By Thomas Davis
IT was a bold experiment to establish The Nation. Our success is more honourable to Ireland than to us, for it was by defying evil customs and bad prejudices we succeeded.
Let us prove this.
Religion has for ages been so mixed with Irish quarrels that it is often hard to say whether patriotism or superstition was the animating principle of an Irish leader, and whether political rapacity or bigoted zeal against bigotry was the motive of an oppressor. Yet in no country was this more misplaced in our day than in Ireland. Our upper classes were mostly Episcopalians--masters not merely of the institutions, but the education and moral force of the country. The middle ranks and much of the peasantry of one of our greatest provinces were Presbyterians, obstinate in their simple creed--proud of their victories, yet apprehensive of oppression. The rest of the population were Catholics, remarkable for piety and tenderness, but equally noted for ignorance and want of self-reliance. To mingle politics and religion in such a country was to blind men to their common secular interests, to render political union impossible, and national independence hopeless.
We grappled with the difficulty. We left sacred things to consecrated hands--theology and discipline to Churchmen. We preached a nationality that asked after no man's creed (friend's or foe's); and now, after our Second Year's Work, we have got a practical as well as a verbal admission that religion is a thing between man and God--that no citizen is to be hooted, or abused, or marked down because he holds any imaginable creed, or changes it any conceivable number of times.We are proudly conscious that, in preaching these great truths with success, we have done more to convince the Protestants that they may combine with the Catholics and get from under the shield of England than if we had proved that the Repeal of the Union would double the ears of their corn fields.
There had been a long habit of looking to foreign arms or English mercy for redress. We have shared the labours of O'Connell and O'Brien in impressing on the People that self-reliance is the only liberator. We have, not in vain, taught that, though the concessions of England or the sympathy of others was to be welcomed and used, still they would be best won by dignity and strength; and that, whether they came or not, Ireland could redress herself by patience, energy, and resolution.
Yet, deficient as the People were in genuine self-reliance, they had been pampered into the belief that they were highly educated, nobly represented, successful in every science and art, and that consequently their misery was a mysterious fate, for which there was no remedy in human means. We believe we have convinced them of the contrary of this. Ireland has done great things. She has created an unrivalled music and oratory, taken a first place in lyric poetry, displayed great valour, ready wit--has been a pattern of domestic virtue and faith under persecution; and lately has again advanced herself and her fame by deliberate temperance, by organised abstinence from crime, and by increasing political discipline. Yet there is that worst of all facts on the face of the census, that most of the Irish can neither read nor write; there is evidence in every exhibition that this land, which produced Barry, Forde, Maclise, and Burton, is ignorant of the fine arts; and proof in every shop or factory of the truth of Kane's motto, that industrial ignorance is a prime obstacle to our wealth. We have no national theatre, either in books or performance; and though we have got of late some classes of prose literature--national fiction, for instance--we have yet to write our history, our statistics, and much of our science.
We have week after week candidly told these things to the People, and, instead of quarrelling with us, or running off to men who said "the Irish have succeeded in everything," they hearkened to us, and raised our paper into a circulation beyond most of the leaders of the London press, and immensely beyond any other journal that ever was in Ireland. What is more cheering still, they have set about curing their defects. They are founding Repeal Reading-rooms. They have noted down their ignorance in many portions of agriculture, manufactures, commerce, history, literature, and fine arts; and they are working with the Agricultural Societies, forming Polytechnic Institutions for the improvement of manufactures, and giving and demanding support to the antiquarian and historical and artistical books and institutions in Ireland. Large classes wished well to, and small ones supported each of these projects before; but in this journal all classes were canvassed incessantly, and not in vain--and if there be unanimity now, we claim some credit for ourselves, but much more for the People, who did not resent harsh truth, and took advice that affronted their vanity.
A political impatience and intolerance have too often been seen in this country. It is one of the vices of slaves to use free speech to insult all who do not praise their faults, and their friends, and their caprices. We rejoice, in looking over our files, to see how rarely we. were personal, and how generally we recognised the virtues of political foes. It is an equal pleasure to recall that in many questions, but especially in reference to the Liberal Members not in the Association, we stood between an impolitic fury and its destined victims. The People bore with us, and then agreed with us. We told them that men able and virtuous--men who had gone into Parliament when Repeal was a Whig buggaboo to frighten the Tories, were not to be hallooed from their seats because Repeal had suddenly grown into a national demand. These men, we said, may become your allies, if you do not put them upon their mettle by your rudeness and impatience. If they join you, they will be faster and more useful friends than men who compensate for every defect by pledge-bolting at command.
Mr. O'Connell, who had at first seemed to incline to the opposite opinion, concurred with us. Mr. O'Brien was zealous on the same side; the "premature pledges" were postponed to their fit time--an election--and the People induced to apply themselves to the Registries, as the true means of getting Repeal members.
We have maintained and advanced our foreign policy--the recognition and study of other countries beside England, and a careful separation of ourselves from England's crimes. We have, we believe, not neglected those literary, antiquarian, and historical teachings, and those popular projects which we pointed to last year as part of our labours; and we are told that the poetry of The Nation has not been worse than in our first year. But these things are more personal, less indicative of national progress, and therefore less interesting than our success in producing political tolerance, increased efforts for education, and that final concession to religious liberty--the right to change without even verbal persecution.
The last year has been a year of hard work and hard trial to the country and to us. Our first year was spent in rousing and animating--the second in maintaining, guiding, and restraining. Its motto is, "Bide your time." Never had a People more temptation to be rash; and it is our proudest feeling that in our way we aided the infinitely greater powers of O'Connell till his imprisonment, and of O'Brien thereafter, to keep in the passion, while they kept up the spirit of the People.
They and we succeeded.
The People saw the darling of their hearts dragged to trial, yet they never rioted; they found month after month go by in the disgusting details of a trial at bar, yet, instead of desponding, they improved their organisation, studied their history and statistics--increased in dignity, modesty, and strength. At length came the imprisonment; we almost doubted them, but they behaved gloriously--they recognised their wrongs, but they crossed their arms--they were neither terrified, disordered, nor divided--they promptly obeyed their new leaders, and, with shut teeth, swore that their "only vengeance should be victory." They succeeded--bore their triumph as well as their defeat, and are now taking breath for a fresh effort at education, organisation, and conciliation.
It is something to have laboured through a Second Year for such a People. Let them go on as they have begun--growing more thoughtful, more temperate, more educated, more resolute --let them complete their parish organisation, carry out their registries, and, above all, establish those Reading-rooms which will inform and strengthen them into liberty; and, ere many years' work, the Green Flag will be saluted by Europe, and Ireland will be a Nation. The People have shown that their spirit, their discipline, and their modesty can be relied on; they have but to exhibit that greatest virtue which their enemies deny them--perseverance--and all will be well.