The divided Irish; an historical sketch


After O’Connell’s death the revolutionary spirit, which he had opposed resolutely, increased in boldness, strength, and popularity. The French revolution in 1848, by substituting a republic in place of the deposed king Louis Philippe, caused the greatest excitement among Irish revolutionists. Smith O’Brien, the nominal leader of The Young Irelanders, for some time opposed actual rebellion. He differed from many of his impetuous followers. But, though firm, even to obstinacy, he was. more influenced by his colleagues than the steady, self-reliant O’Connell ever was. He proceeded to Paris with Meagher and other leaders to congratulate the new republic and solicit its sympathy, if not aid, in behalf of Irish independence. The French president, M. Lamartine, was a man of peace and moderation. He, like O’Connell, dreaded revolution in his own and every other country, and therefore gave his Irish visitors a most discouraging reception.* He was firmly resolved to oppose Irish disaffection towards England, which had cordially recognised the new French republic. Smith O’Brien before Lamartine presented a curious, interesting historical contrast to the Catholic Viceroy, Tyrconnel, before Louis XIV. in behalf of James the Second, and to Wolfe Tone a century later before General Hoche in behalf of an Irish republic. Yet all three petitioners solicited French aid against England in the name of Ireland. But now, for the first time in history, the French nation, through Lamartine, virtually exhorted the Irish to acknowledge British authority and expect no French assistance against it. The French Communists, however, headed by Blanqui and others, the avowed foes and secret dread of all Catholic clergy, from the Pope to the parish curate, highly disapproved of Lamartine’s words. They showed the greatest sympathy for the cause of Irish revolution. But Lamartine’s reply, evidently sanctioned by the French nation generally, gave thorough satisfaction in England. In the London comic prints he was drawn throwing, literal as well as metaphorical, cold water over the shrinking members of the Irish deputation. Yet, in spite of their disappointment, O’Brien and his friends could not bring themselves to any alliance with Blanqui, Proudhon, and the extreme or “red” republicans, who professed utter atheism. These ’48 leaders were not only more religious than French sympathisers, but more than their rebel predecessors of ’98. They had no idea of “overthrowing the altar with the throne,” the favourite idea of many French republicans, with which Tone in his diary apparently agrees.

*”‘The French nation is proud of the many historical recollections which unite them with the Irish people, and it will be always ready to evince that feeling by acts. But as to other encouragements, it is not suitable (convenable) either for us to give or you to receive them. I have said this already in reference to Belgium, to Germany, to Italy. I repeat it with reference to every country which is engaged in disputes with its internal government. When one is not united by blood with a people it is not allowable to intervene in its affairs by the hand. We are at peace, and wish to remain so, with the whole kingdom of Great Britain, and not with a part of it only.’ The Irish deputation withdrew violently chagrined at these words. In the evening, Smith O’Brien and his colleagues were loudly applauded at Blanqui’s Club, the most violent in Paris, where the speech of Lamartine met with unqualified condemnation.”—Alison’s “History of Europe,” Vol. VIII.

When O’Brien and his friends returned to Ireland the violence of their speeches and writings against the British government so increased, that he, with Meagher and M’Manus, were arrested, tried, convicted of high treason, and condemned to death, but only transported. Although O’Brien was called the head of the “Young Ireland “party, its chief orator was Thomas Meagher. This young man resembled Robert Emmet in eloquence and Lord Edward Fitzgerald in personal courage; but the latter quality he had no opportunity of displaying in Ireland. His eloquence, however, like that of M’Manus and others, which had so charmed Irish audiences, was manifested to the general public at their trials, and made some impression even upon British readers* Like their ’98 predecessors, these Irish revolutionists appeared at their best during adversity. Like them also, they never had the chance of displaying personal bravery in Ireland. They were, therefore, naturally but erroneously despised by some as merely “men of words.” Their easy arrests without any attempt at rescue or resistance, proved that their apparent, and, to some extent, real popularity, had aroused no vehement, devoted partisans.**

Mr. Mitchel, who was transported shortly before the other leaders, was in some respects a more determined man than any of them. As a writer, his violence, amounting to positive ferocity, enraged opponents, and shocked many partisans. His language revealed the fierce energy of Tone, without the same gaiety of spirit.

*The Scottish historian, Alison, was evidently surprised at their eloquent devotion to a cause practically unsupported by its adherents. O’Brien said: “I have only done that which, in my opinion, it was the duty of every Irishman to have done. And I am now prepared to abide the consequences.”—The fervent Meagher exclaimed much in the style of Robert Emmet: “With my country I leave my memory, my sentiments, my acts, proudly feeling that they require no vindication from me this day. On this spot, where the shadows of death surround me, and from which I see my early grave in an unconsecrated soil is ready to receive me, even here the hope which beckoned me on to embark upon the perilous sea, upon which I have been wrecked, still consoles, animates, enraptures me. To lift up this isle, to make her a benefactor to humanity instead of being what she is—the meanest beggar in the world—to restore her ancient constitution and her native powers. This has been my ambition, and this has been my crime. Judged thus, the treason of which I have been convicted loses all guilt, has been sanctified as a duty, and will be ennobled as a sacrifice.” Alison observes: “These are noble words, which will speak to the hearts of the right-hearted and the generous of every future age. They only make us the more regret that men actuated by such elevated sentiments should be so far misled.”—” History of Europe,” Vol. VII.

**Evidently the ’48 movement, as planned by Smith O’Brien, could not be popular with average revolutionists. “It afterwards appeared that any little chance of carrying on any manner of rebellion was put a stop to by Smith O’Brien’s own resolution, that his rebels must not seize the private property of anyone. He insisted that his rebellion must pay its way, and the funds were soon out.” — McCarthy’s “History of our own Times,” Vol. II.

No levity, no freak of fancy, no boasting of drunkenness or wild admiration of French theatres, which make Tone’s diary such a fantastic production, enlivened Mitchel’s bitter compositions.* Whether as a journalist or historian, only hard, vehement earnestness, bitter invective, and vicious personal abuse of the Government officials, flowed from Mitchel’s powerful pen. An eminent living Irish writer remarks that in recent Irish revolts the leaders have been Protestants. Their language, especially Mitchel’s, in reminding Irish Catholics of “Saxon ” oppression, recall Macaulay’s opinion of Walter Scott’s political sympathies. The Liberal historian censures the Tory novelist for in sentiment taking the part of ancestral foes against his own ancestors.** The Irish Catholics had certainly suffered far more from the ancestry of non-Catholic fellow-countrymen than from the British monarchy, against which Irish Protestant leaders roused their fury by the most frantic language. Mitchel especially thought, spoke, and wrote like an Irish chief mortally injured by English rule, whereas, but for it neither his religion nor race would probably have survived in Ireland. Of all the ’48 leaders none used such outrageous language as John Mitchel. Yet his style was attractive and original, owing to its eloquent, fiery earnestness. His intense energy of thought and feeling, his utter fearlessness of the powerful government against which he waged a paper war with a savage hatred unworthy of civilisation, made him the most dangerous of the ’48 leaders.*** In a London comic paper he was represented as a tiny monkey challenging the comtemptuous looking British lion to mortal combat, and exclaiming, “One of us must be put down!” Yet he was evidently more daring in behalf of the Irish people than any of them were for him. He, with the other ’48 chiefs, some personally brave, and mostly men of talent and attractive eloquence, were as easily arrested as a few pickpockets, without a blow struck or shot fired in their defence. No rescue either was attempted in their behalf. At their trials they were loudly cheered by excited mobs, and warmly praised in some local papers, but no one ventured life or limb for them. They were publicly sympathised with and publicly punished, but the idea of rescue or defence seems never to have occurred to their noisy, though not insincere admirers.

*”Mitchel was the one formidable man among the rebels of ’48. He was the one man who distinctly knew what he wanted, and was prepared to run any risk to get it. He was cast in the very mould of a genuine revolutionist. He was a fanatic, clever and fearless; he would neither have asked quarter nor given it.”—M’Carthy’s “History of our own Times,” Vol. II.

**”When Scott mentioned Killiecrankie he seemed utterly to forget that he was a Saxon. His heart swelled with triumph when he related how his own kindred had fled like hares before a small number of warriors of a different breed and of a different tongue.”—”History of England,” Vol. III.

***”The stern Unitarian Ulster man soon developed a decided bent in favour of what half a century before would be called French principles.’ He was republican and revolutionary. John Mitchel declared that Constitutionalism was demoralising the country. By blood and iron alone could Ireland be saved.” Sullivan’s “New Ireland,” Vol. I.

Some people ignorant of Ireland thought that this practical indifference towards such men proved Irish loyalty to British rule and utter disapprobation of their conduct. But this was not the case. The religious element, always the strongest influence over Irish minds, interposed between mere applause and dangerous action, permitting, even encouraging, sympathy, but forbidding participation.* Though the chief leaders were Protestant, they yet appealed, like their predecessors in ’98, far more successfully to Irish Catholics, while influencing few coreligionists. The frequent expression of “Ireland for the Irish,” the furious appeals of Mitchel to Irish Catholics, especially about their country’s long oppression by England, roused little sympathy among Protestants. Many Irish Catholics were rather puzzled to hear ancestral wrongs called to mind and even their revengeful feelings aroused by men whose religion and race were those of their historical foes. Like the “United Irish” revolt of ’98, which the ’48 movement somewhat resembled, the revolution was checked at first by the timely arrests of its leaders** Although obedience to British rule was everywhere restored in Ireland, it was not that of contented loyalty. As in ’98, the Irish Catholic majority entrusted their political as well as religious guidance to their clergy. They believed, not unreasonably, that they were better advisers, even in political wisdom, than the enthusiastic, fanciful laymen, who, without military skill, foreign aid, or concerted plan of action, had nearly involved them in a hopeless contest with the British empire. The subsequent history of these leaders proves that, despite their many interesting qualities, they were thoroughly unpractical, differing often from each other, except in common dislike to British supremacy. In the American civil war, which armed fellow-republicans against each other, many Irish leaders, even Mitchel and Meagher, took opposite sides, thus proving how little they agreed in political questions, directly the British empire was out of sight.*** When they disappeared, Ireland, as after ’98, though passively loyal to British rule, remained for the most part discontented. Hostility between its religious denominations, though restrained by strict laws and vigilant police, still continued, occasionally revealed in riots arising from no other cause but sectarian animosity.

*”One important class in Ireland, a class long accustomed to move with or head the people throughout this time, set themselves invincibly against the contemplated insurrection —the Catholic clergy. They had from the first, as a body, regarded the Young Irelanders with suspicion. They fancied they saw in this movement too much that was akin to the Continental revolutionists. At this time in 1848 the power of the Catholic priests was unshaken, was stronger than ever. Their antagonism was fatal to the movement.”—Sullivan’s “New Ireland,” Vol. I.

**”Throughout the country arrests and seizure of arms were made on all hands. There was no longer any question of resistance. Never was collapse more complete. The fatal war fever that came in a day vanished almost as rapidly. Suddenly everyone appeared astounded at the madness of what had been contemplated.”—Sullivan’s “New Ireland,” Vol. I.

***”Thousands upon thousands of Irishmen fought upon either side in the great American Iliad. There is a touching story told of a battle in which a Federal Irish regiment found itself opposed to an Irish regiment on the Confederate side, and of how the two regiments refused to join battle, and passed each other with mutual cries of ‘God save Ireland.’ Of the Irish brigade that followed Meagher few came back.”—M’Carthy’s “Ireland since the Union,” Vol. II., p. 101.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!