To the Death of Daniel O'Connell

Patrick Weston Joyce

961. In 1888, the Rev. Theobald Mathew, a young priest belonging to the order of Capuchin Friars, joined a Temperance Society that had been started in Cork, by some Protestant gentlemen, chiefly Quakers. He took the total abstinence pledge, and soon became the leading spirit in the society. From that time forth he devoted himself almost exclusively to the cause of Temperance, going all through Ireland, preaching to immense congregations, and administering the total abstinence pledge to vast numbers of people of all religious denominations. A wonderful change soon came over the country; for drunkenness with its attendant evils and miseries almost disappeared. The good effects were long felt, and are to some extent felt still. For though the practice of drinking has in a great measure returned, it is not nearly so general as formerly; and drunkenness, which before Father Mathew's time was generally looked upon with a certain degree of indulgence, and by some was considered a thing to boast of, is now universally regarded as discreditable. Through the earnest exertions of individuals and societies all over the country, the cause of Temperance has been lately making great advances, and on all hands it is admitted that the evil of drink is gradually but surely growing less and less as years go by.

962. O'Connell and other Irish leaders had all along hoped to have the Act of Union repealed, that is. to get back for Ireland Grattan's parliament, with all its independence and all its privileges. But the struggle for Emancipation absorbed so much of their energies that for about thirty years after the Repeal agitation was started in 1810, it was carried on only in a faint sort of way. In 1840 it was vigorously renewed, when O'Connell founded the Repeal Association: and in 1843, he began to hold great public meetings in favour of Repeal, at which vast numbers of the people attended, eager to support the movement and to hear his magnificent addresses. At one meeting held on the Hill of Tara, the ancient seat of the Irish kings, it was computed that a quarter of a million of people were present. About thirty of these meetings—"Monster Meetings" as they came to be called—were held during 1843. At last the Government took action, and "proclaimed," i.e. forbade, the meeting that was arranged to be held at Clontarf on the 8th October. After this O'Connell and several others were arrested, tried, and convicted. But when they had spent three months in prison, they had to be released in September, 1843; because the House of Lords, before whom O'Connell brought the case, decided that the trial was not a fair one, inasmuch as the government had selected a one-sided jury. It may be said that this ended the agitation for Repeal.

963. In those days almost the whole population of Ireland subsisted on the potato. But in 1845 and 1846, the potato crop failed and there was a great famine, the most calamitous the country had ever experienced. In 1846 and 1847 the people died by hundreds of thousands of starvation and fever. The preventive measures taken by Government, in the shape of public works, were quite inadequate: but the English people individually made noble efforts to save the starving peasantry; and money in enormous amounts came pouring in. One sad feature of this great national catastrophe was that in each of those two years Ireland produced quite enough of corn to feed the people of the whole country; but day after day it was exported in shiploads, while the peasantry were dying of hunger. Notwithstanding the great efforts of benevolent individuals and associations, one-fourth of the people of Ireland died of famine and disease during 1846 and 1847. So tremendous a calamity had probably never been experienced by any other country of Europe.

964. After O'Connell's trial and conviction, a number of the younger men among his followers, losing faith in his method of peaceful and constitutional agitation, separated from him and formed what is called the "Young Ireland Party." They were educated men of the highest character, and many of them of great literary ability. O'Connell's various organisations from the very beginning of his career, had been almost exclusively Catholic; but the Young Ireland Party included Catholics and Protestants; and one of their aims was to unite the whole people of Ireland of all religious denominations in one great organisation.

965. "The Nation" newspaper had been founded in 1842 by Charles Gavan Duffy, John Blake Dillon, and Thomas Davis; the first two Catholics, the third a Protestant; and they now used it to give expression to their views. It was very ably conducted, its pages abounding in brilliant writing, both prose and poetry: of which a large part has become permanently embodied in Irish National Literature. The writers were much less guarded than O'Connell; their articles tended towards revolutionary doctrines; and they soon came in contact with the law. Other papers with similar principles and objects were founded, with writers who were still more outspoken. Of these latter the most conspicuous, for his brilliantly written and violent articles, was John Mitchel, an Ulster Unitarian, who openly advocated rebellion and total separation from England.

966. During all this time of disruption and trouble the whole of the Catholic clergy and the great body of the people, forming collectively the "Old Ireland Party," stood by O'Connell. The secession of the young Irelanders was a cause of great grief to him; and he denounced them with unsparing bitterness; for he foresaw that they would bring trouble on themselves and on the country; which indeed came to pass soon after his death. Yet in many ways this brilliant band of young men exercised great influence for good, which remained after the trouble and the trials were all past and gone, and which remains to this day. They infused new life and energy into Irish national literature, spread among the people a knowledge of Irish history, Irish music, and Irish lore of all kinds, and taught them to admire what was good and noble among past generations of Irishmen of every creed and party.

967. In 1846, O'Connell, worn out by labour and anxiety, began to decline in health; and he suffered intense anguish of mind at witnessing the calamities of the people he loved so well; for the famine was at this time making fearful havoc among them. In the following year his physicians, hoping that change of air and scene might benefit or restore him, advised him to go to the Continent. He set out on a journey to Rome, partly devotional and partly for health; but his strength failed on the way; and he died at Genoa on the 15th May, 1847, at the age of seventy-one. In accordance with his latest wish, his heart was carried to Rome, and his body was brought back to Ireland and buried in Glasnevin, where a stately pillar-tower, after the model of the round towers of old, now marks his resting-place.