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The Politics of Irish Literature
by Malcolm Brown

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The Politics of Irish Literature
From Thomas Davis to W.B. Yeats

by Malcolm Brown

Chapter Fifteen
The Ballot Box Once More: Isaac Butt

OF ALL THE GRAND episodes of nineteenth-century Irish history, none has been so intensely studied as Home Rule. It was, to be sure, a vast, intricate, and decisive affair. But it was not a new tune, just a variation on the old one. It arose out of the same generalized causes that had brought out a million men to Tara of the Kings. And it sank on the same rock that had wrecked all the previous experiments in the Whig alliance, and that would in due time wreck the last such experiment in John Redmond's alliance with Herbert Asquith.

When Fenianism was in its green youth back in the time of the MacManus funeral, Lord Carlisle was sent over to hold court in the Viceregal Lodge. Belfast was by then the foremost industrial city of Ireland. The huge new shipyard had added a counterbalance of heavy industry to its prosperous light industry in textiles. The middle classes of Dublin, Limerick, and "Rebel Cork" longed excruciatingly for Belfast's good fortune. Said Lord Carlisle, not a chance; except in Ulster, Ireland's true purpose was to be "the fruitful mother of flocks and herds" or as we would now say, to be "bullock-befriending":

Here we find in the soil and the climate the conditions best suited for pasture. Hence it appears that cattle above all things seem to be the most appropriate stock for Ireland, and the laws of the market to which I refer agree in recommending the source of supply. Corn, you well know, can be brought from one country to another, from a great distance, at rather small freight. It is not so with cattle-hence the great hives of industry in England and Scotland can draw their shiploads of corn from more southern climates, but they must...

have a constant dependence on Ireland for an abundant supply of meat. . . . He reminded his listeners of those unsightly mud-walled cabins that were formerly to be seen everywhere in Ireland; eyesores really, they had been "the censure and opprobrium of the country" and the particular condemnation "of commercial travellers." They were, further, a source of constant pain to "those public spirited inhabitants who mourned over a state of things which they were unable, at all events, at once to relieve." Well, he would beg to point out that the census of 1841 had enumerated 491,000 of these cabins, but twenty years later, thanks to the reign of economic progress under the Union, the number had fallen to 125,000. Therefore, he said, "with reference to the general concerns of Ireland, I feel I am justified in speaking to you, upon the whole, in terms of congratulations and hopefulness."'

Glory be for the vanished cabin and the great Irish exodus, for the American wake and the emigrant ship, whose pathos was formulated in numerable expressions in the popular culture and treated as a serious literary theme by George Moore, Liam O'Flaherty, and others. Joyce was later to classify these expressions as sentimentalisms:

I love my country-by herrings I do!
I wish you could see what tears I weep
When I think of the emigrant train or ship.

But the lice in Stephen Dedalus' collar and those dreary periodic episodes with the moving van in the Dedalus household-the national "paralysis" for which Joyce was an expert witness-were merely the symptoms of a nation fleeing overseas. O'Leary estimated that Dublin had four hundred barristers but work enough to keep forty of them occupied, and why was this? In 1867 the lord mayor of Dublin tied these threads together: "Emigration is the hemorrhage which drains the life-blood of Ireland away."


The executions in Manchester brought the heroic phase of Fenianism to a close. With the organization dismembered and the leaders in jail, systematic action gave place to private adventure. A garrisoned Martello tower near Cork was successfully raided for arms, and several gunsmith shops were cleaned out to the bare walls by Fenians who arrived with primed pistols and large canvas bags to carry off the inventory. During one of these raids a Cincinnati Fenian named William Lomasney was apprehended by a plainclothes detective. As the two men struggled for a revolver, it discharged, giving the officer a nasty leg wound from which he died a week later. Lomasney was tried for murder, but the jury found him not guilty, a verdict that reflected painfully back upon the moral import of the Manchester hangings.

These adventures took on an increasingly frenzied and degenerate mien. A sensational episode in the new style occurred just three weeks after the Manchester hangings. Following the rescue of Kelly and Deasy at Manchester, Colonel Burke himself was soon arrested. He was confined in Clerkenwell House of Detention in mid-London, together with another Fenian, Joseph Casey, Stephens' cousin. A group of London Fenians reasoned that the rescuer ought to be rescued and decided to blast a breach in the jail wall that separated the street outside from the prisoners' exercise yard. The explosion was to be timed for the daily exercise period, when the prisoners were gathered on the opposite side. An informer notified the police that some sort of attempt at rescue would be made, so that Burke and Casey were moved to another part of the jail. The rescuers brought up their explosive in a handcart and in leisurely fashion, watched by idle residents in the nearby houses, they put it in place beside the wall, attached the fuse, lit it, and strolled away. The expert in charge of the operation was said to have been a veteran sapper from the Union army, and no one has ever explained why he used five hundred pounds of black powder, twentyfold too much for the job. The explosion blew out nearly two hundred feet of brick wall and hurled forty tons of masonry across the exercise yard. It would have killed Burke and Casey if they had been there. It shattered every window in the jail, and across the street it demolished a block of tenements, killing twelve persons and maiming a hundred and twenty others.

Table of Contents
The Politics of Irish Literature by Malcolm Brown

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The Politics of
Irish Literature

From Thomas Davis to W.B. Yeats
by Malcolm Brown
Part I: The Peculiar Irish Setting
1. History and Poetry: Some Irish Paradoxes
2. Thomas Davis' Ireland
Part II: Young Ireland
3. O'Connell and Davis in Partnership
4. The Nation's First Year
5. The Retreat from Clontarf
6. Black '47
7. '48 and Insurrection
8. Beside the Sickbed: Carlyle, Duffy, Dr. Cullen
9. John Mitchel after '48
Part III: Fenianism
10. Mr. Shook
11. Fenianism Mobilizes
12. O'Leary and the Irish People
13. "The Year for Action"
14. The Agony of Fenianism
Part IV: Home Rule
15. The Ballot Box Once More: Isaac Butt
16. Parnell and Davitt
17. The Land War in Mayo
18. After Kilmainham: Bakhuninism in Phoenix Park
19. After Kilmainham: Davitt and Standish O'Grady Take Stock
20. The Irish Party in Maneuver
21. Enter: W. B. Yeats
22. Catastrophe
23. Poetry Defends the Gap: Yeats and Hyde
24. Literary Parnellism

Praise for
The Politics of Irish Literature
cover thumbnail for "The Politics of Irish Literature" by Malcolm Brown

"This brilliant study of the intersection of politics and literature in Ireland amounts to a dazzling portrait gallery. Reading it one feels about one the breath, warmth, and passions of the dead all come alive again."
-- Sean O'Faolain in the Manchester Guardian

"Mr. Brown's masterpiece has made me want to hire a nearby housetop and recite whole chunks to every passerby..."
-- Michael Foote in the London Evening Standard

"The author of the best book on George Moore now gives us what is in all likelihood the best book on the politics of modern Irish literature."
-- Virginia Quarterly Review

Professor Malcolm J. Brown with his son, Bruce Brown, Sumas, WA, July 1988

University of Washington Professor Malcolm J. Brown (1910 - 1992) with his son, Bruce Brown, in Sumas, WA, July 1988.

Additional reading -- Malcolm Brown's George Moore: A Reconsideration. Also see Bruce Brown's commentary on The History of the Corporation for Malcolm Brown's contribution to that work.

The theatricality of the Clerkenwell explosion suggested to a few of the more uncomplicated Fenians a model technique for advancing the Irish cause. The old Fenian organization, splitting into fragments, thus formed one small section of "Dynamitards" who made terror against England their purpose in life. Their forays, usually organized out of New York, came in time to be systematized around O'Mahony's colorful assistant, "Red Jim" MacDermott. He recruited groups of youths for this patriotic work, accompanied them overseas as their demonstration leader, and secretly betrayed them to the police; then he returned to New York for another batch. Over the decades the dynamiting passion persisted. Lomasney was among those who followed this work; a gentle terrorist, his ambition was to demolish architectural London without hurting anybody. He died at last by his own dynamite, in the act of placing explosives under the abutment of London Bridge. Another was Tom Clarke, first signatory of the Easter Week Proclamation. Of the next generation was Cathal Brugha, who brought over his little eight-year-old girl to live with him in a London hotel while he studied how to blow up the cinemas. The most literary was Brendan Behan, who as we have seen was still engaged in this misguided occupation in 1939, undismayed by the seventy years of total futility since Clerkenwell had started it all.

The Dynamitards were an embarrassment and sorrow to the other Fenians. Because strict rule forbade the debate of private quarrels within the hearing of the common enemy, the main body of Fenians were reluctant to join a public hue and cry against any fleeing Dynamitard. But in the secret councils terrorism was bitterly attacked. Its effect was to most Fenians painfully obvious: it simply made enemies of their potential friends, since it was not long before bystanders had got more than a surfeit of random explosions. O'Leary was particularly annoyed, and among the concrete meanings of his famous aphorism, "There are things no man should do, even to save a nation," the foremost was that no Irishman should blow up the London theaters in the name of patriotic duty.


A quizzical intermingling of revulsion with respect toward terrorism turns up in Joyce's inimitable literary formulation of the Clerkenwell incident in the "Proteus" chapter of Ulysses. On his first trip to Paris in 1902 he had taken the trouble to look up a Fenian exile, Joseph Casey, Burke's Clerkenwell cell mate. Richard Ellmann reports that Joyce found the old fellow "a nuisance," but his evidence also shows that first he touched Casey for a small loan, and then made him sit as model for "Kevin Egan of Paris," the Dynamitard, one of the major leitmotivs of Ulysses.

Joyce's vignette opens heavy with disgust. The search for Kevin Egan leads down into the squalid Parisian lairs of the exiled and the damned. There he is discovered, "spurned and undespairing," degraded, rapt, an addict of a demented nostalgia for a cause long dead. "The green fairy's fang [of absinthe] thrusting between his lips. Of Ireland, the Dalcassians [i.e., the medieval kings of Thomond from whom Smith O'Brien was descended], of hopes, conspiracies, of Arthur Griffith now. . . . Of lost leaders, the betrayed, wild escapes. Disguises, clutched at, gone not here." His effeminate offspring, Patrice, "son of the wild goose" whose "father's a bird," transforms into an effete socialist surrogate for Christ, whose "father's a bird," too, a pigeon as all Joyceans know. He laps milk instead of the paternal and patriotic "froggreen wormwood," and has learned about the "nature of women" from books, from Michelet, apotheosizer of la pucelle, Joan of Arc. Kevin Egan's patriotic compulsion is a symptom of voyeurism, cuckoldry, homosexuality, and nympholepsy; for Joyce wrote in the same pioneer psychoanalytic age that inspired Dr. Ernest Jones's subconsciously English political notation on the hidden meaning of "the Irish problem": those eccentric people who live on lesser islands yearn for a motherland rather than a fatherland . Thus when Kevin Egan dissolved into another of the ghosts that got away James Stephens (not from jail now, but from his hiding place), he disguised Stephens for the occasion as "a young bride, man, veil, orangeblossoms, [and] drove out to the road to Malahide." Joyce's embroidery on A. M. Sullivan's invention about the coach-and-four put in the orange blossoms in order to state a motif he later called "heroticism." Stephens' own testimony on the subject was, "I never donned a female's costume in my life, nor do I intend to."

"Loveless, landless, wifeless," Kevin Egan strains toward a fantasy female vampire: "Maud Gonne, beautiful woman, La Patrie, M. Millevoye, Felix Faure, know how he died? Licentious men." Decoded, this astounding concentrate of murderous associations reads: Kevin Egan's patriotic and sexual fantasies interchange with each other as forms of death. Maud Gonne, a hypostatization of Cathleen ni Houlihan, who wears elsewhere in Ulysses the poison corsage of potato blossoms, embodies the Irish patrie. The real female is as equally inaccessible and merciless as the hypostatized one. While Yeats had been wooing her with those poems of disembodied languid death-longing, she was the licentious bedfellow of M. Millevoye, a henchman of the chauvinist General Boulanger, a man who also combined in his own sensational fashion the morbid trinity of politics, sex, and death. Millevoye, who told Maud Gonne she should seize her destiny in the role of la pucelle of Ireland, is associated also with Felix Faure, anti-Dreyfusard president of France. That patriot had interrupted a midafternoon state conference on the Dreyfus crisis to retire to an adjoining private chamber for what the Encyclopaedia Britannica once called "an interview" with his own mistress, the wife of the painter Steinheil. Shortly afterward he was heard screaming, and his secretaries rushed in to find him dying of "an apoplexy." Lascivious men, to be sure, but "wars are lost in the same spirit in which they are won," and it takes a lascivious people to expose a lascivious people. And so on: but we must draw breath.

In the middle movement, Kevin Egan, sinister now, lights a "gunpowder" cigarette: "The blue fuse burns deadly between hands and burns clear. Loose tobacco shreds catch fire: a flame and acrid smoke light our corner. Raw facebones under his peep of day boy's hat." Then the explosion, or as it is known in the literary trade, the "apocalyptic vision." "Lover, for her love he prowled with colonel Richard [Ricard] Burke, tanist of his sept, under the walls of Clerkenwell and, crouching, saw a flame of vengeance hurl them upward in the fog. Shattered glass and toppling masonry." All relationships freeze momentarily in primordial space, rescuer and rescued merge in montage lit by a flash as the long sustained strident ignobility is silenced for an instant of the violent, grand, and cosmic. No doubt about it, Joyce, like Yeats and Eliot, found all great loud bangs captivating as having something to do perhaps with History or God. But then another quick twist and Kevin Egan returns in excellent circuitous form to his Point of origin, in order that the coda may reiterate the overture:

In gay Paree he hides, Egan of Paris, unsought by any save by me. . . . He takes me, Napper Tandy, by the hand.
O, O the boys of Kilkenny . . .
Weak wasting hand on mine. They have forgotten Kevin Egan, not he them. Remembering thee, O Sion.


The marvelous brilliance of Joyce's Dynamitard is a distraction. In the manner of Dostoevsky's Possessed, it spotlighted a small, lurid, half-mad fragment that did exist, right enough, but did not represent anything much but itself. As for the main nondynamiting body of Fenians, nothing so striking could be said of them. They were defunct as a military threat, but not as a nationalist symbol or a body of scattered but like-minded men. The original ganglion that bound Fenianism together was gone with Stephens, but wholesale arrests had provided a new one. Hundreds of Fenian veterans who had originally been tied to the organization only through personal contact with Stephens now met as fellow prisoners and became acquainted for the first time. Then the old question recurred, What next? When one is crushed and can do nothing, what shall he do? According to Swift, that was when Irishmen built a powder magazine. He was a better revolutionist than he imagined. The Fenian answer was similar: then you organize an amnesty agitation.

Irishmen have been often taunted for their murderous factionalism"great hatred in a little room"-and not without some justice. More remarkable is the contrary trait, an overwhelming urge to draw together in common grief.

The universal compassion of Irishmen for any fellow countryman, friend or foe, held prisoner by the English, was one of the secrets of the political genius of the nation:

He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song.

Hence, the police roundup of Fenians had hardly begun before a popular movement arose to demand reprieves and commutations for the prisoners. The trials that followed Colonel Kelly's rising of March 1867 had handed down a number of death sentences. Immediately an amnesty committee formed, headed by a couple of priests from Cardinal Cullen's National Association. As for Cullen himself, the years had dulled his edge, and he personally intervened in one of the death-sentence cases, that of Colonel Thomas Bourke or Burke (not to be confused with Colonel Ricard Burke of Clerkenwell). After the scaffold had already been built, he drove down to the Castle to make a successful plea for commutation, arguing with the voice of experience that a hanging would "only add fuel to their flames."

The amnesty committee had won all its first round of cases, so that none of the death sentences resulting from the 1867 rising was carried out. One of the Fenians thus saved, James F. X. O'Brien of Cork, was the last man in Great Britain who would ever stand in the dock to hear himself sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Shortly afterward the government finally asked itself Swift's unanswerable question: "What needs all this cookery?" and the barbarous old formula was abandoned. As for O'Brien, he was in time released from jail and, mellowing by slow degrees, became at last a decorous and respectable Home Ruler of the anti-Parnellite faction and a particular aversion of W. B. Yeats's.

Then came the amnesty defeat at Manchester and the uproar that followed. A. M. Sullivan, the assistant grand marshal of Dublin's mock funeral for the Manchester martyrs, was shortly in need of amnesty for himself. The Nation had taken no care for prudence in its leading articles on the Manchester affair. The term "judicial murder" had been employed. Sullivan was arrested, together with Richard Pigott, the current owner of the one-time Fenian paper, the Irishman, who was then just beginning one of the more sensational careers in Irish history. On the day after the Clerkenwell explosion, the police came back to arrest Sullivan again, this time for "conducting a seditious funeral."8 He was found guilty and went like so many others before and after to serve time, six months as it happened, in Richmond jail.*

For A. M. Sullivan to go to jail on behalf of Fenianism was not a normal expectation, but he had not really succumbed to mental aberration. He knew on the one hand that Fenianism was for the moment crushed. He knew also that, defeated or not, it represented the only popular Irish political mechanism operating in competition against the clergy. When O'Leary told Yeats that in Ireland one must have either the Church or the Fenians on his side, he meant that the two forces were mutually exclusive. Sullivan's idea was that one should combine them together into a "blend."

The Fenians on their own part, unless they wished to take the dynamite road with Rossa and MacCafferty, were pleased to join with anybody interested in amnesty. Fenian prisoners would not be likely to resent an agitation, even by "spouters," to free them from jail. With their military ideal reduced to little more than verbal compulsion with a ludicrous remoteness from actuality, they inevitably drifted toward the Sullivans' orbit, though the drift was by inches and with innumerable reservations. And thus it was that in the amnesty movement for the first time "the distinction between Fenian and non-Fenian Nationalists seemed to disappear."


The end of the Fenian military threat at the close of 186'7 left a great quiet and fatigue in Ireland, like the emptiness that had followed the famine and the collapse of Young Ireland. In such times of Irish political vacuum (and the same again in 1891 and 1923), the Church as the one permanent institution found itself momentarily in possession of a political monopoly, thanks to the extermination of its competitors. Cullen's revival of the Whig alliance might have sounded like comedy to the Fenians in 1864; but in 1868, through sheer survival it had become the dominant and, except for amnesty, the sole Irish political orientation of moment.

Cullen's project had been strengthened by a shift in the English party leadership at Westminster. The retirement at age seventy-five of Lord John Russell, the Whig leader who represented in the Irish mind the famine, coercion, Van Diemen's Land, no-popery riots, and the Manchester hangings, had removed the man who had made the very name "Whig" hateful (a semantic enrichment on which Yeats was later to play his word game about Whigs who were presumed to hate Whiggery). The ugly word, slowly fading out for years past, retired officially with Russell, giving way to the new designation, "Liberal." The old Whig alliance was now called the "Liberal alliance" and was thus purified of some of its unsavory Irish historical memories.

The new Liberal leader replacing Russell was William E. Gladstone, old enough for retirement himself, but still charged with the energy and outlook of a youth of thirty. He had served his apprenticeship as a Tory under Sir Robert Peel, but in the shuffle that followed Corn Law repeal he came out of the scrum wearing the colors of the opposition. In personal life he was more pious than Russell but less bigoted. He had, it is true, resigned from Peel's cabinet in indignation over the Maynooth grants, yet Cardinal Manning was his lifelong friend. His attitudes toward Ireland were as steadfastly English-oriented as Russell's, but his mind was far more astute and supple. Prodded (as he admitted) by the Fenian commotion, he came to believe that it was not a wise English policy toward Ireland to stand upon the old ossified postures and phrases. In the summer of 1868, with Disraeli's ministry collapsing and a new general election near at hand, Gladstone rallied the English Liberals and Irish Whigs into a winning combination around promises to bring "Justice to Ireland" and (not quite the same thing) "to pacify Ireland."

In Cullen's opinion the one thing needed in Ireland was the disestablishment and disendowment of the Church of Ireland. He had not come out unscorched from the Fenian epoch, and he evidently thought that it would be restful to shift the Anglicans into the hot spot. Gladstone brought in a disestablishment bill in haste. Irishmen generally approved the bill as justice three-quarters of a century overdue. Yet the abuses of the Irish established church, if indefensible, were rather superficial compared with the other problems of Irish welfare. As John Mitchel noted at the time, it was not the Anglican vicars who "fling out poor families on the highway in winter." After the bill passed and the Church assets were turned into life annuities for the surplus vicars, everything was about the same as before.

With disestablishment out of the way, the amnesty forces once more took the field. They circulated an amnesty petition, collecting a quarter of a million signatures. They published stories of cruel treatment of Fenian prisoners. Seven had died of exposure, four had committed suicide, four had gone insane. Colonel Ricard Burke, a large muscular man, had shrunk to ninety pounds and turned the color of parchment. Old friends could not recognize him. He claimed that he was being poisoned by the prison doctor, so that it was supposed he too must be insane, though the prison chaplain thought his charges probably true. He then feigned insanity to force the prison officials to transfer him to the shelter of a bedlam. O'Donovan Rossa's treatment was a special scandal. He had been handcuffed with his hands behind his back for thirty-five days; but he was able to prevail on a Highlander prison guard to smuggle out a message about his plight to George Henry Moore, who ventilated the affair on the floor of the House. A select committee of Parliament was set up to investigate the Fenian allegations and found them to be correct.

Gladstone's government then gave its reply to the amnesty movement: releases for half the lesser Fenians and for the ailing Kickham among the leaders, and nothing more. This disposition being only half-satisfactory, the committees set about to heat up their agitation. They called an aggregate meeting in midsummer 1869 to form a permanent Amnesty Association and to elect officers. The board, the first solid substance of the new Irish Nationalist unity, consisted of Father Lavelle, Richard Pigott of the Irishman, John Martin, a Fenian called "Amnesty Nolan," and, to be sure, A. M. Sullivan. For president, the association chose the great liberal Tory Protestant, Isaac Butt, who therewith became the new leader of Irish nationalism.


Historical and literary threads in nineteenth-century Ireland often cross in intimate personal relationships: in the intersection of Mitchel with Mangan, of George Henry Moore with Esther Waters, of the Dynamitard Casey with James Joyce, of John O'Leary with W. B. Yeats, of the Gregory quarteracre clause with the Abbey Theatre. Another significant point of intersection centers in Isaac Butt. Until the Yeatses had become famous themselves, he was the family's most prized connection with greatness. He was the lifelong friend of grandfather Yeats, the rector of Orange Portadown ("a good man on a horse," but not to be confused with great-grandfather Yeats, the rector of Drumcliff, Sligo). He provided John Butler Yeats, who idolized him, with an unfinished apprenticeship in the law. Yeats fils referred to him with offhand ease as "my father's old friend."

For J. B. Yeats, Butt was unique, a man incapable of meanness, acrimony, or calculation: "he could not hate." He spoke often, too, of his warmth, his "naturalness and humanity," and of his artistic sensibility, which had created a romantic novel, the Dublin University Magazine, and a personal style. A friend had once found him preparing for some great trial by hiding out in a rural inn to read Milton. He was not one who suffered from dissocation of sensibility, and Yeats pere recalled the effect of his court arguments on listeners: "I always think a great orator convinces us not by force of reasoning, but simply because he is visibly enjoying the beliefs which he wants us to accept. This is my recollection of Isaac Butt. The cause he was fighting for enshrined itself in him-to follow him seemed health which is another name for happiness."" There was none of the repellent "good citizen" in Butt, either-he had been imprisoned for debt; he "loved a lass" like another important Irish politician, rather more scandalously, in fact, maintaining for years separate households for his illegitimate and legitimate menages, both of whom loved him none the less for it. So be it, Yeats pere concluded: "The poor muse could only visit him in strange placesin brothels and gaming houses she would meet her son, herself an exile; in those days banished by the respectable poets and Bishops and all the old mumbling bigotries of religion and social hatred. Butt, who loved humanity too much to hate any man, who knew too much of history to hate any opinion-besides how can a self-centered man, with visions to follow, hate? The career of Butt and its disasters is enough to prove the necessity of the Irish poetical movement."

Some of those truths for which Yeats fils beat upon the wall were actually more accessible than that, being merely the daily table talk of that wonderful old man, his father. The family idealization of Isaac Butt appears to have served poetry well:

. . . to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there's no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

Butt's amiability gave the lineaments for the model Yeatsian Irishman, and especially the model Yeatsian politician.

"The Tower" describes an imaginary polity built up by the Irish Protestant:

Bound neither to Cause nor to State,
Neither to slaves that were spat on,
Nor to the tyrants that spat,
The people of Burke and of Grattan
That gave, though free to refuse --

Some readers have been troubled by this formulation. Did the heuristics of half rhyme discover for the poet the "spat on" or the "Grattan," or both, each of them misplaced? To suggest that Burke and Grattan were not bound to cause passes into nonsense; if mere paradox is wanted, it would be better to stay with "Love is like the lion's tooth." When one searches for alternative political names that might fit these lines, few possibilities come to mind. Not Tone, a plebeian, nor Emmet nor Lord Edward, who were also bound to cause, and who, incidentally, despised Burke and Grattan. Not Smith O'Brien, driven by his tyrannical evangelical conscience. Perhaps Captain John Shawe-Taylor, Lady Gregory's nephew, for whom Yeats wrote a somewhat eccentric encomium; or perhaps that other ubiquitous nephew, Sir Hugh Lane. The perfect fit would be Isaac Butt, not necessarily the man himself who, as Joseph Hone remarked, "ran after women and was always in debt," but the Yeats family's idealization. And yet the man, too. Any Fenian would have recognized his likeness to Yeats's portrait in the relaxed humanity and, above all, the fine free-handed generosity. When O'Leary and Luby were awaiting trial, their briefs were refused by eminent counsel, and it was Butt who took them up. He spent the greater part of the next four years defending the stream of Fenians who passed through the criminal courts, to finish off the ruin of purse and career. It was also natural to read Butt's assumption of the presidency of the Amnesty Association as a new generosity that he was "free to refuse." That would be in accord with the presence of Father Lavelle and John Martin on the board. But if generosity were all there was to it, what were Richard Pigott and A. M. Sullivan doing there?


Butt's Amnesty Association reacted vigorously to Gladstone's refusal to release all political prisoners. Forty protest meetings were held during the summer of 1869, all pointing up to a grand finale in October, held in an open field at Cabra on the northwest edge of Dublin. According to Butt's guess, two hundred thousand people came out to Cabra to disapprove the continued imprisonment of the forty Fenian leaders and the cruel punishments inflicted on Rossa, Burke and the others who had gone mad or died in prison. Half as many more, Butt said, had jammed the roads solid for a mile back, unable to get through the gates into the meeting, another case of Tara or the MacManus funeral. It is not a common experience for a man to stand in the focus of two hundred thousand pairs of listening ears and watching eyes, and Butt, a literary man in his own right, tried to formulate his feelings. Witnesses of the famine had all said that mere words were futile, and Butt had to fall back upon the same figure

There was an awe and a solemnity in the presence of so many living souls. Dense masses of men, outnumbering the armies that decided the fate of Europe on the field of Waterloo, covered a space of ground upon the far-off verge of which their forms were lost in distance. Around that verge the gorgeous banners of a hundred trades' unions, recalling to the mind the noblest glories of the Italian free republics, glistened in the brightness of a clear autumn sun. Words fail to describe-imagination and memory fail in producing-the image of a scene which like the recollections of Venice, is so different from all the incidents of ordinary life, that it seems like the remembrance of a vision or a dream.

The political lesson of the Cabra mass meeting was plain enough to Butt: defeated Fenianism had other attractions besides the romance of a lost cause. This conclusion was demonstrated beyond all doubt several weeks later in a by-election in Tipperary. Somebody in the Amnesty Association thought it would be a good stunt to enter the name of O'Donovan Rossa as a candidate-address, "of Portland Prison, or Pentonville, England." The campaign on his behalf had only one appeal: How would you like to be fettered with your hands behind your back for thirty-five days? It was all that was needed. Rossa was elected, but immediately disqualified by the House of Commons. A couple of weeks later Kickham, just out of prison, campaigned in the same constituency and lost by four votes. The fact that neither of the candidates was eligible to serve only sharpened the point of the voters' intent.**

With forty years in the House of Commons behind him, Gladstone, too, understood the political meaning of the Cabra and Tipperary occurrences. In February 1870, shortly after the Tipperary by-election, he brought in his land bill. He proposed to make landlords compensate evicted persons for "disturbance," together with the value of the farm improvements they left behind. He hoped thereby to satisfy two of the Three Fs, leaving only fair rent as unfinished business. But fair rent was the key grievance. Sir John Gray, Duffy's old ally and editor of the Freeman's Journal, attacked the bill as useless. His judgment of it was not unfair. After it became law, its benefits were overshadowed in the countryside by a new phase of evictions, a new wave of Ribbon violence, and naturally a new coercion bill.

Gladstone's next response was more to the point: at Christmas 1870 he released the rest of the Fenian prisoners, though the leaders were granted only conditional pardons. Their mood was to reject any conditions for release, creating a moral puzzle somewhat like Smith O'Brien's refusal to accept the commutation of his death sentence in 1848. After some negotiations the prisoners agreed to the condition that they leave the British Isles and so walked out of prison more or less free. Devoy and Rossa headed for the United States and never again went home to live. O'Leary settled down for a fifteen-year residence in Paris.

Gladstone's "Justice to Ireland" was exhausted without spectacular accomplishment. Amnesty was a fine thing, but was one expected to thank the Saxon prime minister for releasing one's fellow countryman who should never have been imprisoned in the first place? Disestablishment was in one sense noteworthy; the Irish in teamwork with Gladstone had won in six weeks what the Welsh were going to need thirty-five years to accomplish, for whatever it was worth. The new land act had no Irish defenders except for a few who hoped that it was an entering wedge, but even they admitted that it would be another decade before a better land bill could be passed. From the advanced Irish point of view, the new experiment in the Whig alliance had turned out like the old ones.


Listening to the rumble of popular restiveness against Gladstone, sensing opportunity, Butt, Martin, and Sullivan decided in the closing days of the debate on the Land Act of 1870 that the time had come once again to reopen the nationalist political offensive along correct lines, the combination of all classes. They persuaded the Irish Times to call a meeting of resplendent Irishmen to discuss a new nationalist effort. The meeting, held in the Bilton Hotel on May 19, 1870, was attended by sixty-one persons, including the lord mayor, the ex-lord mayor, the editor of the Tory Evening Mail, one D.D., one M.P., two M.D.'s plus one F.R.C.S.I. (Oscar Wilde's physician father), nine J.P.'s, three P.L.G.'s (Poor Law Guardians), two F.T.C.D.'s (Fellows of Trinity College), two '48 men John Martin and P. J. Smythe, the man that got away John Mitchel from Van Diemen's Land-one Quaker, one amnestied Fenian in addition to Mr. "Amnesty Nolan," one Q.C. (the piece de resistance, Isaac Butt), besides A. M. Sullivan. There were no priests or bishops. The Committee of Sixty-one asked themselves, said Sullivan, "What can we do for Ireland?" The best answer to arise spontaneously out of the "hereditary passion" voiced from the floor was that H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught ought to be asked to come over and live permanently in the Viceregal Lodge.

Butt was ready with a better answer: not Repeal, since that word was thought too redolent with old unhappy memories for some of the distinguished persons present, but the new coinage, "Home Rule." He explained that there was a difference of meaning in the two words. O'Connell always kept the referent of the word Repeal gloriously vague. Home Rule was not to be vague. It sought an Irish legislature "in the Old House in College Green" for "our own affairs." But it endorsed in advance the wisdom of Westminster to deal for Irishmen on any question affecting the imperial crown, the colonies and dependencies, and "all matters appertaining to the defense and stability of the Empire at large." Let Englishmen have no fears about the integrity of the empire being endangered by Isaac Butt.

In Sullivan's Committee of Sixty-one the reader will recognize the ghost of Young Ireland's Eighty-two Club and a new embodiment of that recurrent longing of middle-class Irish ambition to decorate its adventures with a bit of "the best blood." It was anxious to make clear that Home Rule entailed no excesses, no Jacobinism, no physical force, and none of the new danger just discovered by Butt, English socialism. Normally that meant the clergy would come in to do the legwork, except that they were already attached to Gladstone. But now a new source of popular backing might be available in the rank-and-file remnants of the Fenian movement.

True, the Fenians would not be easy to work with. The first problem, as Butt saw it, was not so much how to make use of them as how to keep them from breaking up meetings. Sullivan had a pained memory of the 1861 riot in the Rotunda when he launched his agitation over the statue of Prince Albert. Nearly a decade had passed since then, and except for the Brotherhood of St. Patrick and the Amnesty Association, both Fenian sponsored, nobody had dared to launch any more Irish moral force agitations. But in the very month of Rossa's Tipperary election, some Limerick farmers determined to try again, and organized a tenant-right mass meeting with a nationalist priest named Father Quaid and also a couple of loyalist priests for the speakers. It was still premature. Two hundred Fenians appeared,

and as soon as Father Quaid had finished his speech, they charged the platform and scattered the dignitaries. The Home Rulers' fear of Fenian disruption was realistic, especially in view of the striking limitations of its program, which O'Leary at once described as "perfectly fatuous" and which even the tired '48 men found slightly preposterous, though praiseworthy in its "anxiety to avert revolution and anarchy."

Isaac Butt now came forward to beg the Fenians to reciprocate his generous past favors in the criminal courtroom and the Amnesty Association, and to allow Home Rule a fair hearing. William O'Brien, later to become one of the chief Parnellite lieutenants, attended a banquet given for the first of the Fenians let out of jail in 1869, and he remembered Butt's speech of welcome to the felons.

Butt's speech was almost wholly a plea to the released Fenian leaders to give him a chance for trying other means. He was argumentative, pathetic, passionate by turns; but the passage that will always live in my memory was that in which, in language actually blazing with the divine fire of eloquence, he declared that, if the conciliatory methods he pleaded for failed, he would not only give way to those who would lead where all nations of the earth had gone before them, but that, old as he was, his arm and his life would be at their service in the venture.

The top Fenian leadership, following rigid doctrine, blasted the idea of collaboration with Butt's moral force nationalism as treason. Apparently, though, Butt and a spokesman for a Fenian splinter group in Limerick, a man named John Daly, arrived at some sort of mutual understanding, perhaps even in writing, since Fenians had a weakness for written instruments of conspiracy. In any case, there was much reference later to an agreed cutoff time that would terminate all further experimentation with moral force methods and with Orange-Tory landlord alliances. Until then, Butt was able to give the illustrious Committee of Sixty-one firm reassurances of personal safety: "As for the men whom misgovernment has driven into revolt, I say for them that if they cannot aid you they will not thwart your experiment. Arise! Be bold! Have faith; have confidence, and you will save Ireland; not Ireland alone, but England also !"


In 1873 Gladstone finally brought in his long-delayed Irish universities bill, a compromise at once both godless and Catholic. Against the advice of Manning, who thought the bill an entering wedge, Cullen condemned it, the Irish members withdrew their support, and it lost by three votes. In a mood of benignity and noticeable relief, Gladstone began to make his plans for retirement to the opposition benches.

His failure to produce a Catholic university provoked some fretfulness among the Irish clergy, dramatized in a series of boisterous by-elections. Occasionally they still stood in a solid phalanx for Gladstone against Home Rule. John Martin, the '48 man, was crushed by the Longford clergy backed by a muscular corps of lay enthusiasts who seized the instruments of the amnesty band sent down by train to help Martin's cause, and afterward paraded through town like Euripides' Bacchae carrying aloft the battered fragments of the bass drum and the trombones for trophies. Because of these excesses, the election was declared void and had to be rerun. Butt next put up his choicest Protestant landlord, the Honorable Edward KingHarman. Once more the Longford clergy rallied to Gladstone and roundly defeated the Home Ruler, this time by means believed to be legal.

In Galway, on the other hand, the clergy were equally partisan toward Home Rule. In a by-election there, the defeated Gladstonite claimed a foul against the priests and demanded that the Home Rule winner be disqualified. The case came up before a well-known personality of the Irish bench, judge William Keogh, who ruled against the clergy and the Home Rulers and invalidated the election. His decision was in itself nothing out of the ordinary, but his behavior in rendering it was exceptional. He required nine hours to read the decision to the court, with dramatic elocutionary effects-laughing, weeping, shouting, pacing. His speech was a rabid Orange tirade, most singular, since his own career, it will be remembered, was built upon a debt to the Irish ultramontane primate. Nationalists were inclined to treasure Keogh's peculiar denouement for its moral beauty. But he was plainly mad, and a few weeks later, after knifing a serving boy in a Belgian hotel, he died of a stroke.

In a third pattern, the Catholic forces wavered and split among themselves. When John Martin made a second attempt in Meath, the clergy could not reach any unanimity, and so stood aside and backed neither candidate. Martin won, breaking the ice for Home Rule; and the old insurrectionist, treason-felony convict, and Van Diemen's Land veteran took his seat in the House of Commons in January 1871.

In Kerry the wildest of the Home Rule by-elections found the Church rent by mutiny. Bishop Moriarty staked his prestige in a heroic effort to turn back Home Rule. He put up a Catholic Liberal named J. A. Dease and Butt put up a young Protestant landlord, Rowland Ponsonby Blennerhassett. Moriarty raised the slogan, "A Catholic and no souper for North Kerry," but the Kerry clergy refused to follow his command. One priest told Dease he "could not go against the people here, who are all the other way," and another instructed his parishioners to disregard all intimidation, whether it came from "landlord, priest, bishop, or even the Pope himself." The priests won. One of Moriarty's field commanders wrote him the bad news that "the revolutionists aided with the most shameful activity by the priests have scourged the party of order along the whole line in Kerry."

All of this epic by-election warfare in 1871, 1872, and 1873 ended with the clergy, like the rank-and-file Fenians, settled inside the Home Rule camp, but stripped of the dominance they had enjoyed in O'Connell's Repeal Association or Duffy's Tenant League. As the new movement began to gather momentum, they were swept into it, partly by enthusiasm, partly by discouragement with Gladstone, and partly by the absence of any choice but to go with the tide. Their dilemma was exposed in a by-election in Westmeath, which found the same J. A. Dease (now in his third try) pitted against P. J. Smythe, the '48 man. Dease wrote his backers that he did not have "a ghost of a chance" against "the Fenian element," that his own parish priest admitted he was "afraid not to go with the popular demand," and that a local clergyman had begged him to declare for Home Rule "with any kind of mental reservation I pleased." The bishop gave him to understand that he bowed to the popular demand himself only "with bitter shame," knowing that the alternative was the political isolation of the hierarchy. As the Church became more involved in Home Rule, it transferred its educational demands over to its new friends. Butt listened carefully; and casting off the last shreds of Davis' "haughty impartiality" toward sect, he stood for Parliament in Limerick on a platform of Home Rule cum denominational education. It was a winning combination, and he went across to join John Martin at Westminster. Some clever Orangeman responded with the new slogan, "Home Rule is Rome rule."

So the ex-Fenians and the lower clergy were tamed, and a token sample of the landed gentry wooed and won. And by whom? The unbroken thread of the Nation attested to the continuity of leadership, and the persistent dominance of the buergerlich voice over all others was unmistakable. Home Rule was a creation of the same middle-class stratum of Irish society that had built Young Ireland and the Tenant League. An Irish journalist who covered Home Rule for the press through three decades summed up the least common denominator of its aims: "Well, we could not possibly make a worse mess of Ireland than is being made of it by the Imperial Parliament; and, at any rate, the hands pulling the strings would be Irish." This was not senseless, and yet Davis' heroic ambitions had surrendered to passions that were, by contrast, somewhat paltry.


In November 1873 a Home Rule conference assembled in Dublin to enunciate first principles and to design a mode of political action. It ran its smooth and innocuous course until just before adjournment. Then somebody introduced a resolution that future Home Rule M.P.'s ought to operate as a bloc in the House of Commons, not only on the Home Rule motion but on all the business of the House. To support this resolution a delegate from Belfast -- Joseph Biggar, a well-to-do meat packer -- rose to speak. He was a hunchbacked dwarf with an oversize cranium, a voice like a corn crake's, and a constant leer. These physical misfortunes made him a subject for aristocratic wit, and when he first appeared in the House of Commons, Disraeli is said to have asked, "Is this what you call a leprecaun in your country?"

Butt vigorously opposed Biggar's idea of a bloc, even with a threat to resign. To paraphrase another Irish patriot, he thought there were things no man should do even to save a nation and among them was the formation of a disciplined Irish parliamentary party: "If eighty men by such means could carry Home Rule, eighty men could carry the Permissive Bill or the Inspection of Nunneries." He would be bound neither to cause nor to state; or as he put it himself: ". . . he would betray his own principles, his dignity, his personal honor and personal honesty, if he now gave a pledge that he would submit his future conduct to the absolute control of any tribunal on earth, except his own conscience, and that higher tribunal, his responsibility to God." Overpowered by this moral barrage, Biggar beat a retreat, the resolution was hastily withdrawn, and the Home Rule League came out of its 1873 organizational conference about as amorphous as it went in.

When Gladstone suddenly dissolved Parliament in January 1874, he allowed only three weeks between dissolution and election day, and Home Rule candidates had to be found for more than a hundred constituencies. Somehow Butt rounded up somebody to run in eighty of them, but the ticket that resulted was very loosely put together. Many of Butt's candidates paid lip service to Home Rule as some sort of tiresome political shibboleth, and exercised those mental reservations the clergy of Westmeath had commended to the candidate Dease. Still, shibboleth or not, Home Rule proved an exceedingly attractive vote-getting slogan. The Irish Liberal members were reduced from sixty-five seats to ten. Home Rulers, real or pretended, won seats in fifty-nine constituencies, multiplying their parliamentary strength tenfold. Gladstone, musing on Irish ingratitude, settled down for six years of lean kine; and Disraeli, his head filled with dreams of imperial grandeur, became Her delighted Majesty's prime minister.

Next chapter...

"The Politics of Irish Literature" © Copyright 1973 Malcolm Brown

* On his release his friends organized a national Sullivan Tribute and handed him a check for four hundred pounds. He passed the money to the committee for the Grattan statue, and as a result the familiar memorial came into being, poised in College Green with oratorical fingers aloft to receive the toddy cups hung there by Trinity jokers.

** Rossa told the governor of Chatham prison that he ought to be shipped to Millbank, more convenient to Westminster, so that he could dash back to his cell and "pick a bit of oakum" between parliamentary debates.

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