Young Ireland and the Fenians

Eleanor Hull
Young Ireland and the Fenians

Before O’Connell died a party with new political aims had come into existence in Ireland. The movement of the Young Irelanders, as the intellectual leaders of this party loved to style themselves, may be said to date from the founding of the Nation newspaper by three ardent young men, two of them barristers, who under the elm-trees of the Phoenix Park planned the establishment of a journal which would, in the words of Stephen Woulfe, “create and foster public opinion in Ireland and make it racy of the soil.” This was in the spring of 1842. These young men were Charles Gavan Duffy, John Blake Dillon, and Thomas Davis.[1]

They belonged to different provinces, and Davis, who was looked upon by Duffy as their “true leader” was a Protestant, the descendant of a Cromwellian family on one side and of Anglo-Welshmen on the other. Davis did not aspire to popular leadership. Timid and dreamy as a boy, disciplined by thought and study as a youth, he became, not the idol of the populace, but an inspirer of earnest men. His passion was to restore to the country its true possessions, its language, history, and literature; to instil culture of the mind and independent reflection, founded upon, but not bound by, the material necessities of her national life.

“Educate that you may be free” was the keynote of the new journal,[2] which was destined to find its way within a year of its existence into nearly every household in Ireland. It poured out articles of a higher type of thought and style of writing than had been known in the country or were then common anywhere. It preached temperance, patience, energy, and resolution; it denounced crime, pointed out defects in character, industry, agriculture, and art; and it held up the spirit of the people while it taught them tolerance and union.

In its pages appeared for the first time the ballads and essays of Mangan, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Denis Florence MacCarthy, Duffy, and Davis. Their poems appealed to the people at large, as Moore’s settings of old Irish airs had stirred the more cultured audiences of the concert platform and the drawing-room. They succeeded beyond expectation. A feeling of true nationality spread among all classes, uniting the most discordant elements.

The idea of a country “going forward as a brotherhood towards the attainment of a national object” appealed to men of widely different standpoints, and kept the people sober and peaceful under all the excitement of O’Connell’s monster meetings. It brought into the ranks of the Repealers many of the Protestant gentry and representatives of the landlord class led by William Smith O’Brien, and it induced men of legal standing, like the future Judge O’Hagan, to join the National movement; men of position and influence and as averse to extreme measures as O’Connell was himself.

At the date of the founding of the Nation, repeal seemed to be dead. In the election of 1841 not a single recruit had been made to the party, except among O’Connell’s own relations. The boroughs obediently returned Whigs and Government officials to power as in the old bad days of landlord control. O’Connell himself lost his seat for Dublin, in spite of the fifty repeal meetings that had been held in that city, and he had to seek election elsewhere.

The Government believed that the repeal scare was over. But the next year municipal reform was conceded, and O’Connell was chosen as the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin. He discharged the duties with an efficiency and care which earned him the thanks of the Corporation; and he left to his successors the honourable compromise that a Catholic and Protestant should alternate in the office. In the same broad spirit he desired to win the Protestant and Presbyterian population to the repeal cause and to give them places on the committee of management.

From 1843 the Repeal Association, which had now had three years of existence, began to show visible results. The meetings grew larger and the tone of the speeches more menacing; repeal reading-rooms were established all over the country, and no less than nine thousand copies of the Nation were regularly printed and were read in these centres. Lord John Russell, in the House of Commons (July 28, 1843), predicted that O’Connell would successfully evade the Convention Act and that “the Lord Lieutenant would sit powerless in the Castle while the country was ruled from O’Connell’s Conciliation Hall.”

The monster meetings at Mullaghmast and at Tara attracted attention far beyond the British Isles. Peel announced that though he deprecated war, and especially civil war, yet there was no alternative which he did not think preferable to the dismemberment of the Empire. The stringent Arms Act which followed and the threats of interference which caused O’Connell to call off the Clontarf meeting of October 8, 1843, were only preliminaries to the final blow of the Government.

On October 14, O’Connell was arrested on charges of conspiracy and sedition, and with him Gavan Duffy, editor of the Nation, John Gray of the Freeman, and others, but they were at once released on bail. The trial did not come on till early in 1844, when the printed indictment handed to the court was nearly a hundred yards long, containing forty-three overt acts, including speeches, attendance at monster meetings, and articles in the Nation.

The most momentous fact was the entire exclusion of Catholics from a jury that was to try the foremost Catholic in the country, all those whose names were called being objected to by the Government prosecutor. It was this which caused Lord Denman afterwards to describe trial by jury in Ireland as “a mockery, a delusion, and a snare.”

The packing of juries in Crown prosecutions against Catholics was notorious, but in O’Connell’s case it attracted more than usual attention. No act of rebellion or “wicked and foul conspiracy,” such as had been predicted by the Attorney-General, was disclosed in the trial.

It was admitted that the Association was legal and that the meetings had been orderly, but it was argued that they were held for the unlawful purpose of intimidating the English people and legislature. Conviction followed on February 12, but sentence was not pronounced until the next term.

O’Connell spent the interval in London, where he was a centre for party intrigues. He was accorded a respectful hearing in the House of Commons, but on May 30 he was condemned to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of £2,000, with security for good behaviour. His detention in Richmond gaol was only nominal, for he was allowed to see and entertain his friends, and to continue journalistic work.

In September the judgment was reversed in the House of Lords, and O’Connell was released amid scenes of great excitement. But his mental powers were fast failing, and his temporary attachment to the idea of the alternative scheme of federation, then becoming a favourite doctrine with many who despaired of achieving repeal, was probably only one symptom of enfeebled powers. It confused his adherents and alienated his friends and, later, he himself discarded it.

His policy of “taking an instalment when he could not get the whole” did not please the more ardent spirits of his party and led to a fresh breach with the Young Irelanders, several of whom, John Mitchel in particular, were gradually tending toward more violent means of attaining their political ends, especially after the early death in 1845 of Thomas Davis.

O’Connell, on the other hand, allied himself with the Whig administration, under which several of his followers took office. He died in Genoa on May 15, 1847, in the midst of the awful famine whose dark shadow had been slowly creeping over his native land during the final years of his sojourn there.

His last words in Parliament, spoken in broken tones hardly audible to the House, were a warning of what was happening in Ireland.

“Ireland is in your hands, in your power. If you do not save her she cannot save herself. … I predict that a quarter of her population will perish unless you come to her relief.”[3]

To the Young Irelanders it seemed that O’Connell, in forsaking repeal and uniting with the English Government, had sacrificed the cause. The breach between them and “Old Ireland,” as O’Connell styled his party, was complete. With a man like John O’Connell, the Liberator’s son, who posed as the “Young Liberator” and without any of his father’s talents aspired to succeed to his father’s place in the popular favour, they could have nothing to do.

Early in 1846 Duffy had put Mitchel in temporary control of the Nation while he took a rest for literary purposes, but he was recalled to office by the recklessness with which Mitchel dealt alike with financial and public affairs. The tone of the paper became violent and threatening, and the more stable spirits were alarmed at its new departure when it began to publish articles which spoke of a blow that was to be struck at the British Empire, and forewarned the Government of the purposes to which railways might be put if a hostile use were made of them.[4] This was Mitchel’s answer to the threat of the Government to dispatch troops to suppress public opinion and declare the repeal movement high treason.

The ethics of rebellion are difficult to formulate; but what is certain is that for years every constitutional effort had been made, backed by the opinion of a multitude of people expressed in meetings of enormous size and supported by that of a large number of the educated classes of all forms of religious thought, to bring about repeal. They had spoken alike through the Press and in Parliament.

In all cases these constitutionally formulated utterances had been met by forcible suppression, by the imprisonment of the leaders, and by the open contempt of Ministers. Coercion Acts rained upon the country, the Habeas Corpus Act had been suspended almost continuously, and juries were packed and threatened with punishment if they did not bring in the required verdict.

In order to enforce this system, every department of local and general administration, from that of the Lord-Lieutenant, Chief Secretary, and Lord Chancellor, down to the Customs’ Office and Constabulary, had at their head Englishmen or Scotchmen who had no interest in the country save to further their own advancement by carrying out the behests of the Government of the day.

Session after session measures had been forced upon Ireland against the will of her representatives; and those that were supported by a majority of the Irish members were contemptuously rejected.

Meanwhile the country was going from bad to worse; outrages were increasing, famine and disease were spreading and the relations of the classes toward each other were becoming rapidly more embittered.

It was such causes as these that led Sir Samuel Ferguson, a poet and antiquarian and a strong constitutionalist, to found the Protestant Repeal Association; and such causes which induced William Smith O’Brien, a Protestant landowner of ancient Irish lineage, to join the movement, with which up to 1843 he had declined to identify himself.

Eventually, O’Brien became the leader of the ill-planned and abortive insurrection of 1848. Yet “he was persuaded that not one man in a thousand among the Repealers desired either separation from England or a change of sovereign. The demand for repeal was not the voice of treason, but the language of despair.”[5]

At the time that O’Brien made this speech he was not a member of the Repeal Association. He spoke as a country gentleman anxious to live a quiet life in his own country and to see the Union made effective for the liberty and happiness of his people. But three months later he was forced forward by his position and changing views to join the Association, and his standing and character speedily made him the second leader in the movement. He vowed not to taste wine or any intoxicant until the Union was repealed.

Meanwhile the Young Ireland party was becoming broken into sections by differences of opinion. Mitchel had adopted the “physical force policy” announced by James Fintan Lalor; a policy, as one of his associates named it, of insurrection, without its courage or resources.[6] Other members of the association, such as Dillon, O’Hagan, McGee, Gavan Duffy, and Meagher disapproved of these views, but their persuasions could not turn him from his purpose and he retired from the staff of the Nation and founded the United Irishman to voice his opinions.

Duffy, on the contrary, advocated the formation of a Parliamentary party independent of any English party and refusing all alliance with them or any places or favours offered by the Government. Such a party, he believed, if of adequate capacity and character, could rule the House of Commons.[7] In after years Parnell confessed that it was Sir Charles Gavan Duffy’s plan of an independent Opposition that had suggested to him the formation of such a party; but in his opinion this only became possible after the passing of the Ballot Act of 1872.[8]

But once more, as in Tone’s day, affairs in France precipitated action at home. Louis Philippe had fled to England and a republic had been proclaimed. Even Gavan Duffy thought the time had come for a union of Old and Young Irelanders and a “peaceful revolution.” He believed it might be won without a shot being fired,[9] and that the Catholic Church would move with them. Dillon and Smith O’Brien advocated moderation and an appeal to the gentry to declare for self-government.

Mitchel spoke extravagantly about a republic and a peasant war, though he had disavowed these doctrines a short time before.[10] He attracted to his banner the hotheaded young men of the student class, but beyond vitriolic articles in his weekly paper, he made no preparations.

The people were unorganized, unprepared, and unarmed, while the Government was ready at all points and the hasty passing of an Act, called the Treason Felony Act, which made written or spoken sedition punishable by penal servitude for life, put it into the power of the authorities to take immediate steps.

Mitchel was arrested on May 13 and Duffy on July 9, 1848, with several of his confederates. The Habeas Corpus Act was suspended and their journals suppressed. Pushed on by circumstances, Smith O’Brien rashly attempted a rising in Munster, but in a short time he was arrested at Thurles, and all was over.

O’Brien, Meagher, and their comrades were sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted; Duffy, after five commissions set to try him, walked out a free man, though in all these cases the jurors were as carefully packed as in the days before emancipation, and only one single juror of the Catholic faith was allowed to sit at any of the five separate trials for life.[11]

Mitchel and his companions were sent to Tasmania as convicts, but they were allowed freedom of action on parole and were, as John O’Leary says “treated like gentlemen.” Some of them were pardoned in 1854 and returned home; others escaped in a vessel sent by sympathizers to take them off; but Smith O’Brien, from a high sense of honour, refused to take advantage of the chance of escape by which the others were set free. Eventually he was pardoned by Queen Victoria and returned to his old home at Cahirmoyle.