The year 1848, and many subsequent ones, so memorable for European revolution, made a very different impression upon Great Britain and upon Ireland, as history proved. In the former the popular literature which, during domestic peace especially, has so much influence with the public, had ceased to mention British civil wars except as matters of history, which no longer aroused irritation or any kind of excitement. The popular novelists, Lord Lytton, Dickens, Thackeray, &c, described modern British society as successfully as Scott described that of previous times. Yet, to understand Irish thought and principle, Scott’s thorough knowledge of religious and political bigotry is more useful than any of them, though he never mentions Ireland. If British readers attribute to political Irishmen the mingled good and evil among intolerant people that Scott describes, they will understand them better than from most historians or contemporary writers. During the European revolts of 1848 and subsequent years, the Irish priesthood, for a long period, had watched the position of Pope Pius the Ninth with great anxiety. This Pontiff, a man of very amiable character, was deprived of his small political dominion immediately around Rome by the desire of the Italian majority, who finally obtained national independence under one ruler. This revolution was gradually effected without much opposition, though the Pope protested against it while retaining spiritual authority undiminished by this purely political change. Throughout Europe, probably, none either grieved or rejoiced over the Pope’s supposed humiliation like Irish Catholics and Protestants. Neither could understand nor believe that this Italian movement was entirely political, without being involved with religious motive or principle. To most Irish Catholics the Pope’s loss of temporal power over a small province was a sacrilegious blow aimed at the Head of the Catholic Church by Italian atheists, encouraged by British Protestants. To many Irish Protestants it seemed the death-blow given to the expiring Papacy by a nation which, probably, would soon become Protestant. It was really a contest between Italian clergy and laymen about an exclusively political question without reference to religious belief. Among many of the Irish this explanation was hardly credited for a time by any denomination. The Irish priesthood compassionating the Pope’s distress, and perhaps additionally excited by the exultation of Irish Protestants, eagerly organised an expedition of Catholic recruits in 1860 to defend the Pope against the majority of his subjects, who now acknowledged the former King of Sardinia as the sovereign of all Italy. This singular enterprise evidently puzzled many Irish popular leaders whose religious sympathies inclined them to the Pope, while their political ideas inclined them to Italian liberty.* The expedition politically failed, but the Irish volunteers who returned home were greeted with a warm welcome by their coreligionists.
*”On this subject there was displayed one of the most violent conflicts of English and Irish popular opinion that I have ever noted. Englishmen were disgusted that the Irish should, out of fanatical worship of the Pope, desire to prevent the Romans from being free. Irishmen were angered to see how filibustering raids were subsidised in England against an aged and peaceful Pontiff, the head of Christendom.”—Sullivan’s “New Ireland,” Vol. II.
This curious episode in modern Irish history proves the complete contrast between Irish popular opinion and that of other European nations. Thus foreign and British Liberals and Radicals united with Irish Protestant Conservatives in viewing the Pope’s Irish recruits with mingled ridicule and indignation. Many European monarchists, including some British Conservatives, were more inclined to sympathise with them owing to their common dread of revolutionary triumph. This expedition being favoured by Irish public opinion, however, proved one great fact, that despite French or American republican doctrines, Irish Catholics of the nineteenth century were nearly, if not quite, as much under clerical influence as their ancestors who enlisted under St. Ruth in behalf of James the Second at the same all-powerful exhortation. Neither the ideas of Tone and the Emmets in 1798, nor the eloquence of Mitchel and Meagher in 1848, aroused the same unselfish, devoted, and really generous enthusiasm displayed at this time by Irish Catholics through the moral influence of their clergy.*
The failure of the ’48 movement also showed that its leaders, though admired and popular in Ireland generally, made no firm impression on the people they aspired to guide. When they disappeared the old religious feuds which they, like their ’98 predecessors, had vainly tried to extinguish, continued to agitate the country, causing more or less riot and bloodshed every year. Political disaffection soon reappeared in the Phoenix and Fenian societies. Neither contained the eloquent or high-minded men who headed the ’48 movement. Smith O’Brien, returned from transportation, was now living quietly in Ireland. Although he never changed his political views, he strongly denounced these new conspiracies, and warned his fellow-countrymen against them. Irish popular feeling, however, had become more practical and less visionary or romantic than when he had attempted to lead it. Already there appeared designs to rouse tenants against landowners, and, to some extent, to follow Communist principles prevalent, though not established, throughout the Continent. With such ideas the aristocratic O’Brien had no sympathy whatever** He disliked them as much as the British government did, and probably his disapproval had more effect in checking them, at least for a time, than was generally known.*** He died before the Fenian agitation had acquired strength, but he would, doubtless, have opposed it like the Phoenix conspiracy, from which it proceeded, and of which it may be called the revival.**** Both movements were almost entirely confined to Roman Catholics, yet were alike condemned by their clergy. Of the two the Fenian was more dangerous, widely spread, and formidable in every way.
*”In this chapter of her history Ireland is to be seen and studied under the influences of overpowering religious emotion, or, as it might be less sympathetically said, carried away by such blind and fanatical zeal for a religious chief as must mark a nation imbued with bigotry and intolerance.”—Sullivan’s “New Ireland,” Vol. II.
**”O’Brien is bold and high-minded, but capricious, unaccountable, intractable; also, he is an aristocrat; born and bred and being a genuine Irishman himself, he cannot be brought to see that his fellow-aristocrats are not Irishmen, but the irreconcilable enemies of Ireland.”—Mitchel’s “Jail Journal.” p. 26.
***”Mr. Smith O’Brien, forgetting entirely, or appearing to forget entirely, the history of his own struggle little more than ten years earlier with O’Connell, judged it advisable to write a letter to the “Nation” appealing to the Irish people against the Phoenix conspiracy.”—M’Carthy’s “Ireland since the Union,” p. 154. As Mr. O’Brien, being sane and not old, could hardly have forgot entirely his conduct a few years before, and as even opponents acknowledged him incapable of falsehood, evidently his ideas of Irish liberty were different from Mr. M’Carthy’s.
****”From the dust of the exploded Phoenix conspiracy arose the far more formidable image of Fenianism.”—M’Carthy’s “Ireland since the Union,” p. 155.
It was chiefly planned and supported by the Irish in America.*
The European States, even France, which, when under a republic, is constantly menaced with a restoration of monarchy, have offered little encouragement to Irish revolutionists of this century. But in the United States, chiefly in its towns, Irish emigrants found almost another Ireland, while the American flag, emblem of republican triumph over British rule, encouraged a daring hostility to Britain. Yet the leaders of this dangerous movement were, none of them, equal to those of ’98 or ’48 in genius, social position, or education.** Smith O’Brien, of royal descent, and a thorough gentleman by education and feeling; Thomas Meagher, whose brilliant eloquence somewhat resembled Moore’s poetry, and whose chivalrous bravery fully bore out his heroic sentiments, gave the ’48 revolt a romantic interest more deserved by their characters than by their designs or actions. In the Phoenix and Fenian conspiracies there appeared neither eloquence nor power of imagination. The chief leaders in both, James Stephens, though evidently an able organiser and active plotter, with the yet more violent O’Donovan Rossa and others, were more like professional conspirators, enjoying mystery and hurrying about,, usually disguised, between the United States,. England, Ireland, and France.***
Many ’48 leaders, like the ’98 chiefs, evidently lived in a dream about Ireland, and excited their vivid imaginations through often dwelling on past history, to the exclusion of the present. They were, therefore, imperfectly understood by both opponents and followers.
*”The way these men have of doing their business and the dread character of their work is in no way affected by the almost ludicrous phases of the preliminary performance. Seated round in semi-circular fashion are the different delegates, who, in the language they love so well, may be described as the flower of Irish-American patriotism. Listen to the oaths which fill the air. These two patriots to our left have evidently disagreed about something. See how they jump to their feet, kick the chairs about, throw a curse across the floor at the chairman as he seeks to stop their rowdy proceedings. There is no greater fraud in this nineteenth century of ours than the modern Irish patriotic agitator in America.”—Le Caron’s “Twenty-five Years in the Secret Service,” pp. 196-279.
**”Its leaders were not men of high position, or distinguished name, or proved ability. They were not of aristocratic birth; they were not orators, they were not powerful writers.”—M’Carthy’s “History of our own Times,” Vol. IV.
***”Hitherto the commonalty of Ireland had been led by men of culture and position. Stephens took the first step to change all that. He was for social and democratic revolution. There was no mental culture or intellectual refinement to be found in the ranks of his numerous converts.”—Bagenal’s “American Irish,” p. 125.
When their revolt failed they found themselves viewed more with contempt than apprehension by the British government, blamed by loyalist fellow-countrymen, and, though admired or pitied, yet not really comprehended by the Irish majority. The Fenians were more easily understood, because more practical and unscrupulous. The American civil war, in which many Irish refugees and emigrants took part, apparently first encouraged the Fenians. They first tried to make war on the British in Canada, but the Americans, while allowing them to abuse England freely in speeches and newspapers, forcibly stopped their progress there. After being thus baffled they turned their attention to Ireland.* They appealed to far more desperate characters than the ’48 leaders solicited, and allied themselves with British and foreign revolutionists. Their designs much resembled those of the French Communists. They therefore incurred the energetic condemnation of the Catholic clergy, some of whom had viewed the ’48 revolt with compassionate distrust as a vain effort of well-meaning but unpractical men. The Fenian leaders, arousing hopes of vengeance, plunder, and pillage, by unscrupulous means, could expect nothing except either alliance or determined resistance.** The priesthood opposed Fenianism with decisive energy. In most previous revolts they had quietly, even compassionately, discouraged actual rebellion among their people. But in the Fenians they recognised an old enemy in European conflict reappearing in Ireland under a new designation. The Continental knowledge, intercourse, and position of Catholic clergy thus warned them about the ultimate designs and secret intentions of this half-Irish, half-American society.*** Again they perceived, not with the political apprehension of statesmen, but with the conscientious alarm of theologians, the destructive principles which animated these conspirators, rendering their triumph more dangerous than any mere political change could be to the interests of religion.****
*”The Fenians in America invaded Canada on the 31st May, 1866, and enjoyed for some brief hours the honour of victory. But the United States interfered to preserve the neutrality of the frontier, arrested most of the Fenian leaders, and extinguished the invasion.”—M’Carthy’s “Ireland since the Union,” p. 190.
**”The obstacles that most concerned the secret leaders arose from the opposition given to their scheme by the Catholic clergy, and the open policy of anti-Fenian Nationalists.”— Sullivan’s “New Ireland,” Vol. II.
**”One of the most important intellectual advantages of Catholicism is that the constant international communication it produces corrects insular modes of thought.”—Lecky’s “Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland,” p. 243.
****”The Fenian movement on its very threshold was plunged into a bitter war with the ecclesiastical authorities of the Catholic Church. ‘The priest has no right to interfere or dictate in politics,’ said the Fenian leaders. ‘You cannot be admitted to the sacraments until you give up and repent of illicit oaths,’ responded the priests; ‘and if you contumaciously continue in membership of an oath-bound secret society you are liable to excommunication.’ ‘We are cursed by our Church for loving our country,’ exclaimed the Fenians.”—Sullivan’s “New Ireland,” Vol. II.
While these dissensions occurred among Irish Catholics, their Protestant fellow-countrymen mostly remained loyal to British authority. The continued discontent of the Catholics, proved in successive attempts at revolt, only tended to make their opponents more loyal to the existing Government. It is probably this mutual distrust between the divided Irish which always prevented Protestantism being strengthened by quarrels among Irish Catholics. Thus Irish priests and Fenians warmly reproached one another without the slightest advantage to Protestantism resulting from their dispute. It ended in the complete success of the priests, but it was a victory gained only over the thoughtless and desperate of their own people. The contest left the old sectarian quarrel between Catholics and Protestants just as before. The final submission of the Catholic disaffected to their priests probably not only deterred Protestant revolutionists from trusting them, but preserved a strict political union between Irish Prelatists and Presbyterians. The historical jealousies among Irish non-Catholics during and since the Fenian movement almost disappeared. In Ulster, however, there was renewed a spirit of hostility between Catholics and Protestants, which, not arising from any personal quarrel, was evidently caused by historical enmity. The British government at length found it necessary to make it a penal offence for men to proclaim themselves either “good Catholics” or “good Protestants” in some Irish towns. It would require considerable knowledge of both Irish history and character to make such legislation appear just or even comprehensible to more peaceful communities.