The Events of 1867

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


JUDGED by the forces engaged, Ridgeway was an inconsiderable engagement. Yet the effect produced by the news in Canada, in the States, in England, and, of course, most of all in Ireland, could scarcely have been surpassed by the announcement of a second Fontenoy. Irish troops had met the levies of England in pitched battle and defeated them. English colors, trophies of victory, were in the hands of an Irish general. The green flag had come triumphant through the storm of battle. At home and abroad the Irish saw only these facts, and these appeared to be all-sufficient for national pride.

O'Neill, on the morrow of his victory, learned with poignant feelings that his supports and supplies had been all cut off by the American gunboats. In his front the enemy were concentrating in thousands. Behind him rolled the St. Lawrence, cruised by United States war steamers. He was ready to fight the British, but he could not match the combined powers of Britain and America He saw the enterprise was defeated hopelessly, for this time, by the action of the Washington executive, and, feeling that he had truly "done enough for valor," he surrendered to the United States naval commander.

This brief episode at Ridgeway was for the confederated Irish the one gleam to lighten the page of their history for 1866. That page was otherwise darkened and blotted by a record of humiliating and disgraceful exposures in connection with the Irish Head Center. In autumn of that year he proceeded to America, and finding his authority repudiated and his integrity doubted, he resorted to a course which it would be difficult to characterize too strongly. By way of attracting a following to his own standard, and obtaining greater influence, he publicly announced that in the winter months close at hand, and before the new year dawned, he would (sealing his undertaking with an awful invocation of the Most High) be in Ireland, leading the long-promised insurrection. Had this been a mere "intention" which might be "disappointed," it was still manifestly criminal thus to announce it to the British government, unless, indeed, his resources in hand were so enormous as to render England's preparations a matter of indifference. But it was not an "intention," he announced it, and swore to it. He threatened with the most serious personal consequences any and every man soever, who might dare to express a doubt that the event would come off as he swore. The few months remaining of the year flew by; his intimate adherents spread the rumor that he had sailed for the scene of action, and in Ireland the news occasioned almost a panic. One day, toward the close of December, however, all New York rang with the exposure that Stephens had never quitted for Ireland, but was hiding from his own enraged followers in Brooklyn. The scenes that ensued were such as may well be omitted from these pages. In that bitter hour thousands of honest, impulsive, and self-sacrificing Irishmen endured the anguish of discovering that they had been deceived as never had men been before; that an idol worshipped with frenzied devotion was, after all, a thing of clay. There was great rejoicing by the government party in Ireland over this exposure of Stephens' failure. Now, at least, it was hoped, nay, confidently assumed, there would be an end of the revolutionary enterprise.

And now, assuredly, there would have been an end of it had Irish disaffection been a growth of yesterday; or had the unhappy war between England and the Irish race been merely a passing contention, a momentary flash of excitement. But it was not so; and these very exposures and scandals and recriminations seemed only fated to try in the fiery ordeal the strength, depth, and intensity of that disaffection.

In Ireland, where Stephens had been most implicitly believed in, the news of this collapse—which reached there early in 1867—filled the circles with keen humiliation. The more dispassionate wisely rejoiced that he had not attempted to keep a promise the making of which was in itself a crime; but the desire to wipe out the reproach supposed to be cast on the whole enrolment by his public defection became so overpowering that a rising was arranged to come off simultaneously all over Ireland on the 5th of March, 1867.

Of all the insensate attempts at revolution recorded in history, this one assuredly was preeminent. The most extravagant of the ancient Fenian tales supplies nothing more absurd. The inmates of a lunatic asylum could scarcely have produced a more impossible scheme. The one redeeming feature in the whole proceeding was the conduct of the hapless men who engaged in it. Firstly, their courage in responding to such a summons at all, unarmed and unaided as they were. Secondly, their intense religious feelings. On the days immediately preceding the 5th of March, the Catholic churches were crowded by the youth of the country, making spiritual preparations for what they believed would be a struggle in which many would fall and few survive. Thirdly, their noble humanity to the prisoners whom they captured, their scrupulous regard for private property, and their earnest anxiety to carry on their struggle without infraction in aught of the laws and rules of honorable warfare.

In the vicinity of Dublin, and in Tipperary, Cork, and Limerick counties, attacks were made on the police stations, several of which were captured by or surrendered to the insurgents. But a circumstance as singular as any recorded in history intervened to suppress the movement more effectually than the armies and fleets of England ten times told could do.. On the next night following the rising—the 6th of March—there commenced a snowstorm which will long be remembered in Ireland, as it was probably without precedent in our annals. For twelve days and nights, without intermission, a tempest of snow and sleet raged over the land, piling snow to the depth of yards on all the mountains, steets, and highways. The plan of the insurrection evidently had for its chief feature desultory warfare in the mountain districts; but this intervention of the elements utterly frustrated the project, and saved Ireland from the horrors of a protracted struggle.

The last episode of the "rising" was one one, the immediate and remote effects of which on public feeling were of astonishing magnitude, the capture and death of Peter O'Neill Crowley in Kilclooney Wood, near Mitchelstown. Crowley was a man highly esteemed, widely popular, and greatly loved in the neighborhood; a man of respectable position, and of good education, and of character so pure and life so blameless that the peasantry revered him almost as a saint. Toward the close of March the government Authorities had information that some of the leaders in the late rising were concealed in Kilclooney Wood, and it was surrounded with military, "beating" the copse for the human game. Suddenly they came on Crowley and two comrades, and a bitter fusillade proclaimed the discovery. The fugitives defended themselves bravely, but eventually Crowley was shot down, and brought a corpse into the neighboring town. Around his neck (inside his shirt) hung a small silver crucifix and a medal of the Immaculate Conception. A bullet had struck the latter, and dinged it into a cup shape. Another had struck the crucifix. It turned out that the fugitives, <during their concealment in the wood, under Crowley's direction, never omitted compliance with the customary Lenten devotions. Every night they knelt around the embers of their watchfire, and recited aloud the Rosary, and at the moment of their surprise by the soldiery they were at their morning prayers.

All these circumstances—Crowley's high character, his edifying life, his tragic fate—profoundly impressed the public mind. While government was felicitating itself on the "final" suppression of its protean foe, Irish disaffection, and the English press was commencing anew the old vaunting story about how Ireland's "crazy dream" of nationality had been dispelled forever, a startling change, a silent revolution, was being wrought in the feelings, the sentiments, the resolutions of the Irish nation. First came compassion and sympathy; then anger and indignation, soon changing into resentment and hostility. The people heard their abstention from the impossible project of "Fenianism" construed into an approbation and sustainment of the existing rule—an acceptance of provincialism. They heard the hapless victims of the late rising reviled as "ruffians," "murderers," "robbers," "marauders," animated by a desire for plunder. They knew the horrible falseness, the baseness and cruelty of all this, coming as it did, too, from the press of a nation ready enough to hound on revolutionary cutthroats abroad, while venting such brutality upon Irishmen like Peter O'Neill Crowley.

Ireland could not stand this. No people with a spark of manhood or of honor left, could be silent or neutral here. In the end proposed to themselves by those slain or captured Irishmen—the desire to lift their country up from her fallen state, to stanch her wounds, to right her wrongs—their countrymen all were at one with them; and the purity, the virtue of their motives, were warmly recognized by men who had been foremost in reprehending the hapless course by which they had immolated themselves. For whatever disorders had arisen from this conspiracy, for whatever there was to reprehend in it, the judgment of the Irish people held English policy and English acts and teachings to account. For who made those men conspirators? Who taught them to look to violence? Who challenged them to a trial of force? When they who had done these things now turned round on the victims of a noble and generous impulse, and caluminated them, assuredly their fellow-countrymen could not stand by unmoved. And the conduct of "the men in the dock" brought all Ireland to their side. Never in any age, or in any country, did men bear themselves in such strait more nobly than those men of '67. They were not men to blush for. Captured at hazard by the government from among thousands, yet did they one and all demean themselves with a dignity, a fortitude, a heroism worthy of—

The holiest cause that tongue or sword
Of mortal ever lost or gained.

Some of them were peasants, others were professional men, others were soldiers, many were artisans. Not a man of them all quailed in the dock. Not one of them spoke a word or did an act which could bring a blush to the cheek of a Christian patriot. Some of them—like Peter O'Neill Crowley—had lived stainless lives, and met their fate with the spirit of the first Christian martyrs. Their last words were of God and Ireland. Their every thought and utterance seemed an inspiration of virtue, of patriotism, or of religion. As man after man of them was brought to his doom, and met it with bravery, the heart of Ireland swelled and throbbed with a force unknown for long years.

Meanwhile an almost permanent court-martial was sitting in Dublin for the trial of soldiers charged, some with sedition, others simply with the utterance of patriotic sentiments; and scenes which might be deemed incredible in years to come, had they not public witnesses and public record in the press, were filling to the brim the cup of public horror and indignation. The shrieks of Irish soldiers given over to the knout, resounded almost daily. Bloodclots from the lash sprinkled the barrack yards all over. Many of the Irishmen thus sentenced walked to the triangle stripped themselves for the torture, bore it without a groan, and when all was finished—while their comrades were turning away sickened and fainting—cheered anew for "poor Ireland," or repeated the "seditious" aspiration for which they had just suffered!

Amid such scenes, under such circumstances, a momentous transformation took place in Ireland. In the fires of such affliction the whole nation became fused. All minor political distinctions seemed to crumble or fade away, all past contentions seemed forgotten, and only two great parties seemed to exist in the Island, those who loved the régime of the blood-clotted lash, the penal chain and the gibbet, and those who hated it. Out of the ashes of "Fenianism," out of the shattered debris of that insane and hopeless enterprise, arose a gigantic power; and 1867 beheld Irish nationality more of a visible and potential reality than it had been for centuries.

Here abruptly pauses the History of Ireland; not ended, because "Ireland is not dead yet." Like that faith to which she has clung through ages of persecution, it may be said of her that, though "oft doomed to death," she is "fated not to die."

Victory must be with her. Already it is with her. Other nations have bowed to the yoke of conquest, and been wiped out from history. Other peoples have given up the faith of their fathers at the bidding of the sword. Other races have sold the glories of their past and the hopes of their future for a mess of pottage; as if there was nothing nobler in mans' destiny than to feed and sleep and die. But Ireland, after centuries of suffering and sacrifice such as have tried no other nation in the world, has successfully, proudly, gloriously, defended and retained her life, her faith, her nationality. Well may her children, proclaiming aloud that "there is a God in Israel,"look forward to a serene and happy future, beyond the tearful clouds of this troubled present. Assuredly a people who have survived so much, resisted so much, retained so much, are destined to receive the rich reward of such devotion, such constancy, such heroism.