The Nation's First Year
THOMAS DAVIS was methodical to a fault. When he sat down to write a book he inscribed the epigraph first. Duffy found among his papers a fragment of a biography of Wolfe Tone with "Nil desperandum" neatly copied on page I and the rest in order up to the point where death stopped his relentless progress. To bring a soul to Ireland seemed a project amenable to method, and method begins with education: let education commence. The national schools were silent on Limerick and Dungannon: let the omission be remedied forthwith. Irishmen were ignorant of their history: let a popular library of Irish episodes and heroes be published instantly. Irishmen were losing the Irish language: let it be preserved. Davis was the first national leader to see the incendiary political potential of the native tongue, whose survival was of no concern to O'Connell, though unlike Davis he did actually speak it. "What! give up the tongue of Ollamh Fodhla?" Davis asked. "No! oh, no! . . . A nation should guard its language more than its territories."
Turning to the arts, he pondered the degraded state of Irish sculpture, recommending that Trinity College acquire and display a plaster cast of every beautiful piece of sculpture in the world in order to inspire any patriot sculptors who might happen along. To the painters he sent a list of seventy-two patriotic scenes to be rendered in oil as soon as feasible, covering Irish history from the landing of the Milesians to O'Connell on the Clare hustings. He sketched a project to place a patriotic engraving on the wall of every peasant cabin, carrying out Goethe's theory that the organic soul ought to "see a fine picture" every day.
A nationalist school of verse had a more substantial tradition to start from. The embryo of the Irish poetic mystique had already appeared a generation before Davis in the songs of Tom Moore. Responding to the gloom that settled over Dublin in the first years of the Union, Irish Melodies had embraced defeat and made a good thing out of it, transforming it into the sweet habit-forming enticement that exudes out of "The Harp That Once through Tara's Halls" and "Let Erin Remember" and less winningly from some of the rest of the lyrics that Joyce called Tom Moore's "Irish Maladies." His characteristic tone is heard in the keening of the stragglers on a battlefield in a song called "After the Battle":
- The last sad hour of freedom's dream
- And valor's task mov'd slowly by,
- While mute they watch'd till morning's beam
- Should rise and give them light to die.
- There's yet a world where souls are free,
- Where tyrants taint not Nature's bliss:
- If death that world's bright opening be,
- Oh! who would live a slave in this?
These verses would cure anybody's euphoria, but some might think them too dismal altogether. The trouble with Moore, Davis said, was that he "too much loves to weep."
By 1842 Moore's exhausted Irish muse had long since surrendered the Dublin cultural front to a new breed of youth. Ten years before the Nation, a little group of Tory juveniles at Trinity College had started a politicalliterary monthly called the Dublin University Magazine. Learned and lively, it caught on and established itself for a long happy life as a junior contemporary of Blackwood's Magazine, Fraser's Magazine, and the Quarterly Review. The new magazine attached itself to the Irish Protestant Ascendancy as an intellectual house organ, so to speak. The first article in the first issue, in January 1833, was entitled "The Present Crisis." And what crisis was it? It was the destruction of Irish civilization by the Clare election, the British Reform Act of 1832, and the tithe war. O'Connell haunted the contributors; they could not shake him off their minds. They also expressed a sullen but reserved distrust of England and produced a peppery assortment of Orange phobias, especially against the fertility, superstition, inveracity, slovenliness, greed, and vulgarity of the "papists."
For a garnish to dignify these Ascendancy attitudes, the magazine took great pains with its artistic and cultural pieces, following out the theory (later adopted by Yeats) that good taste is the foremost stigmata identifying a proper ruling caste. But at the end of its first year of publication, in December 1833, the magazine's literary department had not yet come up to expectations. It promised, though, that the flatness of its Horatian translations and Trinity sonneteering would soon be remedied by fresh native talent. After all, it said, Ireland was "the birthplace of song, where poetry is almost literally the prose of the Irish peasant, and the harp is the national designation." The editor responsible for the new tack was Isaac Butt of Donegal, a name that will break into our historical narrative many times as he drifts from championship of the Orange Order into nationalism and at last into the top nationalist leadership. For poetry in the native Irish mode his advocate was Samuel Ferguson of Belfast, a friend and Trinity classmate of Davis. Three months after the new policy began, the readers had the rare pleasure one day in March 1834 of turning the page and finding a fresh addition to the immortal lyrics of the English language, Ferguson's "Fairy Thorn."
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The Politics of Irish Literature
"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
|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.
Ferguson emerged at the same time as the magazine's cultural ideologist. An essay called "A Dialogue between the Head and Heart" (1833) made a surprisingly candid confession of the way in which the Irish gentry's dual personality had responded to Emancipation -- showing how their selfrighteousness and presumption were unhappy "to stand in the sphere of their own infamy" as Grattan had said; and how their fear was actually inflamed by affection, since the heart felt the enemy was really right and therefore the head understood it to be the more dangerous. The head-andheart essay was followed in April 1834 by a long, serialized critique of the chief Irish literary event of the times, the publication by James Hardiman, a pious Catholic linguist working with a team of assistants, of a two-volume collection of English translations of Irish poetry, called Irish Minstrelsy (1831). The gist of Ferguson's critique is contained in his opening question: "O ye fair hills of holy Ireland, who is he who ventures to stand between us and your Catholic sons' goodwill?" The answer could be only Hardiman, for he had attempted to duplicate in poetry O'Connell's success in isolating the Catholic masses politically from their former leaders in the Protestant Ascendancy.
But the poetic raid had failed, Ferguson thought, and he suggested that the Ascendancy could recoup some of its recent defeats at Hardiman's expense. Although he was only twenty-three and insecure in his knowledge of the Irish language, he felt no hesitancy in labeling the veteran scholar and his team as disloyal, fretful, querulous, malicious, rancorous, popish, puerile (twice), spurious, unclassical, and lamentably bad. (Long afterward Douglas Hyde added the general epithet "fearful" for the team, although he believed that several of Hardiman's own efforts were excellent.)
For example, there was a poem by a Catholic priest called "Roiseen dubh," literally, "Rosie the Brunette." It was unquestionably the priest's love song to a young parishioner, Ferguson said. One of the quatrains he translated thus:
- Oh, smooth rose, modest, of the round white breasts,
- You are she that left a thousand pains in the very center of my heart;
- Fly with me, oh first love, and leave the country;
- And if I could, would I not make a queen of you, my Roiseen dubh?
Now, Hardiman had declared the poem to be a political allegory exalting Irish nationalism, plainly in order to allay his embarrassment at the holy man's misbehavior, Ferguson said. "And why, in the name of holy nature, should the priest not be in love? and why in the name of sacred humanity should the priest not long to enjoy his love?" Anticipating George Moore's exploitation of this sensational theme three-quarters of a century later, he advised the lovesick cleric to "pitch his vows to the Pope, the Pope to purgatory, marry his black rose-bud, and take a curacy from the next Protestant rector."
Beneath Ferguson's raillery one soon perceives that he had himself fallen hopelessly under the spell of Hardiman's materials. Irish antiquarianism had caught him, and tumuli, assonances, and ogam inscriptions would hold him a devotee as long as he lived. His first service to the passion was to show Hardiman how to translate antique Irish poetry. At the end of his critique he appended an anthology of twenty of his own poetic renditions from the minstrelsy, proving beyond doubt that there was one arena where the Belfast Protestant could overmaster the O'Connellite.
By the time the Nation first went to press in 1842 the muddy waters of the old quarrel with Hardiman had settled. It was not really debatable that translations should be as accurate, as graceful, as unbigoted, and as impassioned as possible. So much on Ferguson's side. But against Ferguson, Davis had found in Hardiman one assumption that pleased him; and it was that the Irish minstrelsy was national, and unapologetically political.
There was a poet around town named James Clarence Mangan, a halfstarved exotic given to odd dress and manners and a weakness first for alcohol and later for opium. From the beginning, Butt's magazine bought poems from him. They were not usually in the Irish mode but more conventional romantic fare, mostly German and Levantine translations and imitations. But in 1838 Mangan got a job on the Irish Ordnance Survey, one of the "little somethings" that the Litchfield House compact got for Ireland. Among his fellow surveyors were the foremost Irish antiquarians and linguists of the generation, George Petrie, Eugene O'Curry, and John O'Donovan. Mangan somehow amalgamated with these three to form a new team rather more potent than Hardiman's. The antiquarians supplied a translated and interpreted text, and Mangan put it into verse. The resulting poems the Dublin University Magazine did not buy, and they were published elsewhere just before the Nation began. One of them, "The Woman of Three Cows," was quaint and genial. Three others were firebrands: "Kathleen Ny-Houlahan," "Kincora," and a lament on the 1607 flight of the earls. Davis and Duffy decided to seize this talent and attach him to the Nation's staff.
A mass base for Davis' poetic project was discovered in Irish folk music and ballads, since, as Duffy observed, all Irishmen had for music "an appetite almost as imperious as hunger." Davis was as avid for music as any other Irishman, and one of the few surviving glimpses into his early youth depicts him listening in tears to the old airs played on a fiddle by "a common country fellow." The editor of the Citizen, the journal that had published several of his early essays, was Henry Hudson, one of the great line of Irish musicologists who opened for the public the treasure of Irish folk music, described by Sir Arnold Bax as "the most varied and beautiful folk music" to be found anywhere on earth.* Tom Moore had made a mint exploiting it. Davis said that "music is the first faculty of the Irish, and scarcely anything has such power of good over them." It was therefore "the duty of every patriot" to make the fullest "use" of this charming national addiction, since a fine old tune could escort a good idea past barriers of indifference at any social level.
With a bit of research Davis learned that four print shops in Ireland were exclusively engaged in publishing halfpenny ballads for sale in the streets and at fairs, economic proof of the Irish lust for verse. When he examined some of these broadsides, he found them often humorous or tender; but more often they were "coarse," bombastic, politically confused, and poorly printed. "A high class of ballads," he concluded, "would do immense good." He proposed two patriotic projects, a ballad history and a ballad topography. The history was to be built up as a mosaic of independent ballads treating isolated episodes such as he had listed for the patriotic painters. "A genuine ballad history," he said, "is the greatest book (religion apart) that a country can possess." The ballads of topography would celebrate the genius loci of the varied Irish landscape. He commended accuracy to the scenic balladeers and observed that their task required direct observation, poets who had "panted on our mountains" and "pierced our passes." He supplied a catalogue of the scenic possibilities.
Before coming to Dublin, Duffy had already found that Irish readers were pleased by some ballads he had printed in his Belfast paper. When he was ready to make up the first issue of the Nation, he sent out a call for more verse of the same sort. Davis, who had never tried poetry before, returned in a week or so with "The Lament for the Death of Owen Roe O'Neill," and Duffy's memoirs recalled that in the three remaining years of his life Davis composed poetry without cessation "as spontaneously as a bird." Several Trinity College students, who would later become austere judges, doctors, and empire statesmen, mailed in dangerous verses to be printed anonymously. One of these was "O'Donnell Abu." Another was "The Memory of the Dead," which had such frightful seditious power that in due time it sent Duffy to jail; and the author, John Kells Ingram, a Dublin doctor, did not publicly acknowledge his brain child until fifty-seven years had passed. Copious unsolicited talent introduced itself through the mail, often in rough script on school scratch paper, a recurrent phenomenon of Irish letters of which Sean O'Casey provided the last notable instance.
Nothing is easier than to be arch or witty at the expense of the verse that resulted from Davis' program. A great deal of it was exceedingly inept. Even O'Connell, who had no taste at all, complained of the Nation's "poor rhymed dullness." Most of the verse was so barren of individuality that the names of the authors could be scrambled without incongruity. Duffy, a gifted man but utterly prosaic, went to work with the rest and composed "Fag an Bealach" (Clear the Road!). Yeats heard crude echoes of Scott, Macaulay, and "Hohenlinden" in the verse, and Byron and Longfellow might be added: it was an unhappy chance that brought "The Skeleton in Armor" to the Dublin bookshops in 1842 just when the young men were tuning their fiddle. Mangan was unable to supply the Nation with a great poem on assignment, though his sense of humor did not desert him:
- O'Connell's a tremendous assaulter of tyranny and Tories
- And we the Nation, are his assistants and share -- hurrah -- his glories.
The same mails that brought the editors new and unknown talent, like John Keegan's "Devil May Care," also brought a stream of verse so bad that, according to I. A. Richards' theory, inspiration must be invoked to account for it. Duffy conducted an amusing weekly column of biting reproof to discourage deluded amateur poets, but the principle on which he screened their work was itself unclear. He let pass this temperance poet's vision of a spree:
- From habit, and from choice, and some
- Will almost own from fate,
- They sought a Lethe midst their gloom,
- And wildly felt elate.
Disappointment in the Nation's poetry cannot be claimed as an original aesthetic insight. The "de-Davisation" of Irish literature, proposed by Yeats in 1894 and by John Eglinton (who coined the phrase) in 1906, has not encountered any strong recent opposition.
The strictures, however, are somewhat beside the point. Most of the verses were ephemera, of no serious concern to anybody:
- Accursed who brings to light of day
- The writings I have cast away!
Those that did survive cannot be judged as poems, for the genre to which they belong and in which they earned their hearing was not poetry but song in the strict musical sense. In two immensely popular compilations of verse published by the Nation in 1843 and 1844, about half the titles bore subscripts to indicate that they were to be sung, like Tom Moore's melodies, to specified traditional airs. Most of the remainder appeared in a third anthology in 1845 accompanied by anonymous musical scores and "arrangements for the voice and pianoforte." Since then, none of the lyrics has ever been known apart from its tune.
Yeats once reported that he could never hear "The West's Asleep," Davis' song, "without great excitement." In revision he deleted the sentence. His indecision suggests perplexity in his effort to balance his own opinion against the judgment of the public. Because he was tone-deaf, he was never "present" at any performance of the song. He was in no position to challenge the esteem it enjoyed in Ireland, and he was in fact required in fairness to pay it humble deference, as an English-speaker cannot but defer to Russian opinions of Pushkin. At the same time, he knew that as a rigid model for poetry as such, it could only bring artistic disaster. Thus he complained of Tom Moore's melodies that "all but all" were "artificial and mechanical when separated from the music that gave them wings." But except for the limited genre of "literary song"-"Down by the Sally Gardens" and the like-any song at all would naturally suffer the same deflation "separated from the music," just as a painting may be reduced to banality by black-and-white reproduction.
In song, when a dominant musical tempo takes command over poetic rhythm, poetic indelicacies can not only be permitted, but may actually be an enhancement. The song referred to by Yeats, "The West's Asleep," contains these lines:
- And fleet as deer the Norman ran
- Through Curlews Pass and Ardrahan,
- And later times saw deeds as brave;
- And glory guards Clanricarde's grave
To the hasty reader the lines are brassy and raw, an artificial and mechanical manipulation of standard Irish emotional cues of heroic site, actor, and incident. But sung by a good tenor voice to the air of "The Brink of the White Rocks," they are indescribably moving. They realize Davis' aim to compose living symbols that would make the world listen. Perhaps twenty more of the Nation's songs, equally potent, must also be taken seriously. They are not a symptom of the idiocy of the Irish throng nor of its vulgar taste for subliterature. Still resilient and winning after more than a century of opportunities for oblivion, they can be assumed to be a permanent fixture among Ireland's great cultural possessions.
Davis proceeded to prose literature. "Have you ever tried dramatic writing?" he asked his friend Maddyn, in the spirit in which Yeats and George Russell would later approach literate young Dubliners. He added, "I wish to heaven someone would attempt Irish historical fiction." He laid down the principles on which historical novelists should work: the Irish historical novel must center on fictitious characters, since the historical figures who would appear could not "reach any decisive time"; that is, literal Irish history provided no agreeable denouements. Gerald Griffin, recently dead, had once said that the future masterpiece of Irish history would "paint Ireland struggling incessantly and unsuccessfully, now beaming with hope, now crouching in despair, still never crushed and never quite triumphant." Davis agreed: "This is our history, and must be told." If this seemed to be despair, "say rather perseverance." He listened hopefully for an Irish Sir Walter Scott to announce himself.
When no Irish Scott answered this summons, the Nation settled for a fair equivalent. Davis pronounced William Carleton to be a "historian" because he had preserved for future generations a record of vanishing Irish types, the Ribbonman, the poor scholar, the faction fighter, the matchmaker, the connoisseur of fairies (whose demise he predicted within twenty years), and other people drawn from his vehement recall of a demonic childhood in county Tyrone. But Carleton was attached to Butt's magazine. Duffy therefore opened up a public courtship to win him over from the Orange to the national organ. So Carleton, like Mangan, joined the staff and set to work on a massive novel about the agrarian crisis, called Valentine M'Clutchy after the name of its evil "middleman" villain. At the same time he sketched out several shorter novels of stern moralistic intention, one attacking Ribbonism, another deploring the universal manure pile beside the peasant cabin door. And in further line of patriotic duty he wrote a scurrilous denunciation of Charles Lever, another native novelist from Butt's menage, and more recently the new editor of Dublin University Magazine, replacing Butt. Lever's stage Irishmen, said Carleton, were the invention of a selfish and sordid pander and Judas, of a man who had sold himself and his nation's repute to English taste for English gold.**
Such was the Nation's cultural artillery, fired point-blank at all irrational resistance to Repeal. According to the plan, the Protestants were to be swept into an emotional fervor that would overwhelm their Ascendancy prejudices and transform them into selfless, supermundane Irishmen, avid to "reach at what is far above and beyond it all." Davis believed that the proper phrase set to the proper cadence would actually incite them to abdicate their privileges in some mad Irish jeu de paume. Nothing of the sort occurred. A group that had shown itself insensitive to Irish actuality was hardly to be reached through Irish symbols; and the Ascendancy proved equally as impervious to intoxication as to right reason. Failure to win a Protestant following damaged Davis' self-confidence, as he began to see that his agitation could hope at best merely to chip here and there from loyalist solidity. Hence, when one of the most distinguished aristocrats of the Ascendancy began to show signs of responding, there was great rejoicing in the Nation's columns.
The response came from William Smith O'Brien, one of Irish history's most interesting actors, a brother of Lord Inchiquin, a lineal descendant of Brian Boru, and a great Irish landlord. He was about ten years older than Davis. As a student at Cambridge breathing its evangelical atmosphere, he had absorbed the same ethical sensitivity that Davis had acquired at Trinity College, so that the two spoke the same moral language. Then he had come home to make his political career in the normal manner as a loyalist M.P. for county Clare. In line of political duty he had once challenged O'Connell and had actually fought a duel with the Liberator's attendant buffoon, Tom Steele. Slowly he learned that a thin skin and loyalism made a miserable combination. He began to voice his tormented thoughts at Westminster and in letters to the press, all deliberate and ponderous, for even his small talk sounded like a page out of Hansard. For a long time he weighed the two sides of the matter. "Personal considerations" and "a lingering hope" of English generosity were balanced in his mind against the actual record of "irritation and insult" to Ireland and coercion with "bayonets that menace our bosoms." Finally he decided to go abroad to study "whether, among the governments of central Europe, there are any so indifferent to the interests of their subjects as England." Promising to take his stand one way or the other at his return, he set out for the Continent, leaving the Nation in suspense.
But Smith O'Brien was unique. For all the years of effort the Nation expended in courting influential Protestants, it captured only this one grand prize, so that in evaluating its accomplishment of O'Connell's primary assignment, one can only say that its failure was not quite total. In time Davis' patience with the "cultivated classes" was strained; and behind the stylistic courtesy the Nation had adopted to counteract O'Connell's scurrility, it began to betray exasperation. In one blistering leading article Davis termed them "a filthy mass of national treason . . . coward patriots and criminal dandies."
If the cultivated one-eighth of Ireland was not waiting for the strains of "O'Donnell Abu," the other seven-eighths were. On October 15, 1842, when the first issue of the Nation appeared, the editors were pleased to find the entire issue sold out before noon. "The country people are delighted with us if their letters speak true," Davis wrote. Dillon went home to county Roscommon, in the most distressed district of Ireland, and wrote back excitedly to his partners: "I am astonished at the success of the Nation in this poor place" -- twenty-threesubscriptions in hungry Ballaghaderreen. The bottom of the Irish social pyramid, "to whom reading was not a necessity," felt the force of the journal each week "like electric shocks." After a few months of publication the Nation was able to report that it had become the largest weekly newspaper in the history of Ireland. With a circulation of twenty-five thousand and an estimated ten readers for each copy, it had a regular audience of a quarter of a million persons.
It could not be denied that the Nation's success was indebted to O'Connell's blessing. Davis might rightly claim that "journals, with all their means and appurtenances, were, and are to be for many a day, the stimulating power in Ireland."17 But the prior virtues of organization were brought home to him as soon as O'Connell ordered the Repeal wardens to help build his circulation. Many wardens ordered bundles for distribution at weekly Repeal meetings; some read aloud each weekly issue to the membership, half of whom could not read. Davis developed the amateur's respect for a professional's political organization and wrote a panegyric on its workings:
The People are united under the greatest system of organisation ever attempted in any country. They send in, by their Collectors, Wardens, and Inspectors, to the central office of Ireland, the contributions needed to carry on the Registration of Voters, the public meetings, the publications, the law expenses, and the organisation of the Association; and that in turn carries on registries, holds meetings, opens reading rooms, sends newspapers, and books, and political instructions, back through the same channel; so that the Central Committee knows the state of every parish, and every parish receives the teaching and obeys the will of the Central Committee.
In cheerful recognition of the debt this wonderful mechanism owed to the clergy, the Nation was ready to prove its gratitude. When some Connaught peasant agitators, in the spirit of the times, demanded a reduction in baptismal rates from two and six to one shilling, their campaign met with the sternest reproof: "Shame upon them! say we."
O'Connell's good will toward the Nation was not a charitable benevolence, for the journal had its uses to him, too. It filled four to eight columns each week with a stenographic report of his latest oratory, and it paid him unstinting praise in prose and verse. More important than the flattery, its message had got through where he had failed, and it set the spark to his Repeal agitation. It will be remembered that Repeal had been stagnating for two years before the Nation began publication. By generating nationalist emotions that O'Connell had never even imagined, it had suddenly galvanized Irish political sentiment. Though dour by instinct, John O'Leary remembered after half a century the ecstatic shock of the early Nation as the most intense experience of a lifetime. "Perhaps it may give some notion of the effect produced on me to say that I then went through a process analogous to what certain classes of Christians call `conversion.' I can but vaguely remember my unregenerate state." The Repeal Association came to life and began to move. The Nation's success in reaching the ear of the people had brought it over into O'Connell's private sector, where he was not accustomed to sharing his leadership; but he made it welcome.
Heartened at last, O'Connell staged a public debate on Repeal in the Dublin Corporation, or city council. His eloquence routed his young Tory opponent, the amiable Isaac Butt, recently the editor of the Dublin University Magazine. The pitch of excitement rose and was further inflamed by the Nation. O'Connell had for some time been in the habit of going occasionally into the country to conduct Repeal meetings. Just after the Dublin Corporation debate he held one of his meetings in Trim, county Meath. To the surprise of all, thirty thousand people turned out. He held another in Mullingar. The crowd increased to a hundred thousand. Then he went to Cork, and there his audience swelled to half a million. The Repeal Association published in the Nation each week the income from the Repeal rent, providing future historians with a rare measure of an excited public's true temperature. At the time of the Nation's first issue, the rent income was 50 pounds a week. In the week of the meeting at Trim it was 500 pounds. After the Cork meeting it rose rapidly to 2,000 pounds.
O'Connell now drew the conclusion that his "monster meetings," speaking with so many millions of earnest voices, must necessarily overawe Sir Robert Peel and force him to sue for terms. Davis, too, was convinced of the power of O'Connell's mass meetings. He wrote to the skeptic Maddyn: "O'Connell prevailed in '29 by the power of fighting, not the practice of it; may he not do so again? You will say no, for England is dead against us. What's the proof of her being so?" In the midst of the jubilation over the monster meetings, the Nation printed a chapter from the official Repealer's Primer, answering Maddyn's doubts in O'Connell's terms:
- ANTI-REPEALER: Then, granting that England is not in the condition to engage in a sanguinary struggle, and that the wisdom of the Repeal leaders will prevent rebellion, how do you propose to overcome the English parliament? how do you propose to gain a majority there?
- REPEALER: This history of that slowly matured fruit-Catholic emancipation-will answer that question.... And now, if you please, let us leave the impractibility question.
Yet all the while the worry lingered: suppose Peel would not surrender? After all, the Repeal hordes could not even vote.
There was a troublesome Repealer named William Conner, a farmer and a wag rivaling the Liberator himself in the homely humor of his speeches. In the midst of the frenzy of the hour, he arose in the association to propose that the point of the monster meetings be sharpened through a general strike against rent. O'Connell's son, in the chair, was thrown into panic by the resolution, and after some commotion on the floor, he ruled the member out of order. Conner retired, grumbling at the chair's victory: "Humbugging has been going on long enough." The Nation next Saturday attacked Conner as vile, depraved, abhorrent, cowardly, and criminal. In the same paragraph it then turned upon the landlords, and without mitigating its tone, it declared that class to be profligate, a nuisance, and a curse. These were hysterical hours in Young Ireland's career.
O'Connell was increasingly elated by the sensational effects ofhis oratory. After Cork he scheduled a rapid succession of mass meetings in all parts of Ireland for the summer and early autumn of 1843. Week by week he became more daring in his attacks upon the Union. When Sir Edward Sugden, the lord chancellor, dismissed a number of country justices of the peace for giving support to Repeal, O'Connell simply organized a dual judiciary made up of the ex-justices, who acted as arbitrators with the consent of the contending parties. He also began to assemble a dual legislature called the Council of Five Hundred. By midsummer his oratorical rhythms lent to the peaceful message of moral force an overtone that sounded almost like the eve of the Battle of Lexington. At Mallow four hundred thousand listeners were thrown into delirium by what seemed to be a declaration to meet English coercion with counterforce, although a sober reading of his text in the Nation next Saturday showed that his words were a lawyer's equivocation and not a revolutionary defiance. He said:
- The time is coming when we must be doing. Gentlemen you may learn the alternative to live as slaves or die as freemen. . . . I think I perceive a fixed disposition on the part of our Saxon traducers to put us to the test. . . . In the midst of peace and tranquillity they are covering our land with troops. . . . But gentlemen, as long as they leave us a rag of the Constitution we will stand on it. We will violate no law, we will assail no enemy, but you are much mistaken if you think others will not assail you. (A voice, We are ready to meet them.) To be sure you are. Do you think I suppose you to be cowards or fools.
Three weeks later at Baltinglass, before three hundred thousand people, O'Connell said: "I am called Washington-he was driven into the field and obliged to take up arms," and again an equivocation was added, "I know a trick worth two of that."" That week the Repeal rent stood at 3,100 pounds.
Still the crescendo mounted. A monster meeting was held at Tara which surpassed anything yet seen in all of recorded history. Forty brass bands hailed the entry of the Liberator with triumphal patriotic music, and ten thousand Repealers mounted on horseback escorted him to the platform. People began arriving at dawn and continued to pour in over the choked roads all morning. One could not see the entire crowd from any point: the Hill of Tara was covered with Repealers, the plain around was covered, and on the Dublin road the multitude stretched solidly three miles back from the speaker's platform. No one knew the actual number of listeners present, but the Nation, after giving thought to its reputation for statistical restraint, settled on the convenient round number, one million persons. Duffy went out to Tara with his notebook and reported the meeting for the Nation:
- There were more men present than possessed Scotland when William Wallace raised the standard of independence; or in Athens in the days of world renown. The British Army at home and abroad, or the Armies with which Napoleon trod Europe under foot, did not muster as many grown men as gathered around O'Connell on that day.
- It was a sight, not grand alone, but appalling-not exciting merely pride, but fear.
The 1843 series of monster meetings was to close on Sunday, October 8, at Clontarf, on the north shore of Dublin Bay, where Brian Boru had defeated the Danes in the eleventh century. The meeting promised to surpass Tara, and early in the week crowds of Repealers from the far parts of Ireland began moving toward Dublin. Saturday morning Peel finally made his move. He proscribed the meeting and dispatched cavalry to Clontarf, while Wellington looked forward to a good day's sport on Sunday, according to his sentiment:
- Pour la canaille
- Faut la mitraille [grapeshot].
O'Connell's time for decision had come, and he did not hesitate for an instant: he retreated. He canceled the meeting and sent the mounted Repealers riding out on every road converging on Dublin to turn back the crowds. Saturday's Nation had time to insert the notice of Peel's proclamation, but not enough time to remove a poem entitled "March to Clontarf":
- Then where's the tyrant power on earth
- That would, or could, or dare resist us?
On Monday O'Connell came to the Repeal headquarters and confessed that Saturday had been a "hideous" day; but now he felt much better, for he could see that Peel's proscription of the Clontarf mass meeting was without "a shred of legality." In refusing to be provoked, Repeal had won a great bloodless victory. The following Saturday was the Nation's first birthday. Its editorial advice was: "Trust in O'Connell and fear not." But an ominous item appeared beside the first-anniversary leading article. It reported rumors that a grand jury had just returned secret indictments against the nationalist leaders and journalists and that grave developments were expected hourly. Later that afternoon O'Connell, his son John, his chief Repeal officials, a couple of priests, the editor of the Freeman, and Gavan Duffy of the Nation were arrested on a charge of sedition.
On this same day, Smith O'Brien arrived home from the Continent to learn the news of the Repealers' arrest and to disclose his answer to the question he had taken abroad. It was no-there was no misrule in all continental Europe to equal England's misrule in Ireland. With the understanding that Repeal stood for the "combination of all classes," he took the plunge at last. He begged O'Connell's leave "to transmit herewith £5, my first subscription to the treasury of the Loyal Repeal Association of Ireland." Needing a stand-in to take his place during the state trials now impending, and perhaps for the imprisonment to follow, O'Connell named Smith O'Brien.
So ended the Nation's first year. Its like would never be known again, for Clontarf was the death of the Repeal movement. Yet Irishmen never forgot the echoes of O'Connell's cheering host at Tara of the Kings. Whatever the old Liberator may have lacked, it was not every leader who could bring out a million men to his mass meetings. It wanted still but a Carnot, said Duffy, "to organize and direct that immense mass of physical and moral power," and "a new nation might that day have been born." In a sense, imperial rule in Ireland was foredoomed henceforth, though what inexhaustible rearguard skill and resourcefulness it still held in reserve was yet to be painfully demonstrated.
Irish nationalists never forgot, either, that the Nation had been the spark that set off O'Connell's Repeal explosion. They sometimes did forget, however, that it was only a spark, a necessary cause perhaps, but very far from a sufficient one. Davis' songs came to be regarded overenthusiastically as pure wizardry. Irishmen in later time, especially when hard-pressed in retreat, listened for the new magician who, with only a verse or two and a couple of old airs, could turn the tide of their disasters. In storm and doldrum alike, the air was to be filled with warlike incantations in the hope of once again raising up the hordes of ready men who had gathered at Tara. The compulsive demand for ever more piercing exhortation was to cause much pain to Irish writers half a century afterward.
Irish writers, too, would long remember the happy phase of the O'Connell-Davis partnership before Clontarf. Mitchel recalled years later how "many an eager boy, from the Giant's Causeway to Cape Clear, cut open the weekly sheet with a hand shaken by excitement." Duffy thought the Nation's penetration into the hearts of the Irish people during its first year "a marvel," and after half a century it was still the most marvelous memory of a full and exciting life. "It is impossible at this time," he wrote, "to realize the amazement, the consternation swelling almost to panic, and the final enthusiasm and intoxication of joy with which the new teaching was received." The intoxication of joy was felt no less by the performers than by the listeners, when the dark abstract void of rural Ireland suddenly filled with applause for their work, "the voice of the nation." Yeats's literary movement began in nostalgia for the sea of eager faces hanging upon Davis' words. Who could resist Duffy's promise of intoxication of joy as a happy exchange for an "out-worn heart, in a time out-worn?"
"The Politics of Irish Literature" © Copyright 1973 Malcolm Brown
* The same ethnic sensibility was later exemplified in the fabulous scope of Joyce's active repertoire of Irish songs, four hundred of them quoted in Ulysses alone. See Mathew J. C. Hodgart and Mabel P. Worthington, Song in the Works of James Joyce (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959).
** Lever was apparently touched by this critique, for he shortly afterward resigned from the editorship and began composition of a peace offering, a novel of his own on the agrarian crisis, called Saint Patrick's Eve. The novel is somewhat derivative from Carleton; yet it is excellent in its own right. It carries a narrative idea more imaginative than is common in Irish fiction: a peasant is given a permanent remission from rent payment for saving the life of the landlord's son in a brawl at a village fair. He builds his life on this unparalleled piece of good luck. Then after many years the old landlord dies and the "middleman" presents him with a bill not just for the current rent, but for the entire balance due. This wrecks the peasant's life until a happy ending makes everything right again.
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