Young Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


Portrait of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy

AMID the horrors of "Black Forty-seven," the reason of strong men gave way in Ireland. The people lay dead in hundreds on the highways and in the fields. There was food in abundance in the country;[1] but the government said it should not be touched, unless in accordance with the teachings of Adam Smith and the "laws of political economy."

The mechanism of an absentee government utterly broke down, even in carrying out its own tardy and inefficient measures. The charity of the English people toward the end generously endeavored to compensate for the inefficiency, or the heartlessness of the government. But it could not be done. The people perished in thousands. Ireland was one huge charnel-pit.

It is not wonderful that amid scenes like these some passionate natures burst into rash resolves. Better, they cried, the people died bravely with arms in their hands, ridding themselves of such an imbecile régime; better Ireland was reduced to a cinder than endure the horrible physical and moral ruin being wrought before men's eyes. The daring apostle of these doctrines was John Mitchel. Men called him mad. Well might it have been so. Few natures like his could have calmly looked on at a people perishing—rotting away—under the hands of blundering and incompetent, if not callous and heartless, foreign rulers. But he protested he was "not mad, most noble Festus." An unforeseen circumstance came to the aid of the frenzied leader. In February, 1848, the people rose in the streets of Paris, and in three days' struggle pulled down one of the strongest military governments in Europe. All the continent burst into a flame. North, south, east, and west, the people rose, thrones tottered, and rulers fell. Once again' the blood of Ireland was turned to fire. What nation of them all, it was asked, had such maddening wrongs as Ireland? While all around her were rising in appeals to the God of battles, was she alone to crouch and whine like a beggar? Was England stronger than other governments that now daily crumbled at the first shock of conflict?

Even a people less impulsive and hot-blooded than the Irish would have been powerless to withstand these incitements. The Young Ireland leaders had almost unanimously condemned Mitchel's policy when first it had been preached; but this new state of things was too much for them. They were swept off their feet by the fierce billows of popular excitement. To resist the cry for war was deemed "cowardly." Ere long even the calmest of the Young Ireland chiefs yielded to the epidemic, and became persuaded that the time at length had come when Ireland might safely and righteously appeal for justice to God and her own strong right arm.

Alas! all this was the fire of fever in the blood, not the strength of health in that wasted, famine-stricken nation: [2]

Nevertheless, the government was filled with alarm. It fell upon the popular leaders with savage fury. Mitchel was the first victim. He had openly defied the government to the issue. He had openly said and preached that English government was murdering the people, and ought to be swept away at once and forever. So prevalent was this conviction—at all events its first proposition—in Ireland at the time, that the government felt that according the rules of fair constitutional procedure, Mitchel would be sustained in a court of justice. That is to say, a "jury of his countrymen" fairly impaneled, would, considering all the circumstances, declare him a patriot, not a criminal. So the government was fain to collect twelve of its own creatures, or partisans, and send them into a jury box to convict him in imitation of a "trial." Standing in the dock where Emmet stood half a, century before, he gloried in the sacrifice he was. about to consummate for Ireland, and, like another Scaevola, told his judges that three hundred comrades were ready to dare the same fate. The court rang with shouts from the crowding auditors, that each one and all were ready to follow him—that not three hundred, but three hundred thousand, were his companions in the "crime" of which he stood convicted. Before the echoes had quite died away in Green Street, John Mitchel, loaded with irons, was hurried on board a government transport ship, and carried off into captivity.

He had not promised all in vain. Into his. vacant place there now stepped one of the most remarkable men—one of the purest and most devoted patriots—Ireland ever produced. Gentle and guileless as a child, modest and retiring, disliking turmoil, and naturally averse to violence, his was, withal, true courage, and rarest, noblest daring. This was "John Martin of Loughorne," a Presbyterian gentleman of Ulster, who now, quitting the congenial tranquillity and easy independence of his northern home, took his place, all calmly, but lion-hearted, in the gap of danger. He loved peace, but he loved truth, honor, and manhood, and he hated tyranny, and was ready to give his life for Ireland. He now as boldly as Mitchel proclaimed that the English usurpation was murderous in its result, and hateful to all just men. Martin was seized also, and like Mitchel, was denied real trial by jury. He was brought before twelve government partisans selected for the purpose, convicted, sentenced, and hurried off in chains.

Seizures and convictions now multiplied rapidly. The people would have risen in insurrection immediately on Mitchel's conviction but for the exhortations of other leaders, who pointed out the ruin of such a course at a moment when the food question alone would defeat them. In harvest, it was resolved on all sides to take the field, and the interval was to be devoted to energetic preparation.

But the government was not going to permit this choice of time nor this interval of preparation. In the last week of June a bill to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act was suddenly hurried through Parliament, and the Young Ireland leaders, scattered through the country in the work of organization, taken utterly by surprise, and without opportunity or time for communication or concert, were absolutely flung into the field.

The result was what might be expected: no other result was possible, as human affairs are ordinarily determined. An abortive rising took place in Tipperary, and once more some of the purest, the bravest, and the best of Irishmen were fugitives or captives for "the old crime of their race"—high treason against England.

The leader in this movement was William Smith O'Brien, brother of the present Earl of Inchiquin, and a lineal descendant of the victor of Clontarf. Like some other of the ancient families of Ireland of royal lineage, O'Briens had, generations before his time, become completely identified with the Anglo-Irish nobility in political and religious faith. He was, therefore, by birth an aristocrat, and was by early education a "conservative" in politics. But he had a thoroughly Irish heart withal, and its promptings, seconded by the force of reason, brought him in 1844 into the ranks of the national movement. This act—the result of pure self-sacrificing conviction and sense of duty—sundered all the ties of his past life, and placed him in utter antagonism with his nearest and dearest relatives and friends. He was a man endowed with all the qualities of soul that truly ennoble humanity; a lofty integrity, a proud dignity, a perfect inability, so to speak, to fall into an ignoble or unworthy thought or action. Unfriendly critics called him haughty, and said he was proud of his family; and there was a proportion of truth in the charge. But it was not a failing to blush for, after all, and might well be held excusable in a scion of the royal house of Thomond, filled with the glorious spirit of his ancestors.

Such was the man—noble by birth, fortune, education, and social and public position—who, toward the close of 1848, lay in an Irish dungeon awaiting the fate of the Irish patriot who loves his country "not wisely but too well."

In those days the Irish peasantry—the wreck of that splendid population which a few years before were matchless in the world—were enduring all the pangs of famine, or the humiliations of "outdoor" pauper life. Amid this starving peasantry scores of political fugitives were now scattered, pursued by all the rigors of the government, and with a price set on each head. Not a man—-not one—of the proscribed patriots who thus sought asylum amid the people was betrayed. The starving peasant housed them, sheltered them, shared with them his own scanty meal, guarded them while they slept, and guided them safely on their way. He knew that hundreds of pounds were on their heads; but he shrank, as from perdition, from the thought of selling for blood-money, men whose crime was, that they had dared and lost all for poor Ireland.[3]

Dillon, Doheny, and O'Gorman made good their escape to America. O'Brien, Meagher, and MacManus, were sent to follow Mitchel, Martin, and O'Doherty into the convict chain-gangs of Van Diemen's Land. One man alone came scathless, as by miracle, out of the lion's den of British law; Gavan Duffy, the brain of the Young Ireland party. Three times he was brought to the torture of trial, each time defying his foes as proudly as if victory had crowned the venture of his colleagues. Despite packing of juries, the crown again and again failed to obtain a verdict against him, and at length had to let him go free. "Free"—but broken and ruined in health and fortune, yet not in hope.

Thus fell that party whose genius won the admiration of the world, the purity of whose motives, the chivalry of whose actions, even their direst foes confessed. They were wrecked in a hurricane of popular enthusiasm, to which they fatally spread sail. It is easy for us now to discern and declare the huge error into which they were impelled—the error of meditating an insurrection—the error of judging that a famishing peasantry, unarmed and undisciplined, could fight and conquer England at peace with all the world. But it is always easy to be wise after the fact. At the time—in the midst of that delirium of excitement, of passionate resolve and sanguine hope—it was not easy for generous natures to choose and determine otherwise than as they did. The verdict of public opinion—the judgment of their own country—the judgment of the world—has done them justice. It has proclaimed their unwise course the error of noble, generous, and self-sacrificing men.


[1] The corn exported from Ireland that year would, alone it is computed, have sufficed to feed a larger population.

[2] So distressingly obvious was the callousness of the government to the horrors of the famine—so inhuman its policy in declaring that the millions should perish rather than the corn market should be "disturbed" by the action of the State—that coroners' juries in several places, impaneled in the cases of famine victims, found as their verdict on oath, "Wilful murder against Lord John Russell" (the premier) and his fellow cabinet ministers.

[3] This devotedness, this singular fidelity, was strikingly illustrated in the conduct of some Tipperary peasants brought forward compulsorily by the crown as witnesses on the trial of Smith O'Brien for high treason. They were marched in between files of bayonets. The crown were aware that they could supply the evidence required, and they were now called upon to give it. One and all, they refused to give evidence. One and all, they made answer to the warnings of the court that such refusal would be punished by lengthened imprisonment: "Take us out and shoot us if you like, but a word we won't swear against the noble gentleman in the dock." The threatened punishment was inflicted, and was borne without flinching.