose guidance he unfortunately was, saw it, and urged him on. He clearly had a majority. But having satisfied himself he could succeed, with a resolution refusing to circulate the Nation, he generously conceded the whole matter; and once more the Committee separated on good terms.
It was hoped that, as the concession was entirely voluntary, Mr. O’Connell would be content. This was a vain hope. On the next day, he referred to the subject in terms of unmitigated animosity; and on Tuesday the resolution of exclusion, in effect, though not formally, passed in the absence of most of those who were well known to be opposed to it.
One word of concession would have saved the Nation at this juncture; but that one word would not be written, had the consequence of refusal been the loss of every subscriber it had in the world. It maintained its high position in face of the two despotisms which had combined to crush it. The resolution of the Association was not formally recorded, but it remained in readiness to be re-asserted as soon as the trial in the Queen’s Bench would be over.
That trial was for the celebrated railroad article, written by John Mitchel. When the article first appeared, Mr. O’Connell came to the Nation office. He seated himself familiarly, and, seeing all its contributors around him, he said: “I came to complain of this article.” He then read through until where certain principles, previously promulgated, were recommended to Repeal wardens as the catechism they should teach. “I do not object,” said he, “to your principles; but I object to your coupling them with the duties of Repeal wardens who are the officers of the Association.” Mr. Duffy promised, at once, to explain the matter, to Mr. O’Connell’s satisfaction, in the next number. He did so accordingly, and no more was said of it until after the prosecution was commenced.
On the 17th of June, Mr. Duffy was placed at the bar, on an information or indictment setting forth the entire of the obnoxious article. The Government was vehement and imperative, and the Bench constitutionally jealous of the law. The prosecution was conducted with malevolent ability, and the court charged, with pious zeal, for the crown. Robert Holmes was counsel for the accused and, in an impassioned speech, on every word of which was stamped the impress of originality, vigour and beauty, vindicated not the “liberty of the press,” but the truth of the startling propositions Mr. Mitchel had propounded.
In the Hall, the speech was regarded as triumphant for the country, but conclusive against Mr. Duffy. It was said that for sake of his client he should confuse, confound and deny. The fact, however, justified the advocate. When Mr. Mitchel first promulgated his principles, they grated strongly on the public ear. Men openly pronounced the doctrines pernicious and bloody. But the veteran of the bar, speaking in the spirit of the more glorious times he remembered, denounced as a slave and a toward any one who thought them too strong for the occasion on which they were used, and the provocation to which they applied. For a brief moment he awoke in other hearts the spirit that lived in his own. The jury refused to convict, and were discharged. But the prosecution in which the Attorney-General failed, was transferred before a more loyal tribunal, and Mr. Duffy was condemned by the judgment of Conciliation Hall; a judgment of which something remains to be said hereafter.
It has been stated that the subject of testifying the respect of the Nation for its chivalrous advocate, after his release from the prison of the House of Commons—he was discharged without compromise or submission on the 26th of May—was under discussion.
A public and triumphal entry was determined on. But Mr. Smith O’Brien, desirous that the State prisoners of 1844 should be participators in any tribute of respect offered to him, requested that the 6th of September, the day of their release from prison, should be fixed on for a public triumph, in which all alike could share.
Mr. O’Brien passed through the metropolis quietly on his way home; but in Limerick and Newcastle was received by hundreds of thousands with boundless joy. When he returned to town, it was to be expelled from that body to which he, of all living men, gave most firmness, and for which he alone acquired most respect. In the events which followed, the public dinner was forgotten.
It is now time to recur to those events, some of which at least range behind those already detailed—to which the following preliminary may be necessary. Early in June, a meeting was held at Lord John Russell’s, when the minister-expectant explained the grounds on which he claimed the support of the entire Liberal Party. The English Liberals, generally and enthusiastically, acquiesced. The correspondent of the Evening Mail, writing from London, stated that Mr. O’Connell added to his adhesion, a voluntary promise to sink the cause of Repeal provided measures of a truly liberal character were carried into effect. He, moreover, said that he never meant more by Repeal than a thorough identification of the two countries. The Nation indignantly repelled the insinuations of the correspondence, and pronounced it a lie. Mr. O’Connell and his friends passed the Mail by unnoticed, but bestowed on the Nation their measureless wrath. It was never afterwards forgiven.