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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 16807

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Another century had now dawned, and, like the last, it was heralded in with great changes in Ireland. More than change, however, is needed for improvement. "Plus ?a change plus c'est la même chose" has been said of French politics, and is at least equally applicable to Irish ones. The Union had not brought union, and the years which followed it were certainly no great improvement on those that had preceded them. The growth of political institution is not so naturally stable in Ireland that the lopping down of one such institution tended to make the rest stronger or more healthy. It was a tree that had undoubtedly serious flaws, and whose growing had not been as perfect as it might have been, but it had admittedly borne some good fruit, and might have borne better had it been left alone. Anyhow it was gone, and the history of the next twenty-nine years is a confused and distracting medley of petty outbreaks--that in 1803 of which Robert Emmett was the leader being the most important--and of recurrent acts of repression, out of the monotonous welter of which one great


(From a stipple engraving by J. Heath.)

figure presently rises like a colossus, till it comes to dominate the whole scene.

At a meeting of Catholic citizens in Dublin in 1800 to protest against the Union, Daniel O'Connell, then a young barrister of twenty-six, made his first public speech, and from that time forward his place as a leader may be said to have been fixed. A Catholic Association had some years earlier been formed, and of this he soon became the chief figure, and his efforts were continually directed towards the relief of his co-religionists. In 1815 a proposal had been made by the Government that Catholic Emancipation should be granted, coupled with a power of veto in the appointment of Catholic bishops, and to this compromise a considerable Catholic party was favourable. Richard Lalor Sheil--next to O'Connell by far the ablest and most eloquent advocate for Emancipation--supported it; even the Pope, Pius VII., declared that he felt "no hesitation in conceding it." O'Connell, however, opposed it vehemently, and so worked up public opinion against it that in the end he carried his point, and it was agreed that no proposal should be accepted which permitted any external interference with the Catholic Church of Ireland. This was his first decisive triumph.

O'Connell's buoyancy and indomitable energy imparted much of its own impulse to a party more dead and dispirited than we who have only known it in its resuscitated and decidedly dominant state can easily conceive. In 1823 a new Irish Catholic Association was set on foot, of which he was the visible life and soul. It is curious to note how little enthusiasm its proceedings seem at first to have awakened, especially amongst the priesthood. At a meeting on February 4, 1824, the necessary quorum of ten members running short, it was only supplied by O'Connell rushing downstairs to the book-shop over which the association met, and actually forcing upstairs two priests whom he accidently found there, and it was by the aid of these unwilling coadjutors that the famous motion for establishing the "Catholic rent" was carried. No sooner was this fund established, however, than it was largely subscribed for all over the country, and in a wonderfully short time the whole priesthood of Ireland were actively engaged in its service. The sums collected were to be spent in parliamentary expenses, in the defence of Catholics, and in the cost of meetings. In 1825 the association was suppressed by Act of Parliament, but was hardly dead before O'Connell set about the formation of another, and the defeat of the Beresfords at the election for Waterford in 1826 was one of the first symptoms which showed where the rising tide was mounting to.

It was followed two years later by a much more important victory. Although Catholics were excluded from sitting in Parliament the law which forbade their doing so did not preclude their being returned as members, and it had long been thought that policy required the election of some Catholic, if only that the whole anomaly of the situation might be brought into the full light of day. An opportunity soon occurred. Mr. Fitzgerald, the member for Clare, having accepted office as President of the Board of Trade, he was obliged to appeal to his constituents for re-election, and O'Connell caught at the suggestion made to him of contesting the seat. His purpose had hardly been announced before it created the wildest excitement all over Ireland. The Catholic Association at once granted £5,000 towards the expenses, and £9,000 more was easily raised within a week. In every parish in Clare the priests addressed their parishioners from the altar, appealing to them to be true to the representative of their faith. After a vehement contest, victory declared itself unhesitatingly for O'Connell, who was found to have polled more than a thousand votes over his antagonist.

The months which followed were months of the wildest and most feverish excitement all over Ireland. O'Connell, though he used his "frank," did not present himself at the House of Commons. He devoted his whole time to organizing his co-religionists, who by this time may be said to have formed one vast army under his direction. In every parish the priests were his lieutenants. Monster meetings were held in all directions, and it may without exaggeration be said that hardly a Catholic man escaped the contagion. So universal a demonstration was felt to be irresistible. A sudden perception of the necessity for full and unqualified Emancipation sprang up in England. Even the Duke of Wellington bent his head before the storm. In the king's speech of February, 1829, a revision of the Catholic disabilities was advised. The following month the Catholic Relief Bill was carried through the House of Commons by a majority of 180, and received the royal assent on the 13th of April.

Thus the victory was won, and won too without a single shackling condition. It was won, moreover, by the efforts of a single individual, almost without support, nay, in several cases against the active opposition of some who had hitherto been its warmest advocates, a fact for which O'Connell's own violence was undoubtedly largely responsible. This seems to be the place to attempt an analysis of this extraordinary man, setting down the good and the evil each in their due proportion. The task, however, would in truth be impossible. For good or ill his figure is too massive, and would escape our half inch of canvas were we to try and set it there. The best description of him compressible in a few words is Balzac's--"He was the incarnation of an entire people." Nothing can be truer. Not only was he Irish of the Irish, but Celt of the Celts, every quality, every characteristic, good, bad, loveable, or the reverse which belongs to the type being found in him, only on an immense scale. To the average Irishman of his day he stands as Mont Blanc might stand were it set down amongst the Magillicuddy Reeks. He towers, that is to say, above his contemporaries not by inches, but by the head and shoulders. His aims, hopes, enthusiasms were theirs, but the effective, controlling power was his alone. He had a great cause, and he availed himself greatly of it, and to this and to the magnetic and all but magical influence of his personality, that extraordinary influence which he for so many years wielded is no doubt due.


(From a pen-and-ink sketch by Doyle, in the Department of Prints

and Drawings, British Museum.)]

Two points must be here set down, since both are of great importance to the future of Ireland, and for both O'Connell is clearly responsible--whether we regard them as amongst his merits or the reverse. He first, and as it has been proved permanently, brought the priest into politics, with the unavoidable result of accentuating the religious side of the contest and bringing it into a focus. The bitterness which three generations of the penal code had engendered only, in fact, broke out then. The hour of comparative freedom is often--certainly not alone in Ireland--the hour when the sense of past oppression first reveals itself in all its intensity, and that biting consciousness of being under a social ban which grew up in the la

st century is hardly even yet extinct there, and certainly was not extinct in O'Connell's time. Another, and an equally important effect, is also due to him. He effectually, and as it has proved finally, snapped that tie of feudal feeling which, if weakened, still undoubtedly existed, and which was felt towards the landlord of English extraction little less than towards the few remaining Celtic ones. The failings of the upper classes of Ireland of his day, and long before his day, there is no need to extenuate, but it must not in fairness be forgotten that what seems to our soberer judgment the worst of those failings--their insane extravagance, their exalted often ludicrously inflated notions of their own relative importance; their indifference to, sometimes open hostility to, the law--all were bonds of union and sources of pride to their dependants rather than the other way. It needed a yet stronger impulse--that of religious enthusiasm--to break so deeply rooted and inherent a sentiment. When that spark was kindled every other fell away before it.

As regards England, unfortunately, the concession of Emancipation was spoilt not merely by the sense that it was granted to force rather than to conviction, but even more to the intense bitterness and dislike with which it was regarded by a large proportion of English Protestants. A new religious life and a new sense of religious responsibility was making itself widely felt there. The eighteenth century, with its easy-going indifferentism, had passed away, and one of the effects of this new revival was unhappily to reawaken in many conscientious breasts much of the old and half-extinct horror of Popery, a horror which found its voice in a language of intolerance and bigotry which at the present time seems scarcely conceivable.

The years which followed were chiefly marked by a succession of efforts upon O'Connell's part to procure Repeal. An association which had been formed by him for this purpose was put down by the Government in 1830, but the next year it was reformed under a new name, and at the general election in 1831 forty members were returned pledged to support Repeal. The condition of Ireland was meanwhile miserable in the extreme. A furious tithe-war was raging, and many outrages had been committed, especially against tithe proctors, the class of men who were engaged in collecting the tax. Ribbon associations and other secret societies too had been spreading rapidly underground. Of such societies O'Connell was through life the implacable enemy. The events of 1798 and 1803 had left an indelible impression on his mind. The "United Irishmen," in his own words, "taught me that all work for Ireland must be done openly and above board." The end of the tithe struggle, however, was happily approaching. In 1838 an Irish Tithes Commutation Act was at last carried, and a land tax in the form of a permanent rent charge substituted.

Repeal was now more than ever the question of the hour, and to Repeal henceforward O'Connell devoted his entire energies. In 1840 the Loyal National Repeal Association was founded, and a permanent place of meeting known as Conciliation Hall established for it in Dublin. 1841, O'Connell had early announced, would be known henceforward as the year of Repeal, and accordingly he that year left England and went to Ireland, and devoted himself there to the work of organization. A succession of monster meetings were held all over the country, the far-famed one on Tara Hill being, as is credibly asserted, attended by no less than a quarter of a million of people. Over this vast multitude gathered together around him the magic tones of the great orator's voice swept triumphantly; awakening anger, grief, passion, delight, laughter, tears, at its own pleasure. They were astonishing triumphs, but they were dearly bought. The position was, in fact, an impossible one to maintain long. O'Connell had carried the whole mass of the people with him up to the very brink of the precipice, but how to bring them safely and successfully down again was more than even he could accomplish. Resistance he had always steadily denounced, yet every day his own words seemed to be bringing the inevitable moment of collision nearer and nearer. The crisis came on October the 5th. A meeting had been summoned to meet at Clontarf, near Dublin, and on the afternoon of the 4th the Government suddenly came to the resolution of issuing a proclamation forbidding it to assemble. The risk was a formidable one for responsible men to run. Many of the people were already on their way, and only O'Connell's own rapid and vigorous measures in sending out in all directions to intercept them hindered the actual shedding of blood.

His prosecution and that of some of his principal adherents was the next important event. By a Dublin jury he was found guilty, sentenced to two years imprisonment, and conveyed to prison, still earnestly entreating the people to remain quiet, an order which they strictly obeyed. The jury by which he had been condemned was known to be strongly biassed against him, and an appeal had been forwarded against his sentence to the House of Lords. So strong there, too, was the feeling against O'Connell, that little expectation was entertained of its being favourably received. Greatly to its honour, however, the sentence was reversed and he was set free. His imprisonment had been of the lightest and least onerous description conceivable; indeed was ironically described by Mitchell shortly afterwards as that of a man--"addressed by bishops, complimented by Americans, bored by deputations, serenaded by bands, comforted by ladies, half smothered by roses, half drowned in champagne." The enthusiasm shown at his release was frantic and delirious. None the less those months in Richmond prison proved the death-knell of his power. He was an old man by this time; he was already weakened in health, and that buoyancy which had hitherto carried him over any and every obstacle never again revived. The "Young Ireland" party, the members of which had in the first instance been his allies and lieutenants, had now formed a distinct section, and upon the vital question of resistance were in fierce hostility to all his most cherished principles. The state of the country, too, preyed visibly upon his mind. By 1846 had begun that succession of disastrous seasons which, by destroying the feeble barrier which stood between the peasant and a cruel death, brought about a national tragedy, the most terrible perhaps with which modern Europe has been confronted. This tragedy, though he did not live to see the whole of it, O'Connell--himself the incarnation of the people--felt acutely. Deep despondency took hold of him. He retired, to a great degree, from public life, leaving the conduct of his organization in the hands of others. Few more tragic positions have been described or can be conceived than that of this old man-so loved, so hated, so reverenced, so detested--who had been so audaciously, triumphantly successful in his day, and round whom the shadows of night were now gathering so blackly and so swiftly. Despair was tightening its grip round the hearts of all Irishmen, and it found its strongest hold upon the heart of the greatest Irishman of his age. Nothing speaks more eloquently of the total change of situation than the pity and respectful consideration extended at this time to O'Connell by men who only recently had exhausted every possibility of vituperation in abuse of the burly demagogue. In 1847 he resolved to leave Ireland, and to end his days in Rome. His last public appearance was in the House of Commons, where an attentive and deeply respectful audience hung upon the faultering and barely articulate accents which fell from his lips. In a few deeply moving words he appealed for aid and sympathy for his suffering countrymen, and left the House; within a few months he had died at Genoa. Such a bare summary leaves necessarily whole regions of the subject unexplored, but, let the final verdict of history on O'Connell be what it may, that he loved his country passionately, and with an absolute disinterestedness no pen has ever been found to question, nor can we doubt that whatever else may have hastened his end it was the Famine killed him, almost as surely as it did the meanest of its victims.

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