Loyal National Repeal Association

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


Portrait of Daniel O'Connell

Portrait of Daniel O'Connell

EMANCIPATION was won; yet there was a question nearer and dear even than emancipation to O'Connell's heart—the question of national independence—the repeal of the iniquitous Union.

It might be thought that as an emancipated Catholic he would be drawn toward the legislature that had freed him rather than to that which had forged the shackles thus struck off. But O'Connell had the spirit and the manhood of a patriot.

While yet he wore those penal chains, he publicly declared that he would willingly forfeit all chance of emancipation from the British parliament for the certainty of repeal.

His first public speech had been made against the Union; and even so early as 1812, he contemplated relinquishing the agitation for emancipation and devoting all his energies to a movement for repeal, but was dissuaded from that purpose by his colleagues.

Now, however, his hands were free, and scarcely had he been a year in parliamentary harness when he unfurled the standard of repeal.

His new organization was instantaneously suppressed by proclamation—the act of the Irish secretary, Sir Henry Hardinge.

The proclamation was illegal, yet O'Connell bowed to it. He denounced it however as “an atrocious Polignac proclamation,” and plainly intimated his conviction that Hardinge designed to force the country into a fight.

Not that O'Connell “abjured the sword and stigmatized the sword” in the abstract; but as he himself expressed it, the time had not come.

“Why,” said he, “I would rather be a dog and bay the moon than the Irishman who would tamely submit to so imfamous a proclamation. I have not opposed it hitherto, because that would implicate the people and give our enemies a triumph. But I will oppose it, and that, too, not in the way that the paltry Castle scribe would wish—by force. No. Ireland is not in a state for repelling force by force. Too short a period has elapsed since the cause of contention between Protestants and Catholics was removed—too little time has been given for healing the wounds of factious contention to allow Ireland to use physical force in the attainment of her rights, or her punishment of wrong.”

Hardly had his first repeal society been suppressed by the “Polignac proclamation” than he established a second, styled “The Irish Volunteers for the Repeal of the Union.”

Another government proclamation as quickly appeared suppressing this body also. O'Connell, ever fertile of resort, now organized what he called “Repeal Breakfasts.”

“If the government,” said he, “think fit to proclaim down breakfasts, then we'll resort to a political lunch. If the luncheon be equally dangerous to the peace of the great duke (the viceroy), we shall have political dinners. If the dinners be proclaimed down, we must, like certain sanctified dames, resort to ‘tea and tracts.’

The breakfasts were “proclaimed;” but, in defiance of the proclamation, went on as usual, whereupon O'Connell was arrested, and held to bail to await his trial.

He was not daunted. “Were I fated tomorrow,” said he, “to ascend the scaffold or go down to the grave, I should bequeath to my children eternal hatred of the Union.”

The prosecution was subsequently abandoned, and soon afterward it became plain that O'Connell had been persuaded by the English reform leaders that the question for Ireland was what they called “the great cause of reform”—and that from a reformed parliament Ireland would obtain full justice.

Accordingly he flung himself heartily into the ranks of the English reformers.

Reform was carried; and almost the first act of the reformed parliament was to pass a Coercion Bill for Ireland more atrocious than any of its numerous predecessors.

All the violence of the English Tories had failed to shake O'Connell.

The blandishments of the Whigs fared otherwise. “Union with English liberals”—union with “the great liberal party”—was now made to appear to him the best hope of Ireland.

To yoke this giant to the Whig chariot, the Whig leaders were willing to pay a high price. Place, pension, emolument to any extent, O'Connell might have had from them at will.

The most lucrative and exalted posts—positions in which he and all his family might have lived and died in ease and affluence—were at his acceptance. But O'Connell was neither corrupt nor selfish, though in his alliance with the Whigs he exhibited a lack of his usual firmness and perspicuity.

He would accept nothing for himself, but he demanded the nomination in great part of the Irish executive, and a veto, on the selection of a viceroy.

The terms were granted, and it is unquestioned and unquestionable that the Irish executive thus chosen—the administration of Lord Mulgrave—was the only one Ireland had known for nigh two hundred years—the first, and the only one, in the present century—that possessed the confidence and commanded the respect, attachment, and sympathy of the Irish people.

“Men, not measures,” however was the sum total of advantage O'Connell found derivable from his alliance with the great liberal party.

Excellent appointments were made, and numerous Catholics were, to the horror of the Orange faction, placed in administrative positions throughout the country.

But this modicum of good (which had, moreover, as we shall see, its counterbalancing evil) did not, in O'Connell's estimation compensate for the inability or indisposition of the administration to pass adequate remedial measures for the country.

He had given the Union system a fair trial under its most favorable circumstances, and the experiment only taught him that in Home Rule alone could Ireland hope for just or protective government.

Impelled by this conviction, on the 15th of April, 1840, he established the Loyal National Repeal Association, a body destined to play an important part in Irish politics.

The new association was a very weak and unpromising project for some time. Men were not at first, convinced that O'Connell was in earnest. Moreover, the evil that eventually tended so much to ruin the association was now, even in its incipient stages, beginning to be felt.

The appointment by government of popular leaders to places of emolument—an apparent boon—a flattering concession, as it seemed to the spirit of emancipation—opened up to the administration an entirely new field of action in their designs against any embarrassing popular movement.

O'Connell himself was a tower of personal and public integrity; but among his subordinates were men, who, by no means, possessed his admantine virtue.

It was only when the Melbourne (Whig) ministry fell, and the Peel (Tory) ministry came into power, that (government places for Catholic agitators being no longer in the market) the full force of his old following raillied to O'Connell's side in his repeal campaign.

It would have been well for Ireland if most of them had never taken such a step. Some of them were at best intrinsically rude, and almost worthless, instruments, whom O'Connell in past days had been obliged in sheer necessity to use.

Others of them, of a better stamp, had had their day of usefulness and virtue, but now it was gone. Decay, physical and moral, had set in.

A new generation was just stepping into manhood, with severer ideas of personal and public morality, with purer tastes and loftier ambitions, with more intense and fiery ardor.

Yet there were also among the adherents of the great tribune, some who brought to the repeal cause a fidelity not to be surpassed, integrity beyond price, ability of the highest order, and a matured experience, in which of course, the new growth of men were entirely deficient.

In three years the movement for national autonomy swelled into a magnitude that startled the world.

Never did a nation so strikingly manifest its will. About three millions of associates paid yearly toward the repeal association funds. As many more were allied to the cause by sympathy.

Meetings to petition against the Union were, at several places, attended by six hundred thousand persons; by eight hundred thousand at two places; and by nearly a million at one—Tara Hill.

All these gigantic demonstrations, about forty in number, were held without the slightest accident, or the slightest infringement of the peace. Order, sobriety, respect for the laws, were the watchwords of the millions.

England was stripped of the slightest chance of deceiving the world as to the nature of her relations with Ireland. The people of Israel, with one voice, besought Pharaoh to let them go free; but the heart of Pharaoh was hard as stone.

O'Connell was not prepared for the obduracy of tyrannic strength which he encountered. So completely was he impressed with the conviction that the ministry must yield to the array of an almost unanimous people, that in 1843 he committed himself to a specific promise and solemn undertaking that “within six months” repeal would be an accomplished fact.

This fatal promise—the gigantic error of his life—suggested to the minister the sure means to effect the overthrow of O'Connell and his movement.

To break the spell of his magic influence over the people—to destroy their hitherto unshaken confidence in him—to publicly discredit his most solemn and formal covenant with them—that if they would but keep the peace and obey his instructions he would as surely as the sun shone on them obtain repeal within six months)—it was now necessary merely to hold out for six or twelve months longer, and by some bold stroke, even at the risk of a civil war, to fall upon O'Connell and his colleagues with all the rigors of the law and publicly degrade them.

This daring and dangerous scheme Peel carried out.

First he garrisoned the country with an overwhelming force, and then, so far from yielding repeal, trampled on the constitution, challenged the people to war, prepared for a massacre at Clontarf—averted only by the utmost exertions of the popular leaders—and, finally, he had O'Connell and his colleagues publicly arraigned, tried, and convicted as conspirators, and dragged to jail as criminals.

O'Connell's promise was defeated. His spell was broken from that hour. All the worse for England.

All the worse for England, as crime is always, even where it wins present advantage, all the worse for those who avail of it.

For what had England done? Here was a man, the cornerstones of whose policy, the first principles of whose public teaching were—loyalty, firm and fervent, to the throne; respect, strict and scrupulous, for the laws; confidence in the prevalence of reasoning force; reliance, complete, and exclusive, upon the efficacy of peaceful, legal, and constitutional action.

Yet this was the man whom England prosecuted as a conspirator! These were the teachings she punished with fine and imprisonment!

The Irish people, through O'Connell, had said to England: “Let us reason this question. Let there be an end of resort to force.” England answered by a flourish of the mailed hand. She would have no reasoning on the subject. She pointed to her armies and fleets, her arsenals and dockyards, her shotted gun and whetted saber.

In that hour a silent revolution was wrought in the popular mind of Ireland.

Up to that moment a peaceable, an amicable, a friendly settlement of the question between the two countries, was easy enough. But now!

The law lords in the British House of Peers, by three votes to two, decided that the conviction of O'Connell and his colleagues was wrongful. Every one knew that.

There was what the minister judged to be a “state necessity” for showing that the government could and would publicly defy and degrade O'Connell by conviction and imprisonment, innocent or guilty; and as this had been triumphantly accomplished, Peel cared not a jot that the full term of punishment was thus cut short.

O'Connell left his prison cell a broken man.

Overwhelming demonstrations of unchanged affection and personal attachment poured in upon him from his countrymen. Their faith in his devotion to Ireland was increased a hundredfold; but their faith in the efficacy of his policy, or the surety of his promises, was gone.

He himself saw and felt it, and marking the effect the government course had wrought upon the new generation of Irishmen, he was troubled in soul.

England had dared them to grapple with her power. He trembled at the thought of what the result might be in years to come.

Already the young crop of Irish manhood had become recognizable as a distinct political element—a distinct school of thought and action.

At the head of this party blazed a galaxy of genius—poets, orators, scholars, writers, and organizers.

It was the party of Youth, with its generous impulses, its roseate hopes, its classic models, its glorious daring, its pure devotion.

The old man feared the issue between this hot blood and the cold, stern tyranny that had shown its disregard for law and conscience.

Age was now heavily upon him, and, moreover, there were those around him full of jealousy against the young leaders of the Irish Gironde—full of envy of their brilliant genius, their public fame, their popular influence.

The gloomiest forbodings arose to the old man's mind, or were sedulously conjured up before it by those who surrounded him.

Soon a darker shade came to deepen the gloom that was settling on the horizon of his future.

Famine—terrible and merciless—fell upon the land. Or rather, one crop out of the many grown on Irish soil—that one on which the masses of the people fed—perished; and it became plain the government would let the people perish too.

In 1846 the long spell of conservative rule came to a close, and the Whigs came into office. Place was once more to be had by facile Catholic agitators; and now the Castle backstairs was literally thronged with the old hacks of Irish agitation, filled with a fine glowing indignation against those “purists” of the new school who denied that it was a good thing to have friends in office.

Here was a new source of division between the old and new elements in Irish popular politics.

O'Connell himself was as far as ever from bending to the acceptance of personal favor from the government; but some of his near relatives and long-time colleagues, or subordinates, in agitation, were one by one being “placed” by the viceroy, amid fierce invectives from the “Young Ireland” party, as they were called.

All these troubles seemed to be shaking from its foundations the mind of the old Tribune, who every day sunk more and more into the hands of his personal adherents.

He became at length full persuaded of the necessity of fettering the young party.

He framed a test declaration for members of the association, repudiating, disclaiming, denouncing, and abhorring the use of physical force under any possible circumstances, or in any age or country.

This monstrous absurdity showed that the once glorious intellect of O'Connell was gone.

In his constant brooding over the dangers of an insurrection in which the people would be slaughtered like sheep, he stuck upon this resort, apparently unable to see that it was opposed to all his own past teaching and practice—nay, opposed to all law, human and divine—that it would converse and enthrone the most iniquitous tyrannies, and render man the abject slave of power.

The young party offered to take this test as far as related to the present or the future of Ireland; but they refused to stigmatize the patriot brave of all history who had bled and died for liberty.

This would not suffice, and the painful fact became clear enough that the monstrous test resolutions were meant to drive them from the association.

On the 27th of July, 1846, the Young Ireland leaders, refusing a test which was treason against truth, justice, and liberty, quitted Conciliation Hall, and Irish Ireland was rent into bitterly hostile parties.

Not long afterward the insidious disease, the approach of which was proclaimed clearly enough in O'Connell's recent proceedings—softening of the brain—laid the old chieftain low.

He had felt the approach of dissolution, and set out on a pilgrimage that had been his life-long dream—a visit to Rome.

And assuredly a splendid welcome awaited him there; the first Catholic layman in Europe, the Emancipator of seven millions of Catholics, the most illustrious Christian patriot of his age.

But heaven decreed otherwise.

A brighter welcome in a better land awaited the toil-worn soldier of faith and fatherland.

At Marseilles, on his way to Rome, it became clear that a crisis was at hand; yet he would fain push onward for the Eternal City.

In Genoa the Superb he breathed his last; bequeathing, with his dying breath, his body to Ireland, his heart to Rome, his soul to God.

All Christendom was plunged into mourning.

The world poured its homage of respect above his bier.

Ireland, the land for which he had lived and labored, gave him a funeral nobly befitting his title of Uncrowned Monarch.

But more honoring than funeral pageant, more worthy of his memory, was the abiding grief that fell upon the people who had loved him with such a deep devotion.