Doneraile Conspiracy

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXVII

One of the most important instances in which O'Connell's legal acumen saved the lives of his countrymen, is known as the "Doneraile Conspiracy;" and as all the facts are eminently illustrative of the history of Ireland at that period, and of the character and abilities of one of her most distinguished sons, I shall relate the circumstances.

Several Protestant gentlemen in the neighbourhood of Doneraile, had been making those abortive efforts to "convert" their tenants from Popery, which usually end in no small amount of ill-feeling on both sides; another of these gentlemen, with equal zeal and equal want of common sense and common humanity, had devoted himself to hunting out real or supposed rebels. This gentleman had at last brought on himself an armed attack, for which he deserved little pity. He contrived, however, to capture one of his assailants, who, of course, was hung. The gentlemen having thus excited the unfortunate peasantry, pointed to the results of their own folly as though these results had been the cause of it: and an informer came forward, who, with the usual recklessness of his atrocious class, accused some of the most respectable farmers of the district of having entered into a conspiracy to murder the Protestant gentlemen,—a cruel return certainly, had it been true, for their earnest efforts to convert the natives from "the errors of Popery to those of the Protestant Church."

A special commission was sent down; the wildest excitement prevailed on all sides; and, as was usual in such cases, the bitterest prejudice against the unfortunate accused. The Solicitor-General led for the crown: the defence was a simple denial. In such cases the examination of the approvers is the great point for the accused, and should be. confided to the ablest counsel. One of the unfortunate prisoners was a respectable farmer, aged seventy, of whom the highest character was given. But it was all in vain; after five minutes' deliberation, the jury gave in the verdict of guilty. As the men were to be made an "example of," they were sentenced to be hanged in six days. This was on Saturday. The next lot of prisoners was to be tried at nine o'clock on Monday morning. There was one universal cry for "O'Connell," from the great multitude who knew these poor victims were perfectly innocent.

On Saturday night a farmer mounted the best horse that could be found in Cork, and, after a night of incessant riding, he reached Derrynane Abbey on Sunday morning at nine o'clock. His name was William Burke: let it be transmitted with all honour to posterity! He told his errand to one who never listened unmoved to the tale of his country's sorrows and wrongs, and he assured O'Connell that, unless he were in Cork by nine next morning, the unfortunate prisoners, "though innocent as the child unborn," would all be hanged. The great man at once prepared for his journey; and so wild was the joy of Burke, so sure was he that there would now be a hope, if not a certainty, of justice, that only the earnest entreaties of O'Connell could induce him to remain a few hours to rest his weary horse.

On the same good horse he set out again, and reached Cork at eight o'clock on Monday morning, having travelled 180 miles in thirty-eight hours. Scouts had been posted all along the road to watch the man's return: even as he passed through each little village, there was an anxious crowd waiting the word of life or death. "O'Connell's coming, boys!" was enough; and a wild cheer, which rent the very mountains, told how keenly an act of justice could be appreciated by the most justice-loving people upon earth. And O'Connell did come. He has himself described the sensations of that midnight journey, through all the autumn beauties of the most beautiful scenery in the United Kingdom. And then he exclaims: "After that glorious feast of soul, I found myself settled down amid all the rascalities of an Irish court of justice."