The Effect of the Fenian Executions

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

WHEN a funeral procession was organized in London the day after the executions at Manchester, a consoling comparison was immediately instituted between the activity of the Irish in England and the apathy of the Irish at home. Fenian sympathies manifested themselves, it was said, where their presence was least to be dreaded; they were quiet where they had been thought most formidable. The history of the next fortnight showed the amount of reliance to be placed on this optimist conclusion. The streets of Dublin have been thronged with a procession largely recruited from the respectable ranks, and composed of persons of various creeds, contented to sink the differences by which Irishmen are so often divided in a common homage to national sentiment. The number of those who actually took part in it was very large—the most competent judges fixing it at 25,000, while other authorities, not all friendly, estimate it at from 30,000 to 40,000. Even the highest of these figures by no means represents the amount of interest called forth in the city. An immense proportion of the spectators wore the funeral colours, and many persons were seen with them at the windows even of houses of the better class. Much of this feeling would probably have led to a more active participation in the ceremony if the weather had not been cold and wet to a degree unusual even in December.

One remarkable feature was the presence of about 2,000 children of both sexes, so young that they must have been sent there by, or at any rate with the consent of, their parents. This is a proof that the sympathy, instead of being confined to men who are very young or very reckless, extends to fathers of families, to men who in sacrificing the comfort and risking the health of their children by sending them to stand for hours in the mud in preparation for a walk of six miles through driving sleet, could have had no motive except the desire to identify them with the cause to which they are themselves attached. Perhaps this fact is even more significant than the numbers, or the military bearing, of well-dressed young men who attended. In Limerick again there was a procession, smaller indeed in actual magnitude, but larger in proportion to the population—10,000 in a city of 44,500. Equally representative demonstrations have been made in most of the cities and principal towns of Ireland; and if Belfast is excepted from the list, it must be remembered that a procession almost rivalling that at Dublin in size lately followed the body of a Fenian prisoner who had died in gaol.

Clearly then the strange belief that the executions would have a deterrent effect on the Irish people has not been justified by the result. Those who held it can scarcely have made sufficient allowance for difference of circumstances and character. To the prosperous, well-to-do man, with no very strong religious convictions death is doubtless a thing to shudder at. He prefers, naturally enough, the comfortable realities of the present to the cold uncertainty of an unknown future. It does not follow that the poor man, to whom life is a hard struggle, and the glories of the future a vivid reality, will equally shrink from the portal of that brighter existence. The ordinary teaching of the Catholic Church has given to the world beyond the grave a distinctness of which the mass of Protestants have little conception; and the outlines thus drawn have been filled up yet more minutely by popular tradition. On a nation at once Catholic and unprosperous this fact is calculated to have an effect which may easily be overlooked by those who are strangers to both conditions.

The argument for a vigorous policy of repression in the case of Fenianism, sometimes deduced from the success of the O'Connell prosecutions, shows an equal misconception of Irish affairs. The conditions of the two movements are wholly antagonistic. O'Connell's weapon was "moral force;" his agitation was orderly or it was nothing. An adverse verdict cut the ground from under him. A party which professed respect for the Constitution and the law had no locus standi left it when the highest legal authorities had pronounced its policy unconstitutional. And the result of the O'Connell trial was as much a triumph for the party of action as for the party of order. After Mr. Mitchel had been convicted, he reminded the Government of his previous declaration that he would compel them to treat Ireland as a conquered country. The Young Ireland policy of that day expressly aimed at provoking an evident collision between the Government and the people, in order that the latter might unlearn all that O'Connell had taught them, might abandon Constitutional action in despair of Parliamentary redress, and might brood in secret over the counsel: "una salus victis nullam sperare salutem." It took longer than Mr. Mitchel expected for the mass of the people, whom his journal did not reach, to forget the living lesson of O'Connell's presence; but in a new generation, educated by schools, by the Temperance movement, by the famine, by emigration, and above all by foreign military service, the seed found a congenial soil, and bore its natural fruit in Fenianism.

In this connection the view of the recent executions taken in the French and American press is not without importance. On the Continent Fenianism has until lately been regarded merely as a curiosity. After the Manchester executions, however, a new tone has been adopted by journalists; and two powerful motives will probably prevent its being speedily changed. The reactionists, so often troubled by English censure and by the contrast, pointed by domestic opponents, between foreign absolutism and English Constitutionalism, eagerly catch at the opportunity of silencing their Liberal adversaries with the argument that even in England the scaffold has been found necessary to the maintenance of authority. A large part of the Liberal party, recognizing the advantage thus gained by its foes, is angry because it can no longer refer with undiminished confidence to the example of England. And the more advanced Democrats, who insist on separating the English people from their Government, declaim with increased severity against the aristocracy as an enemy to freedom. Strangely enough two ancient foes, one the fervent admirer of England, the other the fervent admirer of absolutism, M. Prevost Paradol and M. Louis Veuillot, find themselves on this question in the same minority. M. Paradol detests Fenianism because it is in conflict with his constitutional ideal; M. Veuillot because he identifies it with revolutionary infidelity. But, with such exceptions, the more popular and the more influential papers incline to the opposite opinion, and express it with various degrees of intensity, until in the Courrier Francais the feeling becomes so fierce that the words in the Queen's Speech which characterize Fenianism as "organized outrage and assassination" are actually applied to the English Government in connection with the Manchester executions.

On the American press the effect has been of the same kind. Independently of the late occurrences, some of the Catholic religious papers, which at one time made a firm stand against Fenianism, appear to have found it too strong for them, and have either dropped the subject altogether or refer to it at very rare intervals. Others have openly deserted their original standard, and become ardent supporters of the cause they once opposed. No new Irish-American paper is started—and several have recently appeared—which is not openly and avowedly Fenian. And now, what is more directly to the point, the papers not hostile to England—a small fraction indeed since the Civil War—have been almost unanimous in denouncing the executions. They have all a common interest in asserting the superiority of the United States to Great Britain in point of lenity—while the less scrupulous journals have a special interest to outbid each other in the violence of their declamations, in the hope of attracting the Irish vote to the party to which they severally belong.

In itself this expression of hostile opinion may be a small matter. These utterances of the foreign press, however, must be taken into account in estimating the force of Irish feeling. Extracts, embodying all the strongest passages, are sure to be circulated throughout Ireland; and the belief, exaggerated though it may be, in French and American sympathy, can hardly fail to exert a powerful influence on an impassioned and excited people. Even without this stimulus the change of opinion in Ireland during the last two years has been remarkable enough to arrest the attention of every thoughtful politician. In 1865 the attitude of the great mass of the population towards the Fenians was one of incredulous impatience. They were anathematized from the altars: they were absolutely without influence in the country. Two years of repression without any redress of the grievances acknowledged by every Liberal statesman have disarmed the bulk of indigenous opposition to Fenianism, and gone far to identify the movement in popular estimation with the cause of the nation at large. And most momentous of all has been the change during the weeks which followed the executions at Manchester.

Men who had hitherto been firm believers in the sufficiency of those measures of remedial legislation, which have been so long discussed and evaded, have now lost faith in their effect; and it has become a question no longer merely whether the Church Establishment must be abolished and the position of the tenant class secured, but whether even these concessions of justice will bring healing in their train, unless they are combined with some positive step towards organization and development of the national life of Ireland.