The Felons Track (5)
DEFEAT OF PEEL. — ACCESSION or THE WHIGS.—MR. O’CONNELL’S COURSE. — DEBATES IN CONCILIATION HALL.—MR. O’CONNELL DENOUNCES THE YOUNG IRELAND PARTY. — CONTINUED DEBATES. — QUESTIONS AT ISSUE. — PHYSICAL FORCE. — THE SECESSION. — WHIG ALLIANCE. — DUBLIN REMONSTRANCE. — FORMATION OF THE CONFEDERATION, ITS CAREER.—MR. O’CONNELL’S DEATH. — CLOSE OF THE YEAR 1847.
The majority against him was seventy-three, and was composed of the Whig party, the extreme Conservatives, the ultra-Radicals and Irish Repealers. In ten days after, Lord John Russell assumed the seals of office. During the preliminary arrangements that led to Peel’s defeat, there was much coquetting between the Whig and Irish leaders. Alarmed by this startling aspect of affairs, and somewhat, perhaps, by the uncontradicted correspondence of the Mail, heretofore alluded to, Mr. Meagher, in the midst of vociferous cheering, announced from the tribune of Conciliation Hall, “that Irish Repealers would teach an honest lesson to the Whigs.” This took place on the 15th of June. A short discussion followed, in which Messrs. Mitchel, O’Gorman and Barry took part, denouncing in the strongest language all idea of compromise with the Whigs. On the next day of meeting (June 22nd) a letter was read from Mr. O’Connell, expressing “the bitterest regret at the efforts being made by some of their juvenile members to create dissension in the Association.” “To silence all unworthy cavilling,” he desired that the solemn pledge of the Rotunda be read after his letter, and copies thereof posted in the Hall. This letter was the signal for an attack on the Seceders by James Fitzpatrick, who is now enjoying his reward in shape of a lucrative office on the coast of Africa. Another discussion followed, in which Messrs. Mitchel, Barry, O’Gorman and myself repelled the charge urged against us by Lord John Russell, to the effect that we were separatists.
The discussion which followed was an angry one. Fierce denunciations against the Whigs proceeded from the Seceders, which were answered by the Old Irelanders, as they called themselves, with clap-trap allusions to the name and fame of the “Liberator.” The audience were indisposed to be duped, and so strong and general was the aversion to a Whig compromise, that Mr. D. O’Connell, jun. was denied a hearing, and even the Secretary found it difficult to command a moment’s attention.
The next letter from Mr. O’Connell, was written after the accession of the Whigs. It, too, evidently bore the impress of that controlling fact. The writer enumerated twelve measures (excluding Repeal) “without which no British minister should dream of bidding for the people of Ireland.” On the whole, the letter, which was long and elaborate, was an unmistakable though very guarded advice to give another trial to the Whigs. Mr. O’Brien, in moving that it be inserted on the minutes, pressed his conviction that the “millions would never abandon Repeal.” He concluded by reading a resolution, pro posed in 1842 and seconded by Mr. O’Connell himself, to the effect that the Whigs were as inimical to Repeal as the Tories; and that no honest Repealer could vote for a Whig representative. Mr. O’Brien, on this occasion, took a wrong course. Instead of moving that the letter be inserted on the minutes, he should have moved its rejection, as containing doctrines subversive of principle and inconsistent with the solemn pledges of the nation. He was, no doubt, influenced by a desire to preserve unanimity; but the unanimity which is based on the disruption of most binding obligations is weaker and more fatal than any division. One paramount advantage would result from at once joining issue with Mr. O’Connell—the question would be placed on its true ground, and the preposterous folly of the physical and moral force abstractions would never have been heard of.
Mr. O’Connell appeared in Conciliation Hall on Monday, the 6th of July. He stated that his object was to ascertain the state of the registries, so as to resist the return of the anti-Repealers in any of the towns where a vacancy was likely to occur. But he added, “I will give no vexatious opposition.” Here a voice cried “Dungarvan,” with significant emphasis, a question Mr. O’Connell evaded with his usual dexterity. Four seats were then actually vacant; Dungarvan, Drogheda, Dundalk and Roscommon county. In the three former, there were clear majorities in favour of Repeal. That question admitted of no earthly doubt. It had been long before enquired into, and assurances the most unequivocal were transmitted to the Association. On motion of Mr. O’Connell, the question was referred to the committee.
Daniel O’Connell, jun., was a candidate for Dundalk, where a public dinner was given him on the 7th. His father attended, and said, “I tell you there is another experiment to be made, in which every honest and rational man, of every party, will join.” Similar doctrines were to be found in his former letter and speech, above referred to; and the other members of the Association awoke to a sense of the danger that threatened the body. Meantime, the Dungarvan committee proceeded with its labours. A deputation from that town waited on them—the parish priest and two others. They paid their first visit, however, to the Secretary, at the Castle. They found it as easy to satisfy the committee, or its majority, as the Secretary found it to satisfy themselves. They advised there should be no opposition given to Mr. Shiel on these two grounds: First, because success was then impossible, owing to the shortness of the time for preparation. And secondly, because a failure then would endanger the cause at the general election which was to take place in a few months. The sincerity of these reasons was tested by the facts, that, at the general election, the same parish priest stood at the hustings to propose and sustain the same official of the Whigs, insolently proclaiming his steadfastness in O’Connell’s glorious principles, while he was huckstering away the honour and independence of his country; and that at that general election, when the people of Dungarvan were more openly betrayed and trafficked on by John O’Connell, and when they had to contend against the treachery of the priest, the treachery of the Association and the whole strength of the Whigs, they were only defeated in their opposition to Mr. Shiel by three votes. But, sincere or not, absurd or not, they were conclusive with the committee, or its chairman, who reported that it was not advisable to oppose Mr. Shiel, and this report was published just two days after Mr. Shiel had been returned unopposed.
No wonder that the actual return of Mr. Shiel, which the committee was charged to resist, had escaped its vigilance; for the celebrated Peace Resolutions were, at the same time, under discussion, and produced simultaneously with the Dungarvan report. Mr. Mitchel, Mr. O’Gorman and Mr. Meagher, who attended the committee, vainly remonstrated against the betrayal of Dungarvan, as well as the Peace Resolutions. They saw that the real object of the resolutions was to blind the country to the other important question, whether the Irish constituencies were to be transferred once more to Whig placemen; and they confined their opposition principally to the Dungarvan case. It must be admitted, too, that the falsehood involved in the Peace Resolutions, escaped their attention in the first instance; and they were under the impression that the pledge they contained extended no farther than the action of the Association itself was concerned. On consideration, they found it was of far wider scope, and would engage them to a false principle, embracing all men, all countries and all tunes; and having stated this at the public meeting of the Association, they allowed the resolutions to pass without further opposition.
Sometimes, it has been averred lately that these two resolutions are, in principle and effect, the same. Mr. O’Connell himself declared the latter was introduced by him, “to draw a line of demarcation between Old and Young Ireland.” Indeed, if there were no distinction, the introduction would be eminently absurd as well as pernicious. And if they be different, as essentially they are, there must be some strong justification for the adoption of the latter.
But before proceeding to this enquiry, it may not be amiss to point out the exact distinction between the original and the new resolution. The former embraced a rule of action whereby the members of the Association engaged their faith and honour to each other and the country that they would not use its agency to cause or promote physical force or violence of any kind, or commit one another to any act of illegality. But it went no farther—it enunciated no moral dogma—a rule of conscience rather than a pledge of conduct such as the other—and it claimed no sacrifice of one’s own convictions. As a mutual guarantee, it was not only just but essential to the perfect safety of the Association.
On the other hand, the new resolution excluded the question of practical action altogether. Neither in itself nor in its preamble was there an averment, or even an assumption of its necessity, as a rule of guidance. It was a mere abstract opinion, utterly irrespective of the object or conduct of the Association, and only applicable as a test of certain speculative theories. But not alone was it inapplicable and preposterous; it was utterly untrue: at least, there are many men who could not subscribe to it without, according to their own convictions, being guilty of a lie. Supposing, however, that the seceders had attempted to violate the old constitution of the confederacy, it may be argued that Mr. O’Connell would be justified in preparing the most stringent tests for the purpose of restraining them. But no such attempt was ever made; no one proposed in the Association, no one hinted outside it, that it ought to violate one of its rules. No one complained of these rules, or said they ought to be changed, modified or, to the least extent, relaxed. Neither directly nor indirectly, openly nor covertly, was there a word spoken, nor an act done, nor a suggestion offered to that effect. The resolution was, therefore, uncalled for and unnecessary, as it was unsound and untrue.
Of this there is the clearest proof. First, the negative proof is conclusive. Mr. O’Connell did not name an act, or refer to a word of one single seceder, which would justify the imputation that they sought or desired to involve the Association in any expedient inconsistent with its fundamental rules. His only proof was this, and he did not then rely on it: Lord John Russell stated in the House, “I am told that one party among the Repealers are anxious for a separation from England.” This is his solitary proof, nor does it appear that he was not himself the informant of the minister. But the positive proofs at the other side are numerous and incontestable. I select a few. On the 13th of July Mr. O’Gorman, in presence of Mr. O’Connell, said: “In order that there shall be no misconception on the subject, as far as I am concerned, I say, at once, I am no advocate for physical force. As a member of the Association I am bound by its laws. One of these is, that its object is not to be attained by the use of physical force, but by moral means only.” Mr. Mitchel, on that occasion, said: “This is a legally organised and constitutional society seeking to attain its object, as all the world knows, by peaceable means and none other. Constitutional agitation is the very basis of it; and nobody who contemplates any other mode of bringing about the independence of the country has a right to come here, or consider himself a fit member of our Association.” On the 28th of July, Mr. Meagher said: “I do advocate the peaceful policy of the Association. It is the only policy we can and should adopt. If it be pursued with truth, with courage and with firmness of purpose, I do firmly believe it will succeed.”
Mr. M.J. Barry, on the 7th of June, said, “It is perfectly plain to all that the purpose of the Association is to work out its object by means of moral force, and that only.” In my letter to Mr. Ray, written long after the secession, I used these words: “The first (original rule of the Association) implies a pledge and an obligation to which every member of the Association bound himself. Any member, who violates it, or would induce the Association to infringe it, must be false to his own vow and treacherous to the Association, whence he should be expelled with every mark of infamy.”
These proofs are taken at random: they range over the time before, after and contemporaneous with the secession. They could be multiplied one hundredfold, and taken from the speeches and writings of every one of the seceders. Yet that fact availed nothing—they were told, because “they differed from the rules laid down by the Liberator, they ceased to be members of the Association.”
This is, in some sort, a digression. I return to the events which directly precipitated the division. It will be remembered that the objections of the seceders to the Peace Resolutions were confined to an emphatic expression of dissent. They were not, then, informed that they ceased to be members. They attended the next meeting; and, having repeated the same dissent, they expressed their fervent wish for a perfect understanding, and pledged themselves to continue their co-operation, as if the resolution had not been passed. Mr. John Reilly repudiated these advances, and charged them with treachery to Ireland, as the natural complement of disobedience to O’Connell. He gave notice that he would put certain interrogatories to Mr. O’Brien, in reference to a speech delivered by him at Clare On the next day of meeting, Mr. O’Brien attended (July 26), and a letter from Mr. O’Connell, containing the bitterest complaints, against the “advocates of physical force,” as he pleased to call them, “who,” he said, “continued members of our body, in spite of our resolutions,” was read.
A discussion, acrimonious and prolonged, followed. The debate was adjourned to the next day, when it was again renewed. Mr. John O’Connell spoke for nearly three hours, directing most of his arguments against some admissions of the Nation as to the purpose entertained by the writers in 1843. A casual expression—”we had promises of aid from Ledru Rollin, and many a surer source.“—supplied him with abundant material for loyal indignation. He was heard without interruption. Mr. Meagher rose to reply. He delivered that most impassioned oration, in which occurs the apostrophe to the sword. The meeting yielded to the frankness, sincerity, enthusiasm and supreme eloquence of the young orator, and rewarded him by its uncontrollable and unanimous applause. Mr. J. O’Connell rose, and, in the midst of a scene of universal rapture, coldly said, “either Mr. Meagher or myself must leave the Association.” Too generous to avail himself of the enthusiasm he excited, Mr. Meagher withdrew. So did Mr. O’Brien, Mr. Mitchel and the others, with more than three-fourths of the meeting.
Thus occurred the secession. Mr. J. O’Connell simulated some stage grief, expressing his ardent hope that the “Liberator,” on his arrival, would heal the wounds he had himself inflicted. How sincere was that hope is proved by the fact that, when Mr. O’Connell did arrive, which was on the Saturday following, he was prevented from proceeding farther than Kingstown, where he was detained until the hour of meeting on Monday; thus rendering it impossible to have an interview with Mr. O’Brien, or any one who could facilitate an arrangement. On Monday, instead of using soothing language and kind advice, he probed the wounds to the bottom, and infused into them subtlest poison. It is needless, as it would be painful, to recount the details of bitterness and hate with which on that day he dashed the hopes of the country. The result was deep and irreconcilable estrangement. Those who left the hall, rather than drive therefrom the son of Daniel O’Connell, finding themselves repaid by calumny, yielded to the conviction which every successive act of Mr. O’Connell conduced to establish, namely, that the country, and her great hope of destiny, were handed over to the Whigs.
Fourthly: The following passage, which occurred in Mr. O’Connell’s letter, dated London, 27th of June, 1846: “There is an opportunity to consider the Irish question as if on neutral grounds; there is a glorious opportunity (the return of the Whigs to power) of deciding if the Repealers be right in believing that no substantial relief can be given to Ireland in a British Parliament; or that they are wrong, to the demonstration that would result from PRACTICAL JUSTICE being afforded by that Parliament.”
Fifthly: The assertion of Mr. Lawless, in a letter to Mr. O’Connell, dated 18th July, which the latter published, without contradiction or comment, namely: “And yet it was with difficulty you (Mr. O’Connell) prevented his (Mr. Shiel) being opposed in his election for Dungarvan,”
All that followed was one unvaried scene of distraction, division and enmity. Week after week, the seceders were held up to public odium, derision and scorn. One day, they were “blasphemous,” one day, “revolutionary,” one day, they “sang small,” and one day “their nobles were come to ninepence.” Now, they were challenged to establish a society of their own principles; now, they were recommended to the mercy of the Attorney-General, and again commended to the hatred of the people. Meantime a blight had fallen on the earth, and a whole people’s food, in one night, perished. To the new Government, the famine that ensued was an assurance of subsistence and success. Hunger would waste the bodies of the people, as the dearth of truth had wasted their souls. The ministry affected great sympathy, great diligence, and great impotence. Among other wants of theirs, the want of practical engineers was felt the deepest. They knew and lamented that many died of starvation; but the thing was inevitable as long as they were unprovided with practical engineers. Mr. O’Connell, from the platform of the hall, announced the good intentions of the Government, and proclaimed, at the same time, his own commission to supply them with engineers. How many applied and were refused, I am not in a position to say; but there is no disputing the records of the church-yard, where many an uncoffined corpse attested the care of the “paternal government.” The people were guaranteed against death, and yet death came, and took them at his will; but what was left of life was taught to exhaust itself in curses against those who would save it at every risk. Wherever the seceders appeared they were hooted. Prostitutes of both sexes regarded them as fit subjects for their insolent raillery. The avowed foes of nationality looked on them as fools; its pretended friends as knaves; and the common herd of indifferent villains as a butt. The low retainers of the English garrison, who had sold their souls to the enemy but were kept in awe by bodily fear, became outrageously patriotic; and with insulted gratitude they scouted the traducers of the “saviour of their country.” Alas! in Ireland, nothing was saved but death’s agencies. Doom had come upon all—her produce, her people, her hopes and her morality.
The same report, which contained the Peace Resolutions, set out with a statement dissevering the Association from theNation newspaper. If the statement were embodied in a resolution of expulsion, it would clash directly with the failure of the prosecution against it, and brand the jurors who refused to find a verdict with perjury. But the admission of theNation that, in 1843, it inculcated principles having a remote tendency to effect the redemption of the country, by arms if need were, supplied the Association with a pretext for expelling it altogether. Two rules had been adopted for the circulation of newspapers. The first was, when £10 were forwarded to the Secretary, the subscribers had the privilege of naming two weekly or one evening paper, which the Secretary was to forward and pay for. By the second rule, adopted after the State trials, the subscribers retained the drawback, and selected and paid for their own paper. For several weeks, the Nation was the only theme of Mr. O’Connell’s abhorrence. He exhausted all his eloquence in warning the people against it, but in vain. The people continued to insist on it in return for their subscriptions. Accordingly, on the 10th of August, a resolution was proposed to the effect that no money subscribed for Repeal Purposes should be allocated to the payment of a subscription for the Nation, on the sole ground that, in 1843, it inculcated doctrines which were in their tendency treasonable. Mr. O’Connell said, after the resolution was passed, that he did not wish to injure the paper in a pecuniary point of view; and on the next day of meeting, he brought down to the Association some twenty law authorities, which he read, to prove that treason had actually been committed; and thus stamped the conduct of the Attorney-General as not alone justifiable, but lenient to excess.
The seceders determined to abide the issue. They had the fullest confidence that the insensate cry raised against them would eventually subside, and that truth would again prevail. They contented themselves, therefore, with appealing to their countrymen, through the columns of the Nation, then interdicted and banned through every parish in the island. But, in those appeals, there was no word of allusion to the storm of calumny and denunciation then raging against them. They sought to fix public attention on subjects of vast national importance, and to awake the energies of the people to some becoming effort where the stake was their lives. Meantime, week after week, the Government was praised, the Board of Works were praised, and the people—”the faithful and moral people, who died, peacefully, of hunger“—were praised, in the Repeal Association.
Late in the autumn of 1846, some men, few in number and humble in condition, undertook the desperate task of remonstrating with the Repeal Association. Among them, Mr. Keeley and Mr. Holywood, Mr. Crean and Mr. Halpin, were prominent. Their undertaking was gigantic, considering the formidable obstacles they proposed to encounter. They proceeded silently and sedulously; and, in a few weeks, a remonstrance against the course pursued by the Association was signed by fifteen hundred citizens of Dublin. It was presented to the Chairman of the Association on the 24th of October, and ordered by Mr. J. O’Connell to be flung into the gutter. The remonstrants and the public resented this indignity alike. It was determined to hold a meeting in the Rotunda, where they proposed to defend themselves against every species of assault. The meeting was held on the 3rd of November, and was allowed to pass off without disturbance. Mr. M’Gee attended. He had never appeared in the struggle in the hall, nor was he a member at the time. His speech at the Rotunda was calm, forcible and conclusive on the points in issue; and the excitement it created was, in no small degree, enhanced by the fact that the speaker was a young man theretofore unknown. The success of the meeting suggested the practicability and safety of an experiment upon a large scale preparatory to the formation of the Confederation. The meeting was fixed for the 2nd of December. The remonstrant committee offered to defend it against any assailants. The main object was to reply to the calumnies which, for nearly six months, had been urged against the leading seceders. The meeting was one of the most important ever held in the metropolis. It was intelligent, numerous and fashionable. The entire ability of the seceders was put forth; and such was the sensation created by the proceedings that two publishers, one in Dublin and one in Belfast, brought out reports, in pamphlet form, which were read all over the country with the greatest avidity. It was that night stated, only casually, that the seceders would meet in January to announce to the nation the course of political action they would recommend. On the 13th of January, the promise was redeemed. The seceders met as before, and their deliberations were guarded by the same men, who thus a third time risked their lives—the hazard was nothing less—to secure to the seceders freedom of speech and of action. On the 13th of January, the Confederation was fully established. The bases, if the phrase be applicable, were freedom, tolerance and truth. There was no avowal of war, and no pledge of peace. The great object was the independence of the Irish nation; and no means to attain that end were abjured, save such as were inconsistent with honour, morality and reason.
During the intervening time, between the first and second meetings, overtures of peace were made by Mr. O’Connell. A sudden and singular change was observable in his tone and language. He said with chagrin, and acknowledged with reluctance, that the position and strength of the party defied alike his power and his address. Every art and every effort to crush them had been exhausted in vain. The question between them, he now loudly proclaimed, was one purely of law; and he referred to several barristers, by whose judgment he was ready to abide. The question he was prepared to submit suggests the most mournful considerations. If it were not painful, it would be amusing to see to what painful absurdities he was compelled to have recourse. He would leave it to anyone at the bar, whether the “physical force principle” would not make the Association illegal; and then he would indulge in a hollow triumph over the certainty andsecurity of his position. But that was not the question in issue. None of the seceders ever recommended the principle of physical force, in practice or theory, to the Association. On the contrary, they disavowed it, in reference to that body, and their own connection with it. The real question was this—whether it was necessary to the legality of any political society, to disavow, formally and forever, under all circumstances, and at all times, the right of men to strike down the cruellest tyranny with the strong hand. It would be absurd to submit such a proposition to a lawyer, which could only be answered by a laugh. It had been sufficiently settled by the fact that, without it, the Catholic Association, the Corn-law League, and the Repeal Association itself, up to the 13th of July, 1846, were perfectly safe and perfectly legal. But no man knew better than Mr. O’Connell that this was a feigned issue, the real one being the mendicancy of the Association, and the treachery with which it abandoned the national constituencies to Whig officials. The overtures on this occasion eventuated in some negotiations, of which the Rev. Mr. Miley was the medium. His mission was singularly unfortunate, for it led to greater misunderstanding; and the negotiations terminated in mutual charges of misconception or misrepresentation.
The history of the Confederation, such as its importance deserves, is beyond the scope of my present purpose. Others may undertake to vindicate for its proceedings that enduring place in the annals of the country to which they are eminently entitled. Here, but a few words can be said.
As soon as the eclat of the first meetings had subsided, and the business began to assume a more routine character, the moral-force disciples, hitherto kept in awe by the mustered strength of the seceders and their followers, determined to give a practical illustration of the sincerity of their pledge by breaking the skulls of their opponents. On the first occasion, their onslaught was vigorous and successful. Blood was shed, and heads opened. This was deemed no infraction of the holy vow recorded in the books of the Association; for the body held its meetings without exercising its undoubted prerogative of “blotting out” the scene of outrage “from the map of Ireland.” On the second occasion, the wreckers of Conciliation Hall were met as they deserved, and after a short skirmish fled through the city.
The success of the new Confederacy was certain, but slow. But, in the same proportion as their principles obtained predominance, the hatred of the Old Irelanders became unscrupulous and implacable. Often in the house of prayer, they heard themselves denounced; often in the streets, they heard their names used as by-words of scorn. Mr. O’Connell disappeared from the scene of his glory, which relapsed to the guidance of his intolerant and intemperate son. Some attempts were made to force him to a reconciliation, which in public he appeared to yield to, but which in private he exercised his utmost cunning to baffle. In the midst of this scene of distraction, Mr. O’Connell died. The news was a stunning blow to the nation. A great reaction, for a short time, ensued. Added to the other crimes of the seceders, was that of being O’Connell’s murderers. They, on the other hand, resolved to treat O’Connell’s memory with the greatest respect. They resolved to attend his funeral procession, in deep mourning; and they gave orders for expensive sashes, of Irish manufacture, which the members of the council were to wear. Mr. O’Brien communicated this purpose to Mr. J. O’Connell. The answer was too plainly a prohibition; and the Confederation reluctantly abandoned their design. Mr. O’Connell died at Genoa, on the 15th of May, 1847, and was buried in Glasnevin, on the 5th of August. His corpse, which was delayed some days in Liverpool, was conveyed through the streets of Dublin, during the election scene which resulted in the return of Mr. John Reynolds; being thus made subservient to the success of the man, to whom, of all his followers, he was most opposed during his life. It was a strange end, surely. Mr. O’Connell was buried with great pomp. The trustees of the Glasnevin Cemetery were generous in appropriating the fund at their disposal to the purposes of the funeral; but when the sincerity of the mourners’ grief came to be tested, by the claim for a contribution to erect a suitable monument to the great champion of the age, it was found how hollow was their woe, and how lying their adulation. Daniel O’Connell is yet without a monument, save that which his own genius has raised in the liberalised institutions of his country.
The reaction in the public mind, consequent on his death, was short-lived; and the Confederation progressed rapidly, during the closing months of the year 1847. Although not formally acknowledged, every one saw that it was the only public body in the country deserving or enjoying anything like public confidence.