Catholic Emancipation

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


EMMET'S insurrection riveted the Union chain on Ireland. It was for a time the death-blow of public life in the country. When political action reappeared, a startling change, a complete revolution, had been wrought. An entirely new order of things appeared in politics—an entirely new phase of national life and effort; new forces in new positions and with new tactics. Everything seemed changed.

Portrait of John Philpot Curran

Hitherto political Ireland meant the Protestant minority of the population alone. Within this section there were nationalists and anti-nationalists, Whigs and Tories, emancipationists and anti-emancipationists. They talked of, and at, and about the Catholics (the overwhelming mass of the population) very much as parties in America, previous to 1860, debated the theoretical views and doctrines relating to negro emancipation. Some went so far as to maintain that a Catholic was "a man and a brother." Others declared this a revolutionary proposition, subversive of the crown and government. The parties discussed the matter as a speculative subject. But now the Catholic millions themselves appeared on the scene to plead and agitate their own cause, and alongside the huge reality of their power, the exclusively Protestant political fabric sank into insignificance, and as such disappeared forever. In theory—legal theory—no doubt the Protestant minority were for a long time subsequently "The State,"but men ignored the theory and dealt with the fact.

From 1810 to 1829, the politics of Ireland were bound up in the one question—emancipation or no emancipation. The Catholics had many true and stanch friends among the Protestant patriots. Grattan, Curran, Plunkett, Burke, are names that will never be forgotten by enfranchized Catholic Irishmen. But by all British parties and party leaders alike they found themselves in turn deceived, abandoned, betrayed. Denounced by the king, assailed by the Tories, betrayed by the Whigs; one moment favored by a premier, a cabinet, or a section of a cabinet; the next, forbidden to hope, and commanded to desist from further effort, on the peril of fresh chains and scourges—the enslaved millions at length took the work of their redemption out of the hands of English party chiefs and cliques and resolved to make it a question of national emergency, not of party expediency.

The great victory of Catholic Emancipation was won outside of the Parliament, but within the lines of constitutional action. It was mainly the work of one man, whose place in the hearts of his countrymen was rarely, if ever before, reached, and probably will be rarely reached again by king or commoner. The people called him "Liberator." Others styled him truly the "Father of his Country"—the "Uncrowned Monarch of Ireland." All the nations of Christendom, as the simplest yet truest homage to his fame, recognize him in the world's history as "O'Connell."

It may well be doubted if any other man or any other tactics could have succeeded, where the majestic genius, the indomitable energy, and the protean strategy of O'Connell were so notably victorious. Irishmen of this generation can scarcely form an adequate conception of the herculean task that confronted the young barrister of 1812. The condition of Ireland was unlike that of any other country in the world in any age. The Catholic nobility and old gentry had read history so mournfully that the soul had quietly departed from them. They had seen nothing but confiscation result from past efforts, and they had learned to fear nothing more than new agitation that might end similarly. Like the lotus-eater, their cry was "Let us alone!" By degrees some of them crept out a little into the popular movement; but at the utterance of an "extreme" doctrine or "violent" opinion by young O'Connell, or other of those "inflammatory politicians," they fled back to their retirement with terrified hearts, and called out to the government that for their parts, they reprobated anything that might displease the king or embarrass the ministry.

Nor was it the Catholic nobility and gentry alone whose unexampled pusillanimity long thwarted and retarded O'Connell. The Catholic bishops for a long time received him and the "advanced" school of emancipationists with unconcealed dislike and alarm. They had seen the terrors and rigors of the penal times; and "leave to live," even by mere connivance, seemed to them a great boon. The "extreme" ideas of this young O'Connell and his party could only result in mischief. Could he not go on in the old slow and prudent way? "What could he gain by "extreme" and "impracticable" demands?

In nothing did O'Connell's supreme tact and prudence manifest itself more notably than in his dealings with the Catholic bishops who were opposed to and unfriendly to him. He never attempted to excite popular indignation against them as "Castle politicians;" he never allowed a word disrespectful toward them to be uttered; he never attempted to degrade them in public estimation even on the specious plea that it was "only in the capacity of politicians" he assailed them. Many and painful were the provocations he received; yet he never was betrayed from his impregnable position of mingled firmness and prudence. It was hard to find the powers of an oppressive government—fines and penalties, proclamations and prosecutions—-smiting him at every step, and withal behold not only the Catholic aristocracy, but the chief members of the hierarchy also arrayed against him, negatively sustaining and encouraging the tyranny of the government. But he bore it all; for he well knew that, calamitous as was the conduct of those prelates, it proceeded from no corrupt or selfish consideration, but arose from weakness of judgment, when dealing with such critical legal and political questions. He bore their negative, if not positive, opposition long and patiently, and in the end had the triumph of seeing many converts from among his early opponents zealous in action by his side, and of feeling that no word or act of his had weakened the respect, veneration, and affection due from a Catholic people to their pastors and prelates.

From the outset he was loyally sustained by the Catholic mercantile classes, by the body of the clergy, and by the masses of the population in town and country. Owing to the attitude of the bishops, the secular or parochial clergy for a time deemed it prudent to hold aloof from any very prominent participation in the movement, though their sentiments were never doubted. But the regular clergy—the religious orders flung themselves ardently into the people's cause. When every other place of meeting, owing to one cause or another, was closed against the young Catholic leaders, the Carmelite church in Clarendon Street became their rallying point and place of assembly in Dublin, freely given for the purpose by the community.

O'Connell laid down as the basis of his political action in Ireland this proposition, "Ireland cannot fight England." From this he evolved others. "If Ireland try to fight England, she will be worsted. She has tried too often. She must not try it any more." That acumen, the prescience, in which he excelled all men of his generation, taught him that a change was coming over the world, and that superior might—brute force—would not always be able to resist the power of opinion, could not always afford to be made odious and rendered morally weak. Above all, he knew that there remained, at the worst, to an oppressed people unable to match their oppressors in a military struggle, the grand policy of Passive Resistance, by which the weak can drag down the haughty and the strong.

Moulding all his movements on these principles, O'Connell resolved to show his countrymen that they could win their rights by action strictly within the constitution. And, very naturally, therefore, he regarded the man who would even ever so slightly tempt them outside of it, as their direst enemy. He happily combined in himself all the qualifications for guiding them through that system of guerrilla warfare in politics which alone could enable them to defeat the government without violating the law; quick to meet each dexterous evolution of the foe by some equally ingenious artifice; evading the ponderous blow designed to crush him—disappearing in one guise only to start up in another. No man but himself could have carried the people, as he did, safely and victoriously through such a campaign, with the scanty political resources then possessed by Irish Catholics. It was scarcely hyperbole to call him the Moses of the modern Israel.

His was no smooth and straight road. Young Irishmen can scarcely realize the discouragements and difficulties, the repeated failures—seeming failures—the reverses, that often flung him backward, apparently defeated. But with him there was no such word as fail. The people trusted him and followed him with the docile and trustful obedience of troops obeying the commands of a chosen general. For them—for the service of Ireland—he gave up his professional prospects. He labored for them, he thought for them, he lived but for them; and he was ready to die for them. A trained shot—a chosen bravo—D'Esterre—was set on by the Orange Corporation of Dublin to shoot him down in a duel. O'Connell met his adversary at eighteen paces, and laid him mortally wounded on the field.

By degrees even those who for long years had held aloof from the Catholic leader began to bow in homage to the sovereignty conferred by the popular will; and English ministries, one by one, found themselves powerless to grapple with the influence he wielded. If, indeed, they could but goad or entrap him into a breach of the law; if they could only persuade the banded Irish millions to obligingly meet England in the arena of her choice—namely, the field of war—then the ministerial anxieties would be over. They could soon make an end of the Catholic cause there. But, most provokingly, O'Connell was able to baffle this idea—was able to keep the most high-spirited, impetuous, and war-loving people in the world deaf, as it were, to all such challenges; callous, as it were to all such provocations. They would, most vexatiously, persist in choosing their own ground, their own tactics, their own time and mode of action, and would not allow England to force hers upon them at all. Such a policy broke the heart and maddened the brain of English oppression. In vain the king stormed and the Duke of York swore. In vain the old "saws" of "Utopian dreams" and "splendid phantoms" were flung at the emancipationists. Men sagely pointed out that emancipation was "inconsistent with the coronation oath;" was "incompatible with the British constitution; that it involved "the severance of the countries," "the dismemberment of the empire," and that "England would spend her last shilling, and her last man, rather than grant it." Others, equally profound, declared that in a week after emancipation, Irish Catholics, and Protestants "would be cutting each others' throats;" that there would be a massacre of Protestants all over the island, and that it was England's duty, in the interests of good order, civilization, and humanity, not to afford an opportunity for such anarchy.

There is a most ancient and fish-like smell about these precious arguments. They are, indeed, very old and much decayed; yet my young readers will find them always used whenever an Irish demand for freedom cannot be encountered on the merits.

But none of them could impose upon or frighten O'Connell. He went on rousing the whole people into one mass of fierce earnestness and enthusiasm until the island glowed and heaved like a volcano. Peel and Wellington threatened war. Coercion acts followed each other in quick succession. Suddenly there appeared a sight as horrific to English oppression as the hand upon the wall to Belshazzar—Irish regiments cheering for O'Connell! Then, indeed, the hand that held the chain shook with the palsy of mortal fear. Peal and Wellington—those same ministers whose especial "platform" was resistance a l'outrance to Catholic emancipation—came down to the House of Commons, and told the assembled Parliament that Catholic emancipation must be granted. "The Man of the People" had conquered!