By SHANE LESLIE.
Irish leaders have proved far-famed but not long-lived. Their short and strenuous careers have burnt out in their prime, and their ends have been such as attend conflagrations. More often they have left a pall than a light in the heavens, for the most brilliant lives in Irish history have led to the most tragic deaths. The Destiny which allotted them impossible tasks has given them immortality on the scenes of their glorious failure.
They differ from leaders of other countries, who divide the average pittances of success or ill success on the road to honored retirement. Few of the heroes among modern nations have left such vivid and lasting memory as “the strong men of Ireland.” During the nineteenth century their lore and cult have traversed the whole world in the wake of the great emigrations. Whether they failed or succeeded in wresting the independence and ideals of Ireland for a while from the fell clutch of circumstance, they live with their race forever.
Under Plantagenet and Tudor rule, the Irish leaders presented a sullen but armed resistance. A never completed invasion was met by sporadic raids and successive risings. A race of military outlaws was fashioned, which accounts for much in Irish character today. Previously the Irish, like all Celtic civilization, was founded on the arts, on speech, and on law, rather than on war and feudalism.
Even Irish militancy was crushed in the Williamite wars, and the race, deprived of its original subsistence as well as of its acquired defense, sank into the stupor of penal times. Those who should have been leaders of Ireland became marshals of Austria and France.
Gradually it was learnt that the pen is mightier than the sword and the human voice more potent than the sound of cannon–and the constitutional struggle developed, not without relapse and reverse. To Dean Swift must be attributed the change in the national weapon and the initiation of a leadership of resistance within the law, which has lasted into modern times. Accident made Swift an Irishman, and a chance attempt to circulate debased coins in Ireland for the benefit of a debased but royal favorite made him a patriot. Swift drove out Wood’s halfpence at the pen-point. He shamed the government, he checked the all-powerful Walpole, and he roused the manhood of Ireland towards independence in legislation. He never realized what a position history would give him. To himself he seemed a gloomy failure, to his contemporaries a popular pamphleteer, but to posterity he is the creator of public conscience in Ireland. He was the father of patriotic journalism, and the first to defend Ireland’s rights through literature. Though his popularity was quenched in lunacy, his impress upon Irish politics remains as powerful and lasting as upon English literature.
Within the so-called Irish parliament sprang forth the first of a long line of orators, Henry Flood. He was the first to study the Constitution for purposes of opposition. He attacked vice-regal government in its own audit-house. Pension and corruption he laid bare, and upon the people he breathed a spirit of independence. Unfortunately he was not content with personal prominence. He accepted office, hoping thereby to benefit Ireland. His voice became lost to the higher cause, and another man rose in his stead, Henry Grattan. The American war tested the rival champions of Liberty. Flood favored sending Irish troops, “armed negotiators” he called them, to deal with the revolted colonists. Grattan nobly reviled him for standing–“with a metaphor in his mouth and a bribe in his pocket, a champion against the rights of America, the only hope of Ireland and the only refuge of the liberties of mankind.” Flood collapsed under his ignoble honors. He was not restored by returning to patriotic opposition. Grattan’s leadership proved permanent politically and historically. His name connotes the high water-mark of Irish statesmanship. The parliament which he created and whose rights he defined became a standard, and his name a talisman and a challenge to succeeding generations. The comparative oratory of Grattan and Flood is still debated. Both after a manner were unique and unsurpassed. Flood possessed staying power in sheer invective and sustained reasoning. Grattan was fluent in epigram and most inspiring when condensed, and he had an immense moral advantage. The parliament which made him a grant was independent, but it was from one of subservience that Flood drew his salary. Henceforth Grattan was haunted by the jealous and discredited herald of himself. A great genius, Flood lacked the keen judgment and careless magnanimity without which leadership in Ireland brings misunderstanding and disaster. In the English House he achieved total failure. Grattan followed him after the Union, but retained the attention if not the power of Dublin days. Neither influenced English affairs, and their eloquence curiously was considered cold and sententious. Their rhapsody appeared artificial, and their exposition labored. The failure of these men was no stigma. What is called “Irish oratory” arose with the inclusion of the Celtic under strata in politics.
Burke’s speeches were delivered to an empty house. Though he lived out of Ireland and never became an Irish leader in Ireland, Burke had an influence in England greater than that of any Irishman before or since. The beauty and diction of his speech fostered future parliamentary speaking. Macaulay, Gladstone, Peel, and Brougham were suckled on him. His farthest reaching achievement was his treatment of the French Revolution. His single voice rolled back that storm in Europe. But no words could retard revolution in Ireland herself. Venal government made the noblest conservative thinking seem treason to the highest interests of the country. The temporary success of Grattan’s parliament had been largely won by the Volunteers. They had been drilled, ostensibly against foreign invasion, but virtually to secure reforms at home. Their power became one with which England had to reckon, and which she never forgave. Lord Charlemont, their president, was an estimable country gentleman, but not a national leader. A more dashing figure appeared in the singular Earl of Bristol. Though an Irish bishop and an English peer, he set himself in the front rank of the movement, assuming with general consent the demeanor and trappings of royalty. He would not have hesitated to plunge Ireland into war, had he obtained Charlemont’s position. But it was not so fated.
After forcing parliamentary independence the Volunteers meekly disbanded, and the United Irishmen took their place. The brilliancy of Grattan’s parliament never fulfilled national aspirations. Bristol was succeeded by another recruit from the aristocracy–Lord Edward Fitzgerald. With Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet he has become legendary. All three attained popular canonization, for all three sealed their brief leadership with death.
Lord Edward was a dreamer, an Irish Bayard, too chivalrous to conspire successfully and too frankly courageous to match a government of guile. Tone was far more dangerous. He realized that foreign invasion was necessary to successful rebellion, and he allowed no scruple or obstacle in his path. He washed his hands of law and politics entirely. To divert Napoleon to Ireland was his object and the total separation of Ireland his ambition. The United Irishmen favored the invasion, which the Volunteers had been formed to repel. The feud between moral and physical force broke out. The failure of the sterner policy in 1798 did not daunt Emmet from his ill-starred attempt in 1803. He combined Lord Edward’s chivalry with some abilities worthy of Tone, but he failed. The failure he redeemed by a swan-song from the dock and a demeanor on the scaffold which have become part of Irish tradition.
After the Union, Irish leaders sprang up in the English House, which Pitt had unwittingly made the cockpit of the racial struggle. Far from absorbing the Irish element, the Commons found themselves forced to resist, rally, and finally succumb.
The Irish House cannot be dismissed without mention of Curran. He was a brilliant enemy of corruption and servility. O’Connell said “there was never so honest an Irishman,” which may account for his greater success as a lawyer than a politician. To be an Irish leader and a successful lawyer is given to no man. For the former the sacrifice of a great career is needed. This sacrifice Daniel O’Connell was prepared to make. His place in history will never be estimated, for few have been so loved or hated, or for stronger reasons. Never did a tribune rising to power lift his people to such sudden hope and success. Never did a champion leave his followers at his death and decline to more terrible despair. Friend and foe admit his immensity. He was the greatest Irishman that ever lived or seemingly could live. In his own person he contained the whole genius of the Celt. Ireland could not hold his emotions, which overflowed into the world for expression. He rose on the crest of a religious agitation, but, Emancipation won, he had the foresight to associate the Irish cause with the advent of Reform and Liberalism throughout Europe. He sounded the notes of free-trade and anti-slavery. What he said in parliament one day, Ireland re-echoed the next. To her he was all in all, her hero and her prophet, her Messias and her strong deliverer. On the continent he roughly personified Christian Democracy.
In public oratory O’Connell introduced a new style. Torrential and overwhelming as Flood and Grattan had never been, he proved more successful if less polished. The exaggerations of Gaelic speech found outburst in his English. Peel’s smile was “the silver plate on a coffin”, Wellington “a stunted corporal”, and Disraeli “the lineal descendant of the impenitent thief.”
It sounds bombastic, but in those feudal forties it rang more magnificent than war. Single-voiced he overawed the host of bigots, dullards, and reactionaries. Unhappily, he let his people abandon their native tongue, while teaching them how to balance the rival parties in England, the latter a policy that has proved Ireland’s fortune since. He loosed the spirit of sectarianism in the tithe war, and he crushed the Young Ireland movement, which bred Fenianism in its death agony. But he made the Catholic a citizen. Results stupendous as far-reaching sprang from his steps every way.
The finest pen-sketch of O’Connell is by Mitchel, who says, “besides superhuman and subterhuman passions, yet withal, a boundless fund of masterly affectation and consummate histrionism, hating and loving heartily, outrageous in his merriment and passionate in his lamentation, he had the power to make other men hate or love, laugh or weep, at his good pleasure.”
Yet during his lifetime there lived others worthy of national leadership. O’Brien, Duffy, and Davis played their part in England as well as in Ireland. Father Mathew founded the Temperance, as Feargus O’Conor the Chartist, movement. And there was an orator who fascinated Gladstone–Sheil.
Father Mathew succeeded in keeping many millions of men sober during the forties until the great Famine engulfed his work as it did O’Connell’s. To him is due, as a feature of Irish life, the brass band with banners, which he originally organized as a counter-intoxicant.
Feargus O’Conor founded Radical Socialism in England. As the Lion of Freedom, he enjoyed a popularity with English workmen approaching that of O’Connell in Ireland. He ended in lunacy, but he had the credit of forwarding peasant proprietorship far in advance of his times.
Sheil was a tragic orator–“an iambic rhapsodist”, O’Connell called him–who might have been leader, did not a greater tragedian occupy the stage. And Sheil was content to be O’Connell’s organizer. Without O’Connell’s voice or presence, he was his rhetorical superior, excelling in irony and the by-plays of speech for which O’Connell was too exuberant. Shell’s speeches touch exquisite though not the deep notes of O’Connell, whom he criticized for “throwing out broods of sturdy young ideas upon the world without a rag to cover them.” He discredited his master and his cause by taking office. The fruits of Emancipation were tempting to those who had borne the heat of the day, but there was a rising school of patriots who refused acquiescence to anything less than total freedom.
The Young Irelanders reincarnated the men of “ninety-eight.” They were neither too late nor too soon. They snatched the sacred torch of Liberty from the dying hands of O’Connell, who summoned in vain old Ireland against his young rivals. But men like Davis and Duffy appealed to types O’Connell never swayed. He could carry the mob, but poet, journalist, and idealist were enrolled with Young Ireland. For this reason the history of their failure is brighter in literature than the tale of O’Connell’s triumphs. To read Duffy’s “Young Ireland” and Mitchel’s “Jail Journal”, with draughts from the Spirit of the Nation. is to relive the period. Without the Young Irelanders, Irish Nationalism might not have survived the Famine.
Mitchel, as open advocate of physical force, became father to Fenianism. An honest conspirator and brilliant writer, he proved that the pen of journalism was sharper than the Irish pike. Carlyle described him as “a fine elastic-spirited young fellow, whom I grieved to see rushing on destruction palpable, by attack of windmills.” Destruction came surely, but coupled with immortality. He was transported as a felon before the insurrection, while his writings sprang up in angry but unarmed men.
Mitchel and O’Connell both sought the liberation of Ireland, but their viewpoint differed. Mitchel thought only of Liberty; O’Connell not unnaturally considered the “Liberator.” His refusal to allow a drop of blood to be shed caused Young Ireland to secede. Only when death removed his influence could the pent-up feelings of the country break out under Smith O’Brien. If Mitchel was an Irish Robespierre, O’Brien was their Lafayette. His advance from the level of dead aristocracy had been rapid. From defending Whigs in Parliament he passed to opposition and “contempt of the House.” He resigned from the Bench from which O’Connell had been dismissed, became a Repealer, adding the words “no compromise,” and finally gloried in his treason before the House. His next step brought a price upon his head.
Grave and frigid, but inwardly warmhearted and passionate, O’Brien had little aptitude for rebellion. But the death penalty (commuted to transportation) which he incurred went far to redeem his forlorn failure. Mitchel, who shared his Australian imprisonment, left a fine picture of “this noblest of Irishmen, thrust in among the off-scourings of England’s gaols, with his home desolated and his hopes ruined, and defeated life falling into the sere and yellow leaf. A man, who cannot be crushed, or bowed, or broken; anchored immovably upon his own brave heart within; his clear eye and soul open as ever to all the melodies and splendors of heaven and earth, and calmly waiting for the angel, Death.”
The Irish cause was not revived until the Fenian movement. Disgust with the politicians drove the noblest into their ranks. In Stephens they found an organizing chief, in Boyle O’Reilly a poet, and in John O’Leary a political thinker, men who under other conditions had achieved mundane success. The Fenians were defended by Isaac Butt, a big-hearted, broad-minded lawyer, who afterwards organized a party to convince Englishmen that Repeal was innocuous, when called “Home Rule.” The people stood his patient ways patiently, but when a more desperate leader arrived they transferred allegiance, and Butt died of a broken heart.
Parnell took his place and began to marshal the broken forces of Irish democracy against his own class. Butt had been a polite parliamentarian, reverencing the courtesy of debate and at heart loving the British Constitution. Parnell felt that his mission lay in breaking rather than interpreting the law. The well-bred House stared and protested when he defied their chosen six hundred. Parnell faced them with their own marble callousness. He outdid them in political cynicism and out-bowed them in frigid courtesy, while maintaining a policy before which tradition melted and a time-honored system collapsed. In one stormy decade he tore the cloak from the Mother of Parliaments, reducing her to a plain-speaking democratic machine. Through the breach he made, the English labor party has since entered.
He united priest and peasant, physical and moral force, under him. He could lay Ireland under storm or lull at his pleasure. His achievement equalled his self-confidence. He reversed the Irish land system and threw English politics out of gear. With the balance of power in his hand, he made Tory and Radical outbid each other for his support. He was no organizer or orator, but he fascinated able men to conduct his schemes, as Napoleon used his marshals. On a pregnant day he equaled the achievement of St. Paul and converted Gladstone, who had once been his gaoler. Gladstone became a Home Ruler, and henceforth English politics knew no peace.
Parnell stood for the fall and rise of many. Under his banner Irish peasants became human beings with human rights. He felled the feudal class in Ireland and undermined them in England. Incalculable forces were set to destroy him. A forged letter in the Times classed him with assassins, while an legal Commission was sent to try his whole movement. It is history that his triumphant vindication was followed by a greater fall. The happiness of Ireland was sucked into the maelstrom of his ruin. He refused to retire from leadership at Gladstone’s bidding, and Ireland staggered into civil war. The end is known–Parnell died as he had lived. Of his moral fault there is no palliation, but it may be said he held his country’s honor dearer than his own, for he could not bear to see her win even independence by obeying the word of an Englishman.
Lecky: Leaders of Irish Opinion; Mitchel: Jail Journal; Duffy: Young Ireland; O’Brien: Life of Parnell; D’Alton: History of Ireland.