The Felons Track (8)



Before proceeding further with the details of my own wanderings, I wish to follow out to its conclusion the fate of those whom we parted with at Ballingarry, and were destined to see no more, though, in doing so, I must anticipate the order of time, in which the events took place. My task here is more difficult and painful than any detail of facts, however gloomy. There are always in the reverses of the brave, some glimpses of glory to reconcile us to the dark disasters on our way; but when calumny pursues their path, gnawing, with ceaseless tooth, the priceless jewel of their character, the historian must shudder to find his labour beset by the filth and rubbish the viper has left behind. In this instance, that lesson of Mr. O’Connell’s which was the most fatal in its influence, found many believers. It was said, and said unscrupulously, that Mr. O’Brien and his followers were actual agents of the British Government, suborned to precipitate the country into revolution, for which they were to receive large possessions and lucrative employment beyond the sea. It was the constant habit of Mr. O’Connell, when any one proposed a course bolder than his own, to suggest that he was doing the business of the enemy. He may have adopted this course in his self-assumed character of Dictator, as the surest and speediest means of clearing all obstructions out of his way. Whatever his motive, it was an unworthy resource; for it supplied the meanest minds with an example and a pretext for the gratification of their own vile propensities. Their voice was heard, amid the silence of mourning and death, when in an hour of universal dismay, John Mitchel was borne from his loved fatherland; and still more audibly when the dungeon closed on Smith O’Brien and his illustrious comrades. In the latter instance, slander availed itself of an incident connected with their arrest to justify its infamous conclusions. “If,” it croaked, “they were in earnest, why suffer themselves to be arrested so easily?—Why come to the railway terminus?—Why parade on the high road in front of a police barrack? In effect, why surrender?” But in Ireland this was little heeded; nor should I deem it worthy of the least notice, if it were not revived in the new world, under circumstances calculated to give it credence and durability. At one time it is insinuated that they “surrendered,” such as “it was said they gave themselves up,” and immediately afterwards, in reference to the period or the fact, is to be found “at the time of Mr. O’Brien’s surrender.” And again, in the same breath, it is positively stated as a mere matter of course.

The propagator of this malignity knows it to be false. He knows also that it serves the purpose of those who would charge the country’s truest and bravest with vilest treachery.

I shall pursue the theme no further. The truth is, Mr. O’Brien remained among a people who were sorely stricken by terror. Their friends were dead or scattered; and rumour, with a thousand tongues, multiplied the most awful horrors which were said to be approaching them. Although they received and sheltered Mr. O’Brien, he evidently saw that their generosity cost them dearly, and that they were in the utmost alarm. His own privations he could endure; but not the fear and suffering his presence caused to others. This, and this only, determined him in the first instance. He might also have hoped that if he could reach the neighbourhood of his own home, he would be defended with desperate fidelity. He was aware that Mr. Richard O’Gorman was in that district, and he had been informed that he was followed by thousands. That he did not seek to reach the county Limerick by some other means of conveyance—by a car, on foot, or on horseback—may be a mistake of judgment; but none would be free from peril: and had he escaped detection at Thurles, there would not be the least danger, until he reached Cahermoyle, as the rest of the journey would be entirely by night. His sagacity may be questioned, perhaps, but it is extreme villainy to question his purpose. He took that course only and solely because he thought it the safest; and he had no more intention of surrendering than I had when I crossed by the packet to Boulogne.

Mr. Meagher and Mr. O’Donohoe were arrested under circumstances over which they had still less control. They were utterly unacquainted with the country, and did not know, if they left the high road, but the first house they might approach would be a police barrack. They had made every attempt desperation could suggest to rouse the people, but in vain. They were opposed by some, shunned by some, and from some they received false counsel. They had exhausted the welcome of all who were inclined to receive them, and they knew not one step of their way. Previously, too, Mr. Meagher had peremptorily refused to avail himself of a mode of escape provided for him and he equally peremptorily refused to listen to any terms from Government, which did not include all his comrades. His object, on the night he was arrested, was to make another trial at Cashel, which he designed to approach by a circuitous route.

The 6th day of August was the date of Mr. O’Brien’s arrest; the 13th of August that of Messrs. Meagher and O’Donohoe, and the 7th of September that of Mr. MacManus. Mr. O’Brien was taken at the Thurles railway station; Messrs. Meagher and O’Donohoe, near Rathgannon, on the road between Clonoulty and Holycross, about five miles from Thurles, and Mr. MacManus on board the ship N.D. Chase, in the bay of Cove, on the 7th of September. They were each conveyed to Kilmainham Jail, in the first instance, where they remained until within a few days of the opening of the special commission at Clonmel. This took place on Thursday, the 21st of Sept., when the bills were found, but six days were allowed to Mr. O’Brien and the rest of the prisoners to peruse the indictment, with copies of which they were respectively furnished. On Thursday, the 28th, the trial of Mr. O’Brien commenced; that of Mr. MacManus on the 9th of October; that of Mr. O’Donohoe on the 13th, and that of Mr. Meagher on the 16th.

Juries were empanelled in each case, from whose prejudice and bad faith verdicts for high treason were expected, even though the evidence only sustained a charge of common assault. Roman Catholics were, in the first instance, scrupulously excluded; but after the first two verdicts one or two were admitted, upon whose weakness of character, or genteel aspirations, the Government might safely rely. It is but justice to say that, according to the law expounded by the Bench, and the evidence given on the table, any other verdict was not to be expected. But a jury differently composed, a jury of Englishmen, with their country, their liberties and their lives perilled to the last extremity by misgovernment and maladministration of law, would have spurned the law and the evidence, and relied on the great fundamental rights of humanity so flagrantly outraged by the Government that then appeared as prosecutors.

The scene presented by Clonmel excited much public surprise. Newspaper correspondents magnified the sullen gloom that prevailed into popular apathy or national cowardice, as suited the bent or purpose of their employers. The truth was, the people exhibited during the trial a decent and respectful forbearance. Empty parade or vociferous sorrow would only mock the lofty purpose of the sufferers; and besides, the mortification which rankled in the public heart was too deep for utterance. The hopes of the people had been dashed, and they were stunned and stupefied by their fall. But so far from being apathetic, nightly assemblages were held to consider if, even in that extremity, something was not yet possible to be done.

But, if there were a show of popular indifference on the streets, the courthouse presented a very different spectacle. There everything manifested an intense bitterness of purpose; the court, composed of the two most unscrupulous partisans, Chief Justices Blackbourne and Doherty, and the weakest or falsest political convert, Mr. Justice Moore, simulated the uncontrollable emotions which an overweening loyalty awoke in the bosom of the Catholic Attorney-General. So far were their lordships swayed by the spirit of imitativeness, that the most polished speakers, mistaking the incoherent jargon of the official for the broken utterance of overwrought zeal and shocked loyalty, mimicked his distempered language as the only befitting medium of expression for disturbed feelings such as theirs. The simplest and most usual facilities accorded to murderers and pickpockets on their trial were rudely denied the counsel for the defence. The principles of law, recognised in England as sacred, were scouted from the bench, and the farce of trial proceeded through its different stages to the final denouement with perfect regularity, every one performing the part assigned him with unerring accuracy.

Of the intrepid ability which struggled against this fearful combination of bigotry, prejudice and passion, at the bar, on the bench and in the box, I do not purpose to speak here. But I would be unfaithful to my trust, and unjust to the rarest heroism, if I did not record the fortitude and fidelity of O’Donnell, from whom the menaces of the crown, or the frown of the bench, could not wring one word of evidence. In an ordinary man, this would be singular intrepidity; butcircumstanced as O’Donnell was, it amounted to a Roman virtue. One brother of his, a doctor, was in jail at Liverpool, charged with political felony; another was hunted through the country, and another was in irons, involved in the same charge as the illustrious accused; for them all he could command his own terms, for much depended on his testimony; but though doom were upon them, and a word of his could avert it, he refused to speak. Honour be his. His integrity almost cancelled the shame and darkness of those disastrous times.

The Widow McCormack's House, near Ballingarry

I can add nothing to the testimony that established the fortitude, manliness and dignity of the prisoners, as beyond precedent or example. That their bearing, one and all, was truly noble, friends and foes took pride in attesting.[11] It was a solemn and a glorious sight; and men, through all time, will turn to that Clonmel dock to learn the inestimable and imperishable value of sincere and lofty convictions and a truly heroic soul.

Of the speeches that follow, it will be observed that Mr. O’Brien’s was delivered before the fate of his comrades was known. No man had ever greater need of vindicating others if not himself. No man ever possessed in a higher degree the capacity and strength to do so. He was satisfied it was the last opportunity he would ever have on earth for explanation. Yet, lest any sentiment of his might injuriously affect those that were then, or might thereafter be on their trial, he forebore to assert the principles of which he was there the martyr, and of which he was more than ever proud. It was to the same unselfish sentiment he yielded, when consenting to say, “Not guilty,” to a charge he would have felt the greatest glory in avowing.

I despair of conveying to my readers an adequate idea of the gloom and horror of the scene in which those immortal words were spoken. Death, near and terrible, was in the future. The recollection of ten days’ infamy peopled the present with ghastly images of evil. Vindictiveness inexorable glared from the bench. The dust around the feet of the speakers was laden with guilt. It would not rise to the briskest breeze, beneath the clearest sky, in light summer air, so heavy had the tread of murder been upon it. And oh, to think when they closed their eyes upon this world, what deeper death they left their country … Will no day of vengeance come, O God! . . .

One of those benefits of the British constitution, which excites the mortal envy of benighted “surrounding nations,” is this, that the law lies to the face of death, in the usual question addressed to the condemned: “Whether he had anything to say why sentence of death and execution should not be passed upon him?” when the most conclusive reasons that ever innocence had to offer would be worse than vain. On the morning of the 9th of October, 1848, this barbarous mockery was addressed to William Smith O’Brien, and he answered thus:—

MR. O’BRIEN.—”My lords, it is not my intention to enter into any vindication of my conduct, however much I might have desired to avail myself of this opportunity of so doing. I am perfectly satisfied with the consciousness that I have performed my duty to my country—that I have done only that which, in my opinion, it was the duty of every Irishman to have done, and I am now prepared to abide the consequences of having performed my duty to my native land. Proceed with your sentence.” (Cheers in the gallery.)

On the morning of the 23rd of the same month, the same formula was repeated to Terence Bellew MacManus, Patrick O’Donohoe, and Thomas Francis Meagher, who replied respectively as follows:—

MR. M’MANUS.—”My lords, I trust I am enough of a Christian and enough of a man to understand the awful responsibility of the question that has been put to me. My lords, standing on this my native soil—standing in an Irish court of justice, and before the Irish nation—I have much to say why the sentence of death, or the sentence of the law, should not be passed upon me. But, my lords, on entering this court, I placed my life, and what is of much more importance to me—my honour—in the hands of two advocates; and, my lords, if I had ten thousand lives, and ten thousand honours, I would be content to place them under the watchful and the glorious genius of the one and the high legal ability of the other. My lords, I am content. In that regard I have nothing to say. But I have a word to say, which no advocate, however anxious, can utter for me. I have this to say, my lords, that whatever part I may have taken through any struggle for my country’s independence—whatever part I may have acted in that short career—I stand before your lordships now with a free heart, and with a light conscience, ready to abide the issue of your sentences. And now, my lords, perhaps this is the fittest time that I might put one sentiment on record, and it is this: Standing as I do between this dock and the scaffold; it may be now, or to-morrow, or it may be never; but whatever the result may be, I have this sentiment to put on record. That in any part I have taken, I have not been actuated by animosity to Englishmen. For I have spent some of the happiest and most prosperous days of my life in England; and in no part of my career have I been actuated by enmity to Englishmen, however much I may have felt the injustice of English rule on this island. My lords, I have nothing more to say. It is not for having loved England less, but for having loved Ireland more, that I stand now before you.”

Mr. O’Donohoe confined himself to a few words concerning his trial.

MR. MEAGHER.—”My lords, it is my intention to say a few words only. I desire that the last act of a proceeding which has occupied so much of the public time should be of short duration. Nor have I the indelicate wish to close the dreary ceremony of a State prosecution with a vain display of words. Did I fear that hereafter when I shall be no more the country I have tried to serve would think ill of me, I might, indeed, avail myself of this solemn moment to vindicate my sentiments and my conduct. But I have no such fear. The country will judge of those sentiments and that conduct in a light far different from that in which the jury by which I have been convicted have viewed them; and by the country, the sentence which you, my lords, are about to pronounce, will be remembered only as the severe and solemn attestation of my rectitude and truth. Whatever be the language in which that sentence be spoken, I know that my fate will meet with sympathy, and that my memory will be honoured. In speaking thus, accuse me not, my lords, of an indecorous presumption. To the efforts I have made in a just and noble cause, I ascribe no vain importance—nor do I claim for those efforts any high reward. But it so happens, and it will ever happen so, that they who have tried to serve their country, no matter how weak the effort may have been, are sure to receive the thanks and the blessings of its people. With my country, then, I leave my memory—my sentiments—my acts—proudly feeling that they require no vindication from me this day. A jury of my countrymen, it is true, have found me guilty of the crime of which I stood indicted. For this I entertain not the slightest feeling of resentment toward them. Influenced as they must have been by the charge of the Lord Chief Justice, they could have found no other verdict. What of that charge? Any strong observations on it, I feel sincerely, would ill befit the solemnity of this scene; but I would earnestly beseech of you, my lord—you, who preside on that bench—when the passions and the prejudices of this hour have passed away to appeal to your conscience, and ask of it was your charge as it ought to have been, impartial and indifferent between the subject and the Crown. My lords, you may deem this language unbecoming in me, and perhaps it may seal my fate. But I am here to speak the truth, whatever it may cost. I am here to regret nothing I have ever done—to retract nothing I have ever said. I am here to crave with no lying-lip the life I consecrate to the liberty of my country. Far from it: even here—here, where the thief, the libertine, the murderer, have left their footprints in the dust; here, on this spot, where the shadows of death surround me, and from which I see my early grave in an unanointed soil opened to receive me—even here, encircled by these terrors, the hope which has beckoned me to the perilous sea upon which I have been wrecked, still consoles, animates, enraptures me. No I do not despair of my poor old country, her peace her liberty, her glory. For that country I can do no more than bid her hope. To lift up this island—to make her a benefactor to humanity, instead of being the meanest beggar in the world—to restore to her her native Powers and her ancient constitution—this has been my ambition, and this ambition has been my crime. Judged by the law of England, I know this crime entails the Penalty of death; but the history of Ireland explains this crime, and justifies it. Judged by that history, I am no criminal—you (addressing Mr. MacManus) are no criminal—you (addressing Mr O’Donohoe) are no criminal—I deserve no punishment—we deserve no punishment. Judged by that history the treason of which I stand convicted loses all its guilt, is sanctified as a duty, will be ennobled as a sacrifice. With these sentiments, my lord I await the sentence of the court. Having done what I felt to be my duty—having spoken what I felt to be the truth, as I have done on every other occasion of my short career, I now bid farewell to the country of my birth, my passion and my death—the country whose misfortunes have invoked my sympathies—whose factions I have sought to still—whose intellect I have prompted to a lofty aim—whose freedom has been my fatal dream. I offer to that country, as a proof of the love I bear her, and the sincerity with which I thought, and spoke, and struggled for her freedom—the life of a young heart, and with that life, all the hopes, the honours, the endearments, of a happy and an honourable home. Pronounce then, my lords, the sentence which the law directs, and I will be prepared to hear it. I trust I shall be prepared to meet its execution. I hope to be able, with a pure heart and perfect composure, to appear before a higher Tribunal—a tribunal where a Judge of infinite goodness, as well as of justice will preside, and where, my lords, many—many of the judgments of this world will be reversed.”

The sentence of the court was then pronounced, as it had been previously on Mr. O’Brien. It was in the following words:—

“That sentence is, that you Terence Bellew MacManus, you Patrick O’Donohoe, and you Thomas Francis Meagher, be taken hence to the place from whence you came, and be thence drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution; that each of you be there hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that afterward the head of each of you shall be severed from the body, and the body of each divided into four quarters, to be disposed of as her Majesty may think fit. And may Almighty God have mercy upon your souls.”

A writ of error was sued out principally on the ground that the principles of constitutional law were violated. The House of Lords finally quashed the error and confirmed the judgment. Meantime, the country, or a great portion of the people, took the last step in the direction of debasement by praying the Queen and the Lord Lieutenant for a free pardon. The petitions were spurned; but her Majesty, yielding to the powerful sentiment of abhorrence against the punishment of death for political offences, commuted the sentence into transportation for life. This final sentence was carried into effect on the 9th day of July, 1849, when the ship of war Swift spread her sails and hoisted her felon flag, bearing out to sea, and having on board the four illustrious exiles.

Martin and O’Doherty had been conveyed to Cork on board the Triton, on the 16th of June, whence they were sent to herd with common malefactors on board the Mount Stewart Elphinstone—at the time infested with the plague. This vessel remained off Spike Island while the cholera was doing its ravages among her passengers, and finally put to sea, with the patriots and pestilence, a few days before the departure of the Swift.


[11] The following is from the Freeman’s Journal:—An eminent Queen’s counsel, who was present during the awful ordeal, was heard to give utterance to a sentiment so truthfully graphic that we record it in full:—”Well,” said he, his eyes full and his countenance flushed with emotion, “never was there such a scene—never such true heroism displayed before. Emmet and Fitzgerald, and all combined did not come up to that—so dignified, so calm, so heroic. HE is a hero.”